Teaching the world how to code with Codecademy Co-Founder & CEO Zach Sims


This post is by MPD from @MPD - Medium


As tech disrupts markets and accelerates innovation, people need to learn new skills to not only help influence the future but make sure they’re not left behind. Codecademy is helping to close that gap by offering people a way to learn how to code while being a part of a community.

Zach Sims is the Co-Founder and CEO of Codecademy, an education company that empowers people to transform their personal and professional lives by helping them learn modern skills.

Zach started Codecademy 10 years ago when he was still an undergraduate student at Columbia University. As Codecademy gained momentum and took on investors, Zach decided to pursue it full time and left college. Now a decade later, Codecademy has helped over 45 million users in 179 countries learn new skills to gain a competitive advantage in our rapidly changing world.

Zach and I discuss his decision to leave college and pursue Codecademy full time, what coding languages are most durable, and the future of education.

Listen via your preferred platform or watch/read below.

Follow us on Medium/Twitter:

@zsims / @codecademy / @mpd

Transcript:

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Zach Sims: [00:00:00] We think of our mission as connecting the lines of people around the world to economic opportunity, uh, and doing that in several ways. I think, you know, number one, um, by helping consumers learn the skills they need to upgrade their careers. Number two, by helping companies learn the skills they need to stay relevant.

Uh, and number three, eventually by connecting those consumers and companies to facilitate labor mobility.

MPD: [00:00:25] Welcome everybody. I’m Mark Peter Davis, managing partner of interplay ventures. I’m the host of this podcast, innovation with Mark Peter Davis, where I chat with industry leading founders, CEOs, and executives about the businesses they’ve built and invested in today’s guest is Zach Sims co-founder and CEO of code Academy.

If you’re not already familiar with code Academy, they are upending the education space. And empowering people to transform their personal and professional lives by helping them learn programming skills. They’ve helped 45 million in users in 179 countries learn new skills to gain a competitive advantage and our rapidly changing world.

Zach and I talk about how he built code Academy to what it is today, his thoughts on how education will evolve in the future and what he’s learned along the way, when it comes to managing a company. I hope you enjoy.

Episode is brought to you by founder shield. Founder shield is a tech enabled commercial and health insurance brokerage that focuses on servicing high growth companies. They service thousands of VC backed and public companies, including many of the brand names. You probably know if you’re interested in learning more, visit founder shield.com.

Zack. Thanks for being on the show. Great to have you here.

Zach Sims: [00:01:47] Yeah. Thanks for having me, Mark.

MPD: [00:01:49] So I want to, before we get into code Academy, which I think people are going to be really interested to hear about, uh, I would love to start with a little bit of your background and bring people kind of up to speed on who you are.

So if we could just start at the beginning first off, where are you

Zach Sims: [00:02:03] from? He grew up a little bit outside of New York and Connecticut and, uh, yeah, been there for ever, basically in the area. What town

MPD: [00:02:15] I don’t Greenwich. So you’re an old Greenwich and then stayed in the tri-state area for school and beyond.

Have you ever lived outside the city? You

Zach Sims: [00:02:23] have part of your life? Uh, I, when we started code Academy, I was in, uh, in California or that’s not true, actually. We, we were in a school and we started the business and then we did Y Combinator. And so we moved out West, uh, to do that. And so I was probably in California for six, six or eight months.

We first started the company. Very cool.

MPD: [00:02:42] Very cool. Um, I’m going to take a little twist here. This is something I usually don’t ask people. Uh, but I think it would be interesting insight, uh, if I was to bump into one of your friends from high school. Cause I think you’re particularly interesting person, which we’re going to get into, how would they have described Zach Sims?

Zach Sims: [00:02:59] Wow, good question. Um, it’s a difficult one. I mean, I think there were kind of some, some classic things, uh, that I did that might’ve kind of belied where. Life has gone. Like I was the president of my class. I, you know, like curious, maybe would be something they would say I’m busy.

MPD: [00:03:24] Uh, so like the hardworking guy, not the class clown,

Zach Sims: [00:03:29] not the class town.

Hopefully they would say it was good to spend time with. But, you know, I definitely don’t think I was, I was the class clown now and I like, I did sports as well, but I don’t think I was the jock. I was definitely not the captain of any teams that I was playing. God.

MPD: [00:03:42] Got it. All right. And then, uh, you started working during college now for the folks listening, you went to Columbia, undergrad, uh, and you started working right out the gate.

I mean, I remember I got my first internship, my junior year of college. Uh, and I think you were kind of ahead of the game. Uh, can you tell us what you were thinking as a student? What was going through your yeah,

Zach Sims: [00:04:03] I think, um, so the summer before I went to Columbia, I worked, uh, For a law firm in New York, Skadden Arps.

