Behind The Tech with Kevin Scott - Alice Steinglass: Code.org Expanding Access to Computer Science

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ALICE STEINGLASS: (Voiceover) It was an 8086. At the time, 8086 was already out of date, but I had one. It wasn’t until about senior year in high school when I realized what I could do with it. I have a little brother, and so I made it so that when he tried to log into the computer, it would just beep really loudly. And then it would put up this huge ASCII warning error that was like “Intruder, intruder.”

ROBOT VOICE: “Intruder alert. Intruder alert.”

ALICE STEINGLASS: (Voiceover) “This intrusion has been logged.” It wasn’t actually logged, but it looks scary.

[MUSIC]

KEVIN SCOTT: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m your host, Kevin Scott, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft. In this podcast, we’re going to get behind the tech. We’ll talk with some of the people who made our modern tech world possible and understand what motivated them to create what they did. So, join me to maybe learn a little bit about the history of computing and get a few behind-the-scenes insights into what’s happening today. Stick around. Today, I’m joined by my colleague, Christina Warren. Christina is Senior Cloud Developer Advocate at Microsoft. Welcome, Christina.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here and I’m excited to learn more about today’s guest.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yes. So, we’re having Alice Steinglass on the show today. Alice is the President of Code.org, which is an organization doing stuff that’s super near and dear to my heart. So they are trying to teach every child how to program, and they partner with teachers in K through 12 across the country and increasingly across the globe to try to help make computer science a part of the K through 12 curriculum.

CHRISTINA WARREN: You have a lot of similarities with Alice because you also have an organization that has a similar mission?

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I do. So, one of the things that I’ve been trying to do, and like this podcast is a little bit of a reflection of that, is to show the truly diverse set of faces and tell the diverse set of stories that lead people into computing and what their careers look like. Because when I look around me and like I see all of the amazing people who are helping to build the technology that we all depend on, it’s not this monolithic thing.

There are just so many different folks, genders, and ethnicities, and folks who came from like their parents were college professors to folks like me who no one in their family went to college, and it was an interesting quirk that they ever found their way into computing. One of the things that we know both from my work, the Behind the Tech, and my family foundation is that the earlier that you set the spark of interest in a child and the more of the barriers you get out of their way to pursuing that is an interest and maybe ultimately as a career, like the happier, more successful they’ll be.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Definitely. I think a lot of people have an orthodox path into getting to tech. I got into it because I had that sheer force of will.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

CHRISTINA WARREN: But I think about kids that I went to school with and if they’d had those opportunities that were accessible to them like the way that code.org is making things accessible now, how different things might be.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. Sometimes your journey can be sensitive, so to speak. So, like one thing can completely change your path. Like with me, I was lucky enough to get into a science and technology high school when I was a senior. If I hadn’t had that experience, I don’t know what my career would have looked like, whether or not I would have chosen computer science as a major when I went to college or maybe even whether I went to college at all.

So I think what that tells me is let’s do everything humanly possible to expose kids to as many of these opportunities as possible. It’s not that I think everybody should be a computer scientist, but you should at least have the opportunity.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Definitely.

KEVIN SCOTT: Thanks for chatting, Christina. We’ll reconnect later at the end of the show. Coming up next, Alice Steinglass.

Alice is the president of Code.org. Her teams build curriculum tools and software to support introductory computer science classes for students from kindergarten through high school. They also partner with education and software companies across the industry to run the Hour of Code, a global movement reaching tens of millions of students in over 180 countries.

[MUSIC]

KEVIN SCOTT: Alice, welcome to the show.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Thank you.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, one of the things that I would love to start with is your journey. So, how did you get into computing?

ALICE STEINGLASS: I’m so lucky to be here, but my journey was not the journey that a lot of people had. I didn’t play with computers from the time I was little. I didn’t take them apart for fun. I actually got into computer science because my school taught it and-

KEVIN SCOTT: This is your high school?

ALICE STEINGLASS: Yeah, my high school. I didn’t really know what I was signing up for. I was into math, I was into other things. I said, “Okay, I’ll try this. I hear you can make things with it.” I took a class and I loved it. I had a final project, where I built a game called Snake, which similar to Tron what everybody built it back then. But I finished it, it was fun.

I tested it, I tested it, and then my teacher ended up staying up like all night testing it and found out that the high score could go even higher. It broke if you had more than like five digits in the high score and I said, “How did you find that?” He said, “We were playing it all night.” What other class do you get to make something where your teacher plays it all night?

