Lead Interview: Matthew C Applegate

Founder, Creative Computing Club

Our lead interview in the ALTRUISM issue of Suffolk Director business magazine is Matthew Applegate, Founder of Creative Computing Club

Published in Suffolk Director magazine Spring | Summer 2022
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Charitable, Selfless and Kind

“Everything we do at Creative Computing Club is incredibly hard work, but also incredibly rewarding. It’s not about the pay cheque, it’s about the future of the kids I teach and putting them on the right path.”

Interview: Sue Wilcock
Pictures: Warren Page

Matthew Applegate talks to Suffolk Director

On sitting down to speak to Matthew C Applegate, Founder of community interest company, Creative Computing Club, I realise that telling his story might be tricky. Not because there isn’t anything to say, but just that he has managed to pack a lot of things into his 45 years, and I don’t have the space to talk about it all.

Born in Ipswich in 1977, Matt never had a relationship with his biological father. He lived on Stoke Park with Mum, Shirley, and his older sisters and brother until he was four and his mum married John – who he calls Dad.

“Dad worked in the American Airforce based at Bentwaters, and soon after they married we moved to North Carolina in the USA. He was incredibly hardworking, and our time in America was really interesting. All of us were part of the ‘melting pot’ of cultures that made up the air force “family”.

“It was a happy time and weekends were spent socialising at other people’s houses. We travelled around the world with Dad’s job. As well as being based all over America, we spent time in Japan, Italy, and Germany. I was very much an “air force brat” until I was 13.”

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Hacking his first online system

“The great thing about moving around was that I went to school on base. This gave me access to lots of technology, such as computers and the internet, which weren’t yet widely available in the outside world.”

An inquisitive mind, having his own PC – with access to the internet, together with people leaving information lying around, enabled Matt to teach himself all about coding and programming. Unfortunately this knowledge, and because he was “bored”, led Matt to hack into a military bank when he was 11.

“I was in West Germany, and I discovered the password to the online banking systems. Looking back it was amusing that it wasn’t the hacking I got in trouble for, but the fact that I gained entry to the physical bank on base, by keying the same password into the door keycode pad and walking into the back office of the building. Dad was called and luckily I didn’t get into too much trouble, they just decided to tighten their security protocols.”

After this incident, and in an attempt to “keep him out of trouble”, the military let Matt use a room on base, where he could have a go at programming and tinkering around with computers.

“We were living off base at the time, so, I would finish school and armed with my natural curiosity, I would wait for Dad in this room until he was ready to leave work and go home.

“It wasn’t long before I committed my second act of cyber-terrorism. I wasn’t trying to be malicious; I was just bored, and I installed an American gameshow video called Wheel of Fortune on several hundred of the American air base’s payroll computers. This meant that before paying the troops, staff had to play the game, and the result was that a lot of people didn’t get paid.

“The military, I suppose, hadn’t realised how advanced I was, and I didn’t understand the seriousness of what I had done. The upshot was that Dad was called in, severely reprimanded and he was told to take the family back to Bentwaters in Suffolk for a “fresh start”.

“I was 13 when we returned to England. I was very geeky, very shy, and very much into tech. I remember seeing CDs and Laserdiscs years before they came out commercially, as they were already standard military grade technology on the USAF bases. I was always surrounded by that, and this exposure, and access to computers and the internet, gave me a great deal of confidence in myself around tech and the ability to learn new things.”

Back in the UK, the family lived off base and because of the long journey to get to the American high school at Bentwaters, Matt was put into a mainstream school closer to home.

“I went to Chantry High for a year before moving to Stoke High school, and they didn’t know how to handle me. They had no access to computers or the internet and because of this I went downhill and totally lost my confidence. I went from being a nearly straight A student to nothing. I completely lost interest and when I sat my exams, I failed everything.”

At the very end of his schooling and having saved up enough money from doing a couple of part-time jobs, Matt was able to buy his first computer.

“Then as soon as the Internet was launched, I upgraded that computer and got online. It opened up everything and it was my gateway to re-establishing and extending my tech knowledge. I also started learning about music, and for 10 years, I pretty much existed in my bedroom; only coming out to go to work in awful part-time jobs, so I could earn some money and try to gain some confidence.”

Becoming a music composer

In the early noughties, Matt started composing chiptune tracks under the pseudonym, Pixelh8. His music combined the sounds of video games, which Matt took and  reprogrammed using a Gameboy console to make melodies. Pixelh8 was relatively unknown, until 2006, when he won a competition to open for electropop music pioneer, Imogen Heap, on her UK tour.

“I see Imogen as my fairy godmother. She helped to guide me through the music environment, and between 2006 and 2010 I became very well known. It was a weird and wonderful time, and my record sales went from hardly anything to thousands. As well as Imogen, several musicians including Damon Alburn and VV Brown hired me to come into their studios and work with them.

