Programming skills can be a ticket to upward mobility.
If you are looking for a sure route to a job, learn to code, says Codeacademy co-founder Zach Sims.
As chief executive of Codecademy, a two-year-old company that offers free, online instruction in computer programming, Mr. Sims believes that programming skills can be a ticket to upward mobility just as a college degree has been for generations.
Yet it isn’t clear whether Codecademy will profit from teaching people how to program. For now, Mr. Sims is more focused on changing the world through technology by bringing his product to the masses. Revenue streams will appear in time, the 23-year-old Ivy League dropout says.
As Codecademy geared up for a wave of new students motivated by New Year’s resolutions, Mr. Sims talked about where the New York-based company is headed. Edited excerpts:
WSJ: Not everyone is cut out to be a programmer. What’s the value of teaching everyone how to write lines of code?
Mr. Sims: It teaches you how to think. The same way we teach math, we teach English, they’re rough frameworks for how to operate. We think of computer science the same way. Thinking about things in a series of repeatable steps that you can automate and use technology for is a new way of thinking. Understanding how your phone works, or how the Internet works—or better yet, how to problem-solve—are skills that are hard to teach.
WSJ: What makes a Codecademy course different from a MOOC [massive, open, online course]?
Mr. Sims: A lot of MOOCs take offline content from classrooms, bring it online and simply use the Internet as a means for distribution. We’re using the Internet for building large communities, building interactive, Internet- and mobile-native experiences for learning.
WSJ: Nearly all the content on Codecademy is user-generated. Who creates the lessons? And how do you maintain quality?
Mr. Sims: More than 100,000 people have created Codecademy lessons. It varies from companies like Twitter and Google to former students.
We find drop-offs and track the number of times exercises are incorrectly submitted. It quickly becomes apparent what the best exercises are and which ones users should be shown. We pull courses that aren’t performing well.
WSJ: How do you measure user success?
Mr. Sims: Users can track their [own] progress. We have a policy of not snooping on user data when we don’t have authorization.
People usually have one of three goals: they want to build something specific, they want to find a job or they want to understand the basics of programming. We will start tracking how effective those people are in achieving their goals.
One of the biggest problems people have is figuring out what to learn and why. Sometimes taking a beginner-based course with a live teacher, like those taught at DaVinci Coders in Boulder, Code Fellows in Seattle, or Epicodus in Portland can get people started.
WSJ: A number of online education companies are trying to build job-matching tools to connect top pupils with employers, with mixed results. Do you see that as a revenue source?
Mr. Sims: We’ve always been interested in connecting people with the places that need them. We’ve had hundreds of companies reach out and request to participate in a program like this, but we don’t offer it yet.
[We’re different from the others because] we’ve got a data set that’s much larger and focused on ‘learn by doing,’ meaning our learners are continually proving competencies. In addition, they have a portfolio that contains projects they have created on Codecademy.
WSJ: If classes are free, how will you make money?
Mr. Sims: A bunch of things can happen with a large group of people. The model of ‘build a large group first and monetize it later’ has worked really well in social. Millions of users on Codecademy are not just tweeting but instead are learning valuable skills; so helping that group of people is definitely monetizable.
WSJ: Codecademy recently entered a contract to help the U.K. government teach students how to program. Are you interested in pursuing more deals along these lines?
Mr. Sims: Definitely. We’ve worked with the government of Malaysia training students and did an economic development program with the government of Colombia. This is going to happen in schools, it’s going to happen outside of schools, and hopefully Codecademy can help facilitate a lot of that.
WSJ: Where will Codecademy be two-and-a-half years from now?
Mr. Sims: We’ll teach you a bunch of relevant skills and we’ll do so in a way that is very different than the way traditional education operates today. It’s not too lofty of a goal to assume that we’ll save a lot of people from entering $200,000 of debt and graduating and working jobs they don’t like.
WSJ: You dropped out of Columbia University after your junior year. Is there still value in a traditional education?
Mr. Sims: It is right for a certain type of person. But we’re lying to ourselves about [a four-year] college being the only form of postsecondary education. People who end up at vocational schools and associate degree programs might be making the right educational decisions.
WSJ: You’ve worked with startups that were bought by large tech firms, including Drop.io, which was sold to Facebook, and GroupMe, which was sold to Skype. Is a Codecademy acquisition in the cards?
Mr. Sims: I don’t particularly like the idea…I think selling to a larger corporation…doesn’t allow us to be the stewards of something society really needs.
Photo credit: Simple Programmer