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Q&A with Zach Sims, Co-founder and CEO of Codecademy

5 February 2020
In Ventures

Q&A with Zach Sims, Co-founder and CEO of Codecademy

In 2011 while still in college, Zach Sims, CEO, co-founded Codecademy as an answer to his own problem – it was extremely difficult to learn how to code if you wanted to learn on your own. So, after many long hours and lots of Ramen, Codecademy was launched as an intuitive, dynamic, and lean-forward approach to learning coding skills. His vision was to teach users technical skills and coding in a compelling way, and to enable them to get the jobs they want or to take their career to the next level without having to go to college.

Starting from 200,000 users in its first weekend, and now more than 45 million users nine years later, Zach and team have built a strong base of active learners and are growing rapidly each year. They’ve also seen huge growth in committed subscribers who sign up for long-term contracts as users want to continue to learn and grow,
We sat down with Zach to find out more about how he and the team got to this point, his thoughts on the business, and his advice for how to stay ahead in the market.
 
  1. What problem/societal need are you trying to solve and why is your approach unique?  
At Codecademy, we see two big needs driving what we do. The first is a dramatic gap between college education and employment. People are spending a fortune to get college degrees, but then are graduating without essential skills. At the same time, companies are trying to become more technology oriented and friendly but can't find employees with the right skills.
 
Most people don't have modern technology skills and learning them has been hard. In fact, I tried to teach myself coding and it was super frustrating.
 
So, our focus has been solving that problem – to deliver a technology education platform that is engaging – enabling learning with immediate feedback; is accessible – offering is low cost; and is flexible – allowing you to take courses anywhere, anytime.
 
Our goal is to make a career change or job transition totally possible for anyone. However, being able to do that without having to take time off for grad school or dealing with teaching oneself.
  
  1. What or who inspired you to start the company?   
My personal experience combined with that of my co-founder Ryan. Ryan was a software engineer and found teaching people these new skills very frustrating. Classroom teaching was tough, Internet courses didn’t work – it seemed like there had to be a better way.
  
  1. What has been the hardest challenge and the most pleasant surprise along the way?  
The most difficult part has been taking our idea and turning it into a company. At the heart of it was a people challenge – recruiting and hiring an amazing team to grow the business.
 
That challenge is mirrored in what we are trying to do for companies and people around the world – create a larger pool of people with the right skills for companies to hire so they too can create a great business.
 
The most pleasant surprise has been building something people want – and watching them use it successfully – it’s been tremendous. It is so gratifying to find that the product is essential to many people and is allowing them to have a better life.
 
I experienced a great example of this in an Uber I caught home from work recently. The driver picked me up at the office and asked if I worked at Codecademy. He then went on to tell me he took a Codecademy course at home in Brazil, discovered he loved coding, made enough money coding on the side to go to college in the US, and is driving for Uber as a side gig as he works through school. We hear variations of that story all the time.
 
When we started the company, we hoped to have an impact on a few people. To have had an impact on tens of millions is extremely gratifying – it makes me happy every day I have this opportunity and makes the job worthwhile. 
 
  1. What’s the best advice you ever got and what advice do you regret not following?  
The best advice? To make something people want! We were the ideal customers, so we built it for ourselves and we were lucky enough that it worked for others as well. Since the start, we have kept, at the heart of the company, the mantra of learning from our customers.
 
As for advice I wish I followed sooner? To remember it would never be all about the product. Originally, we didn’t believe that and focused all our efforts on the product. Since then, we have realized that every department in a company is critical and the interplay between them is what is needed to build a successful business.
  
  1. What are the future implications of the technology you are developing? 
We honestly believe it can change the world and drive higher GDP across the world.
It all starts with helping anyone in the world to learn a skill that enables them to make more money and, thereby, live a better life.
Connected to that, we think employees with the right skills enable companies to be better and run more efficiently, while being more responsive to digital growth opportunities. As a result, they are more equipped to grow faster.
Both elements – employees and companies – come together to hopefully drive up GDP, which leads to a happier population, and hopefully less income inequality. For anybody who is a striver and is driven, Codecademy will enable them to make it in the world.
 
  1. How do you stay one step ahead of the competition?  
The key for us is listening to our learners – doing that on a repetitive, consistent basis. We figure out what they want to learn, and how they learn. That enables us to make the experience more engaging than what others provide.
 
A great vignette as to how that plays out? I was sent a photo from a mom. Her kids were in their room, their Xbox and two controllers were ignored on the floor, and the kids were on Codecademy! Making things interactive and fun, more like a game, has changed how people think about learning. So, we have stayed focused and dedicated to that principle. 
 
  1. What top tip for success would you give to other aspiring leaders and founders?  
I’ll make it ‘tips’ plural.
 
The first is to stay focused on the customer – always listening and iterating. This has been so true for us.
 
Number two is to find a way to balance stress. Starting the company, I felt under the gun and was working 100 hours a week. Hard work is important but finding a way to stay sane is essential for the long term – it's a marathon not a sprint. Meditate, go for a run in the morning, whatever works for you, but while you are doing it, take the opportunity to think about the bigger picture – it makes you a better boss as well. It isn’t that you shouldn’t work hard, but it’s how you structure life around it to make it sustainable.
 
Finally, focus on the team you build. This really is the most important thing – more important than anything else you do at your company. Oftentimes, the people end up driving results more than the strategy does.
 
  1. How has partnering with a company like Prosus helped your business to flourish? 
It has been a great experience overall, but two things stand out. Global reach – helping us think about how to approach the markets when they each are a bit different has been huge. In addition, access to great subject matter expertise and operational expertise –
people that understand ALL areas of business and help us level up across the business has been invaluable.
 
  1. What other technology or societal trend will have the largest impact on our future?   
You hear so much buzz around VR, AI and other technologies, but for me it is the impact that remote work is having. So many people around the world are using Codecademy to learn new, mission-critical skills. With our users not all in one place, our challenge is how can we find jobs for them and help them maximize their new skills. The answer is that lots of hiring companies are now thinking of remote working in a very different way. There is a boom in new types of work that enable people to be successful, wherever they are in the world. This is having a big impact worldwide and is helping create a new generation that don't have to relocate but can get fulfilling jobs wherever they live.
 
  1. What is your favorite city to visit and why?  
This one is tough, so I’m going to have to say it’s a tie between San Francisco and Paris.
 
San Francisco is an amazing place to visit and to generate new ideas. Full of people who drive you to be better – mind expanding to be out there and very inspiring!!
 
Paris has a different vibe. The layout is fantastic, it's beautiful, with wonderful culture. Very different to San Francisco – creatively inspiring and a fantastic place to spend time.
 
The company is hiring for multiple exciting roles to join their team in New York. Visit careers.codecademy.com to learn more and apply!

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