David Alston’s crusade to get coding in the classroom

David Alston’s crusade to get coding in the classroom

David Alston is a man with a plan (quite a number of them, actually). His mission? To help young people prepare for the future by returning to the opportunities he experienced in the past

David Alston hadn’t prepared a speech. He didn’t even know exactly what he would say as he walked to the podium to deliver the thank-you speech that would send his own career spinning off in yet another new direction, not to mention helping change how New Brunswick’s public school system teaches computer programming to its students. “I like to wing it,” Alston is the first to admit.

It was May 2, 2013. The province’s technology sector had gathered at the Fredericton Convention Centre for the 15th annual Knowledge and Innovation Recognition Awards (KIRA) ceremony, a glitzy celebration of “excellence in technological, social and economic innovation across all sectors and industries in New Brunswick.”

Introhive—a new Fredericton-based company that had found a niche automating all those boringly routine but rarely completed critical sales tasks of logging customer contact information, tracking meetings and following up on email exchanges—was among the companies up for that year’s Most Promising Start-Up award. Although David Alston’s official title at Introhive was “advisor” and his position just parttime, it still made him the most senior company official in the room for this year’s awards. Would he accept if the company won, he’d been asked? Of course, he said.

And then Introhive won.

It wasn’t that Alston hadn’t thought at all about what he might say after the requisite thank-yous to various and sundry members of Introhive’s “amazing and talented rock-star team.” Lately, Alston had been hearing muttering in the corridors of the tech industry about New Brunswick’s chronic shortage of trained computer programmers. He remembered his own life-changing experience back in the basement at Sussex Junior High School when he’d first discovered—and been dazzled by—the reality you could make a flashing cursor on a screen move left or right when it reached a computercreated wall merely by writing a few new lines of computer instructions. He thought about his own three kids’ public-school computer education and about the profound difference between children learning how to use a computer and children figuring out how to make that computer do what they wanted it to do.

So when he saw New Brunswick’s then Progressive Conservative premier, David Alward, sitting in the front row at the awards ceremony, David Alston suddenly knew exactly what he needed to say. He just had no idea where that would lead.

“Is there a chance,” he asked his audience of innovators and policy makers, “we can look at bringing computer programming [into the schools] as a mandatory part of the curriculum for math, as a way of exposing students— all students—to programming?” And then he went a step further, addressing the premier directly: “If you want a person to volunteer for that,” he told Alward, “I’d love to do that because I think it’s really important.”

And that was the beginning of what Alston likes to call his next “five-year plan.” His five-year plans, as he is the first to admit, are not really plans at all. Or necessarily five years in duration. They’re more like fortuitous collisions of interest and opportunity that have propelled his career forward. “This just felt like another one of those journeys.”

It was certainly not his first.

Born in 1967, Canada’s optimistically sunny Centennial year, David Alston grew up with two younger sisters on a 200-acre, multi-generation family farm outside Sussex, New Brunswick, where “you’d leave the house at 8 a.m. and… ‘See you at suppertime.’ There were so many ways and places to be creative—barns, gravel pits, rivers, fields.”

His father Bob coupled his own hobby farming with his day job as production manager at nearby Barbour Foods and filled what little remained of his spare time coming up with entrepreneurial schemes. He and a friend launched “a water source heat pump design and installation business long before heat pumps were commonplace.” He and his wife Sandra also ran a local tourist gift shop, Kissing Bridges, which specialized in selling covered-bridge related memorabilia. New Brunswick’s iconic covered bridges were another of his father’s passions. “My father was one of the people instrumental in raising the profile of covered bridges as a tourism draw in New Brunswick,” David explains. In the process, he helped “create a movement to save them rather than automatically replace them with steel and concrete structures.”

There was, in short, plenty of entrepreneurism and creativity to go around the kitchen table. “That’s a kind of central theme in my DNA,” he tells me today.

