There is a new nonprofit that nicely demonstrates the challenge of identifying a social problem and then developing the right strategy for solving that problem. Code.org’s sole aim is to solve the impending shortage of computer programmers. Because we have grown increasingly dependent on technology in our everyday lives, while our schools have not adequately prepared our children to keep up, we are facing an enormous shortage of people who can create the technology we desperately need.
Projections estimate that by 2020 we will need 1.4 million computer programmers, but will only have 400,000 computer science graduates, creating a 1 million person gap. And 9 out of 10 schools aren’t currently teaching computer programming. This is a huge problem.
Enter code.org. The nonprofit was founded earlier this year with two stated goals:
- Spread the word that there is a worldwide shortage of computer programmers, and that it’s much easier to learn to program than you think.
- Build an authoritative database of all programming schools, whether they are online courses, brick+mortar schools or summer camps.
They have an impressive team and list of supporters, many of the darlings of the technology startup world. And they’ve already attracted the attention of the national media and have a very savvy media presentation including some pretty cool videos.
Code.org is fascinating to me, not just because I agree that connecting how we educate our children with the skills they will need in the future is a huge issue, but also because code.org demonstrates the strategic struggle facing every social change agent. The struggle lies in identifying a social problem and then creating the right solution to the problem you’ve identified.
There are many ways you could attack the problem of a shortage of future computer programmers. You could decide to:
- Advocate for changes to the public education system
- Create new training sites around the country
- Develop coding games for kids
- Create a marketing campaign that encourages more kids to try coding
- Develop a database of available training programs
So far code.org has decided to focus on the last two. But it begs the question, why those two?
In identifying a social problem and then choosing a possible way to attack it, social change leaders must ask the following questions:
- What is the most effective entry point for changing this problem? For code.org they think the entry point is kids themselves, getting them to demand coding training, as opposed to changing education policy or increasing the supply of coding locations.
- How do we use our unique assets to address that entry point? Code.org’s biggest asset is their long list of technology celebrity supporters, so they are tapping into those people (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg) to show kids how cool coding is. If, instead, code.org had a unique ability to move education policy forward, or proprietary coding software that more quickly delivered results they could have decided to go those routes.
- How do we structure our organization to deliver the solution? Right now code.org is a website with a series of videos and a growing database of training locations. So they don’t need a lot of staff or structure. If, however, they had decided to set up new training sites around the country or advocate for public education changes in every state, they would have needed a much larger operation with more locations and staffing.
- How will we measure if our solution is working? Code.org has clearly delineated where they need to be. By 2020 they want to see 1 million more computer programmers. So they have to figure out how many more college students they need in computer sciences, how many more high school students they need who can code, how many more middle school students who are dabbling in code and so on. I’m hoping they have metrics all along the way and the ability to see if the numbers are actually growing.
Code.org has very clearly defined a critical social problem and they have marshaled an impressive army of supporters to work toward change. It remains to be seen, however, whether they have asked the right questions and selected the right path for making that change a reality.
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