Can We Train America to Train Its Workers?


  • Brian Forde (left) and Zach Sims

    Brian Forde (left) and Zach Sims

  • David Kirkpatrick (left) and Brian Forde

    David Kirkpatrick (left) and Brian Forde

  • From left, Techonomy's David Kirkpatrick, Brian Forde of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Codecademy's Zach Sims

    From left, Techonomy's David Kirkpatrick, Brian Forde of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Codecademy's Zach Sims


Brian Forde
Senior Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

Zach Sims
Co-founder and CEO, Codecademy


David Kirkpatrick
Founder and CEO, Techonomy

By 2022 the U.S. is projected to need 1.4 million new programmers, but at the current rate only 400,000 IT grads will emerge to fill them. How America tackles this disparity will help determine its ongoing global competitiveness and the economic success of all Americans. Codecademy has developed innovative training tools, and the White House is turning to this issue with great urgency.

Kirkpatrick: We’ve heard a lot, sort of underlying a huge number of the conversations today about the challenge of getting citizens ready to participate in this economy, and particularly understanding coding and technology and really being prepared in a thousand ways—but this idea of education, and education for the jobs that are going to exist, is really, really urgent. We also had an extraordinary session after lunch in here in expanding the diversity in technology itself and in the industry, and thinking more broadly about inclusion—and actually, a lot of that discussion applies to any industry. Brian was on that session.

And let me just introduce the two guys that are up here with me. Brian Forde is—this White House had a CTO for the first time, right? That was the first time there was ever a CTO of the United States, and now we have people in the White House who have titles like Special Advisor to the CTO for Mobile and Social Innovation, which is his title, although it doesn’t begin to describe all the things he does. But that, to me, is very promising, that we’ve gotten to that level of understanding, at least at the executive branch. And so Brian works in the White House on this tech stuff, and I’m going to ask him to describe specifically how you’re thinking about training, as soon as we get into the discussion.

Zach Sims is one of the great entrepreneurs of New York right now, a very young CEO of Codecademy, which is a company that does online tools for learning about coding and programming and technology. He dropped out of Columbia to start that company, what—about three, four years ago? Three years ago. So he’s gone a long way since then, and actually it’s a Union Square Ventures portfolio company, which is Albert Wenger’s company.

So, Brian, start out by telling me what is it that you are most concerned about when it comes to this issue of training the future citizens and workers of the country?

Forde: Sure, so one of the big issues that we’ve seen is, there’s a widely-cited statistic that says there’s 1.4 million IT opportunities or jobs that are going to be created by 2020; we’re only going to have 400,000 computer science graduates who are going to be able to fill those, so what do we do to fill the other 1 million job opportunities that are going to be created? And so, one of the exciting things that we’ve seen from Zach’s platform, Codecademy, and all of the coding boot camps that are popping up, and all of the other accelerated learning programs—not only in coding, but in network and sys admin, cyber security, and even tech support has lucrative opportunities as well—is that you can be upskilled between three months to two years, and you don’t need a STEM undergraduate degree to get a STEM-type job. And that’s a really important distinction for us, because if you look at us competitively as a country, compared to other countries, you’ve got across the world 21% of folks across Asia are graduating with engineering degrees, 12% in Europe, and only 4.5% in America.

Kirkpatrick: 21% of college graduates in Asia are coming out with engineering degrees?

Forde: Yeah, compared to 4% here.

Kirkpatrick: Oh, that is a bracing statistic.

Forde: Right. And if you look at, historically, 30 years ago, U.S., Japan, and China each had about 70,000 engineers coming out. I think most recently the U.S. was down to 60K, and China was up to 600K.

Kirkpatrick: Per year?

Forde: Yeah.

Kirkpatrick: 600,000 engineers per year being graduated in China. That’s 10X what we’re producing?

Forde: Yeah, so there’s a huge opportunity for us to really become competitive by—

Kirkpatrick: That’s a positive way to put it. An opportunity to become competitive.

Forde: We’re positive folks.

Kirkpatrick: I would say there is a risk of serious falling behind, if we’re not already behind. Luckily we have a pretty creative tech community here. But I mean, for you, when you look at it in the White House, and when the President looks at it, and Megan Smith, the new CTO, is the view that basically we are essentially training—we need to think about preparing the next generation of Americans to think differently about tech, or is it simply we need a bunch more coders?

