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  • 07.15.14

Is This The Easiest Way On Earth To Learn Programming?

One startup thinks the secret ingredient is music. But does it work?

Is This The Easiest Way On Earth To Learn Programming?
[Image: Flickr user Horia Varlan]

Can jingles help you learn how to code?

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At least 27,000 people think yes. That’s the number of actively engaged users on Code School, an Orlando-based startup using songs and interactive learning to teach coding.

“You might consider us the HBO of online education,” explains Gregg Pollack, an actor turned programmer, and Code School’s founder. “We want to create the most engaging way you can learn, which is learning by doing.”

With course names like Rails for Zombies 2, this is gamification brought to the extreme. “The experience you get when you play a course is less like reading a textbook, and more like playing a video game,” says Pollack, who writes most of the songs, then commissions voice-over artists and musicians. Students range from beginners to intermediate and advanced developers.

Pollack claims “anybody who has a knack for patterns and problem solving” can succeed in his program. Code School’s team of 30 staffers produce four to eight hours of courses every month. About a third of the content is free; a monthly fee of $29 unlocks everything.

Pollack knows firsthand the value of merging the arts and science. Raised by a father who worked as an engineer at Intel, he’s been coding since elementary school. As an undergrad at Santa Clara University, he majored in computer engineering. But that’s where he also realized his other passion: acting. The budding thespian ended up minoring in theater, a tech-art pairing not many developers can claim. Even more unique is the acting chops he honed as a co-ed: moonlighting as a lead in The Rocky Horror Picture Show where he performed with high heels and fishnets as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, week in and week out, for four years.

“I would not have made it through college without The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” he remembers.

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Although the part was very much risque, it gave the young Pollack an understanding of what audiences respond to–and how to get their attention. When he graduated, he began scripting educational code, blogging, and consulting. He started mixing his penchant for problem solving with his love of performance and design, artistic sensibilities he’d incorporate into the catchy jingles that would become Code School’s trademark. Although unorthodox, today the approach seems to be working.

A few weeks ago at Google I/O, the Mountain View mega-firm announced it’s partnering with Code School to give away free accounts to women and minorities. Opening the door to coding is an issue long part of the tech discussion, but few companies have actually done anything to further this agenda. This collaboration encourages real professional development, and the companies are giving away 1,000 passes for three free months of lessons. Google has previously partnered with the company on half a dozen courses, including Exploring Google Maps for iOS, Discover Drive, and Discover DevTools.

Teaming with Google is huge, but it isn’t an ed-tech carte blanche. Huge questions remain: Can unconventional teaching methods actually lead to more efficient learning, and entice young, overlooked demographics to become the developers of tomorrow? And are jingles a real way to learn, or is this a catchy fluke?

Transforming Coding For The Masses

With potential for huge paydays and payouts, no one is arguing the validity of coding and software development as top-tier employment skills. The popularity of the web, and in particular mobile apps, has created a gold rush with coders cast as new-age ‘49ers. But deftness behind a keyboard isn’t something most can claim overnight. And the road to that efficiency isn’t something the masses are being exposed to. That’s why Code School’s play could be so valuable–if they get it right.

So will it work? Howard Marks, the chair of the Los Angeles accelerator StartEngine, told me he thinks it definitely could; but in order to make an impact, Code School will have to try especially hard to reach traditionally marginalized groups like minorities, women, and youth.

Some of those wheels, while difficult to grease, are already in motion. In April, Marks’ StartEngine piloted a coding program with the Youth Business Alliance, hosting high school kids from charter schools in South Central Los Angeles. Other nonprofit initiatives, like UrbanTxT, a 501(c)3 founded by Watts native Oscar Menjivar, are aggressively targeting the raw untapped talent of these youths, an unorthodox approach Menjivar compares to Code School. Whether it’s hands on or behind a screen, “good learning is all about relationship building,” he says. This month, Menjivar’s startup received a grant to build a hackerspace in the tech desert of the inner-city.

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There’s a whole generation of kids, especially those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, that are not getting exposure.

“If we push underrepresented people toward coding skills and entrepreneurship, we can only imagine what could happen,” Marks says, pointing domestically and abroad at booming startup scenes in developing nations like Argentina, Brazil, and Nigeria.

Games, or musical learning, could be a new avenue to that end. In his own accelerator, Marks says most applicants are Asian or white, yet the city of Los Angeles, where he’s based, is more than 50% latino. Tech isn’t about DNA; one ethnic group isn’t more predisposed to code over another. It’s a matter of familiarity and contact. And while underprivileged kids are now being targeted, the next mission is to incorporate more women, who are just as adept at learning as men are.

Pollack, who has a daughter and a son, says he’s very conscious of the “boys’ club” stigma in the industry, and the need to keep his material balanced.

“There’s not enough female coders,” he admits. “It’s very male centric, and we definitely have become more sensitive to that. Even the characters that we use in our animation are a little more gender-balanced.”

Getting Girls Coding

Pollack often uses his own children as test subjects. If he can hook a 6- and 7-year-old, he’s confident he can hook anyone.

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“I remember very distinctly last year my wife saying to my daughter: ‘Hey Ilana, do you want to watch some TV,’ and she said ‘no thanks, I’m programming,’” Pollack says. “That’s a little victory. Yes, I’m making programmers!”

The question “Why code?” is rhetorical, according to Pollack; he says no matter what work you do, just a little bit of programing knowledge can help speed-up flow, streamline efficiency, and problem solve.

“You can and you should learn to code from scratch, because it’s making the Internet right now,” says Kim Bui, a digital journalism professor at USC’s Annenberg School. She agrees that that troubleshooting ability is what keeps the web innovative.

Her co-eds aren’t all stereotypical web savants, but she’s helped teach student athletes and undergrads who aspire to be traveler bloggers. No matter the students or their goals, Bui says the key is keeping the material fun and engaging, which is why she thinks Code School could be a winner.

Pollack’s service isn’t the only on the market. Many offer free training. There’s General Assembly and Codecademy, and Lego’s WeDo, which teaches real-life problem solving. But none of them provide the kitschy songs that stick in your head, like Code School. That niche is what keeps it unique, and students coming back.

Pollack says he’s surprised there aren’t more companies trying to copy the same formula.

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“I think what it comes down to, why they haven’t, why our recipe is so unique, is that it combines so many different disciplines,” he notes. “That’s usually where innovation happens. We combine good branding, good design, good user interface, good background development, and we’re from the arts.”

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