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Shopify CEO leads effort to turn Canada into nation of coders

Shopify founder and Chief Executive Officer Tobi Lutke smiles after the company's IPO on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange May 21, 2015. Lutke is one of the members heading up a new initiative to make Canada a nation of coders.

LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

Some of the top names in Canada's tech industry are throwing their weight behind an ambitious effort to turn Canada into a nation of coders.

Ladies Learning Code, a five-year old organization that has taught more than 40,000 women and girls how to program software, announced Thursday it is broadening its mandate and spearheading the creation of a new initiative called Canada Learning Code. The new organization's goal is to teach 10 million Canadians how to code over the next decade. Canada Learning Code (CLC) is also applying for charitable status and hoping to raise $50-million to fund its goals.

"There's been so much interest and demand and momentum around the programs we run," said Ladies Learning Code (LLC) co-founder and chief executive officer Melissa Sariffodeen. "It was clear we needed to scale this up and offer it to everyone."

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Driving the new initiative are LLC board members Tobi Lutke, chief executive of Ottawa retail software firm Shopify Inc., and tech entrepreneurs-turned-venture capitalists Boris Wertz and Justin LaFayette. Other partners in the rebranded venture include Microsoft, Google, Telus, Boeing, Toronto startup Hubba and several non-profit coding education groups, including Kids Code Jeunesse.

"Our feeling is [some] people have a natural proclivity to love coding … [but] not enough people get exposed to that spark," said Mr. LaFayette, managing partner of Toronto-based Georgian Partners, which has committed $1-million to Canada Learning Code. "There's an opportunity for Canada to put itself ahead of other countries – that's a goal of the program."

At a time when software is taking over many sectors and the Liberal government is championing Canada's innovation potential, there is a critical shortage of programming talent: the Information and Communications Technology Council forecasts Canada will face a shortage of 200,000-plus information and communications technology workers by 2020. In response, fast-growing tech firms have pressed governments here to ease immigration constraints on foreign tech talent and to invest more on science and technology education in grade schools and postsecondary institutions.

Mr. Lutke believes it's vital for school-age children to have regular exposure to the ABCs of coding. "Technical literacy is absolutely fundamental to doing everything in the future, and kind of now, too," he said. Understanding how to make computers work "is just fundamental knowledge," he said.

Mr. Lutke and Mr. Wertz, both immigrants from Germany, decided last year to jointly start a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing coding literacy in Canada. After learning about Ladies Learning Code, which had established itself as one of Canada's most successful coding education organizations despite limited resources, they offered instead to join and financially back the grassroots group. "Talking with them it was obvious that … they had solved most of the hard problems" involved in establishing a coding education body, said Mr. Lutke. He and Mr. Wertz joined this year.

Mr. LaFayette, who was already on the board, said Georgian – whose portfolio companies, including Shopify, sometimes struggle to find engineering talent – was drawn to Ladies Learning Code for the same reason. "This was exactly the type of thing we were looking for," he said.

Canada Learning Code is looking to recruit more backers (it has raised one-quarter of its $2-million goal for 2017) and broaden its capacity to deliver coding education. Ms. Sariffodeen said a steering committee will develop the organization's action plan, and she hopes to bring together the disparate organizations across Canada that promote and offer coding education as well as the provinces into the fold.

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Nova Scotia and British Columbia have introduced coding to school curricula, and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne last month mandated her education minister to develop a similar plan. "There are a lot of people trying to tackle coding … [but] no cohesion" and "a lot of redundancies" between their efforts, Ms. Sariffodeen said.

Ms. Sariffodeen said Ladies Learning Code will continue to offer programs dedicated to teaching women and girls to code and also reach out to underrepresented groups, including immigrants, indigenous Canadians and disabled citizens.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Ladies Learning Code would be rebranded as Canada Learning Code.

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About the Author

Sean Silcoff joined The Globe and Mail in January, 2012, following an 18-year-career in journalism and communications. He previously worked as a columnist and Montreal correspondent for the National Post and as a staff writer at Canadian Business Magazine, where he was project co-ordinator of the magazine's inaugural Rich 100 list. More

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