This Is New York: Zach Sims, Empowering the World With Free Coding Knowledge
NEW YORK—Brick walls, dark leather couches, and a matching leather beanbag chair furnish the lounge room of Codecademy, a copiously funded startup that provides free, interactive coding lessons.
In an increasingly digitized world, co-founder Zach Sims recognizes that coding is one of the most important skills of the 21st century. During the first 10 months of its existence, the company raised $12.5 million from venture capital firms around the world—Union Square Ventures, Index Ventures, and Kleiner Perkins, to name a few.
A team of 21 is typing away, with fervor, throughout the office. Black permanent marker on a fat ceiling pipe in its Midtown West office scribes key events each year, such as: its founding in 2011, receiving a funding round of $10 million in 2012, and the launching of API lessons in 2013 (like app writing). The record for 2014 is blank so far—a blank slate for the limitless possibilities, of ways that it can impact the world.
What had originated as a website to help new graduates develop skills that the job market needs proliferated into a sensation to help anyone, at any age, and anywhere get ahead in life. Liz Beigle-Bryant, 55, a woman who had no college degree and became unemployed in 2012, got a job as a content editor at Microsoft SharePoint after a few months of hard work.
After completing Codecademy programs, Joah Gerstenberg, 15, and Haley Higgins, 16, coded a calculator; they are now creating websites for local businesses.
Sims recognizes the shortage of computer science teachers around the world. “We help fill the gap between teachers that are available and curriculum that can be taught so that anyone can become great at computer science,” he said.
The founders are living proof: Zach Sims, CEO and co-founder of Codecademy, is only 23 years old; co-founder and CTO Ryan Bubinski is 24.
Sims has a head full of thick, medium blonde hair, and a consistently distant look in his eye even when he is talking to you. He speaks fast and directly to the point. He had seven credits left before he would graduate from Columbia University, but he couldn’t wait for those seven credits.
“When I was growing up, the conventional wisdom was that it takes 40 years to rise through the ranks in a company, become a VP or something, then you can make an impact,” Sims said. “That never made sense to me.”
Although he’s only in his early 20s, he possesses a preternatural knack for business. “If people are capable of doing great things early on, then they shouldn’t be discouraged from doing so,” he said.
Ever since he was a child growing up in Old Greenwich, Conn., he wanted to be in business. In middle school, he made money selling iPod cases.
Before he started Codecademy, Sims worked for drop.io (purchased by Facebook) and GroupMe (purchased by Skype), which was started by his friends at Columbia. “Watching their companies grow from nothing to something that was sufficient value to someone else, it was incredibly inspiring and I learned a lot,” he said.
Neither his mother, who worked in retail, nor his father, a real estate broker, were particularly thrilled that their son decided not to complete his college degree.
Sims has big ideas that cannot wait. Even sleep is a waste of time. He wakes up every day at 5:30 a.m. to exercise. He jogs or bikes from his apartment in Midtown to arrive at his office by 7:30 a.m. He goes home at 9 p.m. He works on weekends.
To maintain balance, he reads a lot. Sims is currently reading the biography of Fox News chief Roger Ailes, “The Loudest Voice in the Room.” “It’s fascinating. That’s probably the most I can say,” he said with a silly smile.
“There’s rarely a time when I wish I could work less,” Sims said. “[Codecademy] is moving so quickly so you have to continually get a grip on the growth. … It’s fun and challenging to deal with growth like that.”
Sims is constantly looking for people to recruit, looking over business strategy, and answering emails. Mike Brown Jr., general partner at Bowery Capital, is his close friend and mentor. Brown advises him on hiring and business growth. Sims worked with him as an intern in college; Brown also invested as a venture partner.
Codecademy, How It Works
The lessons use cute and simple word choices that make it easy to understand for children and adults. For instance, “HTML files have a ‘head’ and a ‘body,’ just like you!”
Right, it’s not the typical computer science textbook jargon. There are many lessons, but each takes little time to complete, so there is an instant feeling of gratification. It resembles a game more than a lesson.
Today, millions of people around the world use Codecademy each month. It provides employee training for corporations such as American Express and AOL. But Sims is not satisfied. “We will never be satisfied with what we’re building,” he said. “It depends on who you compare yourself to.”
“We started with getting into Y-Combinator, which has a 1 percent acceptance rate; that itself was an achievement,” he said. “We’ve accomplished a lot, but we could always build a bigger company and have more of an impact on people’s lives.”
Eight months ago, he landed in Shanghai at around 5 p.m. and went out for drinks with mostly strangers. One of the first persons he got into a conversation with introduced himself as someone who worked for a consulting firm for technology.
Sims said he worked in the field as well. The person went on to say that he learned to program from Codecademy and that was how he got the job that he has now.
Sims was taken aback. “Yeah, well, I, I actually co-founded that.”
“That was pretty powerful,” Sims said. “Literally, all the way around the world, the first person I interacted with said he used Codecademy to get his job.”
It happens all the time. When Bubinski was wearing a Codecademy sweatshirt at Chipotle the other day, a stranger gave him a hug.
A flat screen TV in the lounge shows rotating tweets that mention Codecademy. In one, a father exclaims that his 9-year-old son is now capable of reading Python (an advanced programming language).
“If I could spend my time doing any one thing right now, this is the thing that has the highest impact in the world,” Sims said. “That’s been the driving force of how I allocate my time.”
This Is New York is a weekly feature that delves into the life of an inspiring individual in New York City. Read a new feature every Saturday online, and every Friday in print. See all our TINYs here.