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. So, was it the whole thing, was it the technical challenge of writing the code, was it the fact that you made something that someone was a little bit addicted to?

ALICE STEINGLASS: I think it’s all of that. I think for me it’s like the best of Math and Art and English, and all of that put together. I always liked Math, but Math, most of the problems have an answer. There’s no creativity. Here’s a challenge, can you figure out how to find the tip-top of this curve or something?

In computer science, it had that same logical backbone, but the problems were open-ended. You’re never done with a project, and even in real world. When we’re building software, we’re never done with it. So, we’re always making it better, you can always improve it, and there’s this blank slate aspect where you can create something. I loved art, I love creating, and I think computer science is like creating both logic, and then it gets to move at the end, which is cool.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. It’s super cool. So, when did you get your first computer?

ALICE STEINGLASS: When did I get my first computer? I had a computer when I was younger. I was lucky. My father’s office was selling off cheap computers, older computers. So they sold them to the employees for I think it was like $50. He got me an old computer.

KEVIN SCOTT: Wow.

ALICE STEINGLASS: It was an 8086. At the time, 8086 was already out of date, but I had one and it just sat in my room. I didn’t code it. I didn’t program it. I used it. I’ve wrote papers on it. It wasn’t until about senior year in high school when I realized what I could do with it. Once I figured out computer science, I did go back and code it, but I’ll have to tell you. So, one of the first programs I wrote for it, I had a little brother and I made it so that when he tried to log into the computer, it would just beep really loudly. And it would put up this huge ASCII warning error that was like, “Intruder, intruder.” Then, of course, it named him because there’s no other possible intruder in my house other than my brother. So it would say, “Seth, you were trying to break into this computer. This intrusion has been logged.” It wasn’t actually logged, but it looked scary.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. This is the thing that really amazes and interests me about computing. There’s this notion I think in the minds of a lot of people that there is one stereotypical path that you’re like a nerdy teenage white boy and you get your machine when you’re 13 years old, and you start writing your first code. This notion that you have to be a prodigy to get in to compute. But when I actually talk to people, everybody’s story is so different.

Anders Hejlsberg, who we interviewed in a previous episode, he didn’t start coding until he was in college. So, some people early, some people late, and the motivations are all over the map. Some people just love the creative aspect, some people love the fact that they can make the machine do something. My kids love that. It’s like, “Okay, I can tell the machine what to do. I can’t tell mom and dad what to do, but the machine will listen to me.”

ALICE STEINGLASS: Yeah, absolutely. I think it was a little intimidating for a while because there’s this language that goes around computers, and there’s this barrier where you feel like if you don’t speak the language then you probably can’t learn computer science. But the truth is you absolutely can learn it, and the language is just a false barrier.

I went to college. I heard all these guys talking about things like bulletin board systems in the ’90s, and it was like a thing then. They were all on it, and I have never been on a BBS in my entire life. You think, “Okay, BBS is some technical world, and I can’t possibly code if I don’t know what a BBS is.” It turns out that a BBS is just like Reddit, but in the ’90s.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: You absolutely don’t need to use Reddit to do computer science. I mean, I love computer science. I love the logic. I love the challenges. I love building. But to this day, I still have not done BBSs, and it’s okay.

KEVIN SCOTT: It’s super okay.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Right, and it’s this language thing. It’s this language barrier that just, it makes you feel like you can’t but you absolutely can.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. So, from your senior year where you took your first computer science course, what was next?

ALICE STEINGLASS: So, I went to college and at that point, I was already into it. Actually, that’s not just me, that’s really common. What you see is that women who take AP Computer Science in high school are times more likely to take it in college. That’s one of the reasons we’re fighting so hard to get computer science offered in high school is because it helps dispel these notions. It helps make you feel like you can do it. So, I went to college and I knew I wanted to take Computer Science. I majored in Computer Science in college. I did the typical startup on the side.

KEVIN SCOTT: What was your startup?

ALICE STEINGLASS: It was dynamicfeedback.com. Yeah. We partnered with a professor who is doing management consulting and worked on how do you help people take 360-degree surveys to learn how to be better in the workplace. It was interesting, it was fun.

Like everybody’s first startup, we totally underestimated the amount of code that we need to get written to do what we thought we would need it to do, we worked all night. Part of it for me was the experience of learning that a company is more than just code. We had to figure out things like customer support and lawyers, and I had to find a space.

KEVIN SCOTT: Really unsexy stuff.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Yeah. Where we actually go to sit. So, that was interesting. I ended up coming out to Microsoft after that and I worked on.