Forde: Well, I would say what does the knowledge of coding and other skills unlock the ability to do, right? It unlocks your ability to be more creative. It unlocks your ability to jobs that allow more flexibility. You know, Megan has a line where she says, “Why don’t we call it the Department of Labor and Talent?” Right? How do we create new sets of talent, that can access all the jobs that we access, where we’re super-passionate and allow us to really apply our creativity? Because that’s what coding really allows you to do—be more creative. It doesn’t box you in to one standard solution, it allows you to invent the solution.

Kirkpatrick: Okay. A lot of things to drill down on, as we go forward.

Zach, you know, so quickly talk about what Codecademy has done so far, where you’re doing it, and where you want to take it.

Sims: So when we started Codecademy three years ago, I think we had two contrarian theses that have actually proven to be true in the three years since we’ve started the company. The first was that programming was not just for programmers, so this was before Mark Andreessen had written his essay, “Software Is Eating the World,” we theorized, you know, not just—a programming skill set wouldn’t be relevant only for programmers; it would be relevant for anyone and everyone. And I think that’s proven itself out, not just in the BLS numbers that Brian cited, but also if you look at every industry now, entry-level jobs in ad sales in some industries require a basic understanding of the programmatic ads that are being sold by those same people. Journalism is being changed by it, technology, as well. So we’re seeing every industry be changed by technology.

And the second was that, as a corollary to the first, that schools across the world would realize this change and they would change their curriculums to start teaching people 21st century skills and aptitude in computer science and programming. So we’ve seen both of those really play themselves out, and what that’s meant for Codecademy is that as we build a really easy-to-use platform that makes it easy for anyone to start learning and to learn by doing matter online, more than 25 million people around the world have taken Codecademy courses.

Kirkpatrick: 25 million?

Sims: More than 25 million. And what that means to us is, again, this interest is far beyond what anyone would have predicted three years ago, and programming is becoming kind of fundamental literacy. It’s becoming literacy for the workers of the 21st century, but also for the students of the 21st century. So we work with governments across the world, around 25% of our learners are in school and under the age of 21, so we work with the U.K. government, for instance. Every primary and secondary school student this year will take a programming course. Every school in France will have a programming course this year. Every student in Estonia learns to program on Codecademy. We think there are a lot of other countries that are helping to prepare their students for the 21st century, and we’re looking forward to seeing the U.S. kind of take similar steps.

Kirkpatrick: Okay, I want to get to that. There’s more dichotomy there than you, sort of—I mean, you’re implying it, but you’re not hitting it too hard yet, but it goes back to that 600,000 to 60,000 point. But the thing about Codecademy is, anybody can go there and just start taking classes, and it’s sort of a help each other, kind of peer-to-peer system that you’ve built, that is very, very easy to use—I know that for a fact—but you’re also working with institutions wherever you can to sort of scale it to reach a larger number of people.

Okay. I wanted to just ask the audience, how many people in here feel, say you can code? Okay. That’s quite a few, and that’s nice to know. How many people who can’t code wish they could code. That’s an even larger number, and I’m not surprised to see that. So you know, you’ve got an opportunity that’s clearly going to be growing, and Union Square Ventures is probably going to make a lot of money.

But this thing about the U.S. being different really worries me, and I think it goes right to the heart of why we’re having Techonomy Detroit. You know, we care about Detroit, but we also always said this conference was really about American economic issues, in a time when technology is transforming everything. So what you’re saying is, the government of Estonia is working with you centrally, to make Codecademy available to every student in Estonia, and in the U.K. they have—maybe they’re not doing it in every school, but the government has mandated that every student will learn programming, and many of those schools are using Codecademy, and similarly in France, right?

So those are three countries where every student is being exposed, at least to some degree, to programming. Now, I’m curious, if you wouldn’t mind, just estimating—

Forde: Sure.

Kirkpatrick: What percentage of K through 12 American students would you guess, are today being exposed to programming in some form or fashion?

Forde: I couldn’t—I don’t have that number.

Kirkpatrick: It’s got to be tiny, though, right?

