How Codecademy got so hot, so fast

Codecademy is on fire right now. The startup, which teaches users how to program with an interactive and social web application, has garnered more than 1 million users (including bold-faced names such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) and made learning how to write computer code trendy with its “Code Year” program aimed at the New Year’s resolution crowd. And all this from a startup that’s only five months old, with just five full-time staffers.

I sat down with Codecademy co-founder and CEO Zach Sims to hear about how the company got to this point so quickly, and what’s on deck for the months ahead. Here are a few key takeaways:

Necessity breeds invention

The idea behind Codecademy emerged out of the founding duo’s frustrations with the status quo of learning how to program. Co-founder Ryan Bubinski was already an experienced programmer who spent his weekends and free time during college teaching other students how to build web applications; but Sims was not nearly as familiar with coding. When the two entered Y Combinator’s summer 2011 class together in the hopes of launching a web startup, Sims tried to learn how to code on his own so that he could be of more help on the technical side of whatever business they founded.

“I was watching videos and tutorials and reading books,” Sims said. “But I found I learn best by building things and breaking things, not by just reading something. I wanted something interactive where I could learn in bite-sized pieces, and actually practice what I learned along the way.” So Sims and Bubinski decided to use their time at Y Combinator to build exactly that — and Codecademy was born. The company is now backed with $2.5 million in venture capital from a handful of elite investors including Union Square Ventures, O’Reilly Ventures, SV Angel and Yuri Milner.

Timing is everything

Codecademy’s message — that knowing how to write computer code is becoming just as important as knowing how to read or write — could not have come at a better time. While many sectors of the economy are suffering from layoffs and underemployment, the tech industry is having a full-on hiring crunch. Nearly every tech industry executive I talk to is currently looking to hire as many good engineers as he or she can find. The only problem is that not enough people right now have the programming skills necessary for those jobs.

Screenshot of an introductory Codecademy lesson (click to enlarge)

“Programming is the new literacy,” Sims said. “We’re all walking around with these phones in our pockets, using all these apps, but no one understands how any of it works. There are just not enough engineers, and this is the job of the future.” That Codecademy launched just when this started to become apparent on a larger scale has been key to its early success.

Listening to users — online and off

When Codecademy’s users started getting together offline by scheduling real-life meetups, the company decided to follow them. Last week saw the launch of official Codecademy meetups, and there are now official meetup groups in 171 regional areas worldwide to let people get together in person to discuss their progress learning how to code. Also last week Codecademy launched a QA feature within its web product to let people talk to each other via online forums while doing the Codecademy lessons.

Getting bigger, but staying scrappy

For now, Codecademy does not make any revenue, but in the future it could start charging for more advanced lessons and premium services, Sims said. Any revenue generation plans are a bit farther out on the horizon, as right now the company’s focus is on growing its user base and adding new lessons to the core free service. One thing is certain, though: Codecademy has no plans to become an accredited learning institution that charges for a degree.

Sims, who studied Political Science at Columbia University but dropped out several credits shy of graduation, said that Codecademy is founded on the belief that skills are the most important factor in getting good work — not educational credentials. “If you look at a lot of Silicon valley companies, they don’t hire based on a degree. A lot of the best programmers in the industry never even went to college at all,” he said. “Your skills should speak for themselves.” That sounds like a worthwhile lesson in itself.

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