It's more than just "teach kids to code"

I’m skeptical about “teach the kids to code!” as a panacea for all of society’s ills. Yet today, I’m at the White House to participate in a summit on Computer Science for All. Why would a skeptic still think it’s important to make computer science part of everyone’s education?

It’s almost impossible to overstate the breadth of cultural enthusiasm for the idea of teaching kids about computer science and computing. No matter where they sit on the political spectrum, leaders will proudly tout America’s high tech companies as the future of innovation and high tech companies as the future of opportunity and employment. Tech has become something of a secular religion in America, and as a result there’s been a rush toward enthusiastically advocating for technology education, without as much substantive and nuanced critique as the idea deserves.

The Myth of Perfect Tech Jobs

As someone who’s been making software and Internet technologies for 20 years, I’m skeptical about the enthusiasm that so many in the policy-making world have for saying, “let’s teach kids to code!” To start with the obvious elephant in the room, many of the people advocating for these programs aren’t particularly knowledgeable about technology, or the economics of today’s tech startups, in the first place. (Most people making policy haven’t yet realized that there is no “technology industry”.) And most of the technologists advocating for these programs aren’t particularly literate in how today’s educational systems work, or what constraints they face.

But my skepticism starts at a lot more fundamental level than the literacy gap between policy, tech and education. Even though I do know how to code and I do love technology, I am intimately aware of the weaknesses of many of the signature companies that define tech culture, and those are the biggest concerns we need to address.

Many tech companies are still terrible at inclusion in their hiring, a weakness which is even more unacceptable given the diversity of the younger generations we’re educating today. Many of the biggest, most prominent companies in Silicon Valley—including giants like Apple and Google—have illegally colluded against their employees to depress wages, so even employees who do get past the exclusionary hiring processes won’t necessarily end up in an environment where they’ll be paid fairly or have equal opportunity to advance. If the effort to educate many more programmers succeeds, simple math tells us that a massive increase in the number of people qualified to work on technology would only drive down today’s high wages and outrageously generous benefits. (Say goodbye to the free massages!)

And at a more philosophical level, a proper public education, paid for by taxpayers, shouldn’t be oriented toward simply providing workers for a group of some of the wealthiest, most powerful companies to have ever existed.

That’s a pretty damning case against teaching kids to code? So why would somebody still favor the massive investment and cultural shift required to pull it off? Well, it’s the oldest excuse in the political realm, but we have to think about the children.

Going beyond CS

There’s a much more powerful vision of “computer science for all” that can address all of the concerns raised by the current state of technology and tech companies. Technology literacy, and a strong basis in computer science, can be a powerful way to empower the most marginalized, most needy people in society.

We simply have to commit to some broad principles about how we teach CS:

  • Teaching computational thinking: Aside from simply teaching how programming works, we need to ensure that young people can understand the way that human concerns are translated into problems that computers can help solve. Like media literacy or general critical thinking skills, we should provide this information as a necessary part of teaching students to understand the systems that run the world around them. It’s essential that concerns like ethics and systemic biases be incorporated into any education about technology systems.
  • Applied CS over theory: A lot of yesterday’s computer science programs emphasized abstract concepts that could often be hard to translate into practical impact. Given that more students have access to technology in their everyday lives than ever before, recontextualizing CS education to connect directly to the tools and devices they already use can ensure that what we’re teaching is relevant. By analogy, we’re going to need a lot more electricians than electrical engineers, even if we know that the two related disciplines are both important and valuable.
  • Jobs in every industry, not tech startups: While we shouldn’t add to curriculum simply to satisfy the demands of industry, it’s reasonable to want to make sure education can translate into real-world jobs. The vast majority of technology jobs, both today and in the future, are outside of the signature startups and tech titans of Silicon Valley, in technical roles in companies that are otherwise not seen as being primarily in “tech”. These jobs may not have the high profile of Google or Facebook, but companies with a longer track record are likely to be stable, more geographically distributed, and aligned with the career and life goals of a broader swath of the population. We can de-emphasize the high-risk startup style of tech employment in favor of a much more accommodating style that could be described as blue-collar coding.
  • It’s not about making more programmers: While a lot of young people who learn about computer science may choose to go into programming or engineering or related disciplines, we should not design curricula with the goal of turning everyone into a coder. Every industry, every creative discipline, every line of work from farming to fashion, engineering to english, management to marketing, can be improved by including insights provided by being deeply technologically literate. It’s possible to teach computer science in a way where it amplifies the interests and ambitions that young people have in any discipline, and unlocks their full potential in whatever field they find meaningful.