And I thought, you know, when I, when I got to Columbia, I would end up, um, you know, studying political science and, and, uh, and becoming a lawyer, um, decided pretty quickly, like maybe that was one path, but I wanted to look into, um, you know, potentially another as well. Uh, and I remember seeing that, you know, the founder of this company called was giving a talk at Columbia at my freshman year.

Uh, and I thought they were going to be, you know, scores and scores of people, uh, that we’re going to show up at the talk. And I showed up and I think there were like two or three people there. Uh, and I thought, yeah, it was Sam. Exactly. Um, Sam’s brilliant. And I thought that was one of the smartest people I’d ever met.

Still think that, uh, and, um, You know, I went to this talk. It was just super impressed with someone who at the time, Sam, must’ve been like 24, 25, he’d started the company. Um, I think you would probably, you were an investor in the company if I’m not wrong. Right. You have, when

MPD: [00:04:59] you’re a DJ you’re not wrong. I was, I was a board observer.

It was my first time sitting in a board room.

Zach Sims: [00:05:04] Yeah. Uh, watching Sam. We both have dropped ties. Yeah. So I saw, I saw Sam talk and was like super smart person. Uh, I want to like do anything. I can to go work at a place where someone who’s like 24 or 25 can run a company and, you know, uh, kind of change the world and have big ambitious ideas.

Uh, and so I kind of said about going to work for drunk for that summer. Um, and, and it was less like I want to work at a startup and it was more like, wow, I’m really impressed by like, what’s going on with this company. And. Um, you know, the founder and like, let’s see if I can find a way to make it work.

And so I spent, that was how I got my first college internship was, you know, meeting Sam on campus, uh, and then just begging and pleading for several months, um, to, you know, end up working for

MPD: [00:05:47] him. So you stayed working there after

Zach Sims: [00:05:48] the summer? No, I, I mean, I maybe do a little bit consulting, um, afterwards, you know, I, uh, I worked a couple hours a week, uh, and kind of continued that for a little while.

I spent the next summer working at AOL, doing venture capital. Um, briefly thought that like that’s what I wanted to do was go be a VC. Uh, and then through AOL, um, and, and through a friend of mine, I’d met the founders of this committee called group me, uh, that were starting a group, text messaging app, uh, the summer of, I guess that would have been 2010.

Um, and I, uh, you know, was, was super fascinated by what they were building thought that she founders were amazing to start spending some time hanging out with them. And at the time they were, you know, working out of Steve’s apartment. Um, and then like briefly got some space at beta works for, you know, three people, a conference room for like an hour or two a day.

Um, and it was just really impressed by what they were building and said, I’d like do anything to join them and go work with them. Um, and so that kind of turned into the second experience, which was. You know, working or the third year, I think it’s, which was working with them. Um, and I did, you know, pretty much everything you do at an early stage startup from like business development to like working on product flows, interviewing users, um, whole bunch of different things, except for writing code, obviously, uh, and doing that, you know, as a combination of full-time over the course of the summer, and then eventually that kind of transitioned into, um, you know, a day, two, three days a week while I was in school.

MPD: [00:07:12] Got it. So it became busy. You have managed to compress most people’s first five to eight years of their career into your first two years of college. Right? You had the, you had internships in startups and VC picked a path, which most people don’t do until their thirties, at least. Right. It’s pretty phenomenal.

But I’m interested by the fact that you were thinking you were going to be a lawyer. Do you come from a family of lawyers? What was the rationale for that? Because it’s, it’s so divergent from the path you’ve chosen. Yeah.

Zach Sims: [00:07:41] I mean, I think I was, I was always interested in politics and business and I, I thought, you know, being a lawyer, I didn’t want to go work at like a big law firm.

I thought, you know, working in government could be interesting. Um, and, and law, I think is essentially like a framework for managing people, right? Like how do you, you know, what’s the best startup America basically, right? We’ve spent, you know, hundreds of years perfecting a way for, you know, 300 plus million people to interact on a regular basis.

And how you think about, you know, large groups of people are governed. Um, it’s super interesting. So I think that was kind of what was my, what was most interesting to me and, and, you know, as a humanities major, uh, at, uh, at Columbia, it was like, Oh, do we go work in investment banking or consulting or become a lawyer?

Um, and you know, as, as I’m sure it was for you, at least the pressure felt very, uh, it was on like the minute I set foot on campus. Uh, it was very, you know, And the Goldman Sachs information session is like, you know, October 1st and you’ve only been on campus for two weeks and they are very eager to convince you that like banking consulting, you know, or what you should do.

