Marty and Me – Tackling the Coding Skills Gap with a Pet Robot

Think you’re too old to code? Think again says Stephanie Anderson, Innovation Specialist at Scottish Enterprise.

I am getting a pet robot.

I will soon be the very proud owner of a Marty the Robot and I cannot wait. I’m already thinking about what outfits I can make for him. I’m thinking Christmas Marty… Halloween Marty…Superhero Marty. I know… I can already hear the mutters of “that’s what happens when you give a woman a robot”. But I don’t care. My Marty will be getting a Wonder Woman cape and he will love it. I may not have any existing tech skills, but I’m pretty darn handy with a needle and thread.

The main reason I’m getting a pet robot however, is not to dress him up – it’s to learn how to programme and code. Something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while.

Duncan Logan, Scottish-born founder and CEO of tech accelerator Rocketspace said during an interview at the Start Up Summit run by We Are The Future in 2016 that “I don’t code, but if I was as young as some people in this audience, I would go and learn to code. It’s such a valuable thing, especially if you’re passionate about tech companies.” That really stuck with me and I’ve been mulling over it ever since. Should I? Could I? Or is it way too late for someone over the age of 30 to learn? You can watch Duncan’s talk and the rest of the brilliant afternoon session. Or, even better, get tickets for the 2017 Start Up Summit

Computer coding is a universal language and who wouldn’t want to be able to speak that? I’m assuming that just like learning a new language, or riding a bike, learning to code is easier when you are young. But equally it’s never too late to learn. For kids, the benefits of learning to programme are in educational learning, computational thinking, stimulation of creativity, fluidity of thinking and job opportunities.  But actually, for anyone, even later in life, the benefits are exactly the same.

For anyone who hasn’t come across Robotical and their Marty the Robots – they are an Edinburgh based start-up who have come out of the Informatics department at the University of Edinburgh. You can meet them in person at Venturefest Scotland as they will be exhibiting in the 2017 Innovation Showcase. They are also one of the companies I came across through working with the SE High Growth Ventures team. Supported by Informatics Ventures, founder Sandy Enoch went on to do a Scottish Enterprise-funded RSE Enterprise Fellowship then pitched his idea for funding at Scottish EDGE and Scotland’s tech investment showcase, EIE. Seeing Marty pitch (or rather his human pitching on his behalf) at Scotedge and EIE, it was robo-love at first sight. On seeing him play football at the TEDx Glasgow Demo area, the deal was sealed. I had to have one.

Robotical say “Get future-proof with Marty, the programmable and customisable robot for kids, makers and educators”. Now I am neither a kid, maker or educator but I’m not letting that stop me. Marty is a fully programmable, customisable walking robot that can turn, dance, kick a ball, and more. Controllable from your phone, programmable over wi-fi out of the box and easily expanded with a Raspberry Pi or Ardunio, Marty can help you learn about programming, electronics, mechanical design, 3D printing and robotics. Hours of fun!  He can be as simple or sophisticated as you like and you can start in Scratch (a simple programming language to get you started), then progress on up to heavyweight languages like Python or C++ as your programming knowledge improves.

According to figures from the European Commission, there are now more than 4 million ICT jobs in Europe with that number growing by the rate of 100,000+ per year. However their research predicted there will be a shortfall of talent in Europe to fill these jobs of almost 1 million people by 2020. An O2 report backed this up, reporting that over 745,000 new ‘digital workers’ will be needed by the end of 2017. A worrying trend for tech focused companies – but also, what an opportunity. Not just for the next generation, but for anyone who wants to expand their skill set and transform themselves into digital talent.

This is reflected in the recruitment market, where SME-focused recruitment used to be dominated by sales, marketing and account management roles. According to specialist recruitment firm Eden Scott, 60% of the jobs they searched for last year were in front-end digital areas such as analytics, user experience (UX), paid search, inbound marketing and user interface development (UI).

I mulled over the “to code or not to code” question as long as I did because I wondered realistically, whether I could get myself to the point where I could put these skills to use in an actual job or whether this would be just a part time hobby. Can being self taught by a pet robot really help address the coding/tech skills gap? But then I met Marty and the decision was made.

The markets are moving on but our skills are not. But rather than wait around for government, education authorities and  academic institutions to provide a long term solution for this ever widening gap, we can take practical steps ourselves to upskill, go digital and become the talent that is so much in demand.

I’ll be gooey eyed for a week when Marty arrives (he is due to arrive in September). I’ll probably take him into work, on a visit to the pub and try to programme him to follow me around the house. That’s the goal. In preparation for his arrival, I had a bash at some of the Codeacademy lessons, (with varying degrees of confusion and success). I started with the basic HTML lesson and am working through all the free lessons in the beginners section. It’s a brilliant website and they make it incredibly easy. In foreign language terms I’m probably now at the stage where I can tell people my name, say please and thank you and order a beer. I’ve been really encouraged by how easy Codecademy have made it, especially the ability to dip in and out and learn at your own pace. There are no downloads required and you can even do it in your lunch hour at work.

My pet robot and I, Wonder Woman cape and all, will be avidly spreading the word to encourage others – old and young – to up their digital game with programming and coding skills. Whether you learn to create a website, achieve ninja coding master status or just become a bit more digital savvy, you will be future proofing yourself for the better. If nothing else, it’s fun!

With my office gripped by robo-fever, my boss Ana has also ordered a Marty for her two daughters (aged seven and five. And for herself, equally). So that’s four women who will now be learning to code and adding to Scotland’s skill base in tech, all because of a cute little robot with heart-melting eyebrows. Addressing the skills gap in the happiest way. For Ana’s kids certainly, these skills will set them in great stead and open up a world of possibilities for them. As it would for anyone. Any age, any where. It’s never too early and it’s certainly never too late to learn.

Future jobs may likely be in the space sector, cyber security, data storage and collaboration technologies but who knows what the more civilian developments will be and how you’ll end up using these skills day to day in your personal and home life. With drone technology becoming ever more accessible and affordable, there may be potential in future for my Marty to fly!? That’s just too exciting to even think about…I had better go get started on that cape.

If you’re interested in trying your hand at coding or up-skilling to be a part of the digital revolution, have a look at:

@RoboticalLtd – Get yourself a Marty!!!

@Codecademy  – Learn to code interactively and for free. This website gives both free and paid for lessons, courses and is incredibly user friendly and accessible.

@CodeClanScot – full and part time software development courses in Edinburgh and Glasgow to help you upskill and change career.

@GirlsWhoCode  – a non-profit that works to inspire, educate and equip girls with the computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities.

@womenintech – a community helping women achieve career success in tech.

@girlgeekscot – Girl Geek Scotland is a Girl Geek Dinners Network who are a community for women working with computing, creativity and enterprise in Scotland.

Coder Dojos (if you’re between seven and 17) which are an open-source, volunteer movement teaching young people between seven and 17 to code. There are there are now 476 CoderDojo clubs in 48 countries. If you are considerably over 17, initiatives such as Barclays Digital Eagles are helping those who are older to gain digital skills such as running a website, using e-commerce or maintaining a social media presence, which are a great place to start. Or you could teach yourself with a Raspberry Pi – not quite as cute as Marty, but still.

Or if you too have a Marty, tweet me a picture of your robot in action at @SME_Innovation. If your Marty fancies a game of superhero-caped football, give me a shout!

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