Lessons Learned from Code.org Founder & CEO Hadi Partovi

Lessons Learned from Code.org Founder & CEO Hadi Partovi

By: Caine Ardayfio

This article was originally posted on Medium: Read it Here

The Beginnings

Nearing the end of 2020, I was lucky enough to interview the co-founder and CEO of Code.org: Hadi Partovi. Code.org is a global non-profit working to expand participation in computer science. Having served over 720 million students with over 1 billion hours of computer science instruction, Hadi’s efforts with Code.org have worked to ensure equitable access to computer science. As a high school student and budding entrepreneur aspiring to solve pressing problems in accessible education, I wanted to hear Hadi’s perspective on how young people can create companies that positively change the world: entrepreneurship for social good.

Code.Org

For those unfamiliar, Hadi Partovi is the founder of Code.org, a non-profit aimed at expanding access to computer science in schools by engaging young women and other underrepresented groups in CS (computer science). Code.org envisions a future in which every student learns CS as a core part of their K-12 education. Since 2013, Code.org has become a leading provider of K-12 CS curriculums in the US. This includes Code.org’s Hour of Code initiative, which has engaged more than 15% of students worldwide with 40% of U.S. students having accounts on Code.org.

In addition to Code.org, Hadi has worked as an executive at Microsoft; founded two startups, Tellme Networks (acquired by Microsoft), and iLike (acquired by Newscorp); and has served as an advisor or investor at tech startups including Facebook, Dropbox, airbnb, and Uber.

During the interview, Hadi and I talked about what made Code.org so successful, how to use entrepreneurship for social good, and general tips for budding entrepreneurs. Here’s part of our discussion for others to learn about his story and even gain some insight for their own ventures. The full interview transcript is available here.

Interview

What was your childhood like? How did it prepare you for a career in entrepreneurship?

My childhood was, in many ways, very different from the average American kid. I grew up in the Middle East during a bloody Islamic revolution and a bloody war. That part obviously was quite different. By day, I lived in a police state where, every single day, I worried that the authorities would arrest myself, my brother, or my parents for who knows what reason. And that my parents might get disappeared into prison, and I would never see them again. We’d spend every night in the basement while our neighborhood was getting bombed and we’d hope that our home wasn’t gonna get hit. I spent most of my childhood worried about my life and whether I’d see my family. That part’s pretty different than most people’s lives.”

As an entrepreneur, you need to be willing to leave a stable job in hopes of creating something more out of nothing.”

Going through trauma, stress, fear, and immigration all prepared me for entrepreneurship because I learned that what can’t kill me makes me stronger and I had a lot of drive to create a better life for myself. I think this is a common story for a lot of entrepreneurs. Leaving everything behind to leave one country to come to another made me comfortable with taking risks. As an entrepreneur, you need to be willing to leave a stable job in hopes of creating something more out of nothing and that’s very similar to leaving a country where you already have a house and a livelihood and having your entire family uproot themselves to go somewhere new where you have nothing at all — hoping that it’s going to be better.”

How were you first introduced to computer science?

My twin brother [Ali Partovi] and I were about 9 years old when our father introduced us to a Commodore 64 computer. This was in the early 1980s and my dad was a nuclear physicist and my mother was a computer scientist. So, even though we were growing up in the Middle East in Iran during the war, we both had access to a computer and parents who knew how to how to do computer programming to help us along the way. The computer they got for us didn’t have any apps or games on it so the only things we could do with it was program our own apps. Living in such a terrible environment during the middle of a war, there was nothing else good to be doing at the time, so we poured our time and energy into learning how to code—to make whatever we could dream of. Even though the world outside us was pretty dark and dismal, the computer represented the opportunity that if you could dream of it and you can code it, then you can make it come to life.”

If you could dream of it and you can code it, then you can make it come to life.”

As I grew up beyond that, I realized that the skills I had learned in my early childhood were going to be among the most important skills in life. I started getting internships working at technology companies because I realized that they needed people with coding and computer science skills so badly that they would hire a 15-year-old immigrant. At the time, I liked computer science both because I could make whatever I want with it, but also because, at a time when I needed money, it was a really well-paying job.”

When did you first decide you wanted to reform CS education?

I’d first say ever since college I started wondering why isn’t computer science part of the core? Why is everybody learning math as a requirement? Everybody learns some degree of science as a requirement, everybody has to learn some foreign language as a requirement, why isn’t computer science required? It was what I had decided to make my career in, but I also realized that it had so many benefits. And not just career benefits, but just understanding how the world of technology works seemed as important as understanding the world of history or science or mathematics, and yet those other things were required but computer science wasn’t.

I wanted to do something to basically give back because I had benefited from the education I had received. I’d benefited from so many helping hands along the way and I wanted to see what could I do that would be a way of giving back. That was personal to me, and giving a chance for other students to learn computer science the way I had when I was young seemed like the right way to give back. And so that’s when I started Code.org.”

You received a degree in CS from Harvard. How did your experience at Harvard kickstart your journey in entrepreneurship?

One of the beautiful things about computer science is it’s one of those fields that, even if you aren’t going to university, you can still get good at it. In fact, some of the most famous computer scientists in the world today were all college dropouts who decided they wanted to learn on their own. As to whether it’s Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, these are all folks who started out learning computer science then decided “I’m gonna learn this on my own without the school.”

