GE 163: How Codesmith Acquired Its First 20 Students for $120 Who Went on to Earn an Average Salary of $103K (podcast) With Will Sentance

Will Sentance CodesmithHi everybody, today we have Will Sentance, CEO and Cofounder of Codesmith, a software engineering immersive program that prepares graduates for roles as software engineers at top companies.

In today’s interview we’ll be discussing what makes Codesmith different from other bootcamps, how they leverage a lot of customer/student acquisition from Meetup, and why the average salary of their graduates is $103,000.

Download podcast transcript [PDF] here: How Codesmith Acquired Its First 20 Students for $120 Who Went on to Earn an Average Salary of $103K TRANSCRIPT

Episode highlights:

  • [3:52] – Getting into a top program like Codesmith can change your life.
  • [6:11] – Codesmith is an intimate community – brilliant, exceptional, and playful
  • [7:23] – Will is trying to build software engineers that are also future leaders
  • [8:04] – Acceptance in Codesmith is competitive and only 1 in 15 are selected; they also offer free classes for junior level developers
  • [13:50] – Codesmith costs $17,200 but they also offer scholarships for people with disadvantaged backgrounds
  • [14:51] – Top programs enable people from any background to be part of the coding world
  • [15:41] – Scholarships and help with acquisitions
  • [16:03] – Reviews also helped a lot, especially on high ranking sites – Quora has also been very helpful in getting the word out about Codesmith
  • [18:06] – The magic of Codesmith was the community and getting people inspired

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Full Transcript of The Episode

Show transcript
Will Sentance: These are not people who are here just to get a job. They're people who are constantly building and aspiring. They're future leaders.

Announcer: Do you want to impact the world and still turn a profit? Then you're in the right place. Welcome to Growth Everywhere. This is the show where you'll find real conversations with real entrepreneurs. They'll share everything from their biggest struggle to the exact strategies they use on a daily basis, so if you're ready for a value-packed interview, listen on. Here's your host, Eric Siu.

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All right, everybody. Today we have a special guest, a friend of mine. His name is Will Sentance. He's the CEO of Codesmith, which is a fullstack software engineering immersion program based in Los Angeles. I'm going to let him explain what that is exactly in one second. Will, how's it going?

Will Sentance: I'm doing so well, Eric. Lovely to be here with you.

Eric Siu: Thanks for being here. Why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Will Sentance: I am Will and I run and co-founded Codesmith. Codesmith is a software engineering immersive program, as you put it right, Eric. A little bit different to a lot of the software engineering boot camps in that we take people from effectively a junior developer level, either they've been self-teaching to that level, or they were, in fact, developers themselves already, and in some cases mid-level developers already, and we take them through to a mid- or a senior-level developer role after graduation. As I was saying to you, Eric, sort of offline before, very exciting today, we go live on our site with our graduation stacks and our average salary.

This is by no means the be all and end all of what makes a great program, but it is a sort of good benchmark, and I love that schools in this space are kind of held accountable to how they're performing. We have now across all our graduates an average salary of $103,500 after graduation, and on the latest cohort that graduated five and half weeks ago, kind of crazy, $114,000 average salary, and that's a testament to their talent. This is a wonderful group of people.

My mission for creating Codesmith, coding changed my life. Eric, you and I have talked about this before, I got lucky, I got to go to Oxford for my undergrad, and Harvard for my grad school, and I'm so grateful to have got those opportunities. It really was very special, but I still graduated unable to build the things I dreamed up. I had all these images of the things I'd create, and my friends were the same, and we were all looking for our technical co-founders, looking to try and contribute, but couldn't, and so, for me, learning to code changed my life.

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The other side of it is this. Some of the most important people in my life didn't necessarily get every opportunity at eighteen, and in our world of education, if you don't get it right at eighteen, it's pretty tough to get it right later on, and why you'll always hear me celebrate these top coding programs that are changing people's lives is because you can be twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, if you work for six months or so, twelve months to prepare to get into either Codesmith or one of the other couple of top programs, it will absolutely change your life. There's never been anything like that before where you can say, "I'm twenty-seven, I'm thirty-five, I'm forty-five, I want to go all in and make a big impact with my career. Maybe I wasn't ready at eighteen, but I want to go in now." There's never before been truly a way of doing that within reasonable time and sort of reasonable expectations of yourself.

