OMGTech! MIT (supplied)

The Primer: the not-for-profit getting kids into coding

Every week we ask a local business or product to introduce themselves in eight simple takes. This week we talk to Zoe Timbrell and Vaughan Rowsell of OMGTech!, the not-for-profit getting kids into coding and technology through a series of high-tech workshops.

ONE: How did OMGTech! start and what was your inspiration for the project?

Vaughan Rowsell (VR): I had the idea for OMGTech! three years ago and was really inspired by something my mum always did, which was to give back and pay it forward. She was a paraplegic solo unemployed mum of three boys and life was tough, but she always made room to give to others who needed it. She took care of us kids and wanted the best and brightest future for us.

One day in the early eighties she came home with a computer. She had borrowed some money and bought it as she had a hunch computers would be big. Everyone thought she was crazy since putting food on the table was hard enough and nobody had computers [at the time]. But that gesture meant that from that day on, we grew up with a computer. Us three boys lived on it. We learned to code, tinker and explore everything a computer could do.

My mum passed away shortly after I launched [cloud-based software company] Vend so I missed out on showing her how it set me up to do something big with technology. When she passed, I thought a lot about how to remember her, and several years later I figured out that I wanted to do that same thing she did for us boys but for every kid in New Zealand. Give them access to the emerging future technology and teach them how to invent and innovate with it. So we launched OMGTech! [in 2014] with the mission to give every girl and boy from any background in New Zealand the opportunity to be part of the future tech industry.

OMGTech! founders Vaughan Rowsell and Zoe Timbrell (Supplied)

TWO: What kind of interest or experience in business/entrepreneurship did you have prior to starting OMGTech!? How did that inform your project?

VR: As the founder of Vend, I’d been working in tech startups my whole career and I became very aware that the profile of my peers in the industry was fairly homogenous. Mostly white guys and a lot of beards. So part of the reason for starting OMGTech! was to get more girls into tech. We also work with low decile communities so kids from less fortunate backgrounds can be part of the industry too.

Also as a start-up veteran and what I guess you would call a hacker, we wanted to run OMGTech! like a startup. We had no money so we had to think. We boot-strapped it and got investment from partners and have run it like a lean startup from day one. We’re not in the business to make money. We’ve funded it privately to keep it going. Our weekends and evenings are spent keeping it going and we have the support of an awesome volunteer network too.

THREE: Tell us about what OMGTech! does and how it works.

Zoe Timbrell (ZT): We run a number of programmes and workshops that teach the skills required to do fun and interesting stuff with future tech. Robots, drones, 3D printing, VR/AR, game design, sensors – you name it. Whatever the emerging tech is, we put together workshops that teach the concepts required to learn how this stuff works and how you can apply it to the real world. So content creation is a part of what we do.

We run a series of day-long events nationwide where parents and kids can come along and try out all of our workshops. They [get the chance to] programme up robots and design games. This creates the awareness about what we do and demystifies it so it doesn’t seem scary or hard.

“I became very aware that the profile of my peers in the industry was fairly homogenous… So part of the reason for starting OMGTech! was to get more girls into tech.” (Supplied)

We’ve developed all these workshops in a way so anyone can teach them. So we also run programmes to train teachers, volunteers, community groups and Iwi. We get more scale with the more people who can teach what we do. It’s like a self-replicating system.

Lastly, we develop overarching strategic programmes with community groups and educators to tailor the delivery of our workshops to match the needs of the kids in those communities. For example, we translated Microsoft’s Hour of Code into Te Reo to use these tools to work with Maori communities. A particular group of schools may not have the physical resources to teach things like robotics, so we figure out how to supply the gear to them. It’s all about removing the barriers to give access to the kids any way we can.

FOUR: What sort of lessons/activities go on in these OMGTech! workshops?

ZT: Robotics, VR/AR, design, ethics, computer science fundamentals, and a lot of coding. But we do it all in a way that’s fun. The kids don’t know they’re learning math and algorithms which, let’s be honest, are boring. Instead, they learn how to code a game.

FIVE: What was your reasoning behind partnering with major tech companies like Spark and Microsoft?

VR: An important part of inspiring kids and keeping up with the latest trends is to work with people who are active in the industry. We get amazing people from our partner companies like Spark and Microsoft to come along and help teach. The kids can then meet real people doing amazing things with technology and have some awesome role models. And as these companies do cool stuff with technology, they help us out by giving us the latest tools for the kids to use.

Robots, drones, 3D printing, VR/AR, game design, sensors – OMGTech! workshops give kids a range of things to play around with (supplied)

SIX: Do you think we’re doing enough in terms of educating young people today about future technologies? What would you like to see done by our government and leaders?

ZT: We can always do more and we’re actually really far behind. That’s why we started OMGTech! because we didn’t want to wait for the government to figure out there was a problem, or rather, a huge opportunity to get kids more literate with technology.

We just started doing it and demonstrating how simple it really is and how much kids and parents want it. We definitely helped some of our leaders catch up and see the opportunity ahead for New Zealand, and this has led to progress with some of the skills needed in computer science to be introduced into the school curriculum as of next year.

But we have so far to go. Kids outside of the major centres still have trouble getting reliable access to the internet, let along having a device to use on it. So there are real access problems in a lot of our communities. But even if we had every kid with access, we want to make sure they have the best content, the best tools and the most prepared educators to bring them all into a future that is going to be dominated by technology in every part of life. Let’s teach the kids how to create and innovate, not just be consumers of technology.

SEVEN: Do you have any plans to scale/grow further and if so, what are they?

VR: We are working with more and more communities all around New Zealand. But we are still a small team so it’s difficult to spread ourselves too far. We need more sponsorship so we can get onboard some more permanent team members and fund the development of new workshops. We’re also looking for people to help setup OMGTech! hubs in regions all around the country. All we need are a handful of passionate volunteers, a venue that can fit 50-100 kids and we can supply the rest. We can organise the logistics, marketing, and provide the gear and content. So anyone keen to start a new chapter let us know.

An OMGTech! workshop for school-aged kids (Supplied)

EIGHT: Lastly, tell us about a start-up or business that you really admire right now.

VR: Eat My Lunch is on a similar mission with a similar model. We also run our big events on a buy one, give one model. So if you buy a ticket, you’re sponsoring another kid to come along including their lunch, so we hope to join forces on this sometime soon. One day, we’ll get kids to make robots that can make the sandwiches and pack the bags too.

ZT: Rocket Lab because they’re showing every kid in New Zealand and the world that they can grow up to be rocket scientists. We have a space industry now and our kids will be the pioneers of a new frontier. Plus, some of our volunteers work there. We dream of having an OMGTech! space camp with Rocket Lab one day.


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