Fixing Education

A venture capitalist with a passion for education seeks to make a difference.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Adam Enbar.jpgHe’s a man that likes to get right to the point: on his LinkedIn profile, where most people explain who they generally are or what type of positions they’ve held, he writes:

“Put a dent in the universe.”

Under his co-founder and CEO of The Flatiron School heading, he states:

“Fix education.”

When he was previously at Charles River Ventures, what was all that about?

“Help entrpreneurs change things.”

For his brief stint at HubSpot:

“Transform the way the world does marketing.”

He has taught entrepreneurship to prisoners, he’s served as a mentor for children in single-mother homes. And for his six months as an Assistant First-Grade Teacher, he writes:

“The hardest job I’ve ever had.”

Now, Adam Enbar is finding his stride, and going for broke, drawing on his passion to help others, to pioneer workable models, and to do something even harder that will change the world.

The Flatiron School (named after the iconic wedge- or clothes-iron-shaped New York landmark skyscraper) trains passionate, creative people in web and mobile development.

“It’s our goal to show students that programming is more than the mechanics of writing code or a route to a fulfilling career,” says Adam. “It’s a collaborative endeavor that can help them find work they love.”

CREDIT Flatiron School Adam Enbar and Avi Flombaum.jpgAlong with his co-founder, Avi Flombaum, a self-taught technologist bent on helping his students reinvent themselves, with Flatiron School, Adam is aiming high, and using technology to make education accessible to all, regardless of background.

(They’re pictured, above; Adam at left)

They’ve created a new type of online learning platform in the process, and in this EdTech Digest interview, Adam elaborates on:

-his own background

-a brief history of coding

-“skills gaps”

-the opportunity at hand

-putting a school on Mars

-the state of education today and technology’s role in it,

…and in a concise one-liner:

a real purpose for technology.

What part of your professional background has informed your current approach?

Adam: My mother and father were immigrants; neither went to college but they instilled in me the idea that getting a good education should be my top priority.

I became the first in my family to attend college.

But I came away with the feeling that I had spent four years and a lot of money to have an enriching experience – but not come away with many practical skills.

Even after attending business school, I felt I hadn’t exactly learned how to sell things, so I took an entry-level sales job and pounded the phones. Who attends Harvard Business School just to take a sales job to learn a tangible skill?

It was clear to me that something was missing from the education system.

CREDIT Flatiron School learn love code.jpgThat said, I was always passionate about education. I taught first grade in Brooklyn during college; I volunteered teaching entrepreneurship at a prison in Boston after business school.

I shared my parents’ belief in the importance of education, but wanted to take a hard look at what wasn’t working.

Most of the people trying to tackle the problems in education were more focused on bringing radical efficiencies to a failed model – a better textbook, for example – not rethinking the entire model.

Later on as a venture capitalist, as I researched the edtech landscape and became increasingly obsessed with the problem of return on investment in higher ed, what struck me was that most of the people trying to tackle the problems in education were more focused on bringing radical efficiencies to a failed model – a better textbook, for example – not rethinking the entire model.

It’s these learnings and observations that really drove me and my co-founder Avi Flombaum – still the best teacher I’ve ever met – to start a school with a totally new model for education and a maniacal focus on student outcomes and return on investment.

What’s a super brief history of coding in light of the current coding frenzy?

CREDIT Flatiron School Ada.jpgAdam: My co-founder Avi could talk your ear off about the actual history of coding, from Charles Babbage’s analytic engine and Ada Lovelace all the way up to the newest advances in AI.

But I’d say the current coding frenzy came about from the combination of a huge demand for technical talent, a scarcity of developers, and new forms of software engineering education – online resources, Massive Open Online Courses, and coding bootcamps like Flatiron School – that were more accessible than a four year degree.

I also think there’s an element of people today wanting more from their careers and seeing code as a way to make a greater impact.

Since manufacturing jobs have largely gone away, we don’t “make” stuff anymore in that way – but there’s this tremendous desire to create.

Coding can give people that creative outlet in a way that lets them still earn a living.

