These days, it’s good to be familiar with coding no matter what field you’re in.
On a recent episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode’s Kara Swisher and Lauren Goode of The Verge talked about fostering computer education with Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi and Girls Who Code CEO Reshma Saujani.
Partovi discussed his group’s efforts to get computer science classes into more schools, and Saujani explained her organization’s work to get more young women interested in the field. They also answered questions about where to start if you’re getting into learning to code.
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi. I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode.
Lauren Goode: I’m Lauren Goode, senior technology editor at The Verge.
KS: You’re listening to Too Embarrassed To Ask, where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about tech.
LG: Because really there are no embarrassing questions and we want to help you answer them. It could be about phones or laptops or the smart home or cloud services or why it is that Kara keeps sending these Snapchats late at night.
KS: That has never happened ever. Not once. Not even once.
LG: Just don’t know what to do.
KS: I don’t even know how to use Snapchat.
LG: We’re just talking real life, Kara.
KS: No idea. Anyway, send us your questions. We do read them all. Find us on Twitter. Tweet them to us at @recode or to myself or to Lauren with the hashtag #tooembarrassed.
LG: We also have an email address. That’s firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget the .net. Also reminder, embarrassed has two Rs and two Ss.
KS: While you’re at it, have a listen to our previous episodes too, which you can find on iTunes.com/tooembarrassedtoask. In fact, Lauren and Recode’s Kurt Wagner just did a bonus episode on Snap’s IPO.
LG: That’s right. We talked about why it is that Evan Spiegel has a million dollars a year budgeted toward his security. Then we talked about a lot of other stuff, too. We really unpacked the S-1 and what some of the threats are to Snapchat’s business and whether or not you should invest in it, whether it looks like a good investment for people — but one of our guests is shaking his head right now. Not going to say who.
KS: We’re not going to say who you are.
LG: It’s a good episode, so have a listen.
KS: All right. Okay. Well, he does have nice T-shirts, Evan Spiegel. That’s how I feel about that. That would have been my entire contribution to that show.
LG: Just talking about his T-shirts?
LG: That and his supermodel fiancee?
KS: Yeah and no, I don’t want to talk about her. I like the T-shirts. Anyway, today on Too Embarrassed To Ask, we’re talking about whether you, our listener, should learn to code, which is actually important. We’re delighted to have two expert guests on the show with us. Lauren, why don’t you introduce them.
LG: Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit working to get more women into computer science, and Hadi Partovi is the founder and CEO of code.org, which is trying to make coding a part of school curricula everywhere. You might have heard him last year on Kara’s podcast, Recode Decode. Reshma and Hadi, welcome to Too Embarrassed To Ask.
Hadi Partovi: Thank you so much.
LG: Thank you for joining us.
Reshma Saujani: Thanks for having us.
KS: This is an issue that’s been discussed quite a bit over the last couple of years, especially during the Obama administration because he was making a lot of pushes in this area. He learned to code himself from girls, in fact, students.
Talk about your organizations. Now, both are nonprofit, so why don’t you start, Hadi, and then, Reshma, you go on. Talk about the organizations themselves and what they’re doing, because a lot of people are coming at this in different ways.
HP: Sure, so code.org is focused on the K-12 education system, particularly in the United States, and we’re trying to get computer science to be part of the curriculum. We do that, not just by advocating and saying that it’s an important deal, but actually building an entire curriculum pathway starting as early as kindergarten all the way through high school. We also train America’s teachers because the issue isn’t just that schools aren’t teaching computer science; instead America’s teachers don’t know how to teach it.
We’ve done already workshops for 50,000 of America’s teachers and we’re at the point where roughly one out of five students in the entire country is now already using our coding platform in K-12 schools.
KS: But it’s still not required in schools, correct?
HP: It’s not required, but it’s being taught anyway. When one out of five students is already engaged, that’s 10 million students just in the U.S. alone, and half of them are girls, half of them are black or Hispanic students; that’s a major change.
KS: In what you’re doing. And Reshma?
