Is Coding the New Kids’ Football?

To hear Ethan Duggan tell it, his sojourn into the high-tech world of app development began last year when his mom came home from a shopping spree laden with dozens of new dresses, skirts and tops.

“She kept asking me how she looked,” recalls Ethan, a seventh-grader at Bob Miller Middle School in Henderson, Nev., just south of Las Vegas. After a while, Ethan says he grew weary of complimenting his mom on each and every piece of clothing she pulled out of the garment bag, so he went to his room and sat down with his smartphone.

“I recorded some videos of me saying, ‘You look great!’ or ‘It’s beautiful!’ and walked back in to where she was showing off her new clothes. Whenever Mom would try something on, I would play one of the videos,” Ethan says with a laugh.

Ethan’s parents, Marni Klein and Rick Duggan, thought Ethan’s smartphone shenanigans were pretty darned funny, and soon the three of them were talking about building an app—appropriately named LazyHusband—that addressed those persistent questions some women pose on a regular basis.

The Birth of an App

“My dad was going to build the app himself,” Ethan remembers, “but when he told a friend about the app, his friend suggested I write it, since it was my idea.”

At this point I should tell you that Ethan’s dad is the director of website systems at Zappos.com, the largest online shoe store in the world. He’s also an adviser for Rolltech Bowling and LaunchKey, two Las Vegas startups. So you can believe us when we say Rick could have built this app himself. No sweat. In his sleep.

But as luck—and genetics—would have it, young Ethan was already computer-savvy, dabbling with central processing units, games, computer language and other fascinating facets of these multifunctional electronic devices. So the idea of developing, marketing and selling his app was an attractive proposition.

He told his dad he was most definitely in!

Rick Duggan says he recalls the chat with his friend Nate Turner, who is an app developer in Las Vegas. “Nate had some pretty good success with an app when he was 15 or so, and he suggested that Ethan write it. That was the start of it all. Ethan had a computer since he was 2 years old, so he was very comfortable with technology.”

Probing the Perplexities of Programming

This would be Ethan’s first foray into programming, however, so Rick searched online and found a valuable resource in Codeacademy.com, an interactive online platform that offers free coding classes.

Once Ethan became comfortable with the basics—things such as loops, conditionals and variables—he and his dad began looking for a language to use for the LazyHusband app. Ethan started with Objective C, but quickly became discouraged. His dad had heard about PhoneGap, which creates native apps, except with JavaScript, HTML and CSS. So the boy started over, and according to his dad, built the LazyHusband app in that.

Ethan readily acknowledges a little coaching from his dad, some help from #VegasTech—a Las Vegas-based community of tech professionals and supporters—and plenty of online resources. “I learned the basics online. Then with help from many people, I was able to get the hang of it and really start to seriously code,” Ethan says.

And serious coding is exactly what Ethan undertook, creating and releasing four apps for sale on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon’s Appstore for Android (see below). Gaining new skills, overcoming challenges and learning to work within a team have given Ethan entrepreneurial exposure that 13-year-olds normally don’t get to experience.

Peeking into the Future

Now that he’s put more than a toe in the programming pond, how does Ethan envision his future? “I consider working on apps [to be] a job, although it qualifies as a hobby,” Ethan explains. “In that it’s fun and not an ‘ugghh, I’m at work again,’ kind of job.”

He likes the perks of being an app developer, including early access to new operating systems (Apple’s new iOS 7 is an example). “I get to hang around adults who understand what I do, and they treat me as an equal,” Ethan says. “When we’re working on a project, I’m just another developer. And I got to meet venture capitalist and writer Brad Feld, who wrote a blog post about one of my apps, so there are some definite bragging rights.”

Ethan’s plans include working at a startup and earning $100,000 from his apps. Then he wants to invest in other startups, speak at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, and maybe spend a year in Japan.

And after that? “I want to be a computer/video game programmer/designer or the CEO of a successful company,” Ethan says without hesitation.

Coding as the New Organized Sport for Kids

What Ethan Duggan is doing from his home in suburban Las Vegas may be evidence of a growing trend—youngsters learning how to program what they play. And while it’s doubtful the number of children actively involved in coding and programming will ever approach the 35 million kids who play organized sports in this country each year, their feats are no less impressive.

So how do you know if designing and building apps is right for your child? And how do you support their interest in doing so if you don’t have the same programming skills as Ethan’s father?

To begin, check whether computer programming and app-building is even something your child might like to do. Just like organized sports, you don’t want to force your children into something they’d just find arduous, boring or joyless.

Get Them Going When They’re Young

For children as young as 3 years old whom you might want to introduce to programming, there’s a board game that teaches the fundamentals of programming without their even realizing that’s what they’re doing. It’s called Robot Turtles, which is termed “the board game for little programmers.”

Funded by a September 2013 Kickstarter campaign that attracted 13,765 backers who pledged $631,230 to help its inventor get the game to market, Robot Turtles is already difficult to find. Inventor Dan Shapiro is currently working on fulfilling orders generated by his backers and says via his website that he doesn’t plan to produce additional games after the first print is completed. Still, you can stay informed by visiting RobotTurtles.com.

