TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Adam Enbar, founder and CEO of Flatiron School, about how his company is addressing the tech skills gap. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Karen Roby: Let’s talk first about Flatiron. I know you mentioned earlier four different disciplines that people can take part in. Explain those for just a second and then we’ll kind of get into the type of students and who this can work for.
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Adam Enbar: Flatiron School provides modern technical training. We work with consumers who enroll in our program, but also work with corporations who want to train people. Our four key areas of training are software engineering or coding, data science, product design and cybersecurity. And then within each of those, there’s many different career paths and roads people can take to launch a career.
Karen Roby: You guys are headquartered out of New York, correct?
Adam Enbar: That’s right.
Karen Roby: Are students coming to you from that area? Is the need all over the country?
Adam Enbar: Before COVID, we had our campuses open across the country. So we have campuses obviously in New York, but also in Houston, Austin, Denver, Seattle, Chicago, etc. And we also had online programs. About half of our students or more have always been online in over 40 states and over 20 countries. Obviously with COVID, our campuses have been closed until very recently, and so online education has picked up pretty dramatically. But of course, in the areas where we have campuses, we have really, really strong communities of both students and alumni, but also very deep relationships with local employers. So, we have obviously a disproportionate number of students in those areas.
Karen Roby: Now talk a little bit, Adam, about the need for people who are skilled in these areas. I mean, talk about it now versus even when you guys started out Flatiron a couple years ago.
Adam Enbar: Technology is completely transforming the workforce. This whole idea of learn for four years and go work for the rest of your life is just completely obsolete. If you think about when we started Flatiron School, it was 2012. It was just a few years after the iPhone came out. And we’ve seen an explosion and an entire economy built around the App Store, for example. But none of the people that built that stuff studied how to build it in college, right? Because colleges weren’t teaching it. So, most of these people were either self-taught or figuring it out as they went, and that’s becoming more and more true throughout technology, but throughout the entire workforce.
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Adam Enbar: Everything we do is changing, and in order to stay relevant in almost every single profession, people have to skill up and level up. And so we started a Flatiron School to provide people with a cheaper, much more efficient path towards being able to learn these skills and either stay relevant or launch entirely new careers. We teach things that most schools don’t even approach.
Karen Roby: Are you seeing more people coming in as second, maybe even third careers? Or is it more who are college age? Or where are they fitting in?
Adam Enbar: The bulk of it is definitely around second careers. So, I’d say the bulk of our students are somewhere between, say 25 and 45, but we definitely have younger and older students who are super successful. And I think part of that is, as you mentioned, that over the past 10 years, as we’ve grown to serve thousands of students and hundreds and hundreds of employers, we’ve expanded the scope of our disciplines. And so it’s not just software engineering now, but things like cybersecurity is on every company’s mind, and they don’t know where to hire people from because nobody’s training cybersecurity experts in the traditional education system. They just need people. And I think more and more people are aware of this as a career. I think if there’s any common thread among our students, it’s a desire to combine analytical thinking with creativity.
There’s this misnomer, this kind of perception that in order to be good at technology, you have to kind of be born in the matrix or sitting in a dark basement, wearing a hoodie, drinking Mountain Dew. But it’s super not true. If you’ve ever been to a tech company, the technology team has probably the most open, most interesting, most creative working environment.
Technology is not necessarily just about inventing new things and doing math and solving algorithms. Most of it is actually about creativity. Most of the best companies that you’ve heard of recently really didn’t invent some new breakthrough, they just solved a human problem. Airbnb, Uber, these companies just realize like, hey, there’s a better way to do things using technology that already exists. And all that takes is creativity. And so that’s really the most common thread among our students, is they tend to be really creative. They want to be more creative and they want to have an impact. And more and more people are realizing that things like even data science are really driven by creativity. Do you know the right questions to ask, to figure out the how to solve problems at your company?
Karen Roby: And you mentioned, of course, the educational system in general and this antiquated idea of you go to four years and then this is your career the rest of your life. What will it take to change, on a bigger scale, this way of thinking about people and careers and where they fit in?
Adam Enbar: I think it’s already starting to happen. People are, once they’re in their career, they’re less and less interested in quitting and going back to school for two years to get a master’s degree. It’s insanely expensive. There’s a huge opportunity cost. Where if you know what you want to do, you can get a really efficient path directly towards that. So at Flatiron School, our shortest programs are 15 weeks long, and we have an incredibly high success rate of students getting to really high-paying jobs, even total career switchers.
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I think it’s already starting to happen at the graduate level and among people who are already working. I think it’s coming soon for even younger generations. You see tons of articles out there about student debt and how big of a problem that is. And I think we’re in the early innings of that conversation where all the conversation is around student loans and student debt. But I think the next part of the conversation is going to shift to the outcomes. Because the reality is, who cares if you went into $400,000 of student loan debt? If you got a great job and great career and you can pay it off, then it was worth it. So, it’s not about the debt in and of itself. It’s about the fact that colleges need to be held accountable to actually getting their students good outcomes.
