Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
#621 minutes

In this episode of Broadband Conversations, Commissioner Rosenworcel talks with Samantha John and Jocelyn Leavitt, co-founders of Hopscotch, an app that allows users to code and design games, art and animations on their hand-held devices—two women who have revolutionized the way kids—and adults too—are learning how to code and build in the digital age. In this episode, listeners will learn from two women entrepreneurs about how they built Hopscotch, what challenges they faced along the way, and what advice they'd give anyone looking to start something new.

Transcript: 

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Hey, there. Welcome to another episode of Broadband Conversations, the podcast where women across the technology, innovation, and media sectors talk about what they're working on, what's on their mind, and what's next for the future.

I'm Jessica Rosenworcel, Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. And get your coffee because we are going to talk about democratizing coding. In other words, it's not just folks in hoodies madly typing at a keyboard. And we're going to learn about it today with two women who have revolutionized how kids and, let's be honest, adults, too, are learning how to code.

In just a second, you'll meet Samantha John and Jocelyn Leavitt, the co-finders of Hopscotch, an app that allows users to code and design games, arts, and animations on their mobile devices.

Samantha and Jocelyn, welcome and thanks for joining me.

MS. JOHN: Thank you.

MS. LEAVITT: Thanks so much for having us.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Sure. Let's start off with a little back story. Tell me how you each got interested in this field and how you got to where you are today.

MS. JOHN: Okay. This is Samantha. So, I'm the more technical cofounder, and I got interested in the field a little bit later than most people do with coding. I went to college for engineering, and when I got there I wasn't sure what type of engineering I wanted to do except that I knew computer science was off the table. It was the first major I eliminated.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Tell me, why was that?

MS. JOHN: I'm not a hundred percent sure. It was some combination of feeling that I wasn't very good with computers, and also having the sense that maybe computers were for people not like me.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I bet you're not the only one to feel that way.

MS. JOHN: Yes. I think that's very true. So, it wasn't really until my senior year of college that I needed to take some computer science classes for my major, which ended up being applied math. And then I made a website for a club I was a part of and a lot of people started using the website.

So, then I started spending all my free time just making this website better, and it all kind of clicked for me where I realized this activity which I found really fun and really rewarding and resulted in the production of this really useful content was something that I could have a career in. And I was really excited about that.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I love that you're telling this story about being creative. We don't always hear that as a narrative about why people got into computer science, but it's so important.

How about you, Jocelyn?

MS. LEAVITT: I became interested in Hopscotch, I sort of have more of an education background, and I was always interested in education. I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii. I was sort of always interested in experiential education because for me those were the times that education resonated the most with me.

It was not necessarily when we were in the classroom listening to a teacher writing stuff on the board but rather when we were out in the natural environment, learning about, you know, not learning about biology in the classroom but, like, out, actually examining plants, spending time, you know, growing stuff.

I remained interested in education throughout college. I was a teacher and then I went to business school and sort of got into software on this other sidetrack, and was interested in consumer-basing software, and realized increasingly that there were very few women who founded companies and even fewer who were engineers.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, you thought you could do something about it?

MS. LEAVITT: Well, yes. I sort of was looking around and trying to figure out why that was and realized that it was sort of an education problem because, early on, the people that ended up going into engineering and being very good at it were, most of the time all looked pretty similar. Right?

They were all just upper-middle class, typically white men, and a lot of those guys had been exposed to computer programming pretty early on when they were in middle school. They got into video games and they wanted to build their own video games and they sort of got into it through play, sort of as a toy.

And I realized there wasn't really a whole lot out there for women and girls when they were in middle school. So that's sort of how we decided we wanted to set out and create a toy that got girls into programming, too.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. So, tell me a little bit more about creating Hopscotch, or give me a sense of why you got started. Is there anything else that inspired you along the way?

MS. JOHN: Yes. I think for me when I first became interested in consumer software, it was interesting to me that it didn't seem like there was a very easy way to get started actually building the stuff. I wanted there to be a tool that existed where I could learn how to build, where I could actually make something without having to type.