Um, so I think like that got me. And then, you know, the other thing was, I’m a political science major. Like I have no idea what I’m going to do when I get older. So maybe like everyone else seems to become a lawyer. Um, it seems vaguely interesting. So,

MPD: [00:08:52] okay. Now, uh, you made a big decision, right? Uh, and you decided to drop out of college.

To PR to pursue your career. Um, can you tell us, take us through the logic and this is around the timeframe that this was becoming almost a meme, right? Peter Thiel was supporting this, uh, that there was revolutionary thinking about the role of college, particularly in the entrepreneurship world. Um, what was going through your head?

How’d you make that decision?

Zach Sims: [00:09:23] Yeah. Um, I think the first thing that happened was. Uh, I got to experience kind of the roller coaster of a startup while, while working in group needs. So I think, you know, if I look back that was probably a pretty big catalyst was. You know, looking back and realizing like, Oh, this company went from zero essentially to, uh, you know, an $80 million exit and at the time, but right before dropping it, this was kind of before they had exited, but it was very third.

The company was on a very exciting trajectory and I kind of been there and seen that. Um, and I realized that most of the people around me, like they didn’t necessarily go to Ivy league schools. Some of them didn’t even graduate from college. It just seemed like not completely interesting to graduate. Uh, not completely required for success.

Um, and expensive, right? 50, $60,000 a year in order to do it. Um, so I think that that was kind of one thing that, um, you know, th that was critical, uh, and interesting in kind of considering whether or not to drop out. Um, I think the other was, you know, we had started code Academy probably January or started to work.

My co-founder Ryan and I we’d met at Columbia and we started working on ideas in January, 2011. Um, you know, we ended up applying to Y Combinator. We got into Y Combinator. And I think kind of, as soon as we took other people’s money, uh, it, it felt like we had a duty to at least like Bri, uh, working on something and building something and kind of making, we were working on real.

Uh, and so I think it didn’t necessarily start out as like we’re, I’m dropping out of college. Like this is the end of things forever, but more like, you know, fortunately for most schools, um, you can take a leave of absence and you can come back. Uh, and, and that’s why I think it’s, it’s almost always great to start a business when you’re in college, because like worst case you.

Stop working on the business and you go back to school and you graduate, um, and you kind of have the ability to start over the career path. Exactly, exactly. And so when I, you know, I took a leave of absence and that was the beginning of that. And now obviously I’ve dropped out, but, um, you know, it started, so

MPD: [00:11:13] you’re, uh, you made the move to drop out of college, which in the tech community, uh, is one of the, none of the mayor badges of some of the most successful entrepreneurs you had notoriously Zuckerberg Gates.

A lot of other folks, what is the reaction to you at this point? Why do you think about it? Is it something you wish you had finished or is it now a merit badge, a badge of honor kind of that you didn’t have to finish because wasn’t necessary.

Zach Sims: [00:11:40] Yeah. I think, I think in particular for what we are working on a code Academy, uh, somewhat of America badge, I think, you know, we realized that, um, The college is in most cases, uh, you know, a waste is maybe a little bit aggressive, but it’s very expensive.

Doesn’t necessarily deliver appropriate amounts of value to people and kind of unnecessary, uh, depending on, depending on what you want to do. And I think kind of part of the problem in, in the U S now is we see it as a requirement for any sort of professional job, an opportunity like you must go to college, you must have graduated and everyone needs to go to college.

Well, actually, there are many jobs that like, you don’t need to go to college for. Uh, and we’re, you know, putting people in 2,200, $3,000 worth of debt for no, I

MPD: [00:12:26] agree. So it’s a big thing. Um, so do you think the Columbia was an important factor in your evolution of your journey here to become an entrepreneur?

Or was it just your, you know, based in New York and you were meeting the entrepreneurs and you were kind of getting the experience, which you needed outside? I mean, the university itself has an

Zach Sims: [00:12:44] impact. I think to like a small degree. Um, like I think there’s a community of folks, obviously, and you were part of this community, you know, on, be a venture community, et cetera.

There was a small group of people, um, that were interested in startups that I think, you know, it was nice to know there were other people around at the time. Um, You know, I, I think that community obviously was very small when, when we were around in 2011 and it’s gotten much larger since then. And there’s a bunch of Columbia alums that have started companies, but successful investors, et cetera, et cetera.

Um, but I think a lot of it just had to do with being in New York, like with the, and the community was really small, right. Everyone was very hard to like get together and meet each other and, you know, go to meetups and stuff like that. That kind of stuff. I think just, just doesn’t happen as much anymore in New York, because there are so many people, you know, you run into tech people everywhere.