And that’s what we do at Flatiron School. We invented transparent jobs outcomes reporting. We’ve had auditors audit our jobs reports for every student that’s ever graduated, and so we have very transparent job placement numbers. And I think more and more, students are starting to question, “Hey, is this education really going to be worth it?” before they just sign those big student loan documents.
Karen Roby: Talk for a second about cybersecurity. Again, it’s in the mainstream media more now than ever as we’ve had these high-profile cyber attacks, and everyday people are starting to understand, I think, the significance. But cybersecurity, we don’t have enough people, not even near enough to fill these roles to staff companies.
Adam Enbar: Not only do we not have enough people to fill the roles, we’re still inventing the roles in real time, right? These threats are just starting to happen. And so you have these folks that come to me saying, “Oh my gosh, it’d be really bad if we got hacked. We have a lot of sensitive data. What do we do?” So, largely, there are two types of roles we train people for. One role is kind of more of an analyst role where your whole job is almost to try to hack into the company. You’re looking for the vulnerabilities. You’re paid to essentially be a hacker and say, “Oh, here’s a place where a hacker might get in. Let me report that. Let me help flag that so we can fix that bug.”
And then the other side of the career is the engineering side, where you’re actually building the systems. You’re building the fortress to protect the company. And all of these things are being invented in real time. And so cybersecurity is in its earliest days and it’s very much like software engineering or app development was just a couple of years after the iPhone. Everything is, like I said, being invented, which is exciting because it both provides people with a huge opportunity to learn on the job. It’s expected that you’re going to keep learning because we’re all just kind of inventing it as we go. But also [there are] huge opportunities for very fast advancement. You know, if you have just a few years of experience in cybersecurity, you’re one of the most experienced people out there. So, there’s a lot of opportunity for really fast mobility and a really great career. So we’re seeing a huge amount of demand from employers trying to hire people. And then of course, more and more people coming in wanting to learn these skills.
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Karen Roby: And on the employer side, Adam, some of the companies that you guys work with or that students end up going to work for, what are you hearing from them? How has the conversation changed even since this last 18 months we’ve been living through?
Adam Enbar: I think it’s interesting. Back when we start in Flatiron School, people are like, “What are you crazy? You’re going to take somebody who didn’t graduate from college or somebody who graduated with a liberal arts degree and put them into a technical role?” People were really skeptical of the model. But at this point we’ve placed grads at almost every single Fortune 500 company. We work with some of the most respected tech companies in the world. And I think a big part of that is the realization that there are just not enough people with training in any of these areas. And even if you look at traditional degrees like computer science, they’re so broad, but they don’t actually teach you the skills you need to learn to do the job.
It’s like studying economics. It’s a really great foundation, but it’s not going to teach you how to balance your checkbook or run a financial statement, two totally different things. And so we really teach people the practical skills on the job, so that they can get started and be productive right away. And companies really, really, really value that. And you’re starting to see some of the biggest companies out there, even some of the more traditional ones like banks, waiving the college degree requirement. Because they’re realizing, you know what, who cares what kind of pedigree or stamp of approval you have? If you can get the job done, we want to hire you. And that’s really exciting because it also provides a lot of opportunity for more diversity in the workforce and diversity in technical roles because a lot of folks are coming to this from really non-traditional backgrounds.
Karen Roby: Let’s just go a year from now. How do you see education, how we embrace it in tech? How is it really going to change?
Adam Enbar: Colleges move pretty slow. I think that’s for a reason, I think we’re optimistic that COVID is a little bit of an accelerant and will force them to get their act together. But ultimately I think the real change is going to happen on the employer front. When I went to college, I got a ton of student loan debt. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and the line was, “Just get a degree. It doesn’t matter what you study. It doesn’t matter what it costs. Just go to college.” I think we’re smarter than that now. I think a generation of people have grown up with a ton of debt, and they’re not telling their kids that same thing. They’re saying, “Hey, why don’t you think about it? What do you want to study? What are the job prospects? How much is it really going to cost? And let’s be smart about this decision.”
And I think that’s going to force schools to think critically about how much they’re charging for different types of education with different outcomes. And at the same time, I think you’re seeing employers completely open up their thinking about what it takes to be successful on the job and realizing that as much as everybody needs higher education these days, with technology and with everything that’s happening, you just need more than a high school degree. That doesn’t necessarily mean college anymore. It could be military experience combined with something like a Flatiron School and stuff that you’ve picked up learning on your own, building your own stuff. There are all kinds of ways to get a higher education. And I think our minds are opening up to all of those different pathways, which I think is really exciting because it’s going to provide a lot more people the opportunity to really achieve that American dream of building a better life through education and have more paths available to them to do that.