Marcus Whitney is an Instruction Partners board member, CEO of Health:Further, a founding partner of Jumpstart Health Investors, a published author, and much more. In this interview with Emily Freitag, Marcus shares his story of teaching himself how to code to jump-start his career in the early 2000s, and discusses the importance of prioritizing internet literacy in K–12 education.

Watch the full conversation or read the abridged Q&A below.

EF: I’m very pleased to be joined today by Marcus Whitney, who is a board member of Instruction Partners, a friend, a pioneer in healthcare entrepreneurship, and prior to this chapter of his career, a pioneer in the internet. I wanted to bring Marcus into this conversation because we’ve had a really thought-provoking ongoing dialogue about the world we are preparing children for in K–12 education. 

Marcus, can you start by sharing your own story? 

MW:  I arrived in Nashville 20 years ago. I had married young at 24 years old with a one-year-old, my wife was pregnant, and I was a college dropout. The first jobs I had when I moved here were waiting tables. I was living in a week-to-week motel. That was six and a half days a week waiting tables and then going home to that hotel to try to be a dad. I quickly concluded that was just not going to work long-term, for pretty obvious reasons. I was in a city where I don’t know anybody. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and I met my ex-wife in Atlanta. So, I had to think outside of the box about what I was able to do with no credentials, and no network to change my socio-economic status. I remembered that when I was 9 or 10 years old, my uncle worked for IBM in upstate New York and he bought me an IBM PCjr. Back then, computers were not very powerful—anything you wanted them to do, you had to program them to do, so I learned some basic programming. I was just like, Look, it’s the year 2000. I didn’t know then, but it was the end of the dot-com boom, and I was seeing high school students who hadn’t graduated from high school, being hired by companies being paid 60, 70 $80,000 a year, riding around in offices on skateboards, programming. I thought, “If they can do it, then certainly I can figure this out.” So, I started buying books and teaching myself how to code in between tables, or in the brief moments I had at home when I wasn’t taking care of my kid. After eight months, the day after my second son was born, I got a salaried programming job at a company here in Nashville called HealthStream. That was a massive socio-economic shift, probably the biggest one in my entire life. For your viewers who don’t know much about me, I’m now a venture capitalist—I’m a minority owner of a Major League Soccer Team, and I’ve exited tech companies. So, I’ve had some nice things happen. But on the economic side, nothing comes close to going from being a waiter to making $45,000 a year as a programmer.

I think the reason why that is relevant to this conversation is that I taught myself with books and grit, and just having a computer and having access to the internet. The skill that I learned was how the internet actually works. I was a professional programmer for seven years. During those seven years, I transitioned from being a junior programmer to a mid-level, to a senior programmer, to a director of technology managing people, to an equity-holding partner of a fast-growing startup company. I was able to learn management and leadership, but my skill set around understanding how the internet worked was the foundation for that rapid growth in my career. I haven’t really programmed professionally since 2007, but everything I’ve done since then has greatly depended on and leveraged my knowledge of how the internet works. That is because it’s a superpower in a world where most people don’t understand how the internet works. They learn a couple of software packages here and there, but they can’t really see how business models are going to be changed. I think a lot of people didn’t see how we were going to be able to evolve in a moment like this because they weren’t really aware of the state of the technology that we had available to us. My entire life for the last 20 years is largely based on learning internet.

EF: Can you bring us in on the internet, on the power it holds, and how it’s changing? I know that I depend on it, but I do not really understand it. 

MW: As a matter of human invention and things that connect the entire human race, other than language and money, internet is probably the biggest invention in the history of humanity. It is a very robust set of protocols that were very intelligently designed to enable two parties to engage in the sharing of data from anywhere in the world.

It started with sharing secret documents back with DARPA and the Department of Defense, then it moved into the academic space and it turned into research papers, and then we fast forward quite a bit and it turned into marketing websites and media. Now, you and I are having this conversation pretty much in real-time across the internet. That is obviously very powerful. I could turn this into a lecture about how it works. But that’s not as important as saying that people who understand how it works, aren’t just utilizing it— they’re engineering it. And there’s tremendous power in engineering it. When I say engineering, I don’t even mean that they’re engineering it at a code level. It could be as high-level as stitching together several tools, because you understand where the integration points are between the tools and you understand how the tools actually exist, and they work enough that you can take two tools and make a new tool with a new purpose. 

If you look at the way that things have played out economically during this pandemic, it’s really clear that in a moment where physical proximity has been, basically eradicated, the internet isn’t just helpful; it’s an absolute utility. And because it’s got this utility nature, it grows in value and importance. I think we really understand just how digitally illiterate so many people are in a moment like this, where they can’t be as productive in a world where they can’t touch people. But this is the reality. The internet is the real world. I saw the headline the other day about us having a change shortage, and I found it kind of funny because I only spend digital dollars these days. There are people who are operating still primarily with cash and coins. They’re not operating in the world today; they’re operating in a past world. 