KEVIN SCOTT: How did you decide on Microsoft? What year was this?

ALICE STEINGLASS: This was 2001.

KEVIN SCOTT: Okay.

ALICE STEINGLASS: I was working on the first version of Xbox.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, super exciting.

ALICE STEINGLASS: It was super exciting, and then I got to work on the first version of Xbox Live. What’s weird is I’m not a hardcore gamer, but it was still a really interesting set of problems. I think, sometimes not being a hardcore gamer actually helped. I was working on the high score system for Xbox. I kept talking to people and everybody had a way we should do high scores. They have to work like this because they work like this is my favorite racing game. They have to work like this because they work this way in my favorite shooting game.

Coming in as a neutral person I said, “No, I’m going to look at all the games and understand how high scores work across everything.” I went and played 50 games and learned about how high scores worked in every game and talked to a lot of people, and then, designed a system to allow any game on Xbox to use the Xbox high-score system. So, it was interesting.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Interesting work.

KEVIN SCOTT: Did you have a course charted as you were going one thing to next? The reason I ask is, I think, everybody has such a different path through their career in computing, and they’re all good and interesting.

ALICE STEINGLASS: I think in retrospect, I could probably tell you a story. But the reality of it is that I think a lot of it is happenstance, a lot of it is you don’t know.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: You try something and you find out you like it or you don’t. The one thing that I would recommend to young people who are starting their career is to try some different things. I think you can get stuck in one thing pretty easily and not even have a plan that that’s what you’re going to do you just end up doing it.

The easiest time to switch and try some new things is in your 20s, when you’re not an expert yet in one particular field. So, one of the things I did do was I tried different technologies. So, I worked in Xbox, I worked on Live, I worked on Services. I was in charge of all of the APIs for Xbox Live across the board, which is really interesting.

I went from that to looking at the Toolchain that developers use and working on XNA before it was XNA. Then I went from there, I said, “What’s the opposite of everything I’ve ever done?” Right. I’ve been working on more the APIs, I haven’t touched enterprise software and enterprise services and I just want to know what the other side looks like.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: So, I went to Office, I went over to Microsoft Project partially because it was just a very different space. I figured this was a good time to learn about a different space. I had a lot of people who thought it was the most insane thing they’d ever heard. Right. Why would anybody leave Xbox on purpose to go work on Project?

But I actually found it really fascinating and interesting. Understanding about how do companies make purchases, and what does it mean to sell and to enterprise sales, and how do we make workplaces more efficient, and what is business software look like. I thought it was a really fascinating space.

KEVIN SCOTT: It sounds like one of the things that has driven a lot of your journey is just curiosity. You’ve explored a bunch different things, startups.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Yeah.

KEVIN SCOTT: Ton of different things at Microsoft. Were you the kid that was taking all your mom’s stuff apart, or asking five million questions?

ALICE STEINGLASS: I mean, yes, but I think we all are.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, you think so?

ALICE STEINGLASS: Yeah, I think kids are naturally curious. I think we all want to learn. I think we all want to do that. I think there are barriers that hold us back, and some of those barriers can feel more real than they are, especially in tech. It’s a booming space. There’s a million jobs right now. Everybody’s looking to hire. When I’m mentoring people I feel like talking to young people in tech. Sometimes they’re afraid to make the choice, to try something new or to change. But, it’s a false barrier they’ve put on themselves.

KEVIN SCOTT: One of the things that really strikes me about the industry over the past, let’s just say, 10 or 15 years is, I think, in some ways we’ve gotten more complex. The number of programming languages, the number of frameworks, the whole ecosystem is just bigger. But, in a very real sense it’s easier than it ever has been to go make something with code or with technology.

When I was in college, folks had this notion like, “Oh, my God. Coding is so hard, you have to go get this degree, you have to practice.” To get really great at anything, all that’s true, but my kids can go make interesting things right now without a Computer Science degree because the tools that they have are so powerful. Is that something that you’re seeing helping students get into computing?

ALICE STEINGLASS: Absolutely. There’s a level of relevance, right?

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: When I was a kid, I made a game from my calculator that was [inaudible]. I made a game and I also made it formula solver cheat sheet kind of thing.

KEVIN SCOTT: Right.

ALICE STEINGLASS: But helped you with your physics formulas. This wasn’t going to be the thing that took over America.

KEVIN SCOTT: Right.

