Hadi Partovi, Code.org Co-Founder
By Ryan Traynor, Editor-in-Chief
Hadi Partovi is the chief executive officer and co-founder of the educational nonprofit Code.org. Code.org provides computer science classes in 15% of U.S. classrooms implementing a curriculum platform for computer science in grades K-12. Children start off thinking they are playing computer games and before long they realize they have learned to code. Hadi also launched the Hour of Code movement that has reached over 100 million students worldwide, encouraging kids to try coding and computer science. Through Code.org and the Hour of Code movement, Hadi has greatly expanded access to computer science by women and underrepresented students of color. His dream is to have every student in every school have the opportunity to learn computer science.
Hadi was born in war-torn Iran. Even though his school did not offer computer classes, he taught himself how to code at the age of 10. After immigrating to the United States, he worked as a software engineer starting as early as high school to help pay for college. He received his degree in computer science from Harvard University and began working at Microsoft and then branched out as an entrepreneur, starting two new companies. He then became a tech investor and participated as an early advisor or investor in companies such as Facebook, Dropbox, and airbnb. In 2013 Hadi and his twin brother Ali launched the education nonprofit Code.org. Code.org has introduced computer science to millions of students and classrooms worldwide. Because of his work to expand access to computer science in schools, Mr. Partovi has received numerous awards, including a regional Jefferson award. Hopefully this interview will inspire all readers to pursue their passions as we speak with Mr. Partovi about his journey and aspirations for Code.org.
To learn more about Mr. Partovi’s effort through Code.org to encourage the teaching of computer science in the classroom, please watch this clip from CBS This Morning:
Amazing Kids! (AK): Why did you originally start Code.org? You started Code.org with your twin brother. How has it been working with a family member on something that has grown so extensively?
Hadi Partovi (HP): I started Code.org because, as an immigrant, I feel like the American Dream is broken. The best careers in this country are in computing – it’s literally the #1 source of all new wages in the country, and yet the majority of our public schools don’t offer a single course in computer science. In the 21st century, every student should have a chance to learn computer science, not just because of the career opportunities, but because a basic understanding of how our world works is part of a well-rounded education for every child.
My twin brother Ali and I have worked together on many projects. He helped launch Code.org in 2013 and also has joined me in funding our initial work. Since then he’s been one of my closest advisors, and his advice, especially his encouragement to go “all in,” have been absolutely critical to everything I’ve achieved at Code.org.
AK: How are your courses designed to attract more girls and underrepresented minorities to try them? Is it a matter of the promotion of the programs or are the programs themselves designed differently to attract a wider range of students?
HP: Broadening diversity of participation in computer science is completely fundamental to Code.org’s mission, and as a result it is weaved throughout absolutely everything we do.
Our courses are absolutely designed with diversity in mind. Our video tutorials feature not just famous technologists like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, they also include role models and software engineers that represent every different background, gender, and race. In the elementary school tutorials, our coding activities aren’t focused on just one task such as designing games, but also on creating art, or stories, to keep all students engaged. In our middle school and high school courses, the entire syllabus is designed to attract and retain a broader student base. These courses begin with problem-solving without code, so that if some students are already proficient coders the others don’t feel unwelcome. And they explore computer programming, the internet, cybersecurity or data analysis all with a view towards the impact of computing on society in a way that all students can relate. And our professional learning programs for teachers include a deliberate section on equity, so that all of our teachers can help broaden the diversity of the students in their new computer science classrooms.
As a result, Code.org’s classrooms have unprecedented diversity – our student coders are 45% female, 48% are underrepresented minorities, and 47% are on free-and-reduced meal programs. We couldn’t be more proud of these numbers. If even a fraction of our 13 million students pursue computer science beyond K-12, they can bring about a major change in the diversity of America’s tech workforce, and our schools will have opened a new pathway of socioeconomic opportunity for the students who need it the most.
AK: What ways do you find to get teachers to offer the computer science courses in their curriculum?
HP: The most important way is to break stereotypes is by participation. Teachers don’t need to be convinced that technology is important, that it’s changing the world, and that there’s money in it. Everybody knows that. But most of them are intimidated by stereotypes, and they start off thinking that this is “not for my classroom” or “not for my students.” They don’t imagine that their 10-year-old students can begin coding, and they don’t imagine that they can learn enough to teach it.
So for us, the biggest hurdle is to convince a teacher to just try introducing one hour of computer science in their classroom, and that’s enough to shatter stereotypes. They quickly find that the students love it, and everybody wants to go beyond the first hour. The vast majority of the teachers and students who start with an Hour of Code go well beyond, and many of the teachers begin teaching a year-long computer science program.
AK: Getting 120 school districts to adopt your curriculum is quite an accomplishment. With the structure of our school districts and budgeting concerns, what has been a hurdle that you have been able to overcome to get them on board? What policy changes are needed to get computer science classes in the school curriculum?
HP: It certainly hasn’t been easy! America’s schools have a lot of competing priorities – whether it’s the Common Core or standardized testing or something else – and our largest school districts are constantly battling the challenges within the social and economic urban communities they serve.
But in the last 3 years we’ve created what has truly become a teacher-led movement. America’s educators have realized that computer science is important for all students, starting right now, and their support more than anything else has been critical to the success we’ve had with the largest school districts in the country. Of course, we also do everything we can to make it easy for them – we provide the curriculum free of charge, we train new computer science teachers free of charge, and we help the school district with all the change-management to make it a smooth process for them to roll out a district-wide change in curriculum offerings.
