Mike McGee, co-founder of the coding school The Starter League, came all the way from Chicago to share his story with key community builders in Fargo yesterday at breakfast and 1 Million Cups. His story added renewed drive to existing discussions about building a coding school in Fargo.

When he first heard about coding, McGee was an unemployed college senior with a poly sci major, sitting on his couch watching Netflix. He got a call from his friend, now CEO of The Starter League, Neal Sales-Griffin, asking if he’d like to join him in learning coding.

“Well sure, man,” McGee said. “I’m not doing anything better right now so let’s do it.”

He’d always had a desire to learn coding, but never had for fear that it would be too difficult. But now, he said, “The appeal of learning how to code to solve problems that we care about was enough to make me want to jump into this.”

Mike McGee shares his story this morning at a breakfast meeting on 51 Broadway.

Mike McGee (right) shares his story with a group of Fargo leaders (including Jake Joraanstad, left).

After reading through the material, and having their “mind blown” by how much there was to learn, the two began searching for ways to further their education in coding. But when they looked around the state, the country, and the world, they discovered there were zero in-person schools to learn coding. They simply didn’t exist.

“So we decided to build it,” McGee said.

And build it they did. First it was an idea, then a website, and by the time McGee developed a logo people were jumping at the chance to be involved. The support and excitement for their work was so encouraging, that even when a colleague invited them to leave what they were then calling Code Academy and join the Obama 2012 campaign, they turned it down.

“Because we wanted this so bad that we turned down the president,” McGee said with a laugh.

McGee talks about turning down work in the Obama 2012 campaign in favor of coding school.

McGee talks about turning down work in the Obama 2012 campaign in favor of coding school.

At this point the team was expecting 250K in funding for their school, a number which unexpectedly fell to zero and left them for broke. But then, a software developer contacted them saying he was interested in teaching. The school was still a go, and the new number on the board was twelve. If they could get twelve students each paying a tuition of $6,000, they could fund their new school and get it off the ground.

It went flying off the ground. Ninety people applied, and they decided to take thirty-five (“Because when you run the school, you can do what you want,” McGee said). With this many students, they well exceeded their original financial expectations, and the interest was not only local but global. McGee shared how Luis, a student from the Philippines, contacted them to say he had his plane ticket already. When he heard this, McGee said his primary thought was, “Oh crap, this guy is coming from the Philippines. This has to work!”

McGee talks about initial reactions to him learning coding.

McGee talks about initial reactions to learning code.

Needless to say, it did work. While the beginning was a day-by-day process with an overwhelming amount of work to do – “it was like building a plane as it takes off,” McGee said – the school has now taught over a thousand students, from 35 states and 21 different countries. Their alumni are successful software engineers, programmers, developers, and app-builders, many with startups of their own – Mike, co-founder WeDeliver, for example. When the school began, there were no boot camps and no coding schools. Now there are over a hundred.

But Starter League’s vision is more than just turning out successful techies, because it was more than coding that brought McGee to begin Starter League. It was a desire to solve problems.

“It’s not about coding,” he said. “It’s really about people, and enabling people to get the technology they need to solve their problems. That’s our goal, is to create a world of problem-solvers.”

SL-logoWant to learn more? Check out The Starter League here.

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Marisa Jackels