Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Cracks in the FOMO Code: Is coding the new crayon?

How fear of missing out among parents and investors is whipping up a frenzy for the coding-for-kids business in India. Is it sustainable? A bubble? Or abracadabra?

Rajiv Singh
Published: Oct 9, 2020 03:32:20 PM IST
Updated: Mar 17, 2021 04:09:25 PM IST

Cracks in the FOMO Code: Is coding the new crayon?Aviiral Gupta, a school-going child is encouraged to study coding at a very young age by his mother Jyoti Gupta; Image: Madhu Kapparath

At around 1 pm, Suhani Verma has just finished her online school classes and was supposed to take a lunch break. The 13-year-old has an early start to her day—school starts at 8 am—and she looks exhausted after back to back classes. “I am not tired,” she smiles. What keeps the enthusiasm for the class 9 kid high is not the online coding class which starts at 1, but the fact that she is joining the class along with her friends. “They joined first, and I followed them,” says South Delhi-based Suhani, who has also been learning classical and western music over the last five years. “I want to become a singer,” she says. “But I don’t mind learning coding as well.” The push, or the pull, though was not from within but outside: peer pressure.  

Her father Mohit Verma is not bothered by the nudge. He just wants to give her daughter a fair chance. “I missed out on opportunities in life,” recalls Verma, a freelance voiceover artist with FM radio channels. “I want to ensure that my daughter has the right set of skills for the future,” he says. Coding, he insists, is one of them.

Cracks in the FOMO Code: Is coding the new crayon?Suhani Verma, a 13 year old school going girl is encouraged to study coding at a young age by her father Mohit Verma; Image: Madhu Kapparath

Cut to Central Delhi. Jyoti Gupta has dealt with the fear of missing out. Two months back, the 40-year-old homemaker got her son to try free coding classes, not once but thrice. “The idea was to find out if my nine-year-old has interest in the subject,” she says. Aviiral, his son, didn’t seem to like it. The lad in class 4, who used to take football coaching before the lockdown, shifted to abacus classes since March. “I was told that he would not be a smart kid if he missed out on coding,” says Gupta, counselled by the sales team of one of the online coding startups. “But I am not so dumb to fall into their trap.”

Meanwhile in Kota, the medical and engineering coaching capital of India, Kanishk Agarwal got her seven-year-old daughter enrolled in coding class. The child, he thought, would be gainfully engaged. But the primary reason was that he was sold on the ‘future vision’ shown by a coding startup. “Your kid will learn to make apps” he was told. And this is what he saw in one of the advertisements on TV. The commercial of a coding startup shows people fighting to invest in an app made by a kid.  “Who would have foreseen the smartphone revolution,” Agarwal asks. Coding, he insists, will be the revolution of the future.   

Back in Delhi, a venture capitalist is getting ready to invest in a coding startup. “They are the flavour of the season,” he says. Without getting into the ethics of targeting kids as young at 5 or 6, the VC focuses on business. “I am here to make money, and will chase it from where it comes,” he says, requesting anonymity.

The fear of missing out (FOMO) of parents, kids, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs is whipping up a frenzy for the coding-for-children business in India. The hysteria, explain veterans of the startup world, is a recurring one, quite similar to how it was four decades back.

Cracks in the FOMO Code: Is coding the new crayon?“At that time,” recalls serial entrepreneur K Ganesh, “it was built around the engineering and medical professions.” Anybody not taking a stab at either of these disciplines was supposed to be doomed. “FOMO was very much around then,” says the promoter at startups such as BigBasket, Portea Medical, HomeLane, and AEON Learning. “FOMO has still not gone out of people’s head,” he says, adding that it’s terrible to play on this psyche. Indian parents will go to any extent to ensure a ‘safe’ future for their kids. This weakness, he explains, should not be exploited to sell them a dream that doesn’t exist. ”It’s okay if your child is not learning coding at 6. She can do so at 14,” he says. “It’s okay if she doesn’t learn at all. Nothing changes.” The point is, don’t force the kid, pleads Ganesh.

