He Wants Chicago Kids to Build the Next Silicon Valley. He's 13.
Ian Michael Brock embodies the hopes and tensions of the 'Computer Science for All' movement
For as long as he can remember, Ian Michael Brock has considered himself a salesman.
Now, the self-described “nerd with swag” is making his biggest pitch yet.
Flanked by his parents, Ian, 13, is trying to convince dozens of families gathered at a South Side community center to follow in his footsteps and make a pilgrimage to Silicon Valley.
“We want to bring computer science and coding education to kids from economically challenged communities,” Ian says in his carefully rehearsed remarks.
“You can’t depend on the public school system,” his father chimes in. “It’s up to us to make sure our kids are prepared for the future.”
It’s an odd time and place to make that case.
All across the country, schools are promising “Computer Science for All,” largely to prepare students for lucrative tech-sector jobs. Chicago is actually out in front of the movement—school district officials here say their efforts to bring computer science to all 400,000 city students are ahead of schedule.
But even in the Windy City, the push isn’t going fast enough or far enough for some families.
So the Brocks have taken matters into their own hands.
Last September, frustrated by its lack of computer-science classes, Ian left one of the most prestigious public elementary schools in the city to be homeschooled.
Ambitious and creative young people are pushing well beyond the boundaries of school and shaping the conversation about the future of work. Education Week's Faces of the Future series profiles students whose stories hold important lessons about the promise—and peril—that all of today’s students will face in tomorrow’s uncertain labor market.
Now, he’s the face of a campaign his family calls Dream Hustle Code. The aim is to accelerate the spread of computer science by marrying it with entrepreneurship. Take 100 Chicago teens on a tour of tech-sector giants like Facebook and Google, the thinking goes, and they will be inspired to build the future in their own image.
Ian’s unusual path is why he’s the latest student to be featured for Education Week’s Faces of the Future series.
The Brocks’ plan may fall flat. Some of their choices have raised eyebrows.
But Ian’s journey highlights two big questions confronting the Computer Science for All movement, said technology entrepreneur and educator Neal Sales-Griffin.
“Before you jump into coding education,” Sales-Griffin said, “You have to ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and ‘How will it scale?’ ”
‘Chase My Dreams’
Ian’s answer to the first question is ambitious, if vague.
“I see myself owning a billion-dollar tech company,” he said.
The seeds of that vision were planted back when he was 4.
Each morning, his father would listen to motivational speakers while he shaved. Ian would play with his trucks in the hallway, absorbing messages from Les Brown and Tony Robbins about how to build confidence and get rich.
“One day, I hear this little voice reciting a speech word for word,” Michael Brock recalled. “I thought, ‘Maybe he has some interest in this.’”
Brock’s own childhood, he said, was marred by drugs and tragedy.
At 18, he left his home in Chicago Heights for Florida A&M University. He dropped out for a year, then clawed his way back, earning two degrees. By the time he was in his 30s, Brock was working 16-hour days running a construction company.
The grind helped him to build a comfortable life for his family.
And for the past four and a half years, he said, it’s allowed him to focus mainly on being a dad to Ian.
“He’s becoming a neat freak, like I am,” the elder Brock said proudly.
“I see a lot of myself in him, including his interest in business.”
The coding bug, however, Ian caught almost by accident.
When he was 8, Ian’s mom pushed him to watch a video about computer science that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had posted online. Ian didn’t care. Then he saw NBA star Chris Bosh.
“Someone who looked like me was doing computer science,” he said. “I watched it like 10 times.”
The video was produced by a nonprofit called Code.org, which aims to bring computer science to every student in America.
Struck by her son’s enthusiasm, Dulcevita Brock pushed to bring the group’s ‘Hour of Code’ events to Skinner North Classical Academy—the selective elementary school Ian had attended since kindergarten.
“He was like a little Ping-Pong ball, he was so excited,” recalled Elaine Cox, who taught Ian in 6th and 7th grades.
That energy quickly spilled over into Ian’s outside-of-school endeavors.
He started a book project, interviewing big-name businesspeople, technologists, and celebrities about how they overcame their fears on the path to success—lessons Ian believes will be key to getting kids started with coding.
Using the handle @DreamHustleCode, he also became a draw on social media, attracting nearly 15,000 Twitter followers by posting inspirational memes and homages to other young people making a splash in the business world.
Then, in late 2016, Ian was invited to California to speak at Google.
Wearing a navy blazer and perfectly knotted tie, he told a crowd at the company’s headquarters that in the digital economy, having computer-science skills is “like a super power.”
