Is your toddler coding yet? Booked into tech camp? Fluent in Java? You need to get with the program. Will Pavia meets Liz Bacelar, one of a new breed of (very) competitive mothers determined to raise the Mark Zuckerbergs of the future
How do we make sure our children do not study a humanities subject at university? That is the question for the modern parent. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to study Shakespeare is irrelevant, frankly, when you consider the world as it is now and as we think it will be, 10 or 15 years hence, infested with technology and ruled by an oligarchy of T-shirted computer scientists.
Imagining this future, you wonder how your children will survive if they insist on getting a degree in art history or drama from a liberal arts university. We cannot stop them, but surely we may encourage our offspring to express themselves not in brick poetry or performance art, but in Python or Java? How can we steer them towards the profitable discipline of computer science, so they can support themselves and are not forced to live out their days peeling grapes for Mark Zuckerberg?
Liz Bacelar believes she has found the answer. We won’t know for sure until the ongoing beta test otherwise known as bringing up her children is completed, but things are looking pretty good so far.
Bacelar lives in a village called Ardsley, 20 miles up the Hudson Valley from New York, a place of white picket fences and well-maintained rockeries. She is the founder of a company called Decoded Fashion, which organises conferences and hackathons where fashionistas mingle with software wizards and discuss fashion-world problems that might be solved with an artfully programmed app.
Frequently, at these conferences, she encounters teenagers who are already financially self-sufficient, thanks to their ability to code. “I know at least a dozen children, 14 and under, who have businesses based on coding,” she says. At the least, “They would be bringing home $100,000 [£69,000] a year,” she says. It’s hard not to hear that and think it would be rather nice if your kids were bringing in that kind of money during their adolescence.
Bacelar nods. “Even if it’s not your passion, it’s something you should do as a means of recession-proofing your child,” she says.
I visit her on a humid afternoon. Bacelar’s six-year-old daughter, Gabi, has been running a lemonade stand on the front lawn; now she is waiting at the front door to usher me inside.
“Gabi’s about to go to Brazil,” says Bacelar. She will be staying on her grandmother’s farm. “The Silicon Valley crowd always send their kids to a farm, to a low-tech environment.” The idea is to give their children an extended screen break, off the grid, although Bacelar is not sure if her mother’s farm will conform to those specifications. “She will be travelling without me, which means all the rules I’m going to talk to you about will be broken,” she says.
When Bacelar is talking about tech, she tends to swear a lot – an affectation she adopted to fit in with the “brogrammers” she deals with in her job.
She grew up in southern Brazil, where her father ran a construction business and her mother had a travel agency. Her family moved, abruptly, to Connecticut when she was 17, so her mother could seek treatment for cancer. In college, Bacelar founded a local newspaper to cater for her city’s large Brazilian population. She moved on to work in national television news, covering politics and gritty crime stories.
“I had guns pulled on me many, many times,” she says. “I used to think, ‘Oh, if I lose an arm, I will win an award, it will be amazing. That sounds like success to me.’ Ha! Ha! But then I had Gabi and Isabela [her other daughter, two] and I thought, ‘I actually need my arms.’ ” So she ventured into tech.
Now 37, she seems the model of the entrepreneurial American immigrant: restless, questing – all those virtues extolled by Amy Chua in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. But Bacelar’s most recent metamorphosis, into a technological Tiger Mum, came only a couple of years ago, after she saw a YouTube video advertising GoldieBlox – toy construction kits for girls. “That’s where it all started,” she says.
The GoldieBlox company was founded by Debbie Sterling, a Californian mechanical engineer who wished to create the kind of toys for girls she never had. The commercial is like that old Honda advert, in which parts of a car roll and knock into each other, creating a domino effect: this time, the moving parts are tea sets and baby dolls and Wendy houses, and all the princess-themed accessories girls get given. They glide and crash through a suburban house, while a chorus of girls chant a rejigged version of the Beastie Boys song Girls. “You like to buy us pink toys/ And everything else is for boys,” they shout, demanding toys that will raise, “Girls to build a spaceship/ Girls to code a new app/ Girls to grow up knowing/ That they can engineer that.”
Bacelar watched it and thought of her daughter Gabi, who was then four, playing with her toy kitchen. “That was the beginning of everything for me,” she says. “I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m going to work talking to these guys who code. I talk about a lack of women in tech every day, and I come home and bring her a pretty pink bike helmet and the Barbies.’ ”
So the first decree of the Tech Tiger Mum went out, to Gabi’s aunts and uncles. “I said: ‘Pretend that Gabi’s a boy. Give her blocks, give her balls, give her science kits.’ ”
She still wanted Gabi “to be able to express her femininity”, and she did not pull her out of ballet class, although she took a harder look at the slender career options offered by classical French dance. “I don’t know what kind of investment you are making with that,” she says.
