In this episode, we talk about the necessity of coding apprenticeships in making the tech world a more diverse and inclusive place, with Ryan Carson, CEO and founder of Treehouse. He talks about the limitations of the pure bootcamp model and how apprenticeship programs can lead to real change in terms of equality, diversity, and inclusion.
[00:00:05] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host Saron, and today we’re talking about the necessity of coding apprenticeships and making the tech world a more diverse and inclusive place with Ryan Carson, CEO and Founder of Treehouse.
[00:00:23] RC: The system is never going to change unless you’re able to build generational wealth and then pass some of that onto your kids.
[00:00:29] SY: Ryan talks about the possible limitations of the pure bootcamp model and our apprenticeship program can lead to real change in terms of equality, diversity, and inclusion after this.
[00:00:47] Career Karma helps code newbies with free career coaching to help them learn to code and find a high-paying job in tech in less than a year. Download the Career Karma app to start your 21-day challenge and be one of the over 60,000 people who they’ve helped get started. Visit careerkarma.com/codenewbie.
[00:01:07] Heroku is a platform that enables developers to build, run, and operate applications entirely in the cloud. It streamlines development, allowing you to focus on your code, not your infrastructure. It also lets you use the most popular open source languages to build web apps.
[00:01:24] Learn how to code online with Educative’s text-based courses with in-browser embedded coding environments. With their newly launched Educative’s subscriptions, users can now get unlimited access to every course offered with a single fee. Get 10% off site-wide by going to educative.io/codenewbie.
[00:01:44] DigitalOcean offers the simplest, most developer friendly cloud platform. It’s optimized to make managing and scaling apps easy with an intuitive API, multiple storage options, integrated firewalls, load balancers, and more. Get started on DigitalOcean for free with the free $100 credit at DO.co/codenewbie.
[00:02:13] SY: Thanks so much for being here.
[00:02:14] RC: I’m so excited. It’s good to reconnect and I love your show, so thanks for having me.
[00:02:18] SY: Thank you. And you have a great podcast voice, by the way.
[00:02:22] RC: I hear that a lot. So I guess, thank you.
[00:02:24] SY: It’s true. It’s true.
[00:02:26] RC: I was born that way.
[00:02:26] SY: Yeah. So let’s start with your background. How did you start your coding journey?
[00:02:33] RC: Well, I was lucky. So I was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1977. I had a dad who was a stockbroker and a mom who was a teacher, and my dad was just kind of nerdy and he always tried to buy the latest computer. So in the ’80s, the latest and greatest was an Apple IIe. That’s the first computer I remember, and it was sitting in our living room, and I think it had a green screen, didn’t have colors, and I just remember you could play these really primitive games, like, you know, Zork and things like that. And of course, I fell in love. One day, I was walking down the hallway in high school, in 11th grade and I had this amazing math teacher and her name was Ms. Bruce and she was super not cool. She actually wrote raps for us to learn like math concepts. But she said, “Ryan, did you know we have a computer programming class?” And I was like, “What’s programming? I know what a computer is.” But she said, “Well, it’s where you tell the computer what to do and it does it.” And I was like, “What? I want that.” And she changed my whole life. So I went on to learn how to program after that.
[00:03:54] SY: So what was that computer programming class like? What’d you do?
[00:03:58] RC: So it was in a language called Turbo Pascal. It was basically command line. There was no gooey or anything at all. And what we did though, I would say it was fun. So we basically created a program that allowed you to book seats on a pretend airplane. And so what you would do is you had to figure out how to draw the seats and kind of ASCII text. So you would make little lines for the rows and little Xs for the seats, and then it would say something like, “Which seat would you like to book?” And you’d have to say, “A1,” and then it would tell you whether or not someone was sitting in that seat or not. I mean it was hilariously primitive. It just blew my mind because I thought, “Well, wait a minute. We’re creating something out of nothing and theoretically we can create things that book flights,” because this is like 1993. So I just realized, “Wow, you can create anything if you do this.”
[00:05:00] SY: So after high school, did you end up sticking with computer programming?
