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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A New Group Aims to Make Programming Cool

The presence of technology in the lives of most teenagers hasn’t done much to entice more of them to become programmers. So Hadi Partovi has formed a nonprofit foundation aimed at making computer science as interesting to young people as smartphones, Instagram and iPads.

Mr. Partovi, a successful Seattle-based technology investor and entrepreneur, founded Code.org with the goal of increasing the teaching of computer science in classrooms and sparking more excitement about the subject among students. Mr. Partovi, who is an adviser and investor in Facebook, Dropbox and Airbnb, was inspired to create the Code.org after seeing technology companies struggle to find enough programming talent.

“Living in the tech industry, it’s very clear to me their No. 1 problem is the shortage of engineers,” said Mr. Partovi, 40, who is working on the foundation with his twin brother, Ali. “There’s no end to what’s going to be touched by software.”

Code.og’s initial effort will be a short film, currently being edited, that will feature various luminaries from the technology industry talking about how exciting and accessible programming is. Two of the most famous programmers and entrepreneurs in history â€" Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, and Bill Gates, the chairman and co-founder of Microsoft - were among the people interviewed for the film, according to a person with knowledge of the project who wasn’t authorized to discuss details about it.

Lesley Chilcott, a producer of the documentaries “Waiting for ‘Superman’” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” is making the film.

Mr. Partovi’s nonprofit is part of a much wider push by the technology industry to figure out how to train more people in computer science at a young age. While bitter rivals like Microsoft and Google don’t agree on a lot of things, one topic on which they do is the alarming mismatch between the relatively small number of Americans being t! rained in computer science and the employment opportunities that await them.

There are several statistics that tell that story: the number of United States students receiving bachelor’s degrees in computer science, and the percentage of high school students earnings credits in the field, are both on the decline â€" even though there will be 150,000 computing-job openings every year for the next seven years, by one estimate. Microsoft has gone so far as to send its engineers into high schools to help teach computer science.

Not all of those opportunities are at sexy Internet companies like Google, which can be notoriously picky about the people it hires. Many of them are in government, banks and other areas. Many of the jobs in life sciences and other fields are expected to be programming-related because of the growing importance of big data tothose professions.

“There are so many wild ideas about where technology will take us,” said Mr. Partovi, who was also a member of the founding teams of iLike and Tellme. “All of that will be powered by software.”

Code.org will also create a database to help parents find schools where computer science is already being taught and to advocate ways of making it more available to students.

These will not be easy challenges to overcome. Mr. Partovi and others in the technology business believe a lack of qualified teachers is one of the most serious problems blocking greater access to computer science in classrooms. Even programmers with a passion for teaching have a difficult time turning down more lucrative job offers, especially if they’ve got piles of student debt.

“It’s difficult to convince people who are getting the highest salaries in industry to get one of the lowest-paying jobs,” said Mr. Partovi, who is initially funding the foundation with his brother.


It al! so isn’t clear that Code.org’s film will succeed where modern technologies themselves have failed: in getting young people excited about programming. Mr. Partovi’s theory is that devices like the iPhone do a much better job at concealing their complexity from their users, which is great for people who truly have no interest in fussing around with code.

Operating PCs in the early days meant learning arcane DOS commands, which helped get people like Mr. Partovi, a computer science graduate from Harvard, interested in programming.

Mr. Partovi believes that pop culture depictions of programmers - think Mr. Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” - have not helped dispel the image of the typical coder as a “freakish, white boy genius stuck in a basement.” He said the film will seek to broaden the appeal of programming by showing women programmers and emphasizing its collaborative nature.

“The goal of the video is to challenge stereotypes,” he said.