RS: Girls Who Code is a national nonprofit seeking to close a gender gap in computer science and tech, so we’re focused on the gender aspect of it. Essentially, in the 1980s, 37 percent of computer science graduates were women, and today that number is less than 18 percent. We did a report recently with Accenture and we found that the problem is actually getting worse — which sounds weird, right, because there’s so much attention to computer science, but the gender problem is actually getting worse. Today, 24 percent of the workforce is female and if we do nothing, in the next 10 years it’s going to be 22 percent.
Our intention is to get girls to major or minor in computer science. We’re not tinkering with code; we want to produce new female software professionals.
LG: Right. The so-called pipeline.
RS: Exactly, so we do it through afterschool programs. One through summer camp. So we build classrooms in technology companies. We ran 78 of those classrooms in 11 different cities and pretty much every single technology company you could think of from Adobe to Facebook to Pixar to Goldman Sachs, so in financial services and technology and fashion, etc.
Then we have afterschool programs. Last year, we ran about 40,000 girls through 1,500 clubs in all 50 states. Those clubs happen in homeless shelters, in private schools, in public schools and charter schools and community centers and churches and synagogues and mosques. Essentially, we’re trying to get coding education to girls in places where you don’t have them, whether that’s in the Rust Belt, whether that’s in daughters of migrant workers, whether that’s in some urban areas. By the end of this year, we will have reached 100,000 girls and, again, taught them how to code.
That is an important number because only 10,000 women graduated in computer science, so …
LG: In the U.S.
RS: In the United States.
LG: From high schools.
HP: No, from universities.
RS: From universities, right. In 2018, I will have 10,000 new female computer science … women who are intending to declare CS as a major on college campuses. We’re blowing, hopefully, the doors off, right, of really building that pipeline of talent.
LG: Talk a little bit about how you both got into this, because that’s really interesting too, to talk about your backgrounds. Reshma, you were a lawyer who at one point ran for Congress. Hadi, you’ve talked a little bit about this on Kara’s podcast before, but you actually started programming at a pretty young age. You’re coming into it from two very different areas.
KS: Hadi, you’re a longtime entrepreneur. You’ve done a million companies.
HP: Slightly less than a million.
LG: Microsoft, iMore. You’ve been in tech for a while, so talk a little bit about where you came from and how you ended up both running nonprofits.
HP: Sure, my background, I started learning to code when I was 10 years old. I lived in Iran. During the war with Iraq at the time, there was pretty much nothing good you could do as a kid. That was my escape. But as an immigrant to this country, having the skills of being a great coder meant when I was going through high school, my friends were getting jobs as busboys or babysitters. I was doing internships at tech companies, and that helped me just get on a path of what I believe is, I’m living the American Dream as an immigrant who’s now been successful in tech.
These days, I feel like the American Dream is broken. Americans broadly feel like the idea that if you just work hard, the system will help you get somewhere — doesn’t feel like it’s actually happening. People feel like the system is rigged, and it’s against them, regardless of whether you’re in an urban neighborhood or in a rural district. I believe computer science is a key, key part of that, because this is a field that literally leads to the best-paying jobs in the world, the best careers. It’s the largest sector of all new wages in this country, and yet our schools aren’t teaching it. For me, I wanted to give back in the way that’s most personal to me, for the field that helped me get to where I am, and to let other students follow the same kind of pathway.
RS: That’s interesting, because I think we have a similar passion for why we’re here. I was a failed politician, right? I’ve been a female activist since the time I was 13 years old. I came to this problem … Both of my parents were engineers. They actually came here as refugees because in the 1970s, this country was seeking engineers, and my parents were lucky to be two engineers, and so they were two of a thousand refugees who got visas to come here in 1973.
LG: Where did they come from?
RS: Uganda. The dictator Idi Amin expelled all of the Indians from the country in 90 days.