Why I always shout out the other programs that are doing the same thing we're doing is that they're giving people that path to take ownership of their lives, to go and get these amazing jobs where they get to be creative, and for sure financially rewarded as well, whatever stage they're at in their life, and that's very, very special.

Eric Siu: Awesome. When I'm thinking about all these, you know, there's a lot of these boot camps out there, how do you differentiate yourself when you're selling it? Because you guys are kind of the upper tier, right? You guys are kind of the next level. How do you guys separate that out when you're selling this thing?

Will Sentance: That's been the biggest lesson for me. There's hundreds of these programs in the US. A lot of them, as you say, give people a taste of coding. That's giving them a little bit of a bad rep. They're not taken seriously. I sit down in this L.A. CTOs round table, so I'm CEO of Codesmith, but I sit down with CTOs round table, and the CTO whisper, he very reasonably says, "Has anyone had an experience with coding boot camp grads?" and no one had a good experience. I remember saying, "Hold on, Codesmith is different."

Codesmith takes in people, we have a lot of free material, a lot of free classes that help you get to the level where you could get a junior role as a sort of, in terms of financial numbers that's somewhere between fifty and sixty k, maybe, but that's by no mean representative of all junior roles, and there are some mid-level roles that are a little less well paid, but really junior means they need a lot of hand-holding, and I said, "We do a lot of free classes to help people get to the those roles for free," and what Codesmith does is, if you want to become an autonomous problem-solving engineer who can almost lead others, you are ready for Codesmith. That's where Codesmith comes in. That's been the differentiator. I'll tell you, there's been one or two other programs in the whole country, out of those few hundreds, one or two others that do the same thing, and I will always shout them out because they're doing something very similar, but the thing that I think makes Codesmith even more special is it is a very intimate community.

One of our team members, he's decided he wants to take some sort of financial

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credit for this wonderful statement because I think he summed it up so perfectly, I said to him, "Sam, how would you define, in two words, the Codesmith community, the students and the team, and he chose two words that I think, I hope, sums up every person at Codesmith, and those two words are, Brilliance, so exceptional abilities, exceptional problem solvers, people who go out and get these six-figure salaries, but he uses another word, Playfulness, that's a humility, a lack of swagger, and sort of always looking to learn more, wearing their talent so lightly, and that I love. These are not people who are here just to get a job. They're people who are constantly building and aspiring. They're future leaders.

Great leaders usually are great, but also many of the greatest leaders are also very humble, and certainly the leaders I love to be working with often wear their gifts very lightly. They let their substance speak, and I hope that characterizes really what I'm trying to build with Codesmith is a group of future leaders who may end up being software engineers for the rest of their lives, but many may end up becoming CEOs or heads of product as those areas become more and more technical, but the cool thing is, they have a community of leaders and people in technology around them for the rest of their lives, and that has been a huge differentiator.

In practice, how do we make people aware of that? It doesn't happen by default. We entered this world pretty late, three or four years ago when these programs began, and we started one year ago. What we did is say this is what Codesmith is about. Come to all these free classes that will help you aspire to getting accepted. Yes, it's very competitive. Very quickly we heard about one in twelve, one in fifteen people accepted, and that took bravery, it took our investors getting fully onboard with, you know, you're not going to reap big returns now because we're investing in putting together a world-class community that's highly selective for people who are ready academically, and in terms of their culture, in terms of how they support other people, and then here are all these free classes where you can get to see the reality of what it is to be a Codesmith.

We couldn't show the outcomes, we couldn't show the salary numbers. Now, finally, a year on we can, and they are remarkable, but other programs already have the outcomes. What we had to do is say, we have the process and the community that we believe will produce those outcomes. Come see it, come join the drinks in the evening after the free classes, come see how we approach the teaching, and I'm so happy that people really connected with that, and that brought us together some very special, talented people before we even had outcomes, people who were already accepted into the programs who do have outcomes, really fantastic outcomes, and yet they still said, something feels very special about Codesmith. Those people have been our true believers, and I'm so happy that they've gone on to have such great results, because now the people who join Codesmith have both. They get to see the process and the intimacy of the community, and they get reassured that, wow, the results really truly are special.

Eric Siu: Fantastic. Talk to us about, well, let me just backtrack a second. How many

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students have gone through Codesmith so far, just a number?

Will Sentance: I would say fifty have graduated and, maybe a little bit below that, actually, but right now we have cohort sizes of fifteen. There's a junior and a senior cohort at any one time. I think that's going to go up to about twenty. We're just getting more and more stellar applications. If it does hit the sort of twenty-five or so number, we're going to really need to think is this going to be detrimental to this intimacy of the community, and we may just have to cap at that point. That's to be worked out.