“In 2009, I was commissioned by The National Museum of Computing, to take some of the earliest and rarest computers from World War II and use their sounds to compose music. Called Obsolete?,this piece of work attracted tons of media attention, and resulted in me being asked to write backing tracks for BBC Radio’s Big Gaming Weekend and the theme tune for BBC World Service’s Digital Planet.”

Then, in 2010, and with four albums under his belt, Matt decided to approach the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy and ask whether he could “play” with their telescopes; programming them to move so they made music and created a harmony. The result was Observations, his fifth and final album.

However, it was while working with the National Museum of Computing and being featured in the news, that Matt attracted the attention of some veteran Wrens, who had been involved in the work being done by Alan Turing and his team, to break the German codes in WWII.

“They thought I was hilarious, and I would take them out for tea and cake and talk about Alan Turing and all things he’d done in the war, which was classified information that they had been conditioned not to talk about.

“Then one day, a lady called Mary Ratcliffe approached me. She said she had been Alan Turing’s assistant and she revealed a lot of extra stuff about him and his work. She wrote me a personal note in support of Alan which was called ‘The Turing Letter’, and it is now kept at Bletchley Park.”

“What Mary and I were doing, and the media attention I was getting, led to me being asked to be part of the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee; I am very proud of the part I played on the committee, to create the rationale which eventually led to Alan Turing being pardoned by The Queen, and subsequently being selected to feature on the £50 note.”

Trying to earn money

“At this time, I was making money through my music, as well as receiving some income from the arts projects I was doing via ticket sales and funding. I was on a very low income but had a very high status, hanging out with millionaire musicians at events, and then returning home to my council house on Chantry Estate. I was in my mid-thirties, living with my partner Emma and trying to raise a young family on very little money.”

The result of previous relationships, Matt has a son, Diarmait, who was born in 2002, and Emma has twin daughters, Eve and Rei, who were also born in 2002. In 2009, he and Emma had Oscar.

“Supporting four kids is tough. I was doing what I loved, but I needed to work out a way to earn more money using the skill sets I had.”

Through his involvement in technology, he was introduced to tech entrepreneur, Emma Mulqueeny OBE. She was founder of Rewired Reality which held ‘Hack Days’ that worked at bridging the gap between developers and organisations that didn’t have experienced technical “experts”.

“I was offered a lot of money to take part in the events and be part of a group who would work together over a weekend to solve problems and create new ideas around an organisation’s technological challenges. If you won, you would get an extra bonus and I kept winning; this led to Emma asking me to work for her and help run the company.

“When I joined Emma, she was holding five events a year. By the time I left 18 months later, we were running 12 events a month, working alongside a lot of multi-national brands, Government departments and ministries. This was a really interesting time as I was working in the Cabinet Office a lot, where I mixed with politicians. I was solving a lot of problems for a lot of people.

“Emma received a lot of stick, but she was tough and determined and I have a total respect for her. She saved the government a lot of money and she is a very cool lady; I learnt a lot from her.”

Yet, in 2014, Matt and Emma Mulqueeny parted ways when he decided that he wanted the work he did to leave a legacy for young people.

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“I had started the Creative Computing Club (CCC) in March 2012, as a pilot project to teach kids, aged between 12 and 16, technology skills so they had better career options. I was running the club one day a week in Ipswich, but I gave up working with Emma so I could focus on the club full-time.

“I was lucky to have overcome the negative experiences with mainstream school, where I had my confidence knocked out of me. I wanted others to have a smoother ride than I did and be able to learn the skills to get them a good job and a great career… and I wanted to do that in Suffolk.

Setting up CCC as a CIC

Things were going okay for Matt and the business was growing. Then in 2014, CCC became a CIC.

“The reason for this was that as a community interest company, you have to share what you are doing and the social impact you are making and how you are changing people’s lives.

“Becoming a CIC laid bare what was successful and what hadn’t worked. You aren’t judged by the money you make. If a parent comes to us and wants their child to join the club but they can’t afford the membership, then we can waive the fee. We have the freedom on how to price things and the projects we do.”

Over the past ten years, CCC has grown from its original 10 students and one session a week, to 315 students and 12 sessions a week, plus SEN teaching groups.

“Throughout that time, I have only spent £12.50 on advertising. All our success has come from word of mouth and parents talking about the club and sharing posts on social media.

“From Monday to Friday we teach, and the students learn. On Saturday, we allow them to let rip – within the confines of our building. They can pretty much do what they want; hack into each other’s computers, play video games or break down old PCs and rebuild them.

“Nowadays, we don’t rely on funding, but generate our revenue from membership and local government contracts with schools. For instance, we teach SEN students how to programme and we go into schools and take over their IT departments and run computer skills courses.

“I lead the club with my heart and work out how I can deliver with my head. Questions always at the forefront of my mind are: Is it going to help a kid? Can we manage things better? Will it give them a greater chance of a career? Everything I learn, I use it to teach with.