[00:05:04] RC: Yeah. So it was interesting. So I graduated in 1996 and the web was just starting. There were those dummies books, the yellow books on how to learn HTML. I remember my dad bought me one. I started messing around with HTML and my first website, but what’s fascinating is I didn’t choose computer science at first. So I actually fell in love with chemistry, bizarrely.
[00:05:29] SY: Oh, interesting.
[00:05:30] RC: I just loved my chemistry class in high school and I really understood how it worked and it made total sense to me. So when I went to college, I was majored in chemistry. But then when I got to college, the internet really started to happen and I kind of thought, “Wow! do I want to be in like a chemistry lab or do I want to be a part of this revolution that’s happening?” So I registered for computer science and never looked back.
[00:05:59] SY: So when you decided to switch to computer science and you talk about being part of this revolution, what exactly did that mean? What did you envision for yourself?
[00:06:07] RC: We were just starting to see web browsers. I think Netscape Navigator got released and it was clear that the world is opening up, that you could go to a website and learn things and search for things, and I think the search engine was AltaVista and Yahoo.com came out. It just blew everyone’s minds that you could access all this information through a web browser. And I wasn’t particularly entrepreneurial, like I didn’t think, “I’m going to start a company and build the next big thing.” I just found the whole industry kind of interesting, and I knew I wanted to create things. And so even though I learned C++, I didn’t learn a single thing about web development in college. I’m a little bitter about that, but we can talk about that later. So it just kind of got on board with all this web stuff and self-taught myself. All that’s to say, I act like, “Well, I became web developer,” but actually it was this hilarious kind of version of that where I ended up interviewing for a job in Cambridge, England. So I didn’t know how to find jobs. They didn’t teach you that in college.
[00:07:19] SY: Yeah. They don’t teach you that anywhere. I wish they did.
[00:07:22] RC: Right. Me too. And I was like, “Well, here’s how to write algorithms, but figure out how to get a job on your own.” So I was like, “I guess I ask a recruiter to help me find a job.”
[00:07:30] SY: Yeah.
[00:07:30] RC: So I found some recruiter in England and he said, “Here’s a job in Cambridge, England doing web development.” So I arrived at this little web development shop. It was called Spider Creations because of the web, right? Get it?
[00:07:48] SY: Got it.
[00:07:48] RC: And so I got in this interview, which you had to have a computer science degree to get a job interview. And then going through this interview, and then they say, “Well, we actually write in a language called ColdFusion.” And I said, “I don’t know that. I literally never even heard of that.” And they said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. Read a book.”
[00:08:09] SY: Wow.
[00:08:10] RC: And I feel like time stopped. And I thought, “Wait, what?” It was like the world I thought existed evaporated where you had to get a degree and you’re going to learn the right things, and your parents, I was lucky they paid for my degree and all of a sudden it was immediately clear I didn’t need any of that. I needed this piece of paper, which got me the interview and I got mad. I thought, “Wait a minute. This system is designed to hold people out.” And I just thought, “Nope, I want to change this. This is not right.” And so the very first time I ever thought about Treehouse was that day.
[00:08:52] SY: So let’s get into that. Treehouse is the company that you started. You are CEO of. What is Treehouse?
[00:08:59] RC: Treehouse started off at the simple idea. Let’s take computer science, let’s synthesize it to its essence, computer science fundamentals, and then let’s add real world projects on top of that, and let’s put it online and let’s make it affordable. And we did that 10 years ago. So fast forward to today, we’ve taught 850,000 adults how to code.
[00:09:26] SY: Wow!
[00:09:26] RC: Yeah, which is fun to think about.
[00:09:27] SY: That’s a lot. Yeah.