Um, and so I found that just being in New York was in and of itself, like a great way of getting involved in the industry. Um, and, uh, and I think that was probably a bigger contributor than the school itself.

MPD: [00:13:44] Yeah. That’s, that’s a interesting thing. You’re saying about New York. When I started in the business in Oh six, I felt like New York was the New York tech ecosystem was kind of like a large college campus.

Kind of knew everybody or of everybody. If you went to the event, you’d see most of the same people after a few, you know, a few events, six months and you know, most of the folks and now it’s, it’s an institution. Right. And there’s with that. I think we have a, we have a bigger machine, but it’s a little less personal than it used to be, which I think is a downside.

Um, let’s shift over, uh, tell us about code Academy. Um, mind just starting kind of giving a full overview for folks who aren’t familiar. I assume everyone listening is familiar at this point, but. And we can fill in the blanks.

Zach Sims: [00:14:27] Uh, yeah, we, sorry. I started cook out to me and, um, in 2011, uh, it grew out of a personal challenge at the time as we discussed, I was an undergrad at Columbia, you know, studying political science and had kind of experienced this, um, just massive gap between education and employment that existed, you know, and, and in particular, in hard skills like programming and data science.

Uh, and so I, as a non-technical person wanted to learn. Uh, and I would just felt pretty stymied by the university course I took, which is the classic leader course, and there’s really no other way to learn these important digital skills. Uh, and so my co-founder Ryan and I started the business under this belief that like, we should, it’d be the easiest way to learn to code.

Um, coding is 21st century literacy and, you know, we, we should teach people in a way that was accessible, so low cost or free, uh, engaging. So interactive kind of easy to use online, giving you points and badges. Uh, and flexible, so you can learn it anywhere at any time. And you know, that that’s kind of been the animating, um, you know, thing we’ve been focusing on for, for the life of the business.

And, and I think it’s, it’s become a little bit broader since, uh, the beginning of the business where now, you know, we, we think of our mission as connecting millions of people around the world’s economic opportunity. Uh, and doing that in several ways. I think, you know, number one, um, by helping consumers learn the skills they need to upgrade their careers.

Number two, by helping companies learn the skills they need to stay relevant. Uh, and number three, eventually by connecting those consumers and companies to facilitate labor mobility, um, And I think the, you know, just by the way, by the numbers in businesses touch more than 45 million learners around the world.

Um, you know, we’ve worked to, uh, work with governments like the us, uh, the Obama administration’s white house, um, the UK, Brazil, Argentina, a bunch of others, um, to kind of help build these nationwide computer science education programs. Uh, we’ve worked with companies like Facebook to teach people how to use their technologies.

Uh, and you know, we, we now train large companies like IBM on, you know, how to become more tech centric, uh, and help their employees be ready for digital transformation. Um, and in the process of doing that, you know, have built, I think, a, a business that hopefully does well by doing good, um, you know, teaching, uh, tens of millions of people, like I mentioned, but also building a large sustainable business.

We hopefully, you know, we’ll eventually, uh, you know, stay large and sustainable for a long time.

MPD: [00:16:47] Love it. So, which of the business lines you mentioned are the, are the largest for you? Is it mainly the consumer facing business

Zach Sims: [00:16:54] training, consumer facing it’s the largest at this point? Um, you know, we have, um, more than a hundred thousand paying subscribers to that product.

The product’s $40 a month, um, code Academy pro. She just people, uh, you know, super basic skills, uh, all the way from super basic to super advanced, um, things like data science, uh, game development, mobile development, web development, um, and it teaches you those skills with kind of an unlimited content library, uh, the ability to interact with a community of, of your peers.

And then also certificates that you can get to show employers and kind of demonstrate the work that you’re able to

MPD: [00:17:27] do. So ironically, you avoided the college degree, but now you issue them. More or less

Zach Sims: [00:17:32] w certificates, not degrees. And I think, uh, for the, we believe the ROI for what we do, uh, is significantly higher, uh, obviously $40 a month versus, you know, $60,000 a year.

I believe it. So you choose your subscription. Yeah. Have you thought about,

MPD: [00:17:48] uh, making an official

Zach Sims: [00:17:50] degree? We’re a part of a number of kind of universities, uh, programs today that do offer degree programs, um, kind of built around a code Academy education. Um, less, uh, issuing formal degrees ourselves. Um, I think the hope for us is, you know, a lot of these formal accreditation processes require, you know, six months notice a copy of a syllabus, you know, in an auditor to kind of sit in the class and make sure that you know, that, that people are getting X, Y, and Z.