And it seemed like you could, like I wanted to be able to use all the concepts of programming without actually having to learn all the very specific syntax associated with different programming languages.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, you wanted to work, sort of develop a system for people to understand conditional logic and things like that.

MS. JOHN: Yes, precisely. For us, there was also this aspect that the iPad had just come out, and we both got iPads and were really loving them and kind of wished that we could do more with them. So Hopscotch was very much also a reaction to that, where especially I, as a coder, wanted to code on my iPad, and I knew that typing in the code was not going to be a very fun experience, but it seemed like there were other modes of doing coding that could work really well on the iPad and be really fun.

MS. LEAVITT: So, we developed, eventually came out with is Hopscotch, which is this programming environment, which is what you do is you drag, and you drop. They're blocks of code, so rather than typing out each line of code, it's blocks.

They're already sort of encapsulated, and then you build your code up by dragging and dropping different blocks of code. So, you can program a full-fledged game on an iPad or an iPhone without ever having to type anything.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, it makes it easy to be a creator and not just a consumer online when you're using that mobile device?

MS. LEAVITT: Exactly.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes, that's so important. So why don't you tell me, as if I was a doubter, why is it critical to teach kids about coding at a young age?

MS. JOHN: You know, for us, it's not so much about teaching kids coding. I don't know that that skill in particular is that important. I think what's important is that coding is this thing that kids can do at an adult level, at a real level, whereas they can -- I think there are a lot of aspects of your life as a kid where you aren't allowed to do the real thing.

If you want to cook, you have to use an Easy-Bake oven or, if you want to draw, you've got crayons instead of nice paints. Or if you want to drive a car, you get a little fake kid car. And part of that is because the materials are quite expensive or dangerous.

And with coding and computers, the materials are very cheap and very available, and you really can have the best, greatest materials and, as a kid, you're not really limited in the way that you are in other fields. And that's a really powerful experience for kids to have.

So, in that sense, I think coding is a really wonderful activity for kids because they can actually make something real that they want to use, that other kids want to use, and it's not just a nice pat on the back from their parents, you know, that's cute that you made this thing. It's something real and something --

MS. LEAVITT: They can interact with.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right. That's definitely the first time that I've ever heard anyone talk about an Easy-Bake oven in conjunction with learning coding. I'm going to give you a first for that. But I know what you mean. It gives kids, I think, a comfort level with the tools of the digital age.

MS. JOHN: Completely. Or it's empowering. I mean, at the end of the day, kids realize that so much of our lives are increasingly dictated by computers. You know, computers are very, very powerful things surrounding us and integrated into every aspect of our lives.

And so, to be able to feel like they have some sense of mastery or control over that, that's extremely empowering, as a child.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes, and useful for their long-term education. So, tell me a little bit about what kind of feedback you receive from educators or parents, and kids as well.

MS. JOHN: So, Hopscotch has been really transformative for some kids. And something that has started to happen, which is unexpected and so heartwarming, is that kids have started coming to our office to visit.

MS. LEAVITT: They make pilgrimages. We get notes all the time from parents saying, you know, Hopscotch has been transformative, you know, it changed this kid's life. And from kids, too, we get love notes from kids saying this is the best thing ever, I never thought I'd be able to build stuff and really be able to code stuff.

So, again, there's this idea of being empowered, which I think really is one of the most resonant thing. If you give a kid a real tool that's open-ended, that they can build what they want to, and they can see that they have the power to create what they want, that is deeply empowering for a kid.

And it stokes their interest. It makes them realize that, you know, more than just a job, like being able to code is sort of a source of creativity, which is really, I think, what people want. They want to be able to be creative.

And so, we hear from people, we weren't looking at this question. We were kind of like, let's see what we've found. We found a love note from a parent that was like: You know, coding is, "your program has been transformative for my 12-year-old daughter. She's entering these difficult middle school years, coding has given her the confidence that my introverted little girl never had before.