[00:09:28] RC: And there’s a lot of good that came out of that, but there was a big problem. Actually in 2016, it’s like as soon as the ink was dry, I had this terrible feeling that I still didn’t understand what the deep problem was because we had been working at that point for years and years and years and then you had looked at all the diversity reports and I looked around and it was clear, tech is still not diverse at all. And so if we started this school to create equity and to create access and then to empower everybody, why is it not working? And so essentially I got educated. I read books like The New Jim Crow. I listened to podcasts like Seeing White. I interviewed people who were black and brown and women and just listened to their experiences. And I realized, “Wow! We have systematic generational deep issues in this country.” An online school is not going to fix them. So really we just started the next chapter of what we do. I met an amazing woman named Colleen Showalter. She worked at the Boys & Girls Clubs. She said, “You know what? I have high potential talent coming out of my program all the time. They have high school degrees. They’re gritty, they’re creative, they’re hardworking. They just don’t know that they could be in tech. They don’t see anybody in tech like them. So they’re just not even choosing that option and many of them can’t afford college, or if they do, they’re going to take on tons of student debt. So Ryan, why don’t we recruit those individuals and unlock scholarships to the Treehouse tech degree?” So at this point, we had released what’s called a Tech Degree. It’s our online bootcamp. It has projects and grading and a Slack channel on top of all of our amazing curriculum. And so we would unlock scholarships to that and then we would wrap the whole thing with services. So we would make sure everybody had broadband and laptops. We would do financial literacy training. We would teach 21st century skills like Agile and how do you Slack and how to do standups. And then at the end, I said, “I’ll go find employers to hire people as apprentices.” And Colleen and I just said, “Let’s try it. Let’s just try to see if this works.” And it wasn’t supposed to be a program or something that we made money out of it. It was just, “Let’s see if we can do something.” And Nike said, “We’ll try it,” and then Envision said, “We’ll try it.” And then I thought, “Oh my goodness! I think this could work.” And so we just kind of did it. We had five amazing individuals come through that program. They were all Latinx and they are still working as software engineers today. Abby works at Vacasa and Victor and Hector work at Nike and Carlos works at Treehouse and we saw their incomes triple. We saw them get 100% covered with medical, dental, and vision insurance. We saw them contributing to 401(k)s. It was transformative. Fast forward today, we’re placing 20 times the number of apprentices. We’ve expanded from one city to nine cities, from three employers to like fifteen. We’re seeing incomes go from 21K to 62K. We’re seeing one out of three have health care to now 100% have health care. We saw an 820% increase in 401(k) contributions. All of this was zero dollars of student debt and zero tuition. It’s 100% funded by the employers.
[00:13:21] SY: So what is the incentive for employers? Because training someone is just in general expensive and then taking a chance on them as apprentices can be expensive. And then from there, placing them into jobs is also very risky for them. What is the incentive for them not only doing and signing up, but paying you to do it?
[00:13:42] RC: So there are two things. One is moral imperative. What we do is we directly talk to VP of engineers or CTOs or Chief Diversity Officers, and we say, “Would you like to build a diverse team?” And of course they say, “Yes. Yeah, we would like to do that for more reasons,” like this is imperative. But then they also say, “We’re in a talent war. We are getting beat more and more by Google, Facebook, Amazon, et cetera, and we just can’t hire enough talent. And whenever we do, they get poached and we need another talent pipeline.” And so we basically come and say, “Well, great news. You can literally hire diverse talent that is black and Latinx and LGBTQ and women from your city. You don’t have to import talent. Then that talent that we will find is amazing, creative, hardworking, wonderful and then that talent will retain better because you’ve invested in them. You’ve empowered them to change their lives.” And so I think those are the reasons why people are saying yes and then what we find is the program works and then they say, “Can we please have more amazing talent? This is awesome.”
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[00:15:38] Career Karma is a free service started by bootcamp grads for bootcamp grads. Coaches, our current coding bootcamp students, who mentor people to help prepare and get accepted to bootcamps in just three weeks. We spoke to Kesha Lake who used Career Karma and is now an engineer at Stitch Fix.
[00:15:56] KL: I was really looking for a way to jumpstart my career, but not just getting me ready for the career itself, but to get me ready for bootcamp. I figured if I can do the 21-day challenge, then I can do the bootcamp.
[00:16:08] SY: So what was the challenge? What was it like?