And I think what we believe is that. Especially in technical education. Things just move much faster than that. You know, there’s a new framework that’s released. You need to release a new course in that framework. You want to be the first to market. So you want to do that in weeks. Um, but you can’t get, you know, an accredited degree in weeks.

It takes, you know, months and then years to become, you know, a degree granting institution.

MPD: [00:18:41] That makes sense. Now look, uh, for, for folks who are less familiar with the company or your traction, you guys have raised about $50 million. If I’m not wrong, Yep. And you’ve secured that capital from some of the best investors in the country, not the world.

Uh, and now you were backed by USB index. Um, you’ve done incredible things on the fundraising side. What has made your fundraising a success for the folks who are listening, who are entrepreneurs running? Their company are people who want to be entrepreneurs in the future. What was the secret sauce for you?

Zach Sims: [00:19:14] Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if there’s ever really been, uh, you know, secret sauce, quote unquote, I think, uh, you know, really the, the biggest thing is just always building a good business. If that makes any sense. Uh, like I think we were fortunate enough, uh, to focus less on like, what are the fundraising tactics we’re going to use?

And you know, how do we get this round close as fast as possible and more on like, let’s just build a business that actually attracts inbound interests. Um, and I think that has kind of happened. Every financing round that we’ve done has been, we built something great. We kept our heads down. We weren’t talking to investors all the time.

And then, you know, next thing you know, we’re getting tons of inbound emails from people that say like, wow, what a big business we built. Um, you know, we’d love to be a part of it. Uh, and we’ve answered those emails and then, you know, work with, with certain groups of folks, um, that. You know, I believe in the vision of the future of what we are working on.

So I think that is the most important thing. Like I always find fundraising tips to be somewhat amusing because oftentimes like if you’re building a great business, uh, you know, that is the most important thing. And eventually

MPD: [00:20:16] you didn’t, you, you had a dream situation, all the VCs were inbounding to you.

That’s what every entrepreneurship has entrepreneurs hoping for. Yeah. Were there things that you did that made them aware of the business? Was there a PR campaign. Were there activities that you think are just B to C in general, that drive awareness? Why did this happen for you and not others who also have strong performance?

Zach Sims: [00:20:38] Yeah, I think in general, uh, definitely being vocal about your success helps. Um, it’s funny. I think we, we did a lot of this in the early days and, and I think significantly less of this now, um, where, you know, I think, I think, uh, you know, we’ve been somewhat quiet about the business over the last several years.

Uh, and, and so I think early on, there’s definitely a way to kind of build that drum beat, especially if you’re raising capital look like it’s clear that being in tech crunch, you know, places like that, you know, the New York times wall street journal, um, is super beneficial to your company. Uh, and, you know, releasing news often being in, you know, in the conversation, um, is important.

And I think, you know, when we have raised our most successful rounds of financing, you know, we did so kind of following, uh, you know, some drum beat of news from the company.

MPD: [00:21:26] W did you hire an outside PR firm or was that in a skill that one of someone on your team had

Zach Sims: [00:21:31] a, we’ve always had the most success when we’ve done it internally.

MPD: [00:21:34] Okay. And so in the early days, was that you or your partner or how was that done?

Zach Sims: [00:21:40] Uh, I think like a bit of a passion for journalism and, you know, and the media, and I think, you know, it was something that was important. Uh, To me to get right early on, you know, owning the story, telling that, telling the right narrative.

Um, and I think, you know, reading enough about, uh, great reading, what great journalists are writing and then finding out how your story fits into that. I think oftentimes it’s a lot more than most agencies are willing to do, right. They’re just want to send, you know, a press release out on the wire and, you know, spam a thousand journalists about it.

Um, and so I, I think, uh, we tried to do something a little bit different.

MPD: [00:22:15] So just taking a step back here from, uh, day-to-day operations. Uh, when I look at code Academy, I see a great business and you guys have had tremendous success, but I also see it being part of a, more of a macro trend, right. A transition in how the education market works.

And it’s evolving. You’ve alluded to part of that, uh, during this conversation already, what do you th how do you think the education market, the college level or otherwise is going to evolve? In the coming decade or so.

Zach Sims: [00:22:45] Um, um, look, I think the, um, the biggest things that will happen in education are, you know, maybe number one.

Uh, I think that, uh, a lot of colleges and universities unfortunately, will suffer and go out of business over the next couple of years. I think we saw this with the pandemic that was really hard for many of them to reopen. It was really hard for me to have to shift. And then I think you kind of. In addition to the, kind of the budgetary hurdles that are caused by all the things I just mentioned.

