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Cultivating the next gen of coders – ninja style

Strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” suddenly fill the Denver dojo. The song drowns out the merry din of bells, whistles, dings and dance beats that usually flow from freshly built computer games.

The ninjas all pause their work. The song signals that one of their own is the first to reach a coveted milestone, yellow belt. Up front, three senseis stand and smile. They call forward 11-year-old Grady Harden, who has just capped his latest creation, a dinosaur-themed game called “Run and Jump.”

The senseis begin the ceremony, tying a black band around Grady’s head. It reads “Code Ninjas” – a martial-arts-style program where kids learn coding and problem solving. Next, the senseis present Grady with his new belt – in this case, a yellow, RFID wristband. Finally, cheers erupt.

“Yay,” Grady says before touching his headband and asking a quiet question: “Can I take this off?” The kid just wants to leap into his next programming language, JavaScript, and build his next game. With that, the other ninjas reopen their screens, and the bells and whistles return to the dojo.

A boy and girl build games on their laptops while sitting across from each other at a table while a sensei crouches close and guides them.
Code Ninjas sensei Peter Edmonds with Dilan Sikka, 6, and his sister Aashna Sikka, 9.

At 116 Code Ninjas franchises open across nearly 40 states, kids aged 7 to 14 drop in after school and on weekends or attend summer camps. They work their way up from white to black belt by completing a coding curriculum that enables them to build video games on platforms like Minecraft and Roblox.

David Graham, founder of Code Ninjas, smiles while standing in front of the organization's logo.
David Graham. (Courtesy of Code Ninjas.)

“Game play is still the best way to learn. The animal kingdom learns by playing and so do human beings,” says David Graham, founder of Code Ninjas and a programmer who lives in a Houston suburb.

Three years ago, while watching his son learn taekwondo, Graham had a revelation: Blend kid-centric coding lessons with the ancient ways of martial arts.

“Everybody already knows what goes on in a dojo. I recognized that it didn’t have to be about kicks and punches, it could be about keyboards and mice,” Graham says.

At Code Ninjas, tech-sharp senseis – typically older teens – teach Scratch instead of side sweeps, robotics instead of roundhouse rights.

A sensei places her head on her arm and smiles at one of her young Code Ninjas has he works on a game.
Sensei Sudachom (Wow) Samitthan with Dilan Sikka.

Parent-friendly lobbies offer hot coffee and Wi-Fi. Just beyond – separated by a large observation window and a sign welcoming in only ninjas and senseis – the dojos provide raucous learning spaces of laptops and chatter, young versions of the dev culture.

“This is a place where kids can be themselves. It gets rowdy in there and we don’t try to calm it down necessarily,” Graham says. “We encourage them to share their ideas, share their code, tell each other how they did things – those are the conversations developers have all the time.

A young girl sits on her dad's lap in a Code Ninjas lobby.
Dad Andrew Stoltzfus with his daughter in a Code Ninjas lobby.

“The value of Code Ninjas is more than just the curriculum or the product. It’s the experience. It’s the take-home smile,” he adds.

Since a 2016 launch, about 15,000 students have attended one of the Code Ninjas locations, and the program’s one-week summer camps have taught 17,000 kids, Graham says. About 40 percent of the participants are female.

He built Code Ninjas and his curriculum using Microsoft tools – a product suite with which he’s long been comfortable, he says.

At his first tech job in 2000, Graham became an early adopter of C#, the programming language developed by Microsoft as part of its .NET initiative. Graham then spent his entire career developing within the Microsoft ecosystem.

Now, Code Ninjas senseis teach C# to kids who are working toward upper-level belts. (Soon, Code Ninjas will start a new, advanced program for students aged 14 and older, who will learn dev skills using ASP.Net Core, a free, open-source, web framework.)

All laptops used by the ninjas are required to be Windows 10 devices. In addition, Graham and team built a web-based, JavaScript, game-building engine, hosted on Microsoft Azure, that upper-belt ninjas use to build their own games from their own imaginations.

Across the business, all franchises use Office 365, including Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, OneNote, To-Do and Stream.

“That was an easy choice,” Graham says. “When you’re doing a startup, not having to reengineer all those tools just saved us time, money and energy that we could put into building our own business and building our own tools that were very custom to us.”

A boy stares into his computer screen while coding.
Cole Weaver, 11, ponders the next line of code.