[00:16:11] KL: The instructions were to speak to one person on your level and one person above your level every day and then post some sort of proof about it as a screenshot or a picture.
[00:16:21] SY: Did you know anything about coding before this?
[00:16:24] KL: I knew absolutely nothing about coding. So the 21-day challenge really set me up perfectly. I made friends, I started networking with people who would eventually make recommendations for me to get the job that I landed, but they also offered a lot of resources and support. You know, initially I was coding on my phone because I didn’t have a working laptop. Career Karma put me together with another one of their members who donated the first laptop and then I do get to upgrade to a Macbook so I’ve got another laptop from the Career Karma community.
[00:16:52] SY: So what kind of work do you do at Stitch Fix?
[00:16:54] KL: So I work on automation projects that help plan of ease the burden of our warehouse workers. So I kind of do a lot of telling machines what to do, which is exciting. It’s mostly back end work.
[00:17:03] SY: That’s fancy.
[00:17:04] KL: Yeah, it is. It’s kind of sexy and I’m really excited about it. I really leaned more towards back end development as opposed to front end doing bootcamp. So to find a job that would let me focus on that is kind of a dream come true.
[00:17:16] SY: Visit careerkarma.com/codenewbie to get started. So you mentioned the moral part of this. Do you feel like the 15 companies clearly care, they’re clearly on board with the mission and eager to see returns and are seeing returns on their investment? But do you think that most employers actually care? Because I think it’s easy to say like, “Oh, I believe in diversity and inclusion,” and then not do anything about it. Do you feel like there are enough companies out there that care enough to put dollars? Now I imagine this program is probably not cheap enough to fund this and make this sustainable.
[00:17:57] RC: You know what’s interesting is there are a ton of people that work in large companies that truly care. They just don’t know what to do. There are people like me who clearly believe that there should be equity, that there should be opportunity, but don’t know what to do about it. It’s a systematic, deep problem and it feels unfixable. And so we come along and say, “Well, actually there is a solution.” Now it’s not easy, it’s not quick, but it does work. And what we do is we put together all the pieces into one program. And so then it feels that they can actually do something by saying yes to this program because it is very hard. We have to find a local community partner for the talent, right? The Boys & Girls Clubs of America or Dress for Success or AnitaB.org. We have to. Build that talent pipeline then we have to recruit, then we have to train, then we have to train the company on inclusive onboarding and then we have to onboard the apprentices and then we have to run customer success in the whole process, like it’s just a huge program. And so we basically say, “Guess what? We bring you this program with a bow on top, it works. You just have to say yes.” All of a sudden, all those people that believe and want to do something can actually do something about it. So I think that’s why we’re seeing people say yes, ezCater and Toast, and Niantic, the creators of Pokemon GO, recently said yes. And Verizon said yes. And so I think it’s encouraging and I think this movement is going to take off. We kind of wrapped all this in a movement called Project: Unlock the American Dream, and the goal is to empower 100,000 people to be placed to software engineer apprentices. It’s going to take 10 years minimum. It’s going to happen in 10 cities. It’s going to take a billion dollars of investment, but I know it’s going to happen.
[00:19:58] SY: So how long is this program? If I decide I’m interested, I want to be an apprentice, do I sign up? Do I apply? And then from that moment, how long before I get an apprenticeship?
[00:20:09] RC: So if you’re interested in learning more, just head to projectunlocktheamericandream.org and you can do four things. If you are somebody who wants an apprentice, there’s an option that says, “I would like to be an apprentice.” And it’s a very simple form. Give us your name, your email, and your location. And then what we do is we send you an email with more information. The way it works is we find an employer first. We don’t want to promise people jobs. We don’t want to make outlandish claims. We can place people in an apprenticeship if there’s an employer. So what we do is say to everybody, “Sit tight as we find employers in your city. We will tell you how to apply for the program.” A good example is Niantic. Niantic is hiring UX designers in Seattle. So then we go to Seattle and activate that waiting list and that talent source and then we have people apply. So the process is two months for recruitment where people are applying and learning more about the program and then we go through an equitable selection process. Then we go through a three-month learning period where you’re actually paid to learn. The employer pays you a living wage per hour and it means you can focus instead of trying to learn at night when you’re exhausted, and then we see about 85% to 90% of people make it through that learning process. And then those folks will then go on to unlock the apprenticeship, which is on-site at the company. Again, paid a living wage, and 80% of people complete that apprenticeship and then are converted after the three months to full-time employees.
