The interview: Zach Sims, co-founder, Codecademy
Zach Sims, co-founder, Codecademy

The interview: Zach Sims, co-founder, Codecademy

24 Jul 2014

Making sure people have the skills to be successful in today’s economy. That has been the guiding principle Codecademy co-founders Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski have stuck to as Codecademy grows globally, bringing software skills to the masses.

It is estimated some 24m people worldwide have logged onto Codecademy to teach themselves coding skills in languages ranging from JavaScript, Python and Ruby to PHP, HTML and CSS.

To many people, the very mention of these software languages would send shivers down their spines. But as most people know, this is where the jobs of the future are going to be and in order to find work – or simply stay in work and be relevant – getting with the “program” so to speak will soon be a matter of survival.

It was these thoughts precisely that coursed through Sims’ mind during that fateful summer of 2011, when as a student at Columbia University he and Bubinski had an epiphany as they pondered not only finding work for the summer but what they were going to do with the rest of their lives post-graduation.

The future of work

“I was a junior at Columbia and Ryan was a senior. I was a political science major and he was studying computer science and the two of us looked at what to do for the summer and what to do as a job. We started to realise that the things we were learning at college weren’t necessary to what we were hoping to do after college.

“So we started looking around and realised in US alone more than 50pc of college graduates are unemployed or under-employed and if you look at that in the context of unemployment issues, the massive holes in technical employment, we realised there was really a big opportunity to connect people with the skills they need to find jobs as opposed to degrees.”

Sims and Bubinski stumbled on what is perhaps one of the greatest issues of our age. Rising youth unemployment, widening gaps between rich and poor and incompatibility between college education and the changing skills needs of an ever increasingly digital world. In Europe alone, it is estimated that the ongoing IT skills shortage could leave up to 1m jobs vacant by 2020, according to the European Commission, and by Sims’ estimate there will be 1.4m unfilled tech roles in the US by 2020.

Codecademy has been a success from day one because its founders had tapped into a deep-felt need among workers and students to learn how to code. The New York-headquartered company raised US$2.5m in Series A funding in 2011 and US$10m in Series B funding in 2012.

Skilled up

The company’s simple and straightforward tutorials have been embraced by not only people learning how to code for the first time but also seasoned IT workers who want to maintain and broaden their skill levels.

“We built the first version of Codecademy out of need. I was teaching myself how to program at the same time and realised it was incredibly frustrating,” Sims said. “I figured how could I turn myself from a political science major into what I really wanted to do, which was work in technology start-ups and one day do a start-up of my own.

“Starting to learn was incredibly frustrating. Books and videos were too boring and the only way I really learned was by doing, so that summer in 2011 Ryan and I figured we could build something very simple for me. I learned JavaScript and Ryan helped teach me. I wrote my first JavaScript lesson for Codecademy and Ryan wrote the front-end for the app, as well, and basically from there on we were lucky enough, despite everyone telling us that no one was interested in learning to programme.

“At that point there were 200,000 programmers in the US and people told us that we would never reach more than 10 or 20pc of them. But we realised that the growth in the industry was real and really software becoming involved in everything would be a crucial part of the future.

“In the first two or three days more than 200,000 people had used Codecademy. So from there a bunch of things happened and the rest is publicly acceptable, but that’s sort of how we got started.”

Entering the curriculum

Codecademy’s tools have been utilised around the world by workers, students and by young kids learning how to code in their own time. Sims is a friend of CoderDojo co-founder James Whelton, whose CoderDojo movement has resulted in more than 16,000 kids around the world learning how to write code every week. Many of the CoderDojo classes would use Codecademy’s curriculum as a tool to help perfect coding skills.

The Codecademy movement is also enjoying some success with governments around the world. In recent months, the education minister in France decreed that Codecademy tools would be deployed in the school curriculum.

In the UK, Codecademy has been working with the UK Department of Education to provide teachers with a range of courses and tools to teach computer science. In addition to this, more than 1,000 schools have signed up to Codecademy’s Pupil Tracker system that helps with lesson plans and courses, tracks students’ progress through percentage rates, awards badges and logs last log-in dates.

“The original mission was to just give everyone an introduction to computing and now we are evolving that mission to help people get the skills they need to find jobs,” Sims said.

“We think people can start at any point. It is not necessarily starting from zero and becoming job-ready immediately, there are some people who have taken computer science at college and might want to actually learn something to find jobs. There might be people who are QA testers who are looking to progress to the next level. We are really helping people to move the needle to where they need to get in order to do their jobs.

“I think the UK is probably the first large entity to introduce programming in schools but we are starting to see this happen elsewhere. In France in May we announced we are working with non-profits in France and doing a pilot in Paris and what we realised is that there’s a lot of hunger there among a bunch of other countries for these skills.

“Last week, the minister for education in France decided that every school will have a programming class come September. The future is a world where people and universities will work together to prepare people for the jobs of the future and a real fundamental part of that is programming.”

Upskilling entrepreneurs

Sims said Codecademy is evolving to not only provide people with languages but actual skill sets to build things and it is working with prominent born-on-the-web companies to identify the real needs of fast-growth companies.

“We launched a course three or four weeks ago with Airbnb and we are launching one shortly with another large tech start-up in the US and what we continue to see is people are interested in building things as opposed to just learning languages.

“We will continue to create courses that help people become more employable. This will be determined by how widespread the adoption of technology is, how it helps you do what you need to do, and how much in demand it is from employers.”

Ultimately, Sims sees the mission of Codecademy as helping people to not only be employable but to stay employable.

“It would definitely not be surprising to see that as tech companies are trying to keep their people and people try to get jobs at tech companies our adoption rates will grow.

“The nice thing about people learning by doing on Codecademy is that every single step of the way they are actually furthering their proven competency in something.

“It is not just being about taking an exam at the end but every single step of the way you are basically improving at what you are doing. It’s not a question of who did it or did you pass a test, because in order to finish you must learn and you must walk through everything step by step and build up progress.”

Scale and skills

As Codecademy becomes a part of schools’ curriculum, its usage is likely to explode. Is the three-year-old start-up ready for this?

“We’re already prepared. We have pretty large scale at this point. The way we actually prepare the proper curriculum, the proper way of learning throughout the whole thing it should hopefully not be too difficult to continue to scale as we have. It will mean more content, more curriculum, more great teachers for learning. Really the whole thing should stay the same but should scale.”

In recent months, Codecademy announced a new global initiative to work closely with governments and educators. The company also established its first international office in London.

Sims said more than 70pc of Codecademy’s users are from outside the US. “We hope to continue to grow that by being available in different languages and by being present in different countries, as well.”

Despite America being home to Silicon Valley, as well as some of the world’s most iconic technology companies, such as Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Intel and in more recent times Google, Facebook and Twitter, the country faces the same hurdles in reformatting education for the 21st century. Schools in the US face the same mathematical and literacy skills challenges as many other countries, before you even factor in coding.

Sims is optimistic that Codecademy could play a vital role in bringing the US school curriculum into the digital age, ensuring high school and university graduates are tooled up with the skills to succeed.

“Definitely – I think the real challenge here is just the government structure. So in the US you go state by state in order to get something into the government and in some cases it is city by city. In the UK it was much easier for centralised government action to get people programming.

“The real issue is there is definite willingness from the US government. The challenge is actually implementing that and going state by state and we are working with legislators here,” he said.

“It is something that will happen. It is just a question of when.”

John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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