Sims: I think what’s important to think about is timelines, right? And so I think we’re actually talking about two different timelines, and I think it’s important to distinguish them. So the one timeline is thinking about, this is the President’s Council of Advisors of Science and Tech, said we need 1 million additional STEM undergraduates 10 years from now, but we also need 1 million additional IT-ready workers by 2020.

Kirkpatrick: Even beyond the million programmers?

Forde: Right, and so what’s important to distinguish is, you know, what you’re describing and what other countries are doing is thinking about it from K through 12—which, we are as well, and we have separate programs for that, but what’s also important to think about is how we’re going to train the workers today for the jobs that exist today, in the next few years.

Kirkpatrick: Well I think that’s a fantastic way to think about it, but I also think it’s critical to recognize that we don’t have a national understanding of these issues—and I actually would ask you, you know, I think Obama and the administration have shown a pretty good understanding that tech is changing the world, right? Not as good as I would like, but pretty good. Congress, on the other hand, seems completely, totally clueless. I mean, the number of Congress people that could even participate in the discussions we’ve had today is probably 15% or 20% at best. I mean, would you disagree with that?

Forde: I’m not going to comment on Congress or the Executive Branch [LAUGHTER] or the differences between the two. But I do want to point out the National Science Foundation has worked really hard to update the computer science AP curriculum that is in all schools—throughout high schools in the—

Kirkpatrick: All right, well we love that, I love that, but I just think it’s so good that Zach’s company exists and some of these tools are emerging—Amooks [PH], and a lot of other online tools, because certainly, you know, you’re not the only company or organization that’s building online education that can take people into the—bring people out of the 20th century, so to speak. But it is worrisome that—and I love what you’re doing, and there’s no question you’re doing the right stuff, but we need to be alarmed, in my opinion. Do you think we need to be alarmed?

Sims: I think the bright spot is that, from a consumer perspective—so, 70% of Codecademy’s learners are outside the U.S., but the largest country that uses Codecademy is still the United States.

Kirkpatrick: Really?

Sims: So we have the largest sheer number of users that are learning to program in the world are in the U.S., and that to us is still meaningful. So I think what Brian is talking about is changing the K through 12 system is always difficult, right?

Forde: Yeah.

Sims: I think that’s what you’re referencing.

Forde: Yeah.

Sims: But what we’re seeing is consumers understand the gap between education and labor—you know, companies and employers understand the gap between education and labor, and we hope that by providing them with the resources to upskill and fill that gap, that people will vote with their feet, you know? They’ll take courses on Codecademy, they’ll find those modern jobs.

Kirkpatrick: Well, it seems like a no-brainer, if we can see these jobs coming into existence, and they’re not being filled—and I think any tech company will tell you, it’s hard to find people for a lot of the positions they have, even today, and I don’t think the average high school and college student—well, they’re starting to realize it. Some places they realize it more than others. In fact I just read, you know, Harvard, which has come up on stage today, the biggest class in the Harvard freshman year now is computer science, for the first time ever. It used to be economics and with this incoming freshman class this year, it became computer science. So that’s great, but those are the richest, smartest kids in America, so it starts somewhere; that’s got to spread more broadly.

So, you know, one of the things, Zach, that I wanted to ask you is, because you think so hard and you do so much sort of looking at how we can change this stuff at scale, right? And we’ve heard a lot today about the sharing economy and crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding and, you know, there’s a lot of things happening, the maker movement, that are really exciting new trends, that are potentially economically very important, but my observation has been that many of things require a fairly sophisticated understanding of what’s going on, even to be involved in, right? So do you think you guys could help with that too? I mean, do you think of broadening what Codecadmey does over time, so that it’s more than just coding, but also just kind of awareness over the changing nature of the economy?

Sims: Absolutely. I think we think of coding as digital literacy, but I think there are many other parts to the equation of what digital literacy means. Fundamentally, Codecademy exists to teach people the skills they need to find jobs, and one component of that are the skills to understand the world we live in, I think, you know? You don’t want to hire someone who’s just able to sit in front of a computer and write code for you but doesn’t understand the underlying logic that is powering everything. And that’s kind of the first step of what we do oftentimes, with students on Codecademy, is they’re learning these are the fundamental building blocks of programming, and this how they play a role in your everyday life. And that’s, I think, the basic fluency that we should all have—regardless of whether or not we learn how to program—to understand how our world works, and as software starts to eat the world, it becomes ever more important.

