We met one morning at Blondie’s on Washington Avenue. I left my wallet at home, but they were kind enough to let me get 2 drinks with the promise of payment later that day. Chris and I grabbed a tall top near the door and began an interesting discussion about learning styles, coding, tech, and how he began his newest project to teach people how to code via video.
Originally from Jacksonville, Illinois, Chris studied computer science at SIUE before moving to St. Louis. He got a job working for Michael (coffee #55) at Able Few for almost a year, but decided it was time to “go build his own thing”. “The goal was to move here temporarily and then find something in San Francisco, but then as soon as I got involved in the community here it was like ‘well, why would I move? I can do more good here.’ So, if I can do more good here, then I might as well stay here.”
After working on several St. Louis startups like iPizza, Givvr, and Squid, Chris was invited to meet Jim McKelvey and Dan Lohman. The two were discussing the possibility of bringing a class to St. Louis for a computer programming language called Ruby on Rails. As the idea began to take shape, Chris realized there wasn’t much of a job market in St. Louis for this particular programming language. So instead, the three of them created LaunchCode.
If you haven’t heard of pair programming, it’s when two computer programmers sit next to each other and work on the same thing. Many startups have used this idea and they have found that the quality of the code is better and it’s faster. THAT is the idea behind LaunchCode. A novice programmer is paired with an expert programmer, creating a unique learning environment. Within the next few years, the hope is that the program will create a new pool of programming talent in St. Louis to fill the employment gap we’ve been seeing.
Getting things off the ground for LaunchCode took a lot of hard work from everyone involved. “Before I knew it we had 100 companies and we interviewed… oh man… 3 days we interviewed 160 some people. So it was like 7am every 15 minutes until like 7pm just interviewing people, one after another. We didn’t really sleep for 3 days. Everything was a blur. I recognize all these people now but I don’t remember what we talked about… which is kind of bad…” Reflecting on the experience Chris laughed, “It was phenomenal. We ended up being on TV, giving a press conference… It was like, ‘this isn’t what I knew I was getting into…’”
Now that things are well under way for LaunchCode, Chris is on to his next game changing idea. He is recording videos that will teach people how to code, through fun projects. Called Go Rails, he hopes these classes will teach people how to become developers.
Chris came up with the video coding classes because he realized that there wasn’t really an easy way to learn these things, especially for people already finished with school. While learning on your own is something he always advocates, it’s hard to know where to begin. “If you’re trying to build a product or something, then you already know what you need to go build and I’ll help you get there. But you don’t have to follow a certain path and you shouldn’t want to either.”
But, how did he become so passionate about helping people learn to code? It started in high school when he “got into Linux hardcore” (if you don’t know what Linux is, neither did I, so here's a description). He would spend hours everyday in online forums asking questions and discussing it. Finally, he decided that he had to give back to the people in these forums who had helped him learn. So as a college freshman he developed a very successful program.
“I wanted to build something popular and give back to the community. I sat down and we had dial-up at home, and I was like, ‘man this is a real pain in the ass’. To download software on Linux you have to download 12 things it depends on. It’s a pain in the ass. I ended up using Python (another programming language) to build a thing that replicated all of that, that I could use on our school computers on their internet, download software, take it home and install it. That was the most fun I’d ever had programming.”
Although he says the program he created was terrible, it became very popular. He continued to make the program better and better over a period of 3 or 4 years and it ended up getting over 100,000 downloads. “That was not planned to get that big or anything, but that was pretty much exactly why I realized I have to keep doing this because it matters. It was really fun because I was getting emails from people in rural Texas because they could use Linux finally. Someone in South Africa was using it to set-up a computer lab for a school. And then someone in the government was using it on some super secure computers that weren’t allowed to be plugged into the internet. You just read the emails and it brings tears to your eyes.”
Since 7th grade Chris has been coding and according to him, it’s all he knows. So this was really the only thing he enjoyed enough to pursue as a career. The idea of working in an industry he doesn’t enjoy, doesn’t sit well with him. “The whole find a group of people that you don’t know and sell something to them, sucks. I don’t care about them though,” he laughed.
As we continued talking about coding and St. Louis startups, we excitedly told each other how we learned and what motivated us. “That kind of like building your own stuff usually, at least for me, has been really valuable. ‘Cause I’ll do it, I’ll enjoy it, and then at the end of it I’m like, ‘ok I learned what I needed to learn’ and then I’ll scrap it.” That kind of attitude is what it takes to learn coding. That desire to persist despite failed attempts and frustration.
No stranger to feeling frustrated or ready to give up, Chris has a strategy for overcoming these feelings. He simply asks himself why he doesn’t feel like doing it and then whatever the answer is, he attempts to change. For example, with the classes he is creating he would often be too drained to finish putting together a video. Realizing this was because he didn’t have a clear vision, one of his friends told him, “you’re trying to teach people what good code looks like, why it’s good, and how to produce it.” That one sentence gave him the clarity he needed to continue.
Chris admits that he’s still learning, but often, in this brave (relatively) new world of coding you have to learn without anyone telling you what to do. There are 3 things he keeps in mind to help him push past any difficulties:
- often when he starts something and he’s bad at it, it makes him want to quit but he knows he has to keep pushing to get past it. “You have that mindset occasionally when you start something new where you’re like, ‘I should be good at this… but I’m not.’”
- role models and mentors are an excellent way to learn new things and push yourself to achieve, but you can’t usually ask someone to fill this role, it just happens. He asks himself if we subconsciously need someone to emulate. But, he says, you have to be careful not to accomplish exactly what your mentor accomplished. “You basically fail if you don’t surpass your mentor.”
- when you do something enough, you can get great at it, but you will probably fail at first. “I guess if you do it enough times, you do it wrong enough times to where you’re like ‘I didn’t really help that person,’ or ‘what could I have done better’. You realize, I need to do it a little bit differently.”
The streets of downtown grew increasingly busy as our conversation drew to a close. Finishing our drinks and gathering our things, we said goodbye and merged onto the sidewalk to begin our respective days.