He allows that “nothing jumps out at me” about his early years in school other than that he liked sports and was good in math. But then, in May of his Grade 8 year, he experienced his own futureshaping moment. Sussex Junior High had just received its first-ever shipment of Commodore CBM computers. Though the machines were stored in the basement for use during the next school year, David and a few other students— all running ahead of their pack in that year’s math curriculum—were given permission to try them out.

“I liked math, but these just seemed like big calculators and not much fun,” Alston remembers of his first hands-on moments. “And then a friend said to me, ‘Check this out.’” He’d figured out how to program the computer to play some very rudimentary games.

A young David Alston at the family farm outside of Sussex during one of the back-to-back summers when he grew 5,000 (expanding to 10,000) onions by hand in order to save money to buy a Commodore 64 computer and accessories. As a contract grower, growing onions was one of his first entrepreneurial ventures.

David was hooked. “Before, I was an outdoor kid. Now I just wanted to spend all my time on the computer.” Given that those early computers also tended to freeze, shut down and otherwise not behave as intended, he says, “my problem- solving gene also kicked in.” As an adult, problem-solving has become one of the talents he is noted for.

He answered his own next question— “How do I get one?”—by becoming a contractor that same summer for Barbour Foods, growing 5,000 onions for pickling. He earned enough to buy himself a Vic-20. The next summer, he doubled production and upgraded to a Commodore 64.

In Grade 11, his mother suggested he try to find something practical to do with all the programming skills he’d been acquiring. He applied for a job that didn’t yet exist: running the back-end inventory, accounting and management computer system for Royal Gardens, a local florist.

“When can you start?” asked owner Doug MacArthur.

“He took a chance on a kid,” Alston marvels today. Although David had to quickly master a new computer language and learn how to run a minicomputer, he held the job throughout his university years.

Alston chose to attend Nova Scotia’s Acadia University, he says today, in teenage-boy part because the university’s name had been incorporated into a number of his high school basketball team’s plays (“Acadia fast break” was one) and in practical part because Acadia offered him the most lucrative scholarship of any of the three Maritime universities to which he’d applied.

He enrolled in engineering. “There are always courses that scare the living sh- out of you,” he allows with a laugh today. Although he excelled in it in high school, “physics became that course for me” in university. He remembers one first-year exam where the physics professor allowed students to bring a single recipe card with notes written on it as answer-nudges into the exam room. “Mine was a masterpiece of microscopic print,” he jokes, with the answer to every physics question he’d ever done filling both sides of the card. The problem, he quickly discovered, was that most of the exam questions were not the ones for which he’d written answers. “I got a D or a C-.”

When one of his friends decided to switch to a business major at the end of her first year, Alston followed suit. It was the right decision. He thrived in business school. “There was lots of teamwork, which I really liked, and you also had to learn to prioritize because there was always more homework than any one person could do.”

When he graduated in 1989, Alston travelled the already well-worn path of New Brunswick’s best and brightest young business and marketing minds and joined NB Tel. Thanks to an ongoing process of federal deregulation, the country’s monopoly telephone companies were in the process of splintering, and Ottawa was keen to open up to competition various “enhanced” telecommunications services, including digital technology and the then new, what-do-wedo- with-this internet.

Although NBTel had traditionally been a conservative telephone company run by stick-to-their-knitting engineers, it was evolving too. Its then top executives—including legendary CEO Kenneth Cox and his vice president (and now legendary angel investor) Gerry Pond—were visionaries who understood the future of their “little company that could” required actually putting customers first. “You’re a shift worker who needs his phone installed at 3 a.m. on a Saturday morning. No problem, we can do that,” went the mantra. They also gave the company’s best and brightest the opportunity to incubate their own in-house expertise, becoming pioneers in creating software and intellectual property and then selling those to phone companies around the world.