Being literate in technology and computer science has opened up an unimaginable set of lifelong opportunities for me. From meeting friends, to having a fulfilling career, to getting to speak at the White House again today, I’ve been incredibly fortunate. And I want as many people as possible to enjoy the same potential for new opportunities and a meaningful, fulfilling career.

As we commit to broadly teaching technology, we must do a better job of addressing all of the personal, social, cultural, and civic concerns that arise with technology’s transformation of our society. Teaching CS as simply a way of filling a pipeline of employees for giant high-tech companies is not enough. Indeed, if that’s all we succeed in doing, we’ll have failed. But if we can show a whole generation of young people that technology and computer science can be one of the tools they use to pursue their passions, and amplify their impact on the world, we’ll have made a worthy addition to the canon of material that students use as a basis for their life’s work. It’ll take years of concerted, continuous effort. So let’s get started.


Fifteen is the past

We’ve been saying “never forget” for so long that we don’t even know why we’re saying it. At JFK airport, panic over… nothing. On the other side of the country, at LAX, panic over… nothing. As it turns out, if you tell people to be afraid all the time for long enough, it will work. Meanwhile, as always, the greatest danger to Americans, by several orders of magnitude, is each other.

I try to work as hard as I can at not getting cynical. Each year when I observe the anniversary of the attacks, I try to return to my mindset that day. More than anything else, I felt an overwhelming sadness. Not anger, not a desire for revenge, not some intellectual detachment or irony, just sadness. That’s not to say I haven’t moved on; I clearly have, as evidenced by my newfound ability to visit the new World Trade Center or the surrounding complex and have it be just an ordinary part of my day. But it still catches me off guard pretty easily.

It’s hard to explain the perspective of that day in our culture now that everyone under the drinking age is too young to really remember what happened that day, and nearly everyone under the driving age wasn’t even alive at the time. Sometimes it feels like everything has been reduced to meaningless platitudes and reductionist catchphrases and ironic memes. I don’t know how to convey the fact that we could see the towers aflame, smell the smoke, and yet our sadness and grief was even more powerful than our sense of fear or disbelief.

And of course, the ones who literally have forgotten, who publicly ignore the lessons of that day, are the most cynical “leaders” who most sought to profit from it. They ignore that the attacks happened as they did, and deny that we felt as we did when witnessing them, in favor of creating a narrative that only serves their agenda. “Never forget” is the rhetoric of “let me make up a story to suit my aims”.

But I was there that day, and I haven’t forgotten. And the feeling of being in New York City on 9/11 was not about jumping at our own shadows, even though the fighter jets flying overhead did give us a good scare. It was not about being sold on endless cycles of violence and oppression, but of unbelievable, unimaginable kindness and humanity to complete strangers.

I don’t dismiss or deny that so much has gone so wrong in the response and the reaction that our culture has had since the attacks, but I will not forget or diminish the pure openheartedness I witnessed that day. And I will not let the cynicism or paranoia of others draw me in to join them.

What I’ve realized, simply, is that 9/11 is in the past now. In culture it is a story we tell each other, not an event that we witnessed or a moment that we experienced. That was inevitable, I know. But the mythologizing of that day into a narrative that justifies more paranoia, fear, and violence is not an inevitability, and I still will not concede to those who work to do so. I still remember what it felt like.

In Past Years

Each year I write about the attacks on this anniversary, as a means of recording for myself where I am compared to that day. I don’t think I’m saying much that’s profound or original, but it’s a ritual that’s helped me fit those events into my life.

