Technology

What Happens When a Startup Brain Decides to Focus on the Philly School System?

Why tech dynamo Bob Moul is set on computer science education for the city’s school kids.


“The vast majority of our kids never see tech as a possible career path,” Bob Moul wrote last summer in the Inquirer. “And that’s a shame.” Photograph by Andre Rucker

A great many of the emails Bob Moul sends are time-stamped between four and five in the morning, a detail that makes you feel like a schlub when you sign on, eons later, at 7:30 a.m. By that time, Moul has fed his dogs; meditated with Andy, the voice on the Headspace app; prayed; hit the gym; showered; and grabbed the 7:06 from Devon, where he lives with his wife, Diane, and their two kids. (Moul also has three grown children from his first marriage.)

“You’re like Oprah!” I wrote once, after getting one of his predawn emails. “LOL,” he wrote back. (Moul — it rhymes with “owl” — is more warmly expressive in emails and texts than you’d expect from a 54-year-old tech guru. Over a couple dozen exchanges, I counted six smileys — :-) — one frowny, three LOLs, one Argh!, a Yay!, and so many exclamation points.) When we meet IRL at Corner Bakery on JFK, where he takes most of his meetings, he’s just as cheerily accessible, with the earnest good looks of a favorite history teacher — trim, salt-and-pepper hair, laugh lines — and little of the swagger some Philly power types wear like cologne. The Corner Bakery isn’t exactly the Union League, you know?

But then, Moul’s not your traditional Philly power type. He doesn’t come from real estate or politics or a ballyhooed bloodline, but from the start-up world, where success still looks and feels a little fresher. And he’s not just a Philly start-up guy; he’s one of the Philly start-up guys, a touchstone for what’s blossomed in recent years into one of the country’s top 10 emerging start-up hubs. He cut his teeth at Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems (EDS) — then one of the world’s biggest tech firms — shooting up that ladder for a couple of decades before eventually landing in the Philly start-up scene, where he’s spent much of the past 12 years as a CEO — first of the cloud software start-up Boomi, which he led to sale in 2010, then of app-optimization platform Artisan Mobile (it sold in 2015), and, most recently, of cloud analytics firm Cloudamize.

When we meet at Corner Bakery, actually, Moul is wrapping up his tenure at Cloudamize. Founder Khushboo Shah brought him on in late 2015, and he helped triple revenues before deep-pocketed London-based Cloudreach bought the company last summer for an undisclosed amount. (Suffice it to say: a lot. The Inquirer reported a 52 percent yearly yield for investors.) Moul has stayed on for the post-merger settling-in and guesses the company is on track to create 200 more Philly tech jobs. This is his specialty: coming into something at a key point, analyzing, then doing whatever it takes — problem-solving, hiring, fund-raising — to grow it.

That role — organizer in chief — is one he’s played in the Philly tech scene at large, too. In 2012, he used his perch as an industry insider to help Michael Nutter launch Startup PHL, the $6 million seed fund for local entrepreneurs, and from 2012 to 2016, he ran and boosted the profile of tech-y network Philly Startup Leaders. These stints cemented his position as a vital cog in the wheel of New Philly — a link between the start-ups and the policy suits and the established business community, a go-to pick for boards like the city-planning-focused PIDC and education nonprofit Philadelphia Academies. Five years back, when Technical.ly Philly ranked the 10 techies it would like to see run for mayor, buzzy Bob Moul topped the list.

But Moul has other plans for his next gig, and though they’re not technically political, they’re much more in the vein of public service than you’d expect from a guy in the prime of his moneymaking life. For his next act, Moul is treading into the bureaucratic jumble that is the city’s public school system. His goal is to see that every kid in every Philadelphia school gets access to the sort of tech education he knows firsthand to be a complete game-changer — not just for the kids, he’ll tell you, but also for a city starved for a better-trained workforce.

If that sounds like a tall order in a school district with well-publicized financial challenges, well, don’t tell Moul. It’s a matter of will, he says, and everyone he’s spoken to — from Governor Wolf to teachers to schools superintendent William Hite to principals — is on board. “Nobody has said this is a bad idea,” he tells me at the Corner Bakery. “Nobody has said that this shouldn’t be a priority.” He’s getting increasingly animated. “It’s 2018, for crying out loud. All of our kids should have this.”

