Many people believe you have to be a certified genius to work at a company like Google, Facebook, CheckPoint or CyberArk. But Adam Enbar, a co-founder of the Flatiron School, one the most successful coding schools in New York City, believes everyone can do it.
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“If a thousand years ago you would have asked the average person what percentage of the people could learn to read and write, he would have said maybe 5% The clergy, the aristocracy perhaps, but farmers? That’s crazy,” Enbar told TheMarker, in his first Israeli media interview.
“If I asked you how many people are capable of learning nuclear physics, you would say maybe 1 percent, but that’s nonsense. It’s true that there are people with natural skills, and I’m not denying that there’s genius in the world. But in the end, every generation stands on the shoulders of the giants of previous generations. Things that are difficult for us now will be very easy for our descendants in 200 years. So why do we think we can’t learn these things now?”
Enbar, 34, is an enthusiastic spokesman for the revolution in technology education and he knows whereof he speaks.
Five years ago, he and partner Avi Flombaum launched a unique program that takes more than 450 people a year and after a 15-week, morning-to-night course, succeeds in placing 97% of them in jobs in software development. The average starting salary of alumni who work full-time (52 percent of graduates) is $76,000 a year, and after four years it can reach $100,000.
Their starting salaries are somewhat lower than those of their colleagues with degrees in the field, but for these students it’s a fast-track ticket to a lucrative career path. The average annual salary in New York state is $60,000, the median is $43,500. Hourly wages for those graduates placed in internship positions is $28 — 30% above the median hourly wage.
Zero to employable
“When you look at our data, there’s no significant gap between graduates who had already earned a degree in some other field and those who only took our course,” says Enbar. “Of course, we also have a selection bias [participants do not represent the general population because applicants are screened]. But what can be said with certainty is that it’s possible to bring every student from zero to employable if a suitable program is designed for him. We’ve done programs with New York City for refugees who had no education and the investment was much greater, but they achieved the same results at the end of the course.”
Enbar was in Israel as a guest of the Israel Innovation Authority, which announced in July that it would support organizations that would offer quick training programs in the form of coding boot camps, and it wanted to learn from Flatiron’s experience. The authority is seeking a rapid response to the needs of an industry that’s suffering a personnel shortage and believes the most suitable population for retraining is college graduates in science with a math background who aren’t working in high-tech.
In 2018 the authority plans to subsidize training for 250 people through organizations that win a bidding process, and to increase that to 500 people annually in subsequent years.
Flatiron is one of the pioneers in coding boot camps, which have developed into a flourishing industry in the United States that has generated $266 million in revenue and trained some 15,000 coders.
Not all coding schools succeed; in fact the largest of them, those affiliated with such educational companies like Kaplan or schools like the University of Phoenix have closed. Last year a school called Coding House in Silicon Valley was closed by California regulators after it was revealed that it fabricated its job placement statistics.
The schools that survive tend to be the smaller ones that can adjust their curricula more quickly to meet the industry’s changing needs, which is exactly what universities have difficulty doing.
“The iPhone is 10 years old, and there’s a multibillion-dollar app industry built on it,” explains Enbar. “Even if the universities had begun teaching app development the day the iPhone came out, at best they would have started producing graduates only five or six years ago. The entire mobile economy was created by people that never learned these things in university.”
Do you envision a time when a Harvard degree stops being relevant to employers?
“I go to lots of conferences and meet politicians and educators, and whenever I speak about revolutions in education the first thing people think about are Stanford and Harvard, and they say ‘They’ll be here a long time, even if they don’t change any of their methods,’” says Enbar. “But the truth is that it doesn’t matter, because we’re talking about 1% of the population.
“In Israel you have [Military Intelligence Unit] 8200, people who were smart in high school and got into a unit that sets them up for life. But if we want to improve education in Israel, do we start thinking about the problems in the way things are taught in 8200? Who cares? The real problem is those people who went into debt to get a higher education and can’t get out of it, or people who weren’t in 8200 and for whom we haven’t developed a different system to help them get ahead. They’re the 99%.”
That’s funny, because 8200 is apparently the best proof that this model of intensive training really works.
“I’ve heard that. The question is whether the 8200 model is actually based on the ability to choose superior people at age 17, who would have succeeded in any case. I can’t say. But I think there’s a huge misunderstanding about what technology is, and people think you have to be born at Matrix to write code.
What do you mean?
“In reality there is a wide spectrum, and because this field emerged so fast we are still calling it ‘computer science.’ But once we called all sciences ‘earth sciences’ and didn’t distinguish between biology and physics, or between organic and molecular chemistry. It took years of sophistication to reach that. Today’s job market has a wide spectrum — there’s someone who writes Google’s search engine, for which you presumably need a doctorate in math; and there’s someone else writing email templates, for which you need two weeks of training. And then there are all the hundreds of things in between.”
“Look at the startups with the highest values in the world — Airbnb, Uber, WeWork — most of these companies and most startups do not invent technology. The innovation isn’t technical. ... Most of the value created today is not from inventing technology, but from creating new business models using existing technology. For this what’s really needed is to be creative and empathetic; to understand people and put yourself in their shoes so you can understand their problems. This is exactly the opposite of what people perceive as the spectrum of ‘technical ability’ and what people traditionally think makes a good engineer.”
How do you get employers to believe that?
“When we started Flatiron five years ago there was no such model, and people thought we were crazy. So from the start we said that we weren’t going to fight with the people who think you need a computer science degree from a prestigious university. There are enough people out there who believe there’s another way to learn, or who are at least open enough to say, ‘We’re having trouble recruiting so let’s give this a chance, we’ll interview someone or give him an internship and see what happens.’
