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
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.”
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.”
The Colbert Effect
Inevitably, success paints a target on one’s hide. Message board snipers, mainly career programmers, charge that you can learn only rudimentary stuff on Codecademy, and thus its main effect will be to inundate the field with poor to middling programmers. (But nearly everyone concedes the lucidity of the site, which guides you through lessons via a series of prompts and tells you when you’ve gone astray: “Oops, try again.”) Others argue that most people have no more need to write code than they do to throw a pot or build a toaster. A programmer named Chase Felker wrote on Slate, “The fact is that no matter how pervasive a technology is, we don’t need to understand how it works—our society divides its labor so that everyone can use things without going to the trouble of making them.”
The media theorist Douglas Rushkoff rejects the case for programming ignorance. Rushkoff, the author of Cyberia and Present Shock, was a Codecademy admirer who later joined its team as a code literacy “evangelist.” “I’m not asking that people know how to open a computer and fix it,” he explains by e-mail. “[But] we are spending an increasing amount of our work and personal lives on digital platforms. We owe it to ourselves to know something about how these platforms work, how they are biased, who owns them, and what they are for. Otherwise, we end up at the mercy of those who do understand these places. It’s the difference between a driver and a passenger. If you don’t know how to drive, you have to trust the driver to take you where you say you want to go.”
But aren’t the drivers trustworthy? On the contrary, Rushkoff says, they’re often quite sneaky, and he’s not talking about the NSA. “Ask kids what Facebook is for, and they will tell you it’s to help them make friends. That’s not what it’s for. Go to the boardroom and you’ll find out what Facebook is for: It’s to monetize kids’ social graphs [the data trail they leave behind them].”
Rushkoff emphasizes kids because they’ll be living in a world far more digital than our own. But is Zach overstating the matter when he says that code will be “the literacy of the twenty-first century”? “Oh, it will be,” Rushkoff says. “That part is certain. What’s not certain is whether we will have a literate or an illiterate population. Chances are, when six Chinese kids hack Citibank, Americans will decide that code literacy might be a good idea.”
Code literacy has its bulls and its bears, but it’s the bulls who can expect to partake in the digital version of the American Dream. Codecademy has produced a number of them already—non-techies with good ideas. Michael Perry, of San Francisco, spent 126 hours on Codecademy, enabling him to build his app GVING, which helps merchants keep better track of their customers. “There’s dozens, or hundreds of stories like this,” Rushkoff says. Friends of his, inspired by the Occupy movement’s ability to collaborate and not break into bickering factions, wanted to build a web tool that helps groups reach consensus. “But they didn’t know any code, so they couldn’t build it. They went to Codecademy, learned to code, and now they’ve got a real, working, brilliant site—loomio.org,” Rushkoff says. “Codecademy isn’t doing this for people; it’s letting people do it for themselves. And that’s the signature achievement of the digital age itself.”
How Codecademy plans to make money is not entirely clear. Its site remains free and uncluttered by advertising. Zach himself is intentionally vague about financial matters—his sights are set on improving the product, and thus increasing its value. But he does speak of “connecting” Codecademy users with companies looking to make smart hires, so perhaps that will be its money-making role: as a farm system for a hungry tech industry. We’ll see. It’s all pretty early yet.
“Zach set out to do something that was going to make a difference,” says Jane, his mother. “That was his main thing.” The coverage Codecademy draws in serious media outlets, from Wired to The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal, intimates that he’s already begun to change the world. But to those who remember Zach as a college dropout, chasing after some pie-in-the-sky Internet dream, the true sign that he’d made it came last October 31, when he appeared as a guest on the Colbert Report.
“Some of my friends from high school and college finally think that what I’m doing is legitimate,” Zach says with a cautious smile. “I’ve been legitimized by Stephen Colbert.”