The following is a conversation between Hadi Partovi, co-founder and CEO of Code.org, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: If I were to ask you what subject is being taught in schools today that wasn’t being taught when you were going to school, I would suspect that many of you might say: computer science, but in far, far too many cases, that answer would be incorrect because computer science is not being taught in many schools today. That makes little sense to most people, and absolutely no sense to my next guest. He is Hadi Partovi, co-founder and CEO of Code.org. Good evening, Hadi, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Hadi: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Denver: Tell us about Code.org and the mission of the organization.
Hadi: Code.org is a nonprofit that’s helping schools introduce computer science into their school day, so that students can learn coding and computer science just alongside other courses like biology or chemistry or algebra or history. These are topics we learn as part of school, and we believe computer science belongs in there as well.
Denver: Now, the moment that may have set you off on this path that would ultimately become Code.org happened relatively early in your life, and it was when your father brought home a Commodore 64 computer to you and your twin brother. Tell us about that time, what your life was like for you and your family, and how that gift changed so much for you.
Hadi: I have an unusual story. I was born and raised in Tehran, Iran, and when I was six years old, the country went through the Islamic revolution, and a war broke out with the neighboring country of Iraq. So, growing up as a kid, I’d spend my evenings in the basement with my hands on my ears hoping the bombs wouldn’t hit our house. In the mornings, we’d wake up and go to the rooftop and see which of the houses nearby were still standing. Kind of a rough place to grow up as a kid. Growing up in the middle of a war, there was really very little to look forward to as a beacon of hope or change.
One day my dad brought home a Commodore 64, and he said, “This doesn’t have any apps or games on it, but here’s a book. And if you learn to code, you can make your own apps and games, and that computer was basically my brother’s and my escape from the realities of the world we lived in, and we could basically create things.
Learning to code felt like learning magic, and being able to create something out of thin air was a super power. And at a time when the rest of the world was desolate, and there was no escape from it, this was a fantastic escape. Then when my family immigrated to the United States, as immigrants in the early 1980s, we were good enough at coding, my brother and I, that even when we were 14 or 15, we started doing internships at tech companies. It wasn’t even quite legal to be working yet. But that basically helped us get enough money to pay our way through school and college.
I’ve now been living what I feel is the American dream. I’ve had great success as a technologist and as an entrepreneur in the tech industry, and I realized that 30 years later, computer science and computing is driving everything in our economy– the growth in every field from transportation to communication to commerce. And yet most schools don’t teach it. Most kids’ mom and dad won’t be teaching them coding and computer science the way my dad did. This is something that really every kid should have the opportunity to learn.
Denver: And the opportunities that it created for you, you want to see those opportunities created for other kids as well.
You worked at Microsoft and a whole bunch of startups and other things along those lines, how did Code.org get started? I don’t think you had the full vision when you began. It kind of just grew and evolved naturally. Tell us that story.
Hadi: I was taking a break from work. I’d done well enough in my career that I reached the point where I didn’t really need to work for a salary, which was a very lucky and fortunate place to be in. And it’s unique because in the tech industry, so many people reach that point which is part of why it’s such an incredible industry to be in.
And I wanted to figure out a way to give back, and education has always been near and dear to my heart. My father was a professor and helped found a university. So, I’ve always had education literally in my blood. I wanted to basically grow interest around why aren’t our schools teaching computer science. Why aren’t more kids taking it? And to really say, this is an exciting field that people should study.
I didn’t at that time decide to start a gigantic nonprofit. I just wanted to make one video, a five-minute video, to build excitement around the field, and I used my absolute best connections in tech. So, I made this video that featured folks like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, and I got celebrities like the singer from the Black Eyed Peas, the basketball player from Miami Heat. They all came together in a video that was about learning coding and computer science. This was basically a hobby. I thought I’d do this for six to nine months and get the video out and get the message out. The big surprise was when this video launched, I launched it under the name Code.org. It racked up 10 million views in one week. More importantly, 20,000 schools and educators reached out saying, We love this! We want this in our schools! At that point, I was ready to – the project is done. The video is finished. The launch happened, and that really was Day one of beginning the journey for Code.org.
Denver: I think as far as giving back and having impact, you were also taken by the death of Steve Jobs, correct?
Hadi: The day actually Steve Jobs died was a really unique day for me; for all Americans was this loss of this great entrepreneur and great business person. For me, there were two things that were unique. One was, I remember thinking he was about 15 something years older than me. What am I going to do in my next 15 years? At this point, I literally wasn’t even working. I was lounging. I suddenly immediately felt like I’m valueless to society unless I contribute. More importantly, I actually wanted him to be featured in the video I was planning on making, and I hadn’t started this work, but I had always thought it would be Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg would be in this video. Now one of them was gone. So, I realized I need to get a move on.