“The graduates of our first class found work, and the graduates of our second and third classes found work in better places. Today you can’t think of a company where our graduates haven’t been placed — from Google through Facebook to NASA.
“So all these companies are prepared to employ our graduates and there are still people who will insist on screening out those without a four-year degree? It’s hard to even respond to that. Such a company is simply putting itself at a competitive disadvantage because the bottom line is that I’m bringing them someone who can get the work done.”
Who cares about Google
Flatiron is a relatively a strange bird among programming schools. It raised $15 million, but unlike other schools, it avoided expansion and rapid opening of branches. The capital was invested in developing a technology that makes Flatiron courses available to other students, free and paid. The first results of the platform are encouraging.
Enbar's visit to Israel was also linked to recent news – the school was acquired by the cowork office spaces company WeWork, founded by Israeli Adam Neumann, whose current value is estimated at $ 20 billion. The purchase amount was not published.
Enbar is the first generation who completed a higher education in his family. His father grew up in Israel and immigrated to the United States after his military service, where he met his mother, who spent her childhood in Paris and Canada. During his childhood and adolescence, before he came to New York, Enbar lived in three different places - Miami, Canada, and a certain period in Israel (aged 10-13). "My parents always thought that education was important, and wherever we went, they chose the residential area according to the quality of the nearest school. They believed in the American dream - go to university, learn what you love no matter how much it costs. When I started college, I did not think about what I would learn and how it would affect me.”
"I studied for a bachelor's degree in public policy at Cornell and after working in many jobs unrelated to my education, I went to do an MBA at Harvard, but I did not acquire any hard skills", he said. "I couldn’t enter a workplace and say: 'Here's what I can do for you.'
I was always interested and involved in Education, during my B.A I taught first graders for six months, and during my MBA at Harvard, I taught entrepreneurship to prisoners."
Flatiron reports on the placement of its graduates every year, but does not keep track of the age of the students. According to Enbar, the age range is broad: from 18 to 50 years.
How likely is it for a 40-year-old to start learning programming and get accepted to Google?
"When people talk about high-tech jobs, they immediately think about Facebook and Google; And I don’t say that ageism doesn’t exist, there is definitely a problem in the tech industry that it has to deal with. But it's a big mistake to look at this training through the question of whether they will succeed at Google. Have all Harvard or 8200 alumni go to google – who cares? It’s not Google that lacks programming skills, but the thousands of companies that cannot advance without technology. The New York Times pays programmers more than start-ups, and developers are also needed at banks, fashion chains and supermarkets- so as long as 40 year olds keep themselves relevant they will have a job."
The higher education system is not designed for career changes.
“That’s true. Our whole system is designed for one time learning and a lifelong career. Our education system is actually designed to make factory workers - sit and stand when the bell rings, 15 minutes pause, pay attention, raise your hand when you want to speak. If you were going to invent education from scratch, there are many things you might imagine, but the idea of sending someone to a campus for four years and then say 'OK, now you're done learning, go to work' is crazy, it makes no sense."
What about online course platforms like Coursera? They don’t change the face of education?
"No, when it comes to online education we are failing. We’ve taken the worst part of education, the lecture, and said, 'Let's put it on the Internet and call it technology.'" This is so stupid, because it's a model that assumes that the value of education is in communicating information to students. If that were the case, libraries would have put universities out of business, and it makes me laugh because we repeat these mistakes over and over again. When the radio arrived they also played lectures.”
Why do we fail?
"Because education is not about connecting students with information, it’s about connecting students with each other through information - putting people in one place and giving them a subject to talk about - that's real learning and no one is doing it. It's amazing because it should be obvious-every meaningful technological company - in its core - connects people. Airbnb, Uber, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn. But in the end you come to Coursera and there may be 1,000 people from Tel Aviv who are taking the same online course on the site, but they cannot find each other."
And how are Flatiron's online lessons any different?
"The reason we succeed is not because we have better lecturers or better content or that we are closer to the market - that can be easily copied. It’s because when you enter our platform you do not see a video that speaks to you, but other students- you feel like you are part of a community."
Well, I see you've already adopted the WeWork slogans.
"Our connection with WeWork is exactly the future of education- we have students in Miami who meet up to study in a supermarket because they found each other through our platform and that's where they have a conditioning and a free wifi connection. Now they'll go to WeWork, and learn among the industry because WeWork is the place for start-ups and entrepreneurs – can you imagine any better way to learn?”
You told me you don’t want to be Harvard or 8200, but in fact you created a very selective alternative path, that receives only 10% of the candidates, for a tuition fee of $15,000.
"Our acceptance was limited mainly because of physical limitations – up to 20 students a course - which we hope to solve now with the partnership with WeWork. As for the price, I'm pretty sure we could charge more - the return on investment is amazing relative to other options. By the way, in my first conversation with Adam Neumann after the acquisition, when I presented forecasts and talked about the possibility of raising the price, his reaction was 'Are you mad? We will lower prices and give the opportunity to more people.'"
What would you recommend to people thinking of taking an accelerated training program like Flatiron’s?
"That you have to come for the right reasons. There are people who hate their job, and I tell them that that's a great reason to leave that job, but not necessarily a good reason to do this program. The beauty of programming is that you can try it for free - unlike law, accounting or medicine. You can take a free online course, go to a meetup at WeWork, or work on a project. Make sure you love it before you commit to it."
Will Flatiron open in Israel?
"I hope so! We are opening in several new places this year, mainly in the United States, but WeWork likes to do things first in Israel, so we are actively looking into it."