Hadi Partovi is a man on a mission. He wants every American child in school to learn how to code. That figure is 1 in 10 right now, so Partovi and his organization, Code.org have an uphill task before them, but they have some of Silicon Valley's best and brightest on their side.
But what is this obsession with code? And where are we going with this?
The American Way
Like so many others in America, Partovi's story is that of an immigrant. However, long before his family emigrated from native Iran, he was hooked onto computers, much like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg in their formative years.
Fooling around with a Commodore 64 at age 10 during the Iran-Iraq war ignited a passion that led to a computer science degree from Harvard, a job at Microsoft, and finally a jump into entrepreneurial waters. After exiting his startups successfully, Partovi was a man at the heights of professional and financial success.
Then Steve Jobs died.
While Jobs had demystified computing's technical aspects and made it a mass consumer product, Partovi knew that it took a bunch of highly talented computer science professionals--in Apple's case Steve Wozniak--to make that happen. The massive gap between the technology jobs out there and trained professionals alarmed Partovi.
Since you don't produce 1 million software professionals overnight, Partovi knew he had to catch folks early, and that's how Code.org was born. Its mission is to bring computer science to every public school district that doesn't have formal instruction-- that's 90% of public schools and an estimated $300 million in investment.
There is an apocryphal scene in the Facebook-chronicling movie The Social Network where Mark Zuckerberg is asked by his computer science teacher about what the eight status bits in some computer protocol would be. As Zuckerberg turns to leave the classroom, he answers in an offhand manner " One valid bit, one modified bit, one reference bit, and five permission bits."
While that geeky gobbledygook would have been pencilled in by writer Aaron Sorkin for dramatic effect that's precisely the kind of stuff that intimidates people from taking up computer science or to have the belief that they can hack it at coding.
Speak to übergeeks ranging from Gates to Zuckerberg though and you get a very different answer as to what makes for a good coder. The DNA to be a problem solver, to be naturally curious is what got these folks into coding. Even they admit that it's a tad intimidating at first, but then it gets fun!
It's no accident then that Partovi is trying to solve this "first mile" problem with Code.org's "Hour of Code" program--just trying to get students to try a few lines of coding, and letting their natural interest take it forward. Even Facebook's founder is doing his bit to inspire a new generation of homegrown American coders to do their thing.
Yet, a CEO of a multi-billion dollar valued company has more pressing problems to resolve in the short-term. Which is why Zuckerberg and others are lobbying US politicians to get with the program and relax visa restrictions so technology companies can import coders to compensate for the domestic shortfall.
Those championing the cause of code realize that in today's economic environment the conversation over coding has to be job-centric.
Partovi contends that a single software job can create 3 or 4 jobs in the neighborhood. A Microsoft-sponsored research by IDC looked at 82 countries where the software giant was present and concluded that the company has created more than 14.7 million jobs due to its activities while the company's own headcount is around 100,000 employees.
The President seems to be on-message as well. In last year's State of the Union Obama not only talked about STEM education--under which computer science falls-- but also made the direct link with jobs when he said "We'll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math--the skills today's employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future."
There's another school of thought that says coding is not just about getting a job but going forward will become a key life skill, just as literacy is today. The reasoning is that the vast amounts of information around us requires us to become exceedingly efficient. With trends like the "Internet of Things"--everyday devices connected to the internet--the average individual is going to have to get programmatically inclined if he or she is to exist and progress.
Coding will empower individuals to construct their own personal and professional ecosystem, rather than just rely on the coding literate to solve our computing problems. If a Home Depot can feature a range of extensive DIY products and Ikea can get you to assemble your own furniture, the same parallels could soon apply to information technology.
A true coding revolution could result in everybody starting to code, and human productivity and value creation might increase manifold. Social networks will be as much about what you created and then shared than just liking someone's photo or status message. This is surely a utopian ideal, there's bound to be lots of bad code as well, but America and the world could benefit greatly from cracking the code.