So he’s quit all his boards except for the PIDC, waved off talk of another start-up, and thrown his entrepreneurial energy into CS4Philly — that’s Computer Science For Philly, a new coalition of city leaders set on finding a way to teach computer science in every public school. For Moul, it’s the most ambitious challenge he’s ever tackled. For the rest of us, it’s a chance to see just how far (or not) that start-up spirit can really take a guy. Or a city, for that matter.

LinkedIn is hardly ever a window into a person’s soul, but on Moul’s bio, there’s this blip at the bottom: Enjoy working with great teams to accomplish the impossible.

It’s the sort of thing start-up guys probably say in their bios all the time, but in Moul’s case, it provides a little insight into a guy who, yes, has spent much of his life chasing down things that seem out of reach. Like when, as a teenager in tiny East Berlin in rural Adams County, he decided he’d work with computers for a living. There was no precedent here: His dad was a factory worker, his mom a born-and-raised farm girl. Also, it was 1981 — IBM had just launched its first PC, and Apple’s Macintosh was three years away. Moul’s family didn’t own a computer, and his entire school only had one, a Radio Shack TRS-80. But the tiny bit of time he spent on it was the only part of his education that he really liked. So that was that.

After graduation, Moul trekked to Camp Hill, the site of the local EDS campus — his own field of dreams. Armed with just the name of a recruiter, Jim, he asked for a job. “What do you know about us?” Jim asked. Moul rattled off some facts: Ross Perot. Big-time tech company. His future, he hoped. “How about you write a report for me about EDS?” Jim replied. “Do some more research and get back to me.”

Moul did it, came back, and turned his handwritten report over to Jim. “Where else are you applying?” Nowhere, sir, Moul said. “I want to work here.” Jim: “We think you should try to get hired somewhere else, see what’s out there.” Moul: “Um, okay.”

But Moul couldn’t land even one interview, and his dad was there, asking that eternal dad question: “Son, isn’t it time to go and get a real job?” A few weeks later — still no interviews — Moul headed back to Jim, hopeful that his perseverance in this exercise was enough.

“You’re great,” Jim said. “But we think you’re just too young to make this commitment.” Crestfallen, Moul asked if he could still call sometimes. “Sure,” Jim said. “Knock yourself out.” And so Moul called every Friday for the next three months. He also turned down the only job he’d been offered — door-to-door vacuum salesman — telling his father, shakily, “Dad, I just can’t.” The next day, Jim called. “Okay, Bob,” he said, “I have a job for you. But it’s just a courier job” — a mail boy, $7,500 a year. “I don’t want you to think it’s a foot in the door.”

But from then on, it was all doggedness and a straight upward climb: begging the guys in charge of running the high-speed, industrial-strength impact printers at EDS to show him the ropes; volunteering to fill in for free when one guy got sick; making his way into the company’s vaunted systems engineering development program (at 19, he was its youngest graduate ever); and so on until he was senior management, living in China, England, Australia. Eventually he became president of a division at tech giant SCT, where he led a major turnaround until the company’s $590 million sale to SunGard. After that, though he was living in D.C., he took a consulting gig with Berwyn-based Boomi — his entrée into the start-up world. He’d sign on as CEO and move here a year later.

So you can see why Moul talks so much about tech as a way to build a life, why he makes it a point to snatch up promising talent. (Moul once hired his waiter at Maggiano’s because he had a certain spark. “Hey, James, you ever think about a career in tech?” Moul asked. Today, James is one of Boomi’s top salespeople.) You can see why he views the tech world as a great meritocracy, and why, last summer, he felt compelled to write an op-ed in the Inky insisting that getting more children a tech education was an absolutely vital next step for a city projected to have 44,000 IT openings in the next decade.

“The vast majority of our kids never see tech as a possible career path — and that’s a shame,” he wrote. “The tech industry offers great wages, great benefits, and almost unlimited growth potential.” Creating more pathways to tech jobs might also be a way to chip away at our unemployment and poverty rates, he noted — an opportunity to diversify the talent pipeline. The kicker: “If we deny our kids this education, we are systematically denying them a chance at a better and brighter future.”

If Moul’s origin story unpacks his involvement in CS4Philly, it also illustrates the drive that’s made him successful — a mix of extreme pragmatism and extreme optimism that allows him to focus on a plan without fixating on obstacles that would make the less visionary among us seriously reevaluate. It’s generally worked in his favor.

Take, for instance, the moment in 2006 when he started pitching Boomi to investors, and Silicon Valley laughed. (Philly? Um, no.) Moul raised $4 million anyway. Later, a reporter asked him something to the effect of “How is it you were able to be successful in Philly?” Moul’s answer: “I guess because I didn’t know you couldn’t be.”

