As the franchisee of Michigan’s first Code Ninjas location, Jason Umphrey is using his skills as a teacher, his work as a Microsoft Certified Trainer and his love of being a professional software developer to show kids and teens how much fun coding can be.
The state’s initial Code Ninjas is opening its Macomb location on Romeo Plank Road in February, and Umphrey will open the second location in Rochester Hills in late March, he said. The goal is to give students not only the basics of coding and programming but important life skills such as problem solving.
These are lessons most kids are eager to learn, Umphrey said. More importantly, it puts them on the other side of the screen – or in the power position outside of their Xboxes and smartphones. When they learn how to build video games, they learn everything else about consumer behavior, how to market a new game, how to accept other ideas or criticism and many other lessons.
“Older generations had things such as Lincoln Logs or Tinkertoys. These were tools available to imagine worlds that we can come in and create, whether it was a spaceship, car or anything else,” Umphrey said. “They’re all great games, but kids today now have an opportunity to learn code – and they use it like paint on a canvas.
“Most of the time, consumers of software and applications – kids are consumers of these games,” Umphrey added. “Now, they can actually create their own and get on the other side of the screen with our curriculum and classes build something. They can show what they’ve created to mom and dad or share it with their friends and get feedback. Then they can come back in and build on or go onto the next game.”
Code Ninjas founder and CEO David Graham is a professional software developer who previously owned a successful chain of coding camps for adults. After numerous inquiries from parents, Graham realized there was an unmet demand to teach children coding skills. He launched the Code Ninjas brand in 2016.
The company, themed around martial arts, transforms kids into coding Ninjas as soon as they step foot in the ‘Dojo’ where they start out as white belts and move up to black belts as they progress. These centers, which are located nationwide, focus on building video games, robotics, drones and other STEM activities.
The program keeps kids motivated with “Belt-Up” celebrations where they receive color-coded wristbands to mark their graduation to the next level. By the time a child finishes the program, they will publish an app in an app store.
For parents, Code Ninjas offers something else, as well, Umphrey said. It is a safe place where kids can explore, use their creativity and gain real insights into coding and technology – everything they’ll need for jobs in the future whether they pursue coding or not.
“I see the value in teaching not only adults but transferring that knowledge down to kids at a younger age because they’re going to be faced with code in their lifetime in one way or another,” Umphrey said. “Even if it is writing it in a simple Excel spreadsheet, many careers require some kind of coding. You need those fundamentals in a lot of workplaces today.”
Umphrey and his wife also have been active with youth programs in the past and believe opening a Code Ninjas is the perfect opportunity to teach kids skills that will be vital for them when they enter the job market. As a couple and the parents of two kids, Umphrey said they understand how to teach, what kids want to learn and how busy families are looking for real ways to bond, to have fun and to gain valuable skills in the process.
For those busy parents, Umphrey said Code Ninjas has weekday drop-in hours so people can bring their kids in at any time convenient to them. These open hours have less formal training or classes so students can jump in and work without having set start or finish times. Every family that has run late a few times or a few hundred times will likely appreciate that, he notes.
Umphrey also said he is looking for additional instructors — or Code Senseis — for both locations to join the already-established team. His goal is to have a good ratio of female instructors, as well, so young women interested in robotics, programming or any other STEM profession have mentors to work with when they’re at Code Ninjas.