Hadi Partovi, 43, remembers when he got hooked on coding. He was 10 and bombs were falling outside.
The co-founder and CEO of Code.org, a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to expanding global student access to computer science, first learned to program video games while growing up in war-torn Iran in the 1980s. His family’s home was in the capital of Tehran near the local TV station, a prime bombing target.
One day, Hadi’s father brought home a computer -- a Commodore 64 -- for him and his identical twin brother, Ali. “He said, ‘This doesn’t have any games on it, but here’s a book to teach yourself BASIC programs. You can write your own games,’” Hadi recalls.
And, together, they did. For the Partovi twins, the PC’s monochrome glow was a beam of light in the darkest of times. When Saddam Hussein’s air raids raged at night, they huddled in the basement with their parents, covered their ears and hoped their apartment wouldn’t get hit. Then, in the morning, when the electricity was back on, downstairs to the keyboard they returned, coding “order amidst chaos.”
In 1984, the Partovi family emigrated to America. By that time, Hadi and Ali were expert programmers. Their parents worked three jobs each to make ends meet. Later, in high school, when their friends punched in at gas stations and restaurants, the twins worked professional coding gigs for 10 times the pay. They paid their way through Harvard University teaching computer science to their fellow classmates.
Three decades, two remarkably successful careers in tech, two multimillion-dollar acquisitions of their individual companies by Microsoft and several lucrative “unicorn club” investments later, the Partovi twins are giving back. Launched in 2013, Code.org is their way of sharing the hope and freedom that coding afforded them with children everywhere.
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“As an immigrant to this country, I feel like I’m living the American dream,” Hadi says. “I’ve had great success in tech and, because of that, I feel I have this duty to give back. And, for me, the number one way to give back is to give kids the same type of opportunity I had.”
The most popular of Code.org’s initiatives is Hour of Code, an annual event that engages tens of millions of students in K-12 classrooms across the globe in a self-guided hour of coding. Now in its third installment, this year’s Hour of Code takes place Dec. 7 through 13 in celebration of Computer Science Education Week.
Hour of Code has attracted some high-profile participants. Last year, President Obama officially kicked off the event, joining an notable lineup of tech titans and celebs championing the Partovis’ cause. Among them are Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, NBA all-star player Chris Bosh, singer-songwriter Usher, hip-hop artist will.i.am and actor Ashton Kutcher.
The goal is to show not only that coding is cool, but that it can open doors for anyone.
“We want people to recognize that computer science is something everybody can participate in, even if you’re a 9-year-old Latina,” says Hadi. “There’s no reason that it should be limited to 18-year-old white boys in basements with energy drinks.”
Viral from the start
Code.org began with a vision for a video. The Partovi twins set out to make a simple sizzle reel about how fun computer science can be. The video would highlight some of the best-known tech heavy hitters they were connected with from their high-level investments and business deals.
Published on YouTube on Feb. 26, 2013, the video shows some of today’s most famous entrepreneurs reminiscing about when they first discovered their love of computers and programming. The inspiring collection of vignettes features Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg (he taught himself how to code “for fun” in the sixth grade), Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates (the first program he wrote played tic-tac-toe), Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey (at 15, he coded dispatching software that some taxicab companies still use today) and several other luminaries.
The five-minute clip was an instant viral hit, topping YouTube’s “most popular” chart in its first 48 hours live. Satisfied they’d made a splash, the Partovi twins felt they’d accomplished their objective. “Originally there was no plan beyond the video,” Hadi says. “The true inspiration for doing what is now Code.org are the 20,000 educators who then reached out after that video saying, ‘Please help us bring this to our school.’”
Today, from New York to California, Code.org has trained some 16,000 teachers in person across 89 U.S. school districts, equipping them with the skills and classroom activity plans they need to sow the seeds of STEM education in their students. The Partovis’ empowering program offers kids, the majority of whom might not otherwise be introduced to computer science, a glimpse of the doors coding could open for them and the barriers it could break down.
“There's a special allure to being able to tell a machine what to do,” Hadi says. “The ability to harness a computing machine that can think and act a billion times faster than yourself provides confidence and optimism, especially if you're stuck in an otherwise hopeless situation.”