The pioneers of edtech in India insist that offering coding as a panacea is outrageously misleading. “Coding as a starting point of intelligence and a sure-shot door-opener for life-success is clearly a misplaced exaggeration,” says Avneet Makkar, a former Infosys engineer who cofounded edtech venture CarveNiche in 2010. Conceding that coding is a skill of the future, Makkar reckons that the way computer science has been taught so far in Indian schools needed a refit. “I do not think making it compulsory is a problem,” she says, alluding to the move by the government to make coding compulsory from class 6 onwards.

The problem, Makkar explains, is the way coding is being peddled as a ‘quick miracle’ promise. If by coding it’s meant to teach logical thinking and operations, then that’s certainly something that can be built in early childhood, and is a good early skill to build. But if by coding, she explains, the promise is to teach “application programming” to 6 year olds, it’s irresponsible. “It’s also completely misplaced and could even be counter-productive,” says Makkar, who is also the cofounder of beGalileo, an AI-based math learning programme.

Cracks in the FOMO Code: Is coding the new crayon?

Meanwhile in Bengaluru, a father, and a serial edtech entrepreneur for over 15 years, is upset with an ‘illusionary’ narrative being peddled by his some of his fraternity members. “There is a sheer lack of empathy for the child,” says Saurabh Saxena, founder of Uable, an online kids’ life-skills development platform. “Think of a child who wants to play, have fun with friends across a diverse set of interests,” says Saxena, father of a 6-year-old and cofounder of Vedantu, an online test prep startup. For a child of that age, he underlines, the most crucial thing is to develop creativity, problem-solving skills in various contexts, and, above all, social and emotional skills like grit, resilience, ability to handle failure rather than facing pressure of expectations, comparison, competition, fear of failure. 

“Is it (codinig) an insurance policy,” asks Saxena. Parents are being asked, he explains, to secure a future that will come after 10-15 years. “But it’s a future no one can predict. Who knows what the child will need 15 years from now.” While coding is an important vocational skill and a good way of developing creativity and critical thinking, the way it is being forced on every family and child is blasphemous. Children between 6 and 14 have diverse sets of interests. Parents, he lets on, need awareness and education. “We are using their insecurities for business interests,” he says. “An illusion is being created in their minds.”

Just three km from Uable’s headquarters at 12th Main Road, Narayana Gowda insists he knows the difference between illusion and reality. “I know what is best for my kid,” says the IIT alumnus, who works in one of the top IT firms. Gowda made his seven-year-old daughter join an online coding class in April this year. Reason: to get hang of the technology quite early in the life. “This will help her survive tough competition,” he says. If a father, he insists, doesn’t equip his daughter with skills needed to flourish in future, then who would. “What’s wrong if a techie’s kid becomes a techie,” he asks, pointing out a parallel. “Find out how many doctors have their kids as doctors,” he smiles.

Gowda’s daughter Ishita, hooked to online games on her iPad for over two hours, now switches to a bigger screen. She grabs the remote lying on the central table of her living room, and tunes into Cartoon Network. What comes first on the screen makes her scream with excitement. “Mama, I want my chocolate milk.” A commercial of malted food drink brand Cadbury Bournvita is playing on the TV. “Taiyaari jeet ki’ (preparation to win) is the voice over.

Winning, and success, is increasingly getting glamourised by a bunch of coding startups. Take, for instance, WhiteHat Jr, which is hyper aggressive and the most visible on TV and social media. Let’s start with the testimonials of the children tom-tommed on its site. A child is touted to have built the world's first eye testing app. “It's taking him to Silicon Valley where he will meet top scientists, engineers,” says the promotional messaging.

Another message is addressed to the parents. “Your kid will be on the next flight to Silicon Valley, USA,” it reads, alluding to a programme which handpicks passionate early coders and sends them to the Valley to meet scientists from Google, Waymo. “This (will) shape their future destiny as tech creators,” the message underlines. It exhorts the parents to kick-start their ‘kid's journey to create the next billion-dollar idea of the tech world.’

