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Interview

An Interview with Hadi Partovi


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Hadi Partovi

Code.org founder and CEO Hadi Partovi.

Credit: Alicia Kubista / Andrij Borys Associates

Ten days after the Code.org video "What most schools don't teach" went viral, University of Washington Emeritus Professor Lawrence Snyder joined Code.org's Hadi Partovi for espresso at Belle Pastries. "It's my office," Partovi joked of the confectionary shop that is near his Bellevue, WA, home, and where he had just wrapped up another hour-long meeting.

Hadi Partovi, the founder and CEO of Code.org, is the creator of videosa to inspire people to learn programming: Tech industry luminaries recall their first programs; NBA All-Star Chris Bosh says it's fun, and something anyone can learn; will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas is incredulous that in 2013 most people cannot read and write code. All these programmers make the case that programming is fun and empowering. Drew Houston, the creator of Dropbox, says, "It's the closest thing we have to a superpower" and will.i.am calls programmers, "Rock Stars." Directed by Lesley Chilcott (An Inconvenient Truth), this crisp, intense video inspires action. On the Code.org site endorsers ranging from former U.S. president Bill Clinton to the performer Snoop Dogg call for expanded opportunities for people to learn programming and computer science.b

Partovi's intense passion for the Code.org mission derives in part from the success heand his identical twin brother Aliachieved from knowing programming and understanding computer science. The Partovis emigrated from Iran to New York in 1984. As fresh Harvard graduates in 1994 the brothers started LinkExchange, which they sold to Microsoft four years later for $225 million. They co-founded other companies including iLike, which they have also sold, and have become startup advisors and angel investors; they are pillars of the tech community. Earlier this year, the brothers answered a wide range of questions on Reddit.com's Ask Me Anything,c including their best "twins pranks."

As the interview was beginning, Snyder remarked, "I know you are an identical twin...am I interviewing the real Hadi Partovi?" With a smile and a chuckle, Partovi replied, "I am the real Hadi, yes."

Your video begins with Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and others saying when they started programming. When did you start?

My first program was for a Texas Instruments calculator that my dad got for me when I was seven or eight years old. It was basically programming machine codes. My first real computer was a Commodore 64 that I got when I just turned 10.1 started learning Basic on that.

That was in Iran?

Yes, we were living in Iran. Obviously, there were no CS classes there. Our family came to New York in 1984, so I grew up in New York. Until late high school I didn't have any computer classes. I was just learning programming on my own from a book. Then I went to Harvard.

And you taught CS there?

At most universities there is a shortage of CS teachers like everywhere else, and so at Harvard undergrads in the CS Department were regularly the section leaders. I started doing that the second semester of my freshmen year because I came in having already taken AP Computer Science; I think the AB test that was available back then. So, I'd passed out of the first year of CS, and started teaching. For all four years that was my main job during the school year.

Was that the start of your interest in education?

I wouldn't say it was the start, but it has certainly been the most common theme. I actually have education in my blood. My dad co-founded the main tech university in Iran, effectively the MIT of Iran, called Sharif University. My dad and uncle were chairs of the Physics Department. So, I've always had education in my background.

Who inspires you to do this kind of work with Code.org?

There are two inspirational things out there that actually gave me the kick in the pants to do it. Well, actually multiple.

In terms of someone who currently inspires me, I would say Bono. He doesn't do anything in education. But he's such a strong voice for saying, "Do something valuable for your life. Don't wait for other people to do something." Considering that a year ago I was unemployed, and basically am still unemployed and enjoying semi-retirement, hearing someone like Bono, who's obviously better off than me, and he's dedicating his life to solving worldwide poverty. It's not an easy problem to solve, but he's so clearly dedicated to it. He is going to see that problem through. That's been inspirational to me. "What is a problem that I could see through and solve?"

