Jon Mattingly and Grechen Huebner, creators of Kodable

The Fuzz Family– blueFuzz, simonFuzz, violetFuzz and more– have crash-landed their UFO on Smeeborg. They need help navigating the Technomazes on the planet and gathering gold coins. Pretty soon the Fuzzes will have to contend with complicated labyrinths and maybe even battle the bugs below the surface of the planet.

Can your 5-7 year-old help them?

Maybe. If your wee one can learn basic computer programming skills.

Yesterday, Kodable hit the iTunes store. It’s an App for the iPad, and its local developers believe your five-year-old can learn how to code.

Grechen Huebner and Jon Mattingly, who were already working together on a business called SurfScore, came up with the idea for Kodable in late May of this year. Huebner had been at a baby shower where one of the favorite gifts had been the popular “Your Baby Can Read” DVD series. She mentioned this to Tendai Charasika from Greater Louisville, Inc., and someone offered a joke about creating a “Your Baby Can Code” App.

This was the proverbial light bulb for Huebner and Mattingly.

Technomaze in Kodable

Mattingly believed it just might be possible for babies– or children who are old enough to be able to swipe and click on an iPad– to learn the basics of coding.

Mattingly was “a little bit of a nerd and always grounded” when he was a kid. That’s how he discovered programming. His parents had an old Windows 3.1 laptop, and Mattingly started messing with the DOS prompt. His first program was a password authentication program. It’s simple conditional programming: If you enter the correct password, then you’re in. If you don’t, then the computer says, “You’re an idiot.”

(Yes. He really programmed it to say that. Any wonder why Mattingly was grounded so often?)

But as a teenager his interest fizzled out when he started learning C++ in school and when he enrolled in football. He insists he lost interest in school, but he still managed to earn an academic scholarship to U of L. He walked onto the U of L football team and played as a safety for two years.

And then his interest shifted to business.

“When you’re talking about business these days,” says Mattingly. “You’re talking about tech. And when you’re talking about tech, you need to be able to build it.” Mattingly originally tried to outsource his business ideas, and quickly found himself thinking, “this is stupid, I’ll just teach myself.”

“Because I learned the logic, the flow, of how a program works,” says Mattingly, “it wasn’t hard to pick up.” Mattingly’s coding skills are almost entirely self-taught.

As are most of Huebner’s skills as a designer. She enrolled in U of L as a communications major. When she realized that graphic design was a skill set that could advance her communications career, she took an internship to do web design and development for a physical therapist and continued to learn by doing.

These are the experiences that Mattingly and Huebner are trying to replicate with Kodable.

The first set of thirty levels is called Smeeborg and is free on iTunes. In Smeeborg, kids learn the basic coding skills of sequencing, conditionals, and loops. The second set of thirty levels is available for $1.99. It’s called Function Junction and adds functions to those skills. The as-yet-to-be-developed third set will be called Bugs Below and will pit the Fuzzes against  subterranean buggy villains that they either need to squash or fix. Get it? Fix the bugs?

Are you not all that interested in having your kiddo learn the ins and outs of basic computer programming (then you’re a little crazy, but still…), rest assured, the skill set that Kodable fosters isn’t limited in its scope.

The description of the game in the app store reads:

Familiarize your child with algorithms, mental obstacles, and lateral thinking, as these are essential for advanced child development. Give your child the upper hand by introducing these real-life fundamentals as early as possible. You will be amazed by how your child starts thinking outside the box, understanding routines, and analyzing situations in more intelligent ways.

Home screen for Kodable

Huebner and Mattingly began creating Kodable in early May with a goal to have it in the app store by Christmas. They beat their goal by a month minus one day.

Both Huebner and Mattingly are committed full-time to Kodable now, although they pick up some freelance work to bootstrap the business. Right now, their goal is to become “Ramen profitable.” They aren’t looking for funding for funding’s sake. Funding is a means to a goal– and the goal will be to accelerate the business when the time is right.

Kodable isn’t set for a flashy launch. They’re soliciting feedback and hoping to make improvements. The most important thing, Huebner insists, is user experience. That’s why there will never be ads (“it interrupts the learning experience” says Huebner), that’s why there’s no iPhone app (iPhone experiences are on-the-go, which they say, “isn’t the ideal environment for learning”).

“We want to make Kodable better before it takes off,” says Huebner.

“Successful companies grow slowly,” says Mattingly. “Early adopters are forgiving.” He cites the case of Dropbox; he was an early adopter. “For one semester I was using it, and no one else knew what it was. The next semester everyone was using it.”

Huebner and Mattingly believe their first fans will be programmers, parents whose computer skills have turned them into business royalty and want the same for their kids. But their real hope is to take the program beyond the consumer marketplace and into schools.

It’s a hard sell, they realize. How many first-grade teachers are thinking about developing kids’ computer coding skills when the educational standards are already so rigid and demanding? But research has already shown us that children’s brains are primed for language acquisition at an early age– and that ability to acquire languages extends to the languages of computer programming.

From the App Store description:

Over the next decade, jobs in Software development are predicted to increase at a rate double that of any other industry. That means there will be a demand for people who know how to program and people who understand the basics of programming, so that they can work along side one another, speaking the same language. Start building your child’s foundation for success in a digital world. 

Yesterday was a big day for the folks at Kodable. Not only did the app become available on the app Store, but Huebner graduated from the Kauffman Fast-Trac program. She and Mattingly had applied to the Vogt Award with SurfScore, but their application was rejected. But like frequent Insider Louisville contributor Deborah Boyer, Huebner was invited to apply for the Vogt scholarship to the program. Also like Boyer, one of her mentors was Greg Langdon.

Huebner is proud to be a female tech entrepreneur. There aren’t very many women in computer science, and she hopes Kodable can help shift the tide.

“I’m not a technically-oriented person,” says Huebner, “but maybe if I’d been introduced to something like this at a young age, I would’ve been.”

Kodable has been tested on children as young as four years old and as old as 9, but it’s recommended for ages 5-7.

“Kids just get it,” says Mattingly. “Adults tap the blueFuzz right away. Kids watch the program move through the tutorial before trying to do anything.”

I didn’t even see the tutorial until Mattingly pointed it out to me. And yes, I tapped that blueFuzz a half dozen times before I realized that he wasn’t going to move. The very first level of Kodable took me four times to get through, so maybe there’s a marketing opportunity here — use Kodable to teach the old dogs new tricks. Or maybe I just need to borrow my friend’s four-year-old if I want to see the rest of the program.

[dc_ad size="9"] [dc_ad size="10"]

12 thoughts on “Kodable: new app from local developers teaches the children to code

Leave a Reply