This isn’t to say it’s been all wins. Post-Boomi, Moul went to Old City-based Artisan with some very big ambitions. “I want to build a major, permanent software company in Philadelphia,” he announced. That didn’t happen. Instead, he had to sell when the company couldn’t grow as fast as he needed. After a few agonizing months, he decided the best thing to do was to talk publicly about the failure — how he pushed things too fast, the pain of not paying back investors, the lessons other entrepreneurs might take from his flop. “We all wondered how he was going to try and spin it to look like a success,” says Technical.ly Philly co-founder Chris Wink. “But he didn’t try. And I think that was a foundational moment for Bob being seen as a genuine leader.”

Still, the path to leadership in this town isn’t always an easy one, and as Moul has grown more civically engaged, he’s felt his share of sharp elbows. (New Philly is still Philly, yo.) At one point, a power player — whose name Moul won’t reveal — essentially suggested that he pipe down about causes outside his tech bubble. But after years of passing through different cities and finally making a home here, Moul wants to be involved in the city’s future. “I care about Philly,” he says. “Deeply.” So deeply, in fact, that even his wife is a little surprised. “After all, he didn’t grow up here,” Diane says. “We don’t own a business here.” And hello — they live in the ’burbs. “But he’s given months, years, even, to aspects of city development that aren’t tied to his job.”

One of those aspects has been, yes, schools. In 2012, he joined the board of the education-focused nonprofit Philadelphia Academies; it was then that he first learned about nonprofits like TechGirlz and Coded By Kids, focused on the links between computer science and kids’ futures. The next year, he began volunteering at Kensington vocational school Mastbaum, where he noticed there was no computer programming track. When there are over half a million unfilled computing jobs in the U.S.? And another half million expected to be created by 2024? And with Philly’s poverty rate? Of course tech in schools would become his cri de coeur.

The real turning point, though, was that op-ed last summer. After it ran, notes poured in from teachers and principals, many of whom invited him to come to their schools. So he did, all summer, taking in cool programs that worked, talking to kids who wanted more coding. He also talked to the Mayor’s office. He made “teach tech” t-shirts: #TEaCH.

Then he met fellow advocate Naomi Housman, who would co-found Philadelphia STEM Lab that fall and through it launch a citywide effort to teach computer science to all Philly schoolkids. CS4Philly would be an outgrowth of the CS4All initiative that President Obama introduced in 2016; New York and Chicago both have their own CS4 efforts. If CS4Philly’s goals — namely, to “provide high-quality computer science education essential to ensuring the rights of digital citizenship for all Philadelphia children and youth” — are a bit squishier than Moul’s oft-stated mission to incorporate computer science into the core curriculum, that’s because, says Housman, it’s still too early in the initiative’s life to offer a specific blueprint as to what teaching these kids will look like. In any case, for Moul, it was an obvious fit: He would join up, rally support, and, later, do his thing — organize industry players and strategize how best to use all available resources.

At this point, CS4Philly — which officially kicked off in December at City Hall — is still little more than a coalition of people with an intent. What sets it apart is who some of those people are: Mayor Jim Kenney, Superintendent Hite, Comcast’s David L. Cohen, Philadelphia Education Fund’s Farah Jimenez. But the city buy-in is just the start of what will be a years-long undertaking, which Moul describes thusly: Stage one, coalition-building. Stage two, constructing a pilot. Stage three, scaling up. (There are roughly 200,000 kids in the district.) Oh, and some heavy-duty fund-raising.

It’s safe to say that CS4Philly will put Moul’s skills to the test, even the first bit that he is, by all accounts, great at — the skill Boomi founder Rick Nucci calls “rallying people” and PIDC president John Grady calls “not sucking up all the air in the room.” Unlike in the start-up world, exactly nothing here is nimble. And that might be trying for this CEO who — as Diane puts it — “can sometimes be a bit taken aback when things don’t move forward at the pace of his pace.”

“It’s one of his best qualities,” offers Wink, “that ‘Let’s just go to work’ attitude. But he’s sometimes impatient with people politics. Sometimes they’re bullshit, and sometimes they’re not. In this case, I think they’re monumentally important.”

But Moul has paid a price for moving too fast in the past, and if he’s dropped everything else now to focus on canvassing the mind-boggling number of players involved, it’s precisely because he understands that it’s not just the bold names that need to be on board, but also educators, the business community, the foundations, the tech world, and, importantly, the subset of the tech world that’s been devoted to this cause for years.