Last year, Fourteen is Remembering

For the first time, I clearly felt like I had put the attacks firmly in the past. They have loosened their grip on me. I don’t avoid going downtown, or take circuitous routes to avoid seeing where the towers once stood. I can even imagine deliberately visiting the area to see the new train station.

In 2014, Thirteen is Understanding:

There’s no part of that day that one should ever have to explain to a child, but I realized for the first time this year that, when the time comes, I’ll be ready. Enough time has passed that I could recite the facts, without simply dissolving into a puddle of my own unresolved questions. I look back at past years, at my own observances of this anniversary, and see how I veered from crushingly sad to fiercely angry to tentatively optimistic, and in each of those moments I was living in one part of what I felt. Maybe I’m ready to see this thing in a bigger picture, or at least from a perspective outside of just myself.

Two years ago, Twelve is Trying:

I thought in 2001 that some beautiful things could come out of that worst of days, and sure enough, that optimism has often been rewarded. There are boundless examples of kindness and generosity in the worst of circumstances that justify the hope I had for people’s basic decency back then, even if initially my hope was based only on faith and not fact. But there is also fatigue. The inevitable fading of outrage and emotional devastation into an overworked rhetorical reference point leaves me exhausted. The decay of a brief, profound moment of unity and reflection into a cheap device to be used to prop up arguments about the ordinary, the everyday and the mundane makes me weary. I’m tired from the effort to protect the fragile memory of something horrific and hopeful that taught me about people at their very best and at their very, very worst.

In 2012, Eleven is What We Make:

These are the gifts our children, or all children, give us every day in a million different ways. But they’re also the gifts we give ourselves when we make something meaningful and beautiful. The new World Trade Center buildings are beautiful, in a way that the old ones never were, and in a way that’ll make our fretting over their exorbitant cost seem short-sighted in the decades to come. More importantly, they exist. We made them, together. We raised them in the past eleven years just as surely as we’ve raised our children, with squabbles and mistakes and false starts and slow, inexorable progress toward something beautiful.

In 2011 for the 10th anniversary, Ten is Love and Everything After:

I don’t have any profound insights or political commentary to offer that others haven’t already articulated first and better. All that I have is my experience of knowing what it mean to be in New York City then. And from that experience, the biggest lesson I have taken is that I have the obligation to be a kinder man, a more thoughtful man, and someone who lives with as much passion and sincerity as possible. Those are the lessons that I’ll tell my son some day in the distant future, and they’re the ones I want to remember now.

In 2010, Nine is New New York:

[T]his is, in many ways, a golden era in the entire history of New York City. Over the four hundred years it’s taken for this city to evolve into its current form, there’s never been a better time to walk down the street. Crime is low, without us having sacrificed our personality or passion to get there. We’ve invested in making our sidewalks more walkable, our streets more accommodating of the bikes and buses and taxis that convey us around our town. There’s never been a more vibrant scene in the arts, music or fashion here. And in less than half a decade, the public park where I got married went from a place where I often felt uncomfortable at noontime to one that I wanted to bring together my closest friends and family on the best day of my life. We still struggle with radical inequality, but more people interact with people from broadly different social classes and cultures every day in New York than any other place in America, and possibly than in any other city in the world. And all of this happened, by choice, in the years since the attacks.

In 2009, Eight Is Starting Over:

[T]his year, I am much more at peace. It may be that, finally, we’ve been called on by our leadership to mark this day by being of service to our communities, our country, and our fellow humans. I’ve been trying of late to do exactly that. And I’ve had a bit of a realization about how my own life was changed by that day. Speaking to my mother last week, I offhandedly mentioned how almost all of my friends and acquaintances, my entire career and my accomplishments, my ambitions and hopes have all been born since September 11, 2001. If you’ll pardon the geeky reference, it’s as if my life was rebooted that day and in the short period afterwards. While I have a handful of lifelong friends with whom I’ve stayed in touch, most of the people I’m closest to are those who were with me on the day of the attacks or shortly thereafter, and the goals I have for myself are those which I formed in the next days and weeks. i don’t think it’s coincidence that I was introduced to my wife while the wreckage at the site of the towers was still smoldering, or that I resolved to have my life’s work amount to something meaningful while my beloved city was still papered with signs mourning the missing.

