When Broadcom software developer Eben Upton invented the Raspberry Pi, his main goal was to democratize computing for an emerging generation. A decade later the single board computer, which starts at just $5 for the Raspberry Pi Zero, has sold over 25 million units and attracted the attention of Hollywood—the Raspberry Pi Foundation served as the educational partner for Shaun the Sheep Movie 2: Farmageddon, which hits theaters today.
PCMag spoke to Raspberry Pi Foundation CEO Philip Colligan to get the backstory on the machine and what’s next for the company. Here are edited and condensed excerpts of our conversation.
How do you engage young people to interact with the Raspberry Pi platform?
We’ve engaged well over a million young people in Code Clubs and CoderDojos, and millions more young people use our free educational resources every year in schools and at home. That is millions of young people learning how to create with digital technologies, many of whom will go on to change the world with the skills they’re developing. Tens of thousands of educators are using our free online courses to develop their skills and confidence with teaching computing, which is a really significant development. If we want to provide every child with a world-class computing education, we’ve got to train teachers.
(Raspberry Pi Foundation CEO Philip Colligan)
For clarity, tell us the distinction between the foundation, which you run, and the trading company that Eben Upton presides over, and how they work in conjunction with each other.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a UK-registered charity with an educational mission and Raspberry Pi Trading Limited is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Foundation. That means that the Foundation is the shareholder of the trading company, which is an independent, commercial business. That distinction is really important because there are limits on what charities can do commercially. For example, a charity couldn’t sell computers that are used in industry, which is a huge part of the Raspberry Pi computer business now. I lead the foundation and I also serve as a director on the board of the trading company. As you said, Eben Upton leads the trading company.
Do you ever collaborate?
While Foundation and Trading are separate businesses, there are lots of areas where we collaborate to advance the educational mission. My favourite example is Astro Pi, where we have Raspberry Pi computers on the International Space Station and run competitions for young people to write experiments that run in space. It takes a proper team effort from both Trading and Foundation to make that happen.
How is it possible to make the Raspberry Pi Zero for just $5?
Three ingredients: top quality engineering, business model innovation, and a relentless attention to costs. Honestly, I think that Raspberry Pi Trading is genuinely one of the most exciting engineering companies in the world. Eben has gathered together some remarkably talented people around this mission to deliver high-performance, general purpose computing platforms at the lowest possible price point. And it’s not just technological innovation, there’s also a huge amount of business model and supply chain innovation that goes into shipping a $5 computer.
(Raspberry Pi Zero)
What was your first exposure to the computing platform?
Like millions of other people, I first heard of Raspberry Pi when Rory Cellan Jones published his famous BBC blog in May 2011. A big part of my role at the time was supporting social enterprises that were trying to solve the computing skills crisis, so I met Eben in that context, and I was living in Cambridge, where everyone was talking about Raspberry Pi. But my first hands-on experience with the platform was in September 2014 when I got my son a Raspberry Pi for his seventh birthday. We’ve had a lot of fun building cool projects together ever since.
You studied law at the University of Liverpool. What was your original plan?
I haven’t had a particularly traditional or planned career. I left school aged 16 and started working straight away. I went to university later than most, after studying business and finance at night school. If I had a thought at the time, it was probably that I would become a music industry lawyer, but I quickly realized that I was much more interested in public policy, which took me down a different path. Since then my career choices have been driven by finding big social challenges that I felt I could make an impact on.
You worked at the innovation foundation Nesta, as well as inside government as an advisor on social innovation to the British Cabinet Office. What made you move to Raspberry Pi?
In my previous role at Nesta, I worked across a very wide range of issues, supporting social enterprises, charities, and governments to try to get better solutions to problems. It was an incredible privilege and I learnt a huge amount from some of the world’s most successful innovators, including how to build and scale social business. The role at the Raspberry Pi Foundation felt like a perfect next step. It allowed me to bring all of that experience and learning to a single problem that I cared passionately about: helping more young people become digital makers, not just consumers.
What have you learned so far?
In terms of lessons, probably the most important has been the role of evidence and knowing whether what you’re doing is having an impact. Far too many social programs aren’t honest about whether they’re working, whether because of pressure for funding or whatever. That’s something we work really hard on at the foundation; we are constantly measuring our impact, including through randomized control trials, and more generally getting feedback and improving what we do.
How did the partnership with Aardman Animations on Shaun the Sheep Movie 2: Farmageddon come about? And what are you creating with/for the movie?
We’re big fans of Aardman, and we’ve been discussing potential collaborations for a few years. When they asked us to become the educational partner for Shaun the Sheep’s latest movie, we jumped at the chance. As part of our partnership, we created a project called “Shaun the Sheep: Mission to Space,” where you create an animation with sprites from the movie using a programming tool called Scratch. So essentially, you’re writing code that brings the characters to life. So cool! We ran a competition for Code Clubs using the project, but it’s online for anyone to access and have a play with. I think it’s a great way to demonstrate the creative side of computing and to show the important role that programming plays in creative industries.
When I was in my early teens, growing up in the UK, my only access to a computer was an 8-bit BBC Micro, made by Acorn computers (remember those 5.25-inch floppy disks?), and it wasn’t connected to the web. But it did have one of those text-based adventure games which started “YOU ARE STANDING SOUTH OF THE WIZARD’S CASTLE” and I was hooked.
I was at school during the BBC micro project, but honestly, I don’t really remember using computers at school. My first memory of computers was actually using my friend’s ZX Spectrum to type in hundreds of lines of code from magazines to make games. We’d change the code to create something original, which would more often than not break the game, but I remember it being a lot of fun.
That era really changed computing.
I think one of the most important things about that whole era was the fact that if you wanted to get a computer to do anything, you had to write some code. That immediately changed your relationship with the technology, it just didn’t seem magical anymore. That sense of agency and control over digital technologies is something we’re trying to share with a new generation of young people through Raspberry Pi.
Good point. When I interviewed Dr. Henry Samueli, founder of Broadcom, he talked about his focus on the next generation of engineers. Is there still a link with Broadcom itself?
We still use Broadcom silicon on the Raspberry Pi platform and that’s been a long and very successful partnership for us. Of course, the relationship between Broadcom and Trading is a commercial one. On the Foundation side, we work with the Broadcom Foundation in the US on our teacher training and other educational programmes.
Finally, there are a ton of cool free projects to build online. Which are your favorites? I’m digging the RPG tabletop one.
That’s like asking me to choose my favorite child! Seriously, there are a bunch of projects there about building a weather station and tracking the weather, which are a really great introduction to programming with Python, sensors, manipulating data, and much more. They also connect what can be an abstract idea of computers and programming to a real-world problem: the climate emergency. I think that one of the most important reasons for equipping young people with the skills and confidence to create with technology is so that they can solve the problems they care about. I can’t think of a better place to start than the environment. We’ve got some very exciting plans for events this year. Watch this space!
Shaun the Sheep Movie 2: Farmageddon arrives in theaters on Dec. 13.