I was definitely one of those girls where my father would sit me at the dinner table and say, “What’s two plus two?” And I’d be like, “Five!” He would shake his head. Math and science intimidated me. It terrified me, and it was something for my whole life that stayed with me, where I got a B+ in chemistry in college and never took it ever again, right, because I was searching for that 4.0 in hopes that one day, right, Kara’s gonna ask me what my GPA is. I kind of woke up at age 33, ran for office, and lost, but part of that journey, I would go into schools and I would see thousands of Hadis learning how to code. I was like, “Where are the girls?”
As someone who’s had a job since I was 12, I helped pay my parents’ mortgage, I knew the importance of economic empowerment. It didn’t make sense to me that women were not a part of this, that women of color and underserved girls were not a part of this industry, where you could literally make $120,000 as a software programmer, and you can change the world. That’s what inspired me to start Girls Who Code, was this passion for getting girls into the pipeline of 21st century jobs that could help lift their entire families up.
KS: Where jobs are going, and obviously jobs have been the most critical element of this election, away from all the other noise. It is about jobs and the future, essentially. This had been pushed by the Obama administration, this idea that coding was critically important, but how much is the need to learn coding changing? If you could talk about … is it more urgent, or has it fallen off the face of the earth with the Trump administration? I haven’t heard him say one word about technology that’s not relatively negative. Talk a little bit about that, like what’s happened? Is there still going to be a push for it, or do we need politicians to help us at all to do this?
HP: I can say a number of things about this. The Trump administration, if you look at their 100-day plan, it lays out a lot of the things that they’ve been doing, but one of the things that is actually written in there is an investment in technology education. In fact, if you look at what they said about education, there’s only two things. One is around school choice and vouchers and charter schools, which we’ve seen what they’re doing at least there, and the second is investment in vocational and technology education. I’m actually quite hopeful that the Trump administration sees the benefits. It’s really quite obvious, because the No. 1 source of all new wages in this country are in computing jobs. We can try to bring back manufacturing jobs, or create new jobs, if you want to look at the jobs that are currently open and hard to fill.
KS: The first hit was at immigrants, which make up a lot of Silicon … Obviously tech has responded, finally, so it doesn’t seem …
HP: The broader thing, I’d say, is that education in this country is driven locally. The vast majority of funding and decisions in education are actually done at the state government level, or even at the school district level. At that level, there’s now 31 states that are now, thanks to the work we’ve done and our advocacy coalition, 31 states are embracing computer science in different ways. Over 20 states have changed their graduation policies. They’re establishing standards. They’re funding computer science.
KS: How many have mandated it? You mentioned Arkansas in an earlier podcast as an example, but how many …
HP: Arkansas has mandated that every school must teach it, which is different than saying every student must take it, but Arkansas is the only state that says every school in the state must offer computer science class. That’s the first important step, and when you say that every school must teach it, you actually see enrollment go up significantly. In Arkansas, among black women, enrollment in computer science went up seven times. In Oakland …
KS: That’s seven people, but go ahead.
HP: Yeah, it went from one to … In Oakland, they went from only one high school teaching computer science, in two years, now every high school teaches computer science. It’s a 14-fold increase in the number of students, and these are boys and girls and all racial backgrounds.
KS: Do you think that, Reshma, this is going to continue? I am less hopeful.
RS: I’m less hopeful too. I also think that part of what was incredible about what the Obama administration did was not just about, I think, pushing computer science, but who got access to those jobs. They were the loudest on people of color and women, and the importance of really pushing companies to make investments and commitments to thinking about what that pool of talent looked like. This administration has just demonstrated that that’s not something that they care about, and in fact, has made an assault, I think, on immigrants, and so many of the girls that are affected in our community. I feel like I’ve been on the phone the past two weeks just getting legal counsel for my girls that are undocumented, or my parents, or my team, that are affected by the ban.
In some ways, I feel like many of the policies that are coming out of this administration are just destructive to girls and women and people of color, and so I think we need to watch that very carefully. I think those of us in the community need to be very loud, that even if this administration wants to work in that field, there are certain requirements in terms of how we behave and deal with these communities that come first. I think that that’s important, and we’ve definitely made that position very clear.
