When he was in high school, Zach Sims spent his spare time writing about tech startups and their go-getter founders for a web 2.0-tech blog. Now, as the 22-year-old CEO and co-founder of Codecademy, a startup backed by more than $12 million from some of the tech world’s choosiest venture capitalists, the only story he’s focused on telling is his own.
In the 14 months since its launch, Codecademy has attracted more than a million aspiring hackers with its online courses on programming and web development. But more than that, he and his cofounder Ryan Bubinksi have become the faces of an emerging learn-to-code movement, winning kudos from the White House and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Much of that attention is due to the early popularity of the site, the caliber of its investors and exceptional timing — in an age of smartphones and other connected devices, technology has never been more accessible, and the people skilled in its languages never more in demand. Rockstar startup CEOs, from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley to Tumblr’s David Karp, built their startups (or at least the first iterations of them) with coding chops. But even those who don’t aspire to that kind of success believe that, as the economy goes digital and the Internet touches every part of our lives, understanding computer code, even at a basic level, is the key to keeping up and remaining employable.
“We’re building what I think is 21st-century education. It’s interactive, it’s community-driven, and it’s fun. … It’s not about bringing what’s offline online, it’s about creating a new learning experience for more people on the Web,” said Sims. “Not only do we want to create more programmers, we want to create people that are just conscious of what they’re doing.”
But while Sims has been expansive on the grander vision, he has been less vocal about Codecademy’s business model. The company has yet to report that it’s earned any revenue, and Sims’ challenge now is to build a money-making business amid increasing competition and ongoing debates over how much programming most of us really need to learn.
“[It] concerns me – this concept that coding is as fundamental as reading and writing. …For the subset of people who say I love computers and I want to learn to do this stuff, I’m in no way interfering. But don’t tell people that programming is a core skill in life,” said programmer Jeff Atwood, co-founder of Stack Exchange who blogs at CodingHorror.com. “They’re scaring people [by implying that] if you don’t know this you’re going to fall behind.”
Right place, right time
Sims, who grew up in Greenwich, Conn., said he was drawn to the Internet and entrepreneurship early on. As a 7th grader, he convinced manufacturers in China to sell him iPod cases in bulk, which he then resold on eBay. And in high school, he wrote and managed writers for Rev2.org, an early blog on tech startups and trends.
Soon after arriving at Columbia University in 2008, he joined the Columbia Venture Community. Even though he decided to major in political science, he immersed himself in New York’s tech world, quickly learning how to parlay introductions with local startup founders into internships. In addition to a stint at Drop.io — which he scored after attending a talk founder Sam Lessin gave on-campus — he interned at AOL Ventures and GroupMe. Often, he said, he logged long 40-hour workweeks on top of his schoolwork.
Andy Weissman, partner at Union Square Ventures, one of Codecademy’s earliest investors, said that when he first met Sims he was so “omnipresent” that it didn’t even register that he was still a student. “He’s someone who seems to have a good ability to be in a lot of the right places at the right time,” said Weissman.
One of those right places was the office of The Columbia Daily Spectator, Columbia’s student newspaper, where he met Bubinski. In addition to sharing Sims’ interest in journalism, Bubinski started a campus programming community, the Application Development Initiative, which ultimately influenced some of the pair’s side projects and later their startup.
Even then, Sims was notorious for packing his days — and even nights — with activities. “[In college] it would somehow come out that he was sleeping four hours a night because he was taking two more classes than he was supposed to, working part-time for [a startup], reading two books and fully up on everyday news,” said Hope Weissler, a longtime friend who has known Sims since elementary school. And way before he had a startup to pitch, she said, he had a knack for getting the people around him interested in whatever it is that draws his attention, from the serious (politics and technology trends) to the “silly” (like the fancy pens and custom notebooks he favors). Weiss, as well as others who know him, say Sims is deeply curious and has a sponge-like ability to absorb information — if he’s not devouring a book on his Kindle or reading articles online, he seems to be grilling the experts in his life to learn as much as he can.
When Sims and Bubinski decided to apply to startup accelerator Y Combinator in the summer of 2011, their business idea was a new way to evaluate programmers through quizzes and challenges. But as with so many startups, it was a pivot that got them to where they are now. While building out their initial idea, Sims struggled to keep up with Bubinksi, who was the better programmer. So barely a couple of of weeks before demo day, they switched gears from their original idea and turned their problem into their business, launching Codecademy as a browser-based, interactive way to learn to code online.
