The first reaction when I tell people I work for a tech-ed nonprofit is very predictable. People younger than me will be incredulous that I’m wasting so much time. People older than me will insist I will regret wasting so much time. Though it’s rarely outright stated, “time” is clearly short for “time you could be working on becoming rich.”
I have no desire to become rich. It’s well-established in research that money dramatically increases happiness only until all basic needs are met. For most people, that number is $40,000 a year. Beyond that, the impact is negligible. 1
I wouldn’t actually know what to buy if I became rich. I don’t even know what to do with small amounts of money, which frequently becomes an issue around Christmas. (This year I’ve asked relatives for a coat rack and colorful socks.) Investing has never been a good option, because the best-case situation involves figuring out what to do with additional money.
In 7th grade, a teacher asked us to write about what we would do if given a million dollars. My essay was simple: spend it improving tech education.2 If my answer was “build electric cars and rockets”, I might need to start by founding a wildly successful payments company, but as it stands, I can already do what I’d do if I were rich: improve tech education.
My History With Programming
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I was around six years old, I was extremely depressed. This is obvious to me in retrospect: functioning first-graders don’t spend every morning either at home sick or being forced down the halls of school crying (with roughly equal probability).
When I first started school I was living in the suburbs of Spokane, a city with a quarter the population of San Francisco but absolutely none of the culture. The only activities for young students in the area were sports — something which, through an exhaustive search, I had decided weren’t for me. 3
I might have become relegated to the fact that life was supposed to be this meaningless except that during long breaks — summer vacation, winter break, or an extended string of sick days — I’d actually become pretty happy. With that much time off, I’d be able to play engineer.
Being composed mostly of boxes and string, the things I could build at that age were as much fantasy as reality, but they usually had some functional component which slightly improved life (e.g. lifting a box of toys from downstairs to upstairs).
My other enjoyable free time activity: the computer. I spent time learning to create flyers in Word and explored the amazing worlds of Myst. I remember with particular detail one exciting night when we upgraded to Windows 98.
Eventually, my parents, recognizing that a first-grader should not be quite that unhappy, moved to Redmond, home of Microsoft. Fast-forward several years.
That they picked a city so tech-friendly turned out to be very lucky because one day I serendipitously found — just lying on a table — a book on Visual Basic programming.
The book was not a standard programming book. It had a cool-looking picture of a virtual slot machine on its cover. Moreover, it promised to teach me to build the cool-looking virtual slot machine. With my long-standing interest in computers and building things and my eleven-year-old eye for cool-looking things, this book excited me.
I programmed the virtual slot machine, of course, and it changed my life. With programming, I’d finally found something I enjoyed, and something with which I could build tools to improve the world. I kept learning, and eventually it became my career.
Computers Are Special
Making something is incredibly empowering but, as I found out when I was six, creating something usually takes two ingredients:
Usually, the cost of the latter prevents people from getting the former, but not so with computers. With computers, the “stuff” is electromagnetic energy, which is nearly free. It scales much better than the “stuff” in any other field.
In fact, together computer and electrical engineers have the opportunity to revolutionize all other fields. Software creates wealth.4 With sufficient man-hours, there’s a very real chance that engineering could entirely wipe the concept of scarcity from the earth.
Moreover, anyone living in a first-world nation already has access to a computer (either in their home or through a school or library) and the number of people with access in developing countries is increasing rapidly.
Computing is the great equalizer.
But programming is still rarely taught, and even if that improved, our education system isn’t set up to teach it properly.5
I picked up programming because I chanced upon a book, and that may have been lucky in more ways than one: I’ve met many students who were initially bored by programming when their schools tried to expose them to it.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Remember the three key facts about programming:
- It requires almost no resources
- It creates wealth
- It’s very empowering
The first two points make it incredibly important to teach and the last one makes teaching it easy but, because the formal education system can’t teach in a way promoting individual empowerment, it won’t ever stick.
Because I’m confident that the education system can’t properly teach programming, I’ve become incredibly passionate about filling that (very large) gap.
StudentRND (which runs CodeDay and Labs) is the way I’m doing that, and our business model requires that we be a nonprofit. I’m not only okay with that, I can’t imagine having it any other way. If StudentRND were for-profit, any payout I might get would go directly back into tech education, anyway.
There are trade-offs. There are constant difficulties with running a nonprofit (the subject of a future post) and, as with running any other startup, there are often large periods of pain on the way to success. Most importantly for most, I will never become a millionaire.
It doesn’t matter. I can think of no better work to be doing than the work I do.
The book Stumbling on Happiness is a good summary on the research in this area, as well as related ones. As I’ve learned, the number of $40,000 a year to meet basic needs is much higher if you live in areas of San Francisco.↩
Because the essay was due during class, I actually came up with a bizarre answer involving data centers, but I rewrote it for my own benefit when I had more time to think.↩
My parents once enrolled me in a youth soccer team. I hated it, so I played extremely poorly. At one point my parents offered me $100 if I actually tried for one game. I was so bad they couldn’t tell the difference, and I never got the $100.↩