Writing  by Emma Richman

Photography by Justin Negard

What do your smartphone, washing machine and a Zoom call all have in common? Sure, they’ve all made our lives much easier. They have become staples of our daily routines, our jobs, our homes. And they’re all built with code.

Code is all around us. What could only be described as a dystopian society decades ago is now just another Monday for us.

Husband and wife Caryna Wong and Corwin Yu, executive directors and owners of Code Ninjas Mount Kisco, believe learning to code is now more important than ever, especially for kids.

“It’s not the future,” Wong says. “It’s right now.”

Scratch-ing the surface

Wong and Yu are originally from New York City, but they have lived in Westchester for the past 20 years.

“We both have backgrounds in technology,” Wong says. “I came across Code Ninjas while researching coding franchises, and it seemed like a really interesting thing to do.”

According to Wong and Yu, coding can be just as useful for kids as standard school subjects like math and reading. The difference is that coding is not widely taught in U.S. schools.

“Even at the schools that do teach it,” Wong says, “I haven’t seen a real standard and consistent curriculum.”

Their goal is to fill the gap in computer science education for kids.

Code Ninjas is a worldwide coding franchise founded in 2016 by David Graham. The franchise teaches kids to code using a game-based curriculum that allows kids to create games using platforms like Scratch, Microsoft MakeCode and Roblox. In other words, it introduces them to coding in a fun and accessible way.

Wong was attracted to Code Ninjas because it was a franchise with an existing curriculum.

“I liked the idea of introducing this to kids,” Wong says. “I wish I had been introduced to coding in a way that was fun and creative.”

Wong believes it’s important to properly equip kids growing up in the age of technology for the world they live in. And now, she hopes to accomplish just that: to teach kids how to code and instill problem-solving skills, critical thinking and creativity.

Yu, who has worked in technology for over 25 years, says he is also well aware of the importance code plays in our everyday lives.

“Coding teaches kids how to think in an analytical sense,” he says. “It organizes your thoughts. And if you can sort things out in your mind, you can solve problems more efficiently.”

Along with his work at Code Ninjas, Yu currently heads the cryptocurrency development team at a financial technology firm.

Black belt in coding

Wong and Yu opened the Mount Kisco location in September 2020, offering programs for kids between the ages of five and 14.

“We signed the lease right before the pandemic broke out,” Wong explains. “So, when we opened, everybody was still virtual.”

At the time, Code Ninjas didn’t have a virtual program, so Wong decided to create one. She took the existing curriculum and translated it into a virtual format. It was successful. 

“I noticed that the kids on virtual got better much faster than the kids who came in person,” Wong says. “That could be because the kids who come in person usually feel like when they’re here, they code, but when they go home, they don’t. Whereas the kids on virtual could just keep going even after the class ended.”

After two months of virtual classes, Wong and Yu began in-person programs, and they haven’t looked back.

“Most of our programs use a learn-through-play approach,” Wong says. “The way computer science is traditionally taught in the classroom is pretty dry. So this is a fun way to introduce it to kids.”

Their Junior program is designed for kids ages five to seven who either don’t read yet or don’t have strong reading skills. They use Scratch Jr. to learn the basics of computer science in an icon-based way.

“They can understand things like loops and conditionals,” Wong says. “They learn all the fundamentals without even having to read.”

From there, students can advance to the Create program, which uses a nine belt curriculum (hence the name “Code Ninjas”). Students progress from white belt to black belt by completing projects and learning new skills.

“We basically give them a game that’s broken, where there’s a couple of things missing,” Yu says. “It’s mostly done, but the zombie isn’t walking right, or the laser beam doesn’t increment the right way. So, what can you do to fix it?”

There are also some offline activities in the “dojo,” such as robotics, Minecraft modeling and 3D printing.

Caryna Wong

Why is coding so important?

Wong, who works full-time at Code Ninjas Mount Kisco, has worked in tech for 15 years and witnessed the increasing importance of computer science in a variety of professions.

