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Meet Stephanie Schwarz whose students now run tech companies worth billions

Joining Moriah, she built on her father’s legacy. In a classroom with 25 Apple IIe PCs using 5¼ inch floppy disks, Schwarz took her first computing studies class to the HSC in 1991. Three of her students made the top 10 in NSW. But she found that first year a culture shock.

“If I could have gotten out, I would have,” she says. “It nearly drowned me. It was trial by fire. I came equipped with so many skills from IBM, none of which were relevant in a school – none. I had to get my head around so many unknowns.”

Yet she caught the bug. Teaching was strangely exciting as the kids lapped up the lessons. In the classroom, her mantra was learning by doing. Programming can be powerful because students know right away if what they’re doing is right or not. “There is instant feedback. If you are good at it, the affirmation is constant.” A favourite lesson was playing Lemonade Stand, an Apple II program teaching business foundations.

Afterpay co-founder Nicholas Molnar, left, and Zip co-founder Larry Diamond. 

Now some of Schwarz’s former students are building Australia’s fintech industry and exporting it to the world. Afterpay co-founder Nick Molnar, Zip co-founder Larry Diamond and QuadPay co-founders Brad Lindenberg and Adam Ezra all sat in Schwarz’s classroom. The combined value on the Australian Securities Exchange of the companies they have created is $48 billion.

Schwarz says she is not surprised at the boys’ success given conversations in class. The focus was on problem-solving and breaking things down into steps. Her message was don’t think about the endpoint, but the inputs: build what you have learnt and you will see it develop in front of your eyes. Her learning from IBM was actually very relevant.

“Technology is not an end of itself. You have to understand the basic building blocks – which is what I learnt from IBM. If you understand that, you can do anything with it.”

Larry Diamond remembers Schwarz as being strict, “but that’s because she was an evangelist and wanted to make sure you weren’t taking for granted the privilege you had”. He recalls her mantra as being “there is no substitution for hard work”. “She instilled a deep sense of the power of technology and the ability to invent any future.”

Schwarz, 72, retired from the classroom in 2017; the previous year, she received an Order of Australia for services to IT education. She continues to work with the NSW Education Standards Authority on the computing syllabus and mentoring Moriah teachers.

Reflecting, she remembers teaching as “like going on stage”. “You knew when you had the students, I just loved that. I miss it terribly, but that is how it goes.

“I never knew this was going to be my career. But looking back, I could not have picked anything that would have worked for me better. I have been blessed in what I have done.”

The March issue of AFR Magazine, including the Machine supplement, is out on Friday, February 26 inside The Australian Financial Review. Follow AFR Mag on Twitter and Instagram.


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