Eric Siu: Let's talk about the sales funnel, the marketing funnel a little bit. How did you acquire your first, let's just say, twenty students?

Will Sentance: I will say this, dude, once thing, funny enough, is I will never, ever, ever, we will never sell you into Codesmith. That does not work. You have to know that you're going to be working one hundred hours a week, and that this is the opportunity of a lifetime. I will always promote the free classes, because people who come to those, many who've been to other programs or sometimes who go to other programs, or then go off and get a job straight away, I will promote the free classes, I will sort of, so to speak, sell those til the end of the earth. I will never promote the program itself. That has to be something you aspire to, and say I'm going bring my all, all my energy so that I'm ready for that program, so for the core twelve-week program itself.

How do we sort of think about people coming into the free classes, in combination, and the first twenty students pretty much all came from the free classes and the community. A couple were old friends of mine, which was fantastic to see what they've gone on to do as well. In fact, even, maybe just maybe not say this, my sister's ex-boyfriend, he's done very well as well. Those first few, they do come from really interesting places from your own community, but also, and shout out to some of them, Josh, and Susan, and Matt, who came to those first free classes. How did they find out about Codesmith's free classes? Through something called You probably, most of the listeners, will know, but is very special as far as I can tell, the last, close to free, organic reach, social network. Facebook used to be if you wrote good content, you could get organic reach, non-paid reach. As far as I know, that's pretty much gone. Is that fair to say, Eric? Pretty much gone, organic reach on Facebook?

Eric Siu: Yeah, for the most part.

Will Sentance: That was always controversial about four years ago. Now it's just what you expect. They've earned the right to do that. Whatever reason, Meetup takes a different view on things. They charge a hundred and twenty dollars a year for you to run your Meetup, and they put it in front of the most perfect people who are excited to learn to code. They send emails, they say when you join up here are some recommended groups, and that, for the first twenty, forty, sixty, a hundred students has been, almost to a fault, where almost every person reaches and discovers Codesmith. At that stage, they come on site to a class, and then

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promotion stops. We cannot promote the core program because you have to be ready to bring your all. Up to that point, Meetup has been our backbone.

[inaudible 00:12:46] There's certain core sites, like Course Report, that have become go-to sites for learning about coding programs, and we've got universal five stars on there, the top-rated program in the US, and people more and more reach Codesmith through that, and Quora. We wrote a couple of Quora answers back in the end of last year about learning JavaScript, learning to code, also a little bit about understanding how to assess different coding programs, and, again, I shouted out the ones I think that are really good. I wasn't going to say Codesmith is the only excellent program, I shouted out the ones that I thought were really great as well, and that also, I think, gives people something to hold on to until they come on site and meet the community and see the pedagogy, and that's when it just becomes just the pure experience of the program itself, and that's what people love, but to get them to that point is a Meetup has been a real bedrock of our outreach.

Eric Siu: Great. Just for the audience to know and get some context, how much does Codesmith actually cost to go through the program?

Will Sentance: I'm eating an apple. Codesmith actually costs seventeen thousand-two-hundred dollars.

Eric Siu: Got it.

Will Sentance: It's the second most expensive program. It was a tough decision to make it that price, but we've offered a number of scholarships over the months to people from underrepresented backgrounds, to always try and work with Girl Develop It and Women Who Code, to try to inspire people. One of the more powerful things, and why some of the big companies like Google are so excited by the top coding programs, is it is a way to more rapidly fix the imbalance of the people who make up a lot of the software engineering teams in tech companies, and that's particularly damaging, the imbalance, because many of the future leaders in tech, is what inspires me about [inaudible 00:14:32] this program, many future leaders in tech are being drawn from the software engineering community, and if that is as imbalanced as it is right now, that's going to be very damaging for the long-term.

What's exciting about the top coding programs, shout out to those as well, is that they enable people who may be mechanical engineers, not even engineers at all, but who were inspired by coding, and are ready to bring all their energy from any background, that they can be part of that world as well, so even though the price is high, the scholarships have been a really important part of inspiring people from non-traditional backgrounds to get involved.

