We need more geeks: Hadi and Ali Partovi form Code.org to solve the computer science education crisis

Former iLike president and Microsoft exec Hadi Partovi at the 2012 GeekWire Summit. (Karen Ducey photo)

Ali and Hadi Partovi have used their entrepreneurial talents to change the music, advertising and communications industries. Now, the twin brothers are turning their sights to a much bigger problem: computer science education.

In the words of Hadi Partovi, the dearth of computer scientists emerging from U.S. high schools and colleges is a “big hairy challenge” — one which is acutely felt in tech hotbeds like Seattle and San Francisco where a war for talent rages.

Simply put, there just aren’t enough top-notch engineers to go around.

Code.org — a non-profit bankrolled by the Partovis — is setting out to change that. The brothers aren’t saying how much they are investing in the effort, which will start by creating an online directory of schools, summer camps, clubs and other institutions that teach computer science. From there, the non-profit hopes to raise awareness around the issues — a national crisis that Hadi Partovi equates to the seriousness of the fiscal cliff.

“The under-education and the lack of people learning computer programming — if you look at it as a 10-year problem — is as big of deal as the fiscal cliff,” says Partovi, an investor and advisor to Facebook, Dropbox and Airbnb. “And yet people know that it is a problem, but it is not a matter of national debate.”

The shortage of computer scientists has been well documented. And yet very little is being done about it.

In 2011, threats to turn off support for the computer science department at Western Washington University sparked outrage among the tech community in the Seattle area.  And while private employers have stepped up to support the University of Washington’s computer science department, including recently endowed professorships, the state’s largest research institution still can’t produce computer science engineers fast enough to fill demand.

The situation is even worse at the high school level where Partovi said there are only about 6,000 full time teachers committed to the discipline and just 2,000 schools offer the AP computer science exam.

Startup veteran and former Microsoft exec Hadi Partovi

“Most good schools actually don’t, unfortunately, offer computer programming,” he said.

There’s no shortage of folks trying to solve the computer science education problem, from traditional educational organizations such as Northeastern University which recently established a branch campus in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood to the new CodeFellows program.

Partovi said he doesn’t want to compete with those efforts, but help raise their profiles and attempt to tackle the challenge head on by raising awareness.

“I basically decided that this is a problem that I want to solve. I don’t do things very lightly, and I’ve spent the last three years kind of mulling what I want to do next in my life. And I want it to be my life’s work to solve this problem,” he said.

Ed Lazowska, The Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, called Code.org a “terrific effort” since it is focusing on computer science as the best way to learn critical skills such as computational
thinking, algorithmic expression and problem decomposition.

“The messages are exactly right,” said Lazowska, who has chatted with Partovi about the concept. Lazowska says that computer science too often gets left on the sidelines in the discussions around STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Partovi believes that needs to change, and “he’s providing kids and parents with information that will allow them to move forward while the education system tries to catch up,” Lazowska says.

Here’s more from our interview with Hadi Partovi:

On why computer scientists are needed outside of the tech industry:  “This isn’t just for the tech industry. We hear about it in our industry. But 70 percent of the software programming jobs are actually in other industries — doing fraud prevention at a bank or inventory management at a tractor company. We all know that software is everywhere, and that it is changing the world. And the actual need for software programmers now is something that hits every single (part) of the economy.”

On the economic impact of not investing in computer engineering jobs: “At 100,000 jobs per year, if you multiply that out by 10 years, it is about a million jobs. These are the highest paying jobs in the economy, so even if you assume a $100,000 salary, which is actually low from what a lot of people are getting, it is like $100 million per year. There are studies that show that each software job results in 4.3 supporting jobs… The economic impact of not educating our kids for the jobs we need over the 10-year time frame is going to be on the order of $300 billion a year, which is basically a fiscal-cliff-sized problem. And it is not just a Microsoft and Google and Facebook problem. It is a problem that will face this country’s banks and the media industry and manufacturing, auto suppliers — everyone needs computer programmers.”

On why kids should consider computer science: “It is a national need from a problem standpoint, but it is also a problem of personal opportunity. The fastest way if you are in the 99 percent and want to join the one percent … the easiest way to equalize your opportunity is to learn computer programming. It is one of these skills where the computer doesn’t care if you are black or white or a girl or boy or old or young as long as you know how to speak the language of code, the computer will do what you want. And, if you are good at it, you can make a lot of money.”

