This article was developed within the program Venture an Idea funded by the USAID.


Heapcon, one of the biggest tech conferences in the region, has hosted more than 40 experts and over 500 visitors from different branches of the tech community on two stages in Madlenianum Hall in Belgrade this November. 

Conference attendees had a great opportunity to hear the talk by Dale Lane, Senior Cloud Engineer at IBM where he shared his thoughts on Learning about AI from kids, and here we bring you his story on AI in general but also on his role of spreading knowledge to his colleagues and the wider community. 

Dale is a developer for IBM. He spent several years as a developer in IBM Watson, helping to create several Watson cloud services. He is the author of “Machine Learning for Kids”, and the creator of the supporting website MachineLearningForKids.co.uk which is used by children around the world to learn about artificial intelligence by creating and playing with their own machine learning models.

You have taught computer science and artificial intelligence concepts to youngsters as young as seven in numerous schools. Have you always considered becoming a teacher? If at all, how has teaching affected your professional life?

I enjoy explaining the technology. This is a daily part of my job - whether it’s coaching and mentoring junior engineers on my team, or helping enterprise customers to understand how new technologies can help solve their problems, I enjoy making complex technical subjects understandable. Working with schools is just another facet of this. 

How does the age of the students impact your teaching style?

My general teaching style has been to provide students with opportunities to experiment and learn through making and building in a friendly sandbox. This seems to work with students of all ages. 

That said, I’m very aware that my understanding of educational pedagogy is limited. I’m an engineer, not a teacher. I’m hugely grateful to the educational professionals who have supported my work with Machine Learning for Kids - supplementing the platform I’ve built with resources that really make it useful in the classroom, like lesson plans, handouts, and presentations - things that put my tool in a broader educational context. Groups like Apps for Good and Raspberry Pi bring teaching expertise that I lack, and I’ve learned a lot from working with them. 

How can senior developers most effectively share their expertise, in your opinion? What would you say is the best way for a junior developer to learn - independent work, senior mentoring, or something else?

I’m a big fan of pair programming. I spend a lot of time trying to train and coach my whole team, but I always feel like I have the most impact when pairing with a junior developer on a challenge. It’s not just about helping them to find an individual solution, but a chance to show them how I approach a problem. I would recommend that junior developers grab every opportunity to pair with as wide a range of senior developers as they can. I learned a huge amount from the many senior developers who supported me over the years.  

What do you consider to be your biggest mistakes as a young developer climbing the career ladder? Things that you would change? What key piece of advice would you give to aspiring developers who read this?

It took me far, far too long to appreciate the value of tests. For too long, I saw writing tests as a chore. Something I had to do got in the way of what I wanted to be doing. Something that slowed me down. Learning test-driven development was a revelation. It made me look at writing tests differently - not just as something that might possibly catch a future bug or regression, but as a way of writing better code in the first place. I wish I could’ve learned that sooner. I would encourage aspiring developers to really practice TDD until it comes naturally and helps them code faster than they can by relying on manual testing alone. 

Which of the projects you've had the chance to work on so far is your favorite?

I loved working in IBM Watson - making AI technologies consumable so that they could be put to hundreds of different uses in many different industries. 

In light of recent developments in AI, in what new applications do you foresee the technology being used—in both our everyday lives and specialized industries?

The use of AI to support creativity isn’t a new idea, but I’m loving seeing how the rise of AI art generators like DALL-E has reinvigorated interest in the use of AI as a tool to support artists.

What is your primary source for the most up-to-date information on technology in your industry?

I’m a big fan of the YouTube channel Two Minute Papers. It’s a great way to get a fun overview of the latest work that’s happening, and is often how I first hear of some of the most interesting papers I read. 

What can we expect from your topic? What do you aim to achieve through this talk?

I’ve been fascinated to see how school students respond to AI technologies when given the time and freedom to experiment with them. I think the insights that I’ve seen children gain about AI would provide a useful introduction for any developer looking to get started with  AI/ML. My goal for my talk is to demonstrate some AI/ML projects made by children and describe the lessons they learned from making them.

Why have you decided to be a part of Heapcon? What do you consider to be the greatest value of a project such as this one?

The lack of in-person tech events during Covid really made me appreciate how valuable they are. There is great value in bringing together a range of people from diverse backgrounds and giving them a chance to share their knowledge and passions. It’s inspiring in a way that virtual online events just cannot reproduce.

Is this your first time in Belgrade? What would you like to see or experience during your visit?

My main goal for what I wanted to see while in Belgrade was the Belgrade Fortress and surrounding parks. 


For similar Digital ecosystem stories, visit our Belgrade Insights page.


This article is made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this program are the responsibility of Nova Iskra and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

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