Jeff Casimir, the founder of the Turing School of Software & Design, isn’t like a lot of other founders. Therefore, it’s comes as little surprise that his discussion at Denver Founder’s April meeting was unlike any previous ones. Flanked by DF’s venerable hosts, Chris Franks and Josh Churlik, Casimir actually spent more time talking about his background and how that influenced his current business decisions than about his current company.
One of the most fascinating and consistent threads of Casimir’s career is his awareness of social structures and realities. Casimir isn’t the first founder we’ve heard from who taught before starting their own company, but he is the first one who’s first company was a school.
Casimir worked as a teacher with Teach for America in the Washington D.C. area after graduating from Arizona State with a degree in computer science. During this time, he met a few people who were interested in starting their own school. The decision to forge ahead with this massive undertaking came naturally. “When you stumble upon good people, get in with them,” said Casimir.
Founding a Charter School
Now if you’ve watched the television show Parenthood you may think that starting a charter school is a relatively easy feat. But according to Casimir it’s much harder than starting your own company. New charters are very hard to obtain. Therefore, Casimir and his co-conspirators turned to an established network of charter schools and applied to open a new campus. In some ways, this was akin to starting a “school franchise.”
Initially, this seemed like a great deal because the foundation that ran the school network took care of all the fundraising and left operations to the school’s staff. In addition to teaching duties, many different jobs fell on Casimir’s shoulders. From hiring teachers to rewiring a bell system to dismiss classes, there were a lot of jobs to do.
He built many of the school’s software application on the fly, staying just ahead of the timeline for when people would actually need to use them.
Now this school achieved great results almost immediately, and it wasn’t long until the parent organization started to meddle with their autonomy. “People get weird when they feel like the spotlight’s been stolen,” said Casimir of the situation. Pushed to their breaking point, the school’s staff eventually opted to quit rather than compromise their ethics.
Casimir noted that school leadership is some of the hardest work that someone can do. The pay isn’t very good, the work is often thankless, and advancement opportunities appear all too infrequently. Couple with the the push-pull dynamic of being saddled with bureaucracy on one side and the “social burden of wanting to do more good” on the other, and it’s easy to see how this type of work can be a grind.
Jumpstarting New Opportunities
Having bowed out of teaching in 2009, and with a child on the way, Casimir began to think about how he could double his income so that his family had the option for one parent not to work. He calculated his “burn rate” or how much money his family would need each month to survive. He strongly urged any budding founders to figure this number out before starting a company. His trump card was his car, which he knew he could sell for about $10k at the time, and buy a few months to allow him time to find a new job if his next idea didn’t pan out.
That idea was to teach programming on the weekends. The target audience would be smart, savvy professionals who could use some programming to help them at their jobs. When he bounced the idea off his friends everyone was enthusiastic about the idea. So he went out and leased some office space in downtown D.C., but the enrollments never materialized. The lesson here is to not always listen to your friends.
Without any marketing experience, Casimir, who had been working with Ruby on Rails for several years at this point, decided to give a talk at a Ruby on Rails conference. Companies at the conference liked the idea of creating programmers, so Casimir pivoted his idea of weekend coding classes to corporate training.
Business was booming, and in 2010 Casimir said he spend 265 days on the road. Although he was making good money things were a blur, including the birth of his second child. Plus, as anyone who has even been to (or tried to avoid) corporate training knows, the audience isn’t always the most cooperative. It wasn’t long before the joy drained from the job.
Never one to simply go through the motions, he started to look for something different.
Living the Dream?
The next opportunity came with LivingSocial. Casimir co-created and lead their Hungry Academy, which was an in-house developer training program. In the span of five months, Casimir and company took a group of twenty-four novices and turned them into professional developers. Initially the company only planned on hiring 12–14 of the people who went through the program, but ended up hiring them all.
But LivingSocial wasn’t able to sustain that type of growth and wouldn’t need another cohort of developers right away. As all of this was unfolding in late 2011 and 2012, more and more coding academies began to emerge.
As Casimir was wrapping up the LivingSocial Hungry Academy, he was courted by gSchool (now Galvanize Full Stack) to come to Denver and start a coding school there. Essentially this meant taking the Hungry Academy model and giving it a permanent home, which was an appealing prospect for Casimir. He had finally found what he thought would be his long-term career.
He likened the process of starting gSchool to that of starting a charter school. Unfortunately, the end result was very similar. The first gSchool cohort started in January 2013, and almost immediately the relationship between Casimir and the company began to break down. gSchool wanted to scale quickly, and Casimir wanted to focus on academic quality.
The damage was irreparable, and Casimir came to an agreement on an exit strategy with gSchool by the summer of 2013, that included a non-compete clause for at least three months. He continued to teach at gSchool into 2014, however, out of obligation to the school’s second cohort, which he had recruited.
The Imitation Game
Coding academies have experienced a meteoric rise in the past couple of years, with several being purchased by larger entities for tens of millions of dollars. But the gSchool experience and Casimir’s “damn the man” attitude led him to start the Turing School in January 2014.
There are the things that “everyone” says you need to succeed, and Casimir wanted to prove those people wrong. So he started Turning as a nonprofit entity. Turing was essentially the third iteration of the coding academy that Casimir started, and it provided a clean slate to correct some of the structural issues that emerged with Hungry Academy and gSchool that were difficult to fix because of those programs’ inertia.
Turing offers a 27-week programming course, and new cohorts start every seven weeks. What was once a staff of three, has mushroomed to eighteen two years later, and projects to be twenty-eight by the end of 2016. Turing is the biggest program of its kind that hasn’t taken any investor money or been acquired.
Although he’s more concerned with student achievement than with financial security for the Turing school, the company’s revenues are $3.7M this year and project to $5.2M next year. When asked if Turing takes a commission when placing students in job, Casimir’s response was more than an emphatic “no.” He likened that practice to white-collar human trafficking.
A Deeper Awareness
Throughout his professional life, Casimir noted he was acutely aware of the privileges he had, a tall, white male, built like a football player, and made no bones about leveraging those privileges in order to help others.
This is one area that sets Casimir apart. His commitment to helping other improve their lives is a common thread that drives him. Rather than cave to external pressures, whether those were overreach from the charter school foundation, continuing to collect a paycheck in the face of corporate indifference, or the desire to scale at the expense of academic rigor, time and again Casimir has shown a broader awareness of how what he does impacts the lives of others. His commitment to maximizing that impact is all too rare.
Many of these ideas are encapsulated in the very name of Turing school. Widely considered to be the father of modern computing, Turing was persecuted in the UK because of his sexuality, despite making major contributions to the Allied victory in World War 2. By using the Turing name, Casimir hopes to not only challenge students academically, but also remind people that it’s ok to be different.