Tom O’Connell Intro
My name is Tom O’Connell and I am the interim executive director at Code Interactive. We are a New York City based non-profit that builds and scales inclusive computer science programs by partnering with schools and districts across the country.
If I could describe myself in a few words, I would say that I am tenacious, ambitious, caring, and passionate. I work hard to serve the communities that I really care about and to serve a lot more students to get to the core of our mission of getting out there in the world a lot more.
If I do have a legacy, I would like it to be that I made a huge impact on students’ lives, that I worked to the best of my abilities and that I made really good connections. I think a lot of my life has been making those connections between folks even when I was teaching. It was all about connecting the schools to non-profits and other services that I did that really drove me. So I feel like people will remember me and think of all the organizations that I’ve connected that now work together seamlessly.
Tom O’Connell's Career Journey
My career journey started when I started to get acquainted with my friends who had done Teach for America in college. I was studying environmental science and was doing a lot of activism. I was really passionate about environmental justice. That was really what I felt was driving me in my future. If I didn’t immediately go into teaching and if I hadn’t received that acceptance for Teach for America, which I was super excited about, I would have been one of those people unraveling banners from bridges or protesting the pipeline in Dakota. I wanted to make sure that the environmental justice issues were really focused on the people that they affect. That was my original trajectory in college. Then I ended up getting accepted for Teach for America. I immediately recognized that it was such a powerful opportunity to shape students’ lives. I’d always wanted to teach at some point in my career but I didn’t necessarily think it would be immediately out of college, seven day from graduation.
I road tripped down to Texas where I joined the Houston corps for Teach for America. I taught at Robert E. Lee High School, which thank god changed into Wisdom High School. I think that was an apropos name change. It was a school that brilliantly served a very international population of students that maybe rivaled Queens a little bit. We had students from all over the world that were either refugees or recent immigrants that came in to have a better opportunity—and we were trying our best to give it to them The teachers there inspired me to no end and they worked so passionately that I think that’s what continues to drive me to this day. I stay in touch with them very regularly. I helped out one of them to put some fuel into her school board campaign, and she’s now on the school board and running for reelection. So it’s great to still have that footing in Houston, where I taught for two years. I made a lot of connections for the school to get a lot of services from non-profits. For example, there is one that takes underserved students into the outdoors to really focus on leadership and opportunity. I was able to take students who had never been on a plane except maybe to arrive to Houston to places like Yosemite, Glacier National Park, and out to Tahoe to go on these incredible camping trips where we got to really know each other. It’s incredible to see the bonds that form between teachers and students and the amount of advice students will actually listen to you about when they feel really close to you. It really taught me a lot about building relationships with students and how important that student-mentor relationship was.
Another pivotal opportunity came up and I was recruited to be a founding teacher at a school in New York City. I kept on visiting this school over and over again, while I was coming up to see my parents. Finally, I decided that I really wanted that experience of helping to start a school from scratch, inventing all the programs, and making those connections for the school with strong non-profits. So I taught there for a couple years. Though, it ended up that one of the non-profits that I had connected to school wanted to grow. By then, I became very passionate about computer science education— so I joined that non-profit. That was the non-profit that I lead today, Code Interactive. I actually started out as a teacher in Code Interactive, in my classroom, running my program, bringing kids to all their events and I decided that it was so powerful for my students that I needed to spread this to more teachers and even more students. Thus, I started a teacher training program within Code Interactive and the rest was history. Now we train hundreds of teachers across the country every year and the movement truly is national. We are very proud to partner with folks that are doing this on a much larger scale and have great resources. I feel like we’re part of a real community of folks who are helping to make a difference in the education world and changing education as we know it.
Tom O’Connell on Code Interactive
The demographic that we serve goes into our background a little bit. Code Interactive was founded in the Bronx fifteen years ago, at that point just connecting students to technology and using the outdoors a bit as a way to get kids in the door and get them to focus on leadership and life skills. Code Interactive started as a real community effort in an area of the Bronx which is, still to this day, the poorest congressional district in the United States. Part of our mission is to serve students that are primarily below the poverty line. For the most part, we do focus on communities of color and schools that serve primarily students of the color because there is that correlation in New York City. Though we just want folks to recognize that computer science is a huge economic lever. Even when we’ve started to move and work in more rural communities or communities that intersect in different ways in terms of income and race, the story is the same. People are hungry for opportunity and curious about what their futures are going to look like. Computer science is a path. A lot of kids don’t know all these jobs are changing. Even if you want to be a lawyer, a doctor, or a business person in the future, you get a leg up and get paid higher than the person next to you if you can code. It’s ridiculous that our students, especially our most underserved students don’t have access to computer science education which is a huge economic highway that they need to all be on. To know computer science to be ready for any job that they will be applying for when they graduate from college. There are a lot of reasons that we’re teaching kids these basic skills and it really is becoming just that—a basic skill. It’s becoming like math, science, history or any other core subject. The Computer Science for All movement really wants to serve all students but it’s especially focused on broadening participation among underrepresented students in technology.