I think a lot of them, uh, you know, are facing folks that today are asking the question, why am I paying, you know, $80,000 a year or $60,000 a year? How much should I be spending on our school? Um, you know, for essentially like a zoom class, uh, that I can learn from home. Um, and I think that that shows you just how much of education.

Um, you know, has been taken out of college for instance like that, that really, you know, what you’re paying for when you pay for college degree, for the most part is the sports teams, the dorms, you know, uh, the student life, uh, actually the education. And so I think our hope is that these things get, you know, to use the tech term quote unquote unbundled, right?

And then basically you end up with a situation where, you know, people that are focused on education, just do that. And as a result can provide. You know, really high quality, uh, you know, sets of, uh, classes and whatnot to people with higher ROI. And that, that changes the game from a world where like you pay for college and you get this whole bundle of things that you might not necessarily need.

MPD: [00:24:16] Now the contrarian point here is that look, the college experience is phenomenal, right? I met my wife during it. Um, I had a lot of fun. A lot of people look back on that window of their lifetime. Very fondly. Do you think there’s a scenario where camp campuses are maybe just aggregated or atomized from the actual educational content?

Or

Zach Sims: [00:24:38] is that too far fetched? No, I, I, I think that’s definitely possible. Um, I think that that is the, yeah, the, the unbundling a few Wells I can. And by the way, I don’t mean to suggest in many cases that college is bad because I don’t think the college is like uniformly bad. I just think in a trust structure of college in this country oftentimes means that, you know, you have to go into incredible amounts of debt when, like what you might be looking for as a high return on investment education.

And instead, you’re getting a high return on investment education and the ability to watch football games, the ability to do intramural sports, you know, live in a nice dorm, all these other things. Um, I think that that’s kind of the thing that will, that will start to change.

MPD: [00:25:13] Have you seen the documentary ivory tower?

Zach Sims: [00:25:16] I have not.

MPD: [00:25:17] So one, you should definitely watch it, but anyone listening, every tower I’m a little bit of a documentary nerd, uh, goes, uh, does a deep dive into the evolution of the university dynamic, how they’ve been spending money, why their student debt. And whether it all makes sense and it’s a phenomenal pattern that we’re seeing unfold.

And, um, I think like many things, uh, that get too heavy and too weighty, uh, they eventually break with the help of entrepreneurs or without them. So, uh, I think there’s going to be some change here. That’s a very FA uh, fascinating documentary. We’ll put that in the show notes. Um, do you think, you know, when I look at the university market in particular, You know, there’s some universities where there’s a pretty clear argument for ROI, even though it might not be easy to calculate, right.

You went to Columbia, Columbia is going to create value for you in an intangible ways for your entire life, right. Or at least your entire career. There are other universities that maybe don’t have as much brand cache, but might cost just as much. Um, do, do you think that, you know, if you had to put some target on this, is it going to be 10% of these are going to go away?

30. How does this evolve beyond the atomization of the university? Um, it feels like there’s just so much bloat of people getting, I don’t want to say suckered, but almost suckered into a costly education at this point.

Zach Sims: [00:26:40] Yeah. Um, and you’re saying, how does it evolve from an, from an ROI perspective or how does it, yeah.

MPD: [00:26:46] Well, what do you think the will happen with the actual, um, landscape of universities you’re mentioning? They might shut some, might shut down with COVID COVID is a little bit of an extreme situation. And I think it has highlighted the gap in the experience or the lack of necessity of being physically present.

But is there going to be a contraction in the market of universities overall?

Zach Sims: [00:27:08] Longer-term absolutely. I think so. Um, you know, again, I think there’s this kind of fragmentation you’re going to have these awesome, you know, prestigious institutions. The, the Ivy league, many good state schools, et cetera. Um, and then you’re going to have kind of the middle that gets hollowed out.

And then you’re gonna have, hopefully, you know, if the government could use funding that made a great community colleges and, and schools that actually deliver a meaningful skills to folks, um, and ROI based institutions where I think you’re going to struggle is like, if you’re not a top 50, um, private college, um, then the degree doesn’t mean the paper it’s printed on for the most part.

Right. And so that’s what we’re going to start to see all that hollowing out is. Was saying, why am I paying for a degree where I’m like, I applied to go work at a company and they don’t know the name of the school. And so it doesn’t really confer very much, uh, you know, credibility on me. And those are the schools that I think start to go away.

And again, my hope is that that means that more people get access to it. It’s not about to me, access to college, it’s about access to skills and the way that they get access to the skills can be through a platform like code Academy can be through. You know, a vocational school can be through a community college.