[00:21:48] SY: At the same company?
[00:21:49] RC: At the same company. Right. So it’s all designed with a specific company in mind.
[00:21:53] SY: Right.
[00:21:53] RC: So we say very specifically, there is a job at Niantic, at ezCater, at Verizon, and then we go onto support the converted apprentices who are now software engineers for three years, and that’s why the program is expensive. That’s why the employers fund it because we can’t expect to just throw people in a company and have them be successful.
[00:22:18] SY: They need to be supported.
[00:22:19] RC: Yeah. They need to be supported. We really offer that additional support so that as companies become more diverse, people can make it and stay so they can build generational wealth for themselves and their families.
[00:22:32] SY: Yeah. You mentioned earlier that you did a lot of learning and a lot of listening and having a better understanding for a lot of these systematic issues. When you were hearing those stories that ultimately inform what you’re doing now with Unlock the American Dream, what were some of the stories that you heard that were most surprising to you?
[00:22:52] RC: I’ll never forget. When we were in Atlanta, we were explaining the program to a group of individuals that had come from the Boys & Girls Clubs, and one of them was a woman. She was black and she said, “We get health care?” And we said, “Yep, you bet. You’re 100% covered, medical, dental, and vision insurance, and that’s provided by the employer.” And I didn’t think much of that. In my amazing privilege world, I’ve always been able to go to the doctor. I’ve always been able to go to the dentist. I had braces. I’ve never had any medical issues. I’ve never been scared that I would get sick and not be able to solve it, and so I didn’t think much of it. And then she choked up and started crying. And I said, “What’s going on?” And she said, “You don’t understand. I have kids and I can’t take them to the doctor. If they get sick, there’s nothing I can do.” And I have kids, I have two amazing boys, and I just lost my mind. I thought, “Oh my God. Like what if I couldn’t take my boys to the doctor?” It’s just one of those one of like a thousand moments where my eyes have been open to the reality that a lot of Americans face that there are two different Americas, right? There’s the one I experienced and then there’s another one. And in that world, there’s no guarantee of food or medical care or shelter. And if you work hard, you don’t always get in. So we’re really trying to address those systematic issues and provide support. That’s why we train people on 401(k)s and contributions and how generational wealth is the key. We don’t just want to empower people to get a larger salary. The system is never going to change unless you’re able to build generational wealth and then pass some of that onto your kids. That’s why we say, “None of this matters if you don’t contribute to your 401(k). Here’s how it works. Contribute 6% the maximum you can. What’s bonkers is your employer will often match that. You literally get 100% return instantly.” And then a lot of your listeners probably know this, but the median net worth not salary, net worth of black and Latinx families in America is $18,000. That’s it. And so what we’re able to do is empower people to save into that 401(k). Say that they never get a raise. They stay at 62K, which would be a disaster, but say that happened. If they just contribute 6% with no employer match, their 401(k) will be worth $3 million by age 79. Right?
[00:25:32] SY: Wow.
[00:25:32] RC: So you can just imagine what that will do to families and communities that have been traditionally locked out of the American Dream.
[00:25:39] SY: So I want to talk about that salary a bit, the 62,000, because when you’re going from 20,000, $62,000 sounds like a ton of money, but when you compare it to industry average salaries for developers, that’s pretty low, right? I think the average for the US is I want to say like 90 maybe 100 and places like New York it’s well above that.
[00:26:01] RC: Yeah.
[00:26:01] SY: Is there a road or a path for these apprentices to make it up that far or is there an inherent ceiling that they’re facing?