If you think your son or daughter might be interested in coding, programming and building apps, check out the following list of programming resources made just for kids:

Daisy the Dinosaur: This iPad app for 5- to 8-year-olds shows your child how to develop code that makes Daisy the Dinosaur perform functions like jump, turn and spin. By assigning commands, kids get a primer in programming.

Scratch: Developed by MIT, this browser-based platform with original visual language targets children ages 8 and older. The language and interface gives youngsters an early start in coding. They drag and drop blocks of code, creating whatever comes into their young minds.

Alice: This object-oriented 3-D programming language was designed for kids at least 8 years old. Alice of Alice in Wonderland is the protagonist in this coding challenge, and users can test programs while they build them.

Hackety Hack: Designed for teens, this download for the Mac features an interface in a pair of screens—one for installing commands and testing, the other for clarifying the code. After some online training, kids can build and play their own games.

Code Monster: Written in JavaScript, this browser-based platform features a split-screen tutorial allowing children 9 to 14 to fiddle with the script side, changing the images on the right side. A monster sprite teaches kids how to bring new images to the screen. (Tip: Try Code Maven for ages 15 and up.)

Codecademy: This browser-based beginners program is kid-friendly without resorting to dinosaurs or girls lost in rabbit holes. It gives youngsters a head start on HTML, PHP, Python or JavaScript. This one gets Ethan’s enthusiastic endorsement: “I like the ease of use for the interpreter and how many lessons and programming languages there are.”

With online sites like these, parents don’t have to be a tech genius like Ethan’s dad to assist their children in pursuing a hobby in programming or building their own app. “When your child is first starting at this, being supportive is super-important,” Rick says. “Obviously, me being a developer helped in that I could directly help him when he got frustrated. But I know many fellow technologists would jump at the chance to mentor a kid—be it a niece, nephew or whatever.”

As a parent you can certainly introduce your youngsters to helpful organizations, online and off. “I’ve mentioned Codeacademy already, but it really is powerful—especially for kids,” Rick says. “The lessons are pretty short and you get immediate feedback, so it’s a great way to learn.”

Besides Codeacademy, there are local iOS meetup groups, including the one in Las Vegas where a few members gathered to support Ethan with his first app submission. “We had never submitted an app before, and we didn’t have any idea of what the process would involve,” Rick says. “But there were three or four people at the meetup—one helping with the submission to Apple, another helping with graphics, and others with suggestions.”

Keeping the Momentum and Motivation Moving

How does a parent keep a child motivated during an app endeavor?

“Sometimes kids need to be motivated and they won’t always do what they should. I think of it like a kid with a musical instrument. If you would make your child practice an instrument an hour a day, it’s OK to push your child to practice programming for an hour a day. Of course, you have to know when to just let things go completely and let your child have a fun day,” Rick says.

“Ethan took karate for about four years and was able to stick with that,” says Rick. “So I think this activity is similar, in that he’s been doing it for over a year now, and he’s persistent. He’s also learning many different skill sets, including coding, but also marketing, pricing, and the pros and cons of ad-supported apps versus paid apps.”

Rick and Ethan have a different set of goals when compared to kids who participate in organized sports. No visions of Dad as an assistant coach on his daughter’s softball team or practicing football strategies in the front yard with his son. No dreams of hitting a home run with the bases loaded or catching the football in the end zone for the winning touchdown.

For the Duggan boys, it’s excitement on a different level.

“It’s a great bonding experience,” Rick says. “We get to spend a lot of time together. Ethan’s building a lifelong skill set, learning a lot about logic, and he’s being exposed to some bright minds.”

And does our young app builder have any advice for other youngsters his age? “I’d tell kids to start learning to code in an easy language,” suggests Ethan, who used JavaScript, HTML and CSS. “And after four weeks of trying to learn to code, if it’s not working out, it’s probably not for you. But if you’re still enjoying it, go for it!”


A 13-Year-Old’s Apps

Fast-forward a year and Ethan Duggan already has four applications under his belt—all of them created and released to the public by this young programmer.

LazyHusband: The first in a line of fun apps, LazyHusband features a male voice spouting enthusiastic phrases like “You look great!” and “No, you don’t look fat!” It was designed so buyers can customize phrases and record them in their own voices. It sells for 99 cents on Apple iTunes App Store, Google Play Store and Amazon Appstore for Android.

LazyKid: Also available for 99 cents on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Appstore, this app plays phrases such as “Yes, I’ve done my homework!” and “I love you.” It has the same customization features as LazyHusband.

LazyWife: Again offering the above features, this 99-cent app can be found on Google Play and Amazon’s Appstore for Android. It features endearments including “Yes, Dear!” and “It’s a great idea if you BBQ!” among others.

Bargument: Who knows how Ethan thought up an app that allows inebriated buddies to settle their arguments, but Bargument lets you prove whatever dumb point you’re trying to make. At $1.99 in the Google Play Store, this app allows users to create a fake wiki page that proves whatever “fact” you type in. (“Reese Witherspoon did too star in Sophie’s Choice!”) You can also submit your fact to be published on wikifakia.com, an encyclopedia of fake facts that Ethan says will be launching soon.

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