Interview by a 15 Year Old

(A high school freshman writing a book sent me some interview questions. Here are my answers.)

What are your thoughts on young kids learning to code?

I think all kids should learn how to program at some point. I'm not sure what's the right age. And of course before they write programs they can do various forms of proto-programming, like combining functional blocks. There's almost no lower age limit for that if you make it simple enough.

What do you feel should be taught in regards to kids learning how to code?

It's pretty obvious what will be most engaging for most kids: programs that manipulate something you can see. The set of things you can manipulate grows with time. When Seymour Papert started working on Logo, all you could do was draw simple pictures, and even that took expensive hardware. Now you can manipulate 3D models, or control a robot. In the future it will be possible to do even more interesting things.

What do you feel the best way to teach kids how to learn is?

I have deep but narrow experience in this: I've spent a lot of time teaching my two small sons various things. Based on my experiences, the best way to teach kids is to show them the hidden interestingness in the things you want them to learn. For example, if you just drill kids on arithmetic it will seem pretty boring. But if you teach them arithmetic as a series of secret tricks—for example, that you can add 6 million and 3 million by adding 6 and 3 and then sticking the million back on at the end—it becomes like a game.

This idea is not limited to math. You can teach anything as secret tricks: the tricks car designers use to make cars look fast, the tricks for telling what someone is feeling from their facial expression, the secret underlying causes of historical events, and so on.

Why do you think so many people are hesitant to learn to code, when it is such an incredible opportunity?

I think it's the same thing that makes people afraid of math. Formal reasoning is hard for a lot of people. It is uncomfortably constraining.

Plus the way they're taught this sort of thing compounds their dislike for it. Hard ideas are sort of like healthy food. If you cook healthy ingredients cleverly, they can be delicious. But if you're a clumsy cook and also believe that healthy food has to taste bad to be good for you, then you're going to produce some pretty awful meals.

Do you feel logic is an important part of a curriculum that should be implemented in middle schools?

It's amazing you asked that, because that is exactly what I'd been thinking. Conversations I've seen online have shown me what surprisingly large gaps many adults have in their understanding of logic. So many can't distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions, for example. Society assumes people will just pick this stuff up along the way, but clearly they don't. So it seemed to me schools ought to teach it. At least tell everyone the names of the most common fallacies, so that when people committed them they could point their fingers and say "begging the question." Middle school seems the right time. This stuff is not as hard as the algebra a lot of kids get taught at that age.

What makes a good entrepereneur? Are these the type of people you accept into the program?

An entrepreneur is someone who starts their own business. But only a tiny fraction of new businesses are startups. I don't know much about entrepreneurship generally, but I know about startup founders. To be a good startup founder you must above all be determined. But flexible as well. Startups do not as a rule plow through obstacles. They have to go around them. Sometimes to the extent of redefining the playing field so that the obstacle is no longer in the way. The short version of what a startup founder needs to be is "relentlessly resourceful."

I'm not involved with selecting startups for Y Combinator anymore, but that is certainly what they are trying to find.

How can anyone learn to be entrepreneurial?

The best way is by doing it. Nothing will teach you about startups like starting one. The next best thing would be to observe an existing startup in action.

Should all young people be entrepreneurs, and why?

I'm going to continue to assume that by entrepreneurs you mean startup founders, and the answer to that is an emphatic no. Most people are not suited to it. I'd be surprised if more than 1% of people are. And even for those few, it's a mistake to start too young. If a startup succeeds, it takes over your life in a way that cuts off lots of other opportunities. It's a mistake to do that sort of pruning before you understand what you're losing by it.

I wouldn't advise people to try to start startups before about 23. Before that you should be exploring.

Is there anything else that isnít taught to young students that you wish would be incorporated into the material, or any other thoughts on education?

I'm sure there are lots of things kids should be taught that they aren't. The combination of forces that produced the default curriculum was so random, and the people teaching it are often so bad. So if there's one thing I'd tell kids, it's that they shouldn't assume that the things they're being taught are the most important things they could be learning. Intellectually ambitious kids have to take charge of their own education. Which doesn't mean ignoring the things they're taught in school so much as supplementing them with what they're not getting.

In a way it's unfortunate that kids have to do this—that schools aren't good enough that kids can just assume they're getting a "balanced diet." On the other hand, this is what all intellectually ambitious adults have to do. Maybe there are advantages to having to start early, at least for those who realize they have to.