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Simon Hay: Firefly judging at the Young Rewired State Festival of Code

Firefly will be participating as proud sponsors of the Young Rewired State Festival of Code 2015.

This fantastic event sees 1000’s of young, aspiring coders compete in one of the largest hackathons. We caught up with Simon Hay, the co-founder of Firefly, who will also be judging at the event, to ask him about his early coding experiences and what he hopes to see this weekend.

As a child, what originally sparked your interest in technology and coding?

I guess I’d grown up around computers, my parents actually met whilst both working for IBM, my mum having done one of the original computer science degrees, so there was strong influence at home. There’s even a photo of me at two years old with one of the original IBM computers that my dad had brought home which I was playing space invaders on. With computers on the table I developed an interest in playing on them to eventually pulling them apart, seeing how they work and then putting them back together. So it was really just a very strong childhood influence.

What is your earliest memory of learning to code?

I remember actively trying to program myself at around 12, I’d got as far as I could without actively pursuing learning to code and there certainly wasn’t anyone at school who was going to teach me this stuff. So I bought a book that taught me java and other foundations, and it began from there really.

What was the access you had to develop through school?

At school the approach to computers was very restricted to a curriculum and there certainly wasn’t the room for experimentation, it would have been seen as almost subversive to explore how the systems work, as if you wanted to hack into the system! It was then that Joe and I started computer club at school, taking a bunch of old retired computers where we could experiment. The group evolved into a niche collective of people who found common interest in computing which was fantastic. We set up a network of computers to play multiplayer games, which wasn’t allowed by school policy, so we set up a little webcam outside to create a motion detector which would automatically switch all of our screens on to a spreadsheet to avoid being caught.

How did you mature this passion through university to continue the work on Firefly with other commitments?

Well, experiences at school certainly encouraged my decision to take a computer science degree, which was unusual, as it was unlike anything I’d learnt at school. But even as I went off to university our school was already dependent on Firefly, and a few other schools saw what had happened with ours and asked for the platform too. So in that way Firefly grew accidentally. At university the Firefly connections kept on growing and, combined with my study, things really got going. Ultimately, we never planned on it ending up how it has, but by solving a general problem for one school, it transcended to schools across the globe.

How essential then do you think it is that we create bigger platforms for young people to develop coding and computing skills?

Well certainly it’s healthy to allow anyone interested in computers to indulge and experiment to help them learn. It’s difficult as there’s certainly not school curriculum to directly support it, so most of these kids are learning independently, so there’s argument for generating a greater exposure. Also, it’s great for kids to realise that they aren’t the only ones in the world who are interested in computing. The Young Rewired State Festival of Code is fantastic for that as it allows a lot of like-minded people to meet, express ideas and develop. Clearly not everyone is going to become a programmer, but being able to program is a massive enabler. Even in a business, not everyone codes, but the more you know about it, the more you understand how tech underpins the way businesses are being driven in the modern world. So I would say increased exposure is fantastic.

As a judge this weekend for The Festival of Code, can you tell us what you’ll be looking for?

I think there’s a limit to how much people can achieve in a few days, but fascinatingly, there is now a great deal more you can do in a shorter span of time as opposed to a decade ago. The young coders are practically standing on the shoulders of giants. There has been so much development, but I am definitely interested in ideas as much as execution. I’m not expecting completely polished, production-ready applications as to get to the standard where the product is market-ready, takes up to 80% of the total time you’ll spend on a project. So what will be great to see is people taking the time and initiative to come up with some great ideas that could really flourish over time. The execution will be fantastic to see. They might not have the time for perfection, but the thinking and execution behind utilising their limited time effectively to produce something credible, will be really interesting to see.

What advice would you give the participants?

One of the reasons Firefly was able to do well was because we were solving a real problem. If you have a good positive attitude towards solving problems, you’re moving in the right direction. At the drawing board you don’t want to be thinking too abstract, the more tangible the problem the more engaged you can become with solving it. So, I would definitely encourage people to think about problems they might face, this is the best way to find a good place to start. One of the best things I recently heard about is an app that helps with giving people medication reminders. Essentially if you understand the problem, and what you’re designing is trying to solve it, then you’ll come up with a better solution.

Is there anywhere at the moment that you think we might potentially see the next breakthrough in technology?

The development we’re going to see around ubiquitous computing really interests me as it was something I spent my PhD years studying. Ubiquitous computing involves our interaction with technology becoming more subconscious as it blends into the background. For example we’ve seen computers built into watches, and gadgets inside our cars where we don’t have to consciously pick up the device to interact with it. Ten years ago there were projects on step counting machines, where thousands of pounds would be spent on a big clunky device that would take a lot of conscious input to work, whereas now you can buy these things for very little cost, and they work in the background.

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