Secondly, I do think that what we’re working on at Girls Who Code is, while we’re very excited about computer science education and what’s coming out from the states, we want to make sure that girls are included in this growth. We’re thinking about how to introduce legislation to really look and track the numbers. If Chicago is mandating computer science education at every school, well, if it’s not mandatory and it’s elective, and those classes are still 80 percent boys and 20 percent girls, is that really affecting, right?
HP: I actually would say we’ve been Chicago’s partner for their computer science for a while. Chicago’s the first city to actually make it a graduation requirement for every student, which means whether you care about black girls learning to code, or white girls learning to code, or Hispanic boys learning, every single student graduating in Chicago’s public school system —
RS: So Chicago is probably a bad example. New York hasn’t, right?
HP: New York hasn’t.
RS: I think that, for many states, it’s seductive to not make it mandatory, because it’s easier to make it as an elective, so we want to just make sure that we’re tracking and watching those numbers, because … I think, Hadi, you agree with me. I don’t think we want to make the gender and the racial problem get worse.
As there’s huge passion and commitment towards computer science education, I would argue that for me, I want to see curriculum drafted in the eyes of what’s appealing to a 13-year-old black girl from Atlanta, Georgia, right? We need to make sure that we’re getting her involved and engaged, and the rest of the boys will come.
LG: How does America compare to other countries that you have examined, being in this field? How do we compare right now in terms of our education around coding?
RS: I think everyone’s pretty bad. Accenture did a great … we have this as part of our report. Ireland is actually doing very well, but most countries, even India and China and places where we think that it seems as though it’s better from a gender perspective, they’re just as bad.
KS: What about from a coding perspective?
HP: The only countries that I think are ahead of America on computer science are Estonia and Vietnam, which are relatively small countries, but those are the countries where they actually have every student in every school in all grade bands learning it. I would say, actually, America’s leading in computer science education. This is the country that invented the computer. We invented the internet. We invented social media. We invented the smartphone, e-commerce. We may not have the best education system overall, but when it comes to computer science education, just the movement that’s started in America in the last three years has spread worldwide. Just in the last three-and-a-half years, we’ve now seen 11 countries announce nationwide plans for computer science. I believe that’s responding to the moves that America is making.
KS: Has it gotten through to the students themselves? I was at a really interesting Glide church here in San Francisco, and I think it was Van Jones who was speaking to a bunch of African-American students. He said it was a really striking moment, and I think only he could have really done this, but he said to the kids, “How many of you have downloaded something from the internet?” They all were sort of like, “This fucking idiot.” You know what I mean? “Of course we have. We all do. We all download and use the internet.” They were mocking him and jeering him in a fun way kind of thing. Then he goes, “Yeah, but how many of you have uploaded anything to the internet?” Silence.
Then he said, “You’re all digital sharecroppers.” Which was electric to say, you know what I mean? “You are digital sharecroppers for Facebook and Snapchat and everybody else, and you’re getting no benefit from it.” I think the kids were quite struck by the concept of, they thought they were in charge of their digital destiny and realized they’re only being used as consumers and workers. It was really shocking. Do you think students have gotten that through, that idea that this is critical to be uploaders, not downloaders?
RS: Speaking on the perspective of girls, I don’t think so yet. I think part of what we do at Girls Who Code is that it’s still culturally … I was at an airport in Yangon and I hear a young girl say to her mom, “Mom, I’m playing my math game. Will you help me?” And she’s like, “Honey, you know I don’t know nothing about math. Go ask your dad.” You still hear that, right, this perception that boys are good at math, and girls are not good, and it’s not cool, it’s not interesting. I think that we haven’t shifted culture. It’s so deeply entrenched in who we are, and I think that we need to change that. Girls don’t see this as a profession that is for them or open to them. I think why, from Girls Who Code’s perspective, we really teach project-based learning and computational thinking, is because it’s important for girls to see coding as something that’s connected to the thing that they want to do to make the world a little bit better.
