A Start-Up Aims to Teach Anyone to Write Computer Code

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle

Zach Sims, 23, one of the founders of Codecademy, in his company's conference room in New York City
December 17, 2013

While studying political science at Columbia University, Zach Sims looked on with frustration as peers—graduating with lots of student debt and few workplace-ready skills—struggled to find jobs. In 2011, before what would have been his senior year, he dropped out to help start Codecademy, a free, interactive web platform designed to help teach even the most unlikely candidates programming languages likes JavaScript.

Mr. Sims, now 23, and his co-founder, Ryan Bubinski, 24, a Columbia graduate, have proved particularly adept at heralding coding as a résumé must-have in a digital economy. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City declared he would learn to code via the platform. Codecademy has attracted millions of users, has drawn $12.5-million in venture-capital funds, and employs 22 people, Mr. Sims says, although it has yet to generate revenue. (The co-founders remain coy about possible revenue streams but say they are in the works.)

In 2012, Codecademy piloted a blended-learning programming class at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development that the co-founders hope to replicate on other campuses. There have also been collaborations with the Malaysian and Colombian governments.

In the following edited conversation with The Chronicle, Mr. Sims discusses connecting education to employment, managing expectations, and building something that "changes the world."

Q. Why should someone who isn't going to work specifically in software development learn how to code?

A. We are not encouraging everyone to become developers and actually write software on a daily basis. We are encouraging everyone to understand the way the world we live in works. We are all on our phones all the time without an understanding of how these tools work, and without an understanding of how we can harness that to our advantage.

I think every field, regardless of whether right now it has been altered by technology, will be affected by programming. Biology is becoming computation biology. Statistics has turned into Big Data, which now affects everything from what is on the menu at a Chipotle to the most popular stories on something like BuzzFeed. Pretty much every field in some way or other will be transformed by technology and programming, and it is important for people to understand how that is and deal with the tectonic shift in society, and hopefully be able to play a part.

Q. Would you describe Codecademy as a trade school for the 21st century?

A. The company in its current iteration definitely is focused on teaching people to program, and we do believe programming is 21st-century literacy. At the same time, we think that what people need to do in the 21st century is learn skills from an institution that teaches employable skills in a new and novel way. That is what we are focused on as a company, with programming being that skill right now.

Q. Is Codecademy an appropriate substitute for a traditional in-person computer-science course?

A. We are used on a number of campuses as part of homework. A lot of teachers use the platform as a tool to create their own lessons that they use in the classroom. It is not just about people using curriculum and having it replace given things; it is also about them creating their own curriculum and migrating their courses online to more engaging formats. We are used as a replacement for computer-science courses, a supplement to computer-science courses, and as something people use to brush up on their skills.

Q. How would you describe Codecademy's place within the larger education-technology landscape?

A. We teach one subject and are larger in volume of users and activity than most, if not all, of the other online-learning companies. Second, I think we have done things totally differently. When you look at a lot of the companies that have proliferated in the last couple of years, they are taking offline material and they are putting it online. If you look at massively open online courses, you are seeing the classroom format from colleges being adapted and moved online.

What we are trying to do is invent a new and native way for people to end up learning and to really use technology for what it is meant to be used for, which is to improve the quality of these experiences, instead of just distributing them to more people.

We built an entirely interactive experience, one that is focused on learning by doing as opposed to learning by watching or learning by submitting homework. It leads to a much more engaging experience. When you are interacting with content all the time, it is much more interesting than watching a video and being interrupted every 10 minutes for quizzes.

Q. You and your co-founder have received a fair amount of buzz since the inception of the company. How do you balance the attention and expectations with reality?

A. We are out to build something that changes the world. Obviously that sounds grandiose and probably adds to the expectations, but when I was a student at Columbia I saw a lot of my friends, along with my co-founder Ryan seeing his friends, go through the experience of trying to find a job after graduating with a liberal-arts degree from an Ivy League institution. It was amazingly frustrating to watch people who had paid $200,000 for a four-year education and were laden with debt struggle to realize that they had no skills that were relevant.

What we are trying to do with Codecademy is fix that. I think obviously the expectations are high. To build something that can change the lives of, hopefully, many millions of people in an educational system that is so clearly broken is important. Unfortunately, in education it is kind of a mix of both building the right product and the right solution, and getting people to believe in it. There are big incumbents in institutions in education, and reputation matters almost more than anything else.

Q. Who's the most memorable Codecademy student you have encountered?

A. One of my favorite stories is a girl named Martha who lives in Nairobi. She was a 17-year-old high-school student who had never worked on a computer at home before. One summer in high school she worked in a doctor's office, and for the first time had regular daily access to a computer. She discovered Codecademy, started teaching herself totally independently how to program.

Within a couple of months, she learned enough to become a professional programmer. She ended up getting a job as a developer at Ruby on Rails [an open-source web framework], in Nairobi, and then left her job and started to embody what we consider a core value at Codecademy, which is that learning is teaching. What Martha did was she left her job and started the Nairobi Dev School, the first school in Africa that teaches people programming skills to help them find jobs, with a special emphasis on teaching women and getting more women to become programmers.

To go from someone who had never had access to a computer to her being inspired to make something online, to then getting a job based on what she got on Codecademy, then turning around and giving those same skills to other people, I think is pretty staggering. An entire world away from where we are in New York—having that kind of impact is kind of why we wake up in the morning.