Tom O’Connell's Top Accomplishments
I consider my top accomplishments to be a lot of the great connections that I made for the schools and non-profits that I’ve worked for. Connecting people and bringing more passion into the collective work that we all do as a community has been a real joy.
There are a number of non-profit for which we work for currently with Code Interactive. A while ago, I was writing our own curriculum and making sure that it had all of the elements that we wanted and that it was constantly updated. Then I realized that there are folks that have already created amazing curricula that are research-backed or that have a lot more tools that I could ever build and that I don’t need to have so much hubris that I should reinvent the wheel. So Code Interactive is actually built on a number of partnerships. For example, we have curriculum providers like “Exploring Computer Science” out of UCLA who are a team of leading researchers in equity and computer science education. We train teachers in their curriculum here in New York City and Texas while they’ve invited us into a really great research community and in a larger national community. We are also the New York regional partners for code.org which is a very large advocacy and curriculum provider across the country. The same with the Scratch Team out of Harvard. They have a wonderful platform that’s inclusive and creative for younger students but also folks can use it as a platform for a college freshmen year intro to programming course. There are so many folks in the computer science education community that say, “Of course, welcome in,” and that’s really the kind of community that I am most proud of. Though, I certainly don’t credit connecting all of these people. I think there a lot of folks that are involved in this effort and this work. But I just take great joy in being a part of such a large community of educators who are working together to accomplish a very daunting task of retraining hundreds of thousands of educators across the country and getting them to teach computer science.
Tom O’Connell's Background and Success
In terms of my background, I grew up in a fairly privileged way. I grew up in Westchester, New York in a community that had a wonderful school district. I grew up with two caring parents and two caring grandparents that lived around the corner, many of whom were educators. I grew up in such a loving and warm household that really contributed to my wanting to give back to the community. Both my mom and my grandmother were both special education teachers in New York in the Bronx. My grandma tells the story of how she was looking for a job teaching foreign language and her principal goes to her and says, “Maybe you’d like to teach this new thing that’s just coming out called special education.” It’s incredible just the amount of history that’s behind there and I feel like looking at them as teacher role models has really driven my path into education a whole lot. We were constantly giving back to our community as a very privileged group so that was just what was instilled into me as a young kid. Of course, I also grew up struggling with being gay and being gay in a world that I felt would never accept me. I ended up coming out later in high school and it was the greatest thing ever to be accepted like that. It was a big and welcomed surprise.
Tom O’Connell P.O.L.I.N.G. principles
The P.O.L.I.N.G. principles really resonate with the story of Code Interactive. As an education organization serving a lot of underserved kids, we really have to abide by the P.O.L.I.N.G. principles if we really want to get things done and it really drives us.
In terms of “Priorities,” we work with people who are extremely passionate about what they’re doing and that’s what the education world is just full of—educators who care so much about the students that they serve. “Others” is the story of what we’re doing. We’re helping students to find what makes them successful and to help to find what their pathway is. “Lead” is a framework that we use internally as well. We’re absolutely passionate about bringing other people to the table and making sure that there are many voices leading the charge and that we’re taking a lot of people’s opinions and backgrounds into consideration. “Inspire” is a big thing that we are just always doing with students. Our old slogan before this one was, “Inspiring the next generation of tech leaders from underserved communities.” And we still hold that near and dear to our hearts. All the stories of students that have come through our doors are just really what inspire us to work after inspiring them to succeed. Then we have “Network.” We are a collection of relationships. We are a network as an organization and we make sure that we touch base with folks and build ourselves through others. That’s really how we work. We’re nothing without our schools and our districts and other people really doing the hard work. We’re just providing some of the knowledge and the curriculum. “Grow” is something we’ve been working on and everyone generally works on. There are a lot of pivot and persevere moments in the Code Interactive story and my own personal story that you learn so much when you finally decide that you’re going to change what you’re up to. I think we’ve finally come across a very balanced version of what our non-profit is at this point and we have a focus and a theory of a change that we can really put things through to make decisions. That’s really the story of “Grow” for us—you go through so much trouble and failure at certain points and then you find that shining light that brings you forward.
