The Active Record By The Starter League

The Starter League, founded in 2011, is a small school in Chicago that teaches Rails, Ruby, HTML/CSS, and User Experience Design. The classes are intensive, three months long, one to three days a week, and taught in person.

Push Yourself

By Harsha Murthy on September 10, 2015

When I dropped out of college two and a half years ago, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t look forward to my days in class. I was tired of accumulating this information I was never going to use. I didn’t feel like I was improving or gaining any skill. I had no confidence in my knowledge or my ability. I needed a better path.

The start to that path was an 11-week full-time web development class at The Starter League. The teaching approach was different than I expected from the start. We weren’t just learning the fundamentals of Ruby on Rails. We were learning how to think with purpose. We learned to identify problems that were important to us. We were taught to solve those problems in a meaningful and effective way. Web applications were just the medium through which we would solve these problems. We were not learning how to code to get a job, or work for somebody else. We were learning for ourselves.

Beyond the technical skills, I learned that the only way to progress is to push yourself to do things you’re not comfortable doing. If you’re comfortable you’re stagnating, you’re not improving. You have to move one step back to move two steps forward. Leaving college for The Starter League was definitely not the most secure choice. But taking that leap taught me more about how to approach my life than any Intro to Computer Networking class ever could.

I learned to accept that I didn’t know many things but refused to accept that I couldn’t figure that shit out. The knowledge is already out there, I just had to want it bad enough and make it mine. This attitude started with web development, but I now approach anything I need to do with this mindset. From learning to snowboard to teaching high school students at Northwestern how to code even though I’d never taught before. I’ve gained the confidence to learn anything I need to, no matter how big or how small.

This confidence in yourself, that you can do anything you set your mind to, is a skill that can be learned and practiced. It may sound trite, but the reason people don’t achieve what they want to achieve is because they don’t bite the bullet and take the leap.

There are a million reasons not to push yourself; to not do what you want to do. Forget them all and just do it. Believe in yourself. Work hard. The world will thank you for it.

Starter League Alumni Spotlight: Hannah Basil

By Mike McGee on June 10, 2015

Hannah Basil in Paris

Last week, I caught up with Hannah Basil, a Starter League Web Development alumnus, to see what she's been up to since graduating.

When did your interest in technology start?

It's hard to say when I first became interested in technology. In high school, I took a programming class and hated it. (Sorry Mr. Solin) I liked my teacher but could not understand C++ for the life of me. Heck, I'm not even sure what language we learned. I think it was C++. I went to college thinking tech's not for me. While I was away at college in Galesburg, IL, I started to miss big city Chicago life (where I lived since birth) and got excited when Chicago was featured in national news stories. I started noticing a trend in articles covering the growing tech scene in Chicago.

After my sophomore year, I worked at an environmental non-profit in Chicago for the summer and after studying abroad in London my junior year I decided I wanted to check out this tech scene for myself. I interned at a Chicago tech startup company. I was on the business development side of things and didn't know anything about coding. One day, I heard the developers talking about an API and I stared back in awe. I thought these developers sounded so cool! So again, it's hard to say when my interest started, but sometime around 2010.

Entering college, what was your mindset? Did you know what you wanted to do or were you open to different subjects?

I went to a liberal arts college and wasn't sure what I wanted to study. I was excited to take classes in a wide variety of disciplines. I enjoyed math, science and economics classes in high school and started on the Pre-Med track at Knox. I enjoyed general chemistry, biology, and genetics. I ended the Pre-Med path when I got to organic chemistry. I started taking economics courses again and loved them. I ended up majoring in Economics and minoring in Business and Management. I spent my junior year at the London School of Economics and pursued year-long courses in social psychology, environmental economics, marketing, and finance- 4 topics I love. I didn't know what I wanted to do post-grad, but I knew it would change. I cite the statistic often that my generation will have, on average, 15 jobs and seven careers in their lifetime. To be successful, I knew I had to be a lifelong learner.

How did you decide to go into banking after college?

After returning to Knox my senior year (and after completing my summer internship at the startup) I had to make a difficult decision. I liked working at the startup, but I wasn't sure of the risk of starting my career in the field. A mentor explained it was easier to go from big to small, but not the other way around (referring to company size). I did not decide to be a banker. Rather I saw the opportunity of the commercial training program as a great way to add to my financial toolbox and observe a large corporate culture. I assumed I would be there longer than I was, but I learned so many important things at the bank. I learned how to analyze industries and companies to project growth and cash flow, observed which factors affect debt and equity markets, learned the keys of financial modeling, and started to understand the political and human complexities of a 20,000+ person organization.