(The early Commodore computers) just seemed like big calculators and not much fun. And then a friend said to me, ‘Check this out’. Before, I was an outdoor kid. Now I just wanted to spend all my time on the computer.
David Alston

The year before he graduated, Alston had done a March break job-shadowing stint at NBTel. He’d ended up following a company product manager. “I had to buy a suit and tie,” he jokes, “but I learned what the role was like. I loved it.” When NBTel offered him the standard entry-level position as an account manager, he held out to be a product manager. Smart move. It plunked him directly into the then-technologically exploding world of paging, cellular, electronic data exchange, email, iNet 2000 … what soon became the cellphone and internet world. “I learned by fire. I learned lots.”

By the end of his first unscripted five-year plan in 1994, Alston was ready to join New North Media, NBTel’s first inside-the-company start-up, where he served as the manager of interactive application development. That meant he got to lead a team developing interactive phone screens for the Nortel Vista 350. Not a bad introduction to the brave new world of digital innovation.

Four years later—a year short of five—Alston got his first opportunity to help “start something from scratch” as the senior director of marketing and product planning for an ahead-of-its-time independent NBTel spin-off called iMagicTV. IMagic became one of the global pioneers in the development of applications to deliver television signals and the internet over copper wires.

“It sounds obvious now,” Alston admits, “but it didn’t then. It sounded impossible.” His mother-in-law thought he was “crazy” to leave a phone company job with a pension for an impossible TV dream.

But the dream turned out well enough for Alston. “I was there five years [another five-year plan], and I got to work with some great folks, including Marcel [LeBrun, a former NBTel executive who had become iMagic’s president and CEO] and others.” Many of whom he would eventually end up working with at Radian6 Technologies, New Brunswick’s international breakout technology company.

Radian6? Another of David Alston’s five-year plans, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves—just like iMagic TV. In its own first half decade, iMagic trampolined from an initial five-person team inside the NBTel HQ building in Saint John into 220 employees in offices around the world, and … Well, then, the dot.com bubble burst. Telcos retrenched. The stock tumbled with the market, ending up worth “next to nothing. It was like Indiana Jones in that movie, running for his life and sliding under the door at the last second just as it’s closing. We were one of the last IPOs to make it out the door.”

By the time iMagic sold to the French telecom equipment maker Alcatel two years later, David Alston was already deep into his own next five-year plan, this time as a “full-on” marketer. Having spent his early career inside companies, “going deep,” Alston says he wanted to see what the world looked like “going wide”—another theme in his career. He’d begun writing a business plan to launch his own marketing company when a chance meeting led to an offer to join Sackville, New Brunswick’s Hawk Communications in early 2003. Seven months later, he hopscotched over to Saint John-based Revolution Strategy, an innovative brand management, advertising, PR and social media firm he’d worked with from the outside during his incarnation as iMagic’s marketing director.

Five years of going wide later—do we sense a pattern here?—Alston was ready to go deep again, rejoining Marcel LeBrun, his former iMagic boss and also a Revolution client, as chief marketing officer at Radian6.

Radian6 had begun producing social media monitoring and engagement tools almost before there was social media. “No one knew what social media was,” Alston says, recalling early days listening to one of his fellow executives making cold calls. “‘It’s Rick. I’d like to talk to you about social media… Social… Media… You know… blogs.’”

Radian6 executives all became social media evangelists. “We had a mission of changing the idea of marketing. It wasn’t about talking to customers; it was about listening, about having a conversation. We attended a lot of conferences, talking to people about what social media could be. People would tell us about using social media as advertising. We’d say, ‘No, don’t. It’s a slippery slope.’ We didn’t end up talking about how great Radian6 was at those conferences. We talked about how things needed to change.”

It worked beyond anyone’s wildest imagining. Within just a few years, more than half of Fortune 100 companies (including iconic names like Pepsi, Dell and General Electric) were employing tools created by Nowhere, New Brunswick’s Radian6 for their own customer engagement. Salesforce.com, the San Francisco-based computing giant customer relations management provider, noticed. In 2011, it came calling with US$326-million to acquire Radian6. Although Salesforce is “an awesome company and growing like crazy,” Alston says he quickly realized he was “not a big company guy. I need to be close to the strategy. At Radian6, we all sat together as we grew. Suddenly, everyone was reporting to different people.” He paused. “But Salesforce is an amazing company, so it was a difficult decision.”

