Los Angeles Business Journal

Giving Birth to Nerd Herd

UCode centers offer programming classes for kids 6 and older. By Omar Shamout Monday, July 7, 2014

About two years ago, 38-year-old computer programmer Scott Mueller had an unusual problem. The former Appletree.com chief executive’s 6-year-old son, Ken, had become so good at calculus that he was growing bored with math.

“He didn’t want to sit down and do the work,” Mueller recalled.

In order to keep him engaged, Mueller introduced Ken to coding, and soon his son was making 3-D graphics and computer games. Then, Mueller had an epiphany.

“I thought every kid should be doing this,” he said.

So in 2012, he subleased space from a tutoring center in Hermosa Beach and founded UCode, a center for kids ages 6 to 18 to learn how to code websites, mobile apps and games using Ruby on Rails, CSS, JavaScript and more. Children can build robots, too, if they want.

“I thought he was crazy,” admitted Nick Marks, UCode’s chief creative officer, whom Mueller brought in later that year, “but after about five minutes I realized he wasn’t.”

Marks, a former video-game designer at Santa Monica’s Activision Publishing Inc. and programming instructor at the Art Institute of California-Los Angeles, had also started teaching his 5-year-old daughter to code but not using such advanced programming languages.

UCode has since grown to include centers in Torrance and Beverly Hills, which opened last month. The centers have about 350 students total – about one-third of whom are girls, the pair points out. Monthly fees are $200 for two hours of instruction each week (slightly less for an annual subscription).

“Kids are developing these skills that are so lucrative and giving them so many capabilities for the future,” Mueller said. “It’s so empowering for them.”

Mueller hired 36 instructors, most of whom are college students studying computer science or a related field.

UCode has received financial backing from early stage VC firm DFJ Frontier in Los Angeles, though Mueller declined to disclose how much.

The company also contracts with the Manhattan Beach Unified School District to teach coding to students in after-school programs, and Mueller said he wants to expand to Palos Verdes schools soon. UCode also developed an entire after-school enrichment program for Lompoc Unified School District.

“A lot of schools are struggling to teach kids computer science,” Mueller said.

– Omar Shamout