What Is Dead May Never Die: The Story of Code Academy and the Start of the Coding Bootcamp Industry

This is the first post in a week-long series recounting the story of starting Code Academy. This series will cover how our school set the foundation for an explosion of bootcamps across the country and the current work I’m doing with CodeNow, a national nonprofit transforming underserved teenagers into developers, designers, and entrepreneurs.

Note: This origin story will not include the drama of CodeAcademy.org (which we started on April 20, 2011) versus Codecademy.com (an awesome web app, but not our startup, which launched August 18, 2011).

Chapter One will focus on how my friend, Neal Sàles-Griffin, and I started learning development & design – with no tech background – and finish with the idea of creating a beginner-focused software development school in Chicago.


Preface

In July, Dev Bootcamp (DBC), one of the first coding bootcamps, announced they were closing their doors.

Story after story detailing DBC’s closure had lines like this:

“The San Francisco company launched the nation’s first in-person, short-term, intensive coding camp in 2012.” — San Francisco Chronicle
“Dev Bootcamp birthed the coding bootcamp industry in 2012.” — VentureBeat

In other resources before DBC’s news broke, there’s a similar pattern:

“Since Dev Bootcamp first opened their doors in February 2012, the programming bootcamp industry has grown throughout the US and around the world.” — Course Report’s Coding Bootcamp Guide
“Coding bootcamps made their debut with Dev Bootcamp, founded in 2012.” — Wikipedia on Coding Bootcamps
There are a couple of problems here.

The first coding bootcamp started in 2011, not 2012. Also, it was launched by two black guys in a Chicago apartment on the South Side, not in downtown San Francisco.

While we have shared our origin story to hundreds, most likely thousands of people over the past six years, there are many people, journalists, and other coding bootcamps that don’t know how this industry started.

So…

Chapter 1: “I want to learn how to code. And I want you to learn with me.”

April 2010

Three months before graduating from Northwestern University (NU), I was going through the final interview process with a couple of non-profits & high schools. My friend, Neal Sàles-Griffin, had graduated from NU in 2009 and was working at Sandbox Industries as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence.

Within a few months of managing designers & developers, he realized two things:

  1. It’s hard to manage creatives when you don’t know how to code.
  2. The designers & developers had way more fun building apps.

So, Neal decided to quit his full-time job to learn how to code. After making this decision, he gave me a call and said:

“I want to learn how to code. And I want you to learn with me.” — Neal

While jumping into startups was not the most rational decision to make, it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. Neal and I had spent the past two years being back-to-back student body presidents at NU, so we learned that we cared about the same issues and enjoyed working together.

The plan was simple: Neal would focus on back-end development & business ideas, and I would learn front-end development & design so we could solve problems with technology.

Surprisingly, people thought we were crazy!

“You guys are wasting your time.”
“Get some CS student to build your ideas for you.”
“Raise money so you can hire developers from overseas.”

That wasn’t going to work for us. We wanted to be the creators.

How many times have you complained about a problem you wanted to solve? Or an idea you wanted to build? You talk to friends & family about it, but as soon as you get excited, you remember that you don’t have the skills to bring the idea to life. That was us. We were sick of complaining about the problems we experienced and we wanted to do something.

May-December 2010: Let’s learn how to code

Where do you start when you want to learn something? Google.

So we typed in “learn how to code” and went from there.

Neal started with Learn Python the Hard Way and then found why’s (poignant) Guide to Ruby,” which then led him to learn Rails through Code School, Rails for Zombies, and the legendary Hartl Tutorial.

If Neal created “House Sales-Griffin” on Game of Thrones, Michael Hartl would be their God. After discovering this book, you could not get him to stop talking about it.

I went through Head First HTML & CSS (🙌🏿 Kathy Sierra 🙌🏿), Ryan Carson’s Carsonified (now Treehouse), Smashing Magazine, Envato Tuts Plus, and as many UI & UX books as I could find.

Learning kinda felt like going through a wormhole. Uhhh, because I totally know how that feels. #IveSeenMovies

I’d be working on some HTML & CSS tutorial for a couple of hours, and then check my inbox to see an email barrage from Neal like this:

Note: Read from the bottom up to get the full effect.

Yes. These were all sent on the same day.

Even though we learned a lot about design and development, our largest lesson was learning how hard it was to learn. Especially, if you are a beginner without the confidence & network to succeed.

“If you can’t find it, build it.”

January-March 2011

Entering 2011, we were building prototype web applications and looking for mentors to help improve our skills. Through a college friend, we were able to connect with Abi Noda, a software engineer in Chicago.

For the next couple months, Neal would spend hours with Abi learning all he could about programming.

While we continued to read books and complete online tutorials, we were constantly searching for in-person learning experiences. When we did find workshops, they had significant disadvantages.

  1. Short & Expensive: We found a number of five-day bootcamps which ranged between $2000-$3500.
  2. For experienced programmers: Almost every bootcamp was focused on professionals who wanted to learn another programming language or framework, not beginners.
  3. Theory > Practical application: If we did find a beginner-level program aka going back to college, the course would focus more on CS theory than building database-backed web applications. It’s not that we didn’t see the value of learning computer science principles, but we didn’t have the money (five to six figures) or time (2–4 years) to devote to this endeavor.

During the countless hours Neal was at Abi’s house learning, Abi floated the idea of starting a Ruby on Rails summer course. Abi had also just met Elliott Garms, an independent tech recruiter in Chicago. Elliott not only knew every tech company in the city, but also knew how badly they needed tech talent. Abi sensed an opportunity and connected Neal & Elliott in the email below.

After this meeting, Neal was pumped.

Neal came back to our apartment basically looking like this. Once he debriefed us on the meeting, I knew all other startup ideas would be put on hold.

We searched around Chicago, the country, and the world for beginner-focused coding bootcamps, but we couldn’t find any.

Note: Whenever I tell our story, this is the part I stress the most. Neal and I wanted to learn how to build apps, not how to build a coding bootcamp.

“We would have attended a beginner-focused coding bootcamp if there was one.”

After a year of trial & error through books, online tutorials, and message boards, we knew there had to be a better way.


The next chapter in this series will cover the journey of pitching our “three-month software bootcamp” idea to the Chicago software, tech, and VC communities. To be the first to know when the next chapter drops, just click the little follow button next to my name at the top of this post.

To learn more about my current work at CodeNow, you can visit http://codenow.org. We are in the middle of a year-end fundraising campaign for student scholarships, so if you’d like to help us teach more students how to solve problems with technology, donate today.