Kirkpatrick: Well, and Brian, I know one of the things you’re doing—aside from just trying to raise awareness that these jobs are there and we aren’t currently prepared to fill them—is, and you were eloquent on the inclusion session—you know, getting a wider range of young people into these jobs, because let’s face it, coding has predominately been a white guy thing—like, he was talking about brogramming is a big trend that was discussed in the inclusion session and if it’s just brogramming, it’s not going to help the country nearly as much.

So talk about some of the things that the White House has done, because I know you’ve got some very specific things that you’ve been involved in.

Forde: Yeah, so we started the White House Tech Inclusion Initiative, which, back in 2012 we hosted both the workshops and brainstormed some of the ways we can improve tech inclusion, but that was for STEM undergraduates, and so now we’re starting to think about ways that we can go beyond STEM undergraduates, and have tech inclusion happen via the coding boot camps and Codecademy, and others.

And I think the opportunity there is not only putting the burden on the education system here in the U.S. but also thinking about what employers can do. You know, is there a restriction on job opportunities that don’t require four-year degrees, that still have four-year degrees? Is there awareness by the hiring managers about coding boot camps, which we just did a roundtable with some last week, and there wasn’t. It was interesting—

Kirkpatrick: There was not an awareness?

Forde: There was not an awareness of coding boot camps at the hiring manager level, for some companies, and recognizing how valid that is. And so there’s opportunities for improvement on one, getting information out to the right communities about the opportunities that exist in the tech industry, but also for the Mayors to know, in cities across America, that all of these job opportunities, these IT job opportunities—not only in the tech industry, but in the finance, health, and other industries—exist and are significant.

Two, what are tech companies and other companies doing to improve inclusion by making sure that they do coding boot camps, but they can do other things in lieu of a four-year degree. The other piece is financing, right? It’s really challenging to get capital for something that is unaccredited, and coding boot camps and others are unaccredited, so what can we do at the federal level to think about that, and what can the private sector do to allow for loans for folks who may not have the best credit score.

Kirkpatrick: Like a new kind of student loan for this explicitly?

Forde: A new kind of student loan—that could come from the private sector, because quite frankly, the private sector is the one who actually loses out on the most amount of money by having significant delays in getting their jobs filled, right? That’s lost cost and productivity. So there needs to be an incentive on their end, both at how they’re looking at hiring, but also opportunities for financing that education, as well.

Kirkpatrick: And you also had a White House Tech Inclusion Summit?

Forde: We did have a Tech Inclusion Summit to address some of the issues that were identified, including mentorship, which is really important. And so there’s an initiative that started called U.S. 20/20, which challenges tech companies for 20% of their staff to mentor in STEM-type programs for 20 hours a year throughout the country, which has been really amazing.

Kirkpatrick: Fantastic. I invite anybody to come to the mikes, so if you have comments or questions. I have—I want to ask you two things—make sure we get to these before we go. First of all, you guys have worked—one of the reasons we put you guys onstage together is because you’ve gotten to know each other working on projects together, so talk a little bit about what you’ve done together, and the kind of things you’d like to do together in the future.

Sims: I think the key for us at Codecademy is really enabling what Brian has talked about so far, which is scaling up the workforce in the U.S. that has the skills they need for these modern jobs. And so watching the White House get involved and try to really raise awareness of both the gap between education and labor, and also the solution that exist to fill that. We’re happy to help out however we can, and I think we will continue to train consumers and hope to work with government as well.

Forde: Yes, there’s a real opportunity for us to act as a convener. The White House is a great place to meet and so we want to open it up to all kinds of coding boot camps and training programs like Zach’s to come in—and employers as well—to educate, and make commitments, like we did with the Tech Inclusion Summit, by continuing to drive that, as a country, to make sure one, that they’re aware of the different gaps that exist in employment and where the opportunities of making commitments to change.

This is a playbook that we—as unique as the federal government can do. And also aggregate demand, right? So you can imagine a mayor identifies local problems, but when you aggregate cities across the country, then it raises the attention and you can get national commitments, which would be real opportunities.