ALICE STEINGLASS: But it was popular, among all the students in my class. Right? I think there’s the same thing today. We see kids making games. There are some of those things are just not that complicated, right?

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: So, students have the potential to make things that are definitely cool. They’re not as complex as an Xbox game, but they’re cool. But, you also see that there’s a lot of space for things that are locally relevant. Some of these kids’ apps, there’s one with their teacher’s face, you could feed the teacher ice cream, but the teacher got a kick out of it, and it’s fun, and it’s cute, and it’s relevant in that classroom. It’s relevant in that school, your friends are all going to try it out. I think it gives you a taste of something without having to be an amazing artist, just like anything else, there will be steps.

KEVIN SCOTT: Also, talk a little bit about what you do right now. So, you’re the President of Code.org. So, tell us a little bit about what Code.org does.

ALICE STEINGLASS: So, we build curriculum, we do professional development for teachers, we do advocacy work, but our goal is that every child should have the opportunity to take a computer science class in K12. I was shocked, especially from the tech industry. I was shocked to hear that most schools today don’t teach computer science, and it’s not even that most kids don’t take it, it’s their school doesn’t teach it at all. So, even if they want to take it, they can’t. This disproportionately affects students in high need schools. It disproportionately affects underrepresented minorities and women who are discouraged from taking these classes. And the result is that because they never get this introduction in K12, it’s really hard to start after that. It’s really hard to start in college. So they may never go into the field. And even if they go into another field, they don’t have that background in computer science. So, our goal is that every school should offer this course, so that every child has an opportunity to take it. At this point, we’re the most popular computer science platform curriculum in K12 in the country. About 25 percent of students actually have an account on Code.org. So, we’re reaching a lot of students but there’s a long way to go.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. So, how early should we be teaching kids computer science?

ALICE STEINGLASS: So, this is totally different from how I started, but our recommendation is actually to start in elementary school, and there’s some good reasons for doing this. Let me start by talking about how we teach about biology today, because I think it’s a really good analogy for how I think about computer science education.

So, every child when they go to elementary school gets to learn that they have bones, they have a digestive system, just the basics of how does my body work. We don’t do that because they’re all going to be doctors or nurses or EMTs. We do that because they’re going to live with that body for the rest of their lives and they should know how it works. When they go to middle school maybe they learn more about it. In high school, a kid can take Biology or AP Biology. Even after they take all of those courses, all the way through K12, they’re still not qualified. I don’t trust a high school student who’s taken AP Bio to do anything to me. So, there’s still more work if they want to be a professional in the field, whether it’s a nurse or a technician or anything.

Computer science is the same way. Every kid is going to be surrounded by technology their whole lives. We have our phones in our pockets, who knows where they’re going to be when they grow up. The same way we get to know that we have a digestive system, they should understand, what is the Internet? What is the Cloud? What is data? How does this phone work? It’s not a magic box that does magic magic. It’s a computer, and what is a computer, right? These are just basics that should be part of our education system.

KEVIN SCOTT: Right.

ALICE STEINGLASS: So, I think of it in a very analogous way. In K5, we get to teach the students, what are these things? What is technology? Then, when they get to middle school, maybe they take more. If they’re interested, they can take an AP Computer Science class in high school, and at the end of that, they’re still not a programmer. They’re going to go on and take a two-year degree. They could take a four-year degree. They can become a lifelong computer scientist. But, no matter what they do in life, it’s useful to know how computers work.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: So, the same way we teach our kids how the body works, that’s how we think about teaching it in elementary school. There’s another reason to start so young, and that has to do with supporting diversity in computer science. What we see is that women tend to become less interested in the STEM fields around the middle school, early high school. In computer science, it’s between about 12 and 14 when they lose interest. So, what we want to do is reach them before that year, so that while they’re still interested in learning these things, we can show them what it is, so that if they’re interested, they can keep going.

So, there’s a bunch of pieces here, part of it is encouraging them, thinking that they’ll be good at it, getting that encouragement. If they’re very confident in their ability to do it, they’re four times more likely to go into computer science or take computer science classes than if they aren’t. Girls, right now, oftentimes, they don’t get this opportunity in elementary school, and so what happens is, when they’re thinking about taking it in high school or middle school, they do it just based on the zeitgeist of what people tell them that they’re going to be good at.

KEVIN SCOTT: Right.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Right? Unfortunately, what we see is that they’re often told they won’t be good at computer science. Teachers are two and a half times more likely to tell a boy that he’ll be good at computer science than a girl. And it’s not because they’re against it. These teachers are supportive, they care, it’s just these cultural norms are embedded in our society.