At what moment did you realize that banking wasn't for you?

After nine months of working at the bank, I helped underwrite a deal that conflicted with my values. I supported a leveraged lending team that was analyzing an opportunity in the Bakken shale. The company supplied equipment to hydraulic fracturing companies, and I had concerns about the environmental risk of the deal and industry. I took various environmental science classes in college (both stateside and abroad) and know there is intense debate over the safety of the fracking process and impacts on groundwater quality. There was real regulatory risk in this deal. I communicated this risk to the team and my ideas were not accepted. Personally it was hard to overlook the environmental risk of this deal and continue closing it. There were more deals after this that required me to set aside my beliefs to get the deal done. I did it for awhile because I was learning a lot, but you get to a point where you want to work on things that are meaningful to you. After 15 months I knew I must leave the bank.

How did you hear about The Starter League?

I heard about the Starter League through a family friend and mentor, Andrew Razeghi, who is very active in Chicago's tech community. Before I started looking at immersive tech classes, I applied to sales jobs at two large tech companies with teams in Chicago. I was originally too scared to learn to code but figured I should at least get into the tech industry and go from there. The rejections were blessings in disguise.

I knew I had to leave the bank and decided why not try coding. I found a three-month class that focused on UI/UX. I shared this idea with Andrew who encouraged me to check out The Starter League which he explained is the best immersive coding program in Chicago.

What made you take the leap and join the Web Development program?

I was ready to try something new. I reviewed the Starter League website and was interested in the three-month Web Dev program and nine-month Starter School program. I had a great conversation with you to learn more about both options. It was a whirlwind of a week: after identifying a UI/UX class Tuesday, talking to Andrew Wednesday morning, talking with you Wednesday afternoon, applying to Web Dev Thursday afternoon, being accepted later that night, I resigned from the bank on Friday morning.

Sometimes I joke that I moved through the decision process too fast to even understand the risks of what I was doing. Resigning was one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done. It was a gut feeling, and I knew this was the right decision.

Can you remember how you were feeling on the first day of class?

I was excited! I love first days of school. I couldn't wait to wear jeans to class, a luxury I couldn't have in the corporate setting. I trudged through the cold and snowy sidewalks and met my new classmates. I had a huge smile on my face all day and loved meeting the rest of TSL staff and instructors.

Hannah Basil in Paris
Hannah showing off her Starter League backpack after the first day of class.

How was the overall experience of the program?

The program was top notch. I learned an incredible amount of new information in the 11-week period. I love how we jumped right in and didn't waste a lot of time with theory. I wasn't used to that in past classes. I was immediately learning to open Terminal, Sublime and starting to code. The feeling of seeing my first HTML page on Google Chrome was amazing. I loved the workspace, pair programming and pushing the limits of what I knew. Raghu, my instructor, did a great job explaining complex ideas into simple ones that I was able to grasp. Databases fascinated me, and I was stunned when I learned most web apps are 98% the same (on the backend at least). I thought our assignments were fun and interesting. I loved meeting and working with my mentor, Ben Block. You realize how amazing TSL community is, and I was continually reaffirming my leap.

What's Charlie and how did you get connected with them?

Charlie helps you make a killer impression in your meetings. Think of Charlie as a personal assistant that syncs with your calendar and sends you one-page briefings on people one hour before you meet with them. It curates data from tens of thousands of sources and gives you the most important information before your meeting. Charlie was founded by Aaron Frazin in 2012, and has grown to 12 people. We closed a seed funding round last October.

I had lunch with Caity Moran and was picking her brain about what to do next after TSL. I mentioned my involvement with the social group I founded at my church and she already knew that. I asked how she knew, and she explained her Charlie briefing told her. About a week later I saw a posting on Built in Chicago for a spring internship at Charlie and thought it was a great opportunity.

What is your role at Charlie?

My core responsibility is to help manage the development of our iOS app that launches on June 4. Charlie is a web application, but we are building this app to provide more convenient insights and universal calendar support. I help bridge the gap between the business side of Charlie and the technical side.

While I'm not actively coding, I communicate with the CTO and developers on a daily basis. I could not be successful in my job if I didn't take the Web Development class. As of last week, I started working in the code base to revise our Press and FAQ pages. It was awesome to be back in the code and use my hybrid skill set. I can't wait to see how launch goes later this week!

