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Written in Code

Twenty-three-year-old Zach Sims could very well be changing the future of the Internet (eat your heart out Al Gore) by putting the power of its evolution into the hands of the masses

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Kids these days. They all want to learn to write code.

Code is what makes the modern world spin. As sentences build novels, code builds computer programs—programs that let people order tapas in Greenwich, tweet news from Patagonia, or launch a drone strike in Waziristan. In medicine, code placed in the brain via computer chip allows a deaf man to hear. In movies, Superman rockets through a “coded” stratosphere so convincingly that you can almost feel the wind in your own hair. The people who build things out of code are the Merlins of our age—the Steve Jobses and Bill Gateses, the Wozniaks, Zuckerbergs, Pages and Brins. They seem a race of super-brains propelling us into a future we’re not sure we’re ready for—especially when someone like Larry Page, Google’s cofounder, tells us, “Eventually you’ll have the implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer.”

Now there’s a movement afoot to put the power of these Merlins into your hands and mine. That is, to teach us how to write code. At the head of this movement are Greenwich native Zach Sims and his partner, Ryan Bubinski, who in 2011 cofounded Codecademy in their Columbia University dorm rooms. Codecademy offers online code-writing tutorials for free. So friendly are its methods that New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg tweeted, “My New Year’s resolution is to learn to code with Codecademy in 2012! Join me.” Three hundred thousand people did join him—in a single week. Codecademy was still a baby in January 2012, but everyone was watching it grow. Hip venture capital outfits like Founder Collective, SV Angel, CrunchFund and Bowery Capital tossed in hundreds of thousands, as did business titans Richard Branson, Yuri Milner, and Vivi Nevo. Meanwhile, the White House partnered with Codecademy to teach coding to underprivileged youth.

Zach and Ryan are twenty-three and twenty-four years old, respectively, too young to know that it’s impossible to “change the world”—their oft-stated goal—and therefore young enough to change it. Zach, the Greenwich half of the duo, is Codecademy’s big-picture conceptualist and nimble spokesman; Ryan is its programming mastermind and nuts-and-bolts logician. You can find their operation down on West 27th Street, on the fourth floor of an old New York hotel now called the Radio Wave Building. The elevator deposits you outside a pair of imposing, ornately carved double doors. When you crack them open, you expect to find Codecademy’s offices humming away, but instead you drift into a sort of dim, brick-walled cavern with tall windows and gleaming hardwood floors. On the wall hangs a century-old newspaper clipping about Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American genius-inventor, headlined, “What Of the Future in Electricity?” There’s no reception desk in sight; only a massive bar. You contemplate serving yourself a drink—why not?—when you notice a lighted work area beyond a glass wall at the far end of the room. Ah. Humans. A young man with a thick tousle of blond-brown hair catches sight of you and flashes a quick grin. Zach Sims.

“Tesla lived here,” Zach explains as he ushers you into the hive. “This was his apartment.” Not only that, but in these rooms Tesla conducted experiments with radio waves that would lead to the first-ever patent of a radio system, in 1900; Tesla changed the world here. “We’re hoping it gives us good vibes.” Zach surveys Codecademy’s twenty-odd workers zoned into their screens, fingers floating lightly across their keyboards. They all look preposterously young. Their company bios say things like “has been coding in one form or another since he was five,” “played squash for Oxford,” and “has built engineering teams at Amazon, Google, Meetup and Ning.”

Zach’s bio notes with a hint of pride that he’s a college dropout. “Almost everyone I knew told me it was the stupidest move I ever could have made,” he says of leaving Columbia after his junior year. “A lot of people said, ‘Well, aren’t you going back to school? Don’t you think you should eventually get that degree?’ Like, because you’re working on the Internet, you don’t really have a job.”

Zach is dressed in a casual button-down shirt, untucked, and faded blue jeans. He speaks with astonishing rapidity and keeps time with his thoughts by drumming a ubiquitous pencil on a ubiquitous notepad. As you review his accomplishments, it dawns on you that Zach is a dropout like Michael Jordan was a dropout—a kind of falling upward into stardom. In 2012 Forbes magazine named him to its “30 under 30” list of young innovators, and last year he and Ryan were nominated for Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. More recently, the World Economic Forum listed Codecademy among thirty-six technology pioneers of the year, an honor previously bestowed on Google, Twitter and the like. Business Insider neatly captured the Zach and Ryan phenomenon in a single headline: “They’re Barely Legal Drinking Age and They’re Teaching the World to Code.”