AWS Government, Education, & Nonprofits Blog

Learning the Language of Coding: A Q&A with New York City’s Chief Digital Officer

This week, more than 100 million students in over 180 countries will participate in the Hour of Code hosted by Code.org and powered by Amazon Web Services. Developing strong computational thinking skills is important to every student to prepare them for careers in today’s innovation-driven economy. During last year’s event, over 200 billion lines of code were written (check out this infographic for more stats about how the AWS Cloud helps the Hour of Code).

To celebrate the kickoff of this year’s Hour of Code, we sat down with Sree Sreenivasan, New York City’s Chief Digital Officer, to hear his take on the importance of building a foundation of tech proficiency within today’s youth.

In this Q&A, Sree drew on what he has learned working many years in four critical industries: education, media, arts and culture, and nonprofits. He provided insight on lessons learned from his career and what organizations, such as Code.org, are able to do to grow the next generation of techies.

What were your experiences with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education growing up, and how did they prepare you for your career and working as a Chief Digital Officer for NYC, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and at Columbia University?

It is clear to me that computing skills are at the center of what we want do and what we can achieve in New York City – and what we need be competitive. There are many serious efforts in New York, including the City’s Computer Science for All program, dedicated to ensuring that New York City’s 1.1 million public school students have access to a high-quality computer science (CS) education. The goal is to put them on a pathway to college and career success – and to provide a talented workforce for businesses. There are also many initiatives and organizations, such as Code.org and Girls Who Code, whose mission is also to make these trainings accessible to all.

As the child of a diplomat, I lived around the world, but in my schools, computer science was not a focus.  My love of technology started with my mother, who insisted I take BASIC computing classes in high school in Fiji. She also made me learn touch typing when I was 11 years old — on a manual typewriter!

Explain the importance of coding as a language for students today, both in terms of life skills and career preparation.

The more that you are exposed to in-demand computing skills, the more likely you are to find success after school. Not everyone needs to be a coder – businesses need all kinds of skills – but all industries need smart, nimble, educated workers.  To help our kids achieve, we all need to play a role providing access to CS classes. By providing access, we are creating talent, and a workforce to keep and grow quality jobs in New York.

How can coding promote social inclusion and diversity in technology? What is its role in boosting economic development?

I see a strong connection between technology, social inclusion, and economic development. Because we want everyone to have a role in New York City’s success, we are pushing to make sure everyone has access to technology.  Our mission is to make NYC more tech-friendly, more transparent, and make sure everyone has the ability to develop skills, which will play such a big part in our success. With Computer Science for All, we are building a tech talent pipeline from K-12 to college, and beyond.

As Chief Digital Officer, you work to increase access to City-led technology initiatives, focus on outreach to the tech community, and direct citywide digital policy. What does an average day look like for you and how does technology play a role?

My job is to understand and communicate the technology and determine how we can use it to advance the mission of government’s role in promoting social justice. Right now, my work is building relationships with folks who make up New York’s technology industry, and helping to build the city’s digital landscape. While I am talking to startups and entrepreneurs to see where and how government can support them, I am also getting to know all of our City agencies, many of whom are already working with technology, social, media, and then seeing how we can support them and improve their connection to New Yorkers.

A lot of people look at NYC as traditionally a center for financial services, banking, arts and theater, but it seems like there is a new technology focus. What does the startup and tech landscape in NYC look like today?

Technology is a means to improving New York’s biggest and best industries, from fashion to food, from academia to advertising, media, finance, and real estate. Technology works with these major industries and seeks to increase opportunity in these businesses. I am excited about what we do here. There are many exciting opportunities in New York, probably the world’s biggest stage. Back to our kids, through growing our tech landscape means improving the lives of our 1.1 million schoolchildren.  Our mission-driven approach is what makes New York City so dynamic.

How are cloud and new IT models, like cloud, helping to advance or accelerate a more citizen-centric approach? 

Cloud computing is a key part of the tech infrastructure that’s going to be part of all of our lives going forward. Cloud technology helps us think about the future of education and how we deliver it. Similarly, it helps us think about the future of cities and what we have to do to deliver for our citizens.

 

 

Thank you Sree for your time and providing a glimpse into the life of a Chief Digital Officer and what NYC is doing to encourage more computer science training.

To all of those participating in the Hour of Code: happy coding! Continue to learn more about how AWS provides massive scaling for Code.org and how Code.org is able to make a global impact in this case study here.