The point at which I said, "I have to do this," was the day that Steve Jobs died, because I had always envisioned Steve Jobs to play a role in the video. He had been vocal about computer science education. The opening line of the video is there because of that. The day he died, like everybody else, I had this pang of grief of the loss of a great man. But, I also thought, "He's 12 years older than me. What am I going to do in the next 12 years compared to how much he's done?"

I had this idea for the video for, like, three years and wasn't doing anything about it, because it is very easy to not do things. And that gave me the motivation. You know, I'm sitting here not doing anything, and people are out there dying. I need to go out and do stuff.

You say you have been thinking about the video for three years. Say a little more about what's happened in that time.

In March 2012 I was at a tech conference sitting around the fireplace with Jack Dorsey and Drew Houston, the founders of Twitter and Dropbox. This was just a few months after Steve Jobs' death, and I had decided I wanted to do the video, but I didn't know where to start. And I told them, "Hey, I have this idea for doing a video, what do you think? Would you guys be interested?" And both immediately said, "Yes, you should totally do that. It's a brilliant idea! We're in." It was such a strong positive "yes"...I never thought it would be so easy to recruit somebody. Obviously, I went next to see if I could get Bill Gates. That wasn't "Well, let's think about it. No...et cetera." I sent him an email messageI had worked at Microsoft, so he knew who I wasand I had asked another guy at the same conference who is close to Bill, "Could you follow up on my email to put in a good word?" And I got a "yes" in days! So, if you have Bill Gates, things get easier.

Then, I asked Mark Zuckerberg. That was actually one of the hardest to get, but not because he was against the idea. I also know 'Zuck' from having been an early advisor to Facebook, so he knew who I was and I think interested in the idea, but this was a month and a half before the IPO. He was incredibly busy with the IPO. His assistant kept saying, "He can't make time for anything at all." And I said, "Can he make time for something one year from now?" She's like, "Yes, but this isn't a year from now." And I said, "I'll do this whenever he's ready, just ask him if he can do it a year from now." And he said, "yes," and it didn't take a year.

After having Bill and 'Zuck' say yes, it shifted more to letting people in rather than asking them in. After that, almost anyone you asked, said "yes." It was downhill from there in terms of getting people to participate.

There seem to be some notable omissions.

We wanted to make sure that everybody we got was a programmer.

How did you know Chris Bosh programmed?

Chris was all Leslie Chilcott's work, our director. I didn't even know he knew computer programming. She did the research. She wanted an athlete that teens really look up to. It's not only that he's an athlete, and he's African American, but also he's so articulate and so down-to-earth, andyou knowhumble. He really comes across well. I give her all the credit for that.

My students reacted favorably to him.

I have shown the video at multiple high schools. You know, high school kids are kind of rowdy? They weren't in my high school. But the high schools I visitedaverage high schools with very diverse populationsand the kids are just sitting there, some of them are chatting among themselves. But when Chris Bosh comes up, people would jump up and down, and high five one another. Really excited, which is just great.

It seemed like your video knocked down a lot of stereotypes. There were no empty pizza boxes or Diet Coke cans sitting around. No one is sitting in a darkened room staring at a screen. Purposeful?

Yes, that's very intentional. Obviously, I know from personal experience that there is a lot of pizza and soda that goes into computer programming, but the research has shown that the number-one reason kids say they decide not to go into it is they don't want to work in a dark basement their whole life. It's not just about the jobs and the glitz. We had to show the workplace. There's a lot of sunlight and really cool perks that aren't just about working in a dark basement all your life. You know, most university computer labs are in the basement or other dark areas ... just what you would envision.

How do you describe Code.org?

Code.org is an effort to bring computer science to every school and every student in America ... actually, I would change it from "effort"I would call it a movement. My goal really in making the video is to create a movement. I still am not completely sure what I do next with it versus what other people are going to be doing anyway. I am certain we have kick-started hundreds of efforts that either started because of what we have done, or just got a whole lot more fuel in the gas tank because of what we did. We may never hear from them. I just got an email message from a teacher in South Africa who said that they are going to bring computer science into their school and all of the neighboring schools. They got motivated and they're doing that. We're probably not going to talk to that person again.

