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.

What is a Web Application?

By Mike McGee on February 13, 2015

This is a guest post by Starter League alumnus Roneesh Vashisht. He's a professional web developer at Sears and is a mentor for our Web Development program. Our current class has just started to type out their first lines of code, and Roneesh sent this message to remind them of what they're building.

Web Applications are in the running for world's simplest computer programs.

You've learned how to communicate with a computer program.

It's also interesting to realize how little we've come.

From about 1970-1990, a computer program was a thing you bought, probably in a Micro Center or hobbyist store, that displayed and manipulated text. You only communicated with it via text.

From 1990-2005, a computer program became a thing you bought, probably in a Best Buy, but it lived in a graphical world, where pretty soon your typing only became about the content. All other manipulations were graphical, and there was no database. When, how, why or in what way data was accessed was completely obscured. Programming them was hard (believe me I tried). They didn't share data, or play with other people, or do anything other than sit on your computer.

Then from 2005 or so onward, we started entering the world of web applications, and data started to live on the web, and it played nicely with other people, since the data was in the same pool, and now it was in a database, and even a lay person with an analytical mind could guess how that data was structured (hint: it was all forms).

What's interesting is that we've sort of returned to the world of 1970-1990, we only communicate with these programs via text. That text is your params hash and routes tables.

And so when I say that Web Applications are the world's smallest computer programs, I really mean it.

A web application is a computer program designed to respond to one input, a URL.

And since all URL's are just HTTP requests, we get this:

A web application is a computer program that just does one thing: respond to an HTTP request.

I'm not being dramatic or histrionic when I say that the above statement contains all the truth of a web application. It's kind of your North star. When I transitioned from student to full-time developer, I routinely found myself in meetings where I had to discuss technologies I had no clue about. What kept me sane was realizing that I was working on a web application, and it had just one job to do. From there I could riff.

It doesn't matter what your stack is, what language you use or what framework. A web application running Java, with no Ruby whatsoever still needs to be able to parse a URL, run some code, and return a response (a web page). A web application has just one job, and best of all, we can do it with just one thing, an address bar.

So go on, party like it's 1990. It still is.

Alumni Company Spotlight: Reliefwatch

By Mike McGee on February 11, 2015

Relief Watch logo

Due to limited computer and internet access, it's difficult for health organizations working in developing countries to track medical supplies and diseases. Starter League alumni Daniel Yu (Web Development - Winter 2013), Stelios Constantinides (Starter School - Class of 2014), and the rest of the Reliefwatch team are solving this problem.

Old School is The New Black

No, Reliefwatch is not trying to be Comcast and provide internet access to the entire world (the world doesn't deserve such horror), they've designed their application to work with the super-complicated technology of...

Nokia dumb phone

Yes, those year 2000 era phones you used to rock in junior high (and what your parents might still use now) are now being used by health workers to track medical supply inventory and monitor diseases all around the world. This is a genius idea since over 90% of people in developing countries have mobile phones.

The Rise of ReliefWatch

In the last five years Chicago has transformed into a startup city, and Reliefwatch has taken advantage of pretty much every resource available. Daniel started ReliefWatch (formerly known as Project Sam) while at the University of Chicago through their College New Venture Challenge. Last Fall, ReliefWatch was accepted into Impact Engine, a 16-week accelerator program for companies that address societal and environmental problems. While in Impact Engine (which is located in 1871), Reliefwatch was one of five Chicago companies to qualify for the 2015 Challenge Cup finals run by 1776, a startup tech center located in Washington, DC.

To top it all off, Daniel went over to the Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Awards in London and won the Prince of Wales Young Sustainability Entrepreneur Prize.

And yes, he did get to meet Prince Charles.

Reliefwatch's Global Impact

In May 2014, Reliefwatch created its first partnership with Global Brigades, a not-for-profit organization with healthcare operations in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. This partnership has resulted in a 90% reduction in drug expiration and almost fourteen million units of medicine digitized.

Reliefwatch has just launched a new version of their platform, which allows them to track inventory & diseases in over 180 countries and has support for 12 different languages.

What's next for Reliefwatch

While the new year is young Reliefwatch has already added a new partner! They recently joined forces with RTI International and the government of Benin (sandwiched between the countries of Togo & Nigeria if you're wondering #themoreyouknow) to start tracking their vaccine distribution process.

Their goal is to create 10 new partnerships before the end of the year, so if you know of any NGOs that need assistance with medical supply and disease tracking this is your startup!

