Children tinkering

2014-01-05 02:07
Years ago I decided that in case I got the same question for at least three times I would write down the answer and put it somewhere online in a more or less public location that I can link to. The latest question I got once too often came from daddies (mostly, sorry - not even a handful of moms around me, let alone moms who are into tech) looking for ways to get there children in touch with technology.

Of course every recommendation depends heavily on the age and interest of the little one in question. However most recommendations are based on using a child's love for games - see also a story on how a father accidentally turned his daughter into a dungeons and dragons fan for a bit more background on what I mean.

There are several obvious paths, including Lego Mindstorms, the programming kits by Fischertechnik, several electronics kits you get at your favourite shop, fun stuff like Makey, makey kits that can turn a banana into a controller. Also many games come with their own level designers (think Little Big Planet, though the older children might remember that even Far Cry, Doom and friends came with level designers).

In addition by now there are quite a few courses and hacking events that kids are invited to go to - like the FrogLabs co-located with FrosCon, the Chaos macht Schule initiative by CCC, meetups like the ones hosted by Open Tech School, Jugend Hackt. In addition quite a few universities collaborate with schools to bring pupils in touch with research (and oftentimes tech) - like e.g. at HU Berlin.

In addition there are a three more less typical recommendations:

  • As a child I loved programming a turtle (well, a white dot really) to move across the screen forward or backwards, to turn east, south, west or north, to paint or to stop painting. The slightly more advanced (both in a graphical as well as in an interactive sense of the word) version of that would be to go for Squeak (all smalltalk, first heard about it about a decade ago at the Chemnitzer Linuxtage) or Scratch (a geek dad kindly showed that to me years ago).
  • When it comes to hardware hacking one recommendation I can give from personal experience is to take part in one of the soldering courses by Mitch Altman - you know, the guy who invented the "TV-B-Gone". Really simple circuits, you solder yourself (no worries, the parts are large and robust enough that breaking them is really, really, really hard). What you end up with tends to be blinking and in some cases is programmable. As an aside: Those courses really aren't only interesting for little ones - I've seen adults attend, including people who are pretty deep into Java programming and barely ever touch circuits in their daily work.
  • If you are more into board games: Years ago one of my friends invited me to a RoboRally session. Essentially every player programs their little robot to move across the board.

When it comes to books one piece I can highly recommend (didn't know something like that existed until my colleagues came up with it) would be the book "Geek Mom" - there's also an edition called "Geek Dad". Be warned though, this is not tech only.

If you know of any other events, meetups, books or games that you think should really go on that list, let me know.

Don't dream it, be it

2013-12-24 12:07
After two years in a row of receiving 120 submissions for Berlin Buzzwords from the usual crowd - young, white, male, caucasian - only this year we decided we needed to work towards increasing diversity.One piece in the puzzle was to get in touch with several Berlin local "tech for non-tech" people groups. In a content exchange kind of setting I was asked to do an interview as some kind of role model.

In addition to a serious lack of time back then I felt the typical way these interviews go would do no good - even anyone who's in IT already learning I co-founded Apache Mahout, am a member of the Apache Software foundation, have co-founded Berlin Buzzwords (after running quite a few successful meetups around related topics in Berlin), am married to a Linux kernel developer tends to shy away (unless the person I'm talking to happens to be into OSS development themselves thus knowing that despite quite some work this also means having lots of fun).

However the invitation did get me started thinking about what kind of advise I would share with the next generation of hackers. Over time though I realised that what was most helpful for me doesn't only apply to those who want to become successful in IT. On first sight it sounds like an extremely easy to follow advise:

Once upon a time after coming back from the Kindergarden provided by my mom's employer I spent part of an afternoon in front of a computer in an office close the hers. The game was trivial: Direct a little Snake through a maze, collect items, avoid biting yourself or the walls.

Years in primary school I got to play with the computer of one of my relatives. Ever since beating their highscore I wanted a computer for myself. When I finally got a first computer on my own I used to play lots of games together with a good friend of mine - until the game supply for my Amiga 500 dried out. Back then I made a decision: To work towards simply coding my own games. Ever since I followed this tiny little dream - by now for almost twenty years.

Even despite the fact I got all support I could wish for from parents, teachers and university professors seen from the outside it may have seemed like not always being easy as pie: More often than not it meant being different - instead of being part of the "I don't know what I want to do after school" it meant being part of that small group of people who know what they are working for. Instead of being part of that large "I hate technology and I'm utterly bad at math" it meant being part of that tiny group of people who love math and who have fun dealing with any new technology.

Instead of being at one of those great parties for New Year's Eve it meant filling in the details of a project proposal a few hours before midnight. Instead of being home at 6p.m. it meant going to meetups more often than not. Instead of being home during weekends it meant flying to California for a conference on a weekend on my private budget. Despite getting 2.5 days a week from March to June to work on Berlin Buzzwords from my employer for the first two years and having lots of help and knowledge over at newthinking who did the heavy lifting of taking on the financial risk, managing registrations, booking the venue and handling speaker travel support it still meant lots of additional mornings, evenings and weekends spent on making the event fly (and an inbox that never went silent - neither at noon nor at midnight - hint: any mail you send to info@berlinbuzzwords ends up not only in an anonymous mailing list - every organiser including Simon Willnauer, Daniela Bentrup and myself will receive your mail and make sure it gets dealt with).