Even if you’re not a multi-billionaire entrepreneur, there are many many people who get great at computer science just tinkering on their own. If you get those skills, there are very few other fields where you can actually make it big — even without a college degree. This is because the skills in computer science are so hotly sought after. But, either way, the way my degree helped me was it helped me get my first job at Microsoft, but also helped connect me with a whole lot of other folks that I would later rely on—whether future investors or future folks that I recruited to work with me at the companies that I started. The network I built in university was really useful and, for anybody who wants to become an entrepreneur, building a network of connections and maintaining and nurturing those connections is one of the most important things you can do as an entrepreneur.”

After a successful career in technology at Microsoft, you founded two startups: Tellme Networks (acquired by Microsoft), and iLike (acquired by Newscorp). How did your experience at for-profit companies push you towards initiatives in reforming education?

You know what I learned? Whether in creating my own startups, working at Microsoft, and also advising other entrepreneurs throughout the world of technology, every tech company shares the same problem. If you ask anybody running a tech company, among their top 3 or 4 problems in life is how hard it is to find amazing, talented people with computer science skills.”

There’s no city and no country in the world where the supply of computer programmers is more than the demand in the job market.”

I saw this because, whether I started my own start-ups, whether I invested in and advised startups, or when I was working at major corporations, this problem was all around me. I realized, why aren’t our schools teaching this skill if it is in such hot demand?

So I realized, one of the best ways I could help people and also help the economy was to basically provide an education pathway to give students who don’t yet have the opportunity to get access to those opportunities for future careers.”

40% of U.S. students have accounts on Code.org, 124 million projects have been created, and Hour of Code has reached 15% of students globally. Did you ever expect Code.org to get so big?

No! Never in a million years would I have imagined that this idea that kind of happened to me would grow into something that has had a global impact. This is beyond anything I could have ever imagined. When I started Code.org, I made a viral video about the importance of computer science and I had hoped that that video would get a few million people. In the end, we got 15 million views and that was awesome. While getting 15 million views on a video was a great first act for Code.org, I didn’t really know what would come next. But what was important was that out of the 15 million people who watch our first video, there were tens of thousands of teachers who decided that this is important for their students.”

“This is beyond anything I could have ever imagined!”

I could have never imagined the impact that Code.org would have had on school teachers who decided themselves to get motivated to change education and the opportunity to change education on a global landscape. In every single country of the world, there’s people who have introduced Code.org to their classrooms there’s not a single city in the world where they haven’t used Code.org in some school, somewhere. That’s just been amazing to watch and beyond my wildest dreams.”

What do you think made Code.org so successful in reaching millions of students?

There’s a one-word answer: teachers. Since the very beginning, a bet we made at Code.org is that the only way to change education is through teachers. There’s now almost 1.5 million teachers on Code.org. Their passion, the sacrifice they make, the risk they take to teach a subject they never learned, to introduce their students to computer science when they had never learned it in school themselves, that risk that every individual teacher makes on Code.org is what has made us so strong. Their passion to do something for the kids that they know is going to be the right thing to open the door of opportunity.”

That’s why we’re successful and we’re just lucky to have had so many teachers supporting this vision.”

This has really become a teacher-led movement to change the education curriculum and the teachers themselves are who deserve the greatest applause and the greatest credits.”

You’ve already had tremendous success in reforming CS education. What’s next for you?

I would say what’s next is to continue this work. The job is not done in the United States: only 47% of schools offer computer science classes. That’s up from 10% when we started, but the majority of schools still don’t teach computer science — and that’s in this country. In the rest of the world, more than 90% of schools don’t teach computer science. There’s a long way to go. We’ve had early success but the job is far from done. Even in the schools that teach computer science, the students are predominantly White, Asian, or male, and the diversity — the challenge of getting a balanced representation of computer science — is also far from done. Our job isn’t done until every school teaches computer science and there is a level of equality between boys and girls and across race and geography and income level. At least in terms of who has access and who’s getting the most basic education.”

Any final pieces of advice for young entrepreneurs looking to change the world for the better?

The one piece of advice I’d give is to dream big. When you’re a young kid — when you’re 5 or 6 — there’s no limits on how big you can dream. Really, entrepreneurship is an act of defiance and actively deciding “What? Screw it! Even if the odds are against me, I’m gonna go for something big.” There’s not a single entrepreneur out there who didn’t have to defy, effectively, common knowledge in terms of what’s possible and dream bigger than that.”

“Every entrepreneur has to imagine a world that doesn’t exist yet.”

To do the same acts that I did as an immigrant, of leaving one country to come to a new one. Deciding that they’re going to explore this unknown territory where there’s risk and the chance of failure is much greater than the chance of success — but they’re gonna go for it anyway. Going for big dreams is the top advice I’d give.”

So basically…

Hadi’s owes much of his success to his early exposure to computer science. By recognizing that others didn’t necessarily have the education he had in CS, he saw where he could improve matters—and he did. His advice: setbacks make you stronger, a career in CS isn’t dependent on formal education, teachers allow educational goals to become reality, and lastly, DREAM BIG!

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