Mike McGee and his co-founder Neal Sales-Griffin taught themselves to code in early 2011 and decided that the world needed a way to do the same. They launched Starter League, a 3-month "bootcamp" in Chicago and just started a 9-month program as well. With their rigorous curriculum and a leadership team stacked with talent like Jason Fried and David Heinemeier-Hansson, it's clear that Starter League will continue to be a major player in the bootcamp world.
Tell me about your story and how you created Starter League. Do you have a background in education?
Before Neal and I created The Starter League (we were originally Code Academy), there was no coding bootcamp space at all.
At that time- this was early 2011- we were the crazy ones who were “wasting our time” trying to code instead of hiring other people. I did not have the computer science, math, or science background. The only science background I had was in political science. And during that time, there were a lot of different things going on in the entrepreneurship scene. More people had ideas for startups but there wasn't many people who could make those ideas real. We decided that instead of just building our one web app idea, let’s try to build a school for people like us to learn. That was March of 2011, and there wasn’t any guidebook telling you how to build a 3-month beginner-focused boot camp. So we just had to learn through trial and error.
We had no clue how we were going to find an instructor, but luckily, an instructor found us! He sent us a DM on Twitter that said “I’ve been a software developer for 12 – 20 years, I’ve been teaching for 5 – 7 years, I’d love to help out in any way.”
Why did you change your name from Code Academy to Starter League?
In April 2011, we named our school Code Academy (http://CodeAcademy.org). This was a few months before Codecademy (http://codecademy.com) came out in New York. Since we had @CodeAcademy on Twitter, there was a ton of confusion between the two companies. Even with this confusion, we were able to expand our offerings and help people learn how to code and design.
In September of 2012, we changed our name from Code Academy to The Starter League. We did this for a few reasons:
How have you grown since starting the Starter School?
For the first 2 ½ years of our school we taught just 3-month classes- web development, visual design. And in the spring of last year we announced a new program called Starter School, which is a 9-month fulltime program geared on creating entrepreneurs.
So Starter School is a program within The Starter League. The Starter League is the umbrella of everything that we do. We haven't grown in the sense of adding more classes, but we just moved into a new 12,000 square foot space on the west side of Chicago (http://www.starterleague.com/tar/posts/our-new-workspace). We now have an entire floor dedicated to Starter School.
Can you explain the motivation behind the 9-month class and how it differs from the 3-month class? What kind of person is each class geared towards?
When we started our 3-month classes, the main people we wanted to teach was beginners, people like us with hardly any experience, how to code. It didn’t matter if you were coming into the class trying to build an app or trying to get a new job or just wanting to learn more skills. Those classes were open to everybody because we started at the beginning and took you all the way to learning to build your own prototype.
Over the past 2 years we’ve taught over 800 people and they fit into three different buckets. We have one-third who want to take our classes for a career switch opportunity. Another third is the entrepreneur type but they have an idea; they might even have some wireframes but they don’t know how to code or design so we help them build their products. And then the final third is kind of split between the two; they want to be an entrepreneur but they’re really far away from seeing how they can do that. They’d be interested in the job if that opportunity came up but they’d also be interested in building a product as well.
With the 9-month Starter School we’re definitely more opinionated. Our focus is on people who want to be entrepreneurs. We’re not doing Starter School to explicitly get jobs. But we want people who have a burning desire to solve a problem, build a product and to start a company. That’s the focus.
The 3-month classes are more like an entry level, zero to one kind of program that gets you started, to see what you want to do. It’s not as intensive as Starter School which is fulltime, 50 to 60-plus hours a week for 9 months.
Why do you think that’s advantageous to your students that you’re located in 1871? Is there a lot of interaction and collaboration between the companies that are there and your students?
We’ve been in 1871 for almost 2 years now; We have 2 classrooms there, we have some offices space so we run all of our classes, including Starter School, out of 1871.
While we were coming up with the idea for the school in spring of 2011, the 1871 project was getting started in Chicago. The word was out that there was this group that wanted to build a digital startup space in downtown Chicago, so we got connected with them and they were like, “We’re trying to create this physical address for Chicago startups to really be this galvanizing force in the Chicago startup community and we’re trying to teach the next generation of developers, designers and entrepreneurs; you would be a fit.
What is the acceptance rate with the two programs? Do you get a ton of applications?
Our application pool is focused on quality over quantity, that’s one of our big values.
We usually get a solid number of applicants for our 3-month programs. And since we’ve been doing that for the past 2 ½ years, we have a pretty good reputation in terms of our outcomes and what people get out of the program. For Starter School, this is our inaugural program so we didn’t receive a lot of applications because we only had a 2-month window to pull everything off. For the 2014-15 class, we are planning to do a full admissions cycle.
So your first cohort of the 9-month program is about to graduate?
