From Idea to Evolution: The Transformation of CodeNow
More than five years ago I started CodeNow with the goal of providing access to computer programming for students who normally did not have exposure. What drove me was seeing the serious lack of access to 21st century skills for students that amounted to a social injustice. Back when I started talking with people about the importance of coding, there was no learn-to-code movement so most people were entirely unaware of the problem. Thankfully, now it’s a topic of mainstream conversation and schools are on the path to integrating coding into regular curriculum. To put how much things have changed into context, when we launched in 2011, we worked with 24 students in one city, Washington, DC. As of this blog post, we have worked with nearly 2,000 students across nine cities.
I had a front row seat to watch a movement form. From being invited to the White House to take part in working groups to meeting with founders of now prominent coding initiatives before they started, I’ve had a look at all aspects of what has started to become a new normal. Coding is now on everyone’s mind, whether it’s a student trying to figure out what to do career-wise or a company seeking access to the best and most diverse tech talent. It has been amazing to be part of something that is so impactful and I’m proud of the effect we have had and will continue to have. CodeNow has ushered thousands of students into coding through our workshops and we’ve helped them along as much as possible afterwards through programs like our internship placement.
What people might be surprised to know is that CodeNow almost didn’t happen. At the very beginning, it felt like we were constantly overcoming hurdles that seemed far above the normal challenges startups typically face. (I’ve come to realize that every founder feels this way; the obstacles you face whenever you start something can make you feel like the deck is stacked against you, but it’s usually just part of the normal process.) Right before we held our first workshop, our lead — and only — trainer had to pull out due to a death in the family. Then we lost the space where we were supposed to hold the workshop. Then, after we had already bought all the equipment for the first training, a major tech company that had pledged money reneged on the donation they promised. It’s hard not to feel at least a little devastated when all of these things happen at once just as you’re trying to get something new off the ground. Thankfully, all of these were solvable problems. We persevered and saw the power of CodeNow take its first steps. Three years later we were accepted to YCombinator as one of the first nonprofits they were supporting.
There were numerous lessons I learned through building CodeNow, this was part of the fun. The three main ones are: passion, persistence and talking to the people you are serving.
1) You need to be passionate about the problem you are solving. There will be highs and lows. Being dedicated and connected to your mission will help you every step of the way.
2) When building something new, you hear a lot of no’s and some people will look at you as if you’re from another planet when you pitch them your vision. Being persistent will bring you one step closer to getting a break, and one day someone will finally get it, and then someone else, and so on. Momentum is created.
3) Talking to the people you are serving sounds basic but can be so easily overlooked when you are building something. We made our biggest strides when we listened to the needs of our students and volunteers. One example of this resulted in the realization that not all of our students learn at the same pace. In a normal classroom-style setting, there was nothing that could be done to accommodate the different ways students needed to learn. But our students wanted a more personalized approach. Also, our volunteers wanted to be more engaged. This led us to change our classroom structure; breaking our students into small groups of four to six. Each lead by a volunteer, allows the groups to move at their own pace and students to get the attention needed while engaging the volunteer in a more meaningful way.
However after five years, I’ve realized that the space needs to evolve — a lot. We are teaching students “how” to code but not “why.” This is why I am very excited about the new approach Neal Sales-Griffin, CodeNow’s incoming CEO is taking. CodeNow will combine design thinking, product management and coding in its offerings. This will teach student about various areas of the tech industry and help them solve meaningful problems in their communities.
For over five years I have lived and breathed CodeNow but I am excited to hand off my creation and watch it blossom. It’s bittersweet leaving but I’m excited to remain involved as Chairman of the Board. I plan to take some time off and then find a new challenge to apply my skills to. I am so thankful for what I have learned and for those who believed in our work. The impact we made would not be possible without our amazing team, volunteers, partners, and especially the students.
Thank you, to all of our students. Your drive, passion and curiosity has inspired me for five years and I cannot wait to see what you become.