Eric Siu: Yeah, I remember when I was back at Treehouse, we did the scholarship where we gave, this is different, but I'm just saying the scholarships tend to work, because we gave away, I believe, over five thousand, and that's just five thousand free

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accounts. That is a ton of PR. I believe we're up on [inaudible 00:15:23] and then the [inaudible 00:15:24] shout to us, and a bunch of other things just happened. I think two key takeaways from this talk, at least right now, is, it does work for acquisition, and then you do have the scholarships being still sufficient. Right? Anything else along those lines?

Will Sentance: The scholarships again, yes, I completely agree with that. Along those lines, I can say a few things which I think didn't work for us early days, although I know many of the team are really excited to try and work on it now, which is Google Ads or Facebook Ads. You need to have substance before you start running with some of those things. You need to sort of get quality in those spaces. A couple of things that did work very well, in this market particularly, reviews really count, so having the people who've loved what you're doing, write reviews, [inaudible 00:16:12] SEO of those sites is high, the incredible sites that get pretty high up in Google results, so that's nice, and then to add to that Quora.

Even if you can't get your site yet, as is still the joy of Codesmith and our SEO failings, unfortunately, which we'll get fixed at some point, if you can't get your site up to the top rankings, if you write really high-quality content on Quora that gives credit to other programs, it gives a sort of high, just valuable content, and yet, of course, happens to also feature some of the best aspects of your organization, then that is, I think, Quora has excellent SEO, that is pushed right to the top of people's search results, and it's credible. You're on a site where it's credible if you give a balanced view. If you're just writing answers on Quora that say, hey, come check out my organization, it ain't going to go anywhere. If you have something of real value that happens also to shout out some of the best pieces of what you do, but also what others do, it can be very powerful.

Does that give you some additional perspectives, Eric?

Eric Siu: Yeah. That's completely valid. On Quora people are searching for a specific answer to a specific question. I'll tell you, one of our clients back in the day for the agency came through Quora. This is somebody that paid us thirty thousand dollars a month, and this is through Quora, just one random answer that we put up, so it does help. What you're saying completely makes sense, that domain authority of Quora's high, so that's why they're going to rank high naturally, because the content's good, and the domain authority is high.

Will Sentance: I'll say this thing though, just add a very quick bonus on that. For me, for us, working out where our magic was. Our magic, so far, now it may be different because we have these impressive stats, but our magic was the community and the pedagogy of the onsite classes. Then it's over. If someone comes to [inaudible 00:18:12] and gets a sense of how we approach things, it's the warmest and most welcoming and loving community you could imagine, and it's just special, but getting somebody to that point, what are the key roots for that. Everything should become, everything became for us, getting people to the point where they're onsite, on the physical site, and that's a little bit different to a lot of businesses, but

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on the physical site and really able to get inspired by the approach that the [inaudible 00:18:39] and the students take to learning. Our only goal then is helping people get onsite to see that, and Quora, Meetup, Culture Report, all these things have been a bit part of that.

Eric Siu: I love it. All right. One more question from my side. Well, what's one must-read book you'd recommend to everyone?

Will Sentance: Eric, I'm going to be so bad on this. I'm going to do my standard, flick away from books, if you forgive me, blogs I love.

Eric Siu: You only get one.

Will Sentance: If I only get one, it's got to be my first open blog. Buffer is a social media promotion tool that a lot of companies use, and they obsess over how to build an excellent culture, and their founders, right, I forgot, Joel, I believe it's Joel, his name, who runs Buffer, right, phenomenal analysis, or phenomenal approaches to how to build a supportive, growth-oriented culture in their team, and I have learned so much from that, we've all learned so much from that. That is my go-to blog for making a really great team culture, which is a big part of what you have to think about when you're building a team.

Eric Siu: Awesome. Yeah, definitely love the Buffer blog. Well, thanks so much for doing this, and what's the best way for people to find you online?

Will Sentance: Thank you, dude. Best way is Quora. No, that's not right. Email me. Can I put my email address out, Eric?

Eric Siu: Sure.

Will Sentance: All right. [email protected] and every single Thursday we now stream, actually, to hundreds, sometimes even thousands of people, our free class, JavaScript The Hard Parts, every Thursday, 7:00pm PST, on YouTube, and you get to live [inaudible 00:20:15]. They may be in Brazil, they may be in New York, and may be in L.A., but it's a really energized experience, even online, and people are so welcome to come and jump on that every Thursday at 7:00pm as well.

Eric Siu: Great. Thanks again for doing this, Will.

Will Sentance: My pleasure, dude. Thank you so much.

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