In January 2013—just a few months beyond his five-year best-before date— Alston cashed out, leaving Salesforce with the personal wherewithal and the desire to go wide again. “I took a walkabout,” he explains. “I decided to go out and see what makes me tick. I got on a plane, got in a car, talked to people at a lot of different start-ups…”

Although Alston hadn’t taken on any new fulltime commitments after he left Salesforce, he did agree to serve as a part-time advisor to Introhive. Which was what led him to the May 2013 KIRA awards ceremony. Which was what led to his impromptu speech and his offer to become the province’s computer coding advocate. Which was what led to… well, another five-year plan!

René Boudreau remembers the first time he met David Alston. It was in 2013, soon after the KIRA ceremony. “David invited himself to a meeting,” Boudreau, then the executive director of New Brunswick’s council on research and innovation, recalls with a laugh. “I believe it was a formal meeting of the council in a boardroom with the agenda already agreed to.” And then David showed up with his passion and his ideas. “Like any good civil servant,” Boudreau adds, “I was anxious at first. ‘Who is this guy?’ ‘Why is he here?’” But he quickly realized Alston was not only talking the council’s innovation-friendly language—“what he said was square in the areas we had been talking about” for P-12 public education—but that Alston was ready to invest his time and enthusiasm in the service of actually getting things done.

Before long, Alston, Boudreau and a New Brunswick “social-impact” documentary filmmaker named Greg Hemmings were boarding an airplane for the 5,000-km journey to Estonia.

Estonia?

Estonia, a former Soviet satellite, is roughly the same size—geographically and in terms of population—as the Maritimes. At the time the Soviet empire collapsed in the early 1990s, Estonia seemed permanently stuck on the lowest rungs of the innovation ladder. Sort of like Atlantic Canada.

But in 1992, Estonia’s newly independent and forward-facing government decided to stake the country’s future on creating an information society even before most of its citizens had access to the internet. Today, Alston points out, the country boasts one of the most developed digital societies in the world. Since 2000, internet access has been designated a basic human right for all citizens. Estonia’s 1.3-million residents each have a personal chip-embedded digital ID card that not only identifies them but also allows them online access to all sorts of government and private sector services from e-voting to e-banking, paying taxes or filling prescriptions online with a flash of their digital identity. Ninety-five per cent of data generated by hospitals and doctors is now digitized and available to patients as well as their doctors.

Thanks to all that digital-everywhere technology, Estonia boasts its police and first responders can now pinpoint the location of many accidents and emergencies to within a five-metre radius and respond to an emergency call within 10 seconds.

Business services are also paperless, and faster than fast; you can become a virtual citizen and incorporate a company in just a few minutes.

To protect that treasure trove of valuable data, the country has—significantly— also created the world’s first “data embassy,” employing blockchain cryptography to safeguard what goes online from attacks and hacks, as well as ensuring user privacy.

The result, as well as the cause, of all that dazzling digital do-how is a thriving technology sector. Skype, for example, the ubiquitous internet phone system, was created in Estonia in 2003 by three Tallinn techies. Eight years later, Microsoft bought it for US $8.5- billion. Much of the wealth from that sale has since been re-invested in more and new digital developing. And so on and so forth.

“How did Estonia become a leader in technology?” asked a headline in The Economist magazine in the summer of 2013—perhaps not coincidentally at around the time “going-wide” Alston began thinking about visiting there himself. “By ditching legacy technology and betting on education,” the article’s subhead answered its own question simply.

And not so simply.

Figuring out exactly how Estonia had managed to do so much so fast is what brought Alston, Boudreau and Hemmings (and Hemmings’ video camera) to Tallinn in the fall of 2013. Since they were in the neighbourhood, they also visited next-door Finland, another small but technologically advanced country once best known as the home of pioneering cell phone giant Nokia and now host to the incredibly successful video game franchise “Angry Birds.” Its Version 1 has been downloaded more than three billion times, spawning not only an Angry Birds 2 but also its own animated movie version.

