In August of 2010, I was one of the first employees at a small startup called GroupMe. The story seems familiar—a duo of young entrepreneurs started the company and modeled it on a problem they had. They worked nights and weekends and hired a team to help make their vision a reality. One year later, the company sold to Skype for tens of millions of dollars.
GroupMe is one of thousands of examples of businesses created in today’s information economy that use technology to solve a problem. As I grew up watching startups, I always remained transfixed by the notion that anyone—no matter how old or where they were from—could create something new and magical using the Internet and technology. Yet, for some reason, I never focused on just how they created what they were building. More often than not, technology businesses are started by engineers or programmers. But all too frequently, web entrepreneurs in the United States are stymied by the difficulty of hiring engineering talent. They are unable to realize their visions because of the startling shortage of qualified computer programmers like them.
I saw these concerns firsthand in the summer of 2011. I started a company with a friend from Columbia and was accepted into the Y Combinator incubator program. The few computer science classes I had taken while at Columbia had left me in constant need of a refresher—I spent much of my time learning and relearning programming concepts by reading books and videos. My co-founder Ryan, a programmer since his early teens, wondered why I hadn’t learned to program when I was in middle school or high school.
My problem learning programming is a problem faced by millions around the world, and Ryan and I realized that we could solve a more pressing need: the lack of great education for our future software developers and technology founders. We founded Codecademy, the easiest way to learn to code, as a result.
The Jobs Are Out There
Learning programming is not just an easy way to build your own creations and companies—it’s also one of the best routes to securing a high-paying job. A 2011 report by the White House stated, “Long-term prospects for employment in networking and information technology (NIT) occupations in the United States are exceedingly strong.”
They neglected to even mention current opportunities; computer-engineering majors are the highest-paid college graduates, with average salaries averaging $70,400 in 2011. And salaries have steadily been increasing by more than 1% a year.
Coming Up Short
Computer science should be the most enticing college major—it’s challenging, helps you become a builder, and, just as importantly, virtually guarantees a high-paying job upon graduation. Yet, for some reason, the United States still doesn’t graduate enough people to fill the jobs it creates in the technology sector every year. Instead, we try to import talent—more than 40% of the 214,271 H1-B visas granted in 2009 were for workers in “computer-related occupations.”
These are jobs that could just as easily be filled within the United States—we simply aren’t graduating enough qualified people to take some of our most coveted jobs.
Navigating Outside a Broken System
While the government may be best equipped to manage public education in many circumstances, time is of the essence in both creating and maintaining programming curriculum. The Internet is rife with programming tutorials created by developers for other developers—programming is one of the few places where peer-to-peer education has already taken root and educated a generation. In the six months since my company, Codecademy, has been live, it’s been used by more than 1 million people in more than 100 countries.
Platforms will continue to rise that enable teachers—maybe not in the traditional classroom sense—to teach millions on the web, as open courseware initiatives and online learning platforms are already starting to do. Programming has already seen a bit of this with Codecademy and other companies, which allow professors to reach millions of people through online videos, exercises and peer-to-peer platforms.
Programming the Future Together
Programming is incredibly vital to our twenty-first-century economy—and not just to programmers. Learning to code helps people build a deeper understanding of the world around them and can help them to automate and improve their daily lives. And it creates higher-level job opportunities for un- and underemployed young people, some of whom will go on to found their own companies, or work for companies (in every industry) that now rely on technology to move forward.
With our education system falling short, the answer lies with the Internet and entrepreneurs. A new generation of education entrepreneurs have started businesses like mine to help teach a new generation the most important skill they can learn at low or no cost, allowing any budding young entrepreneur or programmer to take part regardless of location or education. Let’s make sure we support them—and learn how to code while we’re at it.
Zach Sims is the co-founder and CEO of Codecademy, a free, online educational tool that bills itself as “the easiest way to learn to code.” More than a million people have used Codecademy since its launch in August 2011. Code Year, the company’s attempt to get people to learn to program in 2012, has resulted in 400,000 new users, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a partnership with The White House. #FixYoungAmerica is working with TIME.com to shed light on tried-and-true solutions to the epidemic of youth unemployment. This article is an excerpt from the official #FixYoungAmerica book, which includes solutions by 30+ organizations and leaders.