People of ACM - Hadi Partovi

February 6, 2014: People of ACM: Hadi Partovi

Hadi Partovi is an entrepreneur and investor, and co-founder of education nonprofit Code.org. ACM partnered with Code.org to bring computing skills to elementary and high school students during Computer Science Education Week 2013 through the Code.org campaign, Hour of Code. As an angel investor and startup advisor, Partovi's portfolio includes Facebook, Zappos, Dropbox, OPOWER, Flixster, Bluekai, and many others.

Partovi began his career during the browser wars in the 1990s, when he was Microsoft's Group Program Manager for Internet Explorer. After the release of IE 5.0, he co-founded Tellme Networks, which was later acquired by Microsoft for a reported $800 million. Partovi was General Manager of MSN.com during MSN's only year of profit. After leaving Microsoft a second time, he co-founded iLike with twin brother Ali Partovi, and together they built the leading music application on the Facebook platform. In 2009, iLike was acquired by MySpace, where both Partovis worked as Senior Vice Presidents.

Partovi received BA and MS degrees in Computer Science from Harvard University.

You have been quoted as saying that 60% of all STEM jobs are in the computing arena, but only 2% of STEM education is in computer science. Why do you think this discrepancy has occurred?

The reason why computer science drives 60% of STEM jobs is because computing and software are at the heart of ALL technology innovation. I believe that every single man-made technology or industry is going to face some form of disruption or at least integration with software — we are seeing it with the Uber app disrupting the taxi system today, and next decade it will be self-driving cars. This disruption has already happened in communications, banking, and commerce, and will spread to transportation, medicine, agriculture, entertainment, literally every industry you can think of.

The reason why computer science accounts for only 2% of high school STEM education is because education systems are slow to change, especially in US public schools, which are each individual bureaucracies governed by local laws and local school boards. That sort of a system doesn't react to the normal forces of supply and demand. Besides, the supply-and-demand of the job market gives very delayed feedback to the education system. Students only realize eight years after entering high school that the courses they studied in high school may or may not have prepared them for life after college. There are countless college graduates today who wish they could go back to high school or even elementary school and start learning some computer science instead. But their voices don't make it back to younger students quickly enough. And even when they do, it takes even longer for the message to make it to teachers, schools, districts, and elected officials. At the end of the day the system won't change without a massive level of political effort, a citizen-led movement, or a major philanthropic initiative. We're trying to do all three at once.

What role did your early childhood in Iran and your father's leadership of Tehran's Sharif University play in your passion for promoting computer science as a core course for K-12 education?

My dad has always set an example I've aspired to. He was the first/founding professor of Tehran's Sharif University; he hired many of the initial professors and chaired the physics department for many years. If you ask any graduate school today, they will attest that Sharif graduates some of the most outstanding technologists in the world, at the same level as Caltech or MIT, which is pretty amazing and not what you would expect of a university in Iran. I'm incredibly proud of the foundation my father set up, and I've always wondered if I could ever achieve anything similar.

Besides, one of my dad's earliest gifts was a Commodore 64 when I was about 10 years old. He gave my brother and me this computer, with no software at all, but a few books, and said, "write your own games." Getting an early start on programming pretty much set me up for life, and it's only fitting that I help future students get the same preparation as part of their school system. Isn't that what school is meant to do?

How optimistic are you that Code.org can break through the barriers pervasive in public K-12 education and convince school officials that they need to teach more kids to code?

I am incredibly optimistic. My team often thinks I'm crazy. Why am I optimistic? Because we are in the midst of the largest, fastest technological revolutions the human race has experienced, and ALL of us know it, even the most bureaucratic of school officials. Every American shares a feeling that technology is passing us by very quickly, and most feel left behind — and so none of us want our children to be left behind either. I've never pitched an idea that receives a warmer welcome — whether from Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, teachers' unions, parents, or students.

As a tech industry veteran and visionary, what would you say to young people who may not realize that two-thirds of the jobs in software engineering are outside the technology sector?

I would say that the reason to study software isn't because you want to get a job in technology. School teaches you how to dissect a frog, or how electricity works, even if you want to become a journalist or a lawyer. In the 21st century, it's equally important, or more important even, to know how to "dissect an app" or learn how the Internet works, even if you want to become a doctor, a chemist, or the President of the United States. Maybe you'll fall in love with it and decide to get a job in software, and if you do, you'll be in one of the most creative, highest-paying careers in the world. Most students who study computer science in high school will go on to careers outside of computing — but they will still benefit from it. This is a fundamental, foundational science for the 21st century.