That, in turn, allowed Code Ninjas to make its fees affordable to students. On average, a monthly membership costs $225, which allows a child to drop in twice a week. (Fees can vary, depending on the market.)

When a fee is too high for families, a nonprofit arm called Code Ninjas Cares covers their participation costs through donations and even provides rides from distant neighborhoods to local franchises.

A Code Ninjas white RFID band on the wrist of a young participant.
Logan Xu, 6, wears a white belt — an RFID wristband.

Graham’s immediate aim was to design a fun environment that deepens tech and life skills while giving more kids an opportunity to learn coding, sometimes called “the literacy of the 21st century.” He also points out that U.S. children are falling behind the rest of the world in STEM subjects.

More broadly, Graham wants Code Ninjas to cultivate a new wave of young people who “become creators of technology rather than just consumers of technology,” he says. For parents, educators and entrepreneurs who share that view, Code Ninjas says the cost to open a new franchise ranges from $118,640 to $387,270. (The franchise fee is $29,000.)

One hundred more Code Ninjas are set to open this year. In total, 460 franchises have been sold, Graham says.

One of those centers is located on Denver’s east side, in a neighborhood blossoming out of the former Lowry Air Force Base. There, 45 ninjas attend after school and on Saturdays. One quarter are girls.

RFID bands, representing belts, are lined up for future recipients, from white and yellow to orange and black.
RFID bands, representing belts, are ready for future ninjas.

The franchise opened in March. Before their launch, co-owners Lisa and John Samuelsen simply were looking for a coding program for their 9-year-old daughter.

“Kids can code at home, and that’s fantastic, but when they reach a challenge point, most kids are going to pull back and focus on something they’re good at,” says Lisa Samuelsen, who also continues to work as a software license manager for Autodesk.

“Here, the kids follow a certain path to complete their projects. They also see the other ninjas doing that. So inherently, they feel this motivation to keep going to reach that next level,” she says.

On a recent afternoon, white-belts like 10-year-old Ben Menard stroll into the lobby with a parent in tow. John Samuelsen greets them, scanning the kids’ RFID wristbands. The ninjas hit the dojo. Some parents leave. Others, like Ben’s mom, Samantha Menard, stay and chat in the lobby.

A video game featuring a bear is under construction on a ninjas's screen.
Logan Xu builds his game.

“It’s so impressive to me that he’s able to build his own games. He’ll talk to me about it and I’m like, ‘I have no idea what you’re saying,’” Menard says with a laugh. “We are always looking for that one thing that piques his interest. This might be one of those things.”

Inside the kids-only room, Ben already is adding lines of code to his curriculum-based game, “Dojo Invaders.”

He explains, offering precisely the type of description that mystifies his mom: “These masts go down, and I’m using an alien and a laser instead of a ninja and a shuriken. You’re supposed to destroy all the masts before they get to the ground.”

Sitting at the same table across from Ben, Grady Harden applies the last bit of code to his latest game, completing the curriculum’s initial phase.

This accomplishment triggers “Pomp and Circumstance” and the dojo’s first yellow-belt ceremony.

Grady Harden, in ninja headband, adopts a karate post to celebrates his yellow belt in Denver. He is flanked, left to right, by senseis Niki Choummanivong, Ryan Achenbach and Yoni Manor, also standing in karate poses.
Grady Harden, in ninja headband, celebrates his yellow belt in Denver. He is flanked, left to right, by senseis Niki Choummanivong, Ryan Achenbach and Yoni Manor. (Courtesy of Lisa Samuelsen.)

From his laptop, Ben watches the happy moment. He claps for Grady.

“It’s so fun,” Ben says. “It encourages me to do more things. It also gives me a goal to move up from white belt.

“This program is very interesting and exciting and, also, just great.”

Top image: Code Ninjas sensei Peter Edmonds works with Aarav Jaim, 5. Story photos by Dan DeLong. Those images were captured at the Code Ninjas center in Newcastle, Washington. 

The Code Ninjas center in Denver’s Lowry neighborhood is located at 101 Ulster Court, Denver, Colorado 80230. Learn more about that center on Facebook and Instagram via @codeninjasdenver or by calling 720-594-2633.

The Code Ninjas center in Newcastle is located at 13316 Newcastle Commons Drive, Newcastle, Washington 98059. Learn more about that center on Facebook and Instagram via @codeninjasnewcastle or by calling 425-659-2633.