Sobering stats: “The vast majority of students not only don’t study (computer science), they don’t get the opportunity to study it. Out of 40,000 high schools in the country, only 2,000 offer the AP computer science exam. The number of full-time teachers teaching computer science is about 6,000 in the entire country, and the number of teachers and schools that offer computer science classes is actually declining, it’s not growing. The number of college students graduating with computer science degrees is actually less now than it was 10 years ago. These are all trends that are exactly in the opposite direction of what you’d expect for such as fast-growing industry that’s creating jobs at double the pace of the nation’s average.”

What does success look like for Code.org three years out? “Success in three years may be tough to judge. Success in one month is we build a database of every single place that computer science is taught. Success in three months is that this is a topic that, by and large, Americans realize is a problem, not just the tech industry. In the tech industry, if you ask anybody, they realize it is an issue. But if you go to Iowa and ask a random parent in a random school, it is not something that they’ve ever heard of….”

What about success in five years? “Success in five years is that the majority of American high schools, and even middle schools, offer some sort of instruction. That is a much harder problem. And the reason that that problem is hard is because even schools that want to offer the instructions need computer programmers to teach computer programming, and the hardest people in the world to find are computer programmers…. If you want to get existing programmers to become teachers, that is like asking the highest paid people in the world to take the lowest paying job in the world.”

On why eduction is difficult to hack: “It is not that that problem can’t be solved, but one of the hardest issues is the overall structure of the educational system. That said, there are so many ways that one can innovate in this space. Anybody in software looking at education thinks: What can one do to improve education or reduce costs. In general, the education system is difficult to hack because there is so much inertia around how it is currently done, yet in this space the inertia is kind of a blank slate. The inertia is around not doing much. So, for the school that has nothing, they may be more willing to consider having video instructions done in a video conference or having blended curriculum where computers are part of the instruction.”

On raising more money: “Ali and I have been funding this for the past nine months, and we will continue to fund it for the short-term foreseeable future. But solving that five-year problem, we will need millions or tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars. There are different approaches one can take, and we are basically looking at different approaches to judge which fundraising strategy to go after. We are not going to do the fundraising until the plan is fully baked.”

On solving the ‘big hairy challenge’ of public education: “Most people shy away from trying to impact public, K-12 education. It is a morass…. And I am not naive about that. But I think actually impacting and getting this into real schools rather than sort of these side schools is the real opportunity. But it is also a big hairy challenge. I am not sure there is anybody who is tackling that at the right level. There are many older institutions that look at that problem, like the National Science Foundation, and I am in regular contact with the governmental institutions that are trying to solve this at the public school level. I think relative to those, what I bring is a startupp-y, Silicon Valley agility.  I think the solutions I’d take are different than somebody who has been working in education for 20 years would take.” 

  • SunScene

    My 16-year-old son really wants to learn to code. We agree that the knowledge is the gateway to creativity. There are no resources for these kids. There are summer camps but I refuse to have my kid indoors for a week when it is finally sunny. Many kids also play sports on the weekend. The scene is different these days. Even the 4.0 kids are playing high level/commitment sports – which is great, but there are no flexible options for them. Or are there? I would love to hear.

  • Thomas R.

    Kudos to the Partovi brothers for starting this initiative. Given the prevalence of technology, everyone should have at least some coding experience in the future. Computer Science should be just as important as any other core classes: English, Biology, etc.

  • http://twitter.com/StephanieBaier Stephanie Baier

    How do you change the perception (of most faculty and admin) that students learn what they need about computer literacy through osmosis, and Computer Programming should be left for college?

  • http://twitter.com/CodioHQ Codio

    Code.org is a step in the right direction if we want to keep up with demand in the industry. Languages such as HTML & CSS are simple enough for children aged 12 and over to grasp the basics of and many would be interested in learning them for the purpose of building their own websites. I imagine many students would also be interested in learning programming languages if say by the end of the course they were creating their own games.

    I can’t see the situation changing any time soon in the US school system since the average wage for a developer is $90K and the average wage for a teacher is $50K, no one’s going to take a $40K pay cut to teach kids when they can keep doing the thing they love and earn more.

    Perhaps all teachers should be trained to teach coding related to their subject? Web Design for Art teachers; Robotics for Physics teachers and PHP for Maths teachers. The chance of that happening is unlikely but luckily there is an amazing online community for anyone interested in learning.

    The approach that I advocate (I have written a mini-manifesto blog post you will be able to read here from Tuesday 16th : http://www.codio.com/s/blog/2013/04/post-curriculum/) is to take a collaborative, open source approach to teaching people to code. Throw the building of tutorials and rich coding content to the community of teachers and professional developers and make it completely open. The developer community is already doing this to a degree and there is not shortage of willingness. You would end up with a dynamic, organic body of work that does not need committees or curricula. It is a body of work that teachers can draw on as they wish.