In 2008, Seven Is Angry:

Finally getting angry myself, I realize that nobody has more right to claim authority over the legacy of the attacks than the people of New York. And yet, I don’t see survivors of the attacks downtown claiming the exclusive right to represent the noble ambition of Never Forgetting. I’m not saying that people never mention the attacks here in New York, but there’s a genuine awareness that, if you use the attacks as justification for your position, the person you’re addressing may well have lost more than you that day. As I write this, I know that parked out front is the car of a woman who works in my neighborhood. Her car has a simple but striking memorial on it, listing her mother’s name, date of birth, and the date 9/11/2001.

In 2007, Six Is Letting Go:

On the afternoon of September 11th, 2001, and especially on September 12th, I wasn’t only sad. I was also hopeful. I wanted to believe that we wouldn’t just Never Forget that we would also Always Remember. People were already insisting that we’d put aside our differences and come together, and maybe the part that I’m most bittersweet and wistful about was that I really believed it. I’d turned 26 years old just a few days before the attacks, and I realize in retrospect that maybe that moment, as I eased from my mid-twenties to my late twenties, was the last time I’d be unabashedly optimistic about something, even amidst all the sorrow.

In 2006, After Five Years, Failure:

[O]ne of the strongest feelings I came away with on the day of the attacks was a feeling of some kind of hope. Being in New York that day really showed me the best that people can be. As much as it’s become cliché now, there’s simply no other way to describe a display that profound. It was truly a case of people showing their very best nature. We seem to have let the hope of that day go, though.

In 2005, Four Years:

I saw people who hated New York City, or at least didn’t care very much about it, trying to act as if they were extremely invested in recovering from the attacks, or opining about the causes or effects of the attacks. And to me, my memory of the attacks and, especially, the days afterward had nothing to do with the geopolitics of the situation. They were about a real human tragedy, and about the people who were there and affected, and about everything but placing blame and pointing fingers. It felt thoughtless for everyone to offer their response in a framework that didn’t honor the people who were actually going through the event.

In 2004, Thinking Of You:

I don’t know if it’s distance, or just the passing of time, but I notice how muted the sorrow is. There’s a passivity, a lack of passion to the observances. I knew it would come, in the same way that a friend told me quite presciently that day back in 2001 that “this is all going to be political debates someday” and, well, someday’s already here.

In 2003, Two Years:

I spent a lot of time, too much time, resenting people who were visiting our city, and especially the site of the attacks, these past two years. I’ve been so protective, I didn’t want them to come and get their picture taken like it was Cinderella’s Castle or something. I’m trying really hard not to be so angry about that these days. I found that being angry kept me from doing the productive and important things that really mattered, and kept me from living a life that I know I’m lucky to have.

In 2002, I wrote On Being An American:

[I]n those first weeks, I thought a lot about what it is to be American. That a lot of people outside of New York City might not even recognize their own country if they came to visit. The America that was attacked a year ago was an America where people are as likely to have been born outside the borders of the U.S. as not. Where most of the residents speak another language in addition to English. Where the soundtrack is, yes, jazz and blues and rock and roll, but also hip hop and salsa and merengue. New York has always been where the first fine threads of new cultures work their way into the fabric of America, and the city the bore the brunt of those attacks last September reflected that ideal to its fullest.

In 2001, Thank You:

I am physically fine, as are all my family members and immediate friends. I’ve been watching the footage all morning, I can’t believe I watched the World Trade Center collapse… I’ve been sitting here this whole morning, choking back tears… this is just too much, too big. I can see the smoke and ash from the street here. I have friends of friends who work there, I was just there myself the day before yesterday. I can’t process this all. I don’t want to.


