by Quincy Larson

The First Billion Minutes: The Numbers Behind the Tiny Nonprofit That’s Teaching the World to Code

A group photo from a free one-day freeCodeCamp conference in Toronto.

People have now spent more than 1 billion minutes using freeCodeCamp.

That’s the equivalent of nearly 2,000 years.

To put it another way — if freeCodeCamp usage was a person, it would be old enough to have broken bread with Jesus himself.

The past 4 years have been a whirlwind for our tiny nonprofit, and for the massive developer community that has sprung up around us.

We’re now helping millions of people learn to code — thousands of whom have since landed their first jobs as software developers.

I was at a conference a few weeks ago where I got to meet some of my heroes, including developer legends like Wes Bos, Scott Tolinski, Jessica Lord, and Chris Coyier.

They were all surprised to learn of freeCodeCamp’s scope. They said they had no idea we’d become such a huge community, and thought we were “just a blog” or “just a YouTube channel.”

Apparently I’m pretty terrible at publicizing the scale of freeCodeCamp, so I’m writing this article to try and remedy that.

For starters, did you know that freeCodeCamp.org gets more visits than Codecademy, a coding education startup that has raised $47 million dollars?

Similarweb’s traffic analysis comparing freeCodeCamp.org with Codecademy.com

We also get more visits than Udacity, a corporation valued at $1 billion dollars.

Similarweb’s traffic analysis comparing freeCodeCamp.org with Udacity.com

Keep in mind that freeCodeCamp’s entire 2018 budget was only $200,000 — a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of dollars that other large education websites operate on.

In this article, I’ll share the numbers behind freeCodeCamp’s global impact. I’ll dive into how we’ve accomplish all this with the help of a community of volunteers, and with donations from thousands of people like you.

I want you to imagine how much more freeCodeCamp could accomplish with a larger budget.

And — I won’t mince words here — I want you to become a supporter of freeCodeCamp.

For less than the price of a sandwich, you can help yourself and millions of other people learn to code.

“Donate to freeCodeCamp.” “What? Donate to them yourself.” “Sudo donate to freeCodeCamp.” “Okay.” (Obligatory sandwich comic by XKCD)

How we reached one billion minutes

The freeCodeCamp community is spread across several platforms: our curriculum, our forum, our guide, YouTube, and Medium.

Instead of trying to mix metrics like YouTube views, coding challenge completions, or article pageviews, I’ve standardized everything around the number of minutes people have spent using these resources.

All of this can be precisely measured using Google Analytics.

But there are two issues with this method:

1. A lot of people use ad blockers, which also block Google Analytics. So these people’s usage isn’t included in these figures.

2. Projects are the most time-consuming part of freeCodeCamp, and people don’t build them on freeCodeCamp itself. People usually build their projects on Glitch, CodePen, or on their own local computer. So time spent building projects isn’t included in these figures.

So the total amount of time people spend using freeCodeCamp is much larger than the numbers below. But I wanted to err on the side of being conservative.

Here’s how much people have used freeCodeCamp over the past 4 years

Usage of freeCodeCamp.org platforms since its founding, in minutes

Now let’s step through the past few years so we can give these numbers some context.

2015: We launch the free online coding curriculum

When I launched freeCodeCamp from my closet in late 2014, it was just a list of Harvard and Stanford courses we completed together, along with a chatroom where we hung out and asked each other questions.

That changed in 2015. We built what would become our free 1,800-hour-long full stack developer curriculum.

At the time there were already tons of free beginner coding resources. But freeCodeCamp’s curriculum had two important things in its favor:

  1. Our curriculum was completely interactive, and taught you programming fundamentals through step-by-step coding challenges right in your browser.
  2. Our curriculum was open source — which meant anyone could help improve it. And thousands of people did just that.

The curriculum’s breadth and functionality have ballooned through open source contributions.

Today the curriculum covers everything from basic HTML, CSS, and JavaScript up to more advanced tools like Node.js, React, and databases. It even covers advanced topics like accessibility, information security, and testing frameworks.

As a result, more and more people are using it to learn to code and prepare for their first developer job. As of 2018, thousands of alumni now have freeCodeCamp certifications and are working as software developers.

A screenshot from our LinkedIn Alumni page.
Trippin’ through time: In 2015, people used freeCodeCamp for 37 million minutes. That’s the equivalent of about 70 years, or 1 human lifetime. 70 years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

2016: The birth of the freeCodeCamp community Medium publication and forum

Most of freeCodeCamp’s early blog posts were written by me. But so many other people in the freeCodeCamp community were writing things worth reading. And Medium made it easy for us to cross-post their articles all in one place.

Hundreds of authors submitted programming tutorials, explanations of computer science concepts, and their own coding journeys.