In a matter of days, the site became a viral hit. In its first 72 hours, Codecademy attracted 200,000 users and by October 2011, it had raised $2.5 million from top VCs, including Union Square Ventures, SV Angel and Founder Collective. Before what would have been his senior year at Columbia, Sims dropped out to focus full-time on Codecademy and, since then, it’s raised another $10 million.
The startup also got a big boost from its learn-to-code Code Year initiative, which it launched last December, just in time for resolution season. In the first 48 hours, it spurred 100,000 sign-ups and won a Twitter endorsement from Mayor Bloomberg. Meanwhile, the White House this summer announced a program with Codecademy to train low-income youth. It is also beginning to make some headway with public schools, thousands of which are using curricula and flyers from Codecademy to support after-school computer science clubs.
Lots of options for wannabe developers
But Codeacademy was hardly the first company to offer online programming instruction. Lynda.com, O’Reilly, CodeSchool, Think Vitamin (which later became Treehouse) and others provided wannabe developers with some form of online courses, ebooks, video instruction and tutorials, some of which used interactive, in-browser tools similar to Codecademy’s.
But Sims and Bubinksi recognized that many of the other sites were missing an opportunity to reach a bigger audience. They either relied on one-directional instruction (such as video and text), targeted those who already had some coding experience, or made it daunting for new students to get started. Instead, Codecademy presented a clean, unintimidating interface that promised users “the easiest way to learn to code” – for free. And, to get started, Codeacademy users didn’t have to click through multiple pages of directions; all they had to do was type their first name into a big box on the homepage.
In pitching the startup to the public and press, Sims has positioned the company as more of a leader of cause, than a company, with aspirations to expand around the world. “His abilities as a marketer, to explain in really emotional and simple terms what he’s trying to do… is amazing for someone of his age,” said Weissman. “He has an innate ability to describe and articulate what they’re doing in ways that matter to lots and lots of people.”
Can Codecademy be more than a ‘gateway drug’ to coding?
But Codecademy has had its criticisms, too — from aspiring hackers, more seasoned programmers and education technology observers. A key part of the company, as well as a key reason investors are so enamored with it, is Codecademy’s reliance on the network effects of its users, who each add to the overall value of the program. Indeed, more than 25,000 course creators have contributed lessons to the platform. But the quality varies and many say the courses assume too much knowledge on the part of the student. Codecademy chooses which courses to feature and provides some structure so that students can get a tracked experience. But while it launched with courses created in-house, it now mostly takes the courses submitted by users and retrofits them into a quasi curriculum instead of creating a curriculum from scratch based a thesis of how people should learn how to code.
“I think it’s a smaller gateway drug into programming, where people can try it and learn about it. But I think they seriously overstate their actual effectiveness,” said Zed Shaw, an experienced software developer and author of several programming books, including “Learn Python The Hard Way.” “It’s a complicated topic to teach … and there’s not a lot of research in how to teach computer science. The idea that you’re going to get a bunch of random programmers, who are notoriously bad at explaining programming, to teach — it just doesn’t fly.”
A little bit of coding certainly can’t hurt anyone, but is the market for user-generated coding classes really big enough to build a business model around?
Codeacademy has been enormously successful in drawing in users, yet it’s not clear they’re able to get them to stay. Of the 400,000 people who eagerly signed up for Code Year, Sims said only that “a lot” continued. But one could imagine that, as with most New Year’s resolutions, many people gave it up after realizing the real commitment learning to code requires. Speaking broadly about the site, Fred Wilson, a Union Square Ventures partner and Codecademy investor, recently acknowledged that just a very small percentage of the people who land on Codecademy actually end up making it through the process and able to write software at the end.
Initiatives like its after-school clubs and meetups, which bring an offline component to its online lessons, certainly help the company expand its overall pool of users. But for Codecademy to become a revenue-generating business, it’s still going to have to start giving users, even those that don’t want to become full-on programmers, a tangible reason to stick around. Which could become even harder as more startups like Udacity, Coursera, Khan Academy, and others give it some tough competition.
To his credit, Sims has not shied away such questions and criticisms. He says the company – just like its co-founder and CEO – is still evolving. “It’s all a work in progress,” he says. “I feel like everything is that way.”