Transformative Change: Code.org Founder Hadi Partovi
Having built (and funded) great startups, this entrepreneur and investor opens up on his mission to teach kids how to code.
Sitting in a corner of The Third Line Gallery in Dubai’s arts district of Al Serkal Avenue, Hadi Partovi, a tech entrepreneur and angel investor known for his early bets on Facebook, Dropbox, Airbnb, and Uber, is quietly tapping away on his laptop prior to an invite-only fireside chat organized by VentureSouq, a Dubai-based early-stage equity funding platform.
He is here, wearing his signature baseball cap, to present Code.org, a Seattle-based education non-profit dedicated to expanding access to computer science in schools around the world, of which he is the founder and CEO. The main reason for founding this global social-impact initiative is his belief that mastering computer science is no less than a life-giving skill.
|Sonia Weymuller, Founding Partner of VentureSouq, introducing Hadi Partovi at a VSQ Talks event at The Third Line Gallery in Dubai.|
Yet, before we expand on that, I decide to focus on his approach to investing in early-stage tech startups, knowing that I will hear something different from a phrase that gets thrown around by every startup investor out there: “I invest in people, not ideas.” Partovi also has a people-first investment philosophy; however, not only can he specifically point out to what “investing in people” actually means for him, but he can even measure it.
The Partovi twins, Hadi and his brother Ali, currently the founder and CEO of Neo, a community of young engineers and the world’s top programmers, were jointly investing in startup founders for 17 years (since 2018, they have decided to focus on individual investments), but only in those who passed their coding test. It started with the founders of Dropbox, Partovi explains. “The best tech companies don’t hire a single technical person without putting them through a lot of tests, so why would an investor consider giving hundreds of thousands of dollars without even one test to show that they can do something?” he says. “Most VCs don’t do this because they themselves don’t know the technology, so they just think whether they like the idea or not, and they just take it for granted that a person can do it. If you look at the companies that have succeeded, the idea often isn’t unique, it’s the execution.” He points out that Google was not the first search engine company, Facebook was not the first social networking platform, and Microsoft was not the first company building an operating system- but what set all three of them apart was having the strongest engineers on board.
The Partovi brothers know this from their own entrepreneurial experience. Partovi may come across as being humble, quiet, and almost reticent, but he is a man who was part of the team that founded and sold Tellme Networks, a voice recognition software developer, to Microsoft for US$800 million in 2007. A decade earlier, in 1998, Ali Partovi was a co-founder of LinkExchange, an internet advertising company, that also got acquired by Microsoft for $265 million. The brothers’ website has a page listing their 34 ongoing investments, which include Airbnb, Classpass, and Uber, and 23 successful exits, such as Dropbox (IPO), Facebook (IPO), and Zappos (acquired by Amazon), to name just a few. If you scroll down this page, you will also find a list of 10 of their unsuccessful investments, and Partovi is open to say that there had been a few bruises before the brothers developed their investment muscle. “I did invest in a bad idea when I liked the person, but if I look at all my investments, the worst ones were the cases where I liked the idea but I didn’t like the entrepreneur, and also there were investment decisions that I chose not to invest even though I liked the entrepreneur,” he says. “And, I’ve made other mistakes too, such as when one of my college classmates wrote to me in 1998, saying that he had just joined a group of friends from his graduate program to start a company, and he was like, ‘They are the smartest people I know.’ I remember thinking that nobody needs another search engine, and that I wouldn’t invest in this company, that he was just the first employee, and that it was going to be a complete failure. Turned out that the company was Google, and he was their first employee and the Chief Technology Officer. He was also in the top of my class in computer science at Harvard. So, if I could go back and invest in all the best computer scientists I had graduated with, I would have made a lot more money, although I have done well, but I wouldn’t have missed the opportunities like this one.”
Code.org founder and CEO Hadi Partovi visiting a classroom.
A key element of his stressing the importance of the engineering talent is that it was a key factor in how the Partovi brothers came to be where they are today. Born in Tehran, Iran, the twins taught themselves to code on a Commodore 64, and that has fueled their passion for programming ever since. The family fled to the US in 1984, following the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Upon earning a master’s degree in computer science from Harvard University, Hadi Partovi rose up the executive ranks at Microsoft, before he went about launching his own startups. And now, he believes that every young person around the world deserves to be propelled forward in life by learning this specific skill. “This is a story about opportunity, and how we can expand who has access to that opportunity, what the jobs of the future will look like, and how we can ensure that everyone gets an opportunity,” Partovi says, on why he advocates computer science training, and why Code.org provides coding curriculum for schools around the country. “In the world of accelerating technological change, the most important thing everybody can learn is how to adapt to new technology. Many schools teach technology, but they teach kids how to use it, whereas we want to teach them how to create technology. And learning to create technology is important, not only because it leads to an opportunity, and not only because of the future of the job market, but because for kids, it’s fun and it teaches them creativity. Creativity is such a natural human desire, something that drives adults, and especially youth, but it doesn’t really exist in the school system.”
