Microsof CEO Satya Nadella, in an event to mark Computer Science Education Week, helped some Seattle fourth-graders work out a coding problem in an Hour of Coding tutorial.
Satya Nadella leaned closer to the workstation. A pair of coders plugging away on a Dell laptop had reached an impasse.
Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive and a longtime software engineer, knew the answer. He pointed to the screen.
“Now, which way do you turn to get to the other sheep?” he prompted the pair of fourth-graders.
Can you code like a fourth-grader?
Code.org’s Minecraft tutorial and other resources can be accessed at http://Code.org/mc
Nadella spent about an hour Monday morning at Rainier View Elementary in Seattle, helping a class of 20 students navigate a software-coding tutorial based on Microsoft’s “Minecraft” game. He was on hand as part of an event to showcase the start of Computer Science Education Week, a technology industry-sponsored effort to promote computer-science education in schools.
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Microsoft is a major sponsor of Seattle’s Code.org, the coding-education company that organizes the Hour of Code tutorial that students worked on Monday. About 191,000 schools plan to participate in the Hour of Code program, the organization said.
The premise is to prepare kids for the kind of thinking they’ll have to do in an increasingly digitized workplace, Nadella said in an interview. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll all wind up in roles similar to Microsoft’s legions of software coders.
Coding “concepts and computational thinking are going to be relevant in pretty much every field,” Nadella said.
“It’s not like, ‘Let’s just make them all computer scientists and ready for the tech industry as we know it today.’ Let’s take a broader picture that every industry is going to have computational and digital technology. Let’s equip our boys and girls to be ready for that.”
Microsoft says more than 1,000 employees volunteered last year to teach coding at schools and community centers, and a spokesman said more are expected to head out this year. The company also hosts workshops at retail stores and offices.
The push isn’t exclusive to Microsoft. Tech companies across the country are donating to and supporting causes that encourage technology education both inside and outside of schools.
Nadella, 48, is a member of a vanguard generation of Indian immigrant engineers who rose through the ranks of American technology companies.
His exposure to computers started fairly early, but at a much later age than many of today’s students.
As a 10th-grader, he got his hands on a British-made Z80, a type of computer that used the 8-bit microprocessor of the same name that powered a range of computers through the 1980s.
His first coding language was BASIC, the programming language Bill Gates and Paul Allen used to fashion Microsoft’s first product.
“I was lucky, quite frankly, growing up in India, to even have access to something like that at that age,” Nadella said. “If that can happen to me, you can imagine what can happen to kids now.”
The room of students whom Nadella spoke to Monday didn’t look much like the company he runs. More than half were girls, and there were few white faces.
Microsoft, like the broader U.S. technology industry, tends to be more male and employ smaller shares of minority groups like African Americans or Hispanics than demographics would suggest. Critics say the industry does a poor job of recruiting and retaining women and minorities.
“We should do more on all dimensions,” Nadella said. “We should absolutely look [for job candidates] in more places. Should we get to more schools to get them going [in computer science] earlier? We should absolutely do that.”
Microsoft in September said it would spend $75 million over three years to increase access to computer-science education for kids, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds.
That is, filling the pipeline.
“The thought behind that was the long game,” Nadella said. “It’s the ability to sustain interest.”
Nadella dismisses the idea, tempting for technologists, that exposure to technology will fix the deficit in tech education and educators by itself.
“It’s not about celebrating technology,” he said. “It’s about … the students, communities, parents, teachers, coming together, to use technology. I’ve always believed that inspired teachers is probably one of the biggest determinants [in] shaping kids’ futures.”