Posts from hacking education


There are some investments that take years to make. They are often our best investments. Quizlet took something like five years to go from a company we got interested in to a USV investment.

In March 2009, we hosted an event we called Hacking Education. That was the official start of our focus on education. From that event came a thesis on how we would approach investing in education. We would invest in lightweight services and networks that allowed anyone to learn anything. We would not invest in services sold top down to the existing K-12 and higher education system. We wanted to obliterate, not automate.

We started hunting around for services and networks that fit our thesis. One that caught our attention was Quizlet, the leading web and mobile studying tool. We got an intro through Christina. Eventually Andy got a meeting. We found out that Quizlet had been bootstrapped, was profitable, and was not interested in raising outside capital. But Andy did not take no for an answer. He kept calling on them. He brought me to meet the two Quizlet leaders, Andrew and Dave, in September 2012. We got the same story in that meeting but we did make an impression. We started inviting them to our events in SF and they usually would come. So we kept doing that and kept stoping by to say hi when we were in SF.

Earlier this year Dave called me to say that they were going to raise outside capital. He and Andrew had concluded that the opportunity to build and develop peer to peer learning and studying tools for web and mobile was so large that they could not continue to bootstrap. So we jumped onto the opportunity and threw ourselves at it. That process had a number of fits and starts but we hung in there and eventually the financing came together the way Andrew and Dave wanted it to and we joined our friends at Costanoa, Altos, and Owl in a $12mm Series A round for a ten year old company. Just writing those last few words makes me happy. You don’t see many Series A rounds for ten year old companies. But when you do, they are generally good ones to do.

So what is Quizlet? Well if you have kids in middle, high school, or college, they probably use it. Quizlet is a studying/learning tool written by Andrew Sutherland for his own use ten years ago when he was studying for a french test. He put it out on the web a bit later. He was joined by Dave Margulius who helped him turn Quizlet into a business by implementing an elegant freemium business model. Quizlet is free for anyone to use. But if you want to do certain higher value things, you can pay a small amount every month for access to them.

Quizlet lets anyone create a study set and practice it online and on mobile. And it also allows anyone to use someone else’s study set. Quizlet is peer to peer learning. Over 100mm study sets have been created by users and over 1bn study sessions have been done on Quizlet. Quizlet has been a top ten education app in the mobile app stores for years, a fact I was constantly reminded of every time I went to look at the education category in the years we were chasing this investment.

Here are some examples I just found by searching around:

Just imagine a massively open database of 100mm study sets like that which is growing by the day. And you get why we have been and continue to be so interested in Quizlet.

There are over 7bn learners on planet earth. Within a decade, the vast majority of them will have a mobile device connected to this massively open database of study set which is available for free. These 7bn learners will be able to contribute and consume these study sets. And in the process the world will become more educated and more literate. That is hacking education and that is why USV is so excited to, finally, be an investor in Quizlet.

Code Brooklyn

If Brooklyn were its own city, which it was until 1898, it would be tied with Chicago as the third largest city in the US. It is the largest borough in New York City.

So I am excited that the Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is going to announce Code Brooklyn today at PS/MS 282 in Park Slope.

Code Brooklyn is Brooklyn’s effort to get every one of its elementary, middle, and high schools teaching computer science. It is highly complimentary to the City’s effort, announced by Mayor de Blasio earlier this fall, to get computer science into all of the city’s schools over the next ten years. Brooklyn is stepping up and getting out and leading the city in this effort and I’m really pleased to see that.

The signature element of Code Brooklyn is to get all 500 of its public schools to do the Hour Of Code this year during computer science week which is December 7-13th. For that to happen, they will need a ton of parent and community support.

CodeBrooklyn needs volunteers to help run “Hour of Code” activities in schools. This is your chance to inspire in students an interest in computer science. The commitment will take about 2-3 hours of prep time and then about 3-5 hours start-to-finish on the the day of the school’s Hour of Code. You can volunteer at – CodeBrooklyn partners NPower and #NYCEDU will match you to a school based on your interest and experience. I hope you’ll you’ll use this opportunity to start a long-term relationship with the school community with which you’re matched or be inspired to volunteer for a CSNYC supported program like TEALS or ScriptEd.

If you would like to get your child’s school involved in Code Brooklyn and the Hour of Code, you should  connect with CodeBrooklyn to find out how to make that happen.

I’d like to thank my friend and occasional AVC community member Rob Underwood for his leadership in the Brooklyn public school community and his passion for getting computer science into our schools. Code Brooklyn would not have happened without him. I’d also like to commend Eric Adams for understanding the power of computer science education to improve the lives of the students and families of Brooklyn and to change the trajectories of their lives and their neighborhoods.