Denver: Time’s a-wasting!
Why do you believe it’s so important to teach computer science in school? What are the reasons for that?
Hadi: That’s a great question. It’s funny because most people will ask me, “Why do you think every kid should learn to code? I don’t actually believe every kid should learn to code, and this is important language; coding is to computer science like grammar is to literature. Even though we’re called Code.org, we don’t believe that coding is a thing that everybody needs to learn… just like you don’t tell kids like, “You must learn grammar, grammar, grammar.” You want kids to learn literature, and grammar is a step towards learning to read and write and enjoy this communicative, expressiveness and creativity of literature.
Denver: Code.org, as much as anything, is a nice, short URL.
Hadi: It’s a great name. But our vision is that every school must teach computer science because in the 21st century, it’s a foundational field. There’s three reasons to teach computer science. The one that most people talk about I think is the least interesting, but the one most people talk about is the jobs in the field. It leads to the highest paying careers. It’s the largest sector of all new wages in the country, and it’s the fastest growing. It’s basically in every industry, in every state. It leads to the greatest career opportunities.
But then again, when you go through the public school system, you’re not just taking the classes to get your job. You learn English not because there are jobs in English. You learn math not to become a mathematician. You learn biology not just because you want to become a biologist. You learn this range of things to get a well-rounded education to prepare you for your future life. I believe in the 21st century, computer science is just as foundational. The last reason to teach this is because the kids like it, and kids actually these days like computer science more than almost any other field. So, the idea that this high-paying field that gives you a well-rounded education and students want to learn it… why would our schools not teach that?
Denver: You have taken my next question. Because it is fun. Those are compelling reasons. Why don’t schools teach it?
Hadi: The reasons schools historically don’t teach computer science is because it’s new. Computers and computer science themselves, it’s a hundred-year-old field roughly.
Denver: Sounds like inertia to me.
Hadi: It’s the way things have been, and schools don’t change very quickly. But then the other reason is because the teachers themselves didn’t learn computer science when they were in school. So, there’s this question of who is going to teach it? Every school has a math teacher. Every school has a biology teacher. The vast majority of schools don’t have a computer science teacher, and if you went to school and said, you should teach computer science, the principal hasn’t studied it. Nobody’s learned it. So, it’s a little bit scary and intimidating for the school to think: we’re going to teach a field that none of us learned.
Denver: That’s an interesting observation.
When you started this, I am sure that people said, “What a great idea. This will make a wonderful summer program or an after-school program!” Little did they think that you were going to take on the public education head on and say, “No. This needs to be part of the school day.” Now, that is a daunting enterprise. We know how hard it is to change the public education schools of this country. So, what was your strategy in approaching this, and how did you go about it that has led to the success that you’ve had?
Hadi: When I first started out, everybody was advising, it’s a great idea. You should create an after-school club or you should create summer camps, and I would love to have a summer camp that I can send my kid to to learn computer science or coding. Then this lady named Jane Margolis from UCLA, she told me, “If you make this a summer camp or after-school club, you’re actually going to make the diversity and opportunity gap even worse because the kids who go to these after-school clubs or summer camps tend to be the wealthier, more privileged kids. And you’re actually going to leave the kids that don’t go to those camps even farther behind; and really the only way to really get equity in the system is to teach this as part of the school.”
That really emphasized for me my reason for teaching computer science wasn’t just for the special and lucky kids. It was for every kid to have that access. Changing the public school system is not at all easy. Once I started talking about that, the folks I knew who knew the public education system the best were just like, “This is a horrible idea. You’re going to come out two years later with no success, and it’s just going to be a waste of your time.” But the reason I decided this is worth doing, worth trying is: we’re not trying to get schools to change. We’re trying to support the teachers that came to us. We had 20,000 schools reach out, and different educators that wanted this in their school system. So, we’re not asking them to change something. They’re asking our help for a change they want to create.
Denver: The demand is there.
Denver: Before we get into how you teach it, let me just ask you this: there’s a perception in this country, Hadi, that we are way behind in computer science in the schools. And China, and India, South Korea, and places like that are light years ahead of us. Would that be a correct perception or not?
Hadi: I actually would say that’s not correct. That is correct in things like math and science, and if you look at our test scores, America’s in the middle of the pack of the piece of countries… the countries that measure their test scores in the system to see who’s doing better at math and science, and we’re somewhere at 30th or so among the countries.
