Satya Nadella and two children looking at computer screen (© AP Images)
Students take part in a coding workshop with Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella (middle). (© AP Images)

Two sets of students gathered recently to learn a new language. One met at the Microsoft store in New York City, while a different set gathered a world away, in Nigeria.

The language they are learning, in both cases, is coding, and Microsoft executives are making it a global cause. “Coding is a universal language,” said Dona Sarkar, a program manager at Microsoft, “the language of solving problems.”

Starting young

Every online website and mobile application is coded using various programming languages, such as Java or C++, the basic principles of which can be taught to someone as young as 4 years old.

The students in New York were getting their first crack at coding by using the popular Minecraft video game as a framework. By stringing together virtual blocks of built-in code for basic commands such as “move forward” and “turn left,” they can program and then watch their characters advance on-screen.

Entrepreneurs abroad

While Microsoft partners with nonprofit to the in-store workshops in the U.S., it also is helping jump-start Africa’s new generation of tech talent by providing 25 aspiring entrepreneurs in Lagos, Nigeria, with computer hardware, along with technical and business training to get their startup ideas up and running.

Sarkar spearheaded the Nigeria initiative as part of Microsoft’s Windows Insider Program. Entrepreneurs take part in a six-month fellowship, which starts this month and will culminate by June, ideally in a viable product or service that attracts paying customers.

Among solutions Sarkar has seen flourish are startups like OneTrack, which offers personal security products for children, such as backpacks outfitted with mobile tracking functionality.

Microsoft learns too

The cultural exchange proved to be illuminating.

“We were coding one night … working on prototypes,” Sarkar said. “The lights go out. We all stop like, ‘Oh, my gosh, the lights are out. Now what?’” But the Nigerian coders just kept typing. To them, power outages are routine.

The experience was a real-life lesson about infrastructure hurdles that exist for some Microsoft users. Executives are thinking more about such hurdles when developing products. Sarkar said the company is focusing on the offline functionality of its products. “We can’t just build for the environments we know,” she said.