Ocado Technology interview: Coding for English kids

We catch up with Paul Clarke, Director of Technology and Anne Marie Neatham from Ocado Technology to learn more about school coding initiatives

Last year England included coding and programming as an integral part of its primary school curriculum. It seems likely that other parts of the world will follow suit before long. We catch up with executives from Ocado Technology, which has sponsored the initiative, to learn more. The answers below are from Paul Clarke, Director of Technology and Anne Marie Neatham, COO.


How did Ocado Technology’s Code for Life initiative and sponsorship of the weekend coding sessions for kids at Bletchley Park come about?

Ocado Technology is the technology division that powers Ocado.com. As a technology business, we feel passionately that we have a responsibility to help inspire and educate the next generation of computer scientists. This is why we launched Code for Life, to get every child in the country coding.

In November this year, the National Museum of Computing launched a similar project called The Weekend Codability Project which helps children learn how to program computers, change existing instructions in programs and create their own programs. These sessions take place every weekend in the same building that housed the wartime Colossus computers, the world’s first electronic computer, on Bletchley Park. It is a fantastic environment for children to take their first steps in coding and programming and we’re proud to do everything we can to inspire children.


As part of your Rapid Router programming language, you’ve produced a lot of materials to help primary school teachers understand coding – do you think all this is harder for parents and teachers to understand than it is for the kids themselves?

It can definitely be daunting for parents and teachers, especially given there is much more emphasis placed on technology skills today than when they were at school.

Ahead of the new school year, and the Code for Life launch in September, we surveyed parents and primary school teachers. This research revealed three quarters (75%) of parents wish they’d had the chance to learn coding at school as it would have given them better career prospects. Moreover, 61% of teachers polled said they did not feel confident enough to teach coding.

To address these concerns, we developed Rapid Router, a free comprehensive programming teaching resource which lies at the heart of Code for Life.  This has been created in conjunction with primary computing and ICT teachers and has been tested by over 150 pupils to ensure it helps teachers meet the requirements of the new curriculum. It features a fun and engaging web application, detailed lesson plans for Key Stage 1 and lower Key Stage 2 pupils, coding videos and other activities.


How do you see the IT curriculum developing in the UK over the short-term, medium-term and long-term?

Introducing computing into the new primary school curriculum is a great first step. Hopefully, this will spark interest and encourage children to further explore the exciting world of coding outside of school.

Currently, Rapid Router is targeted a key stage 1 and lower key stage 2. However, we are currently developing the next iteration aimed at upper key stage 2 and we are working on further extensions of Code for Life, such as “Bots for Kids”, an intuitive programming environment to introduce children to the exciting world of robotics.  


Why do you think girls are less interested in technology than boys? What can we do to change that and how long do you think it will take?

We do not think that girls are less interested in technology than boys. In fact, they can often be the fastest to adopt new technology. However, we have found that the traditional stereo-typical view of careers in technology being occupied by very nerdy men, is off putting to most girls and many boys, which means that they do not even consider a career in technology. 

It is clear that we must work hard to change perceptions in this world-changing exciting industry, so that a greater diversity of girls and boys consider it as a career option. Schools are well placed to trigger this inspiration. Introducing Computing from an early age will help to encourage more diversity generally and help to level the playing field between the sexes. 

As coding now forms part of the primary school curriculum, girls and boys across the country are learning how to instruct computers and create their own programmes.

The gender gap won’t of course be tackled overnight, it will take time. But this new school curriculum is a great first step and will allow girls to discover interests they may never have done otherwise.


I read in an interview last March that Ocado Technology is on a big hiring drive, have you struggled to find the relevant skills and talent?

It's true that hiring talented engineers, data scientists, analysts, product owners and other specialists into Ocado Technology is a never-ending process. The rate at which we are growing, combined with the fact that we set the bar high, means that we continue to invest a lot of time in getting the recruitment process right.

Our business model is all about making the delivery of an amazing service look simple.  But look under the surface and you will find that simplicity is delivered by a huge amount of complexity in the form of software, automation, algorithms, data, optimisations, machine learning and so on.  That's why candidates who come to our weekly assessment days are often amazed by the Aladdin's cave of technology that powers Ocado, all of which we build in-house.  That's the perception gap that we struggle with.


Do you think the beautiful packaging and extremely sophisticated technology behind devices like the iPhone makes it harder for children to understand how IT works in practice? Do these extremely covetable devices make children more interested in technology, or do you think it simply increases their desire to consume on them?

We think the access to amazing technology fuels both an interest in that technology and a desire to consume the benefits it delivers.

We would draw parallels between the way the internet has democratised music and book publishing with the way smart mobile devices have brought software publishing within reach of anyone with a great product idea and the ability to code it. Add to this a cloud computing account and a credit card, and someone in their teens really can initiate from their bedroom a successful startup business that is eventually worth millions (or even billions), with almost no risk or investment other than their intellectual and creative capital.


Is there anything else you would like to share with an international audience which may be less familiar with what is happening in the UK?

England is the first country in the world to make coding and programming mandatory in the school curriculum. This is significant as being able to write code is a transformative and disruptive skill that needs to be seen as being of huge potential value whatever your future holds. It is a skill that children need to acquire to flourish in our digital and online world. Hopefully, more countries will follow suit.


Our staff writer, Dan Swinhoe is learning to code with Kano. Find out how he’s getting on here.