When it comes to computer science, most countries are in the same place where their schools don’t teach it, and it’s a new field. There’s a few outliers like Estonia or Vietnam. There’s a handful of countries that are teaching computer science thoroughly to every student at all grade bands. But most of them do not. In fact, this is a field where I’m very proud of this: because of the work of Code.org, America is really leading the world in terms of computer science education. We’re the country that invented the computer. We invented the internet. We invented the e-commerce, social networking, smartphone, and as a result, other countries look to us for leadership for education in this space.
Denver: That’s good to hear, but a lot of work to do to keep that lead intact.
How would you like to see computer science taught in the schools: elementary, then middle school, and ultimately in high school?
Hadi: Most people don’t envision that coding or computer is something you could start in kindergarten. They just assume that it’s like calculus. It should come in senior year or something like that. But the reality is like anything else, you start math with the one, two, threes, and you start learning English and language with the A, B, Cs.
And the kindergarten level material in computer sciences is very easy and very fun. Any six- or seven-year-old can pick it up quite easily, and we believe this is a field that you can introduce at a young age. The other thing that’s important about it is: we aren’t just teaching coding. We teach a little bit of programming, computational thinking, how does the internet work, cyber security, big data and data analysis.
Then also very importantly, the social implications and ethics and digital citizenship around technology. Because you know, these days, as we’re all recognizing, technology is a double-edged sword. It can be used for good. It can be used for bad. If you don’t think about the implications of things you create, you might end up creating something that has these effects that you didn’t expect. We think it’s important for the education system to balance teaching kids not just how to use technology, but how to leverage what you learned from the humanities to usage for the right purposes.
Denver: Like the other subjects they teach in school, you’re really just teaching them about the world around them. As far as high school is concerned, you don’t think this should be a requirement. You think it would be better if this were an elective course.
Hadi: What we pushed for is for the earlier grades to have this be integrated into the school day. but for the high school to have it be like biology class; biology is no requirement. Most schools require you to take so many years of science, and you can choose which sciences, and if this is similar as in every high school, if taught as an intro class… to maybe an AP class or an advanced honors class, I think enough kids would get exposed to it.
Denver: You really don’t need to remove anything because people are going to be voting pretty much with their feet, and those classes will either fill up or not fill up and it would be that market that will determine what happens in that high school.
Hadi: Exactly. And in fact, what we have found time and time again is when you put computer science as one of the options, and when it counts for graduation, students flock to it in much greater numbers than anybody expected.
Denver: Hadi, if there’s a movement around this campaign to teach computer science in schools, a centerpiece of that movement would be the Hour of Code. Tell us about that.
Hadi: The Hour of Code is by far the best idea I’ve ever had in my life. I feel lucky and fortunate to have thought of something that has taken off so big. It’s almost exactly five years ago when I thought: We had these 20,000 teachers who wanted to do something with computer science, but they were from all over the world, different countries, different languages, different grade bands. What, I was wondering, is one thing that teachers and educators everywhere could do to engage in computer science? One of the challenges with computer science is it’s so daunting if you’re new to it. Whether you’re a teacher or a student or a parent, you don’t envision yourself as being a coder. One hour is enough to learn enough to realize: “Wait! That wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be.
Hadi: That was actually kind of fun. My classroom of 9-year-old kids could do it even though these weren’t the kids that I expected would be the computer scientists. So, the call to action was for educators globally to just give one hour of their day, even one hour a year, to try just an hour of code to demystify this field. An hour of code isn’t enough to learn computer science, but it is enough to learn that you could do this. It’s enough to change your attitudes and in fact, we’ve now measured that it does change attitudes, especially among girls, but really among all students. This movement has now grown to: we set out to say,” Let’s in one week get 10 million students to do an hour of code.”
We’ve now reached 10% of all students on the planet. Almost 600 million hours of code have been done since we started this five years ago. It’s become by far the largest education movement in global history. It’s frankly an amazing thing to have thought of something that has turned into that. Thanks to hundreds of thousands of teachers and educators in schools that have flocked to this idea.
Denver: Good idea, indeed.
Code.org has a number of customers. You have your donors, your partners; I can’t imagine how important policy makers must be to you… and certainly the students, but there’s no more important customer than the teachers. Tell us about that relationship and what you do and provide for them.
Hadi: Teachers are by far the most important group we work with, and teachers are so important to this country and to every country. Teachers I believe have one of the most important, if not the most important job in our community for preparing our children, for preparing the future.
When it comes to Code.org, we wouldn’t exist without the teachers that are bringing computer science in the classroom. Our role is to serve those teachers who have decided that computer science is something that belongs in their school, belongs as part of the curriculum, and we provide them the tools, the resources, the training, the curriculum to make it easy for them. Teachers also recognize the respect we pay them, and I think teachers love Code.org because we have such a respectful attitude towards them because we put them on a pedestal as such important role models in our society.
