Harvard – Bachelor’s Degree, Computer Science
Alice Steinglass always knew she liked math and science. Bigger yet, she loved understanding how the world works.
With a knack for taking things apart to figure out how they worked, Alice was a lover of the logic of math and science and how neatly everything fit together. But, at the same time, while growing up she also was a creative, making whatever she could out of construction paper found around her childhood house. She felt a pull. She would have to choose between creativity and the concrete logic of math and science.
When Alice discovered computer science, however, she realized it was a magic field, allowing her to combine her love of creativity and logic.
Now the vice president of product and marketing for Code.org, it’s her mission to help introduce others to the world of computer science and the power it holds.
“Two-thirds of computer science jobs are outside of the tech industry. This makes sense: almost every industry today uses technology – from marketing to medicine to shopping or entertainment. No matter what you want to do with your career, knowing some computer science amplifies your opportunities,” Alice says. “It's amazing how much opportunity there is and how little we are teaching it.”
It is projected there will be 1.4 million computer science jobs, but only 400,000 trained people who can take on those jobs.
How did you discover coding? What prompted you to learn to code?
I first discovered coding in second grade. They taught Logo in my class. Logo is really simple computer programming. The idea is that there’s a turtle on the screen, and you’re moving that turtle around. You can make the turtle move forward, turn and draw. With a few simple instructions, you can turn simple triangles into amazing spiral patterns. It’s like the old Spirograph toy, but you can break out of the plastic to create your own designs.
Again, it was that combination of art and computing that I loved. After that class ended, I didn’t pick up programming again for years.
I think the fact that I wasn’t programming from a young age is something that made me different from many others I saw in computer science. I’ve been working in an industry where some people have been taking computers apart since they were 4 years old.
I started really learning computer science in high school through formal education. I enjoyed the logic puzzles, but it can be intimidating to be surrounded by students who know so much more than you about how to hack a system or build a network. Outside of class, I made some video games and tried to break into my little brother’s account to see if I could embarrass him. But, it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized I could take my experience outside the classroom and go create an entire product on my own. Some classmates and I worked with a professor to build a startup. Like many tech startups from 15 years ago, it isn’t around anymore. But, knowing I had the skills to build a real website and product with paying customers was extremely empowering.
Another aspect of computer science I love is that it actually goes much faster than the other sciences. For example, if you’re doing biology, you design an experiment, and then you wait, and wait, and wait. You wait for chemicals to react, or bacteria to mutate or for something to grow up. In computer science you can have an idea, try it out and then see it that day. If it doesn’t work, you try something else right then. The speed at which you can play and try things is amazing.
After college you worked at Microsoft for years. What prompted you to leave Microsoft for Code.org?
I loved my job at Microsoft. Before I left, I was the group program manager on HoloLens. In this role I spent my time focusing on how to build a UX platform, a user experience and a shell for placing holograms in space. I thought about things like, “Where do your apps go when you can put them anywhere?” It was a fascinating project.
While I loved my job and the people I worked with, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of diversity in my industry. I attended conferences that were 95% male and often there was not a single African American or Hispanic coder in the room. And, I’d find myself outside of work (when I had free time) volunteering in the classroom teaching computer science. After one class, I had all the little girls in the room coming up to me to show me their heart robots and tell me they wanted to make their own apps when they grow up.
When the product and marketing job opened up at Code.org, I interviewed immediately. I believe in the mission of Code.org: that every child should have the opportunity to learn computer science.
I want to give third grade Megan the same chance I’ve had to spend her day at work building and creating cool products. We need to increase diversity in tech. There are a lot of things we can do to support women and minorities in the workplace and improve retention. But, the first problem is educational opportunity. If most African American students don’t even have the chance to study computer science, we’ll never see a balanced workplace in tech.
Code.org is making meaningful impact in this space – reaching millions of students, so I knew I wanted to join this mission. For example, if just 1% of the middle school girls who’ve enrolled in Code.org’s class eventually majored in computer science, it would triple the number of women going into tech.
What responsibilities do you focus on throughout the course of a day in your role?
One of the best things about Code.org is that we’re looking at the problem of diversity and opportunity in tech from multiple angles. On one hand we want to create great tutorials and coding classes so students can learn how to code, but that's not enough.
We also have to help the teachers learn how to teach these classes. Because tech is such a new industry, most of the teachers today did not learn how to code or how the internet works as part of their education. We create professional development workshops to help give them the skills they need to teach computer science in their classes.
And, we work to support these teachers by partnering with school districts, raising awareness and gathering support for computer science curriculum at the district, state and national level.
As the head of the product, engineering and marketing teams, part of my job is to work on a day-to-day basis with engineers to make sure the code works, figure out what we’re building next, determine how we’re going to build it – and who’s going to build it, and then test it and try it myself.
But, us trying it ourselves is obviously not enough. I also spend time understanding how teachers, students and parents are using our tools. Last week, I visited a classroom. I got to watch 24 seventh graders learn algebra by making video games where rockets shoot in the air at a rate of x^2 +10.
I also look at the website’s analytics to see who’s using our various tools, how they’re using it, what they’re clicking on and where they’re running into problems.
