A techie with a dream sparks a new generation of computer scientists

REDMOND, Wash. — April 23, 2013 — Kevin Wang could have followed his career. …

Instead, he chose to follow his calling.

Kevin Wang
Kevin Wang, the self-described “ringleader” of TEALS, the program that wants to help erase the lack of computer science classes in American high schools.

It was the early 2000s, and Wang had just graduated from Berkeley with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering. He was trying to decide which tech company he should offer his services to, when a high school came calling.

“I interviewed with the school,” said Wang, now a Microsoft program manager and co-founder of Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS), a Microsoft YouthSpark program that brings technology professionals and curriculum to high school classrooms. “And they essentially gave me a call and said ‘We want to hire you because we really need to do this.’”

The “this” those educators referred to is the same “this” that occupies most of Wang’s time a decade later: Bringing a computer science curriculum to teenagers to spark their interest in the profession.

“It felt like it was something I had to do,” said Wang, who accepted almost immediately, leaving behind the prospect of a lucrative high-tech job to teach high school students.

Timing was a big factor in Wang’s decision.

His career was just starting and he knew it would be a lot harder to go into teaching once he got more settled into tech industry pay.

“If you’re established in the industry and you’re used to a certain lifestyle, stepping back into a teacher’s salary would be awkward,” he said. “To step back is a lot harder than to step up.”

He was also swayed by the need for computer science teachers that was off the charts.

“Look at the numbers,” he said. Out of 42,000 high schools in the United States, only 2,200 offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses in computer science. Only 37 of the 771 high schools in Washington state offer AP computer science classes, fewer than 5 percent.

And, as he would find out later, tech companies like Microsoft have faced a severe shortage of candidates to fill key jobs because not enough students choose computer science as their career path.

Wang taught high school for three years in the Bay Area. Encouraged by the experience, he pursued a master’s degree in computer science education from Harvard University.

After leaving Harvard, he put his teaching dreams on the shelf and moved to the Puget Sound area to work for Microsoft on Office 365. He needed to scratch his urge to build a product that millions of people use, and he also wanted to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in Seattle, where he wanted to move since first getting excited about the grunge band Nirvana in middle school.

(That’s when he realized another major difference between education and computer technology. “I was a teacher,” he said with a laugh. “I was used to getting up early.” Not many computer people do, he joked.)

Even though he hired on at Microsoft, the teaching bug had not gone away, and nor had the need for teachers.

Wang began showing up early at a local high school to teach before heading for his day job in Redmond. He did that for a year and then decided to start spreading the word to his colleagues at Microsoft in hopes they would catch the teaching bug and join him. This was in 2009.

Wang’s colleagues liked the idea, schools liked hosting them, and so TEALS – the Technology Education and Literacy in Schools group that Wang cofounded – was born.

Wang quickly shifted from showing high school kids how to write code to teaching fellow computer scientists how to teach kids to write code.

From one school with Wang as the lone volunteer, TEALS soon had four schools and 10 volunteer teachers.

After a while the program grew so much that it was decision time for Wang.

Again.

“I was a program manager on Office 365,” he said. “It was not something I could do in my spare time without being terrible at both my day job and running TEALS.”

Again, Wang chose education.

He would leave Microsoft, sell his Porsche 911, live off that for a year and keep TEALS going.

Before Wang could turn in his badge, David Thompson, then a vice president in the Microsoft Office Division, intervened with a question: “What if your job became TEALS?”

With the blessing from Server and Tools President Satya Nadella, Wang kept his car, but more importantly, his dream of running TEALS from inside Microsoft became a reality.

“We were thrilled to bring Kevin and TEALS into our Corporate Citizenship team, where we are focused on creating opportunities for youth around the world,” said Lori Harnick, Microsoft’s general manager of Citizenship and Public Affairs. “Providing access to computer science in high school is a very important part of our companywide YouthSpark initiative, which aims to prepare young people for the jobs of today and tomorrow. It’s also a great way to fill the pipeline of future Microsoft innovators.”

Thanks to the efforts of Wang and the scores of volunteers that he works with, the program is growing in size and reach – it now has 100 volunteer teachers teaching 1,500 high school students at 35 schools in seven states.

“We’re learning new things every year,” he said. “Every year we want to make computer science more exciting for the students, and we want our volunteers to have a great experience teaching.”

TEALS also works across the rivalry between Microsoft and Google. One Bay Area school has an engineer from each company teaching AP computer science together. “I doubt you will see that anywhere else,” Wang quipped.

The entire tech community has to come together to solve the lack of computer science high school education in America, he said, adding that there is still much work to do.

“The finish line is really far away,” he said. “We want to give every high school student the opportunity to take computer science when they are in high school.”

With more than 38,000 schools to go, there is a big need for more volunteer teachers.