[00:26:10] RC: Absolutely, there’s a ladder and a path. So what happens is in markets like Portland or Atlanta, that’s where we’re starting to see people get placed at 62K. in markets like San Francisco and New York, we’d see much higher, 75, 80K, but the whole point is to see people rise, right? None of this matters if people get stuck where they can’t rise and they can’t make more money. So what we’re doing is we’re basically placing people as associate engineers. It is often the level below where you’re getting if you’re a computer science grad, but we quickly see people advancing. This is why we offer three years of career support, right? So we’re basically advocating on behalf of the converted apprentices and empower them to actually get that raise, to get that promotion, to navigate that career ladder, which they’ve not been taught how to do. Also, very quickly we see people getting promoted past that. So Hector is a good example. He was in our first pilot program. He’s already making a lot more than 62K. And so yes, the absolute strategy is place them at associate engineer and then create a path for them to rise. And the whole goal is eventually people become managers, VPs.
[00:27:29] SY: So what have you learned about apprenticeships? What does it take to be a good apprentice?
[00:28:52] SY: So nowadays, there are so many different ways that you can learn how to code, and there are free resources online. There are fully built out curriculums. There are free programs. There are cheap programs. There’s even bootcamps that allow you to do deferred tuition, right? So you don’t owe anything upfront. And I can hear people looking at that landscape of just so many opportunities, so many resources looking at your program and thinking, “This is kind of overkill. This is like a lot of stuff.” And do people actually need that? Why can’t they just go out and sign up for one of these deferred tuition bootcamps and figured out on their own? Why do they need this? What do you say to people like that?
[00:29:30] RC: Well, there are systematic barriers in place and I think if you can afford to take time off and go to a bootcamp and then defer payment until you get a job, great. That kind of means you’re at a certain privilege level, but a lot of people in America, they can’t do that. They have to go to work to pay their rent, to feed their kids. And so you’re kind of just ignoring this huge population in America that can’t do that. So I would say if you are from a population that’s been systematically boxed out of tech and apprenticeship programs like ours, and there are others, I don’t want to claim that we’re the only one. If you can get a place in a program like that, obviously go for it because there’s no tuition, there’s a guarantee job at the end and there’s no income share agreement and there’s no student debt. Awesome. That’s why we built the program to serve specific communities that have been boxed out. If you’re already able to take time off and learn, great, there are options like Lambda, which are great. They’re effective. You don’t have to pay till you get a job. So I think there’s different solutions for different people and we’re just one that specifically our mission is to focus on communities that have been traditionally boxed out. That’s what we really care about and that’s what we’re really focusing on, but it’s not perfect for everybody.
[00:31:00] SY: Coming up next, Ryan talks about whether a four-year college is still a good option for people who want to get coding jobs after this.
[00:31:19] With DigitalOcean’s cloud infrastructure, you’ll be able to build faster and scale easier from predictable pricing to flexible configurations, to world-class customer support. You’ll get access to all the infrastructure services you need to grow. Plus, DigitalOcean’s community provides over 2,000 tutorials to help you stay up to date with the latest open source software, languages and frameworks. Get started on DigitalOcean for free with a free $100 credit at DO.co/codenewbie. That’s DO.co/codenewbie.
[00:31:55] If there’s one thing that comes up over and over again in our podcast, it’s that everyone has a different way of learning. We had our producer, Levi Sharpe, try out Educative to level up his Python skills. And he really took to the service’s tech space courses with in-browser embedded coding environments. And Levi, what did you take?
[00:32:15] LS: I took learn Python from scratch, so I’ve been learning Python a little bit. So I was a little bit familiar, but I found that these courses, they’re laid out in a really intuitive way. There’s like these sections that lead seamlessly one into the other. The Python 1 goes from data types and variables to conditional statements, functions, loops, and then each section has a quiz to make sure that you’re not just blasting through and like the information is going in one ear and out the other.
[00:32:47] SY: I love the quizzes.
[00:32:48] LS: Yeah. It really called me out on my BS because I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I get it, I get it.” And then I took the quiz and they were like, “You don’t get it.” And I was like, “Ah!”
[00:32:58] SY: You got me.
