Facebook Engineer Turns 5-Year-Olds Into Hackers

Carlos Bueno wants your 5-year-old to think like a programmer.

By day, Bueno is a Facebook engineer. He helps hone software on the servers underpinning the world's largest social network. But he moonlights as a children's author. His first book is called Lauren Ipsum, and it's a fairy tale that seeks to introduce children - as young as five or as old as 12 - to the concepts of computer science.

But this isn't done with code. It's done with metaphors. In one scene, the titular character, Laurie Ipsum, teaches a mechanical turtle to draw a perfect circle using simple instructions in the form of a poem. "I wanted to write a book not on how to program, but how to think like a programmer," Bueno tells Wired.

The book was illustrated by his wife, Ytaelena Lopez, and the two self-published after raising funds on Kickstarter. Bueno - who "tested" the book on his nephews as he wrote it - says that programming should be a part of everyone's education. "The first step to controlling your life in the modern world is understanding computers," he says.

Lauren Ipsum is part of a much larger movement that seeks to bring programming skills to, well, everyone. At MIT, researchers have built a programming platform called Scratch that targets children as young as eight years old, and this gave rise to a Google-funded platform called App Inventor that applies many of the same tools to the development of Android applications.

Meanwhile, a startup called Codecademy is now offering programming lessons over the web in an effort to turn the everyman into a programmer, and in January, when it announced a crash course called "Code Year," over 445,985 people pledged to learn to code in 2012, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Not everyone is keen on the idea. Just last week, Jeff Atwood, the CTO and co-founder of the question-and-answer site StackExchange, lambasted the code literacy movement with a blog post entitled "Please Don't Learn Code."

"If the mayor of New York City actually needs to sling JavaScript code to do his job, something is deeply, horribly, terribly wrong with politics in the state of New York," he wrote. "I love programming. I also believe programming is important … in the right context, for some people. But so are a lot of skills. I would no more urge everyone to learn programming than I would urge everyone to learn plumbing."

But Carlos Bueno believes this sells programming well short. "Programming is a broadly applicable life skill," he says. "Even if you're not in front of a computer, you can use programming skills for problem solving." Lauren Ipsum doesn't include any computer code, but it does seek to instill the ideas behind computer programming.

Mark Surman, the Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, says that although some children may not be suited to computer science, we should at least expose them to it. "If we want kids to be makers rather than consumers (our goal), this is a critical age," he says.

For Bueno, the movement also makes sense because computer technology is replacing so many traditional jobs. Travel agents are seeing their jobs replaced by web-based travel booking sites. E-discovery software is disrupting the legal profession. If you're a programmer, you give yourself a future.

Bueno learned this first hand. His family owned an electronics repair business when he was a kid, and he and his siblings grew up repairing VCRs. But the business shut down in the mid-90s because the technology became so cheap that it was easier just to throw away a broken VCR and replace it than was to repair it.

After the family business closed, Bueno started working in illustration and calligraphy. But he soon realized that desktop publishing was replacing much of the work he was doing by hand. So he became a graphic designer. (The name Lauren Ipsum is a pun on "Lorem Ipsum," the text graphic designers use to fill space on mock-ups). But then the desktop publishing business was undercut by the growth of the web. So Bueno decided he better learn the computing game.

He started by building a simple website. Then he taught himself JavaScript by copying and pasting snippets of code he found elsewhere on the web. After that, he moved on to server side scripts and even built his own meta-search engine, and eventually, he landed a job building an e-commerce site for a company that sold computers by mail.

With Lauren Ipsum, he seeks to show children how they too can learn these same sorts of skills. Ever since landing that first job, Bueno has focusing on "leveling up" - i.e. finding people who know more than he does and learning as much as possible from them. Each job is a new challenge that requires him to learn new skills from others.

Metaphors, he says, are a key part of learning computer science. He tries to talk to as many people as he can about a subject and then he starts to form metaphors that describe it. "Then I can present them with those metaphors, and they can tell me better ones," he says.

Lauren Ipsum is a collection of these metaphors that have been turned into a stories. "Stories are distilled knowledge taught through the ages," Bueno says. "It should be an unremarkable way to teach computer science, but it's a still a new approach."

In order to help spread this approach to education, for every copy of Lauren Ipsum sold, Bueno and Lopez are donating one copy to a school, library, or educational program. So far they've donated 57 copies.

It's too early to say whether the code literacy movement is creating a new generation of professional computer scientists, but according to Ladies Learning Code founder Heather Payne, Lauren Ipsum is already playing a role in helping young girls get involved in programming. Payne says that although many girls are interested in technology, many need more guidance.

"Through the tech camps I run for girls, I've seen how role models, combined with a safe and supportive environment, can make an enormous difference in the way girls view technology," Payne says. "Lauren Ipsum does the same thing. Laurie is a role model, and even a bit of a hero. I hope she becomes the new Nancy Drew."

Facebook Engineer Turns 5-Year-Olds Into HackersWired.com has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.