UNSW Business School alumni Pete Neill (BCom 2007) and Ben Levi (BCom 2009) founded Code Camp in 2013. Code Camp teaches students in years K-9 how to code. Kids learn how to build iPhone apps, games and websites from scratch. This is a behind the scenes look at one of Australia’s fastest growing social impact startups.

Q. Where did the idea for Code Camp originate?

Ben: I was being asked by many young people to teach them how to code and how to build iPhone apps. I originally referred them to a number of online resources, but they soon returned as they’d been unable to overcome the challenges and frustrations of learning to code on their own. 

I spoke to Pete (an ex-teacher, self-taught iOS developer, and fellow Fishburners member) and together we decided that there had to be a better solution to engaging young minds in coding and app development. A week later, Code Camp was born. We ran our first camp in December 2013 with 8 students, and our entire focus was on creating a fun, inspiring and engaging learning experience… Code Camp grew from there! Over the summer of 2015/2016 we taught over 1,200 students, and have now taught over 4,000 students to build their own iPhone apps and websites. 

Q. Why is it important for kids as young as kindergarten to learn how to code?

More important than learning the syntax of coding is understanding the computational thinking and logic that underpins coding. By starting from a young age, even kindergarten, kids begin to look at the world through the eyes of explorers and creators, and think of solutions. One of the great benefits of Code Camp at any age is to demystify technology - it’s something they can control, rather than just interacting with other people’s creations.

Q. What skills do kids take away from Code Camp?

In addition to the obvious coding skills that Code Camp teaches its students, kids also learn problem-solving, logical reasoning, computational thinking and entrepreneurial skills. Through building games, our students are also learning about game design and user experience. These skills can be adapted to any industry, and will give our students a head start in their future careers.

On top of the skills taken away, Code Camp is always fun, collaborative and engaging - so kids leave camp with new friends with a shared passion and shared experiences. We’re often asked by parents to supply other parent’s contact details so their kids can arrange a play date!

Q. When you say “teaching kids to code” many people will imagine kids staring into computer screens filled with line after line of programming code reminiscent of images from The Matrix. How would you describe to people, unfamiliar with your program, how you teach kids to code? What does Code Camp look like for a kindergartener? What does it look like for a grade eight student?
The premise behind Code Camp is the same for all ages, which is to provide an engaging, collaborative, project-based introduction to coding. So at different ages the project they’re working on and the way they work might change but these principles remain the same. For kindy-aged kids that might be working on real life tasks which introduce them to the principles of computational thinking or solving coding problems collaboratively on iPads. For kids in year 2, that is spending three to four days designing, creating, coding and sharing their very own platformer game. For year 8s, that might be coding their first website from scratch.

Q. Do you think learning how to code will one day be part of the traditional education system, like Science or Maths for example? Should it?

Absolutely. Coding is already in the curriculum in so many countries around the world. Australia has fallen behind but change is coming. Coding will be introduced into the Australian curriculum next year, for all states other than NSW, and then NSW in 2018.

We see that coding can sit alongside Science, Maths and English as core subjects for someone to participate fully in the modern world. We don’t teach those foundation subjects with the expectation that every child will go on to be a scientist, mathematician or author, but because those skills are necessary to understand the world around them. With technology finding its way into most elements of our lives, it’s equally important that kids have an understanding of how the digital world around them functions.

Q. How many camps do you hold each year? Do you have plans to expand the program to run outside of school holidays?

In 2015 we taught over 3,000 students at camps in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne; at schools, Westfield centres and in corporate offices for kids of staff. In 2016 we’ll be expanding throughout Australia and have started running before school, after school and in-school Code Camps too. 

Q. You hold some classes for girls only and boys only. Why did you decide to segregate some of the classes? 

Code Camp always advocates for camp venues to be open to students of all schools and all classes to have a mix of boys and girls. Traditionally, Code Camp partners with a large number of girls’ schools and sees 40-50% females in attendance. We feel this leads to a vibrant, collaborative environment where kids are able to meet new people, express their creativity and learn the crucial basics of computational thinking.

As Code Camp partners with schools we sometimes receive requests to trial alternatives to this approach, in our experience they’re normally less successful.

One of the reasons Code Camp for younger kids works so well is that they arrive with no preconceptions about what coding is and who is a coder. Kids of all backgrounds, genders or interests throw themselves in wholeheartedly and decide for themselves if coding is something they want to continue pursuing. 

Traditionally, coding has been taught in ways that are gender skewed to the interest of boys. Code Camp operates in a very different way. All of our lesson plans are specifically designed to appeal to both boys and girls, we provide them with graphic assets to be able to express themselves in any way they choose and via this methodology we find that girls and boys both take to the subject with equal aptitude and passion.
Q. Where do you recruit your teachers from? Do they have coding backgrounds? What is the student/teacher ratio in the Code Camp classroom?