Since launching in 2013, Code.org has created the most broadly used curriculum platform for K-12 computer science in the United States. Its computer science classes have reached 30% of American students, while its Hour of Code initiative, a global campaign offering a one-hour introduction to computer science, has reached 10% of students around the world. Furthermore, the Code.org team informs that the nonprofit has more than 100 international partners and supports 63 languages in 180+ countries, with students having created 35 million projects on the platform. Importantly, they also state that 48% of Code.org students are underrepresented minorities. In addition to all of this, Partovi is a firm believer that among the future coding-skilled founders tackling the world's biggest problems, we will see many more women than today. According to a teacher survey by Code.org, 46% of users on the company’s Code.org Studio are female. “There is a misconception that this is for boys not for girls, which is totally not true,” Partovi says. “When girls reach 13 or 14, and if they haven’t tried computer science yet, there are too many other things to do and a pressure to be cool, and this is not cool for them because of that social stereotype that it is for boys. So, as a girl, if at 13 you haven’t tried it yet, you have to go against that social stereotype. However, for a boy, the social stereotype is that this is for you, that it's fine. It’s hard to go against the social stereotype for anybody, but it is especially hard for a 13-year-old, when you’ve just started learning how to be secure yourself.” To illustrate, Partovi mentions that Google search results for “software engineers” will mainly show the images of men, whereas the results for “students coding” will show men and women in almost equal numbers.
When it comes to other misconceptions about learning computer science, Partovi mentions the notions people falsely have about its scope and complexity. “I’ve probably made this worse, because of the name of our non-profit, but computer science is more than coding,” he says. “Code.org is about a whole bunch of fields that all are technical, and they are all part of computer science, and I believe that all of them belong in primary and secondary education. Just like you think of science, science has biology and chemistry and physics; you don’t teach just one of them.” Partovi adds, “The other misconception is that this is just for rocket scientists. People imagine that computer science is as hard as calculus, but they don’t realize that six-year-olds can start learning it. If you think about math, first grade math is easy, but 12th grade math could be more difficult, and university math is extra hard. Computer science is the same, the first-grade level of stuff is very easy.”
Code.org founder and CEO Hadi Partovi speaking about the importance of teaching computer science in schools.
For all these reasons, Partovi, despite coming across as a quiet man, is ready to make some noise with the recent announcement of the single largest expansion of Code.org’s computer science curriculum. Code.org’s Computer Science (CS) Fundamentals course, geared toward primary school, will be translated into the 10 most widely spoken languages in the non-profit’s database -Chinese (traditional and simplified), French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish- while it will also offer a new offline version of CS Fundamentals to empower schools in low- and no-bandwidth environments to teach computer science to all students.
Expanding into the MENA region is on Partovi’s agenda too. He says, “There are already 500,000 students and about 20,000 teachers in the Arab world using Code.org, despite it, for now, being only in English language and only on internet-connected computers, meaning that we haven’t done almost any work to overcome the obstacles in the region, we haven’t properly transitioned into Arabic, we don’t yet support use on disconnected computers, we don’t yet work well on smartphones and tablets. Most of the students are in private schools or international schools, because they are using it in English, but it shows that the interest in what we do is already high.”
Region by region, Partovi hopes to achieve Code.org’s mission of changing the educational system, making computer science a permanent part of school curricula. “The education establishment especially doesn’t recognize that this is a field that is as fundamental as mathematics or science,” Partovi says. “Everybody understands that technology is the future, nobody needs to be explained that, and nobody needs to be explained that there is money in technology, and that it is changing everything. What people don’t realize is that when you start learning the alphabet, you can also simultaneously start learning computer science. Nobody questions why we teach math or science, but what they do question is whether they should teach computer science. They are not even asking whether they should also teach computer science.”
Code.org founder and CEO Hadi Partovi teaching students.
However, some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent leaders did not need much persuasion- so far, Code.org has been backed by Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Infosys Foundation USA, and many others. Furthermore, Partovi recently helped Pope Francis to write a line of code for an app during an event organized by the Scholas Occurrentes Foundation in Vatican City. “Computer science belongs in primary and secondary schools as a fundamental thing, not just for the students who want to become coders, but also for those who want to become lawyers, nurses, farmers, because understanding technology is going to be important,” Partovi concludes. “It’s because building the creativity that computer science teaches will be important, and learning the digital skills that will be required in every career will be important. The biggest obstacle for us is this education administrative mindset. Individual teachers and parents recognize this, but nobody thinks that this should be in schools. They want their own child to learn to code, and they don’t think about why schools are not teaching it.”
Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.