By Peyman Pejman
Hadi Partovi and his twin brother Ali are part of a generation of Iranian-Americans whose work consists of improving the daily life of millions of people around the world. The brothers, serial investors and entrepreneurs, are also the founders of Code.org, which campaigns for introducing computer science courses in all public schools across the United States.
As part of its advocacy work, Code.org’s website offers Hour of Code, which provides one-hour tutorials in 45 languages. The program uses drag-and-drop block codes that help students and teachers around the world create programs aimed at promoting the study of computer science.
Hadi Partovi recently spoke to Kayhan London from the company’s headquarters in Seattle, Washington.
What is Code.Org? When and how did you come up with the idea?
Code.org is a non-profit organization that is trying to encourage computer science to become part of the curriculum in primary and secondary schools, especially for minorities in the field. I started Code.org in 2012 with my twin brother, Ali Partovi, and the official launch was in February 2013.
We want this [introduced in] K-to-12 [Kindergarten to 12th-Grade levels]. When I first started this, people were saying that there were too many things going on in schools, that it would be difficult to change things, and that [teaching computer courses] should be an after-school or summer camp initiative. But I realized that if you go for after-school or summer camp [programs], elite kids [will benefit from] these activities. The majority of kids don’t have access to those types of schools. You would never imagine having biology or algebra taught only after school, so why would you allow that for computer science? This is a foundational course that every kid has to have [access to].
Is your organization an advocacy group that encourages U.S. states to adopt your idea, or do you actually fund the program?
This is a very complicated question. We are not like other examples you can point to. We do everything. We do marketing to build demand for computer science; we do advocacy to change minds and policies; we also create a curriculum and train existing teachers to teach [computer science] using our curriculum. Lastly, we provide funding for that work. So we are kind of a full-service shop. I am not aware of any other non-profit organization that tackles the problem in such a holistic way.
How much success have you had? How many states are on board so far?
The success in the last three-and-a-half years has been amazing. We now have over 120 cities and school districts on board, and have regional partners in 31 states that we are working with. We are working on the curriculum in 11 countries.
Have any states made it mandatory to teach computer science, or encouraged school districts to adopt your idea?
Arkansas is the only state that has made it mandatory. We think all states should. That is not to say every student must take a year-long course, but that they should have that option if they choose to.[Ideally], in the long run, some degree of computer science in the first eight grades would be infused into the curriculum, so that every school would get exposure. It’s less about making it mandatory than about making it part of the curriculum.
In the early years, students really don’t choose their courses. I think in the end states and countries will move into putting some computer science, especially computation science, into their curriculum.
To the degree that there has not been more progress, is that because of cost or something else?
I would first say that progress in this field in public schools has been faster than anything else you can point to. Certainly, we are going at the speed of light as far as government bureaucracies [are concerned]. The biggest factor slowing things down is funding: not for hiring new teachers or buying computers, but for retraining existing teachers. That is not very expensive. It is cost-effective. But it still costs money, whether [it be] from philanthropists, or Code.org, or state governments.
For the entire United States, it will cost around $400 million dollars as a one-time expense to retrain America’s existing teaching workforce to teach computer science in every school in elementary and high school. So far, Code.org has raised and spent about 15 percent of that amount – so about 15 to 20 percent of all grade schools in America now teach computer science using our curriculum.
With so many millionaires and billionaires, why has it not been easier to raise more money?
I ask myself that question all the time, especially at a time like now, when you see what’s happened with the elections. Americans are demanding opportunities, and everywhere, people are upset with the system. Here is a field that [offers] the best-paid jobs in the world. It [takes] a very small amount of money to change the [system in the] entire United States.
In this field alone, salaries for current job openings amount to $50 billion – let alone for future jobs. You’d think it would be the easiest pitch to make. But the challenge is that everyone wants someone else to pay for it. Billionaires want the government to pay for it. The government wants the states and billionaires to pay for it.
Is your focus only the United States, and if so, why?
Our courses, our curriculum, and our marketing messages are global. The courses have been translated into 40 languages, and they are used in every single country on the planet. You’d be surprised to know the countries that are the biggest users of Code.org. After the United States, I think it’s Turkey. There are entire countries that have decided to make our curriculum part of their national curriculum.
The advocacy and changing laws and teacher retraining [programs] are only in the United States – at least for now. It’s a big country, and it’s already a mouthful to tackle the entire country. We know that at least 100 million people have used the Code Hour. The majority of those are students aged 12 to 13 years old. They are as young as three years old, and as old as 90 or 100 years old.
How has the reception been in Iran?
I know our courses have been translated into Farsi, and I know Iran is somewhere up there on the list [of countries using Code.org]. It’s kind of neat to be able to code in Farsi, because it’s a right-to-left language, and most coding is done in English programming languages, which are left-to-right. But the way our system works, it’s drag and drop, so we can write code in any language that Code.org supports. And because we have Farsi support, it means we have a lot of users from Iran.
How did you become successful in computer sciences?
My successes as an entrepreneur or a technologist are purely due to my having learned coding when I was young. When I started in 1981-82, my dad [in Iran] had bought me a Commodore 64 computer. Back then, there was no Internet, there were no software stores and I owned one of the few computers in the country. He basically gave us a book and said teach yourself.
By the time we came to America, I was good enough to code. When other students were working in restaurants or babysitting, I was working as an intern at tech companies. So that has inspired me to help other students have the same opportunities.