New York-Style Tech

A technology community driven by values, not just profits.

New York Public Library

I’ve been part of the New York City tech scene for more than 15 years, from back when it was “Silicon Alley” trying to be an imitation of the West Coast, to its more recent iteration as a world-class technology community unlike any other in the world. While I’ve been deeply critical of the things people working in technology have gotten wrong, I’ve recently often found myself trying to re-emphasize something that our community has gotten right.

The other day, I was looking at Matt Turck’s analysis of the New York City tech ecosystem, a detailed look at tech in New York from a venture capitalist’s perspective. It offers a compelling and well-reasoned argument for a strong economic future for New York’s tech scene. But what most jumped out at me was what it missed about what’s special in New York City, something that has nothing to do with the rate of return for investors.

Put simply: New York City is unique in that its tech community is grounded in principles of social and civic responsibility. It’s an important distinction, one that we’ve got to work hard to protect and nurture. And just like New York-style pizza, I’m hoping lots of people in other cities think that what we’re making here is good enough that they try to emulate it in their own communities.


What do I mean by a civic-minded tech community? We see a few consistent traits that jump out:

  • An actual community. Thanks to groups like the New York Tech Alliance and its signature monthly NY Tech Meetup event, we have the ability to gather and organize in centralized ways, a powerful and necessary infrastructure for organizing. As a NYTA board member, I’ve been able to see firsthand the convening power of having a prominent, unified group representing a tech community where “tech” doesn’t just mean employees at startups, but rather everyone who’s using tech to transform their work in various industries and across the public sector and academia as well.
  • Engagement with policy and policymakers. On issues ranging from SOPA/PIPA to net neutrality, executives from New York tech companies were among the first, most persistent, and most effective voices engaging with policy makers to try to improve our laws. Their willingness to hop on an Amtrak and head down to Washington, D.C. to talk to lawmakers is matched by the more local efforts that so many in the NYC tech community do at the state, city, and neighborhood level.
  • Community service. Whether it was after major events like Hurricane Sandy, when many in the tech community worked to volunteer around the city, or in more ordinary daily efforts like mentoring young students interested in technology, there’s a solid expectation of service that I see expressed between members of the community. It’s that kind of peer support that’s necessary to sustain a culture of service, and it’s been reassuring to see support extending from ordinary grassroots tech workers all the way up to the most prominent and influential investors and entrepreneurs in the city.
  • Corporate commitment. While New York’s tech scene goes far beyond startup companies, we see meaningful, significant commitments to responsibility being made by some of the most prominent and influential companies in the community. From Kickstarter legally committing to being a Public Benefit Corporation to Warby Parker pursuing B Corp certification to Etsy working to uphold B Corp principles even as a publicly-traded corporation, there’s a visible and consistent tradition amongst our most successful companies to honoring their commitment to our city and to the world.
  • Inclusion. No, the tech industry in New York City is not yet inclusive enough and does not yet provide opportunity to everyone in our city. But by gender, race and economic class, New York’s tech industry is miles ahead of any other major tech community in the United States. What’s more, our civic and social leadership are more broadly inclusive, making it much more likely that we’ll actually achieve significant change. This even extends as far as significant, broad-based commitments to public, universal programs like computer science education that’s available to every student, in every borough, instead of through commercialized, limited-access platforms.

This is a start, not a finish

We still have a lot of important work to do to improve our tech efforts in New York City — most urgently around inclusion. I am not trying to describe what we’re doing here as a utopian wonderland of perfect technology, and indeed we have inherited many of the same structural barriers and biases that plague the larger technology realm.
But the everyday commitment to being mindful of our communities and our obligation to the world is real, and has only increased over time. I’m hoping that by reiterating this unique strength of our community, we can remind ourselves keep putting in the effort and care to maintain a focus on our values.

