"All these people who've made it big have their own variation of the same story, where they felt lucky to be exposed to computer programming at the right age, and it bloomed into something that changed their life," explains the organization's co-founder, Ali Partovi, seated in the conference room of one of the many successful startups he's helped along the way. The Iranian-born serial entrepreneur has played a role in an impressive list of companies, including the likes of Indiegogo, Zappos and Dropbox. Along with his twin brother, Hadi, he also co-founded music-sharing service iLike.
Unlike past offerings from the brothers, Code.org is a decidedly non-commercial entity, one aimed at making computer science and programming every bit as essential to early education as science or math. For the moment, the organization is assessing just how to go about changing the world. The site currently offers a number of resources for bootstrappers looking to get started in the world of coding. There are simple modules from Scratch, Codecademy, Khan Academy and others, which can help users tap into the buzz of coding their first rectangle, along with links to apps and online tutorials. The organization is also working to build a comprehensive database of schools offering computer science courses and soliciting coders interested in teaching.
This video first appeared on The Engadget Show episode 44.
But the larger vision is still a very malleable thing, according to Partovi. "We're now in the process of developing a long-term plan including a fundraising plan, and frankly, we hope to ask people from Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to some of the other big founders to contribute money to it. We don't want them to do that until we really have a big enough plan and a good sense of how much money we'll need and what we'll do with it. Basically we're taking a step back and thinking bigger because of how much success that video had."
The brothers founded Code.org as way of paying homage to their own humble beginnings, which, while half a world away, share a number of common threads with many of those featured in the organization's coming-out video. "We grew up in Iran and started programming when we were 9 years old or so," Partovi explains, launching into a story he's clearly told more times than he cares to remember. "For us, the fact that we were good programmers changed our lives. We were lucky that we were exposed to a computer when we were 9 years old in a country where, frankly, probably no one else knew what a computer was at the time. Because of that fortune, we were able to pay our way through college, and come to Silicon Valley and both independently become successful as entrepreneurs. And our feeling is that kind of opportunity should not just be for the lucky few."
The organization's video certainly left its mark, hitting 20 million views in a month, thanks to its all-star coding team and a simple message: in 2013, computer science should be considered a mandatory skill set for graduates. As with so many other educational initiatives, it's likely to be a bigger success the sooner schools start, and Code.org's massive board is pushing to make coding an essential part of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum. It seems a big ask in a system where the bureaucracies governing schools move at such a glacial pace, but Partovi argues that it's a necessary one in a time when the US is, rightly, concerned about losing its innovative and economic footing.
"There's been this myth around outsourcing," Partovi explains. "'Oh, they're shipping the jobs offshore, and they're hiring Chinese and Indian computer programmers.' That is true, but it's only because there simply aren't enough to hire in America. It's not because they're laying off American computer programmers because they're too expensive so they can buy the cheaper Chinese labor. Outsourcing of manufacturing jobs is to save cost. Outsourcing of computer jobs is because the software industry has hired every single computer programmer they possibly can, paid them the most they can and there are still not enough to hire."
But while the inclusion of coding in a standard elementary curriculum may seem a long ways off, the concept has won supporters all over - including President Barack Obama.
In April, the Obama administration unveiled a 2014 budget that included $3.1 billion for STEM funding - an increase of 6.7 percent over the year before. The proposal echoed comments made in the president's State of the Union address a few months prior.
"Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges," Obama said. "So those German kids, they're ready for a job when they graduate high school. They've been trained for the jobs that are there. Now at schools like P-TECH in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree in computers or engineering. We need to give every American student opportunities like this." The president echoed the statement later that week, telling the viewers of (appropriately enough) a Google Hangout, "I want to make sure that [young people] know how to produce stuff using computers and not just consume stuff."
It's an encouraging sentiment, to be sure, but ultimately, school curriculums are the domain of local, not federal governments, meaning that individual schools and school districts have a much more direct say in the subjects they teach - and many, no doubt, would bristle at the suggestion of such missives being imposed from the top down. Code.org's video outreach, however, has highlighted the growing interest in such initiatives.
"There [are] only 4,000 schools in the United States that teach computer programming," Partovi says. "Our website has had 10,000 schools sign up asking us for help to bring computer programming to their school. So if we're able to figure out some way to help them with things they need, we could triple or more the amount of computer science education in America." For now, that means starting small, with instructional videos and teacher training - stopgap solutions until schools get more serious about offering up coding as part of the standard curriculum.
Educational organizations have also voiced support for the movement. "The teachers' unions have all supported Code.org," Partovi explains. "The heads of the two largest national teachers' unions gave us, you know, strong quotes of support. In fact, Randi Weingarten [president of the American Federation of Teachers] - who studied computer science herself - was completely onboard and agreed that learning to code is an incredibly valuable developmental skill regardless if the kid goes on to become a computer programmer as their job." Weingarten's comments reflect a key principal that underlies everything Code.org stands for. "Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer," begins a Steve Jobs quote that opens the company's promotional video. "Because it teaches you how to think."
"[Coding] taught me how to think and use my brain in ways that I previously hadn't," says Partovi. "Every kid, whether they intend to become an accountant or a doctor or whatever you want to do in life, studying computer science early on really helps your brain develop. For girls in particular, it helps them feel empowered. It helps you feel confident that you can solve problems, or, if there is something that you don't like, you can fix it or change it. If there's something you wish you had, you can create it."