And, I work with the education team, comprised of experts who have years of experience teaching and building curriculum. I discuss things with this team like: Are the students learning what we are trying to teach them? Are the students having fun while they are learning it? What's been effective in terms of teaching tools and what can we change to make it more effective? I also frequently meet with external partners in the education industry or companies who support our mission.
And, once we’ve built our tools, we need to make sure we have the right messaging. This involves working on our website, articles, emails, tweets, etc.
As you can tell, my day is fragmented in a number of different directions. But, that’s one of my favorite parts of the job.
What is the Code.org culture like?
The No. 1 thing I see is just a passion for the space. Everyone who is here is here because they believe in what they’re doing. It's great to work at a company where people are there not just because of the paycheck, not just because they are trying to get ahead, but because they care.
Why do you feel the Code.org mission is so vitally important?
Computer science is an industry that is growing incredibly quickly, and we just aren't teaching our students the skills they need to obtain jobs in this new market.
And, these are great jobs! On average, they pay 85% above the median income. And, they can be fun, creative and interesting. In what other field do you get paid to design video game leaderboards? (My first job straight out of college) Or, cool lighting effects for blockbuster movies? (My bridesmaid’s first job out of CS grad school)
Right now there is already a gap between available jobs and students who are qualified to go take those jobs. That gap continues to grow. And as technology becomes even bigger, there is even more of a gap developing.
In 2020 there is going to be a job gap of 1 million. It is projected there will be 1.4 million computer science jobs, but only 400,000 trained people who can take on those jobs. Yet, despite this, we still are not teaching computer science in most schools. Even if we agree we want to change this, it's a hard thing to change quickly. How do you teach computer science when the teachers weren't taught how to do it?
If a school wants to teach more “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), they know how to do that. They can teach more science and more math. Teachers learned how to teach science and math, but if they want to teach computer science there's often nobody at the school who knows how to teach computer science. And, in the same way that the tech industry can’t hire computer scientists fast enough, education systems can’t hire computer scientists. They just aren’t readily available.
It's crazy that there are students in America who still don't get exposure to computer science. Even if they don’t code for their job, learning the basics of how the internet works is as important today as learning the basics of biology, physics or other core curriculum. If we dissect frogs in high school, we can also learn what happens inside your computer.
You know, my son’s school still doesn’t teach computer science.
That's crazy. You would think every Seattle school would have computer science.
I live in a suburb, which contains Microsoft, Expedia, as well as a lot of other tech companies, and it’s still not taught.
Have you taught your young ones at home about computer science?
Not the toddler quite yet! [Alice laughs.] I've never been professionally trained as a teacher, but I love teaching whether it’s my kids or other kids. My kids are stuck with me and so they get an overload of computer science education, especially now that I'm trying to test out all the tools and different products on them.
The other day while we were on vacation my son woke up and said to me, “I know what we’re going to do today.” I said, “What are we going to do today?” Then he said, “It’s an ‘if/else’ statement. ‘If’ I can find my iPad I’m going to play on it, ‘else’ I’m going to the beach.” Nice try. We’re going to the beach.
With tech being an aspect of our life that’s always on, how do you prioritize when to step away and unwind, without your devices nearby?
It’s just a question of picking your priorities. I decided a long time ago that my family was my top priority, even when I took this job. When I was asked in my first interview what my priorities were in terms of a job, my response was that my No. 1 priority is my family.
I simply carve out the time to say, “Hey, we’re going to have dinner together.” I know I can always get back online later. The nice thing about technology is that it’s always on, so it will wait for you until whenever you're ready to use it. It means I can go on a hike Saturday and check in on my email when my daughter is napping. Plus, my kids need a little bit of a break because they don't want to be with me 100% of the time either!
Your husband works in tech, too. Do you think this is an advantage because you both have a mutual understanding of the long hours required, or is it difficult because you both have those long, demanding hours?
Absolutely both. I actually met my husband at work. There is something nice about really understanding someone’s job, meeting them as a peer and knowing that your partner is actually your partner. We've always treated each other as peers. This has meant trading off responsibilities over the years and supporting each other.
My husband was a stay-at-home dad for about a year and a half after our first son was born. Then, I supported him doing a startup for abut five years, and that period was really hard. I was getting the kids ready for daycare in the morning. I was dropping them off for daycare. I was picking them up from daycare. I was making them dinner and then putting them to bed. And to be honest, I was doing the bare minimum of all of that because I also had a full-time job at the time. I would do things like get their kids dressed for the next day before putting them to bed so I could just pick them up in the morning and take them to daycare. I made sure they ate healthy food, but would focus on veggies that were fast – like serving baby carrots or microwaving frozen spinach.
I got through this time by focusing on the things that really matter and the things I knew would be meaningful for the kids. Then, things changed again. My husband left the startup and was a stay-at-home dad again for about another year and a half. Having that support at home was amazing. I could focus on my job, stay late when I needed, go in early when I needed. And, I never had to leave in the middle of the day for a kid’s doctor’s appointment.
Now he’s working again and we’re splitting the responsibilities. He works late many nights and has frequent conference calls with China. This means I need to leave and go home at the end of the day. But, that also means I get to leave and go home at the end of the day.
Rather than one consistent solution, we’ve enjoyed the variety and having the flexibility to take turns focusing on work at times and family at other times. I feel really lucky to have married a partner and not just a spouse.