And the Internet has not really been prioritized in what we teach children, and what a massive disservice that is. Twenty years ago, it was an incredible lever up for me. It has given me a real unfair advantage in the world, from a productivity perspective, from a research perspective, from a commerce perspective, from a marketing perspective. Because I understand the Internet, and I’m hyper-literate in it, I have an advantage over somebody who’s not. Now we’re moving to a virtual world—here in Nashville, Nashville Public Schools are starting out 100% virtual. There’s a scramble to get devices for digital access. If you have to scramble for those things, that means these families are ill-equipped already, just as a baseline for what the world is today. The most valuable companies in the world, the conglomerates of 2020, are innovative technology companies. 

That’s the present and the future, so why are we not teaching young people, TCP/IP, fundamental protocol, and so they can understand the addresses and they can understand packet routing, and they can learn and the basic communication structure that happens between two devices? I know what’s happening in this conversation. You could learn it. I would say, go look up Real-Time Media Protocol, and you just get a Wikipedia page, and you read it. To start, I would say, the important things to understand about the internet are data packets and protocols. 

EF: So, it’s not just coding. There is a conversation in education about how we need to teach more children how to code, but I think you’re pointing to a different body of knowledge. Is that right? 

MW: I’m pointing to something lower-level than that. With lower-level knowledge, you then have a much better understanding of the implications of broadband internet and you understand why today, we can actually cut the cord with cable, whereas 10 years ago, we couldn’t do it. 

It wasn’t just about the bandwidth, it was also about the data packets and the algorithms. The things we see are digital, they’re not analog. It’s a bunch of ones and zeros that get pushed across a wire or satellite to an end destination, then there’s something on the other end that receives it and processes it. It takes different routes, gets splattered into lots of different things, and it comes back together reorganized and presented. This is computer science. These are things that when you hear them on the surface, they seem really crazy, but they’re just science.

EF:  So, you’re essentially positing that we need a different pantheon of courses, or a different hierarchy of what we’re actually valuing in the K–12 curriculum, because the world that students are going to graduate into right now is dominated by the internet. Can you take that into what that means for the distribution of power? You’ve told us some about this in your own story. 

MW: If anyone has watched the most recent antitrust hearing that happened with the House Judiciary Committee with the big tech CEOs, or has seen previous senate hearings with Mark Zuckerberg, It’s pretty clear that the people who are in the House and in the Senate, by and large, with some exceptions, don’t understand how the internet works. So they can’t regulate it, because they don’t understand it. Everyone who works in tech watches those things and is scared to death, because they’re either going to completely miss the thing they’re supposed to regulate, or they’re going to way over-regulate and hamper our ability to be competitive as a country. This is really scary stuff because the internet is moving so much faster than our society’s willingness to adjust learning.  Just for context, my kids are now 21 and 19. Where this really hit me was when my 19-year-old, who is smart in computers, was taking his ACTs, and I just thought about the topics he was taking. And I was just like, “You’re not answering any questions about the internet on these tests, are you?” The internet is everywhere, it’s everything, and we’re not aasking any questions about it. Who are we preparing to inherit the world? The reason why power dynamics are so important, is if our education system isn’t doing it, then the only people that are getting that education are families that can afford to do that extra step on top of what the education system provides, or people who end up in these small band of companies that are driving the internet. That sounds like elitism to me.

This is really scary stuff because the internet is moving so much faster than our society's willingness to adjust learning

I think we’re already there. It is certainly true that these companies do need oversight, and they do need to be more regulated, but our leadership isn’t capable of doing it. And so in light of that, and when they are delivering such a better value proposition, then the companies that don’t have internet embedded in their DNA, consumers in a capitalist society are going to vote for the company that best serves them. We’re not going to vote to regulate Amazon when they saved America during the pandemic. We’re just not going to do it. And what are we going to miss when that’s happening? How many companies are they going to steal intellectual property from? I’m not saying that’s what they’re doing, I’m just saying they have that much control. Everyone’s stuff is running through Amazon web servers, everyone is selling through Amazon’s marketplace. 

EF: I don’t know how we do it on the K–12. side, I don’t know what the curriculum looks like, or what grades it gets introduced at, or where the standards need to come from. Frankly, I don’t even know that much about what exists currently. I know that there are pushes for coding in particular, but I certainly know that we in K–12 are not treating this like we treat mathematics or reading. And yet I know how dependent our lives are on it, which means we should be. 

MW: It’s a huge miss. I implore people to think about how much of their current life depends on the internet. I know what they want to say is, “Let’s teach the kids Gmail,” or “Let’s teach them applications.” And what I would say is, the applications have changed year over year. What has not changed are the protocols. We’re still using TCP/IP, we’re still using HTTP. They get a little bit better, but basically, these protocols have been the same for decades. If you want to teach young children to be able to access the truth of the internet, in the same way that Amazon accesses it, that information has been here for decades, and it is not that complicated. You could teach it the foundations of the internet in the K–6 system. 

EF: If there’s ever a time that shows us how much we depend on it, it’s now. Thank you for this conversation.