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The Rise of Coding as a Result of the Pandemic with Codeacademy

Founded in Tech Episode 4

Zach Sims, Co-Founder and CEO of Codeacademy, joins host Mark Eckerle on this episode of Founded in Tech. Zach gives a great breakdown of how education is shifting not just as a result of the pandemic but because of changes in the education environment as well as why users are drawn to the idea of learning how to code. Zach also touches on what he feels every founder needs to know based on his experience in the technology industry.

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Mark Eckerle:
Welcome to this episode of founded in tech. I am your host Mark Eckerle. And today I sit down with Zach Sims, who’s the co-founder and CEO of Codecademy. They are revolutionizing the way people can learn to write code, which is particularly relevant in today’s business environment as there is a pressing need for software engineers and computer programmers. As we progress through this digital transformation. In today’s episode, we discuss Codecademy’s business model and their various content offerings, which does include some free courses. Zach’s thoughts on the future of the ed tech space. And finally he offers some tips to other founders that he has found to be beneficial throughout his journey. I had a great time today talking with Zach and learning about the exciting things happening at code Academy, and I hope you enjoy our conversation as well.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Hello everyone. Please join me in welcoming Zach Sims from Codecademy to the show. Zach is the co-founder and CEO of the company, and joins us today to talk about his background, his company Codecademy, and some exciting things that they’re working on. So welcome to today’s show, Zach.

 

Zach Sims:
Thanks for having me.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Let’s start off with your background and how you came about the idea of Codecademy. I’d be really curious to know the Genesis and the reasons that led you to start this company.

 

Zach Sims:
Yeah, so, you know, I, I started Codecademy in 2011. I was an undergrad at Columbia studying political science and, you know, one of the biggest and most impactful things at the time was working for two tech startups in New York. So a company called Dropio that got sold to Facebook and a company called group me that got souled Skype. And I would say from that, um, you know, really what I learned was the importance of these technical skills, things like programming, data science design, and those things weren’t being taught in, uh, in colleges. And, and as a result, you had a lot of people that are graduating from schools, uh, and not, uh, you know, not finding jobs and so creating a tremendous amounts of debt. Uh, so my co-founder and I kind of saw that trend at the same time. I was teaching myself to program, uh, and, you know, found it super frustrating. And so we kind of saw these two things, dovetail, uh, and ultimately decided we wanted to create a way for anyone in the world, uh, to learn the skills they needed to find jobs and, and to connect to economic opportunity. And so we started Codecademy in an effort to do that.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Yeah. I definitely think there’s, there’s an opportunity in the marketplace, um, for, for a company just like this. And I mean, you guys have been around for what, 10 years now or so. Um, I think it was founded in 2011.

 

Zach Sims:
Yeah. Yeah. It’s been about nine and a half years.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Nine and a half years. And I always say if I were to go back to college, it would be for not accounting, it would be for computer engineering or software engineering or something to that effect because it’s just such a hot market out there.

 

Zach Sims:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, the most important skill anyone can learn today.

 

Mark Eckerle:
So let’s, let’s, let’s, let’s jump into the company’s business model. Right. The, I know there’s a couple of subscription plans out there there’s even a free solution for people that want to just test out what, what writing code is. Um, so can you kind of take a deep dive into the various offerings, that Codecademy has, and then a second part to that? Um, I’d be curious to know the, the metrics behind the company, right. Um, being a, an online platform. This is, this is open globally. So I’d be curious to know what the numbers are internationally as well, if that’s, if that’s available.

 

Zach Sims:
Yeah. So, so we’re a freemium business. So we have tens of millions of learners in the U S at this point that, uh, you know, that, that learn on the platform for free. Uh, at this point, you know, more than 45 million people that have taken courses over the past nine years on the platform. And then we have a paid product which is called Codecademy pro, which helps, uh, people around the world effectively learn with and unlimited content library, give them access to a community of people like them. And then it gives them the ability to get certificates that they can use to kind of show what they’ve learned. Um, and at the same time, uh, we also offer a product for businesses called Codecademy for business, obviously. Uh, and I think, you know, that that product, uh, it takes what we built with Codecademy pro and then opens it up to companies.