Hannah and the rest of Team Charlie
Hannah and the rest of Team Charlie.

You've experienced tremendous change over the past six months, have there been any guiding principles or people that have helped you?

Haha, you can say that again! I've had incredible support from family, friends, boyfriend and mentors. I could not have done this alone. One quote that sticks with me is actually from Neal Sales-Griffin, the CEO and co-founder of The Starter League. I heard him speak at a Tech Cocktail event in 2012 when I worked at the startup. I saw the same quote again when I was researching TSL. "All you need is the conviction to trust yourself, decide quickly, and never quit." That's been a guiding principle for me ever since.

Right after my chat with Hannah, Charlie launched their iOS app! If you have meetings, this app will help them suck less.

TSL Update: What's going on at The Starter League

By Noelle Sales-Griffin on May 27, 2015

We’ve been quite busy this Spring! Here’s what we’ve been up to:

Workshops, workshops, workshops

Since March, we’ve hosted three intro to code workshops, and we have a fourth tonight. At these sold-out workshops, we’ve enjoyed teaching over 100 people how to build a website in one evening. Some highlights include working with our friends at Launchpad Lab, women outnumbering men 2:1, and having a family of 5 attend a workshop. They even pulled their kids out of school early to attend. Because you know what they say, “A family that codes together, stays together.”

Busy Summer at The Starter League

We’re gearing up for summer at The Starter League. We’re offering 3 courses this summer: Beginner HTML & CSS, Advanced HTML & CSS, and classic Web Development. So tell your friends about it or sign up if you’re interested. Application deadline for HTML & CSS is Sunday, May 31.

Starter School Season 2

Starter School students are approaching their last month of class. Over the last three months, they have focused on design and refining their products with some amazing adjunct instructors. Here are some pearls of wisdom gathered from them:

“There are three things top performers care about: Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose.”

-Amanda Lannert

“Understand what your capability of risk is.”

-Harper Reed

“What’s the most you can do with what you have right now?”

-Claire Lew

Fall is on the Horizon

We’re kicking off User Experience, taught by Carolyn Chandler, on August 17th. JavaScript and Web Development classes are in the works for mid-Autumn. So stay tuned, we may add more classes to that list ;)

Here's to The Starter League Moms *cheers*

By Noelle Sales-Griffin on May 8, 2015

In the spirit of Mother's Day, we want to honor some amazing women who give their all to everything they do.

Here at the Starter League, we promote a culture of working smarter not longer. We promote exposing our ignorance and asking questions to make ourselves and our work better. Most of all, we promote a culture of passion and persistence. Below is a list of some amazing women that we've worked with over the years. We're amazed at the amount of passion they approach their work with. They show us how far passion combined with meaningful work will take us. So without further ado, we present to you some of the moms in The Starter League family...

Full-Time Students and Full-Time Moms

Dr. Kate Wolin and Amy Woodworth make programming look easy.

Dr. Kate
Dr. Kate Wolin

Dr. Kate Wolin is a mom, scientist, entrepreneur and a Starter School alumna. She co-founded Coeus Health, one of the first ten companies accepted into Matter Chicago. Coeus Health develops healthcare programs for preventative care and disease management through clinically proven solutions. Learn more about Dr. Kate and her company in our Alumni Company Spotlight.

Amy Woodworth
Amy Woodworth

Amy Woodworth is a mom, digital marketing expert and current Starter School student. The poster behind her sums up her work ethic perfectly. You can find her here at The Starter League Monday through Friday getting work done. You might even find her here working during holiday breaks. She’s a mom on a mission, but still makes it home for dinner. With two daughters of her own, Amy is passionate about providing all girls with STEM activities and opportunities. After six months, her persistence is paying off. Check out her site to find STEM events in Chicago for your children.

Rockstar Leaders

Introducing the adjunct teachers of Starter School:

Jill Salzman
Jill Salzman

Jill Salzman is one cool mom, she even has a Lego phone case. That’s pretty cool, am I right? Jill started Founding Moms in 2010, an organization that helps mom entrepreneurs to connect and learn. Founding Moms is her third entrepreneurial venture. Check out her book, Found IT. A field guide for mom entrepreneurs and watch her inspiring TED Talk: Why Moms Make the Best Entrepreneurs.

Sharon Schneider
Sharon Schneider

Sharon Schneider created Moxie Jean to solve her own dilemma as a parent striving to be a socially responsible consumer. Children are consumption machines that can outgrow brand new clothing in just a couple weeks. Moxie Jean is “upscale resale” that allows parents to buy high-quality clothing at affordable prices. Great news, moms-to-be! they recently expanded their collection to include maternity clothing. Read more about it here.

