Meet the Man on a Mission to Teach the World to Code
BY Issie Lapowsky
Hadi Partovi wants to expand computer science education. Here's how he got Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and a few other famous friends to spread the coding gospel.
Hadi Partovi of Code.org
For entrepreneurs, the "aha moment" can come in the unlikeliest places: in a deli, at the movies. For Hadi Partovi, it happened over dinner with the president.
It was December 2011, and as a respected angel investor and tech entrepreneur, Partovi had been invited to one of President Obama's technology roundtables in Washington D.C., where the likes of Sean Parker and Shervin Pishewar, had been invited to discuss how technology could help government and how government could help technology. When conversation turned to what could be done about unemployment in this country, Partovi piped up to suggest computer programming education as a solution. Coding, he told the president, isn't as hard as most people think, and it's certainly more fun than calculus. Plus, he explained, there are free online tutorials that teach people to code for free. For people with the know-how, Partovi said, there are high-paying, in-demand jobs to be had.
"As I was saying that," he remembers, "all that was going through the back of my mind was, 'This really is a great solution to our country's problems. Why am I talking instead of doing?'"
A little over a year later, Partovi and his twin brother Ali have become crusaders for the cause, launching a non-profit called Code.org, which recently released a hugely popular video on the importance of computer science education, complete with testimonials from Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey, among others.
The goal is to spread the gospel of coding, a skill that Partovi and many of his contemporaries believe is the solution to national problems like inequality and unemployment.
"This isn't just a tech problem. It's an America problem and an America opportunity," Partovi says. "If you're worried about the gradual decline of the American dream, the way to fix that is education."
Education, Partovi says, is in his blood. His father founded one of the top technology universities in Iran, and even stayed in the country during the dark days of the Iranian Revolution in order to keep the school afloat. "It was important for him to stay in the country, but it was very difficult for our family, because a totalitarian Islamic government isn't exactly where you want to grow up," Partovi remembers.
After moving to New York in 1984 and graduating with computer science degrees from Harvard, both Hadi and Ali went on to achieve tremendous success in business. Hadi was on the founding team of the voice recognition software company TellMe Networks, which sold to Microsoft for $800 million. Ali, along with Tony Hsieh and Sanjay Madan, was a co-founder of the ad banner network LinkExchange, which also sold to Microsoft for $265 million. Together, the twins sold iLike, a music app for Facebook, to MySpace for $20 million, and have made wise investments as angel investors in Facebook, DropBox, Airbnb, and more. But in a family that places a premium on education, big exits and smart investments have never been enough. Hadi says, "I have cousins who tell me, 'Great job on your business success, but when are you going to do something useful like your dad did?'"
Code.org, he says, is that something. He'd been kicking around the idea of filming a public service video about coding for a few years, but the meeting with the president is what inspired him to act. Something else also happened in late 2011 that Partovi says was eye-opening. Steve Jobs died. "I realized I need to get off my ass," he says. "I'm enjoying my life. I'm wealthy, but I wasn't serving any purpose anymore."
Promoting the Cause
Partovi decided his first duty would be raising awareness because, he says, "You can't solve a problem until you realize you have one." The fact is, every year there are roughly 150,000 new jobs in computer programming, and two-thirds of them can't be filled. Meanwhile, only one in 10 high schools in the country actually teaches computer science. It's not for lack of teachers or funding either, he says. There are 6,000 full-time computer science teachers in the country today, but among advanced placement math and science teachers, roughly three quarters of them took computer programming in college. "Computer programming isn't the most important thing in the world," he says, "but it's a practical way to fix some of the top problems in our country: unemployment and inequality. It touches both problems and doesn't take billions of dollars to do it."
Thanks to their deep list of contacts in the tech industry, getting the stars of Silicon Valley lined up for the film was easy for Hadi and Ali. Drew Houston of DropBox and Square's Jack Dorsey were the first people Partovi approached, and they were on board within 30 seconds, Partovi says. That gave him the confidence to ask Bill Gates, who joined the film's cast in less than a week. Mark Zuckerberg followed.
"Once we had Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, it's a snowball effect, and it was less about asking people and more about letting them in," says Partovi. "There's a very common life story for people who go into computers, which is: I learned this awesome thing. I got a great job. I'm making more money than I thought I would. Wouldn't that be great to share it with people?"
The video went live Tuesday, and within two days had received 5 million hits on YouTube and Facebook. On Code.org's website, 4,000 teachers signed a petition to bring computer science to their schools. Another 13,000 programmers signed up as volunteers.
Now, Partovi's working on what to do with the information. It will require facilitating after-school programs in schools around the country, lobbying for states to accept computer programming as a math or science course, and screening the abundance of tech talent willing to volunteer their time to teach coding in schools. Most crucially, though, it'll require a campaign to get kids interested in the first place. That's what excites Partovi most about the project, the fact that some 3 or 4 million kids will be shown the video in their classrooms.
"I've sat in classrooms and shown it to kids, and when the teacher asks, 'How many of you want to take a computer class?' more than half the class raises their hands," he says. "That's the goal."