People have asked what would you say to President Obama about computer science if you had his attention for 30 minutes?

At the AMAd I listed six points as reasons to support CS in schools. But, the most important thing for me to get the president's attention on would be this subtle difference between computer science and STEM. And that subtle difference is, I think, one of the greatest weaknesses of the computer science education effort. Whether in the tech industry or the CS Ed community everybody knows what computer science is. When you go outside, most people have never studied it, and so it is this vague thing they don't understand and they put it in the STEM bucket...and things get lost in multiple ways. If you then say, "things aren't going well," Americans are like, "Oh, yeah, we're bad at math and science." What's missingthey don't even realizewe teach math and science at every school to every student. We try. And now we're bad at it. Whereas, in CS we don't even teach it in 90% of the schools. We're not even trying. There's a big difference here.

And the other thing that gets lost is that 60% of all STEM jobs are in the computing arena, and only 2% of STEM education is. And most states don't even classify computer science as part of STEM. All those things get lost. So, explaining that subtle difference to him would be the most important thing.

On the issue of training teachers to teach all of these eager students, the CS 10K Project is targeted at developing those teachers. Do you have thoughts on that task?

Well, 10,000 teachers is a lot more than we have. It's not sufficient to get it into every school in the country. Personally, I think one of the things that helps us is, we are talking about computer science, which is something so many people like myself learned on their own with a computer. As a result, part of what can help is using technology, whether in the training of the teachers or the training of the students. So I constantly think about what we can do to make the computer not just the tool or the black slate, but bring it into the actual educational activity itself. And I don't think of this as a world where there is no teacher. I think there is some set of kids who can learn without a teacher, I just think the computer can make the teacher's job easier.

One thing that gives me a lot of hope is, I did a survey with the College Board revealing the fact that 75% of all AP STEM teachers have taken at least one computer science class in college. That's a huge percentage. Retraining those teachers should be much easier than finding tens of thousands of computer programmers who want to take a job as a teacher. These are people who are teachers; they have taken all of the course work and trained to manage a classroom. And, they have taken a semester of computer science. So, it should be an easier job than you would envision to get them excited and retrained, especially if you offered them a system where the computer is helping with the teaching.

If you look at it from the tech industry's standpoint or the computer science 'yield' standpoint, there is an interest in getting more computer scientists and more people to become software programmers as their jobs. But if you look at it from the standpoint of fifth-gradersjust getting kids more excited about what they are learningcomputer programming should be the single most fun class there is. You go to math class and you do addition and multiplication tables, and memorizing capitals of states. And in computer class you should be able to learn about gravity by shooting a cannonball up a hill, and seeing how it flies ... which should be much more fun than almost anything you do. It is an opportunity to make existing classes more engaging, and studentsespecially girlsfeel more empowered and creative.

For Code.org, what do you see as the next goal. Where are you headed now?

Right now there are two things going on. One is, I am just trying to rest. I haven't had very much sleep for the last three months. We are a very, very lean organization. I am the only full-time member of the staff right now. So, just getting some sleep is my most important goal. The other thing going on nowaside from the hundreds of efforts that have just been kick-started...or thousands, perhaps, without us being involvedour website basically reaches out to teachers and educators, saying, if you want this at your school, let us know. And we have also reached out to engineers, saying, if you want to volunteer to help, let us know. One of our biggest challenges isget thiswe have 10,000 schools that want our help bringing CS to them. And we have 20,000 software engineers who say, we want to help. We have no capacity to deal with that yet. But, clearly, what's next for us is figuring out how...you know, it's not a requirement that we use those volunteers, but if we don't bring something to those 10,000 schools, it's a lost opportunity.