There are a couple of reasons I kept doing this kind of stuff. But I guess the most influential reason is simply that it also is a whole lot of fun for me.

There were several fellow students at school who didn't have the courage to follow their dreams from the very start: There's the girl who was teased into studying biology by her parents - only years later she had the courage to go for professional gardening. There's this guy who didn't know exactly what to do and followed many of his friends to study mechanical engineering. Months later he pivoted towards social sciences and politics, today working on a PhD. thesis on economics in German hospitals. There's the girl who successfully passed her math degree but really also wanted to follow her musical passion - in the end she went to study music in addition to become a math and music teacher.

It takes determination and courage to follow your dreams - especially if that means following a different path than what your parents had on their mind for you or following a path that doesn't quite fit into the cliché of what society has in mind for you*. However in my statistically absolutely non-significant, completely biased and personal opinion it's worth every effort.

* Sorry for as long as it is special to love repairing cars for a girl and to love working in child day care for a boy I don't believe in society not influencing career decisions.

On geeks growing up

2013-12-12 05:49
I'm a regular visitor of the Chemnitzer Linuxtage in March - at first going to talks learning lots of interesting stuff I didn't know about like aspect oriented programming, strace, squeak, which open source licenses are best for different strategies. As of late I had been there mostly to help out with the FSFE booth.

For context: The conference itself is hosted by the technical university in Chemnitz, it takes place on a weekend, they charge the tiny amount of 5 Euros for admission. In turn visitors get two full days of mostly well prepared, diverse talks and workshops. Speakers and exhibitors get access to the backstage catering area including free food and drinks all day and an after show dinner on Saturday evening. In general organisation is highly professional - WiFi just works, no super-long queues for meals (that for attendees are available for purchase during the breaks), equipment in the rooms usually just works.

One thing I found particular about the Linuxtage in Chemnitz was always how family friendly they are: Standing at the FSFE booth I've had it more often than not that parents who are not into IT at all would take their young kids who are "into computers" to the event. However also quite a few geeks tend to bring their off-spring: It all started with a toy corner years ago. By now the offer has been extended to be a separate quite room stuffed with lots of toys, visited not only by parents and kids but also engaged clowns and magicians for entertainment.

Ever since it seems like other conferences have followed the example:

Froscon isn't only offering a nursing room and play area - there's a jumping castle in the backyard for smaller children. For little hackers there is a special track stuffed with coding topics suitable for children - often even taught by younger ones.

EuRuCamp went another step further: Not only do they sell children tickets that are a lot cheaper than those offered for adults. For the very young ones the ticket includes babysitting services - organised in collaboration with a local Berlin babysitting service.

I been there for a while but last time I visited also Chaos Communication Congress and Camp drew several small hackers - in general there were tinkering workshops well suitable for slightly older little people.

Even FOSDEM that to my knowledge doesn't yet offer any special tracks or separate rooms for smaller ones was still able to draw a few families - most likely due in part to the "we are one big family" nature of the event (despite attendee numbers as high as 5k each year).

Even events otherwise known for being very professional and dominated by corporate paid attendees like Devoxx are starting to provide initiatives for supporting (in this case) teenagers to get a better grasp of technology. Check out the Devoxx4Kids page for more information on how to host your local Devoxx 4 Kids chapter in your city.

At least for Berlin it seems this trend has been acknowledged - as tech conferences you can get makey-makey packages for free from a local IT foundation.

On a more personal note: In contrast to all of the above the conference I'm involved in personally - Berlin Buzzwords - is pretty much business driven and profit oriented. However for good reason it has the reputation of still being very community oriented. For several editions I have tried finding ways to turn the event into something that is slightly more family friendly:

  • There once was an offer to bring your non-tech spouse or relatives with us organising a city tour for them. In an initial trial run this was tried on speakers - there was some response, but overall too few people made use of the offer to run it again.
  • There usually were play areas featuring foosball tables, table tennis and the like - but those mostly catered the geeks themselves really.
  • We ran at least one blog post asking for people in need for child care to get in touch with us - though there is the occasional request on twitter, nothing substantial came out of these initiatives.
  • I asked parents who I knew were visiting the conference themselves what would make them bring their children - the ones I asked mostly came back with a need for child care for very little people or a conference date during school holidays to bring older kids.
This year the approach we try is slightly different: We again host the event in Kulturbrauerei - a venue that is itself very well suited to experimenting with different formats: Several rooms from large to small, a nice back yard, a cinema and a few shops, well located in Prenzlauer Berg which itself is known for being almost too family friendly. We got in touch with the organisers of EuRuCamp to learn how they got baby sitting services sponsored - Dajana, thanks a ton for your input. In addition we put the invitation to bring kids and the baby sitting offering up online where every attendee inevitably will see it: There is a special ticket for kids (with limited availability though as this is the first trial run) that includes catering and day care you can book.

In addition there's also a catering only ticket that is way cheaper than the full conference access pass - so in case the conference pass is too expensive for you to pay privately however you'd still like to be at the event during your lunch break or in the evening this is the ideal option for you.

I have to admit I'm highly curious how this will play out. For me Berlin Buzzwords always was a great excuse to hand to friends in order to get them to visit the city at the best time of the year. As a result it meant that I could go to the conference by bicycle and have everyone else I would love to meet in town. It would be great if these two changes enable more people to be with us. It would be even better if these two changes did actually support the community flavour that I have been told Buzzwords has. Looking forward to seeing you in June!