At most companies, it’s a bit unusual to hear the sound of children in the halls, much less two dozen highly excited 8-year-olds. But at Zendesk’s office in Montpellier, France, the tremendous racket that accompanies a gaggle of young students is not only welcomed—it’s commonplace.
That’s because the local CoderDojo chapter, led by Zendesk software engineer Kevin McGuinness, makes it a point to bring local students to the office to learn the skills that they’ll need when it’s time for them to join the workforce. While those coding skills will pay dividends down the road, for now the focus remains on one trait that all children have from birth.
“They want to have fun, to put it simply,” McGuinness says. “We’ve had debates down the years about how we run our classes—should we plan our class like a teacher would? We’ve always had to come back to the workshop environment. It’s a very open-door philosophy. We’re not telling kids what to do, we’re trying to guide them and light their curiosity.”
Inspiring students to follow their curiosity is CoderDojo’s raison d’ệtre. Launched in 2011 in Cork, Ireland, the worldwide nonprofit focuses on helping children ages 7-17 understand programming languages, a skill set that’s essential in the modern world. Led by volunteers like McGuinness, the organization’s 1,600-plus community-based programming clubs are located in 75 countries.
McGuinness, who studied applied and medical physics at the National University of Ireland in Galway and the University of Limerick in his native Ireland, moved to Montpellier in 2013, where he worked as a QA software engineer and as an R&D technician for various companies. When he decided that it was time to give back to his new community, CoderDojo made perfect sense. “I was looking to get involved in a local club or association that would give back to people,” McGuinness says. “And I wanted to use my IT skills.”
His chance to give back arose in 2015, when McGuinness got in touch with the University of Montpellier Polytech, which was looking to start a local chapter. Now, with fellow CoderDojo volunteers, McGuinness teaches local kids using Scratch, MIT’s programming language that was designed to teach children to think creatively, use reason to solve problems, and collaborate. The students then use the language to create stories, games, and animations—whatever strikes their fancy.
“Sometimes if we introduce a concept through Scratch, we might have a general idea of demo example that we take to the session, a frame to the session the kids can then expand on,” McGuinness says. “It’s surprising how quickly they grasp the concept—and then they’ll change the idea and customize it if they think it’s lame.”
In January 2018, Zendesk invited the Montpellier chapter to visit the office—initially McGuinness saw it as an opportunity for the students to get support from a company with a similar sense of responsibility to the community. However, to his surprise, that visit eventually turned into a job opportunity.
“It was a match made in heaven,” McGuinness says. “I was already involved with CoderDojo, and now I was going to company where not only could I dedicate a certain amount of my time to helping kids, I was encouraged to do it. There’s great peace of mind with that.”
Since joining Zendesk, McGuinness has brought the CoderDojo students to the office three times, with more visits planned when the fall term begins. “We’re getting the balance how many people we need,” McGuinness says. “It’s not just me—when these classes come, there’s a teacher, and my Zendesk colleagues help set us up with laptops. There’s plenty of support.”
That support sometimes includes teaching kids technology with some decidedly old-school technology: pencils and paper. McGuinness and his fellow volunteers will help the students count binary numbers or work with pixels. “What we’ve found for the first five minutes of the class is the kids are like, ‘Where are the computers—what’s going on?’” McGuiness says with a laugh. “But once they understand it, they’re off.”