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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Teen to Watch

Zach grew up in the Hillcrest Park section of town, the son of David Sims, a commercial real estate broker, and his wife Jane, an executive at Nine West, the shoe and handbag company. (Both are retired.) They report that perhaps he differed from his digital contemporaries in his love of reading. “He was always a voracious reader,” David says. “He still devours a few books a week.”

“He was constantly looking for knowledge, grabbing whatever he could,” Jane adds, recalling their frequent trips to the Cos Cob Library. (Zach lives in New York now but makes regular trips home.)

Zach demonstrated a techno-entrepreneurial bent from an early age. In seventh grade he parlayed $500 borrowed from his parents into a profitable little business in waterproof iPod cases. While still in high school he lectured on the fusion of education and technology and contributed to a popular tech blog called Rev2. “I’d have one good idea, he’d have ten, most of which I could never have thought of,” Sid Yadav, Rev2’s founding editor, said at the time. As a freshman at Columbia in 2008, Zach was named to Greenwich magazine’s annual Teens to Watch list.

By then he was interviewing millionaire tech CEOs, who subtly began to change his worldview. “The coolest thing they taught me was, the sky’s the limit,” Zach says. “You didn’t have to wait in line. What we’re often told in school is, you get a job, you’re an analyst somewhere, then you become an associate, then a principal, then a managing director, and then if you’re lucky, you become a partner—whether it’s a law firm or finance or consulting. The amazing thing was, these [tech entrepreneurs] didn’t take that track. They decided to work on something they really cared about and changed the world—and happened to make money while doing it.”

Zach and Ryan met on the staff of Columbia’s newspaper, the Daily Spectator. To their mutual enthrallment with Internet “disruption”—that is, the ’net’s power to reinvent traditional industries—Zach added a precocious business savvy and Ryan a building skill that began with train sets and continued through computer programs. (It was Ryan who taught Zach how to code.) Zach has an almost eerie knack for seeming to be in ten places at once. Roughly at the same time, he was helping Ryan get a popular app-designing club off the ground, finishing an internship with AOL’s venture capital arm, and working for a couple of promising Internet startups—the file-sharing service Drop.io and the texting service GroupMe.

“When he was in college, he showed me this notebook he had, this little pocket calendar,” David Sims remembers. “He wanted to impress me with how organized he had gotten. I said, ‘What about sleep and meals?’”

“The GroupMe experience was super-instructive,” Zach says, because it made success seem within reach. Steve Martocci and Jared Hecht, a 2009 graduate of Columbia, founded GroupMe in the summer of 2010 and immediately hired Zach as their first employee. Zach nearly quit school then, before the start of his junior year, but decided to hold out for a venture with a more patently altruistic goal. (In high school, with his parents’ encouragement, Zach took part in service programs like Pacific House and Midnight Run. His passion for social betterment is now inseparable from his work.) Less than a year after GroupMe’s inception, Skype bought it for a cool $80 million. “So, a bit later, that was a good proof-point to my parents: ‘Look, this stuff isn’t just a pipe dream.’” “Well, we didn’t say no,” David says, laughing. Instead he recalls thinking, “You know what? You’re only twenty-one once.”

Zach still had a notion, fading though it was, to embark on a traditional career path. He’d been interviewing at “Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and whatnot” (and doing all those other things) when the thought struck him that college hadn’t remotely prepared even top-rung students for real-world finance jobs. “All my friends were just kind of memorizing stuff like ‘discounted cash flow’ the night before the interview just so they could spout it back and pretend they knew a lot about finance. When actually we’d all spent $150,000 and three years of college learning abstract concepts that didn’t apply to the job market.” The same goes for American tech markets: There are far more jobs than people who can fill them. Not even a job magnet like Facebook can find enough qualified applicants, Zach notes; those whom it does hire must submit to a six-month bootcamp “to actually train them to become programmers instead of theoretical computer scientists.”

As Zach and Ryan considered this state of affairs, they had an unsettling vision of the American Dream in full retreat. Instead of going to college, getting a good job, and earning “a massive ROI”—a return on investment whereby one could raise children comfortably in a nice house—people were earning degrees of dubious practical value and hobbling themselves with years’ worth of student debt. “And instead of having a better life than their parents, they’re moving back in with their parents. That just isn’t right or fair.”
Zach cites a recent finding that 50 percent of college graduates were unemployed or under-employed a year after earning their degrees. “If our peers at Columbia were graduating from one of the top ten schools in the world and they were having trouble finding jobs, imagine what it’s like for people at schools that don’t even rank in the top 100, or for people who aren’t lucky enough to go to college in the first place.”

The mission Zach and Ryan saw before them was nothing less than to instill “code literacy” in a twenty-first century workforce. They took their idea to the Silicon valley-based Y-Combinator, an incubator that provides seed funding and advice to digital startups. Codecademy went live in August of 2011. After just one month, it had more than half a million users, and the best among them submitted new lessons in true web community fashion. Today Codecademy has “tens of millions” of users, Zach says, from each of the world’s approximately 200 countries.

Codecademy appears to have caught a perfect wave. It came into being just as new investment in technology was flourishing to the point of giddiness (it still is, though some worry about a bubble), and just as a global hunger to learn code was beginning to be recognized. “It’s been crazy—in a good way,” Ryan says. “But you need to ground yourself while your head stops spinning.”

 

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