 

Zach Sims:
So we have, you know, large fortune 500, some small businesses that are learning on the, uh, on the platform as well. Um, and, and that’s what we’re trying to build with Codecademy pro. And so I think in some, you know, you’re coming on metrics, you know, tens of millions of learners that are learning for free at this point, more than a hundred thousand, uh, active learners and subscribers on the Codecademy pro platform. And we’re not really disclosing the size of Codecademy for business at this point, but we can tell you that it’s grown more than 350% over the past 12 months.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Well, that’s, that’s fantastic considering all things that happened in, in 2020. Um, so just to inform everyone, if I were to be the average consumer, right. And sign up for that subscription model, be a, become a pro user, what would I be getting out of that? What kind of content would be delivered, um, outside of just maybe additional content or courses to, to learn, uh, and writing code, what would I be getting out in that model to pay for?

 

Zach Sims:
Yeah. So with Codecademy pro you basically get, uh, you know, access to a ton of great new courses. So we generate tens of new courses each month that we share with our learners, but really kind of what we’ve noticed is that, you know, our, our free learners, uh, you know, tend to be dabblers. So they’re, they’re kind of testing, uh, testing the waters a little bit, if you will. Um, whereas the, the pro learns tend to be the folks that are really looking for a career upgrade. So they’re looking to make more money, uh, on a regular basis, whether that’s by upgrading their existing career or finding a new, uh, job as well. Um, and so we help them do that with comprehensive career paths with community features and with the certificates they need to demonstrate their efficacy.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Yeah. I think that’s definitely a nice touch for a lot of people, um, and an enticing aspect. It’s the community aspect, right? It’s, it’s just kind of collaboration in this whole space. Um, so it’s definitely important for a lot of users, I would think.

 

Zach Sims:
Absolutely, yup.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Um, so sticking with 2020 a little bit, I’d be curious to know how that compared to prior years, you said there was significant growth, uh, 300 plus percent, um, since the company already had an existing online business model and platform was the transition during the pandemic and, and COVID-19 fairly seamless, uh, I mean, for employees, and then as far as the company’s operations go was, it was was an overall productive year, but I’d be curious to know a little bit more of the ins and outs there and how that really impacted the company

 

Zach Sims:
From a pure, how did we do perspective? I think we’re, we’re fortunate enough that the business itself, uh, it wasn’t a position to help in 2020. Uh, and so we, you know, we jumped on it and created a couple of quick initiatives. You know, one of them, we, uh, gave away a hundred thousand scholarships to code Academy pro to, uh, students around the world that were affected by the pandemic. And they were out of school for that reason. Um, you know, the second thing we did was launch a worker and initiative for people that were laid off or furloughed giving away, you know, a hundred thousand scholarships to them as well, to really help as many people as possible get back to work. So I think our focus last year, you know, was not just growing the business, but what’s really on helping, uh, at a time that we think was pretty difficult around the world.

 

Zach Sims:
So that’s a, from, from a business perspective, I think from an internal perspective, you know, it’s always difficult, uh, to deal with so many sudden changes in a business. And I think for us, we’re lucky that we were able to do so with a reasonable degree of, um, new success. We’ve gone remote pretty quickly, obviously as almost every company did, we’ve adopted a whole bunch of new norms internally, a remote operating system, a couple of other things, um, to make sure that people know kind of what their job is and, and how we should have meetings, you know, when we should have meetings and how to keep the speed of decision-making, uh, quick, uh, during that time.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Yeah. I think one thing that would be important for a lot of companies and founders to understand this, what, what do you think worked for you when you went to that whole virtual environment? Um, was there anything that you noticed that stood out, uh, that, that you found beneficial over the last nine months, roughly, uh, internally, specifically that that kept employee morale high kept, I mean, mental health is one of the biggest things right now. And in a lot of companies, it’s just people getting burnt out, possibly working from home. There’s just a lot of things going on. I’d be curious to get your thoughts on what has worked for you guys. I mean, is there anything that really stands out?