Pizza delivery

To be clear, I’m not saying that only New Yorkers care about their communities. Lots of individuals in every part of the country, and every part of the world, care deeply about these things. But when I think about what motivates me most to work with people in the New York City tech scene, it’s that I can usually count on people sharing a sense of ambition to do something more than just making money.
And, though I still think New York-style pizza is the best, I’ll happily admit that nearly every city in America has at least one place that offers pretty decent pizza. A lot of the time, they call their offerings New York-style pizza just to make clear that they’re trying to be like the best. Similarly, I suspect that every city that develops a substantial technology community will nurture a core group of creative people who give back to their city and think that technology reaches its best potential when it benefits the most people.

Thank you to endymion120 and benymarc for the photos.


Five years ago today I witnessed the most transcendent moment of my life.

I don’t have a faith or a religion, so I’m often reluctant to describe things as “transcendent”; I don’t want to speak to an experience that’s not my own. But 5 years ago today, I witnessed one of the most amazing moments of my life, something that transcends anything but life milestones like my wedding or the birth of my child.
I got to witness the final launch of the final space shuttle, Atlantis, right from Kennedy Space Center. Mission STS-135.

STS 135 Launch

Watching that space shuttle take off was, unquestionably, one of the most emotional and moving events of my life. I am not embarrassed at all to say that it brought me to tears.
Some of that emotion was inspired by having simply grown up as a geek. While older folks had Apollo, the Space Shuttle was “our” space program, with the earliest tests and launches being among my earliest memories, just as I was discovering my love for space and science and nerding out.
On the day before the launch, we got a chance to visit with staff from across NASA, including the opportunity to talk to a few astronauts. But while it was a thrill to meet people who’d actually been to space, what moved me most was the more anonymous staffers who had less visible jobs at NASA. Their pride in their work was palpable, with a passion undiminished even over the decades that some of them had worked there. A few told me they’d been around for the first shuttle launch, thirty years earlier.


A photo posted by Anil Dash (@anildash) on

While we heard their stories, they took us on a grand tour of the facility, where we even got to approach incredibly close to the shuttle as it sat on the launch pad. We nervously waited to hear whether the weather would hold out for launch the next morning.

I watched the launch from just a few feet away from the countdown clock at the start of this video.

When it was finally time for the countdown, they brought us all to a grassy field that was as close as civilians could get to the launch tower. As the countdown commenced in earnest, the thought that kept returning to my head was, “This is what we can do together.”
It took the love of so many people—thousands!— over so many years to create this, the most amazing machine that I’ve ever seen in my life. The most impressive and glorious display of scientific knowledge that I could imagine.
And when that rocket takes off, you feel the launch in your chest. Your ears hear a sound like a distorted speaker that’s in overdrive. But it’s not the sound, really, so much as the physical sensation. What you feel is the force of countless people’s optimism.

Go Atlantis!

A photo posted by Anil Dash (@anildash) on

I know there were many flaws in the shuttle program. I saw the quiet grief of those who had worked at NASA and had lost shuttles over the years. I knew the technology behind that shuttle was ancient by contemporary technological standards. But even on the last day that it would ever take off, that enormous machine was purely magical.
What I saw when I watched a Space Shuttle soar into the sky was simply a reminder of what is possible. We can do amazing things! I know because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.


Read more

June 18, 2016

Set Adrift: Beneath the Surface of P.M. Dawn

May 28, 2016

Prince’s Own Liner Notes On His Greatest Hits

April 28, 2016

Goodbye, Prince

March 21, 2016

Water for Gambhariganda

February 24, 2016

On the Hunt

January 26, 2016

Another Round on me!

December 19, 2015


November 25, 2015

Beyond Doing Half the Parenting

October 10, 2015

A little less rocking with you...

September 11, 2015

Fourteen is Remembering

September 4, 2015

Let's Support The Girls Club

August 19, 2015

"It is miraculous."

July 11, 2015

The Internet of Tweets

June 30, 2015

Why, Bobby Jindal?

May 24, 2015

Nobody Famous

May 19, 2015

Comedy Hack Day!

April 30, 2015

Conduct Becoming

March 9, 2015


February 24, 2015

Not a "Good Guy"

January 23, 2015

How Software Works