She purged some of the pink from her daughter’s life and introduced a GoldieBlox kit and then Lego. “Gabi’s attitude changed completely,” she says. “The kind of things she was interested in shifted to STEM things [science, technology, engineering, maths].”
The next decree from the Tech Tigress was that Gabi needed to learn a musical instrument (fortunately, she took up the violin age three). Bacelar believes it improves one’s facility for mathematics. She also thinks that the commands and phrasing in sheet music are similar, in a sense, to the commands embedded in a line of computer code.
I call Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, who specialises in early learning, to ask if this is true. She says the evidence is mixed, at best, although there is at least some science to support Bacelar’s other supposition, that building toys or “manipulables” can inculcate spatial and mechanical skills in young children. “If you like them and you are better at them aged three, four and five, it builds out into elementary school,” she says. She is not sure it is clear the toys can generate “a STEM college person”, but, “building blocks and experience with puzzles does make a difference”.
Then, of course, there are the “educational” games and apps – more than 80,000 of them for preschool children. Hirsh-Pasek was the lead author on a recent paper that noted, “Children are in the midst of a vast, unplanned experiment,” in which “there is simply not the time, money or resources available to evaluate each app as it enters the market”. The paper set out four tests parents ought to apply to new apps: we should ask if our child is “actively” learning, rather than passively receiving instruction; if they find it meaningful and can connect the things they learn to things they know already; if it holds their attention; if it is “socially interactive” and allows the child to collaborate with parents or other children.
Bacelar believes that two apps, Kodable and Hopscotch, have helped Gabi build an aptitude for computer science at the ripe old age of six. She allows her daughter to access them under a strict screen-time regime: Gabi is allowed one hour today in front of any screen – television, computer, iPad – which she can divide up as she chooses. Social media and Minecraft are off the table until Gabi is ten, Bacelar says, and she is trying to keep her off Google. (“She keeps saying, ‘Mummy, what is goggo?’ ”)
“Any app, she has to make an argument what she will learn from it. She wants to play Candy Crush. I say, ‘It’s a waste of time. If you want to kill time, let’s go outside and play.’”
Gabi, like any child, does try to push the boundaries of how much screen time she has, admits Bacelar, especially when she sees her friends given constant access to their iPads. “I give her the rule, she protests, but you have to stick to it. Her friends don’t have those rules; it’s too much work for their parents. They’ve got the attitude, ‘I’ve been working all day, here’s an iPad, I want to have a conversation with my husband.’ But I am very competitive. I have my eye on the prize. I know if I work hard on this it will pay off in the long term.”
To set a good example, Bacelar turns off the router at weekends and she and her husband only use their phone to make calls. “I don’t want the kids to see us using screens either. Instead we do loads of reading.”
The screen-time rule has been relaxed for today’s demonstration of Tech Tiger Mothering. Sitting at the living-room table, Gabi opens up Kodable, an app in which players compose a series of directions to help a ball of blue fuzz negotiate a maze. Initially, it is just like telling a hapless tourist from Minnesota how to get to Leicester Square from Embankment. Straight, left, right, straight, left. Steadily, however, the mazes get harder, until you are effectively telling the chap from Minnesota how to find an affordable two-bedroom house in a good school district in south London. It’s complicated. Children become accustomed to entering conditional commands (if this, do this), clusters of commands, and command loops – in which the fuzz repeats one or more actions several times. Steadily, says Bacelar, players begin to grasp the principles of coding.
The second app that might help us to breed a coder is called Hopscotch. It allows children to work with a simplified coding language, in which they can drag and drop blocks of code to make animations, games or anything that takes their fancy. Jocelyn Leavitt, its co-creator, tells me that you could, in principle, build Amazon, or Paypal using Hopscotch, given enough time and computing power. She says most Hopscotchers are between 10 and 13, but there are also early adopters, such as Gabi.
Leavitt hopes that Hopscotch may help to democratise coding. She never learnt to code, and the app was partly born “out of my frustration at wanting to learn programming, but thinking it seems so hard to do”.
She regards it as akin to a superpower. “I hear this frequently from developers. It’s sort of like having servants that you can bend to your will.” Her co-founder, Samantha John, who taught herself coding while in college in New York, would write simple programmes that automatically entered her into the lottery for Shakespeare in the Park, or divided up bills between her and a flatmate, or found her convenient yoga classes at any given time.