KEVIN SCOTT: Well, and kids are also pretty good pattern matchers. One of the things that I’ve noticed disturbingly with my own kids, I’ve got a eight-year old and a 10-year old right now, and very, very early when they were three, four years old, they would look around at the world and start making these classification decisions. It’s okay, this is a boy thing and this is a girl thing, and this is without anything in their household telling them that thing A and thing B has a gender association with it.

It’s just them sorting things out. One of the things I love about what you all are doing is there’s this bootstrapping problem that I think you have to solve where we just need more three and four-year-old seeing seven and eight-year-olds being successful in a computer science curriculum, so it helps them decide to do that when they’re just a few years older and up the entire stack.

ALICE STEINGLASS: That’s absolutely true, and you see it when you go into the classroom. So, you take a bunch of second graders. They don’t have a stereotype yet that computer science is a boy thing.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Right? They’re too young to think computer science is a boy thing.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. They probably don’t even know what computer science is, right?

ALICE STEINGLASS: Right. They see like, “Hey we’re going to make some stuff today,” and they’re so excited about it. Our classes, when you look at those elementary school classes, they’re half female, the kids are all excited, they’re super into it. We have a little tool at the end, what we call our funnel meter. They can give it a thumbs up, thumbs down at the end of every activity, and the girls actually give it higher funnel meter ratings than the boys do.

The girls are into this and they’re into it young, and so when we can get them before they’ve got those stereotypes, they can make a huge difference in terms of giving them the momentum to keep going afterward. I see the same thing you see with my own daughter. But, she’s also excited about computer science because she doesn’t see it as a boy thing.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Even if you look back in history, computer science used to be a female thing.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yes.

ALICE STEINGLASS: It’s just flipped, right?

KEVIN SCOTT: It’s about from the very beginning, the first programmer was a woman.

ALICE STEINGLASS: The first programmer was a woman, Ada Lovelace about 100 years ago, and then you look in the ’50s, in the ’40s, computers were women and computer science was a female, the stereotype would have been women.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Then, it’s men, and we can get back to a place where it’s both. We can get back to a place where we look at it and we say, “No, no, computer science, it’s something that everybody does. There’s no reason it’s one or the other.” But, it’s not just teachers, it’s also parents, it’s social, it’s friends.

Let’s say there’s an after-school program, you can just see this. Mom says, “Oh, look, some after-school classes. Bobby, looks like there’s a coding class after school on Thursdays. Do you want me to sign you up?” Right? “Emily, it looks like there’s a dance class on Tuesdays, do you want me to sign you up?” It’s so easy. They’re not thinking about it. They’re just trying to find activities for their kids.

So, when we do it after school, what we see is that same skew where boys are more likely to get signed up after school for computer science. If we do it in school, we don’t see that. So, that’s why we want to start in elementary school.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, which I think is awesome because sometimes when you’re focusing later, it’s just really, really hard. I had this friend call me up. He was like, “I’m trying to get my daughter to stay enrolled in her AP Computer Science class.” She was a senior in high school then. She just didn’t want to be in this class because she was the only girl in there.

ALICE STEINGLASS: That’s so hard.

KEVIN SCOTT: And this isn’t Silicon Valley.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Yeah.

KEVIN SCOTT: What wound up working was connecting her with a bunch of really successful women computer scientists, software engineers, who were having a really great time in their career. And she stayed in AP Computer Science class. She went off to university. She majored in Computer Science, dean’s list student, is now in a professional, so she’s a software engineer at a tech company. And that whole thing is hard to scale. What you would want to do is do that for everyone. But, it’s so hard when you’re starting later, whereas starting earlier you can maybe get to the point where just naturally you’re not having a class full of boys in 12th grade in this AP Computer Science.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Absolutely. We just hired a woman for our engineering team a couple of months ago who’s studying computer science in college, was one of the only woman in her class, dropped out because she felt she didn’t belong, but liked computer science. She liked it. She just didn’t feel she should be in it because there weren’t any other women in it, and finished college still regretted it. Still wanted to do computer science. Ended up doing night classes and side classes and learning it after work, eventually did a boot camp, learned computer science, moved into the career, worked as a computer scientist, and just recently joined our engineering team.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s awesome.

ALICE STEINGLASS: But, you know that’s the hard way.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. That’s the hard way.

ALICE STEINGLASS: It would have been easier if she had just been able to stay in those classes in the first place.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Yeah.