Denver: And you have an incredibly low bar of entry for them. You make things so easy for them that you really have the empathy, where you put yourselves in their shoes and provide those things in a little box… and things of that sort… just to make their life a lot easier.
Well, if we take a look at the computer science– whether you’re looking at schools or in the university or the workplace, it’s generally about 80% male and about 80% white/Asian. Tell us about your efforts to create more diversity. And what is the picture of the students who are participating in your program?
Hadi: It’s funny. We care passionately about diversity, but we haven’t named our organization after one group. We’re not just about girls. We’re not just about African-Americans. We’re not just about Latinos. If you look at it, other than rich, white, suburban men, every other group in America is underrepresented in computer science. In fact, that means something like 90% to 95% of the population is underrepresented. Whether you’re in an urban area, in a rural area; whether you’re black, Latino, female; our view is if you teach computer science equitably as part of the school system, you can reach every kid.
That really has proven out in our work. We’re at the point where the majority of our students, 70% of Code.org students are black, Hispanic, or female. The underrepresented minorities are the majority in our courses. Computer science has been 80% male-dominated. In our classrooms, it’s only 55% men; 45% are the girls. The underrepresented minorities are almost half, so we’re really changing the gender gap and the racial gap in this field because it’s the school that’s doing that.
Denver: That’s so good to hear because I was surprised to see the gender gap is actually wider than it was 10 years ago. I think we always assumed there were far less women involved in computer science than men. But they must have been closing the gap, but actually it’s a little bit less at least at the university level and the workplace than it was 10 years ago. How did something like that happen?
Hadi: The workplace and university gender gap in computer science and computing has been getting worse, but if you look at what’s happening in K to 12 in the last five years, the work of Code.org has completely turned that around. So we see women in computer science and not just in elementary, middle school, but even in high school, even in the AP advanced college-level course in high school, women are the fastest growing group. And in the AP course, they’re still about 30% relative to the 70% who are boys. But that’s up from about 18% to 20%. So, they’re catching up.
Denver: What’s been the response and the reaction to these students who have taken this course and the curriculum you teach? Give us a little sense of what that has been.
Hadi: It’s been amazing. I knew up front when I said: What are the reasons to teach computer science? I remember telling you just a few minutes ago that it’s not just about the jobs or the foundational learning. It’s just to get the students engaged because it’s the class that students want to learn. And students in our AP course in the advanced college level course, 70% of them say they want to continue studying computer science after they graduate. The majority say they enjoy computer science, and if you ask them: How much do you enjoy computer science, and how much do you enjoy school, they rank computer science higher than school. They rank their coding work higher than regular school work. We strongly believe, and now the survey results show that this is one of the classes that students enjoy the most.
Denver: Would it be fair to say that coding is beginning to become cool?
Hadi: Coding is definitely beginning to become cool. In fact, our survey show that broadly 75% of Americans say that computer science is cool in a way that it wasn’t 10 years ago.
Denver: We talked a lot about what you are doing in the schools, but you also have an online platform–one of the fastest growing online platforms around. Thousands of students joining every day, and 10 to 20 thousand teachers joining every month. What is on that platform? And what do people find to be so attractive about it?
Hadi: The reason Code.org has grown so quickly and spread through so many schools is we’re not just asking the school to teach computer science. We provide the learning platform that makes it easy for their teachers, so that a math teacher or a history teacher, even an arts teacher, can begin teaching computer science using our online learning platform. In fact, students can learn on their own without even a teacher, although we prefer that this be taught in a classroom. It’s become one of the fastest spreading online learning platforms in history. We’re now at the point where in the United States, one out of every four students in the country has an account on Code.org. And get this, in the fifth grade, two-thirds of American students are on Code.org. That’s the most popular grade and age group, 11-, 12-, 13-year-olds.
Denver: And you’ve had a big help from some of the Disney characters and others, right?
Hadi: Yeah. We’ve had the amazing fortune of having brands like Star Wars or Ana and Elsa from Frozen or brands like Minecraft or the Angry Birds all integrated into our platform. That makes it so much fun for kids. And the teachers love that as well because it’s educational, but it’s also engaging.
Denver: You know, you’re still a relatively young organization, five years. Have you been able to track the impact that these courses have had on students? Are they continuing with computer science as they progress through school? And have they had any effect on math or science grades?