Kirkpatrick: Well, and as you heard earlier, we want to do a Techonomy Policy event in Washington—I mean, I want to continue this discussion there. But I guess before we go to the questions—there’s at least one person, two people over there, so we’ll get to those—but I want to ask, what’s sort of like the dream scenario question, right? We’re here in Detroit, it’s a predominately black city with a lot of relatively poorly educated people because the schools here stink, right? So the dream scenario would be, how do you get some of these young people from where they are today—the ones that are here now—into the economy with these tools? What is the chance, do you think, and what are the means that we might be able to do that? I mean, either one of you—I’d just love to hear something optimistic about that, because I really think we’ve got to find a way to do that.

Sims: I mean, I think we focus on providing the resources and then hopefully enabling anyone who has access to really take action and change their lives through learning these skills. I think the challenge fundamentally of what you just mentioned is that oftentimes there are prerequisite skills, right? There are literacy issues and with a school system that’s fundamentally broken, whether Detroit’s or somewhere else, you have other things to focus on before you can get to the level of worrying about employability. So for us, we want to provide access to anyone and everyone, and we have, we will continue to, and enable anyone to learn these skills. I think it’s the role of the school systems, oftentimes, to provide the literacy prerequisites that allow people to dream at this level and access material like Codecademy.

Forde: I’m incredibly optimistic because I first came to Detroit 10 months ago, and I remember walking with Beth Niblock and four other top municipal CIOs to the Mayor’s office, when she was still the CIO of the city of Louisville. And coming out of that two-day exercise, we were trying to identify, as part of the White House revitalization effort with the city of Detroit, what a 21st century government in Detroit looks like, and we were going to prepare a plan. And you know, several months later, or 10 months later, we see Beth Niblock, who’s one of the top municipal CIOs in the country, who has the full backing of her mayor and is in full progress attacking the seven-step plan, because she has a mayor who fully supports her and wants her to succeed, because he wants the city to succeed. And so this mayor has done an incredible job of taking ideas and turning them into action, and I think you’ve seen some of the results already, with Beth.

And so you know, anything that we can put that does have an opportunity to make real change, and seeing a city that’s so resilient, and a culture that’s so supportive, and businesses and philanthropists that have really got behind this is—I actually think Detroit has a better chance than other cities, because there’s such a strong community here of support.

Kirkpatrick: Yeah, there is some momentum that’s really tangible and it’s wonderful to see. Over here, who’s first? And please, succinct, and let’s go quickly through several people.

Thomasmach: So, I’m Tim Thomasmach [PH]. I had a career in IT, and as late as, like, five years ago, I was really hearing the message, hey, don’t learn to program because we’ve got people in India to do that, we’ll get freelancers from offshore and, you know, there’s no career path. Why is it now, in America, it seems like we really have a huge demand for programmers that are American that are here in person. Is that happening, is that going to be real, or is that going to be something that’s going to continue?

Kirkpatrick: That’s a great question. I like the way you put it.

Sims: I think it will continue to be real. I think it’s hard to find a great company that has been built on outsourcing. A great technology company, you know, when the product is built outside the U.S. and the executive team is inside the U.S., for instance. I know a lot of technology investors hesitate to fund companies that can’t build a technology team. I think the quality of the product is just not as good, and that doesn’t have to do with where it’s being programmed, it just has to do with everyone being in one location, building a really cohesive team. And I don’t think that’s really changing.

Kirkpatrick: Any thoughts?

Forde: No, I agree with Zach.

Kirkpatrick: Okay, good. Let’s get, does somebody else there have a question?

Audience 2: My name’s Tom, I’m from SkySpecs [PH], and first an observation, and then a question leading into it. I used to teach an Intro Programming course at the University of Michigan, while I was doing my Master’s degree, and I was always amazed at the gap between the brightest students and then those that were first being introduced to programming. And then every semester, it sequentially got worse and worse—the gap gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and it perpetuates itself because that gap being so large is intimidating for new students that come into a place like the University of Michigan and realize, wow, these guys already know five different programming languages.

So the question is, what can be done at the high school or even K through 8 level in order for us to level the playing field for all of these kids coming into college that are trying to learn how to program.