Leavitt also hopes Hopscotch may help to encourage more girls into coding, which is more male-dominated than most golf clubs. Girls Who Code, a New York organisation that has similar aims, says the gender gap in computer science has climbed in the past few decades: in 1984 women made up 37 per cent of all computer science graduates in America, the ratio is now 18 per cent and only 0.4 per cent of high-school girls express an interest in studying computer science at university.
“All my guy friends who are great programmers have been coding since they were 12,” says Leavitt, a Hawaiian who now lives in Brooklyn. “They had these computer games that they loved; they wanted to program their own games. Then they wanted to learn how to program computers. There was no equivalent for girls.”
Even now, she says, “there is a lot of stuff out there where they say, ‘It’s not just for boys,’ but it turns out to be, ‘Let’s code these robots to blow each other up,’ or, ‘Let’s program your ninja samurai to shoot swords.’ ”
Even at Gabi’s elementary school, it tends to be the boys who code, although her class was recently introduced to basic principles via Hour of Code, a non-profit organisation that offers a free, hour-long tutorial in programming to schools all over the world.
Gabi recently completed a robotics course using Lego Mindstorm kits. Then there is her new Roominate set, a dolls’ house of sorts that comes with light circuits and motors, designed by two female engineers from Stanford. All the toys Bacelar buys have a STEM stamp. “I am the nerdy adopter of any smart toy I can find. It’s all about challenging them while they play.”
Other initiatives are afoot, too. This year, Gabi was invited to r00tz Asylum, a convention in Las Vegas that seeks to encourage girls and boys to become “white-hat hackers” – a hacker who is employed to break into protected networks and systems to test their security. Bacelar, naturally, was pleased as punch, and thought it would look good one day on her daughter’s CV, although her husband prevailed, arguing that it would also look good to say she went for the first time at the age of seven.
The conference is sponsored by the computer hackers network DEF CON and run by a cyber-security expert named Nico Sell. Sell takes cyber-security so seriously that she would tell me neither her age, nor where she was from exactly, beyond the fact that it was “on the West Coast, in a tech-savvy place”. She learnt to code on a computer her father bought when she was eight: she says she created computer games, although she will not say what these games were in case someone uses this information to figure out her age.
We set up a telephone call via Wickr, the secure messaging service she created, which, Sell says, has just under 10 million users in 198 countries. Messages “are encrypted between my device and your device and not even Wickr has the key”, she says. She tells me that its security standards exceed the requirements of the National Security Agency (NSA), and it is the networking tool of choice for many spies. Messages self-destruct within a given period of time in a pleasing ball of pixelated fire.
“Just like Snapchat,” I say.
“Spies don’t use Snapchat,” she replies.
About 500 people attended this year’s r00tz Asylum. They learnt to break a combination lock, solder a circuit board and use an “Ethernet sniffer” to inspect web traffic. They also get a dose of ethics. “With great power comes great responsibility,” Sell says. A few summers ago, the children were addressed by General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA and Cyber Command at the time. “He said what we were doing was vital for the future of the world.”
Last year, the NSA launched its own programme to coach children in computer hacking, sponsoring summer camps where participants were taught to crack passwords and intercept messages. Steve LaFountain, 54, dean of the NSA’s College of Cyber, which instructs staff at the agency in cyber security, recently visited one of these camps, in LA, where a local troop of girl scouts were learning to program a drone. He spoke to me over the phone from Baltimore (naturally, the call was recorded). He was recruited out of university and had been with the agency for 33 years.
Had you told him a few decades ago that one day his agency would be helping to run summer camps, he would have been surprised. But necessity is the mother of invention.
“The demand for cyber-security professionals is huge right now,” he says. “There is somewhere between a few hundred thousand and a million jobs in the field worldwide.”
Demand for cyber-security experts and programmers is projected to increase over the next decade. This is the market for which Bacelar is preparing her daughter. Since she began her programme of music, construction toys and apps, she says Gabi has developed abilities that Bacelar and her husband (who works in finance) do not possess. “We are not STEM parents,” she says. “I want parents to know that you don’t need to be brilliant Silicon Valley parents. You can still produce Mark Zuckerberg. It’s not a DNA game.” Zuckerberg, in fact, grew up in this patch of Westchester, and attended the local high school.
I’ve called for a taxi and we are standing by her front door, discussing our hopes for our children. “If we are lucky, our kids will be like the founder of Kiip,” she says, referring to Brian Wong, 24, the founder of a mobile advertising platform. She met him a few years ago. “I didn’t take him seriously enough. The next time I saw him, he was on the cover of Forbes magazine.”
