When the Seattle-based nonprofit Code.org launched in 2013 with a mission to spread computer science knowledge, co-founders Hadi and Ali Partovi enlisted some of the most successful coders on the planet to champion their cause.
In a YouTube video titled “What Most Schools Don’t Teach,” Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Valve co-founder Gabe Newell and others discussed how computer science education impacted their lives.
“The programmers of tomorrow are the wizards of the future,” Newell said in the video. “You’re going to look like you have magic powers compared to everybody else.”
This week, Code.org turned 10 years old and the magic is definitely spreading. The nonprofit counts 80 million students and 2 million teachers on its platform today, with 238 million projects created by students around the world.
Backed by nearly $60 million in funding from the likes of Microsoft, Amazon, Google and others, Code.org isn’t resting. The organization is partnering with business, education and nonprofit leaders to urge state governments and education leaders to bring more computer science opportunities to K-12 students across the U.S. It’s working to increase access, participation, and achievement in computer science among traditionally underrepresented groups of students and to close the gender gap in tech.
And Hadi Partovi is looking ahead to the next 10 years and continued growth. The CEO said he’s pushing for all states to require computer science as a requirement for high school graduation. And he views the rise of artificial intelligence not as a threat to human coders and education as we know it, but as the next “superpower” for computer scientists to harness.
“We’re going to need new tools, new teacher training and thought leadership to figure out the future of education,” Partovi said. “I expect Code.org to play a significant role in all three of those things.”
Partovi is a former Microsoft manager and was an early investor in companies including Facebook, DropBox, Airbnb and Uber.
GeekWire caught up with Partovi to discuss his Code.org highlights, challenges along the way, his views on AI and more. Our Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
GeekWire: When you look back to 10 years ago, and the start of Code.org, what’s your fondest memory?
Hadi Partovi: I think the two most unique memories of the work of Code.org have been going to The White House for President Obama becoming the first president to write one line of code, and also going to the Vatican, for Pope Francis to write one line of code. If you told me in 2013 when we started that either of those things would happen, there’s no way I would have believed it, especially the president hosting an event like that, one year after the organization started.
Is there anything along the way that you would have done differently?
One of the challenges I’ve had as a leader is alternating between leading a startup versus leading a movement. At Code.org we’re really doing both. We run the largest learning platform for computer science globally. But at the same time, we are also leading a social movement with lots and lots of other organizations, partners and collaborators. My hardest challenge has been balancing doing both of those things. We’re both a rising tide that lifts all boats, and we’re also the largest boat. Finding the right balance between those two things is probably where I’ve had the most missteps, and it’s the biggest area of growth for me.
Before we get into AI and the hype of the last few months, what would you consider the biggest leap in this type of education in the last 10 years?
“For me, the biggest surprise of the work of Code.org — and it’s also a source of the biggest joy — has been the pace at which the world’s teachers decided to start teaching something they never learned themselves. And also embraced a type of teaching, which is sort of a flipped classroom model where basically the curriculum is being delivered via computer and the teacher is effectively learning alongside the children.
When we started Code.org, our biggest worry was, ‘Will schools, and especially will teachers, embrace this? Who’s going to teach computer science — there are not enough computer scientists.’ It turns out history teachers, math teachers, English teachers, librarians, gym teachers, third grade elementary school teachers have all, in millions, begun teaching coding and computer science. That’s one of the most heartwarming things about the work of Code.org.”
So how does AI change everything? What are we looking at as far as generative AI and the continued need for human coders and the need for computer science education?
“Well, anybody in tech knows that the pace at which technology is changing our world is only accelerating. The latest developments in AI are one example of that. There’s been major platform shifts, back to the invention of personal computer, the internet and then the smartphone. AI is the next major such shift and it will change everything in our world, not just education.
For Code.org, we’re going to be investing deeply in this space in three areas. One is teaching how AI works. The second is using AI and how we teach computer science. And the third is infusing AI and computer science in other subjects of primary and secondary education. And all three of those are important, major bets as part of what we see as the next 10 years of Code.org.
You mentioned how AI itself can write code. And that is true, and the way I think of that is AI is broadly creating a new superpower that is only available to computer scientists. Coding has always been sort of a superpower, but AI is only amplifying the difference between the haves and the have nots when it comes to these skills, and it makes teaching computer science more important than ever.
What are your thoughts on schools that are concerned about technology such as ChatGPT and are in some cases banning it?
I think even at those schools they would they would admit that the bans are a short-term effort, recognizing that they haven’t figured out how to adapt their curriculum and also recognizing that the current AI tools are only 18 and over and not really designed for K-12. But I don’t think those bans are a permanent statement. They’re just a short-term reaction for what happens in this school year.
The entire K-12 curriculum is going to need to adapt not just how we teach but what we teach and what we test. It needs to adapt to a world where just like the calculator made arithmetic easy, AI is making all sorts of access to information and written essays and things like that easy.
How do you picture the next 10 years for Code.org compared to the first 10 when it comes to the learning curve for teachers and students?
The first 10 years of Code.org have been unbelievable in impact, and yet at the same time I believe the next 10 years have even greater potential. Code.org has somewhere between 10X and 100X growth potential. I think people increasingly realize because of the changes happening in AI, school systems are no longer meeting the needs of what parents expect in terms of preparing their kids or what employers expect. The biggest change that will happen in the U.S. is the shift to make computer science a requirement for high school graduation. My bet is that by the end of the decade, we’ll see that every U.S. state makes it a requirement. That’s also not going to be just a U.S.-only thing. I think dozens of countries will move in the same direction.”
If you hadn’t put Code in front of .org, is there anything else you could have imagined teaching or bringing to the world?
I am regularly asked about the shortcomings of public education because there’s so many people who feel that we are teaching the curriculum of the past and that schools aren’t teaching the real things that students should learn. So I hear lots of ideas for other stuff we should teach in schools. Part of why we teach computer science is because computer science is one of the best ways to teach some of these other things that people want, such as creativity, collaboration, problem solving skills, project management. But if I had to pick the two other subjects that are most sorely missing in education right now, they are statistics and financial literacy. If every calculus student was learning computer science and statistics instead, I think the country would be much better prepared.