"Whether you want to make a lot of money or just change the world, computer programming is an incredibly empowering skill to learn."


The CS Ed community seems to be behind you 100%...

Good.

The only sort of complaint I've heard is that you're talking about "code," and we want "computer science." You've heard that complaint?

It's not the only complaint I've heard. I have said this to many CS Ed people, "If 'computer science' were a four-letter word and 'code' was a 16-letter word, it would be called computer science dot org." The reason it is called Code.org is that it's a short domain name, it's inspirational and that's that. For me, whatever it takes to get people just getting started trying something, there's this whole field available to them, and the field isn't called "coding," the field is "computer science." But, if we can get kids interested in coding, if we can get every kid touching it a little bit, and then a small percentage decides to study it for their entire lives, that'll be great.

I am most interested in the top of the funnel, of touching the most kids with something, and I am sure that a lot of people will get attracted. The real issue is there are studies that show that some populations, especially women, are turned off by coding, and it's not the best way to get them interested. What makes much more sense to women is hearing about how computers can be used to change the world, to help people, and so on. And the name 'code' doesn't really suggest that. That said, I am very well aware of this issue. It's not by accident that my own quote in the video is, "Whether you want to make a lot of money or just change the world, computer programming is an incredibly empowering skill to learn." Then the woman who comes after me says she wished someone had told her early on that software is about humanity and helping people through software. Those messages clearly resonate, and we need to get them out. And the organization is called Code.org because it is a four-letter word.

That was Vanessa Hurst?

Yes, she actually runs an effort called Girl Develop It. One of the exciting things about them is that they have workshops in six or seven cities, and just the day we launched, they had 15 new cities say, "We want your workshops." And how did they get found? I have no idea. Did people look at the website footer where we have Meet The Cast? Did they find her there? Or did they just naturally look around for organizations that do this? I don't know.

Finally, I wonder what you would say if you could speak to all of the members of ACM?

I would say two things. One would be, to any member of the ACM, especially if you're one working on how to grow computer science education, and you have 20 years perhaps working on this problem, this next 12 months is the "seize the day" moment. This thing can get really big, fast, which is exciting. And I am sure lots of people have the sense of, "Who are these newcomers; I've been doing this for a long time." My effort isn't to co-opt anything anybody's doing. Rather, it's to turbocharge it. And I think there is a lot I have to learn from the efforts that have been done in this space.

The second thing I would say: I think there is an opportunity to take this field from something that tens of thousands of people study, to something that millions of people study a year. That's a 100x growth. And so we need to think about what are things we can do differently than in the past to get 100x growth. Just repeating everything the way we have done it times 100 is probably not going to work. And that is the question I ask. It is easy to see that we can double what we've got just by having twice as many people do the same thing. But 100x is much harder.

It does seem to be the "seize the day" moment.

One reason I would say this is the "seize the day" moment is that with our launch, we had quotes on our page from people like the President of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute, astronauts, Dr. Oz tweeting about it, Snoop Dogg the rapper, politicians from both sides of the aisle, Enrique Iglesias tweeted about it, Arianna Huffington tweeted about it, the White House posted about it. The number of people not in computer scienceI am mentioning people on the fringes, have said this is an interesting thing for them. Linkin Park, a band that has 15 million Facebook followers, has numerous times posted about it. People are coming out of the woodwork to make something happen. And that is definitely not happened before in this field, which is why we need to jump on this moment.

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Author

Lawrence Snyder (snyder@cs.washington.edu) is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington.

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Footnotes

a. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKIu9yen5nc.

b. See http://www.code.org.

c. See http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/19eqzm/iam_hadi_partovi_cofounder_of_codeorg_here_with/

d. See http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/19eqzm/iam_hadi_partovi_cofounder_of_codeorg_here_with/

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Figures

UF1Figure. Code.org founder and CEO Hadi Partovi.

UF2Figure. Hadi Partovi: "My effort is to turbocharge computer science education."

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