In 2005, at the age of 15, Dean Jenkins was told he had the reading age of an eight-year old. He grew up with dyslexia and dyscalculia, meaning he left school with few prospects. But now, eleven years later, Dean is the founder of start-up Codez Academy.
The story of how he got there, is an inspiring one.
“It was very hard for me. I felt like I had nowhere to go when I left school,” Dean started.
With few options available to him, he got a flooring job. It’s something he did for a few years until he started to suffer back trouble. Someone who loves the outdoors, Dean became a greenkeeper, but there was no improvement in his back pain and he was laid off.
In 2010, Dean had an operation on his back and he was hoping for a brighter future. But things took a turn for the worst a short while after the operation. He was still feeling some discomfort in his back and one night, got up from the table but suffered paralysis from his waist down. Thankfully, he regained some movement shortly after and two months later discovered a 6cm marker needle had been left in his body from the surgery.
Another operation followed, and Dean was dealt another blow.
“The hardest part of it was the fact that I was on the dole. And I was told I wasn’t ill enough to receive these kind of benefits,” he said.
2012 was when things took a turn for the better. Dean took his opportunity to change his life. He opened a sweet shop next to his grandmother’s house.
“I was only earning £50 a week, but it was better than being on the dole.”
Dean’s ambition and determination to succeed meant that he wasn’t content. He started learning how to build a website for the shop. He didn’t like the ‘drag & drop’ system used by some web providers. So he started to look more at web design and front-end web development. A job in the industry and an attempt at launching his own business soon followed. At that time, Dean found running his own business a challenge, but found a thirst for teaching.
Combining the two
Following his second operation, Dean had discovered a love for two things; web-design and development and teaching.
“After going through my school life and not having a great education, I decided to start teaching vocational skills; how to build websites and applications, that sort of thing.”
That planted an idea in Dean’s head, and so was born Codez Academy.
“The first course we ever did was with an eight-year old. We taught an eight-year old how to build a website in HTML/CSS.”
But Codez Academy isn’t just about teaching children how to code. What makes Dean and Codez Academy different is an appetite to teach adults a set of skills that are so alien to many of them.
Dean explained: “We’ve grown into the adult market now, so Digital Roots is all about getting people into employment.”
Digital Roots is a three month project for adults. The first month sees them taught the necessary skills, before completing two months where teaching and work experience is combined.
“Codez Academy is all about vocational skills. We’re looking to change the way children and adults are taught in the digital sector. In the future, we hope to grow into filming, music and open up a wide range areas.
“My 10 year goal is to establish a creative college in South Wales where older children are able to come out of school and work creatively instead of academically.”
At the moment, Codez Academy teaches children aged 8-14, with Dean explaining that coding is still viewed as a “geeky” thing for the older teenagers, but he expects that the change by 2020.
Understandably, the children are given much smaller projects, with immediately visible results so they can see the outcome of what they are learning. But projects are more long-term for adults, with particular focus on how these skills can benefit their work life. Codez Academy puts adults in a working office environment, with clients coming and going, allowing them to build a portfolio of work as they go along.
Dean didn’t want a ‘teach them the skills and get them out the door’ model.
“We’re not looking to do that,” he said. “We want to take them into employment after they have completed their courses. We are speaking with a couple of web design agencies, but there are a lot of smaller businesses which are interested in taking them on. There’s a lot of interest there.”
Interestingly, Dean explained that not all of Codez Academy’s students are looking to go into this line of work. Instead, many are business owners who are looking to expand their skillset to boost their company, some want to start their own business and are looking for the skills to help them do that.
How many articles and blogs have we all read or seen bemoaning the lack of time children spend playing in the great outdoors, preferring to stay inside on the a games console or laptop, or even a tablet and phone?
Dean agrees that children should spend time being children outside. “But things are changing,” he said. “If they can build the skills that are going to be relevant in their future, then yeah, they should be learning to code.”
“I don’t want children with their heads buried in a laptop or tablet all the time, but with our holiday bootcamps during the summer or half-terms they come in during the day and leave at the usual home time. They’ve still got time for themselves to play.”
He added: “With an estimated 2.3 million coding-related jobs set to go unfilled in the next five years, I think it’s crucial that children are taught these skills.”
Is education good enough?
Following conversations with businesses and organisations around South Wales, Dean believes there is a significant lack of relevant coding skills in the country. He says there are plenty of front-end development jobs available, but nowhere near enough candidates.
“We are working to change that. But it needs to be from a young age. Otherwise they get to a certain age, between 16 and 20, and they don’t want to do anything like this, because they haven’t grown up with it or been taught how to do it. We need to change that system.”
The Welsh Government is currently assessing the possibility of introducing coding to the curriculum in 2020. And while that is a positive thing in Dean’s mind, there is a big issue with that.
“The problem we’ve still got is academic people shaping the curriculum. There should be creative people like me and others saying ‘no, this is the way it should be done’, and working with more businesses to find out what skills they want and need. School is about school. It’s not about how to get into employment, and that needs to be changed massively.”
But is 2020 too late? “Yes,” Dean answered immediately.
“I would like to see it brought in [in the right way] now. Or by next year. The problem is, they’ll create a curriculum now, it will take four or five years to roll it out and it’s already out of date by the time children are being taught in schools.”
“Everything moves within six months in this industry. There’s new things coming out and new things going on. As developers, we’ve got to keep up with that, and the teachers can’t keep up with it. It should be organisations like Codez Academy going into schools and teaching the children because we’re constantly keeping up-to-date with how the industry is moving forward.
“They’re not going to be able to train teachers to do this job. It’s taken me over four years to be comfortable to teach others, so I can’t see a teacher completing a six or 12 week course and feeling comfortable to teach a classroom full of children.”
Acknowledging that he has come a long way since struggling with unemployment and back operations, Dean realises there is still a long way to go for Codez Academy. But he is already receiving recognition for his work so far. In March, he was named ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ at the Caerphilly Business Forum Awards. That’s not the goal for Dean, however. He has a genuine appetite to teach coding, to prepare adults and children for a working future.