Amanda Lannert
Amanda Lannert

Amanda Lannert likes cheese, dangerous sports and the color blue. She’s a mom and is the CEO of The Jellyvision Lab, a clever interactive marketing company. Under her leadership, Jellyvision has doubled its revenue three out of the last four years. And she was recently named CEO of the Year at the Moxie Awards (woot woot!). You can learn about how Amanda came to Jellyvision and the work they do in this video.

Our Biggest Fans

Teresa Williams and Linda Sales aka Mike’s mom and Neal’s (and my) mom.

Mike's mom Neal's Mom
Teresa Williams Linda Sales

Without these two wonderful ladies, The Starter League would be non-existent. They are our number one supporters. We can always count on them for a share or a like or some words of encouragement. Ms. Williams finds any and all mentions of The Starter League online, almost immediately after they’re published. Ms. Sales helps plan and cooks for our student socials and never fails to bring homemade goodies to the office. But, what we really want to thank them for is raising (and giving birth to) this innovative duo:

Mike and Neal
Can you see the resemblance?!


Thank you to all the moms out there and we hope you have a happy Mother's Day.

Happy Mother's Day

Assumptions don’t create change, but you can.

By Caity Moran on April 7, 2015

We recently had our second workshop for people who have never written a line of code. The goal was to demystify web development and get people excited about building web apps. To do this, students built a landing page using HTML, CSS, a text editor and a browser. That night, every student was invigorated with the prospect of learning something new. And the energy was contagious.

As our teaching assistants were buzzing around helping students, I noticed that there were a lot of women in the room. Then I counted, there were two women for every man taking the workshop. That’s huge!

At The Starter League we value diversity*. It creates a unique environment where learning goes beyond the classroom or curriculum and students also learn from their peers’ experiences. We’re always looking for ways to draw a diverse student body. And we’re doing pretty well, 40-55% of our applicants for our classes are women. When it comes to converting applicants into enrolled students, those numbers drop.

So why do less women convert to students? And how do we get more women to convert?

Let’s start with why less women convert to students. I often hear women say they’re intimidated by coding or apprehensive of jumping into the tech scene or start a coding course. I get that. I can’t speak for all women, but I can speak for myself. In both my educational and professional career, I’ve encountered people who made me feel incapable.

I minored in computer science and my classes were predominantly male. In programming classes, we were often paired up for assignments to work through the problem with a partner. On several occasions, I would reach out to my partner about our shared assignment and get a response akin to, “Oh don’t worry about it, I already did our assignment with another group. I figured you were busy, and I wanted to make sure it got done.”

Which left me with two options: don’t do the assignment and fall behind in class. Or take what was supposed to be a group assignment and figure it out on my own. It was frustrating and insulting. I had to work twice as hard just to prove I wanted to be there and could do the work.

Here are a few examples of assumptions people have made about me over the years:

  • When I offered to help troubleshoot the AV issues for an event renting space at 1871. I was told, “I’d feel more comfortable with the AV guy, he will really know what he’s doing.” I was the AV guy.
  • While having a conversation with an older gentleman and one of my college interns, the older gentleman looked at me and said, “Oh I guess I shouldn’t swear in front of you.” If you really feel that way, then please don’t swear in front of my 18 year-old intern either. Otherwise, don’t apologize to me.
  • Can you have you web guy update our logo on your website? I was the web guy.
  • “I guess not all blondes are dumb” then he laughed and said he was joking. Enough said.

I could give you a dozen other examples. Instead, let me share that I've had the honor of knowing and working with so many amazing individuals, both women and men, who have imparted knowledge and believed in me. I focus on those people.

Now, how do we get more women to convert? I think these workshops and events like them are a great start. They provide a lot of value for just three hours of instruction. It's also a much smaller commitment compared to an 11 week class. But just having a workshop isn’t going to convert more women.

We need to use these opportunities to show everyone intimidated by coding that its not a bro’s club. It’s imperative to create and foster a culture that is welcoming and inclusive. You can actively make an effort to be part of the solution, not the problem. We all make assumptions about the people around us. Making statements with these assumptions can alienate and set people up for failure. Not to mention, we’re often wrong. Instead of making assumptions about why people want to learn, what brought them here and what their goals are… ASK them. Get to know them and let them tell you their story. Assumptions don’t bring us any closer, conversations do. Challenge yourself and those around you to be a part of the solution.