"It gives her something to be great at, and I see her helping other kids in her class with their programming. She's bonded with her parents, with her dad, about how to build things and how to debug things and has been forced to learn how to problem-solve in a real-world, practical way."

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, my gosh, that's fantastic.

MS. LEAVITT: Yes. "If nothing else, please know that you have made an impact on a young woman's life, and for that I'm very grateful."

This is a note from a parent. And so, we get this and we're like, wow. It's great. It makes us feel so happy about what we're doing.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. I want to hear some more about the pilgrimages. You've really, actually had kids show up in your office?

MS. JOHN: Oh, yes. I think one kid came and then told the other kids on Hopscotch. There's a forum. They told the other kids that they had come, and then all these kids started asking their parents, as their birthday present or as their vacation, they said, oh, I don't want toys this year, I just want to go on a trip to New York to visit the Hopscotch office.

MS. LEAVITT: We heard variations of that multiple times, like instead of going on the class field trip to Washington, D.C., she wants me to take her to New York City to visit the Hopscotch office. Instead of a birthday party, she wants to come to the Hopscotch office.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow. That's something. What about educators, do you have work that you do directly with educators, or is it more informal?

MS. JOHN: It's usually pretty informal, but definitely we are in great contact with the educators who use Hopscotch. One we have been working with recently --

MS. LEAVITT: A guy who just wrote an AP book on statistics and was using Hopscotch as a way to demonstrate various statistics.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: What kind of statistics? How were they using it that way?

MS. JOHN: So, he's a statistics teacher, and the thing that you can do with Hopscotch is you can create a character that has some sort of slightly random behavior. And then we have this function called cloning, so you can create ten of that character or a hundred of that character, or a thousand. So, if you're trying to teach statistics, you see how useful that is because you can add some randomness and then put a thousand things out into your program and see how they behave in a statistical manner.

MS. LEAVITT: Yes. You model that statistical probability using Hopscotch characters.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's fantastic, especially because statistics is becoming, I think, a portion of math that everyone needs to spend more time on.

MS. LEAVITT: My God, yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: It feels so logical. So, when you began the process of starting Hopscotch, what surprised you most about starting a tech company?

MS. JOHN: Something that really surprised me as a programmer, I have worked at tech companies and in my mind the way you started a tech company was you got a bunch of programmers in a room, then they just started typing up code, and magic happened.

And what we found was that it's more complicated than that. And starting a company is about knowing who your customers are and who's going to be using your product and how they're going to be using your product and talking to them and understanding them and what they need.

And that actually turned out to be more difficult and more important than just the straight coding, coding the products part which is what I had thought would be the hard part.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, did you work with a lot of kids, or use educators, or come up with focus groups? How did you go about doing what you're describing?

MS. LEAVITT: All the time, we're play-testing all the time with kids and, to a lesser extent, with educators. And it took us a while to get to this point because it's hard to find sources of fresh kids all the time to be play-testing with, but that's something that we realized.

So I think we didn't really start out doing as much user testing as we probably should have, and something that we see other companies, when they are starting out, they often don't do also, and it's really important, I think, that you're constantly, actually seeing how users interact with your product and what they want, and what they like, what they don't like.

MS. JOHN: Yes. We did it more, almost, before we had a product because we didn't have

MS. LEAVITT: A product.

MS. JOHN: Yes. We didn't have a company to run as much. You're just trying to build out our MBPs (phonetic), so we spent a lot of time talking to teachers and going to classrooms and trying out different versions of the product.

And then maybe we lost it a little bit once our product was in the wild and we had real people using it --

MS. LEAVITT: Put our heads down, just building product, building product, building product rather than doing sort of a cycle of iterating, checking with people, you know, building something and then making sure that we're building the right thing.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, you're two women at the helm of a tech company. Tell me a little bit about what surprised you most about starting a tech company and maybe what surprised you given the fact that you're both women.