An example of one of the P.O.L.I.N.G principles within our organization is “Inspire.” I could tell you all sorts of amazing student journeys that we’ve learned over the years and that I’ve had the pleasure of really building those student relationships. A bunch of our students that I always think are great inspirations to other students are those that are studying computer science in college right now. They’ll always come back to say that they never knew what computer science was before I came into that class day, told them and made that presentation. And then of course, there’s the actually putting those computer science classes into the school part, training the teachers, and all of that behind the scenes work that they don’t see. Those to me are really what drives us and what we really need to remind ourselves more about. When students just don’t know and don’t have the opportunity to even know about studying computer science as a potential pathway or if they have a bad experience with computer science, that’s a closed door. We have such a burden on our shoulders with that sense of inspiration, where we need to prepare our teachers to be inspirational. We need to prepare the curriculum to be equitable, inclusive and inspirational. We need to make sure that kids feel like they have open arms to walk into when they mark down computer science as their intended major on their college application or if they choose to take a computer science course in the future. Inspiring them is what inspires us.
Tom O’Connell on POWER
The POWER Managing What Matters framework actually strikes me in a personal way. It’s something that lists a lot of what I’m working on as an individual leading an organization. To be effective for my organization, I need to work on these things to bring the energy and the passion that I have for our work to our office every day—though sometimes we work at home. You really have to take care of yourself and manage what matters to be effective.
In terms of “Priorities,” what I’m doing is absolutely aligned to my priorities—but we have to make all these decisions about what we prioritize as an organization and what I prioritize as my own personal work. Especially in switching roles where I was just in charge of the program before and now I’m in charge of the entire organization and the program. You really have to make very specific decisions about what you’re going to do or you’ll end up working all night long every night. You need to prioritize to make sure that you’re energized to come into work. “Obligations” are very much a part of being a non-profit. We are an organization that gets our money from funders so we feel obligated to our funders. We have to report to them in a very detailed way. We feel obligated to our board of directors who are very kind to volunteer their time and sit on our board and give us advice. I feel obligated to our employees who work so hard to meet our mission. I feel obligated to our stakeholders as well. Making sure that there’s a balance in all those obligations is the very difficult job of an executive director that I don’t think I gave enough credit to my former executive director for that people just don’t see that balancing behind the scenes.
“Worthwhile Activities” is a major part of what we talked about in our recent leadership retreat in which we came up with our theory of change and became a more focused organization. We determined what we thought in our organization was really worthwhile to focus on and we decided to focus on training teachers and tooling districts with the skills to run a strong computer science program. It was not necessarily running those programs ourselves and that took a lot of discipline in what we were doing. We were offered so many contracts to run programs ourselves and to use our own personal expertise to teach kids or to directly serve kids in some way. With that, we had to determine what was most worthwhile and most impactful for our organization—which was spreading and scaling these skills and not just displaying these skills and using them to teach kids. “Energy” is something I’ve never been accused of not having. I certainly bring a lot of enthusiasm into work every day. I feel like I am energized completely by our mission but also by the people that work alongside me to reach these goals. It is very much an energy-producing activity to remind myself of why I do the work that I do. But at the same time, I need to recharge and that’s something that I’m working on. It’s okay to admit that you are running out of personal energy no matter how passionate you are about a cause. You need to have time to reset and recharge you batteries and come back as a more refreshed leader or human being.
“Resources” are something else that very much affect non-profits. For example, we apply for grants and we still feel a very low probability of ever getting them. We could have the best application in the world but we send it off like, “I might never hear from them again.” There is a crisis in funding for non-profits and especially in the stability for funding for small non-profits. It’s something that has caused a lot of folks and even folks we know to throw in the towel or give up on the fight or have to readjust their balance and their priorities. That’s something I don’t think enough folks in the funding community and the business community are acutely aware of so I think small non-profits know that resource fight a whole lot.
Tom O’Connell's Challenges
A time that my background was actually a challenge—several times, actually—is when I’ve been openly discriminated against. I’ve been yelled and cursed at on the subway in New York. Things have been thrown at me in New York City, a place that you normally wouldn’t associate it with open discrimination against someone who’s just minding his own business. Those moments have been very challenging just on a personal context.
I feel like I’ve also experienced that in work while I was teaching Houston. Houston was pretty friendly toward the LGBT community as well. I was running the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and I was trying to run what could universally be seen as a great thing by most people. I was trying to run a NOH8 campaign where teachers would put on a little temporary tattoo and take pictures. It was all the students’ ideas where they were trying to do something visible in our community that would show support in a particularly trying community for LGBT kids. And so I sent out an email to the whole staff like “Hey, no pressure, but for anyone who would like to do this please email me and we could set you up for a photoshoot as this is all student-run.” But then I get an email from my principal where she says very tersely, “Please get all emails approved before sending them to the whole staff.” I’ve been sending out all-staff emails all year! I suddenly felt unsafe in my school community where I was a young leader and I was budding as a person who was driving a lot initiatives forward. At that point there were still laws in Texas for many folks to this day where you can be fired without cause for being gay. And all of a sudden, it really hit that even when I’m really trying to help people and trying to get students’ wishes to the point that they can see them, there are just so many barriers. Even from people who may pretend to understand. There are just so many misunderstandings and that’s why education is just so important and why I can’t, in this day and age, stop talking to people—especially people with divergent views form my own. It is incredibly important to support that dialogue wherever you are, whatever the issue. Currently, it’s DACA and it’s always about LGBT issues. Being visible and being vocal are two incredibly important facets of my life that I’ve learned from the adversity that I’ve been through. What little of it has come about has taught me a lot.