Yes! We started at the end of September and it goes until June so we have three months to go! They know back & front-end web development, user experience, and now they will focus on building real products that solve problems they care about.
What’s the average cohort size for Starter School?
We have 18 students in our pilot program.
Do you have a refund policy for both schools? Do you ever have students who just decide that it’s not for them?
Usually, it’s something external like a family emergency or health or something that would cause someone to leave. 99% of people finish the programs. If someone can’t finish the program due to a personal issue or family issue or job issue or something then we refund them the remaining amount of the course- prorated.
If they leave because the program is just not their learning style, will it still be a pro-rated refund policy?
Once a student is accepted into the program, what kind of pre-work is required? How do you get students on the same level before they start learning together?
It varies based on our programs. For Starter School, there are a few pre-work assignments that cover development, design and entrepreneurship. That could be like reading a book, like Rework & Getting Real, or completing the Michael Hartl tutorial to get a head start of building a Rails application.
Can you give us a quick rundown curriculum for the 3-month web development program?
For Starter School, we’ll have 30 hours of class throughout the week, but that’s only a part of their weekly experience. Our students are working 50 to 60-plus hours a week on assignments & challenges they were given in class, as well as building their own web applications. The main focus in our 3-month 9-month programs is helping them build the ideas and the problems they want to solve.
There’s no grades, no certificate or diploma at the end. Their sign of completion is what they’ve built, and that’s where we want to point to. It’s pretty hands-on but at the same time we’re not guiding them through every step. We’re not babysitting them, because if they want to become entrepreneurs, if they want to get jobs, they have to learn how to take that responsibility.
Can you explain the partnership with Upstart that you have?
Over the summer, I was working with Jeff Keltner from Upstart to create a partnership where people who got into our Starter School program (once they fit the Upstart requirements) would be able to create a profile on Upstart to raise money to come to our program.
While there’s a lot more bootcamps out there now, we’re still early on in this whole ecosystem of alternative education. We’re not like a Harvard or Stanford where you can apply for private and federal financial aid. It’s really based on the max on your credit card, the loans can you get from family and friends or the money you have saved up. There aren’t a lot of options for people who don’t have as much money to do the program.
Our partnership with Upstart was one way of increasing the opportunity for people who might want to do the program but then they see the sticker price.
How do you help students find jobs once they’ve graduated from the 3-month program?
We don’t have a job placement division and we don’t take a cut of recruitment fees or salaries or anything like that. We’re organic; we just care about helping our students and our alumni achieve what they want to achieve. Two years later, we have a connection with almost every major startup in the city. So if an alums are looking into a local startup, we can connect them with people that we know and give them advice on how to move forward.
That’s worked so far in our 3-year history. Our students pay the tuition from their end and that’s the only financial transaction we make. We get the money to run our school effectively, they get the education so that they can advance their career goals.
We know other schools run it differently. We don’t think that’s bad, we’re just focused on teaching pure beginners… I mean, we’ve taught as early as a 13-year old and we’ve taught someone as old as 70.
We are really adamant about teaching pure beginners because that’s where Neil and I were when we started. Other boot camps out there might teach at a more intermediate level. But when you’re teaching a pure beginner, it’s unrealistic to make a promise that they’ll be getting a $100,000 professional job. So from the beginning we’ve never promised that. We’re trying to teach people how to learn effectively, then 6 to 9 months after they go through our program, that’s when they might get jobs.
There’ve been probably 300 or even 400 of our alumni who now work at a tech startup or work as a developer, designer or product manager because they’ve gone through our classes. But it didn’t happen the day after they finished; it took extra time.
So you taught a 13-year-old? You don’t have an age threshold at all?
Our age range is usually 18 to 55. The 13-year-old was an extreme: His aunt was an inaugural student at our school, so he had been hanging around since the early days. He was home schooled and had already been teaching himself how to code!
After the Venture Beat story came out about California regulation, are you at all concerned about becoming accredited as a secondary institution or is that not something that is on your radar right now?
We already had to deal with that here in Illinois. In 2011, the state of Illinois sent us this angry email saying, “You’re not certified to be an educational institution of higher learning” and that, based on the requirements they had, we had to teach or hold classes so we could fulfill their requirements,
So it was kind of like a weird trap. They were asking for all this data on our alumni but we hadn’t taught anyone yet. In 2012, we wrote a report and sent them all this data and last year we became certified. We’re not accredited, like a 4-year institution, but we are certified as a private institution.
It makes sense from the state perspective; suddenly all these renegade programs are coming out and charging people money – especially since we’re for-profit. There are certain requirements- we need to show that we are teaching people and there are successful outcomes and our official roster of instructors and their credentials to show that we’re legit.
We’ve met with the governor a few times and he’s a big fan of what we do. So in terms of having the government sector liking what we do, we’ve partnered with pretty much every organization from the city of Chicago to the White House.