KEVIN SCOTT: Tell us a little bit about Hour of Code.

ALICE STEINGLASS: So, Hour of Code has just become a phenomenon. It’s exceeded our expectations. If you’re not in school right now, you may not have heard of it. If you’re in school, you probably have. It’s like Earth Day, but for computer science.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: It’s a national holiday. I don’t have the exact numbers or the number of which schools participate. But, as far as I can tell, everybody I talked to, their school seems to be doing it.

KEVIN SCOTT: I realized there was a bigger thing than I thought when Steph Curry was posting on LinkedIn about him doing his Hour of Code.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Oh, yeah. Oh, hey, if you’re into sports, then Steph Curry did it. If you’re into other things, Barack Obama’s done it, Justin Trudeau’s done it, Dave Cameron, that we’ve had about eight world leaders who’ve participated. We’ve had musicians. We’ve had actors, actresses. But, I think the most important thing is the schools and the teachers are doing it.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, tell folks what the Hour of Code actually is.

ALICE STEINGLASS: So, the idea is that I can tell you, until I’m blue in the face, that computer science is going to be fun, that you can do it. There’s nothing like actually trying it. So, what we do is we get students and teachers to spend one hour trying computer science. We’ve built scaffolded activities that make it easy for beginners.

In one hour, they can actually build something. You could actually build a little, mini game, something you can share and be able to say, “Hey, I did that,” and you actually learned some computer science. I mean, you don’t learn all of computer science, it’s one hour, but you learn a concept or two. You might learn about if statements, you might learn about loops and how they work. So, the students get to try it, they get to try one hour. It’s a great introduction.

We did a survey last year looking at thousands of students before and after they tried the Hour of Code, and what we found was that it does increase the amount that they say, “Hey, I like computer science or I’m interested in computer science.” But, was especially cool for me was that the group that was the most impacted by doing this was high school girls.

High school girls were probably coming into it thinking, “Hey, this is not something that I’m into.” They try it and then they’re into it. At this point, we’ve had million hours of code around the world and it’s been in 180 countries, it’s in 50 languages. It’s a huge event every December. We do it for CS Education Week, and basically it’s just a way to introduce students around the world to computer science-

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s incredible.

ALICE STEINGLASS: -by actually building something.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. It’s really incredible.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Yeah. it’s not just us, this is one of those things that we do in partnership with about 200 different companies and organizations that run it and do activities. Microsoft has partnered with us on the Minecraft Hour of Code for the last few years which is our most popular Hour of Code activity, and students and teachers love it. It’s an opportunity to use these characters they’re familiar with from Minecraft, but to learn computer science with them.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, what’s the dream for Code.org? If you had a magic wand to wave over the world, and you can achieve whatever success you wanted to achieve, what does that look like?

ALICE STEINGLASS: I think it looks like every child has the opportunity to learn computer science and that the students who are learning it look like the world. That the diversity matches, so that when we look at the workforce 20 years from now, whether somebody is in education or marketing or retail, they’re going to be using computers. It’s going to be a part of their lives and everybody gets to understand things like how the Internet works and how computers work.

And that when we look at the tech workforce, that the students who are prepared to join this, that they look the population, and I get to look around and half my team is female. I want to state that we’re working on one part of the problem, which is the K12 education. That won’t solve the tech workforce by itself. There are definitely issues around hiring, retention, workforce bias, all of those other pieces which also need to be solved. But, I think if they we’re working on one really important part of the problem.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: We do need to bring more diversity into the tech workforce and I think education is critical.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I think it really is. The thing that keeps me up at night about our future is I just look at every year technology has a bigger and bigger impact on the world and the trajectory tells us that that’s going to continue for the foreseeable future. And in a whole bunch of different ways you want as many people and as representative a set of people as possible participating in the creation of this technology. You want all perspectives, all backgrounds, all ethnicities, you want it to look like the world, which I think was beautiful way that you said it.

But, you also want society at large to be well informed because a lot of the funky stuff that’s going on today we’re going to have to make an increasingly large number of decisions, policy for instance, in ethics and the laws that we pass and the regulations that are put into place to govern the intersection of society and technology. You want people super well informed when we’re making those decisions, and you want them represented–it’s like everybody.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Absolutely. I mean, it’s just critical that in this world, everybody has this opportunity.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: At Code.org, what we do is we make it as easy as possible for schools to teach this. We offer free curriculum, we offer free professional development for these teachers, we help teachers who don’t have a computer science background.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Because the teachers don’t. I mean our schools don’t teach it. They didn’t learn it when they went to school.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: So, giving the teachers the opportunity to learn to teach computer science. They’re History teachers, English teachers, Math teachers.