Um, I think that’s what we need to be thinking about. And for so long, the narrative in this country has been like, we need to send more high schoolers to college. Um, because that was like the easiest, you know, metric of achievement is like, what percentage of our population goes to college, but no one has stopped to ask the question, like, is college a right place for them to go in the first place?

Um, and why is it one size fits all many other countries, you know, Germany has an apprenticeship model. For instance, many other countries have very solid vocational school education. Um, and we, we have never focused on,

MPD: [00:28:41] are there other companies that are doing a similarly good job to displace and transform the education market?

Are there folks you pay attention to and think, Hey, these guys are helping with this movement.

Zach Sims: [00:28:52] Yeah, I think the, I think there were plenty. Um, you know, I think there are a lot of companies these days that are, um, you know, again, working on democratizing, uh, skills and knowledge and, and making them more accessible.

And so I think obviously companies like you to me are teaching, you know, anything and everything to people around the world and making it easy to pick up skills. There are a lot of good new, uh, you know, kind of class that are cohort based products that are starting to launch now. Um, you know, I think some of the massively open online course platforms like a Coursera, you know, are, are kind of still the structure of courses tends to be somewhat similar, you know, university bound, et cetera.

But I think are doing a good job, kind of lowering the barrier to get access to courses like that over time.

MPD: [00:29:32] So one of the things that’s come up recently in the political landscape, and as we we’re talking about the companies that are really helping people adapt and change. Is, uh, the change in the needs of the workforce.

We had Jeff Walden on the show, um, before this recording, uh, Jeff Wald is a successful entrepreneur, uh, who has focused on, um, work as a whole, the whole, you know, the future of work is bet, probably the slogan of, and he said that what used to take 40 years for us to be displaced is now four to six, something to that effect.

Now on the other side, you’ve got Andrew Yang, who’s talked about universal basic income. And one of the motivations for UBI is it gives people a baseline income as they’re attempting to retool or retrain as jobs are displaced through innovation, but he made the point that that has historically failed.

The government’s never done that well. So what skills are sustainable today and how do we. Change the cultural paradigm, the expectations of employers to enable the population to evolve and adapt to a more rapidly changing need of work and society.

Zach Sims: [00:30:48] No look, I think mindset oftentimes is like one of the biggest things.

Um, I will say, I think, you know, technology skills, um, you know, understanding, computational thinking, et cetera, super important. And that’s a lot of what we teach, but I think the mindset of understanding that every four to six years, you know, or, or much faster than that, you know, your skills will be obsolete and you will need to.

Focused on lifelong learning to me is the most important thing, right? I think a world where you like went to school, you got a certificate or a degree, and you did the same thing for 40 or 50 years in your career. Those days are over. Um, and instead you need this kind of persistent. Um, learning experience that, that you should expect over the course of your career.

Um, and of course we think that the predominant of those skills will be technology skills that will be kind of the last to be outmoded. Um, and you’ll need to keep learning different types of technology skills, but, uh, you know, the, the concept of, of staying focused on those over time is as relevant.

MPD: [00:31:39] Yeah.

I think we’re going to, I would imagine this will ripple through to the recruiters, right? We’re right now they’re looking okay. Where did you go to college? 20 years ago? It might be that might adapt to, Hey, you haven’t done a certificate in the last five years, you know, or you haven’t gone and taken an online course.

The, the, the concept of lifelong learning is a phrase that’s thrown around, but it’s not a requirement in the employment practices in our country yet. It’s not an expectation. And that’s almost bizarre given the rate of change of the demands of the workforce. Or business general, um, are there coding languages that you think will be more durable as, as you’re teaching people?

Are there, if people are setting up for code Academy, are there languages that you think, Hey, learn these because these are the ones that will last more than six years.

Zach Sims: [00:32:24] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Look, I think JavaScript is the language of the web, uh, has been for awhile will continue to be for awhile. Um, and so I think that’s a pretty good, um, you know, assumption.

Uh, I think Python has been, you know, critical language for a while and now is critical and underpinning things like, um, you know, a lot of common data science that happens as well. And so I think, uh, those are probably the two that I would say, you know, are probably going to be around and durable for, for a while, but you pick up things so that advocate for people to learn,

MPD: [00:32:51] that’s super helpful.

Okay. We’ve got a lot of people listening here who are, would be entrepreneurs. You are very close to this market and the transformation that’s happening in education. Is there advice or direction you would give folks who are thinking about starting a company where they can have the most value? What does the industry need?

What do we need to get solved as someone on the inside?

Zach Sims: [00:33:14] And I think the industry needs, uh, more people and there’s a reason I do what I do. Right. I think the industry needs more people that build things. Uh, you know, we need more software developers, any more designers, any more product managers. Um, I think that, that seems to be one of the biggest, uh, Hold backs to this industry doing, you know, to be even bigger is talent.

