Year One at Code Academy

April 23, 2012

Happy Birthday Code Academy

This weekend marks one year since we picked the name Code Academy for our startup. While we started with the idea of “Rails school” back in March, April 20-22,  2011 highlighted a critical point in our lives. For all the crazy things that have happened over the past year, I feel that the best way to capture it is to show you the actual timeline of how this all came to be. Below are the major highlights of the birth of Code Academy and how we got to this point.

April 20, 2011 - What’s the name?

We had been working on this idea for almost a month now, but we hadn’t come up with a name yet. We have spent the past year coming up with names for all these ideas we wanted to build, but here we were with an idea that really excited us and we couldn’t come up with anything! Towards the end of April, a team member had sent out some domain names, **and they weren’t that good**. With the likes of and, the chances weren’t looking great, but Neal saw a diamond in the rough! was there and he immediately fired back an email with that url and we had a name.

After picking Code Academy we immediately went to twitter and snatched up the @CodeAcademy account and filed for not-for-profit status with the State of Illinois.

April 22, 2011 – Neal gets introduced to Steve Collens, SVP of the Pritzker Group

Thanks to our close friends Harper Reed and Troy Henikoff, Neal was introduced to Steve Collens and had the opportunity to present this idea called Code Academy. So Neal, who during the whole month of April had convinced what seemed to be the whole city of Chicago about our idea (with a simple iPad presentation) met with Steve Collens to pitch Code Academy.

The meeting that was slated for an hour but ended up going on for 2.5 hours. From then on Steve became one of our biggest supporters.

Do Code Academy or work for the President?

By the beginning of May, we were really getting excited about the prospects for Code Academy.  People in the entrepreneurial and software development community were getting excited about the idea AND working with us to make it happen.

But then a curveball came…

Neal initially meets with Harper to talk about the next steps for Code Academy, but the meeting quickly turns into Harper trying to get Neal to become a product manager for the Obama re-election campaign. Neal initially said no, stating that he couldn’t leave the team that was building CA. Harper came back and said we will hire the whole team, which showed the seriousness of him wanting us.

So what do we do?

Option #1 (Code Academy): If we choose to build, we can pursue our vision of not only transforming a city we love, but creating a world where anybody who wants to learn programming, solve problems, and live a meaningful life can do so.

Option #2 (Obama for America): If we choose to join an organization, we have the opportunity to work with some of the best (if not the best) people in world of technology, solving problems on a stupidly large scale, all focused on helping some kinda-important dude keep his job.

May 23rd, 2011 – The Hardest “No” Ever

On Wednesday, June 1st we officially launched a landing page for Code Academy. It was a dead simple page (mainly because I coded the front-end on a bus trip to my hometown) but it was enough to get the message across of what we were trying to do.

Later that night, a few of us prematurely tweeted out the URL and got some retweets. One of the replies we got was from this guy named Jeff Cohen…

A few weeks later, Code Academy had an instructor.

July 22-27,2011 – Won the Spark Chicago competition with Code Mountain

As we were building Code Academy during the summer, Neal and I got accepted into this new startup competition called SPARK Chicago. It was during the weekend of July 22nd, which was right when we wanted to launch the Code Academy site. So I did as much as I could to do both. After spending most of Monday-Thursday that week awake trying to get the site launched, Neal recruited six other SPARK contestants to join our team. By Friday, we had a team of eight people going into the competition. We postponed the Code Academy site launch to focus on SPARK and building out Code Mountain.

Three days later, we won Startup Weekend Chicago and made it into the SPARK finals.

Three days later, we won SPARK Chicago. And then I went to sleep.

Another bonus of winning was that we created a great partnership with Bernhard Kappe and Pathfinder Software, so we decided to stay in their beautiful office to continue building Code Academy. We can’t thank the Pathfinder team enough for their support!

August 4, 2011 – Relaunched CA  site for Fall Quarter applications

One week after winning SPARK, we officially re-launched the Code Academy site to the world. Our whole summer came down to this: could we find 12 people who were crazy enough to do this program?

The Catalyst

Neal had the opportunity to meet Jason Fried back in April 2011, and kept him (as well as DHH) updated on Code Academy’s progress. After we relaunched Code Academy in August, Neal hit Jason up on twitter to help spread the word about Code Academy. Jason responded.

This simple tweet on a Friday afternoon gave us a HUGE boost in applications. We had been receiving about 2-3 apps a day at that point (which was amazing by the way) but that day alone we got 15 applications, 5 of them directly related to Jason’s tweet. Amazing.

By the end of August, we had received 88 applications from people all across the country and the world.  Crazy, insane, unbelievable, whatever word to describe shock was what we were feeling. But there was no time to rest. Mainly because of the small fact that we had to still choose who was going to do it. We did all the interviews in one week, and then decided to take 35 people instead of 12 into our inaugural program.

September 2011 – So we have students, but we still haven’t built a school…

It was awesome that we had all these students, but there were some problems. We still didn’t have a space, computers, or money to buy those things! So during the month of September, Neal hustled his ass off to setup a payment system so the students could pay us upfront, find a space for the class, AND get computers. Three days before class started, we signed a sublease with Groupon for a little section of space in their HQ.  The next day the iMacs came.

Monday, October 3rd, 2011 – The end of one beginning. The start of another…

From April until October, we were trying to get convince people to believe in this idea called Code Academy. We had been lucky enough to accomplish that feat, but now we had to actually do it.

We didn’t know what the next three months would be like exactly, but at least we wanted to get the first day right. A surprise visit from DHH did the trick.

DHH. First day of Code Academy. At Groupon. You can’t make this stuff up.

December 20, 2011 – Fall Quarter Demo Day

By the time December rolled around, we knew that we were able to teach beginners how to build web apps, but we didn’t know if they could present what they built and learned in front of other people. We also didn’t know who would show up to watch. We sent out RSVPs to friends, family and others within the Chicago community to come to our inaugural demo day. The response was overwhelming.

200+ people were crammed into TechNexus for over three hours to hear our students present. They did an AMAZING job! Thanks to Fred Hoch for letting us host Demo Day there.

January 9, 2012 – the start of Winter Quarter

Moved to the John Hancock Center, thanks to SMSAssist. Increased our class size from 35 to 56 students. Added a UX class as well as piloting a HTML/CSS class. And had the opportunity to enjoy this view for three months.

March 27-28 2012 – Officially moved into 1871 + Winter Quarter Demo Day

The day before the end of Winter Quarter, we moved into our new home at 1871 in the Merchandise Mart. The next day, we hosted the first event ever at 1871: Winter Quarter Demo Day. The attendance went from 200+ Fall Quarter to 550+ Winter Quarter. Once again, our students brought the house down and successfully finished another great quarter.

April 9th, 2012 – Start of Spring Quarter

One year later here we are in 1871 and going strong through Spring Quarter. While we were initially  looking for only 12 people, this quarter we have over 80 students alone! Add them with all the staff, alumni, mentors, and advisors, we have over 300 people who are involved with Code Academy! We can’t thank all of them enough for their support during our first year of Code Academy.

This year has been incredible and has not gone to plan in every amazing way possible. Our alumni are getting jobs, apprenticeships, internships and starting their own companies, and more and more people are coming from all corners of the country and the world to Chicago to learn web development and design. Our focus has always been quality over quantity and delivering the best beginner-focused education in the world, and we plan to continue doing that during year two.

P.S. We also have a few more surprises coming this year, but I’ll save that for another post.