”I get satisfaction out of helping to manage the narrative of their lives, teaching them how to use technology and building their confidence. It’s all about stopping them from going down the same path as I did. As I have been there, I can quickly pick up on their signals and behaviours before it becomes a real issue.

“Another focus for us is getting the kids to communicate and interact with others face-to-face. After all, you can be the best programmer in the world, but if you aren’t able to talk to real people, then you won’t be able to advance in your career.  

”We want them to have the confidence to socialise with others. So, we encourage all our students to be less sedentary, getting them out doing exercise and taking part in social events such as bowling or climbing.

“We deal with kids of all aptitudes. From those that know nothing and are struggling with technology, to child geniuses who are struggling with school and the slower pace.”

“The common theme is that most of our kids struggle with education. We teach them the technological skills and give them the confidence they need to get through the school system.”

In 2018, Matt’s work in schools and the posting online of pictures about video games led to a guy phoning him up and asking whether CCC wanted any of their old computer equipment.

“The company turned out to be Ninja Theory in Cambridge. They had just been bought by Microsoft and the guy lived close to me in Ipswich. He turned up with a giant van that was packed full of pretty advanced tech equipment. Their donation enabled us to start teaching the kids 3D development, VR and AR. It significantly changed what we can offer and when it was dropped off, I sat on the floor and cried.

“This experience highlighted what can happen if people know about us. So, I have been going out and talking to as many people as possible who are involved in technology, and we are slowly developing alliances and partnerships. One great example is that after coming to their attention, Microsoft offered us the opportunity to take some of our kids down to their HQ in Reading for a look around. The upshot was that three of them joined the company as interns.”

Winning a BAFTA and losing weight

In 2019, the profile of CCC was raised further when Matt won a BAFTA in the YGD Mentor Award category, which recognises inspirational individuals involved in championing the education of young game creators in the UK.

“I was doing a lot of work with kids getting them to tell stories with video games and having been nominated a couple of times before and losing out to someone else, I didn’t think I would win. So I didn’t dress up for the ceremony. That was an interesting experience having my photo taken and doing interviews in my hoody and jeans, surrounded by people in evening wear!”

Continually going online to gain information meant that Matt and his team were prepared when the pandemic hit in March 2020.

“We were building websites about Coronavirus in January, so we could see it coming and we shut down the club two weeks before the first lockdown. I sent home the team and told them to set up to work from home and deliver their classes online.

“One thing we quickly discovered is that a lot of kids hadn’t got access to their own computers and/or the internet. So, I talked to the schools and asked how we could help. The upshot was that we went out to organisations, such as Birketts and Ubisoft and asked whether they could give us any old PCs and laptops – minus their hard drives. We then installed new hard drives that had been donated by businesses and individuals, and purchased with money that we had, plus a grant we received from Suffolk County Council.”

“Initially, we thought we could manage supplying 80 computers, but we ended up giving over 1,000 PCs and laptops to kids that needed them.”

Matt openly admits that he has always been on the large size. But during lockdown one in May 2020, having finished eating everything in the office vending machines, and weighing 134 kg, he woke up one morning and decided he needed to lose weight.

“I did what I always did and turned to the internet to learn about weight loss, nutrition and exercise. I started by walking around the computer desks in the office, before working up to running around the office for 30 minutes twice a day. A month later I bought a Treadmill.

“I realised that the main thing about weight loss is that it’s a mental thing and I have no willpower; if things are there I eat them. So, I only brought the food to the office that I wanted to eat, and I stopped eating at 2pm and would fast for the rest of the day. I worked out how many calories I needed and only ate that each day. I balanced exercise with diet and monitored all my data. After six months, my weight was down by 20kg, but I still looked the same physically. So, I got into weightlifting to tone up my body, and now, I have lost a total of 55kg and look very different.

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“Throughout it all, I didn’t want to be seen to be losing weight, as I didn’t want to be seen as having a problem. My students who I were teaching online only ever saw my head, so they were astounded when they returned to the club and saw how much I had lost.

“I also created Tech Walk, a group that encouraged those working in tech to network while doing an activity, and I was presented with an Active Change award last December.

“What I do at CCC, I don’t think of as work. I am doing something I love, which allows me to go home and spend quality time with my family.

“The biggest challenge for me in running a business is the admin. Throughout my life, I have turned to the internet to teach me how to do things and running a CIC is no different. I have used it to help me with legal and employment advice, as well as managing the finances. It was only last year that we hired a proper accountant.

“What makes me smile is that most of my students are more academically qualified than I am, and I can see that in 10 years’ time, CCC will be funded by the kids of the previous students; in fact we are already working through different generations in one family.

“I am so proud of the kids I have worked with. From around the 9,000 who have attended the club, lots have gone onto great careers and about 60 have gone onto real high-profile positions with global companies such as Microsoft Google, Sumo Digital, Ubisoft and BT. That gives me a great deal of satisfaction”.

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