Code.Org Founder Applies Startup Lessons to CS Education

Startup founder and investor Hadi Partovi knows about leverage. The founding team member of iLike and Tellme Networks is putting his startup experience to work on building the high-profile computer science education non-profit Code.org. Since its 2012 launch, the non-profit has displayed many of the same traits as hot startups: It was kicked off on a shoestring budget, is mission-driven and has gotten plenty of buzz.

Hadi PartoviCode.org, which aims to get computer science classes into every K-12 school in the U.S. within the next 10 years, has generated that buzz with endorsements from the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. It started off with modest means, a $252,000 loan.

Partovi, an angel investor and startup advisor who counts Facebook, Zappos and Dropbox among his portfolio companies, has attracted donors like Amazon.com, Microsoft, Google and notable tech luminaries like Jack Dorsey, Jerry Yang and Reid Hoffman.

In an email interview, Partovi addressed the challenges he faced in creating Code.org and how he runs it much like a startup.

What are some of the challenges you faced in creating Code.org, and how do they compare to the challenges you faced as an entrepreneur?

The biggest challenge by far has been overcoming a general misconception — that computer science is a very difficult, vocational study, for the few. Most people assume that it’s some crazy hacker field only meant for geniuses and introverts, and when they start from that position it’s hard to convince them to bring it to every student in every school.

The other big challenge is working with public schools. Any company/entrepreneur that bets their success on working with governments is begging for a lot of frustration, and that’s no different with us. Fortunately, what we’re pitching has been very easy to sell, so we’ve had a strong welcoming reception at the federal level, with various states and among school districts. But still, we are working with government organizations, which is difficult whether for a for-profit or non-profit.

How does being an entrepreneur come in handy in addressing those challenges?

Code.org thinks and acts like a startup in many ways. We probably defy every norm for non-profits. For example, everything we do is metric-based. Not only are all our emails A/B tested, our website is A/B tested. We use website logs to measure the quality of our education tutorials, to see how many students succeed in passing the course, where they drop off, where they have the most trouble. Our ambitions and pace are also much more similar to startups. We’ve grown our team from one to 30+ in just a matter of months, we’re changing state-level education policy at a pace of one state every one to two months, and our in-school approach aims for 10x growth year over year. Most non-profits shy away from such aggressive expansion, whereas for us it’s the norm because that’s how startups think and operate.

How did the idea for Code.org come about?

I co-founded Code.org with my brother Ali as a way to give back to the tech community and in honor of our father, who founded Iran’s primary technology university, Sharif University, and my parents who worked multiple jobs to make their educational dreams a reality when they moved to the United States.

I spent much of my early childhood huddled in the dark in my family’s home in Iran as planes bombed my neighborhood. At nine years old, my father gave me and my brother a Commodore 64 computer to learn how it worked. By the time our family moved to the U.S. a few years later, my parents worked three jobs to ultimately send me to Harvard to study computer science. After a very successful run at Microsoft and starting a few companies of my own, I set out to honor the person who taught me the importance of education and computer science education in particular, my father.

The specific vision of starting Code.org came in 2011 around different events: watching a U2 concert in 2011, hearing Bono ask every attendee to do something with their time, to change the world, as well as speaking to President Obama at a tech advisory roundtable. As I talked about the importance of CS education I realized I wanted to do more than just talk about it.

Did Code.org initially start with an interest in women and students of color, or was that later added as a mission?

We recognized from the beginning the need to increase exposure of computer science education to women and students of color, understanding how underrepresented these groups are in terms of access.

What percentage of U.S. schools don’t have computer science classes? What’s that percentage like for urban and rural schools?

Nine out of 10 schools don’t offer computer programming classes. Computer science is more prevalent in suburban schools, so the percentages are even worse in urban and rural districts.

What are your projections of, if and when, this goal of having computer science classes in every U.S. school will be realized?  

Our hope is to bring computer science to every school within a decade. That’s driven more by a top-down vision of an end-result that our country needs, with full knowledge that actually achieving such a goal will be incredibly hard and require cooperation and effort far beyond our own means. What would make it faster is federal and local support — either funding support or at least legislative support to push school districts to adopt computer science. What would make it slower is school district bureaucracy getting in the way of progress.

Some people say offering free boot camps to recent CS graduates who are looking for work after graduation may be a more useful way to fill the need for IT talent. What do you think?

We support all such efforts. But these efforts will only help fill software jobs. Our vision is that EVERY student needs some basic exposure to computer science. Today, every school teaches students how to dissect a frog, or how electricity works — these are basic foundational ideas for every student. For the 21st century, it’s just as important that EVERY student learns “how to dissect an app” or “how the Internet works”. Even if your life goal is to become a writer, a nurse or a lawyer, these are important and you wouldn’t end up going to a CS boot camp.

Besides, the underserved populations in urban or rural areas — those students go to public schools, but they aren’t going to end up in boot camps. We’re leaving behind a major part of our population if they are denied access to the best opportunities in the world, or if that access is limited to boot camps that may be priced beyond their means.

To what degree do you believe Code.org will increase the percentage of computer science majors and workers?

While we can’t directly predict the increased percentage of new students entering the computer science workforce, we know that increased exposure to computer science will impact not only the tech industry, but other industries outside of technology. Today, 67 percent of software jobs are outside the tech industry. If hiring computer programmers is challenging for Silicon Valley, it’s an even greater challenge for every other industry in America. Tech jobs aside, teaching kids basic computer science is valuable no matter what career path they might choose. Every child can benefit from a strong foundation in problem-solving. As software is taking over the world, a rudimentary grasp of how it works is critical for every future lawyer, doctor, journalist, politician and more.

One thing we can add (which may be a shorter answer): Students who study computer science in high school are twice as likely to take a follow-on course in college, and six times more likely to major in it. So there’s no question that by increasing the K-12 pipeline, we will increase the number of software engineers in the workforce. That’s a natural outcome of our work. But our vision isn’t limited to filling the workforce. Our goal is to touch every student regardless of career.

Finally, what’s next for you after Code.org?

I have no idea, really. Code.org started as a hobby, but turned into a 70hr/week full-time job that has pulled me out of early retirement. Instead of thinking about “after Code.org,” I’d rather dream of simply working fewer hours a week once thing settle down. In the meantime, I’ve been lucky enough as an angel investor, and I will continue investing very selectively in tech startups as I have been for the last 15 years.

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