Forbes India tried to cross-check the claims made by WhiteHat Jr, which was bought by India’s biggest edtech company Byju’s in April this year. First the genuine part. All the apps claimed to be made by the children do exist on Google Play. Now, the flip side. All such apps have a few thousand downloads and unflattering reviews. The most striking, and interesting, part, though, is that all the apps are registered in the name of WhiteHat Jr, and not in the name of the kid or his/her parents. This raises the question: Were these apps made by the kids as claimed or by WhiteHat Jr? Another claim, which couldn’t be verified, is that a seven-year-old is the youngest app developer and a TEDx speaker. WhiteHat Jr didn’t reply to an exhaustive list of questions sent by Forbes India.

Entrepreneurs reckon that there is a need to look at coding through the right lens. Technologies and programming languages keep becoming obsolete as technology adoption and disruption cycles are becoming shorter and shorter, points out Chaitanya Ramalingegowda, cofounder of WakeFit, a home-furnishing online store. An alumnus of Indian School of Business, Ramalingegowda contends that while it is good that kids are being taught to be conversant with coding, it is important to ensure that the emphasis is on the right aspects of learning. What makes good technologists great is their ability to use impeccable analytical and logical skills in their code and, secondly, their ability to spot the larger business application of their technology. “These life skills have a positive impact on those who choose to go into coding, and not the other way around,” he says.

Cracks in the FOMO Code: Is coding the new crayon?

Edtech founders, who are not amused with coding getting a bad name, agree. Coding, underlines Zishaan Hayath, founder of edtech startup Toppr, is a beautiful activity. Learning to code in early years helps with two key things: Practicing to code over the years helps build critical thinking for problem solving. These are all great positives of learning to code early. It's a great way to involve oneself in hands-on, application-oriented and result-oriented learning, he says.

The IIT Bombay alumnus, though, has a question for parents: should we make kids learn to code so that they become software engineers, app makers and technology entrepreneurs? “Absolutely no,” says Hayath, who also has online coding classes for kids. The edtech entrepreneur busts another popular myth. “Are we guaranteed to become software engineers and IT professionals by learning to code early,” he asks. The reply, again, is negative. Your child, he emphasises, is not going to miss out on something big if she doesn’t learn to code. “Missing out on X is not the driver here. Don't pick coding out of fear. Pick it out of interest and love,” he advises.

One of the earliest instances of the fear of missing out, interestingly, goes back to the year 1637. “The price of tulips in Holland rose over 20x in one month. And then abruptly crashed,” Sandeep Murthy, partner at venture capital firm Lightbox, wrote in one of his blogs in April 2015. An asset, he explains, is considered to be in a bubble if it is intrinsically worth less than what people are willing to pay for it. “So how do we figure out what something is worth,” he asks.

Murthy explains traditional and disruptive companies. While traditional approaches to valuation say that a company's value is determined by using historical data to project future cash flows and then discounting those future cash flows by a certain risk-adjusted discount rate, Murthy maintains that trying to apply this method to disruptive technology companies doesn't work. “The crux of this new game is all about changing consumer behaviour... this applies to both B2C companies as well as B2B businesses,” he points out.

Five years down the line, there is a perceptible change in behaviour of parents. Raman Roy, father of the BPO industry in India, explains the tectonic shift. “We gave our kids a box of crayons and paint and a brush to explore their creativity,” says Roy, who pioneered and led the BPO initiatives of American Express, GE and Spectramind before starting Quatrro in 2006. “Now, in 2020, coding is the new crayon, used to unleash creativity in kids,” he says. While admitting that FOMO indeed has a role in pushing parents and kids to learning the new skill, Roy maintains that coding has just replaced the tools for kids. “We must not deprive them of this new tool,” he says.

The problem, insists Roy, is not with the product but with its packaging. “It (coding) comes only in years. It’s not instant,” he says, adding that the same logic applies to every other skill. Even if a child starts to paint early, Roy argues, he might not become Pablo Picasso. “But the chances of becoming one after 30 years can’t be ruled out,” he says.

