Lessons on building ‘digital empires'

New Zealand’s first junior hackathon aimed to encourage the students to think about a career in New Zealand’s digital industry, the country’s third biggest export market, says Edwina Mistry, one of JHack organisers and Industry and Community Engagement Manager at MIT’s Faculty of Business and IT.

We want to encourage the students to think about a career in in digital industry, the country’s third biggest export market. Edwina Mistry, Manukau Institute of Technology

This is an opportunity to give the next generation some experience in coding, mentored by knowledgeable industry experts," says Mistry. "It’s a first step in a pathway from school, to a tertiary qualification, and a career in IT."

Working in teams of three under the guidance of 30 IT industry mentors, the students programmed against the clock and each other to manipulate the coding in Minecraft software and create digital empires.

"The whole point of the event is to introduce kids that wouldn’t normally look into the ICT industry, and to show that it’s fun and interesting and there’s more to it than just programming in a back room," says Daniel Martushev, cloud technical consultant at HP.

"Minecraft is like virtual Lego, where you can use code to manipulate the game," he states. "It’s fun and introduces them to ICT and the industry."

“There’s a huge skills shortage in the IT industry," he adds. "We’re trying to get these kids to become part of the digital economic future that’s unfolding globally. We want to show them that technology can be fun and interesting, and then show that you can make a living out of it.”

IT is a very social career now. We wanted to show kids the work they could do in the future, and bring technology and people together. Daniel Martushev, HP

Related: High school students get a dry run on IT careers

“IT is a very social career now. We wanted to show kids the work they could do in the future, and bring technology and people together,” he says. “We have high hopes for what happens with the kids next.”

Mistry says the organisers were blown away by the enthusiasm of the students. “In the month leading up to JHack, the kids had completed more than 2,500 hours of programming in our online challenges.”

The industry mentors came from tech-savvy NZ companies, including Xero, Air New Zealand, Vodafone, Deloitte, Ernest and Young, HP, BNZ, Orion Health, Attract HQ, Tenzing, Cognitel.

JHack was sponsored by MIT, Learn to Mod, HP, Propellerhead, Auckland Transport, Sovereign, Wynyard Group, Orion Health, Air New Zealand and Eagle Technology.

Earning coding gold were Sacred Heart College’s Cannoning Routers and Epsom Girls’ Grammar School’s ScrambledEGGS. The silver award was scooped by Howick College, Whangaparoa College and Pakuranga College.

The top teams will participate in a ‘coding boot camp’ at the MIT in October.

Coding the future

Grace Hollamby, 14, from Glendowie College says JHack has motivated her to think about coding as a career.

“I’ve always wanted to have a talent for something and I think I’ve found it,” she says. “JHack has helped towards my future in the IT business.”

She encourages other kids to try programming; “Any student can learn to code if they put their mind to it.”

A key takeaway for Paige Stephen, 12, from Whangaparoa College, is learning about teamwork.

“We’re working well as a team because we’re communicating and cooperating. You can do a lot of things using code, and it’s fun to learn,” she says.

One of the mentors, Greg Hoyle Jr, front end developer at Xero, notes that “coding is not just for the IT industry”.

Coding is not just for the IT industry. There’s good logic and thinking for other careers, learning how to think through problems. Greg Hoyle Jr, Xero

“There’s good logic and thinking for other careers, learning how to think through problems. It’s about being curious. We’re always looking for new solutions for problems, things we haven’t even thought of yet.”

We’re not looking for software developers, says Andrew Western of Propellerhead. "If you understand how software works and how it could be used to help create anything you want – it’s understanding the power of software to create things.'

"It’s looking to introduce children who might not normally be interested in software development. It’s about attracting diversity so we have a much wider band and greater range of people who might be able to contribute to products, software, ideas and one day might be able to create their own businesses."

Eileen Harris, IT business performance manager at Air New Zealand, hopes JHack will address the IT skills shortage and encourage diversity in the sector. “We need more females in the industry," she adds. "So we’re trying to make it cool and interesting, and show that we’re not just sitting in front of computers, we’re solving problems.”

Jehan Hyder, programme leader, IT solutions at of Air New Zealand, says she was fortunate to have dealt with a teacher who was “absolutely dedicated” to his students at Henderson High School.

“I paid a visit to the school where I talked to them about how cool it is to work in IT, and encouraged to put their best foot forward for JHack. They have risen to the challenge, and it’s pleasing to see that all three teams from this school have qualified for JHack!”

Damien Hansen, development team lead at Xero sums up his experience as a mentor: “It's been great helping the kids to work together to complete the badges. It's clear that not everyone gets the concepts as quickly as others, but if you have a team mate sitting next to you to lean on, the learning accelerates. This is how we solve tricky software problems as professional developers too. It's been a great experience seeing 11 year olds grasp this.”

"People in the IT community have to step up to get new people into tech, in a way that kids enjoy. Minecraft is good because kids are into it, and it is achievement based. It’s sneakily teaching them how to programme, and seeing software in a way that’s play orientated." Photos courtesy of Manukau Institute of Technology

The winners’ circle

Sacred Heart College – Spicy boys
• Hunter Craig
• Lachlan Pye
• Julius Tapert
Henderson High School
• Niels Grosmann
• Shasta Tildsley
• Kayla Schwalger
• Dasha Solovyeva
• Ivan Solovyev
• Varvara Solovyeva
• Aaron Cathro
• Stefan Hunter
• Jona Stevenson
Howick College
• Izzy Williams
• Stephanie Brown
• Waldo Theron
Pakuranga College – Team Rocket
• Rachael Hickey
• Daniel Dymond
• Jacob Rowland
Whangaparaoa College – Zombiecorns
• Grace Kendrick
• Paige Stephen
• Becky Goodchild
Sacred Heart College - Cannoning Routers
• Jacob Ellwood
• Ieuan Davies
• Lachlan Purvis
Epsom Girls Grammar School – ScrambledEGGS
• Pansy Lu
• Victoria Joe
• Emma Chisholm

The colleges participating in JHack:

• Tangaroa College

• Saint Kentigern College

• Aorere College

• Mt Roskill Grammar School

• Sancta Maria College

• Epsom Girls Grammar School

• Howick College

• Otahuhu College

• Pakuranga College

• Bombay School

• Whangaparaoa College

• Henderson High School

• Sir Edmund Hilary Collegiate

• Glendowie College

• Sacred Heart College

• Botany Downs Secondary College

• Papatoetoe High School

• Henderson High School

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