MS. JOHN: So, what surprised me about starting a tech company was the extent to which it's just a company like any other, and it's not all about writing code and being an engineer building a product. It's about really understanding who's going to use your product and who your customer is and what they need in their life.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That makes sense.

MS. JOHN: Yes. And as a woman, I think one thing that surprised me is that you hear a lot of business advice, as a woman, and career advice about how to act more like a man in order to advance your career, and what are the things that men do well that you can also do.

And you don't hear as much advice about what are the things that women do really well that really can improve a company or make a company successful. And I think that most of the things that we've done that have been most successful for us are maybe a little bit more female-typical things.

And we really haven't run our company in the way that I think a guy would run a company. We run it the way that we would run a company

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that sounds terrific.

MS. JOHN: And we like it better than…

MS. LEAVITT: It's more fun for us.

MS. LEAVITT: -- a lot of the companies that we've seen.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: No. You're just saying be who you are and you're more likely to be successful.

MS. LEAVITT: Yes. I guess isn't that the truth to a lot of success, right? Like you just have to sort of lean into, like, you do you and, you know, this is how I'm going to do things. Like I can't play somebody else's game, I have to play my own game.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I totally, totally think that's right. Now, I want to do a little quick lightening round with some questions I ask every guest at the end of the conversation. So, to each of you, what was the first thing you did on the Internet? Can you recall?

MS. LEAVITT: The first thing I did on the Internet is, like right when the Internet was coming up, I signed up for a Eudora mail account and sent emails to my boyfriend who had gone away to college. We would just send emails back and forth.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, I love it. That's a good one.

MS. JOHN: I'm a little younger than Joc, so I was maybe ten or so when I got AOL, and I signed onto some of the chat rooms. So, I would go on AOL Kids chat rooms about swimming, because I did swimming then.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, fantastic. What was the last thing you did on the Internet, maybe just a few minutes ago or this morning?

MS. JOHN: This morning I kept my computer closed, actually, which I sometimes like to do and just think without a computer. But last night I set up my… I'm running a marathon this fall, so I set up my training plan on the Internet.

MS. LEAVITT: Mine is pretty boring. I think I just like checked the weather and email. I guess the last thing I did last night, I did some research on travel.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh. Both of those, travel and a marathon, there's some goal making in all that. Now, last question: What do you hope the future of the Internet and digital life looks like?

MS. LEAVITT: This is interesting. I think that it will become more integrated into our lives in a more seamless way and I think that there will need to be less -- I hope that there will need to be less explicit focus on it because I think the Internet, because it's always there, and especially with social media, you're constantly sucked into it and you're connected to people all the time.

And I think that we're going to sort of reach a point of saturation and then, hopefully, dial it back a little bit because it feels a little unsustainable now. I feel like we're just constantly connected and it's not -- you need a break sometime.

So I think that there will be less explicit connection and at the same time I think designers will do a better job of integrating the Internet more seamlessly in places that we do need it and sort of eliminating it from places where you explicitly have to be like, okay, I have to check it, you know, open up Instagram, pull the Refresh, open up Twitter, pull the Refresh.

And, hopefully, it will just be more sort of quietly and nicely designed, integrated into our lives and there when we need it, but not hovering over us all the time.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That sounds good. Healthier digital lives.

MS. LEAVITT: I hope, I hope.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: We could all use them. All right. Now, before we go, where can folks follow both of you to keep up-to-date with what you're doing with Hopscotch?

MS. LEAVITT: Well, you can follow our Hopscotch account. It's just, on Twitter, @Hopscotch. You can also follow us both on Twitter. I'm @JocelynLeavitt, J-O-C-E-L-Y-N,

L-E-A-V-I-T-T.

MS. JOHN: And I'm nominally on Twitter, but I'm not very active on social media, but I am SamJ0hn, but instead of an O, it's a zero.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Well, that wraps up another episode of Broadband Conversations.

Thank you both, Samantha and Jocelyn, for being here, for what you do, and thanks to everyone for listening. Take care.