Tech firms across the U.S. are lobbying for computer science education to become more commonplace, and Microsoft is one of the more vocal companies on the issue. But the Redmond company isn’t just asking governments to pick up the slack. Since 2011, the company’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program has put volunteer engineers in high schools to help teachers build CS classes. This academic year, about 550 volunteers were in more than 150 schools nationwide, but some 3,500 high schools still lack computer science classes. We caught up with TEALS founder Kevin Wang, who was at the South by Southwest Education conference, to tell us about the program’s origins and goals.
425 Business: So how did TEALS get its start?
Kevin Wang: After three years at Microsoft, University Prep (in Seattle) found out that I had taught high school (Wang taught for three years in the Bay Area), and they asked me if I could come and teach a CS class. Within three months, both Seattle Public Schools and Issaquah School District got in touch with me, and basically asked if I could teach CS there. I told them I can’t be five places at once, but I do know Microsoft engineers who were stellar TAs back in their college days. Let me find a few, and I’ll train them over the summer to teach high school computer science.
When and why did Microsoft get involved in TEALS?
We grew to 13 schools, and we were going to have about 30 schools the next year. That’s when I realized I couldn’t just do this in my spare time. So I sold my Porsche and was getting ready to quit Microsoft and start a nonprofit (in 2011). My VP, Dave Thompson, heard about this and said he was taking me to see Satya (Nadella, who was then the leader of Microsoft’s cloud division).
In the meeting, Satya and Dave were both saying, look, if you do a 501(c)(3) and leave Microsoft, you’re going to spend 75 percent of your time fundraising instead of concentrating on the program. They said the goal of TEALS is something that aligns with what Microsoft needs to do — giving back to the tech community that’s given so much to us. Just keep it here, you get to use Microsoft’s infrastructure, and you don’t have to ask anybody else for money — just submit a budget.
How has Microsoft’s backing changed TEALS?
I think back then I asked Satya for $75,000; the budget is now in the low millions. But all of the in-kind stuff doesn’t make it into the budget. This compares to the pro-bono work lawyers do. Over the course of TEALS, our volunteers have given, this year included, 450,000 hours. Multiply that by $238 an hour, and you’re looking at $107 million worth of pro-bono work.
It’s an industry-wide effort. Seventy-five percent of our volunteers are not from Microsoft. It’s been embraced by everybody — Google, Etsy, The New York Times. The first couple years, the easiest thing was to use Microsoft people. But then people within the company would talk to their circle of friends with other companies, people would come to us. Our outreach naturally went beyond Microsoft. If you just look at Seattle, there are all sorts of companies with huge footprints, and the communities that they’re in are where employees raise their families. It was very natural for the engineers that live there to want to get involved.
Why should high schools implement computer science classes?
We see computer science as subject no different from math, no different from chemistry, physics, or biology. It’s a fundamental science that should be offered at the high-school level for three reasons. The main reason is that a thriving democracy has to have an informed electorate. As computer science permeates every aspect of our lives, things are going to get regulated; we’re all scared of our AI overlords. The people writing the legislation have to be CS literate.
Two, if you know computational thinking, it’ll help you be successful in whatever profession you choose. It’s going to permeate every end-goal job out there, so kids need a basic background in computer science.
Lastly, and the most obvious one coming from a software company, is inspiring the next generation of software engineers. Who’s the next Zuckerberg? Who’s going to build the next Uber? We need engineers, but it’s not just that. We have high-school chemistry class, but we don’t expect everyone to be chemists. We just want to make sure there’s an opportunity for kids to be exposed to it at a high school level.
Does success for TEALS mean you’ve reached a point where you no longer need TEALS?
That was our No. 1 goal. What’s the end game for TEALS? The end game is for TEALS to no longer exist, and Kevin can go back to building product.
We originally set ourselves the goal of getting about a quarter of a million students in AP-level computer science. We’re at about 50,000, so we have a long way to go. But eventually I see TEALS as a national volunteering organization. We should no longer be the ones teaching the classes. The federal funding should come in, and the classroom teachers are the ones who will go to professional development conferences and teach 95 percent of it.
TEALS engineers are still a great link to education. They bring real life experiences to the classroom, and that’s so incredibly valuable to kids.