I initially edited all the submissions myself. But after editing a thousand articles or so, I admitted to myself that I needed help.

We formed our Medium editorial team, and a dozen volunteers helped improve the readability of articles.

We were still selective with which articles we published, but we were able to publish a lot more while keeping quality consistently high.

You can explore freeCodeCamp’s top articles by topic, month, and year in our archive.

Many of the authors on freeCodeCamp’s Medium publication have gotten jobs or freelance clients based on the reputation they’ve built with their articles.

And thanks to the hundreds of skilled authors and editors, our publication recently became the largest publication on Medium, with more than 500,000 people following it.

The freeCodeCamp community forum

We also launched the freeCodeCamp forum in 2016. This made it easier for people to ask for help when they got stuck.

Thanks to a team of friendly forum regulars, most questions get answered in just an hour or two. So it’s nearly as fast as asking in our chat room system.

The forum also became a place where people could reliably get constructive feedback on projects they were building.

One of the more popular areas of the forum is Getting a Developer Job, where people talk about their job search, and share tips and encouragement.

A screenshot of our forum’s Getting a Developer Job section

And the forum is searchable. About 80% of people who visit the forum don’t even bother logging in. They just find the answer they need to get un-stuck, then keep plowing forward with their coding.

Trippin’ through time: In 2016, people used freeCodeCamp for 190 million minutes — the equivalent of about 310 years — about the same length of time that Liechtenstein has been a country.

2017: We launch the freeCodeCamp Guide

By 2017, thousands of people had completed most of freeCodeCamp’s curriculum and had landed jobs as developers. Now that they were working with other developers, they would often encounter concepts and terminology they were unfamiliar with.

Rather than spidering through Wikipedia footnotes for an afternoon, they wanted quick, good-enough answers. So we created the freeCodeCamp Guide.

The Guide is a searchable reference that aims to cover all concepts related to software development.

The articles are simple enough for non-native English speakers to understand. And they’re short enough for busy people to read while taking a few sips of coffee.

A screenshot of the freeCodeCamp Guide’s article on the 8 Python comparison operations.

And — like everything else at freeCodeCamp — the Guide is open source. Developers are constantly expanding it.

The Guide has been the most popular open source project for two Hacktoberfests in a row.

It now includes nearly 5,000 articles on all kinds of technology and computer science concepts.

Trippin’ through time: In 2017, people used freeCodeCamp for 316 million minutes — the equivalent of about 600 years. For some perspective on how long that is, Beijing’s Forbidden City was built 600 years ago.

2018: After 4 years of effort, our YouTube channel finally takes off

freeCodeCamp has been posting videos and streaming on YouTube since the beginning. But YouTube never really recommended our videos to anyone.

We suspected it might be because we refused to show ads on our channel, so YouTube wasn’t making any money off of us.

Either way, we were happy that YouTube gave us a free place to host our videos. (Hosting HD video is expensive!)

But that all changed this year, when freeCodeCamp became the fastest-growing programming channel on YouTube.

So far this year, our channel has grown 1,100% in watch time.

YouTube’s algorithms are a black box, so we can only guess as to why YouTube suddenly started sending everybody to our community’s channel.

Maybe it’s because we posted some long, in-depth tutorials on topics like Python, Database Design, SQL, and Java.

Maybe it’s because we have been posting videos almost every day for the past four years.

A screenshot of some of freeCodeCamp’s YouTube playlists

Whatever happened, people seem to be learning a lot from our YouTube channel. So we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and publishing high quality tutorials, talks, and coding livestreams.

Trippin’ through time: So far in 2018, people used freeCodeCamp for 493 million minutes — the equivalent of about 937 years. If we were to go back that far in time, we could hear the first lectures being given at Oxford University in England.

Our plans for 2019: more world languages, Classroom Mode, and better tools for local study groups

We have big plans for 2019. And we think we can achieve them. If we have the budget.

Our goal is to increase our number of supporters to 10,000. This will expand our annual budget from a meager $200,000 to a more manageable $500,000.

This is still very modest by global NGO standards, but it will allow us to help a lot more people and expand our learning resources much faster.

Here’s what we’d like to accomplish in 2019.

Initiative #1: Multi-lingual freeCodeCamp

We’ve already translated freeCodeCamp’s curriculum and guide into five major world languages:

  • Arabic
  • Chinese
  • Portuguese
  • Russian
  • Spanish

We want to deploy parallel freeCodeCamp front ends for these language communities, all attached to the same shared databases. We also want to host separate forums for each of these languages.

We already have moderator teams for each of these languages, and hundreds of contributors who are refining and expanding these translations.

Once these languages are live, about 80% of people on earth will be able to learn to code in their native language, for free.

And these people won’t have to suffer through awkward machine translations, because all of these resources will be overseen by native speakers who understand the quirks and culture behind each language.

