Preface Nomad - Nathaniel Student Stories

Greet Nathaniel: The Little Grown-up’s Coding Journey

From Scratch to App Inventor to Full Stack

Here comes the summertime — arguably the busiest time of the year for Hong Kong school kids. Most run a full schedule every day to juggle between holiday classes and relaxation. Nathaniel, on the other hand, seems to have mastered the art of handling both at the same time.

“It’s not a problem for me to get here every day. I really enjoy the programming classes.”

It’s 11:00 am. For the next five days, Nathaniel would stroll into the sun-lit learning space of Preface in the hustle of Tin Hau for his new Full Stack Programming class. He has just graduated from the App Inventor program which he attended throughout the whole academic year. If age is a common denominator, he is much ahead of his peers indeed.

“I started coding around 2 years ago on Scratch at school. But I quickly moved on to App Inventor after coming to Preface. It’s much cooler. It’s impressive to see how much stuff you can make with App Inventor. You can make games but also a lot of useful applications. The scale is very different.”

It’s tempting to think of Nathaniel as someone in his late teen years by the way he talks. In reality he is just 13. and very much in love with every second of gaming on his phone. How did he end up learning to code, then?

“At school we get to learn HTML, but it’s more like filling in the blanks; we practise the syntax quite a lot, but the experience is rather flat — it doesn’t explain why we write the code in certain ways. It’s just the hands-on. However, the concepts behind are really important because they build the backbone of a good program. I like how the teachers at Preface emphasize that aspect of coding. They tell us the whys, not just the what. They always make me think about the code, like a real coder.”

Back in April this year, Nathaniel was invited to take part in the Preface Nomad Easter Special project — recreating the classic easter egg game hidden in Chrome browser — “T-Rex Runner”. The game was later built into an actual arcade game console and put out at Preface Coffee for visitors to play. The whole project was to show that programming can empower anyone — even kids — to do something great.

Nathaniel coded up the game with Edison, another coding student of Preface, in just 2 hours. The outcome was great and everyone loved it. During the public showcase, it sparked a lot of interest from the grown-ups and kids who were lucky enough to try this game and see what’s behind the scene. It inspired a lot more people to start coding this summer.

That’s pretty much the level of impact we’d love an App Inventor student to achieve. Nathaniel was ready to take on a new challenge — Full Stack Programming.

Despite similarities in the fundamental concepts, Full Stack Programming is quite a step up from App Inventor, the design of which is carefully (and colourfully) put together for programming novices. Nathaniel is way past the novice stage, but Full Stack Programming is a big step up. How is he handling the challenge so far? His 1-on-1 programming coach, Mr Tommie, gave us some thoughts.

“There’s a lot of genius in him. Sometimes he is impatient for what he already knows, but that’s because he has a real thirst for things he doesn’t know, for which he wouldn’t stop drilling until he reaches the very bottom. Coaching him is fun — he has a tempo of his own. It’s very exciting to see how he learns. It’s something less noticeable when you put him in a group class.”

So, how are you handling your new challenge so far, Nate?

“It’s really HOT! It’s so different from App Inventor. But it’s so hot because it’s not easy!”

Right, we get it. Is there any application you would like to build at the moment?

“A library app for the Central Library. I visit the library quite a lot to get books. But it’s annoying when I forget my library card. Would be nice if I can store my library card in an app and use my phone to borrow books instead. I’m going away to the UK for my studies soon, but I’m coming back to Hong Kong six times a year! Maybe I can use my free time to build a prototype and test it.”

Sounds good. You know you can swing by Preface Coffee anytime when you work on your project. Drink is on us.

“Maybe I’ll come here for a Double Espresso after my visit to the Central Library. JUST JOKING! I’m more of a tea person.”

Again, it’s tempting to think of the 13-year-old as a mature person. But boy, can we ever tell?

Preface Nomad - Sik Sik Student Stories

Meet Sik Sik, the Bug Bounty Hunter in 2029

Our students will show you why programming is for everyone, one story at a time.

There’re really no excuses for anyone to say “programming is too difficult to learn.”

The bright-eyed Sik-kin Chan, or “Sik Sik” as his peers and teachers would call him, is one of the first coding students at Preface. At the age of ten, he has already been coding for two years. “I’ve never thought that I could build an app for the grown-ups to use, in an actual shop. Not when I just started coding two years ago. Now there’s an app up and running in Preface Coffee and I was one of the builders behind. The 8 year-old me wouldn’t believe that this is happening.”

Like any other post-millennial kids, Sik Sik grew up with many mobile devices around him. Although gadgets are common, something was boggling his mind — how are these games made inside a screen? They don’t look like other physical toys at home. He raised this innocent question to his parents — that’s how he first heard about “programming”, and all the wonderful things that could follow, if he knew how to code.

However, the computer class at school didn’t teach him how to code. It’s a class of 32 kids. To make sure everyone’s mind was present in the classroom, the teacher spent about ⅔ of the time keeping the classroom orderly.

For the precious time left, the teacher showed them how to use the PowerPoint. There’s no programming elements in the class.

Outside school, Sik Sik takes his Chinese tutorial class at Preface. Surprisingly, it’s also where he first discovered the kind of programming classes he wanted to take.

Sik Sik usually arrived early for his Chinese class, and he saw some kids doing something on their computers in excitement. “They were putting some puzzles together on the screen. It looks like a game but there’s a teacher in the classroom.” It was the first time he saw someone coding with a tool called “App Inventor”, building the “things” that live behind the screen of his iPad.

He then decided to take the App Inventor classes at Preface. It was a bit of a learning curve at first. “The first thing I had to learn was how to think like a programmer, which is quite different from the usual way of thinking. It was a bit awkward at first and I couldn’t get used to it. There were always a few steps missing in my program and it was frustrating. But Mr Sam guided me how to think in a more systematic way. ‘Remember how you talk to your 3 year-old brother? How would you ask him to get a pencil for you?’ Although he never really gave me the answers directly, I would eventually find the answer myself with the method he taught me.”

“I think the best thing about learning coding at Preface is the Hackathon. I get to test what I learn by finishing a project in a very short time.” In the monthly Hackathon at Preface, all the coding students had to churn out and present finished products on a stage. Everything happens in 2.5 hours and there was no time to waste.

“It was nerve-wracking every time, and collaborating with other kids is very challenging! I feel really satisfied though every time I finish a project.”

It’s a question we ask almost every kid: what do you want to be in the future?

Sik Sik painted a self-portrait in words about his future self, with a cheeky smile, “I picture myself as ‘the Man in the Chair’ type of guy, you know, like a hacker behind the scene, tackling hard problems in order to close the security breach of some important systems, working inside a confidential building.” His voice raised a little bit in excitement as he continued, “I want to be a professional coder when I grow up, and teach young kids about coding, like Mr Sam.”

It’s probably still a long way for our little Sik Sik to become that “Man in the Chair” he talked about, but we’re properly proud of how a 10 year-old has been coming along. He gives me one less excuse to procrastinate, but keep on trying and trying, until that status of “Man in the Chair” is achieved.