What did the New Brunswickers learn from their excellent adventures in these lands of new technology?

“The answer isn’t to go top down,” Alston says flatly. “It’s got to be bottom up.”

“You don’t wait for the big change,” adds Boudreau. “You work from within with what you have. And you pay attention to your ground game.”

Ground game?

Education.

All students in Estonia learn computer coding, beginning in elementary school, often by fun-building basic robots and then creating the computer code to make them move and respond to the students’ commands. By the time they graduate, 20 per cent will find work in the tech industry. In Finland, coding is integrated into every aspect of the school system from primary forward, using games and iPads to teach math and other subjects, as well as plain old problem-solving.

All that is fine for Estonia and Finland, of course, but how do you convince already over-worked and under-appreciated New Brunswick teachers they should suddenly add computer coding to their quiver of teaching skills? And, even if you do, how can you make sure their students have the physical technology they need to take advantage of what they’re learning in order to push their computer learning ball down the future road? And finally, how can you create a system in which advanced students—whose skills have often leapfrogged ahead of their teachers—can teach their fellow students as well as their teachers?

Back home in New Brunswick, Alston began tentatively trying to answer those questions. He launched his own Finland-inspired test project, offering New Brunswick teachers the chance to incorporate coding into their classrooms— and discovered plenty of enthusiasm among both teachers and students. He and Boudreau championed their cause in the political and bureaucratic corridors of power while Hemmings produced a full-length documentary to showcase the possibilities. (Called Code Kids, it was broadcast on CBC and then posted to YouTube. It has since been viewed closed to 200,000 times.)

Which all led inexorably to January 2014. Inside the same Fredericton Convention Centre meeting hall where Alston had made his every-child-shouldbe- able-to-code plea nine months earlier, Premier David Alward presented his annual State of the Province speech. In it, he announced the launch of Brilliant Labs, a new, Alston-inspired initiative to “accelerate innovation in our schools by working with and enabling passionate educators to seed a movement to stimulate creativity and grow entrepreneurship.”

According to Brilliant Labs’ current executive director, Jeff Wilson, the venture has so far “supported” 11,051 educators and 86,104 students through various program offerings, including “project-based learning supports, co-teaching, professional learning sessions (in person and virtual), teacher cohorts, special events & outreach, CodeCamps during the school year, free summer camps, Makerspace/ Maker Cart/Maker Kit deployment and supports, innovation challenges, and… I’m probably forgetting a few.” Wilson credits Alston with personally inspiring a number of recent Brilliant Labs initiatives, including installing a professional electrical engineer and a computer scientist/developer in residence to provide hands-on support for students across the province.

To spread the code-love and help double the number of staff it could hire to work with students and teachers, Brilliant Labs isn’t just about New Brunswick anymore either. It’s partnered up with education departments in the three other Atlantic provinces to help computergoose the entire region.

Impressive as all that sounds, it’s just “one of a hundred steps we need to take,” Alston acknowledges today. Including encouraging girls, who are still dramatically under-represented in the tech sector, to embrace coding, and then pushing computer programming deeper into the curriculum, and then spawning new businesses that can spawn even more new businesses that can…

In January 2015, soon after Brian Gallant’s Liberals defeated David Alward PCs, the new premier invited Alston to serve on an external strategic program review committee to “right our fiscal ship.” Two years later, Gallant appointed him New Brunswick’s first ever (not to mention Canada’s first ever) entrepreneur in residence. The goal of the voluntary unpaid position, Gallant said, was to harness Alston’s “experience and know-how to foster innovation, inside and outside of government.”

For his part, David Alston puts his role more simply. “I enjoy problem solving,” he says, “sticking my nose in, inviting myself to help.” His broader ambition, he adds, is to be “involved in reengineering government, not just cutting it.”

