By Deborah L. Cohen
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Not too long ago, Web coding was the rarified realm of computer geeks, but a new crop of entrepreneurs is making this valuable computer skill available to just about anyone with an inclination to learn.
In New York, a nascent startup called Codecademy (), the brainchild of two former Columbia University students, has managed to sign up hundreds of thousands of users since launching in August. Celebrity participants such as New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg have helped create buzz.
"Coding is the new literacy," said cofounder Zach Sims.
"As the world moves toward becoming increasingly complicated, it's important to know what you're doing."
Sims, who at 21 has already worked for prominent startups including the former file-sharing service Drop.io and group messaging site groupme - now part of Skype - took a leave of absence from Columbia so that he and partner Ryan Bubinski could dedicate their time fully to the effort. The project was born in part from Sims' frustration when learning to code.
"I was reading books and taking classes and watching video," he recalled. "I was always dissatisfied.
Codecademy had more than 500,000 users through early November, the last time figures were disclosed. Its latest initiative, dubbed Code Year, challenges would-be users to make coding a New Year's resolution; the campaign pulled in close to 300,000 adherents in just eight days time, Sims said.
In October, Codecademy announced $2.5 million in startup funding from a group of high-profile investors. Among them was Union Square Ventures, a VC firm that has backed powerhouses such as Twitter and Zynga.
"On a really fundamental level their vision is teaching the world how to program for free," said Andy Weissman, a Union Square partner. "That's a really big vision; it's a vision that's really right for the time that we're in now. It's an important skill for people to learn."
Sims declined to provide specifics on the business model, but said once the site builds scale, it should be able to attract a range of business partners. Weissman said the creation of a large network of engaged users could generate interest among corporate recruiters and as well as those looking to find jobs.
To be sure, skilled IT professional are hard to find. According to a May 2011 survey from ManpowerGroup, the employment services agency, IT staff and engineers were among the top ten most difficult U.S. jobs to fill.
Even those who don't plan on becoming professional coders are finding the skills beneficial, whether they run their own businesses, work in large companies or use them in everyday life.
One is David Whittemore, the co-founder of Clothes Horse (), an emerging startup that offers advise about clothing fit and sizing to consumers who purchase apparel online. He has been taking Codecademy courses, but has no plans to become a Web engineer.
"I actually think almost everybody should learn to code," said Whittemore, adding that his new knowledge has eased the burden on his company's chief technology officer. "The more I can get involved and help him out, the better it is for our business - being able to put a prototype together for him, get access on the data on how a product is performing so I don't have to ask him," he said. "How much will it save us? Basically hiring a consultant or contractor or having to hire another team member."
Therein lies the rub. At a time when more and more new ventures are deploying so-called "lean" startup practices, the more skills and services they can perform in house will help to keep their costs down.
Other entrepreneurs have recognized this need. In Chicago, Mike McGee and Neal Sales-Griffin, a team of recently minted Northwestern University graduates, are tapping demand for coding skills with a different kind of training model under a similar name: Code Academy (). Theirs charges students $6,000 a pop for a 10-week course at an actual school.
The two began working on the idea in April, eventually quitting their jobs and jumping in headlong.
Demand for initial classes beginning in October quickly outstripped supply. There were 88 applicants for just 12 spots, all willing to plunk down tuition before Code Academy had even secured actual office space. So the founders upped class size to 35, and lucked out leasing space inside of the headquarters of Groupon, the online couponing site.
"We didn't have to take in any investment," said McGee, at 23 younger than many of his students. "We went from having no money to being profitable by the first week of September."
The program recently began its second series in the city's John Hancock building with 57 students, including some who are taking instruction in website design.
"It's just exploding," said McGee, whose business is already profitable. "We have people that are 21 and people that are 52 - from all over the world. It's just a big mixing pot."