He has thousands of disciples across the country. His affiliates sit in positions of power at every major tech company and are student leaders at the best computer science programs in the country, including Stanford, Harvard and MIT. His loyal followers - who call themselves The Family - communicate on an internal listserv, discussing everything from the future of Bitcoin, to jobs at Uber and on Hillary Clinton's digital team.
Meet Mike Zamansky, Don of the most successful computer science program in America, "The godfather of computer science education" according to iconic venture capitalist Fred Wilson.
Zamansky is no genius, has almost no funding, and definitely no hit men to help him achieve his goals. He is a self-described nerd who quit his job as a Goldman Sachs software engineer 25 years ago to become a teacher at his old high school and wears his influence modestly. You wouldn't know that Morgan Stanley recruits interns directly out of his high school classroom for summer internships with their technology department or that his name is one that is discussed with great respect in tech communities.
But, while he appears to be some type of hacker or over-enthusiastic techy, Zamansky is anything but quiet about his convictions. He says what's on his mind and is the proud leader of a strong army. Along his walls are T-shirts from tech companies - Google, Facebook, and Dropbox, among others - where his students work.
Zamansky likes to say that his graduates are "Google-ready" - and those who fill the entry-level ranks in Silicon Valley couldn't agree more. His students have been invited to present their final projects at Google headquarters in New York City and are the winners of hackathons nationwide.
"His students have built a movie-recommendation Web site, an app that searches for language patterns in celebrity Twitter posts and Pixar-style animations," wrote the New York Times.
Zamansky, who students refer to as "Z," does not work alone. His team - including heavyweights like Topher Brown Mykolyk, JonAlf Dyrland-Weaver, and Peter Brooks - is formidable.
I know, because they taught me how to code.
As you might imagine from reading my column, which usually discusses politics and public policy, I was not born sorting binary search trees or reading Python code. Like most of Zamansky's students, when I started in a mandatory entry-level computer science course - a requirement he had to fight tooth and nail to implement - I had never written a program before. But thanks to Zamansky's team, I am now a computer science major in a top-notch engineering program.
And so are hundreds of girls - typically underrepresented in computer science - who make up a significant portion of his classes.
Severyn Kozak, a recent graduate who took a job at a start-up before heading to MIT, speaks highly of Zamansky. "Stuy's CS program not only got me interested in computer science, but also gave me solid foundations that helped get a tech job straight out of high school."
Yale sophomore Sweyn Venderbush, who is already a partner a Dorm Room Fund, posted to Facebook that "Mike Zamansky and his team have from scratch created the best high school computer science curriculum in the nation, encouraging me and hundreds of others to pursue CS degrees and giving thousands CS basics that will help them in innumerable ways in the future."
Unlike many of the thought leaders in the computer science education space, Zamansky is no preacher. He does not travel around the country speaking at fancy conferences about the importance of STEM to the future of our country, or leveling effects coding can have as a means of socio-economic mobility, or even the importance of including women and minorities in computer science. No Zamansky does none of that. Instead, he lives it. His team brings in diverse students from all races and genders and teaches them how to code.
Curiously, his "secret sauce" is not that he is a better teacher than everyone else. Rather, he has carefully designed a program that allows students to quickly build confidence. In every class - even the introductory course - the goal is always to "ship" a product - no matter how basic. For example, I built a version of the game Portal during my sophomore year. Once his students realize what they are capable of, they're hooked; spending all-nighters building cool features into apps and games "just for fun" is commonplace.
This is the essence of Zamansky's success: his classes are genuinely about fun. When he likes a project, it's not because it is sophisticated or impressive, it's because "that's cool," as he would say, putting emphasis on the second syllable.
In his classroom - where half the students are busy coding away on their computers while he lectures - Zamansky often plays around with his students' homework, highlighting those projects that go above and beyond. "How cool is this," he says, exuding what can only be described as genuine nerdy excitement.
And as students, we connected with the inner nerd inside of us, and responded, "yeah, that's awesome." Some kids in my class built a website called StalkMyTeacher.com, which automatically pulled teachers salaries and ratings and ranked them from "most overpaid" to "most underpaid." Another designed a website to rate and review food carts (like Yelp). And yet another group built a search engine for code.
My friends and I spent more than 100 hours coding a website to create CitiBike tours of New York City, which is now defunct but still live at tour-de-city.com. Somehow, amidst all the fun, we learned about functional programming, API access, and web development. But I swear that the learning was an accident!
Zamansky recently launched a non-profit called CSTUY to expand the work that he's doing to underserved communities. CSTUY hosts Saturday Hacking Sessions, which are open and free to the public.
"Computer science education program that is free and open to any student is the kind of thing that can change lives and provide economic opportunities where there aren't enough right now," Fred Wilson wrote in a blog post about the group.
CSTUY is organizing a kickstarter campaign to support the program. This is a good start, but someone needs to invest in building a platform for Zamansky to go national.
America needs a new Don to build a STEM education system worthy of the technological renaissance we live in. Zamansky would be a good pick.