Ask a Genius: How Quincy Larson is teaching the world to code



Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance and writes the Easy Money newsletter. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

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Quincy Larson describes himself, simply, as a teacher. But his classroom is online and his students number in the millions.

Larson is founder of freeCodeCamp, a non-profit that helps people learn to code for free. hosts thousands of coding lessons and gives students the opportunity to experience coding for nonprofits.

We talked to Larson about what it's like to run a nonprofit and what makes learning to code worthwhile.

Our conversation with Quincy Larson is the latest edition of Ask a Genius, our regular series of talks with brilliant people. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

FreeCodeCamp is a nonprofit, so what do you get out of it?

I work for freeCodeCamp full-time and the nonprofit pays me a modest wage to do so.

I get to help as many people as possible learn to code so everyone can make use of these mainframes we're now carrying around in our pockets.

As of 2018, machines do most of the work. But only a few people are able to tell those machines what to do.

By helping more people learn to code, people can become more productive and move up the skill chain to get new jobs to replace the jobs that are being automated away.

How much time does it take to complete the curriculum? What makes it a good investment?

It takes about 1,800 hours to earn all six of the verified developer certifications. Most of that time is spent building projects, which is a pretty good approximation of actually working as a software developer.

Since all aspects of freeCodeCamp are completely free, all you have to invest is time. We've optimized the heck out of the curriculum, its learning curve, and the technologies and skills taught. So if you're serious about learning to code, this is probably the most time-efficient way to do it.

People pay tons of money to learn to code. Why don't you charge?

We don't need to charge. We're a donor-supported nonprofit. Thousands of people who believe in our mission are willing to support us.

This means that freeCodeCamp can be completely accessible to everyone, regardless of their socio-economic status. Remember — 70% of the people on Earth live off less than $10 a day. Those people need to pay for basic needs like food and shelter.

FreeCodeCamp is not only free - it is self-paced. This is important because people are busy. They have jobs, kids, random sicknesses that come up. They need maximum flexibility.

And you can do freeCodeCamp completely in a browser. A lot of people don't have their own computers, so they work through freeCodeCamp's curriculum on library computers, or on their mobile phone.

At the end of the day, freeCodeCamp is all about one thing — access. And that's why millions of people use freeCodeCamp each month — because we've prioritized making it accessible to them.

What's your pitch when you ask people to donate?

I say if you can afford to support freeCodeCamp, please do. Because many of the people who use freeCodeCamp are in that 70% who live off less than $10 a day. And your donation makes it possible for them to learn to code, too.

What do you say to people who think coding is too hard to learn?

Learning to code is hard. There's no doubt about that. But anyone who is sufficiently motivated can learn to code well enough to get a job as a developer.

And there are hundreds of thousands of developer jobs openings out there. It's not just Silicon Valley tech companies hiring. Schools, hospitals, banks, governments — pretty much every organization needs developers.

If you can put in the time and effort, you can learn to code for free, and then go out and get a creative, high-paying developer job where you can apply your skills to help organizations be more productive.

What's surprised you about running a nonprofit?

It's much harder than I thought it would be. It's hard to raise awareness. It's hard to get people to donate. By default, the universe is indifferent. You have to put in a sustained effort over years to get people to care.

I long ago decided my career would be in education. But it was only after a year or two of running freeCodeCamp that I realized my career would be freeCodeCamp specifically. There isn't time for any other efforts. Running this organization will demand all of my time and energy.

But that's no problem at all. freeCodeCamp is helping millions of people learn to code. Even though there are so many other aspects of education that need improvement, those will fall on the shoulders of other ambitious nonprofit founders.

And I'm here to share my insights and help them along the way as much as I can. But I need to stay focused on the problems freeCodeCamp is solving and the people freeCodeCamp is serving.

What's the best thing you did with your money over the past year?

I moved my family back to China and enrolled my 3-year-old daughter Jocelyn in a Chinese preschool. She is half-Chinese, and I want to ensure that she grows up understanding the culture and the language.

It's not some fancy international school for diplomats — just a school that local kids attend. She's the only non-local kid going to school there. But all day long, she's surrounded by Chinese people and speaking Chinese. And I'm optimistic that in this environment she'll quickly adapt, and will be able to grow up feeling like a member of this culture as well as an American.

If all goes well, I'm hoping to send my son to a Chinese preschool, too.

Who do you think is a genius and what would you ask them?

I think Jonas Salk was a genius. He's the doctor who invented the polio vaccine, then gave it away for free so everyone on earth could be immunized. He used his genius to annihilate a horrific disease that was killing and crippling millions of people.

Let's assume he were alive today had kept up with what was going on in the world. I would ask him: What are the most low-hanging-fruit ways we can improve peoples' happiness and longevity?

Because I think he is a proven authority on that. And from his answer we could triage those opportunities, raise the resources necessary, and get to work.

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Image: Quincy Larson