Alston says he has learned plenty during his latest five-year plan just by hanging out in meetings of civil servants. René Boudreau, he allows, would not have been the only civil servant to ever ask who he was or what he was doing in their meeting. Still, he says his presence has most often been accepted and embraced by people in government. “People know my only reason to be there is as a citizen. I’m not paid. I have no office, no parking space.”

One of his “surprise” discoveries was that almost everyone he’s met in government is open to new ideas. “The real problem is that the system works against it.”

“There are so many decision makers,” he notes, and then begins counting. “Take education. There’s the premier, and then the minister, and the deputy minister—actually French and English deputy ministers. And then there’s the ADM. And…” He keeps going until he reaches the classroom teacher. “Is that nine?” he asks. “They all play a necessary part,” he agrees, “but lining them all up at the same time on the same issue…? Bold change is not going to happen.”

To complicate matters, he adds, there are no research and development departments within government. “Every other company, every other organization, has an R&D department. But not government.” That’s not so surprising, he admits. All big organizations are risk averse, he points out, but governments are led by politicians who need to get re-elected every four years, making them less keen on investing in experiments that court failure and that, even if successful, rarely pay dividends within the single mandate of a government.

David Alston with his wife, Mary-Gwen, and their children after having fun racing dune buggies in the Nevada desert. “Our family has always enjoyed being active and outdoors on vacation,” says Alston.

All that said, David Alston isn’t easily discouraged. He sees a willingness to change in New Brunswick, and an opportunity too. “As a province, we’re the 51st largest ‘city’ in North America. We have a chance to be agile because we’re so small.” He sees a window. “By the time a kid who starts kindergarten in New Brunswick today graduates, we may have people living on Mars. Will people living on Mars just adopt the old education system—one designed to help train great compliant workers for factories over a hundred years ago—or will they create one to reflect modern times? I’m thinking it’s probably the latter so the question then becomes why aren’t we creating that desired education system right now if we know deep down it’s what we already need? We need to be training kids to be critical thinkers and problem solvers.”

But wait a minute. Speaking of time passing, didn’t David Alston make his “I-volunteer” go-wide speech at KIRA back in May 2013. It’s now the fall of 2018. That’s five years and counting. What about his next five-year plan?

David Alston is ahead of you. In the spring of 2017, wearing his entrepreneur in residence hat, Alston attended a tourism industry innovation conference in Moncton. He listened as a tourism expert described New Brunswick as a “diamond in the rough with so much potential.” Later than day, speaking on a panel, Alston himself encouraged entrepreneurs in the audience to “go for it.”

Driving home at the end of the day, he started thinking. New Brunswick’s tourism industry needed more entrepreneurs. He was an entrepreneur. One thought sparked the next. He and his family—wife Mary-Gwen and now-grown children Sarah, Alec and Emily—had always loved active vacations. Banff, Canmore, caving, hiking, rock climbing… What if…? He knew there was a market for that kind of tourism. I wonder if…

Within a few months, he had cobbled together a business plan for TimberTop Adventures, an outdoor aerial adventure park featuring zip lines, climbing walls, and tightropes that finally opened this spring in Saint John’s Dominion Park.

He’s back to going deep. But, unlike his previous venture adventures, TimberTop doesn’t involve technological wizardry. Alston says he spent “a lot of time in the woods” planning a first-ever business that “actually has physical assets, an actual place and uses real things.” And this new business, for the first time, also involves his family as part of the operation. Mary-Gwen looks after the books and the scheduling; his son Alec is a company employee.

Given that David Alston is just 51, there will likely be more five-year plans in his zigging, zagging future, but it’s unlikely any of them will lead him far from his New Brunswick roots.

“I had opportunities to move to Silicon Valley or Toronto,” he tells me. “I looked into both, but I didn’t spend a lot of time on them. For me, the Maritimes represents the best of all possible worlds. I’ve been able to be involved with companies doing world-first things from New Brunswick, and been well compensated. You can have an exciting career in a place with a reasonable cost of living and an excellent quality of life.”

David Alston’s goal now is to make sure the next generation of New Brunswickers have the same opportunities he did.

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