Computer Science For All

Yesterday Mayor de Blasio announced Computer Science For All which is a ten year effort to train 4,775 NYC public school teachers on the fundamentals of computer science and how to teach it to their students. The goal of Computer Science For All is to have computer science teachers and classes in every one of the 1,700 NYC public schools within ten years.

The budget for this effort is $80mm over ten years and includes the costs to train the teachers, run the program which is the largest of its kind in the US, and a rigorous program evaluation which includes regular reporting on progress and impact.

Computer Science For All is a public/private partnership in which the City of New York​ and the NYC Department of Education is putting up $40mm and the private sector is putting up the other $40mm. The founding private sponsors of Computer Science For All are my foundation CSNYC, the Robin Hood Foundation and the AOL Charitable Foundation. To date, we have raised about 30% of the private money, we have our sights on another 20%, and we are looking for individuals, foundations, and corporations who would like to get behind this amazing effort and round out the balance of the private funds. Please reach out to me or my colleague Cindy if you are or know of an individual, foundation, or corporation capable of making a significant gift to this effort.

Teaching computer science to kids is not just about good jobs for the citizens of NYC and building the talent pool for the tech sector in NYC. It is about helping young students develop a new kind of literacy that they will need to lead successful lives in the 21st century world we live in. I called it “learning how to instruct a machine” in this blog post from a few weeks ago. Coding requires a student to deconstruct the problem they are trying to solve into small bits, think and write logically, and problem solve/debug when the instructions don’t work perfectly the first time. These are skills that are critical and transferable to other disciplines. I believe that every K-12 student should encounter the principles and fundamentals of computer science in elementary school, middle school, and high school and I am thrilled that NYC is going to ensure that its public school students get this instruction in the coming years.

If you can’t make a big contribution to the public private partnership but want to help and get involved, here are some things you can do:

  • Help support CSNYC which is NYC’s partner in this ten year effort. We will be raising the private funds, helping to shape the teacher training and curriculum development, and providing governance, evaluation and research around this effort. If you can make a donation to CSNYC, we would very much appreciate it. You can do that here.
  • Volunteer your time to help teach computer science in the NYC public schools. Here are two great ways to do that:
  • Join and attend our meetups. You can join here. And there is a big meetup on October 21 at Google where 30+ CS Ed groups/programs will be there to speak to educators and volunteers.

I will wrap this post with a video the Mayor’s office put out yesterday. It shows the City’s commitment to this effort and lays out the rationale for it. I would like to thank Mayor de Blasio for his courage and conviction to support Computer Science For All. I believe it will turn out to be a signature element of his equity/fairness agenda.

Some Big News On CS Education

I am driving up to the Bronx this morning to attend Mayor de Blasio’s speech on the NYC public schools. As the NY Times reported last night, in his speech he will announce a big public/private partnership between the city and the private sector to train up to 5,000 teachers on computer science curriculum, from elementary school through high school. The goal is to have computer science in all 1,700 public schools in NYC within ten years. I believe that in time this effort will be recognized as a signature piece of Mayor de Blasio’s equity/fairness agenda.

I will have a longer post on this tomorrow with details on how people can get involved in this effort. But since the news broke last night, I wanted to at least acknowledge it on AVC today.

As you all know, this is something I’ve been working on for over five years now. This work has been inspired and supported by so many people who won’t be acknowledged and won’t be credited today and in the weeks and months to come as this effort gets rolled out. People like Mike Zamansky, who is the godfather of CS Ed in the NYC public schools, and all the folks in the Department Of Education and City Hall, some of whom left a couple years ago, and some of whom arrived a couple years ago, and all my colleagues and board members at CSNYC, are the reasons this is happening. And since they won’t be on a stage or in a news article, I want to acknowledge all of them here. Thanks everyone for making this happen.

What Is Coding?

I did a fireside chat at Google NYC yesterday and was asked a great question by one of the engineers in the room. He wanted to get at what exactly are we teaching when we teach coding to kids and why is it important.

I responded that coding is just instructing a machine what we want it to do. Anytime you are instructing a machine what to do, you are coding. That could be writing python code, that could be setting the alarm on your phone.

The point of teaching kids to code is that machines are becoming an ever more important part of our lives and an ever more important part of society and the economy.

Those who are good at instructing machines will have an easier time navigating the life that is in our future.

That’s why we should teach kids to code.

Saturday Hacking Sessions

The godfather of computer science education in the NYC public schools is Mike Zamansky, who has been leading the computer science program at Stuyvesant High School since the mid 90s. A few years ago Mike started a summer program in partnership with St Joseph’s College in Brooklyn that allows middle and high school students who don’t go to Stuyvesant to get the same computer science education that his students at Stuyvesant get. It’s been a huge success but Mike doesn’t want to stop there.