His passions for entrepreneurship and coding had merged.
Back home, though, Skinner North still didn’t offer any computer-science classes.
The Brocks decided they couldn’t wait any longer.
“It was a great school,” Ian said. “But my parents have always taught me to chase my dreams.”
'Open My Eyes to Something Different'
Back on the South Side, where the Brocks sought to sign up families for a group trip to the Silicon Valley this coming summer, Ian’s story found a receptive audience.
In the community center’s lounge area, dozens of black and brown teens draped themselves over sofas and tables. Ian led them through a brainstorming session, intended to generate marketing and fundraising ideas. The first step: using their smartphones to create a “vision board” full of images depicting the types of success the teens hoped a trip to companies like Apple and Tesla might help them realize.
Fourteen-year old Gabrielle Carmichael said she was all-in.
“I want to open my eyes to something different,” she said.
More importantly, her mother was also taken with the Brocks’ message—and their messenger.
“He’s the icing on the cake,” Donnetta Carmichael said of Ian. “You can see his parents are making sure he gets the best opportunities possible.”
But is that true?
Was leaving one of Chicago’s best public elementary schools really the way to prepare Ian for the future economy?
And big-picture, is entrepreneurship the right way to engage large numbers of young people in the hard work of learning computer science?
Sales-Griffin, the tech entrepreneur and educator, doesn’t know the Brocks personally.
But he’s deeply familiar with the path they’ve chosen.
The son of an black father and a Honduran and Filipina mother, Sales-Griffin grew up on Chicago’s South Side, dreaming of playing in the NFL.
He made millions founding and selling his own companies, including the first independent coding school in the country.
Now, he’s the CEO of a nonprofit called CodeNow. The group is developing hands-on, real world ways to bring computer-science to young people in low-income communities.
Entrepreneurship is a great initial hook, Sales-Griffin said.
But the hard part, he said, is helping young people find the long-term motivation and support they’ll need to actually follow through.
“Most kids don’t succeed just by saying they want to start a billion-dollar tech company,” he said.“You need an infrastructure to help you reach those goals.”
'We Need More Dynamic Systems'
There are two big issues facing the Computer Science for All movement.
In the K-12 world, educators and policymakers are still divided over whether computer-science education should focus primarily on preparing students for jobs, or on teaching them new ways to think and solve problems.
Few schools manage to do both well. They face tremendous practical barriers, especially with finding qualified teachers.
On a bitterly cold January morning, a window into both challenges could be found in Chicago.
Ian set up shop in a trendy Logan Square coffeehouse, Bible and iPhone stacked neatly on a binder holding copies of his daily home-schooling schedule.
Today, he woke up at 4:45. By 5:30, he was at the gym with his dad.
Now, he had an hour set aside for computer science, via a free online platform called Code Academy.
The site’s dashboard indicated he was 52 percent of the way through a module on the programming language Python.
Ian clicked on the next activity: writing functions that incorporate strings.
His first attempt didn’t work. He tried again. Another syntax error.
Alone with his computer, Ian headed to the site’s online forums in search of help.
“It does get boring,” he said. “But then I remember this could be crucial to building the app that shapes the future.”
What would it take for kids to be able to learn computer science, without having to be superheroes?
There’s a shining example just two miles away.
That same morning, inside Wells Community Academy High School, one of Chicago’s best computer-science teachers helped her students learn the same programming language Ian is studying.
It was for a Game Design & Development course, part of Wells’ computer-science career-pathway program.
Here, Code Academy is a supplemental resource, not the entire classroom.
Instead of working alone on disembodied activities, Shadia Daniels’ students are working in pairs to code their own video games, learning Python as they go.
The teacher floats around the room, offering encouragement and posing questions.
Daniels is also a kind of informal career counselor, setting up job-shadowing days and lining up internships and talking with students about how computer science might help them become a graphic designer, a nurse, an entrepreneur.
“We’re not only learning to code,” said Neri Salgado, 17. “We’re becoming a family.”
At some point, maybe Ian will end up back in a public school.
And if he does, maybe he’ll be lucky enough to end up in a classroom like this one.
But the reality is that even now, only one-third of Chicago high schools have computer-science career pathways. Fewer still have an exceptional teacher to run it.
That’s ultimately why Ian’s journey is worth watching, Sales-Griffin said.
“Some people go rogue because our systems have not caught up with the needs of the future,” he said. “We need those examples. But what we really need are more dynamic systems.”