 

Zach Sims:
Yeah, I mean, I think really being as explicit as possible is the biggest thing that’s worked for us, you know, so, so we, I mentioned the remote operating system thing. I mean, that really codifies everything, you know, everything from, uh, you know, a common meeting hours to a decision-making framework to individual roles and meetings. And we try to document this as much as possible, cause we’ve, we’ve managed to, you know, more than double the teams since the pandemic started. Um, and so for us, I think again, that clarity has really helped, uh, the team across the board, you know, understand how to get up and running, um, and, and how to stay on the same page as well.

 

Mark Eckerle:
No, yeah. That’s, that’s really good. Yeah. Like you said, being explicit and especially with everyone working all types of hours, right. It’s, it’s, it’s not really a standard nine to five anymore. People just getting work done as they can, whether it’s late at night, early in the morning. Um, so just kind of setting those expectations, having those daily calls it’s really become more and more critical in today’s work environment.

 

Zach Sims:
a hundred percent.

 

Mark Eckerle:
So, so I’d be curious to get your thoughts as well on the future of, of this space. Right. So I think this kind of falls somewhat under the umbrella of, of ed tech, education technology, um, and specifically computer programming industry. Right. So, so what would, where do you see the future of this? Do you expect the existing on campus model to decrease significantly considering all things that happen in 2020 with, with colleges going remote and the whole, the whole on college campus experience kind of falling by the wayside? Is this going to be a major transition and think this will really kickstart a new wave? Or do you think things will go back to the normal, how they were pre pandemic? Um, I’d be curious just because this is such an emerging industry of the last eight to 12 years, roughly. Uh, so I’d be curious to get your thoughts on what you think for the future.

 

Zach Sims:
No, absolutely. I mean, I think it’s, it’s definitely a major, uh, you know, major growth area for online education. I think what’s, what’s very clear is that a lot of these trends they are changing and they aren’t just temporary changes. I think they’re, long-term changes. Uh, and, and, and that’s, I think you can see number one, you know, traditional higher education will be, you know, challenged pretty aggressively from a budgetary perspective, even. Um, I think, you know, if we look at, uh, even in the past 12 months, what’s happened to a lot of colleges, you know, spending a ton of money, trying to be, um, trying to make it to reopen in some cases to be COVID compliant, et cetera. Um, you know, many of them have students that are upset about paying, you know, 50, $60,000 a year, uh, in order to take virtual classes.

 

Zach Sims:
So I think you’re going to see a super big shake out at the higher ed level. And the other thing that I think we’re seeing a lot this year, as well as people realizing that like, look, um, zoom education, sorry, I’m on education works. Um, zoom education might not necessarily work, but there are many people this year that are functioning, um, you know, as they can and should, uh, without going in person. So I think this kind of, for many years, this, this insistence on learning in person, and that’s the only way that people can learn or find, or, you know, get jobs skills or find a job or going to college, um, is just not true. Right. Um, and so I think there’s, uh, that belief will remain. And I think the skepticism of, you know, quote unquote, uh, you know, big education, if you will, which is, you know, the traditional college industry, um, K-12 et cetera, will remain because people are realizing like, what am I spending 50, $60,000 for, um, and, and not getting, you know, a positive return on that.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Yeah. The, the, the cost of secondary education nowadays is just absolutely mind blowing and students are in debt for decades after college. Um, so kind of giving them a cost-effective solution. Um, and then they can, they can go to the job market with a full education and degree with minimal debt, if anything, um, and really have that experience. It’s it’s game changing. It really is. Um, I’d be curious. What, what are you guys doing from a, I guess a marketing standpoint, I recently saw the announcement, um, you guys are working with, with lollies, uh, a Bitcoin, a rewards program that helped you guys are on board with them. I’d be curious, from marketing. What are you guys doing to incentivize new users, new users onto the platform? Um, is there anything that you guys are thinking is differentiating you guys from, from other companies in your space?

