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A little over a year ago, Mike McGee and Neal Sales-Griffin decided to form a tech startup. Although they both had a strong business backgrounds (both graduated from Northwestern University), neither could code. Rather than look for a technical co-founder or hire programmers, the two opted to learn to program.

They read books, they tried online tutorials, they went to local hackathons, classes, and workshops. And after a year or so of this, says Sales-Griffin, they began thinking that there had to be a better way to learn to code. They then realized that the great opportunity for a tech startup might just lie in helping others avoid some of the frustrations and struggles of learning to build Web apps.

So the duo set out to create "the best learning environment," founding Code Academy, which opened its doors in August 2011.

It's a great name for a programming course, no doubt. But it's a name that's caused some confusion with another similarly named and recently launched startup -- Codecademy. And considering what I said about Codecademy (generically, for those literary-minded folks at home, I'd label it a "screed"), I felt like I should help clarify.

Because despite both startups offering programming lessons, Codecademy and Code Academy are really quite different. In fact, the latter addresses 2 of the biggest beefs I had with the former: 1) Code Academy emphasizes "project-based" rather than "chapter-based" learning; and 2) Code Academy has thought a lot about what it means to expand the tech community beyond college-trained programmers -- and what it means to be both supportive and inclusive while doing so.

Code Academy offers a 3-month course in Web development. The class is 10 hours a week, taught by Jeff Cohen, a long-time Ruby-on-Rails developer and instructor. Code Academy is aimed at non-programmers (just like McGee and Sales-Griffin themselves once were); yet by the end of the course, the students should have an understanding of the Ruby syntax and the ability to get a Rails app up and running.

Sales-Griffin describes Code Academy's approach to teaching programming as "entrepreneurial." Students are asked to come to class with a specific project in mind -- "something you want to build." And although the course does have some structure and design, it's more about making sure the students are moving their projects forward than it is necessarily sticking to a rigid syllabus.

Code Academy tuition isn't cheap: $6000. But it includes access to not just the course itself but to a vast mentor network comprised of Chicago tech entrepreneurs and companies.

That community piece is really important, particularly as Chicago's tech industry is growing. (Indeed, the inaugural class of Code Academy was held in the offices of one of the city's most renowned startups: Groupon.) The Chicago tech community is a diverse one too, something that puts it in contrast to Silicon Valley perhaps. Or at least, the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley was something highlighted in a recent episode of the CNN series Black in America. That show asked an important question: if so much of our economy will be based on tech entrepreneurship, what does it mean if African-Americans (and other minorities and women) are excluded? As a minority-owned company itself, Code Academy seems to have found some success creating an entry point for would-be tech entrepreneurs and engineers with limited tech backgrounds.

That makes the question of how to scale something like this pretty important, I'd argue. And no surprise, there was far more demand for the first class this fall than the Code Academy founders initially anticipated. They ended up running two classes this first term instead of one. But when I asked them how they planned to scale Code Academy, Sales-Griffin expressed some reluctance, insisting that they wouldn't without adding more great faculty. (The startup has found one in Carolyn Chandler, however, who's joined the team to teach Web design beginning next year.)

As it stands, the students at Code Academy do come from a variety of backgrounds and ages and geographic areas. Perhaps that's the most compelling advertisement for the startup right there: I mean, people are moving from Florida to Chicago in January to be part of Code Academy's next term.

Code Academy's initial success at teaching local coding classes raises some interesting questions too when we think about the future of learning programming: can online instruction compete with offline (and visa versa) What does it mean that students would rather pay tuition at a private school like Code Academy -- for no degree, mind you -- than attend a local, public institution? What does Code Academy (and other programs like it) offer that public schools (K-12 and higher ed) don't: is it the skills? the mentorship? the opportunity cost of college versus a 3-month program? Can programs like Code Academy better adapt to the demands of the tech industry for skilled programmers than 4-year CS programs can? (Do I sense a trends post here? Stay tuned!)

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Audrey Watters


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