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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

February 26, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Code.org film debuts, stars Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and more

The stars are out for a big film event this week.

Not the Oscars, but a film encouraging students to consider learning to program computers.

The biggest stars of the tech industry are behind the effort and a handful made cameo appearances in the film, which is being released online this week. The short will also be distributed to schools, promoted by Google and Facebook and played at the start of movies in theaters across the country with Microsoft’s sponsorship.

It’s the first big outreach by Code.org, a nonprofit formed by entrepreneurs Hadi Partovi and Ali Partovi to expand computer literacy and improve education in America. They recruited Lesley Chilcott, producer of documentaries “Waiting for Superman” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” to direct the film, which may reach 500,000 teachers and 10 million students over the next few weeks.

Then there’s the social media outreach through the project’s supporters, who combined have more than 100 million followers, Hadi Partovi said.

The film is part of a broader effort by Code.org to encourage more schools to offer programming classes and give students who study computer science credit toward graduation, comparable to the credits provided for the study of math and other sciences.

For the film and education push, the Partovis drew on their amazing Rolodexes to line up support from the heads of major tech companies, from Amazon.com to Zynga, plus political leaders and celebrities such as the Miami Heat’s Chris Bosh, actor Ashton Kutcher and musician will.i.am.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Valve co-founder Gabe Newell are among the tech luminaries who appear in the film, explaining the value of learning to write software code and sharing anecdotes about how they got started.

“The best early thing was actually using software to decide when the classes in my school would meet, and that put me in a decision to decide which girls were in my class,” Gates said in one version.

Others explain that programming isn’t as hard as it sounds — it’s collaborative and it’s rewarding and important.

“The programmers of tomorrow are the wizards of the future. You’re going to look like you have magic powers compared to everybody else,” Newell said in the film.

Code.org has prepared one-minute, five-minute and nine-minute versions of the film. The longer version includes views inside swanky offices such as Valve’s in Bellevue and Dropbox’s in San Francisco.

The film will be distributed via YouTube, Facebook and an outreach campaign through teacher organizations.

Microsoft is also paying to have the film shown before movies at Regal Cinemas starting on Friday, according to Hadi Partovi, who was an MSN manager before he left to start the music business iLike in Seattle.

Partovi is doing more than just producing the video and releasing it through his network. He’s been running 36 different ad campaigns simultaneously on Facebook to test click-through rates, and testing which title images and thumbnails on YouTube are most appealing to viewers.

The longer version of the film includes a quote from Steve Jobs, whose passing inspired Partovi to take up philanthropy.

“I’ve always known I wanted to take advantage of the connections I have in the industry to do something good. I’d always envisioned Steve Jobs as one of the spokespeople for this effort,” he said.

When Jobs died, it gave Partovi “sudden realization I’m basically wasting my life while other people are dying.”

Production of the film began in March 2012 and took almost a year. Partovi wouldn’t say how much the film costs, but he and his brother paid for it themselves.

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