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How Zuckerberg, Gates Dorsey and NBA player Chris Bosh came together to push coding in schools

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Lesley Chilcott is a longtime advertising producer, but she's best known for her work producing celebrated documentaries with director Davis Guggenheim, including the Oscar-winning "Inconvenient Truth" and "Waiting for Superman," about public education reform. She recently moved into the director's chair on "Code Stars," a short film promoting Code.org, an organization, founded by entreprenuer brothers Hadi and Ali Partozi to promote computer science education in every classroom in the U.S.

The film has risen quickly up the viral chart and makes the non techies among us kick ourselves for not having gone the comp-sci route when we were kids. It breaks down the stereotype of coding as an insurmountable task, while showing the enviable perks of working in the tech world--backed by testimonials from an all-star lineup of tech leaders, including including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Facebook's first female engineer Ruchi Sanghvi, now at Dropbox--as well as some unexpected computer-savvy celebs like Miami Heat basketball player Chris Bosh and musician Will.I.Am.

Creativity spoke to Chilcott about her role in the director's chair, the project's challenges, her passion for the effort and what sort of results the film has seen so far. (See full credits for the film here.)

Creativity: So we know you as a producer, but how did you make the next leap into directing?
Ms. Chilcott: I caught the bug doing second unit on "Waiting for Superman." I've always done commercials to be able to support my documentary habit, and I also ended up directing a Corona commercial a couple years ago. Eventually I just thought, I'll just go ahead and do it.

Creativity: How did you get involved in this project?
Ms. Chilcott: There are two twin brothers Hadi and Ali Partozi who have had a couple high- tech companies, they sold them and sit on advisory boards of many different companies. They're constantly hearing from companies--"We have a ton of ideas but we don't have enough good coders." The both have been involved in various non-profit efforts, they have kids and they're very concerned about education and they thought this is maybe where we can make a dent in awareness. I met Ali when I was promoting "Waiting for Superman" and we stayed in touch. When they first came to me it was a longer form project, but I thought it might be more successful as shorter form project, which is what we decided on.

Creativity: Whose idea was it to sit down with all these different people?
Ms. Chilcott: It was both of our ideas. I wrote a treatment as if it were a commercial and we both knew that we had access to different people through our connections. The idea was to interview an icon of the industry like Bill Gates and someone younger who's done quite well like Mark Zuckerberg and a lot of people like the founder of Twitter and Dropbox, the CEO of Zappos, and I really wanted to go to Valve games because there are so many kids into gaming-that's a natural path to coding. So I wrote a full treatment and concept and we developed it together.

Creativity: What was the toughest part of the project?
Ms. Chilcott: The big challenge for me was to combine storytelling with an interesting issue. The short length was a challenge. Can your character say what needs to be said in a short amount of time while still presenting an interesting story? And then how do I break down these myths that have persisted for a long time?

Chris Bosh in Code.org video
Chris Bosh in Code.org video

Creativity: The Chris Bosh interview is what I found the most interesting.
Ms. Chilcott:Thank you for saying that because as great as it is to hear all these people in the tech industry say how important it is to code, I thought just as influential would be some people talking about it who you do not expect to code. Chris Bosh as a freshman attended Georgia Tech and was studying computer science. Of course his dream job of getting drafted after a year of college came true and now he's one of 400 people who has a professional basketball job with the NBA. But, as it says in the film, over the next ten years there will be 1.4 million jobs in computer science and only about 400,000 qualified for those jobs. That just seemed a great comparison.

Creativity: How did you get him on board?
Ms. Chilcott: I hounded his manager for three months on an every other day basis. A researcher and I looked for sports stars who could code and he came up with a shortlist of a couple basketball players and a football player and Chris Bosh is just such a cool guy that I went after him. He said yes he was interested right away, but he was always on the road, playing so many games per week, so I interviewed him on the last possible day I could interview someone and still make our deadline.

Creativity: What about the tech giants? Were they fairly easy to get?
Ms. Chilcott: They were not. It took a couple months, and Hadi has more conections in this area than I did. I knew Bill Gates from "Waiting for Superman" so that was helpful, I had met Mark Zuckerberg in the past because he's interested in education issues, but Hadi reached out to everyone directly. Sometimes we would get as little as twenty minutes with each person, we'd schedule months in advance and I would just fly around from L.A. to Vegas to San Francisco to Seattle, back to San Francisco. What was interesting was that even though we were promised no more than twenty minutes with a lot of people, most of them stayed and chatted a lot longer because they have a personal passion for the issue.

Creativity: What was the seeding strategy on the film?
Ms. Chilcott: Jack Dorsey Tweeted, Mark Zuckerberg posted on his Facebook page, Drew Houston from Dropbox made it available as a download using DropBox. So they all used their native technologies to help us promote the film, and I couldn't be more pleased.

The three of us, Hadi, Ali and I also did a very large amount of outreach through our network. I reached out to friends, various people at the White House and some other prominent politicians, people at other large corporations. [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan, a lot of people from the education staff, Al Gore Tweeted, Linkin Park Tweeted. Within this 24-48 hour period, there was this very organized effort of 50-100 tastemakers who were Tweeting, but then, I think after Mark Zuckerberg posted, probably about a million people went to Youtube.

Creativity: So what results have you seen so far?
Ms. Chilcott: Within the first 24 hours 2000 schools emailed and said we want to teach computer science here and 9,000 computer science engineers volunteered to teach. Cut to within the first week, 8,122 schools emailed and said they wanted to teach computer science and 19,926 engineers nationwide have volunteered to teach computer science. Code.org writes back to these schools and says, "How many of you have computers and internet?" 95% of schools that have written have computers or access to them. Yet only 10% are teaching computer science.

The film says you can go learn on line at places like Codeacademy and they've had a huge increase in traffic. It's been a really wonderful gratifying thing to follow knowing a lot of people are actually taking lessons.

Creativity: Anything else interesting that came out of the interviews that don't show up on the film?

Ms. Chilcott: I travel a lot as a documentary filmmaker and I've been in a lot of offices interviewing people over the years, but when I was at DropBox and Twitter and Facebook and Square and Zappos and Valve and many others, I have never seen a happier group of employees that run around on scooters, have free food. They really feel like they're contributing to something interesting. Like they feel like their work is important and they take pride in what they do. It was really nice to see that. It was really inspiring, and I've been taking classes at Codeacademy, so if this filmmaking doesn't work out. . .

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