The Code Academy Legacy

A lot of people don’t realize this, but the first coding bootcamp that really saw any traction wasn’t Dev Bootcamp, but rather a program called Code Academy — started in the back of Groupon’s office by two Northwestern University students in the summer of 2011. (Code Academy later changed it’s name to The Starter League in the fall of 2012).

The news broke today that the artist formerly known as Code Academy is shutting down and being merged into the New York-based Fullstack Academy.

I was a web development student in the 4th cohort of Code Academy (summer 2012). Back when attending a coding bootcamp was still kind of a crazy thing to do. Code Academy was my first formal introduction to programming of any sorts, it helped me discover my identity, and got me started down the road of software development that I will continue on for the rest of my life.

We had a tradition at Code Academy that every Friday we would do a class “retrospective” to look back at the past week, and write down the good, bad, and enlightening moments that had occurred over the past five days. In light of the news I wanted to jot down a couple thoughts on Code Academy four years later.

I’ve always thought that if Code Academy ended on the first day, and all it did was introduce me to 30 other smart, motivated, and slightly crazy individuals with similar interests it would have already been worth the price of admission. The biggest achievement of the coding bootcamp is to take something that would otherwise be isolating, scary and frustrating and make it fun, social and approachable. That was the key to everything, after you got people together like that what you formally taught them was just gravy, at least initially.

Code Academy gave me the context to understand what a true disruptive movement looks and feels like. People were flocking to it from all over the world on a whim, making the decision to attend on pure emotion because they just knew that they were on to something. Code Academy sold a message that by learning to code you could take control of your life, learn to be a true citizen of the digital age — and it was resonating with people. It resonated with college students who were jaded by career counselors teaching them nothing more than how to properly indent their resume, with people who were tired of running in circles at an office cubicle and wanted to learn to create things, with people who had been enterprise software developers for years and were blown away by the enthusiasm of startup culture and the Rails ecosystem.

For once you didn’t have to explain yourself to others, everyone just got it implicitly, there’s going to be a ravine coming that divides the workforce into people who can use technology to their advantage and people who can’t, which side do you want to be on? Of course you need to learn this stuff, let’s do it together.

But it didn’t simply end once you got people in a room together, there was still the actual program. 9 weeks of training on how to approach Ruby, Rails and web development. How to take the scary black magic of software development and make it fun and approachable. The 9 weeks I spent at Code Academy were some of the most poignant, motivating and inspiring weeks of my entire life. I had a blast, and felt that something truly special was happening in Chicago. But as the coding bootcamp movement began to mature and pick up steam, Code Academy’s flaws began to become apparent.

Code Academy had a slightly different slant than most coding bootcamps. They would contend that they were more focused on teaching people to build their own companies, to make a dent in the universe, be their own boss etc., than just becoming plain old software developers. On paper that sounds great, but in reality it meant that Code Academy just did a worse job than some of the competition at actually teaching you how to code. Entrepreneurship isn’t really something that can be taught in a formal setting, and as other programs narrowed down on getting their students jobs, building relationships with potential employers and creating more intensive programming focused curriculums — it became apparent that merely inspiring people isn’t a viable business model in the face of heavy competition.

The reality is that it takes something on the order of 3 years to be good enough at programming to really go after a problem, it’s folly to think you can do it in 3 months. The model of introducing students to Rails and Javascript and kicking them out in the world and saying “go be an entrepreneur” just doesn’t work. It might work in rare one-off cases, but it’s at the very least highly inefficient. You should ideally work on some real world projects, you should ship code in a production environment, learn how to build software as part of a team, manage others and be managed, you should build domain models for different classes of problems, explore different technologies, make mistakes, understand what you want out of life, and then attack something you’re passionate about in a more strategic way. There’s nothing wrong with starting companies on a whim, trying new ideas, but it’s not the most efficient model for truly making a dent in the universe.

Code Academy could have done a 10x better job at preparing it’s students for the real world. It could have done a 10x better job at engaging its alumni base, and leveraging it as a resource to make the experience better for the current students. The experience ultimately suffered dramatically because of a failure to push the model forward past the simple idea that had ultimately made it such an initial breakout success. Stagnation is suicide, and product/market fit trumps all. The product/market fit for coding bootcamps was so evident that many others flocked to it, many of them ultimately out-executed Code Academy.

I always respected the way that Code Academy stayed true to it’s roots in Chicago, and seemed to genuinely care about the city. It was refreshing — especially in this day and age — to see a company stand for something other than making returns for a venture capitalist. I have no doubt that Code Academy turned down multiple offers to expand to other cities or license their brand name, all in order to make a larger impact in Chicago. You couldn’t name one prominent developer, designer or entrepreneur in Chicago that didn’t touch Code Academy in some way. The network around the program was extraordinary. I know that Bitmaker Labs and MakerSquare both had roots from Code Academy, and I’m sure other programs did as well.

It’s sad to see Code Academy end. It was an incredible thing to be a part of. I will forever remember that two kids from Northwestern built a website and a payment form, sent it out into the world, and kick-started a movement that will eventually bring the American higher education system to it’s knees. For all it’s flaws Code Academy was a legendary achievement, I will do my best to carry it’s legacy forward with the rest of my career.

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