The latest language-learning trend has nothing to do with words.
- By Jeff Wise
- Published Nov 29, 2013
The doorbell rings, and Katie Wenger, 13, leaps up from the family dinner table and throws open the front door. On the stoop of her family’s building in Chelsea stands a 26-year-old Yale graduate named Allison Kaptur. Formerly a financial analyst, Kaptur quit to teach herself how to program and now works as a facilitator at Hacker School, a “writers’ retreat for programmers,” with a sideline as a coding tutor. The two descend the stairs to a basement study, and Katie shuts the door. “I’ve got exciting news,” she says. “I’m going to launch a start-up! It’s called Let Us.”
“What will it do?”
“It’ll be like Chatroulette, but connected to Facebook.” Katie describes her concept for an online environment in which strangers can randomly meet and either just chat or interact educationally as student and teacher. Kaptur nods. “Okay,” she says. “A little later, we can talk about the pieces we would need to make that work.”
For most people, software programming’s social cachet falls below that of tax preparation. But it’s catching fire among forward-thinking New York parents like Katie’s, who see it as endowing their children both with a strategically valuable skill and a habit for IQ-multiplying intellectual rigor. According to WyzAnt, an online tutoring marketplace, demand for computer-science tutors in New York City has doubled each of the past two years. And if one Silicon Alley–backed initiative pans out, within a decade every public-school kid in the city will have access to coding, up from a couple of thousand.
Down in the Wengers’ study, Kaptur flips open a MacBook Air. “For now, let’s work on a hangman game.” Lines of Python code fill the screen. On a piece of paper the two begin sketching out a stick figure and a flow diagram to figure out how the program will render it. Katie breathes a sigh. “This is more complicated than I thought it would be,” she says. “This is going to take more than an hour.” Sure enough, by the time Kaptur packs up to go, they haven’t yet gotten around to rendering the stickman’s arms, let alone plotted out the next billion-dollar app.
Back upstairs, the parents are lingering over a long dinner. Katie’s mother, Susan Danziger, runs a web-video start-up; her father, Albert Wenger, is a managing partner in the VC firm Union Square Ventures, an early investor in Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Zynga, and Kickstarter. The couple started Katie and her two brothers on programming when they were 7 or 8. “The goal isn’t necessarily for everyone to become a computer-science engineer, just as when you teach people how to write English, the goal isn’t for everybody to become an author,” says Wenger. “The point is that it’s a very important way of analyzing the world, thinking about the world, interacting with the world, and manipulating the world. It is a fundamental enabling skill that is applicable across the widest imaginable set of domains.”
Similar sentiments can be heard throughout the techopolis. Paul Johnson, a 43-year-old software developer who himself started to learn coding at the age of 6, has told his kindergartner that he can play any computer game he wants so long as he writes it himself; father and son are working on a program together now. “It’s almost a Renaissance education,” Johnson says. “It involves storytelling, it involves art and creativity, it involves rigorous mathematics, and all of this has to work together, so you see directly how they relate to each other.”
“Coding is absolutely a question of literacy,” says Mark Guzdial, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Those who don’t have access to this kind of education are going to be missing a core skill.”
Last year, tech investor Hadi Partovi, an early investor in Facebook and Dropbox, decided it would be fun to make a video of tech bigwigs discussing the virtues of learning how to code. He enlisted his friend Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, to appear in it; within a week Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg had signed up. The video went viral, and Partovi leveraged the outpouring of enthusiasm into an organization called Code.org. The second week of December, the group will organize its first worldwide event, “The Hour of Code.” Teachers in 160 countries will devote an hour of class time to the fundamentals of programming. “Our goal is get 10 million students introduced,” says Partovi.
Around the same time Partovi was starting to make his video, a former New York City deputy public advocate named Reshma Saujani was wondering what she could do to encourage girls to become programmers. “When it was simply an idea in my head, Twitter came onboard,” she says. The group, Girls Who Code, is now backed by a Who’s Who list of tech giants and aims to reach a million girls by 2020. “When I started Girls Who Code, it was about gender inequality. Now it’s also about economic inequality,” she says. “I think this is the most important issue domestically. It’s frightening. Parents who have money are pushing their kids to learn coding. Kids whose parents don’t have money are being left behind.”
The economic-utility argument isn’t one that upper-middle-class parents tend to linger on, but it’s a major industry concern. Despite the moribund national jobs market, software positions go begging. By 2020, the industry expects to have a million more positions than it can fill. Nine out of ten U.S. high schools don’t offer computer programming, and fewer than one college student in 40 graduates with a degree in the field. “We have a clear disparity between the needs of industry and the number of computer-science graduates we produce,” said Maria M. Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, in testimony before a Senate committee earlier this month. “We simply do not have enough students graduating high school with an interest in pursuing computer science.”
The bugles are blowing, and New York City is at the vanguard. One of Wenger’s partners at Union Square Ventures, Fred Wilson, has raised funds for New York City’s first programming-oriented public high school, the Academy for Software Engineering, which opened its doors a year ago. This fall, more than 1,400 students applied for the 108 ninth-grade spots, and a sister school opened up in the Bronx. As a follow-up, Wilson is launching a new $5 million fund that aims to bring computer-science education to all the city’s public-school kids within ten years.
Like much tech-world philanthropy, the tech schools are arriving as a fiat from on high, rather than welling up from grassroots demand, and it’s easy to read the education evangelism as motivated, at least in part, by a desire to mainstream techies’ own idiosyncratic way of looking at the world. Wenger thinks that the shift has already begun, courtesy of The Social Network and the growing roster of twentysomething software billionaires. “The biggest transformation I’ve seen,” he says, “is that coding has gone from something that weird kids do to something the cool kids do.” There’s nothing dorky about huge piles of cash.