But doing this right will involve a big jump in server costs and maintenance. More donations from supporters would go a long way toward offsetting these costs.

Initiative #2: Classroom Mode

freeCodeCamp was designed with adult learners in mind. The median age of people in our community is 30 years old.

Still, we receive tons of requests from teachers around the world who want to use freeCodeCamp in their classrooms.

There are already hundreds of teachers at high schools, universities, job training programs — and even prisons — who use freeCodeCamp as part of their curriculum.

But it’s still a somewhat tedious process for teachers. They have to tell their students to set their freeCodeCamp profiles to public (they’re private by default). Then the teachers have to manually go through and check their students’ progress through the freeCodeCamp curriculum.

We want to empower teachers to use freeCodeCamp more easily. We want to build classroom tools that allow teachers to assign parts of the freeCodeCamp curriculum and easily visualize their students’ progress.

With a bigger budget, we can allocate more resources toward making Classroom Mode a reality in 2019.

Initiative #3: Better tools for study groups

The freeCodeCamp community has more than 2,000 local study groups in cities around the world. Many of these study groups meet weekly to code together. Some of them even host hackathons and conferences.

These study groups are run in a decentralized way. Most of them have study group leaders who plan events and find local sponsors to provide venues.

We want to better-support these study group leaders, their members, and their sponsors.

Currently we organize these groups through Facebook Groups because it’s free. But Facebook has limited features, limited transparency, and lacks reliable ways to reach group members.

Some study groups use Meetup.com, which is a more specialized tool than Facebook, but would cost us $100,000’s per year to use at scale — even with nonprofit discounts.

Over the past 3 years, we’ve evaluated every alternative tool out there, and the best solution we’ve found is still Facebook Groups.

So we’ve decided to build our own open source tool to organize these study groups. This way study groups can have full control of their data, and we can gradually build up new functionality as they need it.

One benefit to building our own free open source tool for this is that other nonprofits will be able to deploy their own servers and use this to coordinate their own local chapters and events.

We have no illusions — this will require a lot of additional developer time, and there will be additional server costs. More donations from supporters would go a long way toward helping with this.

The next billion minutes

I hope this article has helped show that:

  1. freeCodeCamp is helping millions of people
  2. in a cost-effective way
  3. and we have well thought-out plans for how we can help even more people
  4. but we need your support

With your help, we can reach our goal of 10,000 supporters.

2019 could be the biggest year ever for the freeCodeCamp community.

I’m not going to say: “Donate to freeCodeCamp or we’ll go dark forever!” or anything scary like that.

The reality is this: the genie is out of the bottle. We aren’t going away. We’re open source, and worse case scenario I could continue to run freeCodeCamp part-time as a passion project.

So instead of preaching gloom and doom, I’m just going to say this:

We have incredible momentum. We are improving millions of people’s lives and careers by helping them learn to code. But we could be moving so much faster. We could be helping so many more people.

It’s safe to say there has never been a community quite like freeCodeCamp before. Some of my friends in finance have privately told me they think freeCodeCamp is “the most capital-efficient organization in modern history.”

We have a small team of 5 people — all of whom either write code or create learning resources. In nonprofit speak: 100% of our budget goes toward “programs” and none of it goes toward “fundraising” or “administrative costs.”

We’ve always been transparent about our finances and our operations, and we recently received the Platinum Certification from GuideStar.org, the nonprofit that rates charities.

We have an energetic community of thousands of open source contributors helping us in our mission. And all 5 of our staff members started out as prolific open source contributors to freeCodeCamp.

Instead of spending money recruiting developers, we have the luxury of being able to look at people who are already contributing to freeCodeCamp in their free time, and just paying them to work on freeCodeCamp full-time.

We are also incredibly thrifty with servers. We’ve secured in-kind sponsorship from several service providers, and we have built our architecture around scaling as inexpensively as possible.

A basic diagram of freeCodeCamp’s architecture, which is optimized for scale using open-source tools and services that have extended in-kind sponsorship of our nonprofit.

freeCodeCamp could be the next Wikipedia. We could democratize technology education on a scale that Wikipedia has democratized historical reference. And so far — 4 years into our journey — we are tracking pretty closely with Wikipedia’s growth over the past 17 years.

One difference is that Wikipedia gets $100 million in donations every year — 500 times the $200,000 we get. So let’s change that. With even $500,000 (1/200th of what Wikipedia gets), we can dramatically improve technology education.

Help us reach our goal of 10,000 supporters. Become a supporter and set up a tax-deductible donation you can afford to freeCodeCamp.org.

Thanks again to you and to everyone in the freeCodeCamp community.

Congratulations on the first billion minutes of helping people learn to code.

Here’s to the next billion. 🥂