Zach Sims from Codecademy – the 22-year-old CEO who wants to “build the educational experience the Internet deserves”

Zach Sims
Zach Sims

Zach Sims is 22. He dropped out of the prestigious Columbia University 16 months ago to focus on Codecademy. Since then, his online learning community for would-be coders has grown from a pet project to a poster product for the future of collaborative, connected education. It’s also attracted top investors, with Index Ventures and Kleiner Perkins sinking $10m in June last year to help it expand globally. We caught up with him at the DLD conference in Munich to talk global plans, next-gen learning and why dropping out of college isn’t such a bad thing…

Zach Sims

So Zach, what brought you to Germany and DLD?

DLD is a really high-density event and a good way for us to figure out how to work in different countries, to translate into different languages in Europe. And we have Index on board now, so I find myself in London every couple of months to meet with them. Europe is somewhere I want to spend more time developing Codecademy.

Codecademy created an online, collaborative learning community. Do you think that there’s a gap in the traditional education system?

Definitely. You used to have a system where education and labour were married and intertwined. Where if you went to college you were guaranteed a job when you graduated. Now obviously that system doesn’t quite work out any more. Now 50 per cent of college graduates in the US are either unemployed or underemployed. The skills mismatch when you leave college and jobs.

And also learning institutions were built in a specific way. And the times in which they were built are very different to what they are today. Much of it has its origins in the Prussian schooling system for example. A system like that isn’t necessarily built to test people’s ability, but more to reinforce knowledge or teach people how to be obedient to the state.

Obviously we have so much more technology now and so much more knowledge on how people learn, so education has to evolve. You have to think about education today and forget about everything that exists in the classroom and ask “what does the internet do that creates a different experience”. And that’s building a community where people are teaching each other and learning interactively.

You left college before you finished your degree – do you have any regrets?

Not really. I was doing a Political Science major at Columbia University. I had a great experience, so I have nothing bad to say about it, just that the timing was right for Codecademy. I had worked for a couple of companies before [GroupMe, which got sold to Skype and Dropio that sold to Facebook].

Did you aim to found a company before you knew what it was?

No. We started working on Codecademy simply as a product and it quickly became a company. We threw the original site together in about three weeks [the story is that Sims and co-founder Ryan Bubinski worked on the prototype and Sims learned Javascript to build it]. It was something for me and my co-founder, but when we put it on the web we never really expected what happened would happen.

We now have a couple of million of users at this point. 60 per cent are outside of the US, in developing countries and mainland Europe. Basically we have a user in just about every country.

It seems that there’s a real lack of developers. Every company is looking for a CTO. Do you think Codecademy can fill that hole?

We found that you can also be a good Computer Science major, but not a good programmer. So early on we interviewed people for Harvard and MIT and realised that they might not be the best hands-on programmer. So yes, we wanted to create something practical and hands-on that you can continually learn from.

Do you think that “creative types” and founders have a mental block when it comes to coding? That they see it as too difficult, or for someone else to do…

Yes, and it’s not just a block for creatives, but for so many people. There’s this image of a coder being these nerds who sit in the glare of a computer screen all day drinking Red Bull. Movies like The Social Network reinforced this. But it’s not like that – anyone can pick it up, and we really want to remove these stereotypes and boundaries.

You now have some major investors. Surely they are asking how you’re going to monetise?

It’s not very far off in our minds, but it’s certainly not our biggest priority right now. We’re lucky enough to have great investors and they’re not breathing down our neck to ask this question. Right now, we’re focused on building a really major product that can change people’s lives.

What other products do you think people can use as a learning suite online?

I really love Duolingo for language learning. A few people have referred to them as Codecademy for language learning. Or to Codecademy as the Duolingo for coding, so there’s clearly a symmetry.

Would you be interested in taking your model into different verticals?

Not right now. We really love this way of learning and other products have worked well in other verticals, so we’re happy to expand our current product and focus on that right now. That’s our roadmap for 2013.

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