By the time he was 16, Zach Latta had already tested out of his Los Angeles, California public high school and was working at Yo — a one-word messaging app that came to prominence in 2014 — as an engineer and lead backend developer.
Now, at 18, Latta is living in San Francisco and working on his rapidly expanding coding organisation called Hack Club.
“I’ve always found myself able to learn the most when I can completely throw myself at something,” Latta told Business Insider.
Latta has certainly thrown himself intensely into his work as co-founder and executive director of Hack Club. Just one year after founding the organisation, it’s grown to 54 schools across 12 states and five countries.
Hack Club is a nonprofit organisation with four full-time employees including Latta. The organisation’s 2014 tax filings indicate the majority of its funding was derived from grants and contributions.
Latta is also a 2015 Thiel Fellow, becoming one of 20 people chosen to receive $100,000 and mentorship, provided they forgo or drop out of college for two years. Latta was awarded the fellowship last June when he was 17 and had no plans of attending college.
The idea behind Hack Club is simple, even if the coding behind it is not. While a few high schools may offer coding classes or clubs, they usually teach students dated coding standards. In reality, coders working in the industry use software written within the past six months, according to Latta.
Hack Club works with high school students to start and lead programming clubs at their schools using up-to-date standards. It provides baseline coding curriculum, software tools, and community-building training.
The innovation and success of Hack Club earned Latta, and his co-founder Jonathan Leung, 25, a spot on Forbes’ 2016 30 under 30 list in the education category. Latta was one of the youngest honorees on the list.
“Our whole philosophy is that what’s cool about coding is that it lets you do what you want to do and it lets you build real things,” Latta said. “You don’t have to have a college degree, you don’t have to have years of training. As long as you have internet access you can do whatever you want to.
Many of the websites or apps that members of Hack Clubs have built are on display on its site.
There’s Kenko, for example, that describes itself as “shazam for food,” where you take a photo of any food and receive health insights. Kenko’s site also says that it is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
Though not all of the coding at Hack Club involves “hacking” per se, it certainly seems aimed at challenging the status quo.
Latta mentioned that one group of students in one of his clubs is working to “kill Slack” and build a better app for workplace communications. Slack is a real-time messaging service that many companies, Business Insider included, use to communicate around their offices.
Some of that “establishment-killing attitude” is inherent in hacking subculture, with its documented distaste for authority. But some of that ethos within Hack Club is likely a byproduct of Latta’s own attitudes about coding.
“Before I started focusing on programming, I felt really stuck,” he said. “I thought the way the world was put together is the way the world was put together, and it’s always going to be that way. Programming really changed that mindset for me.”
Latta began coding in middle school. By the time he got to high school, his interest had flourished into a love of programming. He didn’t know anyone at school he could write code with, though, so he started a coding club with about 15 students.
“It wasn’t the greatest club, but just having anything at all made such a profound impact on what I got out of high school,” he said.
Latta began focusing on testing out of school early so he could devote all of his time to programming. He built his own home-schooling program sophomore year and tested out that same year.
While he was excited for the opportunity to pursue programming, his parents, both social workers, were less sure of his decision, especially since he had decided to forgo college and jump right into the industry.
But their reluctance gave way to support when they saw the success he was finding in the workforce.
He says when he started working at Yo, he was a 16-year-old without a college degree making market rate as an engineer. Latta didn’t specify how much Yo paid him, but a search of Glassdoor showed that software engineers in San Francisco make an average salary of $103,000.
“I think to them at the time that was a ridiculous concept,” Latta said.
He believes a college degree simply isn’t essential to employers anymore, thanks in part to the internet.
“I think the fundamental idea is that a college degree is a ‘vote,’ and so many other things can provide the same value as that vote can,” Latta said.
As for his plans with Hack Club, he plans to focus on expansion during the upcoming year. There are currently clubs in Zimbabwe, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. He plans to broaden his reach domestically and internationally.
But his motivation, at its root, is to continue to empower students through coding.
“The reason why programming is so special to me is that I think programming shows you that you have power, and that you can do things, that you are your own person,” he said.