KEVIN SCOTT: Learning to teach computer science, as you pointed out earlier, is different than even knowing computer science.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Right. It is different. That’s funny. We actually find that it’s not the computer scientists make the best teachers of computer science. It’s teachers teach computer science the best because they’re good teachers. What we’ve found is that experienced teachers with no background in computer science make excellent computer science teachers because they know how to teach.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: If we give them the tools and the resources and the curriculum, they’re fantastic in the classroom, and their students do really well. So, that’s what we’re working on doing. I mean, these schools teach computer science.

KEVIN SCOTT: What are some ahas that you’ve seen over the past several years trying to teach computer science kids?

ALICE STEINGLASS: Oh, there are so many. I’ll give you a personal one to start out with. So, I came into this thinking I was a good computer science teacher, and it turned out surprise, surprise, I was not. I love teaching. I think a lot of people like me, they enjoy it. It’s fun. I taught in college, I started a program to bring students into local schools to teach computer science.

I was TA, I was a teacher, and I always got good reviews. I always got high scores on the which TAs are the best, which teachers are the best. So, I had this misimpression that I was good at teaching. It’s been fascinating getting to work with a bunch of pedagogy experts on how do you actually teach because what it turned out was that I was entertaining in front of a room, which is different from being a good teacher.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: So, when we teach networking, we have a thing called ABC CBV, which is you do the activity before the concept.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: You do the concept before the vocabulary. It’s not about a teacher standing in front of a room lecturing. It’s about letting kids discover it on their own. The art of teaching is stepping back. It’s doing less. It’s not being entertaining. It’s not being this person who’s like super energetic, exciting person to watch. It’s about crafting experiences where the student is going to get to figure it out without you being involved. Because if they figure it out themselves, they’re going to remember it.

So, let’s say, we’re teaching TCPIP. We pair them up and we say, “Hey, you guys got to figure out how to send some messages back and forth.” We have this little software that lets them send these little packets of messages back and forth. But, our software is going to drop some of those packets on the ground. We’re just going to lose them. We’re also going to send some of them out of order because that’s how the Internet works, and they’ve got to figure out, “Okay, I’m sending you messages, some of them come on out of order and some of them get dropped. How am I going to deal with this?”

I don’t care how they deal with it. Some of them will send five copies of the packet because there is going to be like, “Okay let’s just keep sending them because they’re going to keep dropping them.” Some of them will number them, some of them will send back [inaudible] to say, “Yeah, I received or didn’t receive your packet.” It doesn’t matter what method they come up with. The important part was that they really understood the problem because they tried to solve it. Then, after they’ve done that we say, “Okay, that thing that you just did, that’s called a protocol.”

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: The protocol the Internet uses is called TCPIP. Now, what did the teacher do in that whole lesson? They facilitated the communication with the students. They got the students paired up, they helped a student who was blocked get to that next step. But nowhere in that lesson that the teacher stand up in front of the room and draw a picture of TCPIP.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. I’ve had similar sorts of problems with my kids and it was the same thing for me at my goal in life was to be a computer science professor from age to when I left academia. I taught undergrads for years, I taught grad students, and now I’m trying to teach a couple of really young children about these computer science concepts.

And so I’m sitting down at a restaurant and teaching them about binary search, and that will give a total win. I think they got it right away because I made it into a guessing game. I’m going to teach you a trick for how you can get someone to play this guessing game with you where you can find the number that they guess between zero and in seven steps or less. You know they’re like, “This is great.”

But, then I wanted to teach them how to do search, and there are like these little things about teaching search that sort of hard. One of the things is, if you just take a bunch of numbers and write them down and say, “How would you sort these?” One of the things that’s interesting is human beings can see all of the numbers at one time. So, they’re cheating in a sense when they’re imagining how they’re sorting.

And so I devised this thing where I could give them a bunch of blocks where the numbers on the blocks were covered up and, so they could go examine the number on the block one at a time, which is how the computer goes and does things. I just really realize that I was all kinds of wrong about how good I was going to be at teaching little children these computing concepts.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Actually, the way you ended up doing it is very similar to how we do it in our class. So, what we do is we give the kids decks of cards. They’re only allowed to lift two at a time to compare them because that’s how a computer would do it.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: They can’t look at the cards when they flip on. They show him to the other student and the student says which one’s bigger.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.

