When the free learn-to-code-online company Codecademy won a Crunchie last week in the education category, audience members were surprised to see not one of the founders but a student take the stage to accept the award.
The woman, Dilys Sun, charmed the crowd of tech heavy-hitters, explaining how she used Codecademy to upgrade her skill set and her job options. Sun’s speech is, in a nutshell, the reason Codecademy won the award in the first place: The service just works, and it changes lives.
We got in touch with Codecademy founder Zach Sims and asked who this mystery woman was and how we could talk to her. In an email conversation with Sun, we learned a bit more about her life, her goals, and why Codecademy is unique in its capability to make a difference among motivated technology and Internet enthusiasts.
VentureBeat: What were you doing for work before you learned how to code?
Dilys Sun: I was working as a technology consultant at a top consultancy before I left my work to code. It was a special job. Everything was going super-well, and it was my first job after college, so it was a hard decision.
I have always been interested in technology, tech news, and entrepreneurship, so I had exposure. At my previous job, I also tried to learn the systems whenever possible as well as the database, but never lines of codes.
In fact, I didn’t know it was possible for me to be a developer; my engineer friends weren’t exactly encouraging when they considered my economics background.
At Stanford, I thought about exploring computer science by taking the intro class, but everyone seemed to [have been] coding for years since they were young, taught by parents, or fancy classes way before I even thought about Stanford.
Also, the materials didn’t click with me. Stanford students start by learning Karel the Robot, but I wasn’t interested in learning Karel. I was more interested in finding out how a web application works, like how do you build a prototype of Twitter — higher level, more applied!
VentureBeat: What prompted you to try to learn how to code?
Sun: I worked with developers a lot in my previous job, and I found it challenging not being able to talk their talk and walk their walk. I could be very persuasive nevertheless, because I was good with user requirements and design. However, I wanted to be able to communicate with my engineers to better communicate and facilitate product management decisions and outcomes.
More important, I willingly chose a technology-business hybrid career after college in order to learn technology, so I thought I would get my hands dirty. It wasn’t hard to realize in Silicon Valley and at Stanford that coding is now an essential skill, and soon to be an important everyday skill very much like writing and reading.
VentureBeat: How long did it take for the lessons to “click”? Did you have a lightbulb moment when you felt like you really understood the crux of programming?
Sun: The learning process is long! I still cannot say I know programming, but there was a magical moment when coding a bit every day became a habit.
I signed up for the 2012 Code Year New Year’s resolution with a click of a button, and I forgot about it equally fast. The team auto-emailed me every few days, enticing me with interesting titles, challenges, and promises. It seemed so much more interesting than the intro computer class, so I started.
I had that moment when I learned looping can help automate some basic tasks and improve productivity; now I am trying to get that “A ha!” moment with recursion, wireframing, and algorithms. Programming is a collection of puzzles, so I guess it makes sense to have many lightbulb moments. Perhaps the most surprising: I found out that I actually like solving puzzles in the context of programming. Never before would I admit that I like puzzles, because I never knew.
VentureBeat: Did learning how to code change the way you view software developers and startup folks in general?
Sun: Absolutely. Just the other day at the Crunchies, I was so nervous on stage but felt tremendous support and love from the audience. They were interacting with me and giving me the thumbs-up. It really helped me feel comfortable in an auditorium filled so many top experts and entrepreneurs.
Interestingly, learning to code, and specifically algorithms, opened up many conversations with engineers. When they realized that I have put in the effort to learn, they won’t think me as another business person in the startup scene. That was my personal philosophy as well: to work in the tech world, learning coding at some point in life (no matter how late) is an important rite of passage.
As for the startup scene with which I am familiar, learning a little bit of each component of the full stack really helps ID the startups and understand what their technical solutions are really about. Interesting discussions just flow after that.
VentureBeat: How did you career path change after Codecademy? What are you doing now, and how has that change affected the rest of your life?
Sun: I still use Codecademy almost every day, learning bite-size new skills, brushing up on old knowledge, learning Ruby for Ruby on Rails. I also have since then expanded my learning base to all kinds of online learning platforms (which, by the way, didn’t work with my personal learning style before): algorithms, Python, wireframing, Ruby on Rails, and computer science fundamentals.
It’s like I have bit of foundation, and I have seen the Holy Grail once, I am trying to meet myself in the middle, fill in the blanks so I can depart on my own quest to the prize.
I also applied for two [developer] boot camps and was accepted to both. This is a hard decision, though, because it costs not only money but also time to attend these full-time sessions. I heard good things here and there, but the question is, will the learning style work for me? Nevertheless, it is unbelievable that becoming a developer is a real option now.
VentureBeat: How do you relate to other programmers, people who’ve been doing it for years?
Sun: It is always hard to stand up for yourself in front of a roomful of experts, especially for young college grads like me. I think regardless of the context, the key is to be confident and also respectful of others.
Once a senior engineer told me, “Don’t be afraid of getting started on coding. New languages, frameworks, and features come out all the time; we will all be learning when that comes about.”
VentureBeat: What would your advice be to others who are curious about Codecademy or about learning to code in general?
Sun: Keep in mind that everyone’s learning style differs. Plenty of people have learned programming at school, but millions cannot. I would explore and find the method that is most appropriate for you. You can always come back to the more obvious choices: Coursera, Khan Academy, Udacity, or Codecademy if they don’t work for you in Round 1. Regardless of what you choose, it is important to make it a habit, no matter how small. It really builds up.
I recommend starting small with the Code Year track, explore elsewhere within or beyond Codecademy whenever you get bored, and come back to the exercises, essentially anchor yourself somewhere. There are a lot of resources on the Internet, it is easy to get lost or overwhelmed.
Sun is currently seeking employment as a product manager or a junior developer, pending her completion of a developer bootcamp program. She looks forward to becoming even more immersed in the world of technology startups.
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