If you are an investor: invest in this startup!

If you are a developer (especially with Ruby on Rails experience): Contact Daniel Yu (!

If you don't know Ruby on Rails but want to: We have applications open for our Spring Web Development program. Starts Monday, April 6th :)

The Starter League connection to Chicago's Hottest Startups

By Mike McGee on February 10, 2015

Last week on, Maura Gaughan published an article featuring the top 50 Chicago startups to watch in 2015. As I went through the list, I couldn't help but notice all the Starter League representation!

mRelief - Started by Rose Afriyie, Genevieve Nielsen, and Marina Goldshetyn (TSL Summer 2014)

mRelief is a Web and SMS-based tool that allows Chicago residents to check their social service eligibility. After building the prototype in our Web Development class, they have gone on to partner with the City of Chicago to get more exposure of their services. You can learn more about mRelief in their recent Chicago Tribune feature.

Rentalutions - Started by Ryan Coon (TSL Winter 2012)

Ryan created Rentalutions to help landlords enter the 21st century with property management. Rentalutions was one of the early members of 1871 and has been growing since its founding in 2012.

WeDeliver - Started by Jimmy Odom (TSL Winter 2012)

WeDeliver has been one of the hottest startups for the past two years and it's only getting hotter. Jimmy, Daniela, and the WeDeliver team powers the Chicago delivery market and is creating partnerships locally (and nationally) faster than I can write this blog post! Their newest venture is Locally (surprise), which brings amazing food and craft products directly to the doorstep of Chicago residents.

You can learn more about WeDeliver and their new product in the Chicago Tribune and on Tech Cocktail.

MU/DAI was founded before we created our school, but they have nabbed one of our inaugural students and former employees, Arvin Dang. You can learn more about Arvin's journey from The Starter League to MU/DAI on Medium.

PrettyQuick - Like MU/DAI, PrettyQuick was not built by a Starter League alum, they have received technical help from Mark Richman (TSL Summer 2013) and the Web Development company 3Binary, formed by Starter League alums Greg Williams, John Contreras, and Jordan Leigh.

Extra startup note: Members of the 3Binary team have now switched their focus to Matchup, a competitive fitness tracking platform helping friends, family members, and co-workers lead more active lifestyles. In November 2014, the Matchup team announced a funding round of 800k to help "reinvent company wellness programs and draw them away from outdated company services with surveys and clunky pedometers to current smart, wearable devices." You can learn more about Matchup in their Built in Chicago feature.

We are incredibly proud of what these alumni have accomplished since graduating from The Starter League. What's special is that these alumni represent the transformation that over 1,000 other people have taken since coming to our school. They've come from all different walks of life (journalism, retail, banking, construction, education, etc.), but with the same goals. To reinvent themselves, and solve problems they care about.

Congrats to what they have done and what they will do in the future.

Give the Gift of 15 Minutes

By Mike McGee on February 6, 2015

I'm in my mid-20s, but my mind has advanced decades with all the meetings I've been in. Now this is not a post about how to cancel meetings forever (sorry), but how to give yourself more comfort in future meetings.

Have you ever been 5-10 minutes late for a meeting?

Ok that wasn't really a question. Everyone reading this has been late for a meeting so stop lying to yourselves.

What are some factors to being late? - Overbooking commitments - Underestimating how long it takes to travel a meeting - Addicted to making a meeting right on time (ok, you're weird)

Let's focus on the first two.

1. Overbooking - How many times have you setup back-to-back, or back-to-back-to-back, or in my case at Northwestern, back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings? Ok avoid that last one.

Of course those meetings are 60 minutes, (because EVERY meeting needs to be 60 minutes long), which would result in me always being late.

Give yourself 15 minutes.

Instead of scheduling a meeting from 10-11am, why do you don't schedule it from 10-10:45am? For one, you can probably get that meeting done in 45 minutes, and it gives you 15 minutes to move to the next task or meeting.

2. Underestimating time - This is my big issue.

Oh yeah I can get this done 20 minutes before the meeting... "Oh crap it's 11:01am gotta go!" Oh yeah it will only take me 12 minutes to walk to the meeting... WHERE DID ALL THIS SNOW COME FROM? 20 minutes later... "Hello everyone."

Give yourself 15 minutes.

Instead of starting a meeting at 10am, start at 10:15am. This 15-minute buffer allows you more time to transition (either with a task or travel) to your next meeting.

I've been doing this for the past few months and have had great results.