Tom O’Connell's Influences
There are a number of people in my immediate sphere and that I’ve come into contact with in the education world that have been great influencers—all positive, thank goodness. There are the first people I taught alongside in my placement school in Houston. Some of them are still working with newcomer English language learners who were coming in and really fighting the good fight for these kids, standing up for them not only by providing a wonderful warm environment and a great education for them but by advocating for them in the community. I think that whenever I have a tough day, I always try to remember back to what it was like working alongside them. Now in my computer science education work, I look to folks who are also big connectors and folks who make sure that the word is being spread across the country. There are folks like the CSforALL Consortium with Leigh Ann DeLyser and Ruthe Farmer who are going across the country and making sure that computer science education and the tools to get that to every student are getting to every student. I feel like there’s just so many inspirational folks that I’ve met along the way who maybe even before meeting them, I’ve read their books or known about their initiatives. For example, for a long time through our work in the Bronx, we’ve known Majora Carter who’s just a legend in the with building communities and bringing economic empowerment through not only green city initiatives but now through giving students and unengaged young people the chance to find their career passions in tech—which is really cool. There’s just the people that I idolized in the past that I now look at and say, “They are really hard workers.” I know and see them because I know that we’re all working just as hard and to maximum capacity and I recognize the passion in them when I actually meet them. They’re not just authors who talk about this work. They do the work. Those are my most inspirational people.
Tom O’Connell's Career Advice
I continue to be an extremely anxious person. I think it comes from knowing about a lot of social injustices that are just happening across the world. I’ve also been a workaholic, self-diagnosed, since I was in the sixth grade. I was juggling a bunch of plays and academic work. I learned from a very early age to have that anxiety drive me and do a lot of work with that anxiety and find my passions by always having that sense of F.O.M.O. I was always afraid of missing out so I would sign up for things and make it happen. I would find the time. My advice to my younger self would be to chill out sometimes and try to find that balance. You can be passionate about things and you can be worried about the future of the world as we know it but if you let really stress you out all the time then you are not going to be able to do the work. That’s it. You need to make sure that you’re balanced and focused on having your impact and not get too distracted by being sad about things happening around the world that you can’t really control all the time. You have to choose your battles.
Tom O’Connell's Call to Action for Individuals
My call to action for individuals to help create more diverse communities is to listen more and educate themselves through that listening and to really be open to understanding others or trying to understand others. I think especially in these trying political times and these times that are challenging the whole world to be their best selves—if we don’t stop and really listen to what everyone is saying and listening to people’s stories and reach into ourselves to try to understand them, then we’re not being our real, authentic selves.
Tom O’Connell Call to Action for Organizations
My call to action for organizations who want to move the needle on diversity is to look at the root cause. To look at education, to stop relying solely on short term solutions that are short-changing our youth. Education still does not get enough attention and if we never improve education, then we will never improve diversity in America’s workforce. Currently, there’s just still not enough focus and not enough admission on the corporate level, especially in tech where we mostly focus. We’re in a continual education crisis in America and if nobody’s fixing it, their cries for more folks to work for them that represent the communities that we serve are going to fall on deaf ears.
Tom O’Connell on the iD Community
The iD community to me is a chance for listening to really happen across the community. A short story, but I recently quit my Netflix and my Hulu and just switched to YouTube. And somehow, my YouTube got focused on TED talks. Listening to people’s stories, expertise, and passion areas has brought me far more joy and so many more things than another episode of scripted TV. I think of iD in the same way, but especially mission-focused and impactful in the areas that we work and we really feel passionate about. It is so important to share more stories and to make sure that people are getting a chance to learn from other people’s struggles and backgrounds. It just teaches so much more to hear someone’s story than to go to another seminar where you’re talked at. Stories are how we learn.
Tom O’Connell's Surprising Fact
Something that people wouldn’t guess about me would be…well, maybe they’d put Type A personality and athleticism somehow together. I know a lot of folks who are marathoners and CEOs or executive directors so that’s a very high correlation as I’ve run a few marathons myself. But now I’ve recently taken up CrossFit. It’s something that I feel echoes in its philosophy about what I care about in my life which is having a community of people that support one another to reach their fitness goals. I love a good fitness lifestyle with that message. I haven’t found it to be very cult-like yet but rather just inclusive and community-oriented. So yeah, I don’t think you’d guess that I’m going out and doing CrossFit lifting every week.