One such devotee is Sylvester Mobley, who founded four-year-old Coded By Kids, a nonprofit tech ed program for Philly students. Mobley has been working with the school district for a year now; he’s currently in 17 district schools and still scaling up. He’s also a friend of Moul’s, and they’ve talked a bit about one of the tensions for CS4Philly: how to incorporate — not duplicate, not eradicate — programs, like Mobley’s, that are already working. Another tension for Moul in particular: Here he is, a white guy from the ’burbs, coming into an arena where plenty of black technologists, including Mobley, have already been doing good work. The optics here — the potential for a “white savior narrative” — are, Mobley allows, a bit sticky.

“Really, I have hope and faith in Bob,” he says. “What he wants is what’s best for the city and for our children.” Mobley would love if his organization could spend less time lobbying lawmakers and more time in the classroom — something CS4Philly could facilitate. “But there are just things that should be addressed and sorted out,” Mobley says. If he’s a little wary, well, you know what they say about good intentions. The stakes here, he adds, aren’t start-up stakes, where failure means that a customer loses a product: “If this folds, then a city full of kids can get hurt.”

To Moul’s credit, these are hurdles he seems to see. When asked about these specific tensions, he seems thoughtful if a bit cautious, saying that his intention is not to create a monolith out to dictate an agenda, but a forum in which to figure out a framework to “lift up and grow what’s already going on.” And for so many reasons — because he’s been an employer struggling to hire trained people, because he loves Philly, because these days, he’s thinking more about vocation than career — he really just wants to be a cog in this particular wheel. “If I can help give our kids in this city the same shot I had 40 years ago,” he says, “when that computer got dropped into my school and changed my life … ”

There are a million other hurdles, big and small, but Moul gets more pepped up — that optimism! — the longer we talk about the big questions, including how the hell a city facing a five-year, billion-dollar school budget deficit can afford a district-wide anything. Well, he says, New York is aiming to get its 1.1 million students computer science training by 2025 for an $81 million price tag, via public-private partnerships. He projects that Philly will need $30 or $40 million: “An incredibly doable number!”

“I’ve said this before,” Moul says. “When we wanted the Pope, we got the Pope. When we wanted the NFL draft, we got the draft. Same with the DNC.” He’s getting even more pepped up. “We can raise hundreds of millions at the drop of a hat for art. So yes, I think we can find $30 million or $40 million for tech ed.”

There are undoubtedly people who won’t share this opinion, but the timing could hardly be better. Hite and his crew have been ramping up the district’s commitment to computer science for years. Inclusivity has become a tech-scene mantra. School control is going local. The Mayor seems unafraid to make bold moves. Meanwhile, there’s this puzzle: these kids, their education, the workforce, city jobs, the future, and all the pieces seem to be coalescing …

At the Corner Bakery, I ask Moul if this is what he loves about the start-up world — the early rush of new possibilities. That’s an exciting part, he says. “But honestly, the high for me comes not at the start, but from the results.” He pauses. “You know, when I pack up my bag on my last day at Cloudamize and walk out that door … ” He chokes up a little, right there at our table, as people walk by with their bagels. “That will be the high.”

A couple weeks later, his last day has come, and Moul walks out the door at Cloudamize and heads to Happy Rooster to celebrate with co-workers. He invites me via text; I tell him I’m on my way. “Yay!!” he writes. When I get there, he’s in the middle of a crowd, posing for pictures, getting hugs. A few minutes later, his phone rings, and he steps out to take a quick call from his friend Michael Nutter.

While he’s engaged, I chat with a young woman Moul hired, Mel, who came to Cloudamize looking to transition into the tech world, where she felt she’d have a better career trajectory. She applied for an office manager position, but Moul thought she had — wait for it — a certain spark, and made her a project manager instead. She’s learned the technology bit as she goes.

“I think he sees potential in people,” she says. “I think he sees things other people don’t see.”

A few minutes later, Moul is back, holding a full glass of water. “Do you not drink?” I ask. “I do, but I’m taking it slow,” he says, gesturing at the roomful of people who’ll want to buy him a beer tonight. Most of them are younger than Moul by a couple or three decades, so, yeah, water is probably a good idea. It will likely be a long night, and 4 a.m. comes before you know it.

Published as “Bob Moul’s Public Offering” in the May 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.