And the beauty of all this is the space time continuum has not fallen apart due to not starting a meeting on the hour! People are fine with it!

Who knows, maybe you are helping the group you're meeting with as well.

There's More to Fargo than a Movie & TV Show

By Mike McGee on September 22, 2014

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Fargo.

Hey Fargo, Stay Boring t-shirt

And contrary to this awesome shirt I realized Fargo was anything but boring!

I was invited by Greg Tehven (pictured above) to share The Starter League story at 1MillionCups Fargo. I met Greg last year at the Innovation Expo in Sioux Falls, and I've also participated at 1MillionCups Chicago, so I knew that this would be a great experience.

During my presentation, the audience was able to learn about what TSL's been doing over the last three years, but I was able to learn so much more about Fargo's startup community!

Yes, Fargo is more than this awesome new TV show and that one amazing movie) in the 90s. They are a growing startup community.

Hours before my talk, I met with local education, software development, and business stakeholders to give advice on how we built our tech community in Chicago. I really feel that my advice was unnecessary, because they are already doing the right things! From teaching young kids how to code to attracting talent from the surrounding area, I believe Fargo is well on their way to creating a little tech capital in the Upper Midwest.

Before I went on stage, there was an announcements section. And this wasn't a 45-second section with a couple quick plugs. Over 20 people came on stage to share what event they were putting on in just the next couple months! Some people even travelled from surrounding towns just to come to this event at 9 o'clock in the morning! On a Wednesday! WHO NEEDS COFFEE WHEN YOU HAVE THIS?

Feeling all this energy in the room, it was incredibly easy to get up in front of 200+ people and share our story.

After my presentation, I met so many people that were teaching themselves how to code, helping others learn in different countries, and leaders of local software development shops interested in hiring more developers.

I even had the chance to meet Doug Burgum, the Chairman of the Board at Atlassian (the company that created HipChat) and also a resident of Fargo. Outside of running a few billion dollar companies, he's done some amazing things for Fargo.

Other Fargo Highlights

A couple days before I arrived, CoCo, a new co-working space in Fargo had just opened! I was fortunate enough to be one of the first to see this new space and boy is it beautiful. CoCo has also partnered with 1871 so members of each space can work there! And the space is so beautiful we might have to do some remote working weeks from Fargo!

I also had the chance to hang out with Jake Joraanstad, CEO of Myriad Mobile. Myriad has racked up an impressive client list over the past three years and was recently recognized on the Empact 100 list and one of the "Top 30 Companies to Watch" by Entrepreneur Magazine.

I also hung out with some of his employees to eat some bison burgers and go bowling! And no we didn't bowl left-handed (and this fast) for the entire night.

And I've learned that Fargo is just like the West Loop! Lots of trains. Only there's are a little longer...

Silicon Valley, New York, Boulder are the first startup communities to come to mind, but I want to make a case for Fargo is an upcoming market. They have a great education system, local business leaders focused on acquiring capital and resources, a brand-new co-working space, and an awesome group of local leaders who care about building the community the right way. With people like Greg, publications like Emerging Prairie and companies like Myriad Mobile, Fargo can become a new place for startups to call home.

P.S. My Fargo hosts published a much better write-up of my story, so if you want some more Fargo check it out!

John Meyers on Why You Should Go to Starter School

By Mike McGee on September 3, 2014

John Meyers, one of our inaugural Starter School graduates, worked as a business development rep at Coyote Logistics before the program. During Starter School he built FamilyRoom with fellow student and close friend Chance Griffin. He's now working full-time as a product designer at NextPoint, tasked with redesigning their app's interface.

Last week he wrote a blog post communicating why others should consider Starter School. You can read a snippet of the blog post below.

Exactly one year ago today I was sitting at my desk at my sales job in one of Chicago’s northern neighborhoods. The company I was working for had recently been named ‘The Best Place to Work In Chicago’ for the second straight year. I did not especially like my job. I felt unfulfilled. What kept me going was this little hobby I was working on outside of work. That hobby was HTML and CSS.

A friend of mine down in North Carolina, Chance, was also teaching himself how to code and he suggested I apply to this new code school in Chicago called The Starter School. He had already done so. I applied. We both got in. The two of us quit our jobs and Chance drove almost 1,000 miles to move to Chicago.

To recap: First, I quit my good, steady job. Second, I paid $36K. All to attend a brand new program that had yet to be proven.

What the hell was I thinking?

To read the full post on John's decision, visit his blog on Medium.

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