Kirkpatrick: You know what, rather than answer that, I’m going to do this trick of several questions, and we can kind of address them as you choose. Please tell us what you have on your mind.

Audience 3: My name’s Sauch [PH] and I’m coming from the healthcare side of things, so throughout this whole conference I’ve been trying to find applications or solutions for problems in healthcare, and I’m just wondering from, not only from a policy perspective but also from an entrepreneurial perspective, how is programming and solution that are programming-based being applied to healthcare problems, especially with the explosion of data that’s happening now that the Human Genome Project has been completed?

Kirkpatrick: Yeah, and some of the new Apple products could make that an even more interesting question. Behind you, you want to come up and quickly tell us what your question is?

Audience 4: Sure. My interest is in K through 12, and from your vantage point, I’m interested in how much uptake there is, either with Codecademy or with other products, in the K through 12 area, and maybe what challenges you see there, as well, trying to move that ball forward.

Kirkpatrick: So K through 12, healthcare, and the gap between the best programmers and everybody else. Any thoughts?

Forde: So with the gap, what I understand is, and we spoke about this earlier with Maria Klawe and what she’s done at Harvey Mudd. So she actually takes some of those best students and she actually puts them in different classes, or actually makes them mentors to others, so that it’s not a threatening experience, but it’s an opportunity for better engagement and collaboration, so there are some ways—and I think she’s starting to work with other universities to replicate some of her processes, which is, I think grown to 50% women in computer science, which is really impressive.

Sims: And I think it is changing the format that is the most important thing, as Brian mentioned. You know, I remember my introductory computer science class at Columbia—I took one class at—the professor stood up on the first day, there were 300 people in the room, and told us that more than 30% of people in the class would fail. We’d spend more than 30 hours a week doing the homework, and it might be rewarding, if we made it to the end. Needless to say, I was not so encouraged by that. So I think as people like Maria at Harvey Mudd try to change that, you’ll find more groups of people who are comfortable with a level playing field.

Kirkpatrick: Yeah, Harvey Mudd is notable, because now it’s over 40% of all the computer science graduates are women, so they’ve really done a great job broadening the base. And any thoughts on healthcare or K through 12? We talked a little bit about K through 12 already.

Sims: So on the K through 12 front, we work with government when we’re asked, so that’s what we do outside of the U.S., as a majority the departments for education will contact us, and say, “How do we implement programs across our country?” And really, what’s appealing to us there is scale. We’re able to work with a nation, or a state and get millions of students on the platform. Whereas in the U.S. it’s a lot harder. We have to go district by district, and the flows and timespans that we deal with in different countries really varies. So it’s not just the U.S. that has a longer timespan now. We’re seeing working with districts in other countries too, that there’s a three to five year decision cycle for how do we run a pilot as to whether or not we even teach this, then once we decide to teach it, how are we teaching it?

Kirkpatrick: Also the thing you said about it being considered science—just quickly say that.

Sims: Yeah, so actually a majority of U.S. states still, if I’m not wrong, don’t consider computer science a science, for the purpose of graduation requirements, and consider it the same as an elective, like an art or music. So I think the first step in the U.S. is changing that, and then you get to the stage where computer science is actually a required class, so there’s definitely room.

Kirkpatrick: Any closing thoughts, Brian?

Forde: I think this is going to be a community-based solution. This isn’t just the federal government, this isn’t just Codecademy, this is going to require employers and local leaders and mentors, and so what I really want to invite you guys into is to the White House process, and so if you do have any offers for support or new ideas, we’re here to take them and integrate them, and work collaboratively with you to be able to address this.

Kirkpatrick: Well, thank you both for being part of the, what is a critical discussion. Thanks so much. Thank you, Zach.

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  • Will Greene

    China’s clearly training a lot more engineers than the US, but I wonder if these engineers are leaving school with adequate skills to compete in global markets and produce truly original R&D. If so, then America’s competitiveness is definitely in jeopardy, but I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions until I had a look beneath the surface. Building STEM capacity is much more than a numbers game. With the right training and working environment, a small handful of visionaries can produce more innovation and value than an entire nation of tech drones. The future rests not with who has the largest tech workforce, but rather with who has the best tech workers.