We’ve seen so many creatively-minded people like writers, musicians, artists discover that coding isn’t the mathematical lonely pursuit it’s sometimes been made out to be.

It’s something they can be passionate about.

What’s your take on student skills, workforce gap, employer needs – and coding?

CREDIT Flatiron School Lovelace lab .jpgAdam: First, there’s still a massive gap between the number of skilled students and the needs of employers for technical talent.

That disparity has fueled the rapid growth of the coding bootcamp industry.

Employers are hungry for new talent and they want to know that you can code, not where you went to school.

Second, regarding student skills, the era of attending four years of college and being set with the skills you’ll need for your whole career is over.

With the rate of change in tech, and so many industries now powered by tech, people need to be committed to lifelong learning.

Employers are looking for candidates who are ready to keep learning on the job – and I believe we’ll see more and more employers investing in upskilling and retraining their employees as their roles evolve.

What numbers can you point to that tell the story?

Adam: This graph from from Code.org shows a clear picture of the huge amount of career opportunity in tech:

On the second point on lifelong learning:

Only 11 percent of business leaders perceive college graduates to be ready for work, so learning on the job is essential.

At Flatiron School, we also conducted a survey that found that a college education alone doesn’t give grads confidence in their long-term professional growth – 65 percent of respondents who finished college believed that they might need or definitely need to obtain additional education in order to advance in their careers.

What prompted you to start Flatiron, what are some notes on its origin?

CREDIT Flatiron School students.jpgAdam: My co-founder and I saw the rising cost of college, increasing student debt, and a corresponding decrease in job prospects for recent grads – with the exception of a booming tech scene.

There was a clear need in the market for developers and people were looking for new ways to learn, to advance their careers without taking on the debt of traditional higher education.

And in Avi we had this amazing teacher who could teach complete beginners how to code and actually get jobs as developers.

It’s evolved and grown from there but our aim is still to help get jobs they love.

What is the end-game in regards to your current mission? How will this change America? the world?

Adam: Our end-game? Flatiron School on Mars!

Our mission has always been to enable the pursuit of a better life through education.

That won’t change – though we’re always evolving the way we go about pursuing it, from launching technology to make our programs more accessible to joining the WeWork family to expand our campuses beyond New York.

I wholeheartedly believe that all of the world’s problems – war, disease, famine, climate change – can be solved through education.

On an individual level, we want to empower people to do what they love.

On a grand scale?

I wholeheartedly believe that all of the world’s problems – war, disease, famine, climate change – can be solved through education.

If we can play some small part in making the world a better place by making it a more educated place, I’d be thrilled.

What other highlights might you share about the importance of your mission?

CREDIT Flatiron School learning.jpgAdam: I’d just underscore that this has never been just about helping people get a job at some sexy startup. It’s about changing people’s lives – and we’ve seen amazing transformations of students going from below the poverty line to launching promising, sustainable careers. This kind of education can fast-track economic mobility.

What is the state of education? What is technology’s role in education?

Adam: Traditional education is in many ways broken. It’s more expensive than ever before and yet it no longer offers the promise of a better job or life to offset that investment.

But I think a new crop of companies are springing up to solve these issues – sometimes on their own and sometimes by partnering with more traditional schools. There’s a tremendous opportunity in the space.

Technology is an essential piece of the puzzle. It allows us to rapidly increase accessibility and make remote learning more effective.

But as I said, it’s important to not limit ourselves to using technology to, say, make a digital textbook – an efficiency on a failed model. Let’s challenge ourselves to actually innovate.

We need to use technology to actually connect people to each other and to better forms of education.

Think about it: if we were to start with a blank slate and rethink higher education, we’d never come up with the current model – impossibly expensive education in one place, over four years, with the involved institutions controlling everything from research to education to housing.

Even edtech hasn’t really tried to reimagine the system yet – they’re just taking lectures and putting them online, which isn’t so different from making textbooks available at a library.

We need to use technology to actually connect people to each other and to better forms of education.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.blog

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