Interview with Jen Chiou, Founder, CodeSpeak Labs, jen[at]codespeaklabs.com
Tell us about CodeSpeak Labs.
CodeSpeak Labs prepares youth to have an impact in the 21st century by teaching them the language of technology. We run computer programming classes in PreK-12 schools during and after school, and provide co-teaching and training services. Our newest initiative is CodeSpeak Books, a series of children’s books that aim to teach kids ages 2-6+ the fundamentals of computational thinking without a device!
What motivated you to start this company?
My background is education and technology, and CodeSpeak Labs combines both. I didn’t learn any code until college. I went to Stanford and signed up for my first introductory class and felt totally overwhelmed. Just looking at the code on the screen gave me anxiety. Meanwhile, I looked over and I saw peers who were breezing through it—guys, primarily, who all learned how to do this much earlier on in life and were light years ahead. I want to get kids comfortable with code while they’re still sponges who are game to explore anything and everything.
In 2015, I was living in New York City running a nonprofit tech startup. We were growing our tech team, offering a competitive salary plus the huge benefit of working for a startup with an amazing social mission; yet, it was ridiculously hard to recruit developers. It was also around that time that I became a mom. I had worked in education previously, but the need to update our education system came into an even sharper, personal focus. I wanted my kids—and all kids—to grow up with the ability to shape the technology-driven world that they’re growing up in, to be creators and leaders and not passive consumers.
Tell us about CodeSpeak Books. What motivated you to write a children’s book about coding, and what’s happening with the program now?
What really got me interested in writing a kid’s book is my oldest son, Maxwell. He’s 3 ½ years old and obsessed with reading. We read a dozen picture books a day. Every time I want to prepare him for something or teach him something, I always look for a book that can help get him ready—whether it’s potty training, preparing for a new baby, or going to school. So I thought what if we could make a picture book about coding?
We launched a Kickstarter campaign to make these books available for children everywhere to enjoy and learn the basics of coding. It took less than eight hours to hit our goal. We then launched a stretch goal that would enable us to donate books to low-income after school centers around the country, and I’m happy to report that we’ve just hit that goal as well! [If you’re interested in pledging to this Kickstarter campaign, it will remain open until August 10. Donors can receive a free CodeSpeak book.]
Why is learning to code from a young age important and how do you reach children from all backgrounds?
Jobs in computer programming are among the fastest-growing and highest-paying opportunities in the world today, but 90% of schools do not offer any computer science classes. Computer science is the #1 major at top universities like Stanford and Princeton, and students who can code before college have a clear advantage.
One of the reasons we love working in schools during the school day is because we get to engage many kids who otherwise wouldn’t thinking coding is for them. Unfortunately, we find that when we have an after-school class that requires an opt-in, the vast majority of our students are boys, even at the elementary school level. Once the girls take a class, they get hooked! We need to actively get girls the opportunity.
That’s why CodeSpeak Books is for kids as young as 2. We need to get kids comfortable and excited about code early on in life, before they have any (false) notions about who would be good at it. Like learning a foreign language, it gets more intimidating the older you are.
We’ve been fortunate to have company sponsors who’ve enabled us to work in areas where students and schools otherwise wouldn’t have access. For example, here’s a video showing a micro-internship program we ran with our corporate partner, Illuminate Education. We worked with the students on web development for a semester and then they got to work with real software engineers at Illuminate’s office for a week, building a real project.
What successes have you seen so far?
In addition to our success with CodeSpeak Books, we’ll be in 30 locations across New York and California this year. In addition, we’ve been named the computer science provider for the Archdiocese of New York (the Catholic school district). You can see a video about our work with them here.
What have been the challenges?
There have been lots of bumps and failed experiments along the way, but overall, I’ve been able to keep my cool with the support of vChief!