It all boils down to taking chances.

Cracks in the FOMO Code: Is coding the new crayon?

Radhemohan Tiwari in Lucknow’s Hazratganj market is willing to take the gamble. Tiwari runs a small grocery store, and wants his son Raghav to stay away from the family-run business. Apart from ensuring that his eight-year-old goes to a missionary school—the first in his family—to learn English, he recently introduced him to online coding classes. He explains the reasons for English and coding. When Tiwari’s friends in college, he recalls, were learning English from one of the coaching institutes dotting the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, he refrained. “I underestimated the importance of learning this language,” he rues, adding that his friends moved early, and got a job in cities. Most of the institutes, he contends, had teachers from Oxford and Cambridge. Ask him how does he know, and comes an innocent reply: so claimed the hoardings. “I never tried to verify, though” he says. With coding, and his son, Tiwari doesn’t want to take a chance. “I missed out, but I don’t want my son to miss out.”

Raghav, Tiwari claims on the basis of the feedback he got from the online coding teachers, is immensely talented, and can make the next big gaming app. “Who knows he might become Bill Gates who owns Google,” he says. Mistaking Gates as founder of Google doesn’t make a difference to Tiwari. What matters most is the chance. “It’s always 50:50. But for the 50% to happen, one needs to try,” he contends. “I failed. Now I don’t want my son to fail,” he says. Coding, he adds, is the new future.  

Herd mentality, and living one’s own dream through their progeny, is what Sunita Gandhi, an educator in Lucknow, fears the most. “We are moving towards an era of ‘superficiality,’ she says. “We must not push our children to the point of breakdown,” adds Gandhi, who has a personal tale to narrate about the pressure her son had to go through because of a music reality show. “As long as he was there on the show on TV, he was under tremendous pressure,” she says, adding that he could not make it to the finals. Once he moved back to normal life, he thought himself to be an average student. “Events like these leave the younger ones scarred for the rest of their lives,” she rues. Our value education system, she explains, must teach kids importance of failure and how it can lead to an ultimate success. “They must learn to accept failure as a part of life,” she adds. “They need to accept the reality.”

Some 100 km from Lucknow, there is another ‘reality’ playing out in Kanpur: coaching for reality TV shows. Music, dance and skill institutes have mushroomed across the country, to make the most of the trend of general entertainment channels broadcasting such shows. Six-year-old Anita Paswan wants to become Madhuri Dixit. Reason: Her mother aspired to become a dancer but her dream was cut short due to early marriage. “I want my kid to learn dancing,” says Gayatri, Anita’s mother.

Cracks in the FOMO Code: Is coding the new crayon?12 year old Shasvat Chaubey has been pestering his father to enrol him in online coding classes

Meanwhile in Ranchi, the capital city of Jharkhand, Shailendra Kumar Chaubey is having a tough time. His 12 year old son, Shasvat, has been pestering him to enrol him in online coding classes. Chaubey, a sales manager in a private firm, is not averse to the idea. “There is nothing wrong in learning to code,” he says, adding that his son has always had a fascination with gadgets, including smartphones. “He loves to experiment,” he says. But the point that’s bothering him is not the need for coding or whether it’s a bubble or a fad as robotics was a few years back. “Does he have the time,” he asks. “How will he manage,” he says. Even if he learns, Chaubey explains, what would be the takeway as his class 7 lad is yet to take a call on what to pursue in the future. “I am not sure,” he says.

What, though, can be said with certainty is that not every stakeholder in the coding game will emerge on the winning side. It’s quite similar to what Murthy of Lightbox outlined in his blog. When FOMO, ‘what If’ and ‘bubble’ walk into a bar, the VC explains, the end result is the same as any great party. “Someone gets lucky, someone wakes up with a hangover and someone refuses to stop partying,” he says. Between children, their parents, VCs and entrepreneurs, it’s not too difficult to guess who will get what.

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