LG: It’s interesting how there seems to be this perception around coding as … there’s a lack of creativity around it, especially since this new administration has come in, and we’ve heard people say, “Well, just think. The country’s under a lot of duress right now, and so great art is going to be produced, because people need an outlet.” But then you look at coding, and it’s almost becoming fear-driven in a sense, like, “Well, the economy’s going to change, and a robot’s going to take over your job, so you should learn to code.” That doesn’t seem like the right kind of motivation for learning.
KS: What do you think, Hadi?
HP: I completely agree. I very much agree with Reshma about the curriculum being more project-based and tapping into creativity, and all of our courses basically are built around that. When I learned to code, my problem sets were things like writing the code to calculate the Fibonacci sequence in math, which nobody gives a shit about. What is the Fibonacci sequence?
KS: They still don’t, but go ahead.
HP: In our classrooms, kids make apps. They make drawings, they make beautiful things that they want to share, and then that taps into their passion, whether you care about climate change, or whether you care about animal safety, or whether you want to make a computer game to show off, whatever it is, it taps into the creativity. I also disagree a little bit with the doom-and-gloom mindset about the problem in that this area for sure has a gender problem and also racial diversity problem, but I think this is a problem that’s getting better. It’s not getting worse.
Within the tech industry, it’s not yet getting better. If you look at what’s happening K-12, it’s gotten dramatically better.
KS: Last question before we get to our reader questions. The Senate confirmed Donald Trump’s education secretary by a hair, Betsy DeVos, of the grizzly bears. How does the confirmation in this new administration affect your efforts? She seems to not know a whole lot about much.
HP: From our perspective, the majority of our work is local. For our work, we have 500,000 classrooms teaching coding. There’s eight million girls in our classrooms. For me, whoever the education secretary is isn’t going to change what those teachers are doing, and the strength of code.org comes from the teachers that are basically doing this. We’ve doubled in size in just the last 12 months, and whatever the federal government does doesn’t …
RS: We’re focused on after-school programs. We’ve never gotten a dollar from the federal government or from states, and we’ve done it all essentially on our own. I don’t think that this affects our work, but I do want to point to what Hadi said — I think it’s very dangerous to assume that the problem is getting better when the evidence shows that it’s not. If you look at the AP computer science numbers in terms of girls, if you look at what we’re seeing in our pool, we have a lot of work to do.
HP: But the AP computer science numbers for girls have gotten better three years in a row now.
RS: But if the pool of boys is getting larger —
HP: No, no, the percentage that are female has increased.
RS: But barely. Not as much as one would expect given the fact that you’ve taught eight million girls, you said, right, in the work that we’ve done. I just think that it’s important for the technology companies, because I don’t think that that’s happening in the movement yet. I think that there’s not as big of a commitment to both teaching and hiring these girls once they get on. I think we just need to watch it.
From my perspective, I don’t think we can declare success unless we really say three years from now, five years from now, many of our girls have now gotten into college, are now hireable for a technical internship at Facebook or at Google, and whether that’s really happening, because in five years, through both of our organizations, we will have put enough girls into the pipeline, because the problem is so shitty, that the numbers should look different.
Part of my “doom and gloom, we have more work to do” attitude is because I need to put pressure —
KS: Numbers on the board.
RS: Yes, I need to put numbers on the board.
HP: I completely agree that what happens after K-12 needs a lot of work, and we don’t spend time on that, but the tech companies for sure have issues that they need to address. What’s happening in K-12, the percentage of women, not just the sheer number, but if you look at the balance in a classroom, how many are boys, how many are girls, it’s shifting towards women. It’s not going in the wrong direction. And the AP computer sciences —
RS: We have them in the pipeline, we’ve just got to shove them through.
HP: In the last year, the number of boys taking AP computer science grew 23 percent. The number of girls grew 35 percent. It’s much faster growth. It’s still small numbers, but it’s heading in the right direction.
KS: It’s more than zero.
RS: It’s more than zero.
KS: It’s non-zero.
We’ve got a lot of questions about learning to code from our readers and listeners. We’re going to answer those in a minute, but first we’re going to take a quick break as Lauren reads a word from our sponsor. I have to say ka-ching again?
LG: You have to say ka-ching.
LG: Actually you should just do a … Like you’re coding.