I honestly don’t recall how Zach and I met but it was likely via a mutual NYC tech friend or his snappy Twitter stream. Either way, he’s cost me thousands of dollars alerting me to notebook and backpack/gearbag projects on Kickstarter that deserve support (he’s also into pens, but that I just don’t get). Codecademy has been focused on helping people worldwide learn to code. Recently they’ve been pretty heads down on global expansion so I thought it would be fun to check in with Zach for Five Questions.
Hunter Walk: First, let’s just refresh folks on how Codecademy got started
Zach Sims: We started working together in January of 2011 after my cofounder Ryan and I saw the huge gap between education and employment. I was a Political Science major working at GroupMe in my free time and realizing that what I was doing in the classroom was entirely different from what I was doing in the working world. Ryan, meanwhile, had started teaching people to program through a club he started at Columbia, the Application Development Initiative. The two of us started trying to find a way to reduce the gap we saw between the classroom and the real world, but ended up taking a number of different approaches before settling on what became Codecademy (which ended up starting over the summer when we were in YC). Over the summer, I was teaching myself to program with Ryan’s help and using everything I could find (books, videos, tutorials, etc.) so I could contribute more to what we were building. Eventually, we realized that building something for me to help me learn to program would help solve the original problem we were solving — connecting people with the most in-demand skills to help them find jobs.
HW: Startups are about testing, learning, iterating. What’s something you believed to be true a few years ago that now you realize was wrong?
ZS: Early on, I think we thought overcommunication was a problem. As a consequence, we didn’t communicate vision, objectives, or projects clearly enough or often enough to our team. Now, I try to integrate the company’s vision, strategy, and objectives into nearly every meeting — there’s no such thing as overcommunicating in a startup.
HW: It’s easy to get distracted with shiny objects – conferences, events, press – how do you decide what to participate in vs stay heads down?
ZS: I think this is a constant process and it’s something I try to be hyper aware of (and, to be honest, I try to say no more often than I used to). Each quarter, our team sets goals which them trickle down to individual goals. I set mine and try to make sure that things like conferences, events, and press fit into one of my priorities. Otherwise, it’s either personal time or it doesn’t make it on my schedule.
HW: How nervous were you on The Colbert Report?
ZS: I was definitely a bit nervous I’d end up skewered like some of his guests, but Stephen was friendly in the pre-show conversation and actually mentioned he was a fan of what we were working on. He ended up with a few dangerous questions, but it didn’t feel adversarial at all.
HW: Who are two underrated folks in the New York tech scene? Don’t worry, I won’t ask you for overrated ones…
ZS: There are almost too many people I know at this point to count. I’m a fan of someone who actually unfortunately just left the New York tech scene: Moawia Eldeeb, the cofounder of SmartSpot (a Y Combinator company in this batch).