Changing the World Through Coding

Overcoming war and isolation to change the world

by Dr. Rod Berger

Hadi Partovi and his twin brother Ali were born in Tehran, Iran, and grew up during the Iran-Iraq war. With no one at that time or place offering any computer science classes, Hadi took matters into his own hands.  His father acquired an old Commodore 64 for him, and Hadi taught himself to code. He says, “There was this alternate reality where I could make whatever I wanted and create my own world.”

Finding his way to the United States as a young man, Hadi supported himself and his education by coding as a software engineer for hire at the tender age of fifteen years old. After earning a Harvard master's degree and having a successful career at Microsoft, Hadi founded two startups; he is infamous for quipping, “The first was a huge success and the second a dismal failure.”

Hadi and Ali Partovi founded Code.org together, with Hadi currently the CEO. Code.org has become by far the most successful computer programming and coding curriculum of the past several years. It’s estimated to be in use in 20% of classrooms in the United States, with 25% of all U.S. students having an active account on the website. Of those students, 45% are female, 48% are underrepresented minorities, and 49% are students in free or reduced meal programs.

“Our goal is actually broader than coding even though we're called Code.org,” Hadi says. “I always tell people that not every kid is going to end up being a coder, and coding isn’t necessarily for every student. But if you think a little broader about computer science which includes coding, data science, cyber security, networking, robotics, these are all parts of computer science; and even though our name is Code.org, we teach computer science broadly.”

Code.org’s adoption rate into classrooms across the nation and world in just a four-year period is amazing. The integration into the school systems by a curriculum is practically unheard of at that pace. Hadi credits the teachers for jumpstarting the incredible growth. “It's funny because when I started Code.org, people were so negative to me about schools,” he says. “They said, ‘Don't try doing this in schools!’ ─ the idea being at schools, they're going to push back.”

“But teachers are pulling this in,” he continued. “Teachers get it. Teachers themselves know that the future is linked with technology. And then, when they see how students react, they're like, “Oh my God! The students love this.”

Student engagement in the classroom declines over time; studies have shown that student enthusiasm falls by almost 60% by the first year of high school. But with the advent of coding and programming, teachers see much greater involvement and engagement. Students surveyed in districts with active coding and programming curriculum have consistently nominated those classes as their favorite by a wide margin compared to standard subjects. As Hadi notes, “Teachers usually don't get that engagement from students the way they see with computer science. So, word of mouth from teacher to teacher is the number one driver of our success.”

Hadi also says that another big secret to their success is the fact that the lessons and exercises are fun and engaging in and of themselves. Hadi says, “If you use the Code.org curriculum, you see that you can write code to control R2-D2 and they could play a game where R2-D2 is fighting against storm troopers and you're controlling the R2-D2.” Code.org has partnered with corporations and game developers. “You can create and use your own version of Minecraft instead of a web browser,” Hadi says.

Code.org has recruited some of the biggest and brightest minds in the computer universe to teach kids and prepare the next generation to continue the tech revolution into the future. “We have video lectures,” Hadi says. “We have (Facebook’s founder) Mark Zuckerberg explaining how repeat loops work, we have the founder of Instagram explaining how image filters work, we have the creators of the Internet explaining how TCP/IP or HTTP works... it just adds a level of legitimacy when the teachers say, ‘Now, we're going to hear it from the guy who invented it.’ The students are then fully engaged.”

“We’ve gotten Star Wars or Minecraft or the Angry Birds to give us that access  ─ there's literally a lineup of brands that want to be integrated into our curriculum because we're non-profit. But the important thing is, it makes it relevant for kids,” he says. “They love Code.org.”

While the conversation about the American educational system usually revolves around America’s slipping global ranks in math, science, and basic curriculum compared to the rest of the world, Hadi has plenty of hope and faith in America’s educational future. “When it comes to computer science and technology, other than a handful of countries such as Iran, we actually are doing quite well,” Hadi says. “And the reason why is that America invented the computer. We invented the Internet. We invented the Smartphone. We invented social media. We invented e-commerce.”

“All the biggest trends in computing were invented in this country,” he continued. “Computer science education is something that America is leading the world in. And part of that is the role that Code.org has been playing by creating the most broadly used curriculum in the entire world.”

“This is something that truly unites people and people come together and say, ‘Let's get it done.’ I've never been part of something that has that much unanimous support. Iimakes it fun to wake up every day,” he concludes. “Nobody is going to argue with me. We're not going to have a fight with anybody. And whatever we talk about, everybody agrees. And so, Code.org continue to move forward.”

About Hadi Partovi

Hadi Partovi is a tech entrepreneur and investor, and CEO of the education non-profit Code.org.

Born in Tehran, Iran, Hadi grew up during the Iran-Iraq war. His school did not offer computer science classes, so he taught himself to code at home on a Commodore 64. After immigrating to the United States, he spent his summers working as a software engineer to help pay his way through high school and college.

Upon graduating from Harvard University with a Masters degree in computer science, Hadi pursued a career in technology starting at Microsoft where he rose into the executive ranks. He founded two startups – the first was a huge success and the second a dismal failure – and he now invests and advises other technology startups.

In 2013 Hadi and his twin brother Ali launched the education nonprofit Code.org, which Hadi continues to lead full-time as CEO. Code.org has established computer science classes in 20% of US classrooms, created the most broadly used curriculum platform for K-12 computer science, and launched the global Hour of Code movement that has reached over 100 million students.

Hadi has served as an early advisor or investor at many tech startups including FacebookDropboxairbnb, and Uber. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of Axonand Convoy.

Follow Hadi Partovi on Twitter

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post by Dr. Rod Berger.

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