I speak to Wong a week later. He grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Vancouver. His father, an accountant, was an early adopter of technology and purchased an IBM. Wong was never allowed a games console, “But I managed to get into PC gaming without my parents ever knowing.” He played the game Counter-Strike: fellow gamers formed groups with their own badge. To design them, “We figured out how to pirate (Adobe) Photoshop.” As he became familiar with web design, friends of his parents with small businesses sought out his services. “I started a business without knowing it,” he says. He and a friend would hire other teenagers to code for them, paying them $20 or $30 an hour and charging clients $80-$100 an hour.
He now runs a company with 95 employees and revenues “in the low eight figures”. “My parents still don’t know what I do, but I know they are proud of me and they have stopped asking me to get an MBA,” he says.
He thinks computer coding will eventually be taught at primary school, where it will be “almost like teaching kids English”. Bacelar had suggested to me that, “In 15 years, if you haven’t got a basic understanding of coding, you can’t get a job.” Wong puts it less starkly, but still thinks, “In the future there will be two types of business professionals: ones who know how to code, and ones who don’t. The ones who know how to code will understand the technology that runs practically everything.”
Not everyone agrees that coding will be necessary for the health and happiness of our children. I live in one of a cluster of high-rise apartments on the eastern edge of Manhattan. One of my neighbours happens to be a cyber-security expert: he has written a textbook; he coaches lawyers on coding; he advises Wall Street firms on threats to their security. Our children are the same age, so we often meet in the playground, where he tells me of the latest threats to the peace of the civilised world.
He is telling me how a private company could inadvertently trigger a war with Russia, when I ask him about the teachings of the Tech Tiger Mum. He dismisses them. “By the time her kids need programming it will be a pointless exercise,” he says. In a decade, we will simply instruct computers to build things “Have you used that Ikea tool that builds a kitchen for you? That’s how programming will be.”
I’m starting to feel a lot better. So he won’t do anything else to prepare his daughter for the digital future? He shakes his head. Then he says, “Well, when she is a bit older, five or six, I will send her to a friend of mine. He’s retired now; he lives in the Blue Mountains. He taught the forensics people at the FBI, and police departments and other people. He taught me. He will teach her forensics and programming.”
I have to say the Tech Tiger Mum’s prescriptions sound easier. I ask my neighbour if he will be trying to discourage his children from studying humanities. He snorts, and then nods at his daughter, who is being chased by my son through a shrubbery. “I will just say to her, ‘You will be poor and unhappy and broke if you do a liberal arts degree,’ ” he says.
Bacelar is not so definitive on the subject. “There are artists who use their coding ability to create online art spaces,” she says. “I think it would freak me out if Gabi decides to become a Luddite and go to the forest … I want her to be part of that greater conversation of where we are going. I want her to be leading it.”
The techie kids she meets at her conferences “are so empowered to build things”, she says.
“I want my child to be able to build something, too. You are not a passive human being on earth. You are here to make your mark. It’s more fun to make your mark with something you’ve built. That’s my hope and expectation.”
I ask about Isabelle, Gabi’s little sister. She is two. Will she become a techie, too?
Bacelar shakes her head. “I’m getting more of a finance vibe from her,” she says.
The Tech Mum’s tools
Buy boys’ toys for girls.
Limit screen time (including TV) to one hour a day.
Don’t use your iPad/iPhone at home in front of the kids.
Go offline at weekends – and send them on off-grid breaks.
Buy STEM toys only (see below).
Puzzlets (6+) An electronic jigsaw puzzle that gets your child thinking like a programmer. £65.50 for starter pack (digitaldreamlabs.com).
Hummingbird Robotics Kit (10+) Create robots out of basic materials and program them with software. From £104 (hummingbirdkit.com).
Roominate (6+) A construction game for girls. Build your own apartment, dance studio or school. From £47 (amazon.co.uk).
littleBits (8+) Wire up circuits to create lights, buzzers, temperature sensors and MP3 players, or invent your own prototypes. £79.99 for starter bundle (amazon.co.uk).
Dash & Dot (5+) Robots that can be programmed to behave in different ways, such as squealing when you pick them up. £159.99 (amazon.co.uk).
Stopmotion Explosion (6+) Make movies by learning the basics of animation, how to build film sets and create special effects. £108 (amazon.co.uk).
Lego Mindstorms (10+) Use software and Lego to design and build a fully functioning remote-controlled robot. £210 (amazon.co.uk).
Kodable (5+) A maze-based game to teach children the basics of coding.
Hopscotch (9+) Make your own games and art using blocks of code.