Education

Only 27, This Self-Taught Coder Started A Coding School And Plans To Raise $2M Next Year

Even if you’re not the most avid reader of tech-related news, the rising popularity of coding is something you’ve definitely not missed.

In fact, you might have even thought about taking up some of the basics yourself.

“It’s something like what I did for my blogspot template years ago, right?”

Hardly.

And actual coding is nothing like the cool ~hacker~ shenanigan that goes on in movies either.

Coding in real life vs. coding in the movies

According to my colleague, who’s also our CTO and resident tech guy/god:

90% of the time is me reading and trying to understand codes written by others (or myself 1 year ago).”

To the regular person, staring at lines that don’t make immediate sense is extremely daunting, and it leads many to think that acing in coding is something that is only for those who have computing backgrounds and degrees.

Singaporean ZP Lee (27) and founder of UpCode Academy coding school believes that’s a misconception, and is, himself, a perfect example of how coding is as inclusive as other skills get.

From Theatre Studies To Tech

With a tech startup and coding school under his belt, it’s hard to believe that ZP actually studied theatre studies in junior college.

“It was a passion of mine. I performed as a theatre actor when I was a child, so I had interest and wanted to do it.”

However, it was in junior college that he ended his formal education.

Image Credit: UpCode Academy

When I left national service, I found work at a local tech startup called MatchMove. I realised that I really loved the tech startup scene, so I decided to continue working instead of going to university [to study mechanical engineering].

Deviating from the conventional Singaporean path of going to university before finding a job was a rather big decision, but ZP shares that his family was supportive.

“[Bu that was] after I brought home the paycheck, haha! I had proven myself, and I was earning a salary comparable to graduates in my first year of work.”

“I have two brothers about ten years my senior, and my mum has seen them doing well despite not having a university education so she was very relaxed with me.”

“I Had No Tech Skills Whatsoever”

Fresh out of army, ZP joined startup MatchMove as a QA, which required him to go through the website every day to ensure that all the features were working.

I was fresh out of the army and I had no tech skills whatsoever.

“It was a chaotic work environment, their website had many bugs, and there was nobody to guide me. The developers were busy, and talking to the QA was the last thing on the list of things they wanted to do.”

He struggled for the first month, and the situation was so bad that his CEO “joked that he was almost ready to fire [him]”.

But it was through this adversity that he also realised his calling.

I picked up coding and built an automated platform to do the web testing, and fell in love with coding. I started learning how to code and build a few tools in the company to help our workflow, and from there, I realised that I was deeply in love with the tech scene.

A self-starter, he pushed to become the Product Manager at MatchMove after a year as a QA because he believed that the new role would be more beneficial to his career.

Under his new scope, he led the tech team to build new products, before leaving to join tech travel startup Zumata, where he was its first senior engineer.

Starting Up 40Tasks, And Exiting In Under 2 Years

It was 2014, and the 24-year-old ZP was interested in location-based tech.

“I saw the potential of growth in that space and wanted to be the leader in that area.”

With that thought, he quit his job and started up his first venture – 40Tasks.

Under the company, he launched the LOCO app, which pushes out deals from shop owners to consumers in the vicinity.

How the LOCO app works

But it was in starting up that he also realised how challenging being your own boss could be.

Starting up a company is very different from working for one.

“As a new startup, we had many challenges. We had to look for funding, build our product, find businesses leads and work on partnerships.”

Image Credit: Tech In Asia

“Ultimately, as a startup founder, it’s important to work with the people that you find the most joy working with. With funding, I look for investors who wants to solve the same problem as we do.”

In June 2016, after raising S$900,000 in 2 rounds of funding, both led by Tri5 Ventures, he exited.

Filling The Skill Gap With UpCode Academy

Having already been in the tech industry for 7 years then, he pondered over his next move after exiting.

It was then he realised that there was a lack of good programming people in the local talent pool.

A lot of people have the passion to start up companies to ​build products, but they do not have the skills to do so.

“Universities, while they seem to understand the importance of teaching code, often move too slowly to provide students with hire-ready skills upon graduation. We see many graduates leaving schools without any tech skill sets relevant to companies.”

“I have been teaching in Singapore Polytechnic and Singapore Management University for the last three years and the government used my story to inspire people to go into tech industries.”

As someone who jumped into tech without any formal education background, I understand the fears of many people similar to me.

Thus, in September this year, he launched UpCode Academy.

Over 550 Students Taught In 3 Months

As compared to hiring full-time coding instructors, ZP actually brings in industry practitioners to teach the classes.

“We use program​m​ers from industry leaders like Google, Airbnb, Carousell and Grab to run different courses for students.”

Image Credit: UpCode Academy

With a focus on 6 verticals (Data Science and Machine Learning, Hardware Engineering, Deep-Tech: Clean Energy and Med-Tech, Fintech, Web and Mobile App Programming, Cybersecurity), the Academy has conducted 22 courses for over 550 students in the first 3 months since inception.

When I asked him about the general demographics of his students, he pointed out 3 distinct groups:

  1. Students of local universities and polytechnics who realise that what they are learning in school is behind the latest industry trends and want to leapfrog their peers
  2. Working adults who have been working for a while and realise that learning tech can accelerate their careers. Some of them also want to start up their own companies and realise that learning tech can help them a lot
  3. Companies seeking retraining. These companies have programmers whom they want to retrain to suit the needs for the future

“Every Journey Starts With A Small Step”

Albeit being a relatively new school, ZP already has plans set in motion for the Academy.

For example, they’ve built an online platform where students can crowdsource the courses and teachers that they want.

They’ve also established an Academic Board, which helps to ensure that teachers and coursework are of the best quality through a stringent approval process.

Image Credit: UpCode Academy

Having just raised S$300,000 in seed funding from Tri5 Ventures, ZP reveals that they’re not just stopping there.

“Both 500Durians and Tri5 Ventures are very interested in my company as a high potential startup.”

We are planning to accelerate the company, train up more students and do a Series A round of $2m in March next year.

As for words of advice to those who want to start coding, but feel intimidated by the lines of code and numbers, ZP has this to share:

“Every journey starts with a small step. It might be daunting to pick up programming, but have patience and approach it with an attitude to learn and get better.”

“Soon, you will be able to build simple stuff. Start working on side projects to create useful applications for yourself. Before you know it, you would have mastered a programming language. Keep on building things!”

Check out UpCode Academy and its courses here!

 

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