 

Zach Sims:
Yeah, I mean, I think we really have a focus on just, you know, giving people the best educational experience. Uh, and, and that’s why I think we grow from a word of mouth perspective more so than, than any other channel. Um, so I think that’s kind of the real, um, the real thing that we focused on over the past couple of years is how can we build a product that’s so good that it markets itself. Um, and our learners are our best advocates, you know, whether they’ve gone to start companies gone to make more money and do careers. Um, and so we think, you know, oftentimes it’s not really worth providing, you know, crazy incentives for people to sign up because we stand by what we built. Um, and we think, you know, we thought the best way for people to up-skill, uh, that exists right now.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Gotcha. So, recommendations that have come from customers

 

Mark Eckerle:
Of your platform. What have they found to be beneficial? What’s their favorite part of using the platform? I’d be curious, it’s almost like a selling factor, right. That you would use for, for new users. What have they found to be the best part? Is it the community experience?

 

Zach Sims:
I think it’s the, the, uh, interactive learning experience. It’s really what people say. Um, you know, they, they really appreciate the ability to learn by doing, I think I, in other places they commonly learn, uh, you know, by, uh, by watching videos or listening to long lectures with Codecademy, there’s a real focus on, you know, learning by doing, by building things. Uh, and I think that’s what really makes people happy.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Gotcha. Yeah. I would say that’s probably how I learned best too. Right. Just doing it myself and learning from my own mistakes or errors and really just putting my head down. Um, it’s funny how everyone learns in their own way, but, uh, that, that definitely seems to be the way that works for me.

 

Zach Sims:
Yeah, no, I mean, I think most people feel that way. Um, and, and that’s, I think why we’ve seen success with the, uh, the learning style that we have at Codecademy. Gotcha.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Okay. So what recommendations would you have for other founders and C-suite executives in this space that are really trying to like spearhead their own startup, their own emerging technology company right there. They’re hitting it from the ground up. Um, even in the, even in today’s pressing times, right. Where there’s some economic uncertainty, uh, in the, in the education technology space, any, any tips or tricks that you’ve learned over your career of starting a company from the, from the beginning and anything that you can pass down to other founders?

 

Zach Sims:
Yeah. I mean, look, I think the biggest thing is to kind of know what you don’t know. Right. I think it becomes very easy when you’re starting a company to think that you, you know, you need to, you need to have the answers to everything. Um, because you’re the founder, you’re the CEO of the company, uh, and everyone needs to listen to you. And I think kind of what I’ve realized is, is that actually the most important thing to know, um, is, you know, what, what you might need help on and how to find that help as quickly as possible. And I think, you know, it took me a couple of years to grow into that understanding. Um, and I think, you know, we live in a technology world where people are so insistent on, uh, you know, be clear about, uh, what, you know, they want to project confidence when they’re going into investor meetings, et, but actually, you know, again, the most important thing is to be very acutely aware of like what you’re good at and maybe what you’re left at on and solving those, uh, gaps as quickly as well.

 

Mark Eckerle:
I, yeah, it’s, it’s funny. You say that a mentor of mine actually told me the same thing is, is one of the most difficult parts of developing yourself is realizing what you’re good at and what you’re not getting at, and then filling those gaps with people that can do that job. So it’s, it’s very funny to say.

 

Zach Sims:
It’s confusing, but it’s yeah, it’s paradoxical, but, uh, actively kind of that, knowing what you don’t know and demonstrating that vulnerability is actually strength.

 

Mark Eckerle:
Yeah. And realizing that you can’t do it, that’s the difficult part. Just realizing it and accepting it. Right. Yep. Great. Well, well that just about wraps up today’s episode with Zach. I think there’s a lot of great takeaways here that you’ve given us today. Uh, if you’d like to learn more, you can visit code academy.com. Great. Well, thanks again. And we’ll see you on the next episode of founded in tech. Thank you for tuning in. If you liked it and want to hear more, you can follow us and subscribe and we’ll see you next time on founded in tech.

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