Lastly, it’s critical for state policies to reflect that computer science is a core academic subject just like math or lab science. This means integrating it into course credits that count for high school graduation, university admissions, teacher certification, and most importantly, providing funding for professional learning for teachers. The Code.org Advocacy Coalition had success helping 20 states change policies to increase support for computer science, and 7 of these states have even allocated funding for computer science in K-12.
AK: Why do you think computer science is enjoyed more by students than subjects like English, History, and Science?
HP: This is a really important question, because I agree with all the parents who say that students should have a chance to follow their passions, and that’s exactly why we should offer computer science in our schools. A survey by Change the Equation showed that when students are asked what classes they like the most, computer science is at the top of list, along with art, and dance. Why? Because it is a creative field. Everybody prefers to create things than to memorize facts. At a time when schools, teachers, and students all feel the stress of increased standardized testing, computer science courses help students make apps, design algorithms, or create games or interactive stories. This type of creative, project-based problem solving is not only more valuable for what our workforce needs, it’s also more fun!
AK: Describe how you have brought Code.org global. How have you found investors and companies to assist you? What has been a major hurdle?
HP: Although most of our work is focused on the United States, the Hour of Code campaign has been a global success, and its success is thanks to our dozens of international partners such as Program.ar in Argentina or Programa il Futuro in Italy. And thanks to hundreds of passionate volunteers, our online courses have been translated into 45 different languages. As a result, Code.org’s courses have become the most popular way to learn K-12 computer science globally, even though we don’t have any international staff. In the 3 years since our launch, 7 countries have announced nationwide plans to integrate computer science for every student in every school: UK, Australia, Japan, Italy, Argentina, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia.
In all this, we’ve been fortunate to have the support of many of the most successful corporations in the world. Our top donors are Microsoft, Facebook, Infosys, and Google, but we’re lucky to also have the support of Salesforce, Accenture, Verizon, AT&T, Blackrock, and many, many others, because all of these companies recognize that computer science is critical for the future workforce of the 21st century.
AK: What is a way to get more computer access to students around the world to expand access to education sources?
HP: Expanding access to hardware devices is critical for all education, not just for coding and computer science. Fortunately, Moore’s law has made computers far cheaper, and classroom-friendly computers now cost as little as $150, about the same as the math calculators that are required in America’s math classrooms. There are many nonprofits and even governmental programs to expand hardware access, and Code.org’s success wouldn’t be possible without their work.
AK: How can we do a better job of encouraging kids to go into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) related majors (in particular, computer science) in college so that jobs in the future stay with local employees?
HP: What is interesting to me is that 70% of all new jobs across all STEM categories are in computing, whereas only 8% of STEM graduates major in computer science. Of course, math and science are important for all students to gain a foundational understanding of how the world works, but when it comes to careers, U.S. universities graduate more mathematicians and scientists than there are jobs in these fields. The U.S. workforce doesn’t have a STEM shortage, it has a computer science shortage. How do we convince students to study computer science? I think the only necessary step is to give them early exposure and an opportunity to see if they like it, and enough will pursue it. The reason we have a shortage is because the majority of our K-12 schools haven’t even taught computer science until very recently.
AK: What characteristics do you find in successful entrepreneurs that create startup companies?
HP: I agree with Edison, who said success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, and so what’s most important in an entrepreneur is the passion and perseverance to work long, hard hours, through thick and thin, to realize their vision. Success as an entrepreneur is never easy. It may seem from afar that a successful entrepreneur had it easy, but when you look on the inside, the most successful ones have had to overcome tremendous challenges to make it. That’s certainly been true at Code.org, but also at all of the most successful startups I’ve invested in.
AK: If you had a piece of advice to any young student who would like to pursue a career in computer science or who would like to create their own company, what would it be?
HP: My advice for a student who is pursuing a career in computer science would be to make sure to learn computer science broadly, and not to focus exclusively on computer programming. Fields like big data or machine learning or cybersecurity are related to coding and computer programming but they’re also different, and success in computer science will require a breadth of exposure to these fields. And in fact, in the coming decades I believe the greatest inventions in software will be in some combination of computer science and medicine, chemistry, physics, or mechanical engineering, and so students who learn a combination of these fields will have a chance to participate in the biggest discoveries of the century.
My advice to a new entrepreneur would be to focus on a personal passion, not just to chase money, because you’ll need the perseverance to power through set-backs, and financial motivation won’t be enough.
AK: Who has been a mentor to you in your career?
HP: I’ve had so many mentors and role models it would be hard to name only one. I’ve been very lucky to know Bono, the lead singer of U2, who helped give me the courage and motivation to devote my life to Code.org. And on a day-to-day basis, Jeff Wilke, the CEO of Amazon.com and a Director on the Board of Code.org has become a close friend and personal mentor. That said, I try to find mentorship and personal learning from everybody I interact with, whether they are a friend, a boss, or an employee, and so I have lots and lots of mentors, not just one.
Thank you Hadi Partovi for bringing the discussion of computer science education to the forefront of the educational system. Your insights will surely inspire kids worldwide to try computer programming when they have the opportunity.