Shifting careers from teaching to coding and then founding a nonprofit as incredible as freeCodeCamp, Quincy Larson has had a fascinating journey.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
Today, Quincy Larson is the founder of the world’s biggest free online platform to learn coding and he is the editor of Medium’s largest technical publication, freeCodeCamp. Even though the online platform came into existence only a few years back, it already has a massive audience, with an approximate of a million users every month.
Discovering his passion for coding during his time as a teacher – when he tried to automate a few of the rote back-office tasks for his team of teachers, Quincy then decided to switch careers and try to make a living as a software engineer. The ‘lonely’ and ‘winding coding journey’ that he went through eventually led him to start freeCodeCamp, a convenient and accessible way for the common man to learn to code.
What sets freeCodeCamp apart from the many other Massive Open Online Courses(MOOCs) out there is the fact that it provides you with the experience of coding in the real world. Once you have completed 1,200 hours of coding lessons, freeCodeCamp directs you towards a nonprofit project you can join where you can use the coding knowledge you’ve gained for the benefit of the world.
Quincy Larson talks to INKLINE about his coding journey, the secret behind the success of freeCodeCamp, future goals and much more.
INKLINE: When and how did you find your passion for coding?
Quincy Larson: When I was a school director in my 30s, I noticed a lot of my teachers and administrators spent a ton of time entering data into computers. And I thought “how can I free them from their computers so they can spend more time interacting with students?”
I picked up some basic programming tools to automate tasks in Excel and on web pages. (I didn’t know anything about coding. I had to ask my wife for help doing basic things like configuring our wifi router for me.) I was able to automate a lot of the rote back-office tasks for my team. And when I saw the results of my basic coding – happier teachers and students – that’s when I became passionate about coding.
I: How did you pursue it? A career change is never easy, particularly in your 30s!
Q: It wasn’t easy. And as I discovered, learning to code and getting a developer job was much, much harder than it needed to be.
My approach at the time was to hang out at the local hackerspace all day and work through as many online courses and programming textbooks as I could. I also participated in hackathons almost every week. So I was building my skills, building my network, and building my portfolio. And that was how I eventually got hired as a developer.
I: What was it that made you want to begin something like freeCodeCamp?
Q: My coding journey was lonely. I hung out with as many developers as I could, but I didn’t know anyone else who was learning to code. Everyone else had been coding for years, and they’d lost any memory of how hard it was to learn to code. So the entire time I felt alone and like an imposter.
My coding journey was also really winding. I went down so many blind alleys, learning tools I’d never use. Spending days going in the wrong direction. I should have building projects form month one, but I didn’t really build anything until I’d been working through books and courses for several months.
And whenever I met other people who had successfully learned to code on their own, outside of university, their experience was similarly frustrating. That’s when I knew – it’s not just me – there are challenges that are inherent in learning to code mid-career.
I thought about all the people out there who would benefit from learning to code, and many of them were in a similar situation as me – with a family and a job, too busy to drop everything and focus on learning to code, and probably too resource-strapped to go back to university.
So from day one, I knew the program needed to be as convenient and accessible as possible. And that meant self-paced, browser-based, and free.
I: Was making freedcodecamp a non-profit an idea from the very beginning? Could you elaborate on how it all came together?
Q: Yes – there are plenty of startups built around open source software, and even some startups built around communities, like Reddit. But I wasn’t interested in doing the startup song-and-dance and trying to attract investors who would have just voted for us to sell the company as quickly as possible so they could get their exit.
Instead, I wanted to build an institution. Something that could exist forever. And I wanted our incentives to align with the incentives of campers (members of the freeCodeCamp community). Being a nonprofit was clearly the best option for all that. With nonprofits, they’re owned by everyone. They can’t be bought or sold.
It took us a couple years to get to the point where we had the time and money to become a nonprofit. Before we were just an open source community without any legal entity. But now we’re a registered nonprofit. We’re now supported completely by donations from campers. And we should be awarded our tax exempt status by the IRS any month now.
I: What started as a one-man army, today freeCodeCamp is a 1 million strong community. If you had to look back and attribute one thing to the success of freeCodeCamp, what would it be?
Q: Luck. I was in the right place at the right time, solving a problem that millions of other people have, too. I had a theory that learning to code could be significantly easier if we had a supportive community and a standard open source curriculum. I was lucky and I was right.
Now millions of people use freeCodeCamp every month, and we have thousands of study groups around the world. It’s surreal to be at the centre of all of this. But this is more than I could have ever hoped for. We have so many amazing volunteer contributors who are making all of this possible.
I talk to economists, to business people, and they’re all astonished that this can even work. How can a community with no investors, no corporate sponsors, no government backing – how can it help millions of people around the world learn to code for free? Well, I don’t have a great answer for that. All I can say is it does indeed work. Thousands of campers get their first developer job every year. This is a testament to the power of open source, the power of peer-driven learning, and the power of volunteer-driven communities.
I: freeCodeCamp is Medium’s largest technical publication. Was writing something you always wanted to do?
Q: I worked as a reporter and as an editor for a couple years before I went into teaching. I’ve always enjoyed learning new things, then turning around and writing about them.
Medium has been an amazing windfall for writers. It has helped so many writers find an audience for their writing. And freeCodeCamp embraced Medium at just the right time. It was another case of supreme luck. We now have a critical mass of experienced writers and developers, and we are able to publish several technical articles a day. We basically operate like an accelerated academic journal, with a team of volunteer editors and hundreds of independent writers.
I: Your future goals and ambitions for freecodecamp?
Q: There are billions of people who would benefit from learning to code. Our goal is to gradually help more and more of those people learn to code for free. We plan to sustainably expand the number of study groups around the world, and continue to refine freeCodeCamp’s curriculum and its learning platform.
We have a clear role model here: Wikipedia. Just like Wikipedia helped make the world’s discrete knowledge more accessible, we want to make the world’s technological skills more accessible.
I: Finally, your advice to young aspiring coders and IT entrepreneurs out there?
Q: Find other people who have similar goals and hang out with them. You will learn a lot from them, and even more importantly, they will help you stay motivated during the setbacks and the times when “life gets in the way.”
You’re not in this alone. There are people all around you who are ambitious and want to use technology to solve problems. They can help you.
Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with a desire to explore life through the stories he chases. An engineer who found recluse in the world of words, he is a journalism post-graduate from Cardiff University. He works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.