One of the earliest learnings of Code Camp was that a traditional model of education with one teacher and 30 students didn’t work for coding. There are too many things that can go wrong and the whole class can get bogged down trying to fix one pesky bug. For this reason, Code Camp runs with a head teacher and 3-4 teacher’s assistants meaning a teacher-student ratio of about 1:6. This allows the head teachers to keep the group moving forward while the teacher’s assistants move around to spot problems ahead of time or help with bugs or other issues.

Our teachers come from a range of backgrounds; school teachers who are interested in technology, computer programmers who see contributing to the important task of teaching the next generation of coders, or university students studying computer science or software design. No matter the background, each teacher goes through our teacher training process to maintain our high quality of staff and courses. Every single staff member of Code Camp has also received their working with children clearance.
Q. What is the hardest part of running the business side of Code Camp? How is it different from your other ventures like Renting Smart or Stashd?

Businesses we’d worked with previously had been entirely online. With Code Camp we have a significantly greater logistical workload that we have to manage. We have over 120 casual staff, hundreds of PCs and thousands of t-shirts, hats, USBs and (most importantly) thousands of kids’ amazing apps! Making sure all of those things end up in the right places is a serious challenge, thankfully we have an amazing Operations Manager in Hayley Markham.

We’re also lucky as the human element of Code Camp makes it a deeply satisfying initiative to be involved with.

Q. How did your education at UNSW Business School help you get to where you are today? Did you know when you were a student that you wanted to be an entrepreneur? If not, what was your “aha moment”?
Pete: Haha well first of all it was the Faculty of Commerce and Economics back in my day, I do think Business School is a bit snappier though! Studying Commerce is obviously a hugely broad degree, and in that way I think it fits perfectly with being an entrepreneur. I think Ben and I would probably find ourselves working across all the different disciplines covered in the compulsory elements of a Commerce degree so it absolutely provided us with a solid grounding for what we do today.

I always struggled to see myself fitting into most of the roles laid out before me at the end of my degree, so I guess to some extent I always viewed entrepreneurship as an appealing pathway. It is a challenging journey though, and it took a lot of false starts, further study and incongruous job choices for the pieces to come together and Code Camp to come into being.

Q. What are the most and least glorious things about being an entrepreneur?

Pete: Maybe this sounds cliché but I don’t find anything inglorious. Sure, sometimes I’ll find myself setting up 100 PCs at 7am, or helping a crying kid pick up his spilled lunch, or trying to find a specific child’s app somewhere on a bag full of USB sticks, but it’s all part of doing something I care about and building something that can have an impact way beyond the camp experience itself - that’s equipping kids with the skills they need to be fully functioning participants in the modern, digital world. 

Camps are generally super positive experiences in a huge numbers of ways - probably the most satisfying is when kids leave camp and go on and develop apps or games significantly beyond what was taught to them. To have been the starting point of that self-guided learning journey is hugely satisfying.

Ben: I absolutely agree with Pete’s words. Working for ourselves, we’re responsible for all outcomes. If something needs to be done and we need to do it, we do it with the end in mind; an incredible experience for all students, parents and schools. If there was a ‘least glorious’ side to being an entrepreneur, for me it would be the times you do miss out. While we have incredible flexibility with our day to day schedule, Code Camp and our ridiculous to-do list are never too far off my mind.

Q. What advice do you have for UNSW Business School students or recent graduates who want to found their own startup?
Just get started. Entrepreneurship is really about finding the ways to get the most out of yourself, so the more you read the more confusing it can become to identify what might work for you. The only way to figure things out is to try (and often fail), but any time you try something you receive back concrete evidence as to whether that particular thing does or doesn’t work - which can then frame (and improve) your future decision making, and on you go.

Q. And finally, what drives you to get up and go to work every day?

Pete: These days it’s all about bonds of trust. We have an ever increasing number of schools and parents who are trusting us to provide an amazing learning experience for their kids, we also have a quickly growing team of head office and casual staff who trust us to provide them with a rewarding, inspiring and safe place to work. I don’t take that lightly, I want all of those stakeholders to feel satisfied with their choices to be involved with Code Camp. That gets me up in the morning and inspires me to improve at what I do. 

Ben: As an entrepreneur, I’m also driven to continually create and build incredible experiences, and make a difference. Our aim and passion is to grow Code Camp to engage with more schools, more students, and more locations, and continue to build a brighter future for Australian students.

Visit the Code Camp website for information on how to enrol and to learn more about the program.​​