ALICE STEINGLASS: So, they get to pick two at a time and see, and then actually, one of the things that’s cool about that and a lot of our lessons is they’re not on a computer. They’re actually using physical cards in the classroom.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, which I think it’s actually great.

ALICE STEINGLASS: It’s great. Yeah. Because you know when you say computer science, I think, sometimes people think, “Oh, it’s all on a computer,” and really about half of our lessons are off the computer, and it’s about interacting with other students. It’s about internalizing the concepts by working with the actual concepts and the logic outside of the context of the computer.

KEVIN SCOTT: Thank you so much for doing this work. I couldn’t be a bigger fan and I think you guys are having an enormous and amazing impact on the world. Thank you for taking time to be on the show today.

ALICE STEINGLASS: Oh, no, thank you, and thank you for Microsoft’s support.

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KEVIN SCOTT: Well, thanks for joining us on Behind the Tech. I’m back with my colleague, Christina Warren. Some of Alice’s insights were pretty awesome. What stood out for you?

CHRISTINA WARREN: So, one of the interesting things I thought about your conversation with Alice, and we talked about this a little bit before, was hearing her story and hearing about the atypical journey and how she got involved with technology.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I think there’s an incredibly diverse set of folks in tech, just sort of based on the path that they took to get into the industry. I’ve had the great pleasure of being a computer science teacher and being an engineer and engineering leader for a really long time now, and have just come into contact with tons and tons and tons of engineers.

Each one of their stories is a little bit different and some are sort of stereotypical image. But there are all sorts of other folks like Alice, who discovered computer science in their senior year of high school. There are some folks who discover it in college. There are some folks who actually go off and have a career in some completely different thing and decide that they want to get into computing later in their life or later in their career.

The thing that I’m seeing now is that, it’s increasingly easier to make those transitions because the tools and capabilities and sort of richness of our programming environments and the way that we build software just sort of allows more and more people to get bootstrapped more and more quickly. Part of that’s a byproduct of the open source wave of software that we’ve been witnessing over the past three decades.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Yeah, definitely. One of the things I love about code.org is that, even if the kids who are going through this programs, even if, say, they don’t choose to study computer science in college, they still have that foundation.

KEVIN SCOTT: I think it’s a really important thing that everyone in society understands a little bit about computing because computing and technology is having a bigger and bigger impact on all of our lives all of the time. So, being informed about some of that stuff and having an idea in your head about how things work is going to help you be a better citizen.

CHRISTINA WARREN: I feel like that’s the only way that our products get better is by having more diverse viewpoints and different types of people coming into doing things, because you never know what someone’s perspective is going to bring. I love what code.org is doing in bringing more and more people into the fold and letting them know, “Hey, you can do this and it’s fun.”

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, tons of fun actually. But I have a biased opinion there. I think that whole pedagogical framework for teaching computer science to kids is really great. I think it’s actually going to prove to be great not just for kids but for adults.

When I was a lecturer at the University of Göttingen in Germany, I was teaching a class on programming languages and the theory of computation, and some of that is difficult material to teach. That certainly challenged my ability as a teacher especially because I was lecturing in English to a class full of non-native speaker.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Yeah, I was going to say, so you’re doing this in Germany, teaching English and then there are non-native speakers, although I guarantee that they understand English far better than I understand German, but still.

KEVIN SCOTT: That was always embarrassingly true for me. Their English was way better than my German. In some ways, it’s a different challenge to really bring someone up from the ground to how do you get over this beginning set of conceptual hurdles so that you can then get into the computer science curriculum?

By the time I got them, they knew sorting algorithms, they knew if-then-else statements and while loops and all of the basic things of how you construct a program. I think at least until I had kids of my own, I took for granted how difficult it is to teach the “quote unquote” simpler stuff. I think the lesson for me is appreciate my teachers even more than I already did. We should all appreciate those teachers who are out there loading knowledge into the heads of our future fellow citizens.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Absolutely.

KEVIN SCOTT: Well, thank you so much, Christina. This has been a great conversation, and I look forward to being back with you again in the next episode.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Me, too. Thanks so much.

KEVIN SCOTT: Next time on Behind the Tech, we’ll talk with Andrew Ng, the co-founder of the Google Brain project, Coursera, and most recently, deeplearning.ai and Landing.ai. Andrew is one of the most influential leaders in AI and Deep Learning. Be sure to tell your friends about our new podcast, Behind the Tech, and to subscribe. See you next time.

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