Where did you grow up, and what do you remember most about it?
I was born in Iran, and spent most of my first 12 years in Iran. Sadly my main memories are about everybody I loved leaving the country in 1979, being stuck for the next 5 years under a totalitarian regime, during a war with Iraq, spending evenings in the basement during bombing raids, and waiting in lines with my mom for 2 hours just to buy a bottle of milk or a tank of gas.
What was your first job?
My first job was writing software for an MIT research lab in 9th grade. I think I was underage so they technically weren’t allowed to pay me, but I received a $500 honorarium which was the most money I’d ever seen.
What is your first political memory?
Sitting alone in a hotel room, watching Al Gore “lose” the election to George W Bush.
What is your favorite book?
Among non-fiction: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond.
Your background is littered with success story after success story as an entrepreneur and investor. You have started and sold two companies (Tellme Networks and iLike) and you have numerous examples (Facebook, Dropbox, and Zappos, to name a few) of wise investments. Given this, please explain why you recently wrote that the Hour of Code, December 9-13, 2013, was the ‘best of your career.’
It is hard to chase success and happiness at the same time, and the one thing that I’ve realized lies at the intersection is personal impact. And while I’ve made a bunch of money from my investments, at the end of the day it’s Mark Zuckerberg who changed the world with Facebook, Drew Houston at Dropbox, etc. – I played only a minor supporting role in these companies. And while my own startups achieved financial success, they failed at deep personal impact. The Hour of Code was an idea, with only six months of execution, that deeply touched 20 million students in under a month – breaking records not only in tech education, but in all education. Never in my life did I expect to launch a product accompanied by a Presidential speech, in every Apple Store, and on the Google home page. The impact we had was unparalleled, and really nothing I’ve done before even compares.
Our next question of Board Members has been how they view their roles and responsibilities as citizens to theirs communities and as citizens living in a democracy. Given the extraordinary work with Code.org over the last year, I wanted to know if your viewpoint on this has changed at all. Do citizens lead or are they led by government? Is it a combination? What do you think is the right balance in partnerships between the public and private sectors?
Our government has always been a government by the people. In my opinion, whether you are an elected official, an appointed official, or just a “regular citizen,” as a citizen of this country you have a duty to help improve the country. The words “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” have always resonated with me. I’ve never liked the idea that the government is an omniscient, omnipotent actor that will fix all our problems. They’re just people too, just like the rest of us, and in many cases limited by ridiculous rules and bureaucracy. Every citizen has a duty to help make our country a better place – and those with more time and money have the greatest burden.
What has surprised you the most (if anything) about working with the public sector over the past year? You now have experience working with local, state, and the federal government.
I’ve been surprised to see a great divide people’s intentions vs their ability to have impact. Most public sector employees want to do the same things we are doing at Code.org, and even though they have billion $ budgets, they are envious of our agility.
Do you feel that we, as Americans, value teachers and educators adequately?
If you compare to Finland, we definitely do not value or compensate teachers adequately. The best education system in the world places much higher value on its teachers. It will take a change in culture, and rules, and perhaps taxes, to change our current system. But we can start with changing our cultural mindset. The Hour of Code has renewed my optimism in the potential of the American teacher. 35,000 teachers helped us transform 20 million students’ lives.
What is next for Code.org?
We are continuing our advocacy work to change state policies to better support computer science. Our follow-up to the Hour of Code is a 20-hour class focused on elementary and middle school students. Already it’s in almost 10,000 classrooms, with 500,000 students participating, just weeks after release. And we are partnering with the largest school districts in the country to bring full-time computer science teachers to add computer science as a long-term piece of the curriculum.
Who are your role models and why?
Bono, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates. Because they each were driven by idealistic dreams (end world poverty, computer on every desktop, eradicate malaria, the perfect phone), and had the guts to pursue that dream and make it a reality.
Just about everyone (regardless of political affiliation) sees a large gap between our politics (Washington, DC as well as state capitals) and the reality on the issues we face as a Country. Why do you think that is? I know it's a tough question, but what do you think can be done to close that gap?
The biggest problem in our political system is the corrupting influence of money in politics. The system elects politicians who are campaigners and fund-raisers first, and leaders second. As a result, politicians often aren’t solving the real problems of the country, rather they are campaigning, solving problems for their top funders, and focusing on perception and the 24-hour news cycle for the rest. The only way we can solve this is with top-down campaign finance reform. This may seem impossible, and may have suggested constitutional amendments and other implausible solutions. But there are also practical ways to improve the flawed system, (such as what United Republic is pushing with the American Anti Corruption Act).
Are political parties becoming less relevant today, particularly for young adults? Whatever your answer, why do you think that is?
Sadly, no. I think on one hand everybody is tired of the divisiveness, but at the same time most people naturally choose teams – and most are either Democrats, Republicans, or Tea-partiers. Of course, there are a growing number of independents and Libertarians who buck the trend, but I think constitutionally we are always going to be stuck with a 2-party system, and so these outliers will mainly impact the system by causing party composition and policies to adjust.
What is your favorite journey?
My favorite trip was a trip to South America to Patagonia, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.
If you could be anyone else for a day, who would you be?
This may sound crazy, but myself. I couldn’t love my job more. I guess if I had to pick somebody else, probably Bono 🙂
What is your proudest moment?
Dec 9, 2013, when the Hour of Code launched, with a speech by the President, on the Google home page, in every Apple Store, and in 35,000 classrooms. 🙂