What comes next after the Raspberry Pi? Eben Upton talks chips, children and the future of tech
Walking into the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s office, you wouldn’t think it houses one of the most influential tech companies of the last decade. Situated on one floor of a small Cambridge building – which resembles a 1970s university library, rather than a technological hub – flanked by impressive, modern buildings owned by Microsoft, Deloitte and KPMG, Raspberry Pi has quietly continued to change the face of computing.
Having started from humble origins, the company behind the £30 microcomputer has gone from strength to strength. It recently celebrated three milestones almost simultaneously: hitting its 5th birthday, its eighth product launch and the sale of its 12-millionth unit.
One of the driving forces behind Raspberry Pi Foundation’s success is Eben Upton, the founder and mastermind behind the Raspberry Pi. With stints at Broadcom, Intel and IBM – not to mention a three-year tenure as Cambridge University’s director of studies for computer science – Upton has an impressive technical pedigree behind him. That knowledge quickly becomes evident upon talking to him; it immediately becomes clear that the Raspberry Pi is the definition of a passion project for Upton.
Habitually dressed in jeans and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves, Upton’s demeanour is a cross between a well-liked sixth-form teacher and a starry-eyed Silicon valley programmer. I get the impression that this isn’t a carefully crafted look of artificial nonchalance commonly worn by tech CEOs, but a genuine result of Upton getting his hands dirty – alongside the rest of his staff – with the day-to-day work of engineering. He dismissed the idea of working on shiny new technologies such as AI, saying (with obvious relish): “the stuff we’re good at tends to be grungy, low-level systems programming”.
It’s this passion that’s driven the Raspberry Pi Foundation since the beginning. Founded as a way to get more kids into computing at an earlier age, the Foundation has always been motivated by its values rather than its bottom line. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Raspberry Pi Zero – a fully functional computer priced at a mind-boggling $5. Roughly the size of a packet of chewing gum, the Zero is Upton’s favourite product – a fact given away by the beaming grin that breaks out across his face when I first bring it up in conversation.
“I made a million computers,” Upton points out, “and I turned over five million dollars.” For any other tech company, selling a product that cheaply would be lunacy. For Upton, though, the very concept of how insane a business move it was is part of the reason why he’s so fond of the Zero. “I love that we were able to do it,” he says; “I love that it worked.”
In many ways, the Raspberry Pi Zero is emblematic of the company as a whole. The first Pi models were a runaway hit. But rather than resting on their laurels, Upton and his team went and built the world’s smallest commercial PC purely for fun. “It was just wonderful to be able to take a business that was going well and still be aggressive enough to say ‘what happens if we just tear it up and do something else?'”
With all this hardware innovation taking place, it’s easy to forget that devices such as the Zero are effectively a side project for the Raspberry Pi Foundation. “You’ve got to remember that actually, in the end, we’re a charity,” Upton says. The Foundation was set up with the aim of getting kids into computing, but its efforts don’t stop at making cheaply available hardware for them to practise on.
Outside of the hardware business, the Foundation puts most of its focus on grassroots education projects such as Code Club. Following its acquisition in 2015, Raspberry Pi owns and operates Code Club as a subsidiary, setting up volunteer-staffed after-school clubs to teach kids about programming, computing and other digital skills. “Code Club is amazing. What never fails to astound me is the number of kids – there’s over 5,000 Code Clubs in the UK, we’ve reached about 75,000 kids.”
“We’ve got to the point where more than half of the schools [in our age bracket] have Code Clubs,” Upton says. “It changes what the question is. The question isn’t ‘what’s a Code Club?’; the question for a parent is ‘why doesn’t my school have a Code Club? Because my friend’s child’s school has a Code Club?'”
Not only has Code Club proved to be a huge success over here, it’s also expanded internationally. There are hundreds of franchised Code Clubs in countries including Australia, South Korea and Brazil, all of which are working within their communities to get kids into computers at an earlier age.
Upton’s goal with Code Club, he says, is “finishing off the UK”. While he acknowledged the changing nature of tech means the job is never “done”, his aim is to reach the point where there’s a Code Club in every school. This, along with the Foundation’s other efforts, such as its Picademy teacher training programme, is geared towards combatting the tech industry’s burgeoning skills shortage.
In particular, Upton is aiming to bring more girls into the tech workforce, which continues to struggle with a serious gender imbalance. “It’s the single thing you can change,” he says. “Participation rates among women are so low that if you got them up to the same level as they are already among men, then you’d effectively be doubling your workforce. If there’s one bit of low-hanging fruit, that’s the one.”
He’s aiming to fix this problem through getting girls invested at an earlier age. It appears to be going well; roughly 40% of Code Club attendees are girls, a proportion that far outstrips most tech firms. “The reason it’s nice that we’re doing this intervention around Code Club at nine to 11 is that it’s a window where if you can get a girl to the end [of it] and she’s still excited about [tech], there’s every chance that she’ll continue to be excited about it all the way through her career.”
The progress of the five-year-old Foundation is impressive but, for Upton, the important thing is that it’s built to last. The way the Foundation is governed has recently been revamped in order to make it self-sustaining. Under the new organisation, the Foundation maintains a broad pool of expert members, who are elected by their fellow members to join the board of trustees. The first trustee to be elected under this new system is Dr Tilly Blyth, head of collections and principal curator at the Science Museum in London.
“That gives us some confidence that we’re in this for the long run,” he says. “We’re trying to build an organisation that’s going to outlive me; if this organisation dies before I do, I’ll be very unhappy. You don’t want to be predeceased by your children and you don’t want to be predeceased by your charitable foundations.”
So is all this effort paying off? Well, early signs would suggest that it is. The dip in university admissions for computing courses – the problem the Foundation was originally created to solve – has reversed. In fact, since its creation in 2012, applications to Cambridge’s computer science course have doubled.
Upton has witnessed the impact of his efforts first-hand. “When I used to interview people, it used to take me an afternoon to interview my people for my college. I bumped into my successor in a bar after interviews last year, and it was the end of the week, and he was leaning on the bar; he’d had 42 applicants, I used to have six. He was leaning on the bar with a pint of beer, completely ashen-faced,” he laughs, “so I’ve ruined his life!”
Eben Upton exudes passion. From corporate governance to product design to outreach initiatives, it’s clear there isn’t a single element of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s work that doesn’t utterly captivate him. The company he created is thriving and he appears to be accomplishing that most elusive of Silicon Valley goals: making the world a better place.
So what’s next for the baker of the Raspberry Pi? Founding another startup? Political ambitions, perhaps? According to Upton, working at Raspberry Pi is just too much fun to pass up. “What’s not to like: surround yourself with a staff of easy-going geniuses and build great toys all day long! So I’m still here, and while it’s still fun, I’ll be here.”