Join us throughout July as we celebrate the #InternationalIrish. This month IrishCentral pays tribute to the Irish who are breaking the mold, smashing glass ceilings, and emerging as the next generation of global thinkers and leaders.

Today we talk to Derval O’Neill, the founder of CodEng - “Learn to Code, Practice your English.”

At CodEng, their mission is to get young people excited about acquiring digital skills, in particular coding, robotics and understanding the latest developments in the technology sector.  Lessons are held in Italian and English to allow participants to speak both languages.

Where are you originally from? 

I am originally from Dublin. I went to Greendale Community School in Kilbarrack and I studied European Studies at the University of Limerick. I obtained an MBA from Henley Management College in England.

How did you start out in your career?

I started out my career as a European Affairs consultant based in Westminster and then later in Brussels. A few years later I moved to the tech industry to work for an Oregon-based company, Tektronix, first in London and then in Milan, Italy.

It was when I got my first iPhone that I started to get interested in software and how to create apps. I developed one for Irish dancers, Irish Trad Sets, which you can find on the App Store.

Five years ago, my son Michael, who was 10 years old at the time and attending a local Italian school, asked me to come into his class to show his classmates how to create apps. I pulled together some materials I found online on how to do visual programming using blocks instead of lines of code (for example Scratch) and used them to explain the basic concepts behind programming.  

I quickly realized that the children loved to create their own video games and animations. The idea to create my business, CodEng, was born.

Read more: Meet the Irish butcher’s daughter who is now the nightclub queen of the US

Students at Apple Park, Cupertino, July 2019. Image: Derval O'Neill.

Students at Apple Park, Cupertino, July 2019. Image: Derval O'Neill.

What do you believe was the secret to your success?

"You've got to find what you love…. the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking, and don't settle.” 

Steve Jobs said this back in 2005 and this is the idea behind the success of CodEng. 

Doing what we do—getting young people excited about programming a robot, building a web page, understanding artificial intelligence or augmented reality—is pure enjoyment and never feels like work. The reason is that young people just soak it up. This is their world and for the most part, they want to know this stuff. They want to build their own video games, they want to understand what the latest iPhone does and they want to know why Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars … and can he really put a chip in someone’s brain so they can be constantly connected online?! 

It is not difficult to engage a classroom of young people when these are the topics you are teaching.

Do you consider being Irish as part of your brand?

Absolutely. 

The biggest obstacle to acquiring digital skills, in my experience, is that people think they need to be a genius, or something close to that. By simply being informal, friendly and using fun storytelling techniques, you can make the subject less intimidating.  

Bringing down that barrier between educator and student is the first step in transferring knowledge and the Irish are pretty good at bringing that barrier down.

Who are the Irish people you admire the most?

I admire Mary Robinson because, as my Californian husband might say, she’s “a badass.” She’s such a great role model for International Irish Women.

I also admire Roddy Doyle. He was my teacher at Greendale Community School and I love following his career from abroad. In the early days of his success as a writer, my mum, when sending me the latest edition of the Sacred Heart Magazine which she would regularly do, would include cuttings from the Irish Times every time he was in the news. When he came to Milan to present one of his books some years ago, I made sure I was in the front row to say hi. 

Read more: How Mary Robinson inspired this Irish woman to claim the highest leadership seat at the table

Derval O'Neill at a TedX event in June 2019. Image: Derval O'Neill.

Derval O'Neill at a TedX event in June 2019. Image: Derval O'Neill.

What has been the most exciting day in your career? 

The highlight of the CodEng year is taking students from Italy to Silicon Valley. We’ve been doing it for three years now and interest in this project grows from year to year. We are extremely privileged to have contacts at the big names in the industry: Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, to name but a few. We set up appointments with these companies to bring a small group of aspiring coders to see the tech world up close.  

I think the most exciting day in my career to date was walking into Apple Cupertino and seeing “Apple welcomes CodEng” in lights on the board at their Executive Briefing Centre at Apple Park. I definitely got a kick out of that!

Using five words, describe what is needed by somebody starting out in your industry?

Teaching tech is a big industry and getting bigger. There are plenty of opportunities out there for anyone interested in doing it. To be successful you need a passion for technology, patience teaching it, troubleshooting skills, creativity and an ability to continuously learn. There is no such thing as being an expert in this field because it is continuously evolving.  

And, if your partner regularly tells you that you’re “a badass,” like my husband does, that’s also a huge help in believing that you can do it!

Read more: What I learned on the top Irish American program helping ambitious professional women

Scuola Manfredini, Varese, Italy. Image: Derval O'Neill.

Scuola Manfredini, Varese, Italy. Image: Derval O'Neill.

Once you get off the plane in Ireland, what is the first thing you look forward to doing the most?

I love going to a pub to listen to Irish trad music, drink a creamy pint of Guinness and eat a packet of Tayto. 

I used to do this with my Dad until he passed away in February 2018. Now my Mum buys me the Guinness and I raise it in his memory. I know he was very proud of what I and my two brothers, Finbarr, Brendan and sister, Orla, have achieved.

To find out more about CodEng, you can find them on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. 

This July, IrishCentral pays tribute to the International Irish who are breaking the mold, smashing glass ceilings, and emerging as the next generation of global thinkers and leaders. You can follow IrishCentral’s International Irish throughout by using the hashtag #InternationalIrish or by following us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn. 

Find more in IrishCentral’s business section

O'Neill's students at Code Camp USA.