How One Kitchen Table in Brooklyn Became a School for Coders

At the studio of Amit Pitaru and David Nolen, small groups get together every week to discuss and study a new subject.


Every week at a kitchen table in Brooklyn, coders Amit Pitaru and David Nolen host a salon/workshop called Kitchen Table Coders, bringing together a small group of people to discuss and study one subject at a time.

"We modeled it after our ideal teaching environment," Pitaru says about the genesis, "which means we only take as many students as can fit around our kitchen table (a maximum of five, because the small number is ideal for group-thinking). The seating arrangement is important, as we all get to talk and look at each other rather than face a big projection on a wall."

Pitaru adds, they avoid too many guiding rules: "the driving one being that we're only allowed to teach things that we're wildly excited about that week. This means that often workshops are only conceived days before they are run." In fact, some of the workshops are so esoteric that almost no-one shows up, but others form long wait-lists.

Anything related to Javascript or iPhone is a big hit. But a close second is teaching creative people how to code for the first time. "The goal is to introduce the craft to people that are specifically visually or musically minded rather than mathematically so," Pitaru says. "We use great open-source tools like Processing and Open-Frameworks that were made specifically by creative-coders for creative-coders."

Demand has, however, reached beyond their capacity. So when interviewing new studio mates they must be able to double as instructors. "This is how we met Ted Hayes [his work includes a group of language-inventing robots and mythological city-founding ritual for soprano and string quartet], who's now our third member," Pitaru says. "We all share the rent in the studio space, and contribute to the workshops. Other than being a perfect match in every possible manner, Ted's also introducing new workshops on hardware hacking."

"Two of the hottest topics we've covered are XBox Kinect hacking and node.js, a framework for real-time web applications," Hayes exclaims. "For the latter, we hooked up a physical joystick that could talk to a web-based Pong game over Wifi, which was an exciting and fun hack."

Niche workshops - "the weirder the better" - are also popular. For example they offer a session on Smalltalk, which is not a mainstream language to code in. Pitaru explains: "Invented by Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in the 70s, it was the coding environment that allowed amazing graphical-interfaces to be built, and Steve Jobs integrated much of Smalltalk into the first Mac. Up to this date, the spirit of Smalltalk is in every iOS device," Pitaru notes. "The language that is used to program your iPhones and iPads is called Objective C, and it holds true to many of the core principals of Smalltalk. I'll dare to say that this is one of the reasons for the iPhone's superior interaction design."

Workshops like this may not attract as many people as a how-to iPhone coding class, but Pitaru insists "We're trying to attract like-minded people that want to dig deeper into their craft. We try to keep a wide spectrum of workshops - on one end of the spectrum we have classes that scratch itches that only occur after you've coded for a while. On the other edge of the spectrum, we have classes that are specifically tailored to first-time programmers."

Participants are FIFO or first-come-first-serve. As for instructors "We love having guest instructors mainly because it allows us to become students and learn something new," Pitaru says.

New classes are planned that do not teach coding at all, but rather touch subjects that live on parallel universes. For example, there is a planned class on the board-game GO next month, and also one on writing short fiction."Go can be thought of as a nested, synchronous pattern recognition task," Hayes says. "And writing short fiction is an exercise in structure constrains. Both relate closely to the craft of programming."

All this coding talk builds a hearty apetite. And since the workshop is in north Brooklyn on the border of Willimasburg and Bushwick; and since Pitaru lives in adjacent Greenpoint, on his way to the studio he stops by Steve's Market "for the best Polish Keilbasa sausages in the city." Then proceeds to get fresh bread from the Italian bakery, as well as home-made cheese. For dessert he heads to the famous Peter Pan bakery for donuts.

Pitaru was recently contacted by someone who wants to open a Kitchen-Table-Coders in London. "Trademarking doesn't worry me," he says. "I'll be flattered if due to our efforts, more kitchen tables are used for learning code, and happy to help anyone who wishes to do so."

Image: Courtesy of Amit Pitaru.