At a previous job in financial technology, she worked as a project manager and business analyst, however she was non-technical, so she didn’t code.

“Those jobs don’t exist anymore,” Wong explains. “Now, everybody working at a bank has to code. Even the front office traders – which has typically never been a coding role – need to know how to write their own algorithms, test them and execute them.”

According to Wong, the world is becoming increasingly technological. So it’s not just the strictly computer science jobs that you need to know coding for – it’s also marketing, design, finance. 

Even for jobs that don’t require coding, computer science teaches students useful and transferable skills. Take a field like medicine, for example, where Wong, a certified yoga therapist, worked in a Manhattan-based yoga therapy program for 10 years alongside doctors.

“I was one of the most effective therapists because of my problem-solving abilities,” she says. “Even if you don’t go into computer science, you use all of those skills in whatever you do. Some of the best doctors I’ve had were former coders.”

Wong and Yu both value the importance of learning computer science, especially from a young age.

“Coding is a very important skill to have, especially in today’s market,” Wong says. “I wish I had something like this when I was younger.”

We’re falling behind

Globally, the U.S. lags behind other countries when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or STEM) education. 

Every three years, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures the reading, mathematics and science literacy performance of 15-year-olds living in industrial countries worldwide. Their last published study was conducted in 2018, and out of 79 countries, the U.S. placed 11th in science and 30th in math.

“Western Europe, East Asia, Australia and parts of South America are starting computer science as a standard subject beginning in kindergarten,” Wong says. “And the United States is not.”

According to Wong, the lack of computer science education in U.S. schools produces a workforce less capable of filling jobs in the domestic technology sector, a sector that continues to rapidly grow.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall employment of software developers is projected to increase by 25 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than other occupations.

“There’s over a million coding jobs in the U.S. that go unfilled,” Wong says. “They can’t find the talent here, so they find the talent in other countries.”

Thus, early education in coding might even remedy some of the structural unemployment in the U.S. and make the country more competitive on the global stage.

“Coding is a language,” Wong says. “And right now, Americans are going up against native speakers for the jobs.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in May 2021, the median annual wage for software developers was $120,730.

“This is an avenue for a lot of success,” Yu adds. “It’s something I want kids around here to participate in.”

Building resilience

Global competition is certainly not the only reason to learn to code from a young age. In fact, Wong and Yu agree that coding can help kids in all areas of their lives.

“It definitely teaches you patience,” Yu says. “When you have a problem in coding, it’s just like a puzzle. You have to sit there and keep thinking about it and grinding through it. Resilience and patience are good habits to have, whether it’s in coding or any type of problem-solving.”

Wong agrees that coding can instill good habits in kids like resilience, just as playing sports does.

“In sports, everybody says play through the pain, walk it off,” Wong adds. “But in math and science, there usually isn’t that same motivation for kids to persevere.”

Coding, like anything else, can be frustrating, especially when you run into a problem that you don’t know how to solve.

“We try to encourage kids to take a break, grab some popcorn, play chess,” Wong says. “But then you have to get back in there and figure it out.”

Coding can be a creative outlet for kids as well. 

Their game-based curriculum emphasizes the creative side of coding, and kids can also use coding to create digital art.

“Coding is how you create things nowadays,” Wong says. “You can take your imagination and make it a reality.”

 And they sincerely hope that reality includes more girls in their “dojo.” 

“One of our best coders by far is a little girl,” Yu says. “And she can kick anyone’s butt in coding in the dojo right now. I want to see more of that.”

This article was published in the September/October 2023 print edition of Katonah Connect.

Emma Richman
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Emma Richman is a college student who interned at Katonah Connect in 2023. Emma’s passion for writing and storytelling is what led her to journalism. Outside of her writing, Emma is a competitive swimmer who, in high school, enjoyed singing with her a capella group, The John Jay Treblemakers, tutoring middle school students and playing alto saxophone.