Hadi: Those are all really great questions. We just began a longitudinal study to track our kids for after they graduate. But when you look through their K through 12 system, at all grade bands, computer science is the fastest growing field. Certainly, in elementary school, but in the high school, all the way up to the advanced placement; of course it’s the fastest growing AP course in the history of the AP exams and the College Board.
In terms of the impact in other fields, we just actually published information about a study that’s done by the University of Chicago and one of our school districts where in classrooms of teachers that are resourceful, teachers teaching computer science and coding using Code.org, the students who did extra Code.org lessons also saw increased scores in math and science and in English. This is exciting because I’ve always felt that if you learn coding and computer science, it stretches the analytical side of your brain, and it also just engaged kids more in their school work. Now, we actually have researches; the results showing high grades on the standardized tests which is really important for educators.
Denver: Much better for fundraising to have the research than the “felt”. No question about it.
Speaking about that, what’s your business model for Code.org? What are your sources of revenue? And who are some of your key partners, Hadi?
Hadi: We’re a nonprofit, I wouldn’t call it necessarily a business model. We survive and we thrive, thanks to the incredible generosity of philanthropic donors– whether individuals, foundations, or corporations. Our largest donors and supporters are companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon, and we’ve also been lucky to have the generous support of folks like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg.
But outside of the tech sphere, there’s also a lot of other companies from the financial service industry, companies like BlackRock; from entertainment, companies like Disney; and then a whole lot of individual generous donors. We’re lucky to have their support because this enables us to give everything away to the schools, to the public schools that want to teach computer science. No need to pay us. We’ve never collected a dime from a public school, nor from the government. This is really a fantastic outpouring of support from the private industry to help education for the good of every child.
Denver: A very nice group of supporters, I would say.
In many ways, Code.org is a tech company with the heart of a nonprofit organization and a very, very clear social mission. Tell us about your corporate culture, and what you think makes it such a special place in which to work.
Hadi: That’s a great question. We are incredibly mission-driven like in nonprofits, but our culture is more tech company than nonprofit. What that means for example is, to get a job at Code.org, you need to go through five or six interviews and it’s a grilling interview process, much like if you thought about getting a job at Facebook. If you’re joining as a software engineer or in any kind of role, the tests we put you through are just as stringent. Most nonprofits, if you go to them Friday, 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock, you won’t see people around still working. At Code.org, we have a very strong work ethic that is also driven from our tech background. And I think that the tech background, what it does more than anything else is it causes us to dream very, very big.
From the spur of the first idea around Hour of Code, the thought was: Can we get 10 million students to do this? Can we change the entire education system? That type of thinking is something that tech companies and tech entrepreneurs do. So, I always say that we think big, but we act small, and we act like a small startup. The fact that we’re nonprofit also makes us different because a lot of tech companies have a very me-centric attitude, just like what do we do for us? Whereas we’re doing all of this for the good of the world and for the benefit of children. So, the corporate culture is: there’s so much passion in the employee base. They’re there before the mission. That’s the only reason they’re there. And that really shows through.
Denver: Very nice blend indeed.
Let me close with this, Hadi. You’ve accomplished an enormous amount in just five years. What is in store over the next five years? And where do you hope Code.org and this field will be, come 2023?
Hadi: Five years from now, I would expect that we can actually successfully say that every school in America teaches computer science, which I don’t think if you had told me when I started five years ago, that this would be a 10-year job. But I think it is completely doable. We’re on track. The momentum– with 43 different states having changed policy, and over a quarter of all the teachers in this country having embraced Code.org, I think it’s very doable.
I’m not setting my sights on the global landscape, which is a much much harder problem. 95% of the world’s students are outside the United States, and those countries also don’t teach computer science. So, I’ve been thinking about: What can we do to help other countries follow America’s lead like our schools have?
Denver: Hadi Partovi, the co-founder and CEO of Code.org. I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. What will listeners find on your website, and how can they become involved if they’re so inclined?
Hadi: The most important thing your listeners can do for Code.org is to go to a school and ask that school to teach computer science. There’s also a letter on Code.org if you want to bring computer science to your school or district, they can send to teachers. If a parent is listening, you and your child can sign up and learn on Code.org yourselves, although it’s more impactful if you can convince your child’s teacher to teach it in the school. But any kid can sign up on their own and learn. It’s really really fun. The Hour of Code has been done by students of all age groups, so I encourage adults to try it as well.
Denver: And they can make a donation as well. Hey, can they buy that hat you’re wearing right now?
Hadi: We have very, very popular hats; the Code Hat has been worn by presidents, prime ministers, celebrities, and athletes. It’s a pretty hot item.
Denver: Thanks, Hadi. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Hadi: Thank you very much.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving