241: Lessons from freeCodeCamp – founder interview

We interview Quincy Larson, the founder and a teacher at freeCodeCamp.org. freeCodeCamp is a nonprofit community that helps millions of people learn to code 100% for free helping thousands of people find their first coding job. Quincy shares how the organization got started, built a strong volunteer base and grew its amazing educational library course by course. 

Learn more and support at: https://www.freecodecamp.org/

Transcript

George Weiner (00:04):
This week on the podcast, we are thrilled to have the executive director Quincy Larson of freecodecamp.org, Quincy, how’s it going? Hey, it’s going great.

New Speaker (00:16):
How about you, George? I’m doing well today. I was thrilled when I reached out because frankly, a lot of the staff at whole whale end up on free code camp for, for learning and going going up the curve on, on various tech, like HTML, JavaScript. What have you. And so I was wondering just from the start I feel like the name says a lot, but in your words, Quincy, what what is it that free code camp does?

Quincy Larson (00:45):
Sure. So we help people around the world learn to code for free. We have a giant curriculum that you can do end to end, or you can skip around in it, but it’ll basically bring you up to speed with what kinds of skills you would need. If you wanted to go get a job as a developer or potentially create like a technology focused NGO or startup.

George Weiner (01:08):
I feel like that was so simple for how actually complex I feel like this platform is, and just like top, top line stats here, you know, you have on here located like 6,000 plus tutorials and according to your sites, since 2014, more than 40,000 graduates have gotten jobs at tech companies. And that’s incredible.

Quincy Larson (01:31):
Thanks. Yeah, it’s it’s just, we’ve been working really hard, pretty steadily for the past seven years and just, just grind and grind in that way. But yeah, we’ve gotten plenty of lucky breaks along the way. It’s just a, to like everyday, just, just putting in for a little bit of a forward momentum on things.

George Weiner (01:52):
I love the sort of seven year overnight successes and people look at you. Oh, you do like popped up everywhere for context. I feel like when you’re sitting in a nonprofit ecosystem, it can be hard to understand certain competitive environments, but you were up against some of the best well funded startups in the game. You know, you’re talking about like code academy or Coursera. How have you sort of been able to fight in that competitive and ecosystem as a nonprofit going up against, you know, multi-million, I think some are billion dollar competitors here.

Quincy Larson (02:31):
Yeah. Well, I don’t look at them as competitors. I look at them as allies in the effort to help people get technology skills. We’re fortunate to be in a space that’s like expanding really rapidly. I mean, technology skills are becoming more and more valuable every day to, without going off on a long sermon, you know, used to be that you didn’t need to know how to read if you were like a farmer out in the middle of middle America, for example. And at some point it just became understood that yes, even though you’re a farmer, you should know how to read and same thing with like drawing, driving a car, for example. And then in the nineties, people needed to learn how to use Microsoft office. And now in the 2020s, people need to learn how to use, you know, basic web development tools, basic data analysis tools low-code no-code tools.

Quincy Larson (03:22):
And of course just understanding conceptually how web servers work, how mobile apps work, those kinds of things, privacy security. So there’s a tremendous amount to be taught. So the way I look at you know, like you Udacity Codeacademy tree house, those were some of the, those are some of the bigger organizations in the space. Even like Harvard has CS 50. So there are a lot of university programs is like, Hey, we want to ally ourselves with you all. We’re we’re a tiny non-profit like we don’t have the resources to compete with anybody really. Rather we’d, we’d like to build alliances and see if we can help your mission. And if we can find ways to cooperate. So that’s been our strategy.

George Weiner (04:11):
How has that partnership been going? Cause sometimes I feel like it’s a sure we’re all frenemies here, but at a certain point you know, as it has it worked to, to grow it, or is it that you simply have a massive audience and you can be generous with that audience just like tick to cut directly to it. Or has it been key to your growth and that you have partnerships with some of these folks?

Quincy Larson (04:35):
Yeah, like I can go into a little details on some of the partnerships like we’ve worked with, like, of course, like big software companies, we’ve accepted grants from them to create courses and publish those courses on our YouTube channel. And also just created like textual tutorials on a lot of topics. We’ve worked with some of the other course creators as well. If you look at our YouTube channel, for example, you’ll see just there’ve been more than a hundred different kind of independent programming content creators who who’ve done kind of crossovers with us and things like that. So I think this philosophy, it’s not just a matter of us being like being extremely lucky and, and being generous, but I genuinely do believe that, you know, if, if you approach things, not from an adversarial standpoint, but instead of like how you can leverage, what’s already out there to help your own learners better.

Quincy Larson (05:32):
For example, with, with tree house, which is a really awesome, I mean there are for profit, but a lot of the things they do I think are kind of spiritually similar to what nonprofits do. They have a lot of programs to focus on you know equality, diversity inclusion, and trying to get people in, into jobs. And they’ve got like this huge catalog of courses and we were able to work with them to take some of those courses and, and cast them out to a wider audience for free through, through our YouTube channel. So yeah, that’s a long answer, but, but I, I really do. I don’t, I think competition is overrated and it’s it there’s, I think it’s something that humans kind of intrinsically like fixate on just because like the nature of like sports, the nature of war, all these things, there’s like a winner and there’s a loser, but in the real world, often there are many winners and there’s like an equilibrium where many organizations can be in play. And some of them specialize on some, in some areas and some of them specialize in other areas. So I don’t, I don’t see education is like a winner takes all type feel it, I really do believe that there can be many, many winners just like there are 5,000 universities in the United States. There’s not just like one university. That’s kind of like a conglomerate, whatever the word is absorb all the other universities, right?

George Weiner (07:02):
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I think that abundance mindset is really key when you are approaching partners in in dealing in good faith. I want to move into like the education component, because I think that in large part is the secret of your success and something. I want our listeners to kind of take away because there’s a brilliance in the way that it seems like you build giant pillar on tenant. Like you create these pieces that are modular mind you, but they’re sequential. They’re carefully broken down rather than one-off lesson on Python and a one-off lesson on HTML. And we have this article over here, this seems wildly methodical and modular, and like just planned out, like you’re just putting brick five brick by brick, into entities courses. Can you maybe unpack how you approached it? These pieces that are modular mind you, but they’re sequential, they’re carefully broken down rather than one-off lesson on Python and a one-off lesson on HTML. And we’ve got this article over here. This seems wildly methodical and modular, and like just planned out, like you’re just putting brick by brick, by brick, into entities courses. Can you maybe unpack how you approached it? You know, how much of this was like planned from day one? You’re like someday I shall have over 6,000 resources perfectly organized.

Quincy Larson (08:27):
Yeah. So I break everything down into curricular and extracurricular. So free code camp. We have a core curriculum that we the most, that’s what most people think of when they think of free code camp.org, they think of our linear curriculum and it’s, it’s non branching. It it’s like I liken it to like universities from like the 18 hundreds before the invention of majors and electives and all of these other things back when, like, basically everybody learned the exact same thing and it was just the stuff they needed to know. And if you look at like medical school and law school to some extent like business school still like this, right there, there may be like, you, you become a generalist in school and then you specialize on the job through like residency or through some sort of you know, associate period. And I, I think that’s how like developer education should be.

Quincy Larson (09:17):
So we have this linear curriculum that if you were to literally go through all of it and not stop to get a job, like most people stop at some point, get a job and then they’ll come back and learn even more. And then they’ll go get a better job or they’ll get a promotion within their current job. It’s designed that you can do like lifelong learning over the course of like years and years, and still have plenty of stuff that you haven’t learned yet. That is right there waiting for you when you get time to learn. And that is you know, engineered that way. My original vision for free code camp was that it would be kind of just like a single progression of skills and that we’d front load, the most useful skills where the jobs were most bountiful, which is web development.

Quincy Larson (10:00):
And then you’d get more into, you know, skills like a DevOps type skills. And eventually you get into machine learning and data science skills, if you stuck with it. And that mirrors a lot of like what the makeup of the industry looks like in the sense that like, usually you’ve got your undergraduates, like university grads or people that went to like vocational school, they’re doing web development, and then you’ve got your graduate students doing a lot of the you know, dev ops and data science stuff. And then you’ve, you’ve got your like PhDs who lead like data science for like an entire organization or so like, you can go really, really deep. I mean you could easily be like a university professor working at Stanford. Like some of these people who created the original boots, massive open online courses fit this category.

Quincy Larson (10:50):
They’d worked in private industry building these you know, self-driving car systems or you know, creating systems that, that did all kinds of like kind of filtering for like search hinges and things like that. And, you know, they, they can create these kinds of masterclasses in these subjects. We wanted to be able to have a linear progression that took people to where they could actually get to that. Like, there’s this big, what we call it, desert of despair where you start off and there are tons of really good introductory resources. And then those dry up and you’re left with extremely advanced, like academic papers and conference talks and things like that that are much harder to grok. So free code camp kind of represents like a bridge from the beginner across that desert of despair into the more advanced resources. And then we have our extracurricular learning resources which, you know, more than a thousand courses on YouTube more than I think it’s like 750 tutorials. We haven’t the number on our search engine, but we publish like 10 or 20 years.

George Weiner (11:56):
So many pieces here and threads on sort of content creation. I want to, I want to put a pin in that. I want to come back to the chasm that, that is here, putting a pin, arguing that how on earth do you create so much content quality content that’s in line with your standards and guides? Like if you have an engine running behind there that is churning out these pieces, obviously, you know, your site is an LMS in and of itself and you’re pulling in and leveraging very intelligently mind. You notice that will YouTube. It’s not just hidden video on your site. That’s not search index, like you’re out there casting. And then come back to, what is your process and engine and staff creating this content? Like what what’s behind this.

Quincy Larson (12:42):
Yeah, yeah. So a vast majority of our learning resources are created by volunteers. People from industry, people from academia who want to help people learn and are kind enough to share their learning resources with us, a lot of is created like kind of exclusively for free code camp. And some of it is shared, like for example, like a university, like Harvard shared their CS, [inaudible] computer science, 50 courses, the most popular computer science course on the planet. And they shared both like their main curriculum and their game to development curriculum, and we publish those. And so that’s a pretty good example of like, when you got David Malin from Harvard who is incredibly insightful in the way he teaches, like he’s taught computer science for so long, you could argue that he’s like a rockstar teacher, if there is one. Right.

Quincy Larson (13:36):
So I mean, that does a lot of the workforce. We just talked to David Malin and we’re like, Hey, could we cross publish this? And then also like a lot of times university professors will publish their work as like creative comments and we can reach out to them and like, Hey, this is fantastic. Could we publish this on the free cocaine panel? So we also get a lot of people who are gradually building up like their presence on YouTube, a lot of experience, classroom teachers, and also just practitioners from the field who want to teach these programming concepts. And so we’ll kind of, anthologized some of their courses and publish those. And then as far as the text-based tutorials what I do is I work closely with the editorial team and I’m on the editorial team of Frigo camp.

Quincy Larson (14:20):
And we we identify people who are really good at teaching through text. And we, I meet with them and I’m like, Hey, if you’re interested in reaching a lot of people and helping a lot of people, we can help you. And then I help figure out what articles we should write. And I, I coordinate with them on topics and headlines. And I personally have written, I think, like four or 500 tutorials and Bo has written like several hundred and he runs our YouTube channel and Abby runs like the main editorial team. So, so it’s just, it’s just a small handful of people. Like the actual free code contains less than 20 people. But we haven’t mentioned our budget yet, but it’s like less like 2019 was $498,000. So we’re operating on like a very lean budget. And as a result, a lot of people are working part-time or and most of the

George Weiner (15:16):
Work. Yeah. That’s why, like, I think just to remind people that all of that being done for, you know, less than half a million is is incredible. And I feel like I want there there’s somebody listening right now. Who’s trying to get their first 10 volunteers to show up. And it’s, it’s kind of, I think sometimes like frustrating to be like, yeah, of course you can go get the rockstar of Harvard to go teach this course because you have the flywheel running. Talk to me about how you got that first 10 volunteers. Like, what was the sales pitch you didn’t have? What is it, how many people like over a million a month or something through the system? Like, just in terms of traffic, what is the,

Quincy Larson (16:02):
Yeah, we do about a million.

George Weiner (16:03):
A, yeah, that’s real traffic. That’s real audience. And then, and then, and I can see when you go to somebody, Hey, would you like to reach half a million per day? And you’re like, yes, please. I want to have an impact. Well, here you go. Talk to me about the first 10 volunteers and what that looked like.

Quincy Larson (16:19):
Yeah. So man is, it was pretty well cause I was like staying up, like I was basically working like 120 hours a week maybe during the early days. So I, I came from like San Francisco startup culture and you really threw yourself into the gear, so to speak. I had built a lot of projects and this is going to be a little over biographical help. You will indulge me. But I had worked as a software engineer. My background was in teaching. I was a school director and a classroom teacher until I was about 31 years old. And that’s when I decided I one to learned to code. I just automated some aspects of our school to free the teachers up so that they could work more closely with students and not have to spend as much time with their desks.

Quincy Larson (17:05):
And that worked really well. And I was amazed at how much I could accomplish just some guy in the suit who didn’t know anything about technology, like writing some very basic scripts Googling around and stuff. And so I, I eventually properly learned how to do software engineering. I just spent like seven months going to hackathons and using free online resources, lots of free textbooks and things like that, hanging out with the library. And I was able to get a job as a software engineer. And then, so I kind of went through that process myself in that autobiographical like that, that informs a lot of the curriculum development is like me as a career changer, mid career, like figuring out how technology works and how to like actually get things done with it, getting freelance clients, applying for jobs, all those things.

Quincy Larson (17:50):
So by the time that I got to this project, this was after several failed projects and just burning through my savings. My wife we had benefits through her company. Thankfully we were just living in the San Francisco bay area and I was going to all of these types of events and stuff. And just, I created the chat room. I didn’t think this was going to work. I built the first version of free code camp in like three days and launched it and started tweeting about it. And just got, I got people in the chat room together and chats very powerful, especially for like building like an immediate bond with people just hanging out and volume, as opposed to like, you know, quantity as opposed to quality, which I think you get quality better on like forums and things like that. But in China it’s really good for just quickly building rapport.

Quincy Larson (18:34):
And so I just had people, like, I stayed in the chat room all day, well, building different functionality on the site and people would come in and like, oh, this is great. Like, is there a way I can get involved? Can I help? And so, yeah, like just having that chat room, having people come in there, I was able to convince people gradually like, yeah, we could use help. Like, like everybody has opinions on how things should be done and you don’t necessarily want to listen to those opinions. But if they have, if they want to, like, we have this term agile project development spiking on things where they’re basically taking low stakes risks, just trying to build something out and seeing what happens, you know, creating a proof of concept. So we got a bunch of people doing that. And then, you know, people eventually like started improving the curriculum.

Quincy Larson (19:16):
And so it was, it was people being frustrated that the curriculum was so mediocre. Cause it was the product of just me and gradually like incorporating their feedback. And, and then it became much more robust. People started getting jobs. People were getting jobs because they were like, yeah, I designed this curriculum, you know, like people would like, they’d be in interviews and they’d be like, oh, you know, can you, you know, invert like a binary search tree or something like that. And they’d be like, yeah, actually here’s like an entire article I wrote about how to do it, like your heart. So that sort of thing, like, like people getting jobs in that that fed the forward momentum of the volunteerism. Well, thank

George Weiner (19:51):
You for sharing that. I think the backstory is incredibly helpful because from the outside it’s easy to sort of paint a brush and be like, oh, obviously here’s this like rock star coder and just whipped it up. And, you know, suddenly people were knocking down their door and like, I think it’s it reminds me of starting kind of right at the beginning with the right culture. And as you said, you were not going after quantity. It was a quality of interaction and, and sort of creating it in public and saying, you know what, this may not be the best tutorial for this particular web dev, but you sort of then incite people to join you and help you. And I think for some organizations back that can be tough. It has to be perfectly polished before it’s pushed. So where’s the room for volunteers to step in. One more question actually about the volunteers, because this comes up a lot for us. How do you manage this many folks? Is there like an extra and cool saying like, all right, this is the project. Like, because it can be running, you know, hurting, hurting cats in our hurricane situation with, with some volunteers, especially if you’re talking about like projects where they’re touching your code or content.

Quincy Larson (21:02):
Yeah. So systems and they’re not just software systems. A lot of them are just Google forms and, you know, Google sheets and, and, you know, the proverbial, duct tape and bubblegum that holds most organizations together. I don’t want you to think that we’ve got like state-of-the-art, you know CRMs for working with volunteers or anything. I’m sure some organizations do that. But there there’s a lot of, like, I spent a huge amount of time responding to emails and interacting with volunteers like I’ve had hundreds, hundreds of meetings with tutorial authors where I’ve gotten to know them and a big part, like, like I don’t, I’m not like a particularly telling that person in my opinion, like, but one skill I have is like, I’m really good at like memorizing names and memorizing facts and like recognizing people and remembering the moment that they told me about like their own journey into coding or you know, like remembering, oh, that person’s from Calgary.

Quincy Larson (22:00):
And they worked as a roughneck for like 10 years before they learned to code. And like now I, I can remember that when I talked to him, I’ve got that kind of like, that lived experience that they shared with me to draw on. So it, it kind of informs how I interact with them and like the topics I bring up with them and stuff. So a lot of it is just the ability to like, hold in your head, hundreds of volunteers at a time, or potentially thousands in a more kind of broad strokes way and really make it your business. Like, like as a nonprofit founder, you know, for a startup founder, there are these three things that every startup founder is supposed to do. Right. And one is set the vision for the organization. Two is make sure you don’t run out of money and three is bring on the right people.

Quincy Larson (22:47):
And if you look at it that way with, with nonprofits, you know, they’re basically the same three things. But instead of like bringing on the right people in the form of just employees, nonprofits also have that additional dimension that like they do have the ability to encourage people to volunteer through you know, kind of like a mission driven approach that like a for-profit corporation would have a harder time convincing people to do. I mean, some, some do, for example, Google has like Google tools, usergroup which is, you know, volunteers contributing and helping run local events and things like that. And a lot of a lot of corporations have that kind of fanfare that they can, that they can have volunteers do that. But as a nonprofit, like you have such a big edge because you can like, there’s, you’ve just immediately removed a lot of the skepticism and cynicism that people feel toward volunteering because you’re clearly in this because you care about the mission. Otherwise you wouldn’t be a 5 0 1 C3 nonprofit, cause there’s all these additional compliance issues. And it like, like being a nonprofit, like being at a startup on hard mode in many respects.

George Weiner (23:59):
Yeah. I remember like 10 years ago trying to decide if I should make more whale at non-profit or for-profit and knowing what I know about nonprofits, I was like, why would I want to go into battle with one arm behind my back? And so, you know, there are advantages and it’s awesome that you’re able to leverage those, but I dunno. Do you ever have a second thoughts?

Quincy Larson (24:21):
No. Cause I really just don’t think that that like, like obviously I don’t have any equity, so I’m just a paid employee, like, like everybody else. So, you know, they’re there, what happens if something bad happens to me? Like when my family have any recourse, my wife have to you know, cover all the expenses, things like that, like pop into my mind, but that’s really the only downside I think, is not getting rich. The upside is you get to work with the kind of people who don’t care as much about getting rich and care a lot more about the mission of the organization. So yeah I, I don’t regret it at all. And I don’t really think about like, oh, what if it was a startup or whatever? Like, there’s a good chance, like with all the different variables and stuff that wouldn’t have worked as a startup or some something else would have happened in, like, we’ve been like an investor would have pulled us in a different direction.

Quincy Larson (25:21):
And we wouldn’t be doing the same kind of work we’re doing for the same kind of people, which is to say, you know, people around the world who want to learn to code, many of whom are in the, you know, 50% of people who live off less than $5 and 50 cents a day, right. They that even putting a credit card form up immediately that their own bank, they can’t get through that, you know we’re, we’re able to make these resources accessible to everybody regardless of socioeconomic background. And increasingly regardless of like physical, like abilities and also internet connectivity, other considerations. So, you know, I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world. Really. I’m really glad in retrospect that I’ve made the decisions I’ve made as far as being in.

George Weiner (26:05):
Yeah. I mean, that’s a perfect, a perfect narrative of doing it and enjoying what you’re doing. And sometimes that lets you go farther than possibly possible in the other direction. The point I wanted to come back to holding is daunting. How do you deal with the, where do I start question a the, where do I start problem and be the sort of crop of sorrow, the chasm of of the point where someone’s like, I took a couple and then I dropped off the, you know, it’s, it’s more than a common critique. It’s a proven issue with online learning. And I think a lot of nonprofits when they’re saying like, oh, sure, cause we, we try to encourage a lot of our clients. And also a lot of folks that look at our content of course certify their competency to core SIFY things that their stakeholders can do. Asynchronously, meaning like you have upgrade grade at once you package it properly and then let your audience run with it. We have seen tremendous, tremendous success coming from it. However, and what about the, where do I start and how do you deal with the drop-off ectoplasm?

Quincy Larson (27:24):
Yeah, that’s a great question. So this is not like an easy question to answer. And if you look at like you know, MOOCs, massive open online courses historically they’ve had very high attrition rates, but you have to consider they’re free and people have literally no skin in the game. Like they invested a little bit of time, maybe gave, gave out their email address and like a signup form. And if they learned anything, I mean, that’s, that’s great, but you’re right. Like that’s, that’s a net positive. So the reality that I’ve come to accept is like accountability mechanisms do work. If, if you get somebody involved in like say 100 days of code, which is the hashtag that a lot of people use they try to do 100 days of coding at least 30 minutes a day and tweeting about their progress and things like that.

Quincy Larson (28:13):
That works. I mean, it really does. I would say that if you’re trying to learn to code and you get involved in that hashtag you probably doubled your chances of making significant progress inside a year. One of the things to acknowledge though, is life gets in the way people do get like we’re human, we’re not machines that can just grind away at something. Some people have more motivation than others, some, both intrinsic or extrinsic. Certainly during the pandemic, that’s increased the amount of extrinsic motivation that people have because they’re seeing that, like, I don’t want to be in a job where, you know, I’m essentially risking my life every day just to, just to do what I need to do and provide for my family. So that was, you know, people had been redoubling their efforts trying to gain new skills, seeing, I guess the fragility of the system we have place and, and software development job that you can do remotely, you can do it asynchronously.

Quincy Larson (29:12):
And you can do it from anywhere in the world and you can do it pretty piecemeal as well. You know, you don’t have to, you can have lots of freelance clients and stuff. So, so there’s a lot of carrot there. There’s a lot of cake at the end of the maze, right. But you also because it’s so complicated it’s not as hard. It’s not the hardest thing in the world, but anybody who tells you that learning to code is easy, is trying to sell you something it’s not easy at it’s, it’s quite demanding, but at the same time, anybody who’s sufficiently motivated can learn it. It’s just a matter of sitting down and learning. It just like it was getting, learning, Microsoft Excel or learning you know, how to drive and things like that. Those things are all daunting initially.

Quincy Larson (29:57):
The great thing about coding is, again, the resources are free and you don’t have to spend a penny. You can do it from anywhere. You can do it at your own pace. There are interactive learning resources like free code camp. And there are also tons of amazing books and video courses and stuff that the community is prepared in. Software development in general has like this hacker ethic as they call it. And a big part of that is the information wants to be free ethos and people are quick to help one another. They don’t perceive each other as competitors. All this person’s jockeying for my job. Why should I help them? No, because the pie is expanding so quickly. Everybody’s pushing things into the software layer. And we’re going to see just more and more software jobs. And to some extent, they’re going to edge out like older jobs that couldn’t easily be automated or they could more easily be automated the way, no, I’m not, I’m not in the camp that like automation is going to destroy everything. And 20 years from now, nobody’s going to work. But, but B be wary of people that say that, but also be wary of people who say like software, you shouldn’t even bother learning the code cause they’re gonna automate it all. Like the thing to note about that is, and I hear people like very educated people will say that sometimes. Yeah. Let me jump in really quickly. Cause I had this note here in the back of his mind

George Weiner (31:14):
That may be a term they heard for the first time, no code or low code. What the heck, no code, what do I need to learn code at all? I just by step right by it. So can you unpack a no code real quick? It’s

Quincy Larson (31:27):
Not the best name. It’s not the best name for like a, I guess a movement and suffer. I mean, obviously there’s no code. All they’ve done is they’ve done most of the coding for you and created like a more usable tool for you. But like if you go all the way back to like 19 94, 19 95, Microsoft had like Microsoft front page, I think is what it was called. And it was basically promising to do all the web development for you. And it, you know, 20, 21, you don’t hear about that tool anymore because like the more you automate, like yes, engineers use automation. I don’t like go in and start writing byte code. When I’m writing a new program,

Speaker 3 (32:05):
I was going to bring this up in the walkway, many, many layers of abstraction I was really looking to.

Quincy Larson (32:12):
Yeah. So, so there’s nothing wrong with, during waiver. There’s nothing wrong with front page, even. I think those, those are tools and it’s, it’s kind of like, like if you go into if you’re a lumberjack and you go into the woods and you’re carrying like your trustee acts and you’re trying to fill a whole bunch of trees and somebody comes up and they’ve got a chainsaw, well there’s skill involved in building a chainsaw too. Right. so just like anything like developers adopt new tools. And so no code is not you know, a direct substitute for a lot of other tools. It can simplify a lot of things. I think the people most equipped to make good use of no code and low code tools are developers. And I use them myself if I, if I’m in a hurry and I just want to build a quick prototype.

Quincy Larson (32:56):
So you know, we’re going to be producing a course on some low code tools in the next few months. So, so yeah, just know that these tools are out there, but they’re, they’re not a panacea, right? You’re S you’re still gonna need to know how databases work. Certainly even if you don’t make CQL craze, like I very rarely make sequel craze. I understand how to make a SQL query. It’s kinda like going to go into university. Like a lot of the things you’re going to learn, you’re not going to have to do that math. You’re going to have calculators and stuff, but it’s, it’s valuable to know how things are working under the hood. And sometimes maybe it’s, you can get better performance. The main trade-off with low-code and no-code tools is they’re expensive. You’re spending dramatically more money handing the bother of doing software development off to some company. And then they maintain these tools. The more you’re willing to do yourself, the more money you can save. And that’s how an organization like free code camp is there half a million people a day. And then also, you know, have all these other artifacts and resources that are offline and stuff.

George Weiner (34:01):
So many rabbit holes. I just want to run down them all. I mean, I have more questions than time would allow. I want to maybe bring up one more topic and actually layer context to it is that I actually am also a self-taught developer and coder from back in the day when I was hired at dosomething.org. Over seven years, I taught myself every single thing required to become the chief technology officer, which was many, many things that I broke, learned, fixed, and then repeated. And w was grateful enough to end up with a really talented team. And I actually started a whole whale because I saw the industry not leveraging the most powerful tool and, you know, recent history probably ever, or, or potential impact. So I love what you were doing. I think there’s still a chasm for, for many organizations, many nonprofits, you yourself said you were a teacher and you’re like, wait a minute.

George Weiner (35:06):
I feel like if you can automate some pieces here, going to the, like, where do I start piece? What is your advice to nonprofits that are, you know, making their way with basic tech talking about, you know, they’ve got their WordPress site and then they’re, they’re seemingly constantly getting stuck with maybe internal systems and database pieces. And they’re like, ah, we need to keep hiring externally for a solution versus what could they potentially do with free code camp? Where could they direct people? Like how could they use as a tool to get to the level that they need to be, could be, should be

Quincy Larson (35:48):
Right. Well, I w my humble advice would be first see who you have on your team. Like don’t underestimate their ability to learn technology skills, even if they don’t have a technical background. And I was like an English major working as a teacher. And I had very little technical, I knew how to consume technology, like, you know using computers for consumption, but I didn’t know how to produce technology through programming. A lot of people can learn these skills and you don’t necessarily have to dramatically increase your head count. I think actually that’s like, people are your most expensive resource, and there are tons of little resources you can do to like, augment your existing team, especially if they’re already there, like they’re already part of your culture. They already know one another, you can grow really slowly and responsibly.

Quincy Larson (36:36):
One thing I’d say is just, just think about like the trade-off. I mean, if you, for example, if you know, Google grants is like huge windfall to nonprofits I tried to set it up myself and it was extremely frustrating, you know, pig process and, you know, oh, well, how’s a course on it. I think we’d probably do way better. You probably say way more than what it costs in terms of like D you know, people hours to just do the course and then like, share it with your team. And, and there are lots of other

George Weiner (37:08):
Brought to you by Whole Whale university again.

Quincy Larson (37:13):
Thanks, man. Yeah, but seriously, like, like I think, I think people can, you know, you don’t want to be completely like nickel and dime yourself, like trying to save on everything. But the biggest expense you can take is like bringing on some developer who is you know, going to cost you maybe a hundred thousand dollars more a year, and just like handing it over and saying like, here you figure it out. A big part of actually managing developers is understanding how the technology works yourself. And that’s one of the biggest causes of the death, of like startups in the bay area. And that’s why, like, you know, if you try to apply to Y Combinator and you don’t have a developer on your team, they’re just, they’re not going to accept because it’s hard to software is hard. And you need to have some basic grasp on how it works conceptually, so you can effectively manage developers. So, you know, I would encourage people just to expand their own skills a little bit and become more comfortable, like expand the frontiers of their comfort zone as far as technology. And you probably don’t need to hire a full-time developer. You can probably just take the people you have and teach them. And then later at the very least you’ll know what you need and what is beyond your capabilities. And you’ll be able to hire smarter.

George Weiner (38:27):
Yeah. To package again, look around the existing organization, allow people to step forward, step into it, encourage them, give them the space and then point them toward courses. Obviously you’re like find a course that works for you, but by the way, ours are 100% free. Do they jump into, you know, Dave manipulation with Python? Or are they looking, would you recommend to say, actually you should probably start with understanding your web stack,

Quincy Larson (38:57):
Right? So if they do, if you all use the free code camp curriculum, it’s in a linear progression. That makes sense. Cause we’ve talked with hundreds of people from industry and like thousands of developers have contributed to this curriculum. It’s probably the best single artifact in terms of like being a representative sequence of things that you should learn. It’s extremely optimized. Now, there are parts of it that we are continuing to improve and we want to make it more project oriented. There’s, there’s plenty of room for for development and improvement on the free cocaine curriculum. I don’t want to give you the impression that that you’re, it you’re a fool. If you can’t understand it because it’s, everything’s laid out for, you know, there are a lot of inductive leaks you’re going to have to take, you’re going to have to do a Google search again and, and wrap your head around these things.

Quincy Larson (39:41):
It takes time, but that’s a great place to start. And then we have extra curricular topics on, on most technologies. Like if, for example, you had like a huge amount of data and you need to figure out how to work with it. Like you can learn how to use SQL. You can learn how to use Python and a lot of powerful Python libraries for free on frequent camps YouTube channel. And if you just Google things, just look for the free code camp result. And it won’t be a bunch of ads like loaded and everything. It’ll be like super fast, like everything’s super optimized, very accessible. So yeah, like my biggest advice would be like, when you do Google searches for different technical topics, try to find the free code camp one and click on that one. That that will probably be, you know, it’ll be edited.

Quincy Larson (40:23):
It’ll be written by a native English speaker usually or edited by a native English speaker. Anyway, you get the picture. Like there are tons of resources out there. The main thing is do not let yourself be daunted. It’s very easy to just throw up your and say, oh, we need to go to the developer. If you don’t let yourself be intimidated by technology, just like you, Georgia. I mean, you, you learned over the course of seven years and often become a CTO. That’s phenomenal. And I didn’t even know that before this conversation, but I’d love to, if you have time, if you want to write about your coding journey, I think that’d be really inspiring for a lot of people. But yeah, don’t be daunted and just trust that, like you can learn this if you put in the time and energy and if you don’t quit, if you keep coming back, take a break, come back every time the concepts are getting extra, a little bit deeper into your brain your, your muscle memory, as far as like understanding intuitively how things work, it gets a little stronger.

George Weiner (41:16):
Yeah. That’s a good advice. And it’s important to reiterate how simple the call to action is and how could you steal this for your nonprofit or borrow like an artist start here. There’s literally a giant yellow button on this side. So it’s like, just click this, [inaudible] start. And we’re going to take you through what you probably need to know. And, and you’ve built it in modular way so that when people are asking questions on the Google, when people are asking questions, you are showing up as the answer for that as well. So you’re getting both the start here, narrative journey and the opportunities show up and answer questions when people are asking and sorta side door into the building as, as well, because you’ve opened it up. I think both ways are just, it’s perfect architecture for how you scale and get to where you’re going.

George Weiner (42:10):
And you know, you’re talking about this, this motivation in terms of getting people to do things we subscribed to the BJ Fogg behavior, mobility behavior is motivation, ability and trigger. And you’re saying like, you generally start with high motivation, but how do we make the barrier lower, the trigger easier and it’s free. So, okay. That’s, that’s pretty darn good. But I think it’s an important to know, cause you, you went through quickly, but the accountability there of saying like, oh, here’s a community, right? Here’s another one. We have a group of people that I’m accountable to. And I’m like checking in with like, how are you doing on your a hundred days? You set this goal. So you have the community, their accountability, and this sort of prize at the end, the five at the end, you’re going to get this job.

George Weiner (42:52):
You’re going to be able to save yourself from having to hire a developer, which may or may not work. You’re going to scale up personally and make yourself more marketable in your own company, make your company better and, you know, holding those prices. So those are some elements to play with. If you’re a, an executive director sort of listening to this being like, all right, I’m going to just send this around. But if you want to increase the chance of success, think about how Quincy talked about those, those elements. All right. I think we’re running toward our rapid fire, unless there is anything you’d like to put a finer point on here. I’m getting a thumbs up. Okay. Okay. Please keep your responses to around 30 seconds. Quincy, what is one tech tool or website that you or your organization has started using in the past year?

Quincy Larson (43:41):
Yeah. rocket chat is awesome. So Brazilian company if you use slack have use like Microsoft team, I think is what it’s called. This is a self hosted alternative to that, and you just spin up server and your team can jump on there and chat and it’s got most of the main features and it’s, you own all the data. It’s essentially free. The software’s open source. You can pay for like a service level agreement and, and hosting from them if you want. But it’s been great. We love it. What tech

George Weiner (44:13):
Issues are you currently battling with right now? Google

Quincy Larson (44:19):
Is doing some th they’re kind of raising the bar as far as site performance, free code camp is a coding environment. So it has got a lot of JavaScript. So this is a lot to like load into the browser when you go there. So just stripping things out and figuring out how we can kind of load things like a few hops in to the experience so that like those pages can still have really good lighthouse scores and still

George Weiner (44:42):
Rank. Well, what is coming in the next year that has you the most excited,

Quincy Larson (44:48):
The data science curriculum, which we’re doing a fundraiser for currently, it’s almost completely funded and we’re gonna create like 12 new certifications around math, computer science and machine learning.

George Weiner (45:03):
Talk about a mistake that you made earlier in your career that shapes the way you do things. Now.

Quincy Larson (45:08):
I think initially we were too dependent on platforms like Facebook groups. I personally was really dependent on like medium and we were getting on a readership on medium and we had to, at one point leave medium. You can like just Google frequent kit, medium, if you’re curious of the story behind that, but basically like any growth that you get on other people’s platforms, whether that’s discord or slack or you know, Twitch or wherever you’re, you’re trying to just know that it’s extremely difficult to move that audience. And a lot of the engagement you’re getting is probably just due to the nature of the platform itself. Just you built your castle on somebody else’s land and know that, you know, if you have to move, it’s just be prepared to it is what I’m saying.

George Weiner (45:56):
Do you believe that nonprofits can successfully go out of business?

Quincy Larson (45:59):
I think if you’ve got a team that’s working to the extent that you can fulfill your entire mission, like that teams should be repurposed, it’s probably an incredible team. So I would say like, yeah, technically you could just disband and like go live in some mountain retreat or whatever, but I think that you should just figure out like a way to like slightly fine-tune your mission to where you’ve still got plenty of things. Plenty of good that you can do

George Weiner (46:25):
Prior the class, you in the hot tub time machine, back to the beginning of founding free code camp, what advice would you give yourself?

Quincy Larson (46:32):
I would tell myself to focus less on platforms. Like I said earlier, and to focus more on just building durable stuff that like we had full control over things that like, like mailing lists blogs, things that you have full ownership of, that nobody can really take away from you. Those are the most durable things and I think I could have focused more on. Yeah, but

George Weiner (46:59):
It’s something you think your organization should stop doing?

Quincy Larson (47:03):
We should probably stop worrying so much about what other organizations in the space think of us. Like I’m frequently jumping to the defense of like the university system and saying like, oh, you should get a university degree. Like, it really is the proven path. And I feel like we’re carrying a lot of water for these organizations that like really shouldn’t need our help. And it’s not like they’re necessarily reciprocating so far, but yeah, like to some extent, I, I feel like I’m always playing defense for these other organizations and there, you know, hundreds, thousands of times larger than us, they can do that themselves. So that’s one thing I’m personally working on is just, just being quiet and not trying to stick up for these giant or powerful organizations. Just because like, my instinct is, oh, you know, they’re doing their best, but are they, you know, I don’t know. I might be undermining some of the the criticism that might be warranted for these institutions. So yeah, that’s, that’s one thing I’ve, I’m trying to get better.

George Weiner (48:00):
They gave you a Harry Potter style wand to wave across the social impact sector. What would it do?

Quincy Larson (48:05):
It would make it much easier for nonprofits to share information. This is one of the few good podcasts that I’ve found in the nonprofit space. There, there are some other good ones, but I feel like nonprofits just need to congregate more and share more expertise among one another. Like you look at like incubators and accelerators, like Y Combinator and you know, Techstars and like all these different ecosystems for for-profit entities. Like, it’s just amazing the disconnect between like for-profit organizations and the amount of information being shared back and forth and nonprofits. I mean, it feels like there’s just so much latent potential there. I mean,

George Weiner (48:46):
You get started in the social impact sector.

Quincy Larson (48:49):
So I always wanted to do a nonprofit that was in the technology education space or in the education space. And then as I learned more about technology, specifically technology education and free code camp is the first 5 0 1 C3 that I’ve been involved with in terms of like leadership and stuff.

George Weiner (49:08):
What advice would you give college grads currently looking to enter the social impact?

Quincy Larson (49:12):
I would say that definitely if you have the resources to be able to pay off your student debt and, and take like a below wage, I mean, there’s, there’s definitely a movement to like, oh, you know, non-profits can pay. And, and there are some nonprofits that, that pay like, comfortable, like, like Mozilla, for example and some nonprofits just have the money to be able to pay, you know, what their private sector equivalents are. But, but I think realistically you probably, aren’t going to be taking a pay cut and that’s okay. If you can figure out a way to make it work, it’s worth it. Like doing the, doing the work, carrying out the mission is worth so much more being able to like, think about the work you’re doing, then say like, oh yeah, I got a new car. Or I got this like significantly larger house in this more nicer neighborhood than I would’ve otherwise been able to. I feel like there’s so much social pressure about around earnings and just too much noise and focus on what’s important to you.

George Weiner (50:09):
What advice did your parents give you that you either followed or, or didn’t?

Quincy Larson (50:15):
My parents wanted me to go to university and I did. And in retrospect like that cascade of opportunity did help me quite a bit. Like I was able to go get a graduate degree in China and spend years and years abroad, like learning about how the world works outside of this outside of the U S and so definitely, I would say like their emphasis on, on going to school, even though I dropped out of high school and I wasn’t going to go to school, like, like I took the GED, I enrolled in a really cheap state school in Oklahoma city where I grew up in, in that was definitely the right call. And I’m glad that they didn’t just let me work at taco bell. Like kind of encouraged me to keep expanding my horizons.

George Weiner (50:59):
What is your favorite question to ask people?

Quincy Larson (51:02):
I just asked people, what are your, what projects are you working on? Because people may be like working some, a little particularly like, or they may be busy, mostly taking care of like a sick relative or a other kids and stuff. But I think most people do have some sort of project in their minds that like, oh, when I get time, I’m gonna, I’m gonna work on this. And so w what fires them up? You know, what, what really gets them excited in terms of building that’s, that’s what I asked people. And I think that’s the best way to understand what they’re really all about beyond just looking at the basic facts that lives.

George Weiner (51:38):
All right. Final hardball. How do people find you? How do people help you?

Quincy Larson (51:43):
Sure. we would welcome volunteers. We would vote them support if you’re able to donate to our non-profit. If you just go to free code camp, that’ll work and look around. That’s probably the best thing to do. If you Google like code camp donate for code camp, if you want to hear about me personally, just Google Quincy Larson. There are not very many Quincy Larson’s, I’ve got a pretty good distinct name, so yeah, you should be able to find out all that information.

George Weiner (52:12):
Oh, I’ll definitely disclose that. I’m pretty sure we are a monthly donor as well. I recommend it. And I recommend pointing your organization forward learning@ficocamp.org, Mincey. Thank you so much for, for building this and the work that you’re doing, and we’ll continue to do to support people finding their journey and code. We appreciate it.

Quincy Larson (52:34):
Absolutely. Thank you for everything you’re doing for nonprofits through education in sharing these resources,

George Weiner (52:42):
This has been using the whole whale podcast. If you want to keep learning more about these topics and others head on over to whole whale.com/university, to keep learning with us. Thanks as always to Greg Thomas music.org for his tunes that underwrite our tracks. They’re fantastic. Hope you’re doing well, Greg, and just a reminder, subscribes really help us on any platform that you listened to us on. Please give a thought to click and subscribe, and maybe even a comment cause we’d like hearing from you. Yeah.