So he’s extended his summer program to the weekends during the school year and is calling this program “Saturday Hacking Sessions”. Mike has turned to Kickstarter to see if he can crowdfund this program. The Kickstarter is here. I backed it yesterday and if you are so inclined, I am sure Mike would love your support as well.

Mike told me this via email yesterday:

If we can get this funded, I don’t have to charge anyone to make this happen which opens the door for kids to drop in (parental permission not withstanding).

I know I am sounding like a broken record on this but a computer science education program that is free and open to any student is the kind of thing that can change lives and provide economic opportunities where there aren’t enough right now.

I’ll finish by posting their Kickstarter video. As Mike says in the video, “we aren’t very good at making videos, but we are really good at inspiring kids and teaching them computer science.” With that disclaimer, here’s the video:

Using Coding To Teach Algebra

Algebra is a turning point for many students. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and solving equations makes sense to most students because they come across these notions in their every day life. But functions are something completely different. It’s the first abstraction most students come across in their study of math. And I’ve seen a lot of students start to dislike math when they get to algebra. They get frustrated that they just don’t get it. They tune out and turn off to math. And that’s a shame. Because math is powerful stuff. It is the key to so much.

I’ve been really impressed with a program called Bootstrap. It is a curriculum module that math teachers can drop into an algebra (or geometry) class. It maps to the common core. In Bootstrap, students use code to make a simple videogame which they really enjoy doing. But they are also learning functions in the course of coding up their game. Once they understand how functions work in code, Bootstrap makes the leap to algebraic functions. And students get it. Because it is tangible to them instead of being this abstract concept they just don’t grok.

This is just one example, but a powerful one, of how learning to code also teaches students important other concepts that they need to learn to advance in their studies.

People ask me why teaching kids to code is so important. They ask “we don’t want everyone to become a software engineer, do we?” And of course the answer to that question is no. But coding is an important intervention device into a student’s learning. Just like writing an essay or doing a workbook is an important intervention. Coding unlocks comprehension and understanding of certain hard to understand concepts in a fun and tangible way.

And Bootstrap is a great example of that. If you are a math teacher for or a parent of students between 12 and 16, you should check it out.


Next Wednesday night, at Civic Hall in New York City at 6:30pm, CSNYC will celebrate its second anniversary. For those that don’t know, CSNYC is a non-profit dedicated to the idea that every child who goes through the NYC public school system should encounter computer science along the way, in elementary school, in middle school, and in high school, and those that want to do a deep exploration of computer science should be able to do that before they graduate high school. The idea is not to turn every student into a software engineer, although it would be good if a bunch of students decided to do that. The idea is that every career will require a working knowledge of coding in the world we are heading into and that we ought to make sure our children have that.

In two years, we have increased our school coverage from one to over 120 schools. We are very proud of that accomplishment and will be showcasing those schools, the programs that are in them, and the students who are benefiting from this effort next Wednesday night. This event is also a fundraiser since we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. Though we are in 120 schools, there are 1700 in the NYC public school system. At its core, CSNYC is funding teacher training and development. The only scalable way to get all children to learn computer science is to train the best teachers out there how to teach computer science. I figure it will require somewhere between 3500 and 4000 teachers trained in teaching computer science in order to reach all 1700 schools in NYC and achieve our goals. That will require a fair bit of money.

If you would like to attend CSNYC at Two next wednesday night, go here and RSVP. Individual tickets are $250. But if you have the means, you could also buy a $1000 ticket that is for two guests, or a table for $10,000, $25,000, or $50,000.

It’s going to be fun, optimistic, and exciting evening. I hope to see some of you there.

Video Of The Week: SEP Spring Showcase

The SEP (Software Engineering Pilot) Spring Showcase is today from 10am to 2pm at BRIC in Brooklyn. I’m still in Paris so will miss it but I encourage anyone in NYC to attend. Here’s a video from last year’s showcase so you can see what goes on at the SEP showcase.

SEP Showcase from SEPNYC on Vimeo.

Conveniently today’s SEP Spring Showcase is just a short walk from CrossFit South Brooklyn, where “Get Fit or Be Hacking” is happening at today at 2pm. As I blogged about several weeks ago, “Get Fit or Be Hacking” is the coding+fitness competition my friend Rob Underwood organized to raise money for CSNYC. The event is open to the public if you’d like to cheer on the teams. There is also an after-party at Three’s Brewing at 5pm that you’re welcome to stop by — Sean Stern, one of the star CS teachers from the Academy for Software Engineering, will be at Three’s among other friends and advocates for computer science.

If you’d like to support CSNYC and programs like SEP, think about supporting one of the teams competing at Get Fit or Be Hacking by making a donation on the “Get Fit or Be Hacking” fundraising page on Crowdrise. And if you enjoy watching amazing kids do amazing things with code, check out today’s SEP Spring Showcase.