*Diversity is about more than gender: age, race, work experience, marital status, education, country of origin, etc. but for the purpose of this post I focused on gender diversity.

Alumni Company Spotlight: HappiLabs

By Mike McGee on March 10, 2015

This is the second in a series of posts highlighting Starter League representation at MATTER, a new health-tech incubator located at the Merchandise Mart.

HappiLabs logo

I first learned about HappiLabs when Tom Ruginis was a student in our Spring 2013 HTML & CSS class. So I was happy (sorry, I had to) to hear that his startup is in MATTER's inaugural class! I caught up with him to see what was new.

What problem are you focused on solving at HappiLabs?

The big problem is a lack of transparency for information about lab supplies and equipment. This has a 2-fold effect on the industry and consumers (scientific and medical researchers):

1) Scientists are constantly overpaying because they don't know what a fair price is. They don't have a central site/resource to visit and find pricing data, and therefore suppliers have the advantage. This costs researchers around $50-$100 million dollars (per our estimates).

2) Scientists waste time searching the internet and interacting with customer service and sales reps to obtain pricing. They use Google and the very few other resources available. We estimate that scientists spend around 10 million hours per year searching for this information. Those are hours that could be spent doing research and advancing the health of our planet.

The other problem we're solving is creating a new job market (Virtual Lab Managers) for scientists where they don't have to work in a lab but can still utilize the knowledge and skills they have.

How did you identify this problem?

I worked in a cancer research lab as a Ph.D. student, so I understood the use of the products. Then I quit the Ph.D. and became a sales rep where I identified the problem as I was consistently charging very high prices for supplies, and my competitors were charging even higher prices! I'm a scientist at heart, so I was not cool with this.

I kept thinking, "Well if there was a Yelp or Kayak for lab supplies, scientists would spend their money much more efficiently and wouldn't have to spend hours per week shopping around." I quit the sales job and started developing HappiLabs.

I remember watching you present HappiLabs at our Starter League Demo Day. What has changed with HappiLabs since then?

Back then, we were working on the "Yelp for lab supplies." In fact, a few Starter Leaguers in the Spring class of 2013 built a decent MVP where you could review some basic lab supplies (pipette tips, PCR tubes, nitrile gloves, etc.). It's still accessible in the footer of our site, but not in use. It was very difficult to get scientists to write reviews, and we didn't have enough resources to make the UI excellent.

What changed? Like any smart startup, we pivoted. Instead of focusing on sharing pricing data and reviews on a website, which would save money, we realized that customers were also spending too much time on other tasks associated with the purchasing process. Too many hours were spent calling customer service and sales reps to get pricing info, product details, and shipping updates. Scientists shouldn't spend time doing this work.

We decided to create the Virtual Lab Manager to solve this problem. Today we offer a service that allows scientists to hire us hourly to do the purchasing in their lab (and other admin tasks like bookkeeping). Think of a personal assistant with a Ph.D. and who specializes in shopping for lab supplies and finance management.

Our tagline is: Focus on your science, let us manage your lab shopping and finances.

There are 59 other startups at MATTER, have you been able to create any partnerships since joining?

Not yet. I've been traveling a lot to San Francisco--land of biotech--and haven't been at Matter for more than two days/week. The rest of our team focuses on operations, not business development.

What's your vision for HappiLabs?

Every research lab in the world (academic and private) will hire a Virtual Lab Manager to do their shopping and purchasing (OK, realistically, I'll be happy with 15-25% of the market). We'll spend their money better than they could, and the researchers in the lab need to be doing more important things... like solving health problems!

Think about it, there are highly educated Ph.D. researchers, of which there are relatively few in the world, should they spend time searching Google for info about lab supplies or focus on their experiments? It's a no-brainer decision. The world will be healthier and happier if they are more productive with their experiments.

Smaller question, what's next for HappiLabs?

We'll continue to serve our current customers. And we look forward to finding new ones because, for every few customers, we create one new Virtual Lab Manager job for unhappy or unemployed scientists who want out of the lab.

We're also working on raising money and finding a strategic partner to build software to automate this process. These will help lower the cost to our customer (which is an hourly rate), and create an awesome virtual lab manager UX.

Beyond that, we continue to live our mission: to improve the happiness of scientists and the quality of their research.

If you want to learn more about HappiLabs impact on science research, check out this profile below.

Welcome to HappiLabs from on Vimeo.