Right? And so obviously I think self-interested, but the first thing I would encourage most people to do is to learn the skills. They need to have an impact in the industry. Right. And oftentimes those are software skills. Um, and I say this as someone who was not in technical and, you know, today, I think, uh, rarely writes code, uh, but.

Uh, understanding and appreciating how the technology is transforming everyday life works, I think is kind of the most important skill that someone can bring into a tech company and, you know, help it grow faster and help, you know, technology transform our economy.

MPD: [00:33:59] Right? So, but outside of the skill, uh, the tech industry and the skills you’re delivering, are there other skill sets or educational areas that you think are gaps in the market, that it would be great for entrepreneurs to pick up and solve to move the country forward or the world forward?

Zach Sims: [00:34:16] In education specifically, you’re saying,

MPD: [00:34:18] are there other gaps in education right now that you think people need to get to jump on?

Zach Sims: [00:34:22] Yeah, I mean, I would say yes, but honestly I think one of the biggest things that’s happened over the course of the past, uh, you know, 12 months is just an incredible explosion of education technology businesses.

Um, you know, for the most part, because of the pandemic. Um, and so I think you’re, you’re seeing a lot of people, I would have said, like, why are we still learning on zoom? You know, why are we still, uh, why did most schools not use technology and for better, for worse over the course of the past 12 months? I think obviously for society it’s been not great, but I think there’s been so much innovation, uh, in education.

Uh, th th that is kind of starting to be jammed into the school systems, um, because we have no other choice. It’s the only way people can learn these days is online.

MPD: [00:35:03] Another byproduct, positive byproduct of the pandemic.

Zach Sims: [00:35:06] I’m

MPD: [00:35:09] just looking forward. You’ve done a lot of incredible things. I mean, you can press someone’s normal beginning career before they’re an entrepreneur into your first two years of college.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? What is Axiom is going to be doing for the world?

Zach Sims: [00:35:21] The question I’ll ask afterwards. If I got the job, um, you know what I. I think, um, I’ve always wanted to make an impact. And I, and I think, you know, I’ve spent the past 10 years building this business and I, and I think it, you know, is a, is a company that can have tremendous impact on the world, um, and be a huge business at the same time.

And so my hope is that I get to kind of continue doing that. Uh, you know, whether it is through this company or, uh, through investing or through building another company, um, that I’m able to, you know, have an impact on tens of millions of people, uh, and, and build a big business at the same time, a great place to work.

Um, and I think, you know, near future, it’s definitely still this company. I think Codeacademy is kind of the rare combination of all of those things, that opportunity to make an impact, the opportunity to learn a lot and you know, and also build a big business. Yes.

MPD: [00:36:07] Yeah. You’ve had a good run. Uh, one of the questions I like to ask people at the end of this conversation is what thing they learned is the most important or helpful bit of advice they could share with other entrepreneurs.

There’s a lot of people listening that are carving a new path, um, What’s something that you wish someone would have told you that’s maybe not in one of the cliche phrases out

Zach Sims: [00:36:29] there today. Yeah. I mean, I think, um, I think for me, uh, the first couple years of the business, I felt like I had to kind of persistently, um, push my team, others, et cetera, to understand that, like I knew what I was doing all the time.

It was, you know, I was 21, but like, you could come work for us because I was really smart and I would teach you a lot. Um, and I realized now it’s actually like your job as a CEO or the entrepreneur to generally be like the dumbest person in the room. Um, and, and to hire a team of folks that are just significantly smarter than you in every area.

And you’re drunk to like stitch that group of people together and get them to work well together and provide strategic insight, et cetera. Um, but I think that kind of mindset shift I’m like actually, it’s okay to not know something and to be the first person to raise your hand and say like, I don’t know this.

I E it’s the only position in a company where, when you don’t know something, you can go hire someone who does. Um, and then as a result, I think that like self-awareness of figuring out what you don’t know very quickly. Um, not pretending to know it, uh, not being kind of inauthentic, uh, you know, saying, I don’t know, and then finding out how to solve it.

Um, you know, it was just a major turning point for me and kind of the first couple

MPD: [00:37:37] humility is welcome in the CEO role. Yeah. Wonderful. Hey, thank you for being on this was super insightful. I think a lot of people are gonna get a ton of value out of this. Thanks for sharing.

Zach Sims: [00:37:47] Of course, thanks for having me.


Teaching the world how to code with Codecademy Co-Founder & CEO Zach Sims was originally published in @MPD on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.