Originally appeared on Medill Reports
What is holding you back from building a website or app? Is it fear that you’ll fail, that it’s too complicated for someone who didn’t get a computer science degree, or that you’re just plain uninterested?
The Starter League LLC, in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, wants to change that.
“We had the first beginner-focused intensive program – instead of trying to grab the rock star developer, let’s look to the other 99 percent of the world, and how can we empower them to be creators,” said co-founder Mike McGee.
A little over two years after the company’s founding in 2011, “We’ve taught nearly a thousand people how to code, design and build web apps.”
Until recently, learning to code the websites and apps that we use every day has been kept mainly in the realm of university computer science departments. Coding was seen as something beyond the reach of the average person, something you had to attend a big school, show up at lectures, take quizzes and study up on to understand.
In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 141,400 web developer jobs in the U.S. in 2012, with that number expected to grow by 20 percent over the coming decade.
Chicago is the 9th-largest market for employing web developers, but is not in the top 10 metropolitan areas where web developers live.
This is where Starter League comes in, a school bootstrapped in 2011 by McGee and partner Neal Sales-Griffin, with no investor funding, that teaches beginners everything from coding HTML to user experience design.
The two met at Northwestern University in student government where they served consecutive terms as student body presidents and shared a desire to positively affect their surroundings.
After graduating, Sales-Griffin went to work at Near West Side-based Sandbox Industries, a venture capital firm, as their “entrepreneur in residence,” hiring developers and designers for his ideas. There, he soon found out he didn’t really know how how to use the tools his developers and designers used, which made it difficult to manage them effectively.
“He also noticed that they were having more fun,” McGee said. He started to teach himself to code, and eventually quit his job, and called McGee.
Meanwhile, McGee himself was working part-time at Northwestern’s I.T. department, receiving on-the-job training, and spending his spare time camped out in the evening at Panera Bread in Evanston studying web programming languages.
McGee said he put off learning to code through high school and college, because he “didn’t think [he] was smart enough,” that he would open a coding textbook and it would say inside, “You’re dumb.”
The two came together, deciding to start a company to solve problems, and spent nearly a year teaching themselves the basics.
“The ‘learn-to-code’ movement wasn’t big at the time,” McGee noted. But back then, Groupon Inc. was booming, newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel was trying to increase Chicago’s status as a tech center, and 1871, the city’s digital start-up hub, was getting off the ground.
Indeed, at a November event, Emanuel said, “Chicago’s technology economy is thriving, creating thousands of jobs and generating interest from around the world. We are seeing unprecedented growth in this vital sector, from established international corporations to start-ups designed by Chicagoans.”
“And here we were just in our apartment on the South Side of Chicago trying to learn how to build sh-t,” McGee said.
They started to look for programs that could help them learn, but all they were able to find were “boot camps” for existing developers looking to learn another coding language – nothing for true beginners.
So, “If you can’t find it, build it,” McGee said.
Things were not so straightforward. They were unable to find financial backing from investors, but they persisted, spending the summer of 2011 finding instructors and deciding to raise startup capital by asking students upfront for money.
In the fall of 2011, they launched their program, originally called Code Academy, hoping for a first wave of students for a twelve-week course to arrive.
“We wanted 12 people to be crazy enough to join this program that’s never existed. Three weeks into launching the website, we had 90 people who had applied,” McGee said.
There were applicants from Chicago, the U.S., and even a few from overseas who wanted in. To pay for everything for the initial class, Code Academy took on 35 students, paying up to $6,000 each.
“We needed that money to pay for computers and get a space and get furniture,” McGee said. “We got computers three days before class started. Everything came just in time.”
“Our original site didn’t have pictures of a classroom – it was just like drawings of computers and chairs and tables, because we didn’t have anything,” McGee added.
Their first wave of students started on Oct. 3, 2011, and McGee said that halfway through the course, students were already letting them know their expectations had been met.
Moreover, McGee said, the school was profitable, and every staff member was able to draw a salary.
McGee added that Starter League alumni have gone on to land tech jobs in Chicago at by-now widely known digital companies Groupon, 37signals, Basecamp and Belly.
Soon after the initial launch as Code Academy, the school made the decision to change its name to The Starter League. Not long after they launched, an online-only learn-to-code site named Codecademy went live. To avoid confusion, McGee and Sales-Griffin decided to change their name to something more fitting of what they wanted to achieve.
“The Chicago community was extremely supportive of what we were doing… and before you know it pretty much everybody knew about our idea,” McGee said.
McGee now wants to develop a toolkit to take the same lessons his instructors have developed to teach K-12 students in Chicago, and area university campuses. Starter League has partnered with Northwestern, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago to try to develop coding classes for anyone who might be interested.
Coding literacy is pushing further into the mainstream, thanks in part to schools like the Starter League. Last month, Mayor Emanuel announced, with the help of the Starter League, that computer science would become part of Chicago Public Schools’ core curriculum.
“By democratizing computer science, we are leveling the playing field for all children to have the same skills, appetite to learn, and access to technology to excel in this growing field,” Mayor Emanuel said.
He added: “We don’t promise external success. Our focus is: we want to give you the confidence to believe that you can make your ideas real. If you come out this program with that confidence, those are tools you can use for the rest of your life.”
The Starter League is just one of companies looking to capitalize on the democratization of the web. According to a recent study, 11 percent of Americans think that “HTML” is a type of sexually-transmitted disease. These schools are trying to get rid of that perception.
Codecademy, Code School and Lynda are the largest web-based competitors and General Assembly have a similar model to the Starter League, but have started to franchise globally, rather than concentrate on one city.
McGee said the tech culture is about immediacy, “you need to innovate now, now,” he said, “but we’re taking the long view.”
McGee said he wants the Starter League to expand beyond “empowering” beginners, to help new coders as they move into new coding jobs. Starter League is planning to move into a new space, outside of 1871, where there will be more space for alums to come back and collaborate with existing students.
“We’re like a family,” McGee added.