[00:32:59] LS: You got me. And then throughout all of these different sort of sections, you can code within the service itself. So you don’t need like an external coding thing. I should know what that’s called. Do you know what that’s called?
[00:33:14] SY: I’m not going to tell you. I’m not going to give you an IDE.
[00:33:17] LS: Yes, that’s what it says, an IDE. Did you know I’m a producer for a coding podcast?
[00:33:23] SY: A technical podcast.
[00:33:25] LS: Yeah.
[00:33:25] SY: Two actually, two technical podcasts.
[00:33:26] LS: That’s true.
[00:33:27] SY: Get 10% off site wide by going to educative.io/codenewbie. So from everything that we’ve talked about today, it sounds like your company might be a nonprofit, but your company’s actually for-profit. So tell me about how that works. Is that conflicting for you? Is that weird for you to have such a social cause, but then make money from it?
[00:33:56] RC: No, it’s funny because I get that question all the time. And I believe that monetary incentives drive behavior. We chose to be a for-profit 10 years ago, right? So I mean this was before I even had the idea of doing apprenticeship. So we were a for-profit Delaware C-Corp. We raised venture capital. We did all that. And I think as I’ve learned what actually is the problem and actually how to tackle it, we’ve adapted into this apprenticeship model. And so what I tell people all the time is for-profit and not for profit, one isn’t morally better than the other. It’s really about how do you achieve impact. And so if I have a sales team, for instance, that is rewarded for going out and getting an employer to do an apprenticeship deal because they get paid to do that, there’s an inherent model there that drives behavior and we will be able to serve more apprentices because we have more employers, right? If we instead say, “No, we need to be a non-profit and we need to not pay any commission,” you have to purely rely on people’s moral drive. And I’m just a realist. There’s a way to drive behavior that is both good and sustainable financially. We’re a purpose driven for-profit. I haven’t taken a single dollar of bonus or raised my salary in years and years and years. I’m not trying to make more money out of this. I simply want to build a sustainable long-term company that can work on a very important problem and not constantly be worrying about we’ve got to go raise more money from donors or we have to raise more money from venture capitalists. They’re both the same problem. So instead, we built a simple, sustainable model where the employers fund it and we’re reasonably profitable. We’re not trying to maximize profit as much as we can. So that’s kind of where we come from.
[00:35:56] SY: So how do your investors feel about that? Because usually when we talk about venture capitalists and being venture backed, they’re looking for scale, they’re looking for high growth companies, and this is not that, 100,000 people over 10 years. So I’m wondering like how do people feel about that?
[00:36:13] RC: Well, I initially thought simply synthesizing the computer science degree to its essence and putting it online and charging 25 bucks a month would change the system and that would be a model which would scale the number of students very quickly, empower a lot of people and create a high growth profitable company. And so it seemed like venture capital is the right way to go initially. Gosh, if we could scale this fast and we can serve more people, we can cause more impact. Gosh, we haven’t raised a dollar since 2013. So it’s been six years now, but in the beginning everybody thought, “Ed tech was this kind of magical sauce where everyone’s life would change just because of online learning.” And it just turns out people are messier than that. Systems are more complex than that. And so what we learned and our investors learned through the process is that yes, we can create impact. We can build a meaningful company. We can serve a lot of people. It’s just not some tech crunchy, unicorn-y thing. And honestly, I don’t care. I’m doing this because I believe it matters. Now I want to serve my investors. I’m a moral person. I want them to see a return. So I told them a long time ago, “Folks, this isn’t going to be that unicorn rocket ship thing that you all hope for, but that’s okay because I’m going to build a long-term sustainable company that’s going to do true good. You’ll probably get your money back somehow. Hopefully, a multiple of it, but you just have to be patient.” The way investors work is they maximize for one out of ten of their investments to return the whole fund. And so once it’s clear that you’re not that one, then they just kind of go, “Well, that’s nice. Keep us informed.” They don’t want to cause any trouble or run you into the ground or as long as you’re not going out of business. So that’s kind of the reality of it.
[00:38:17] SY: Yeah. They’ve accepted it.
[00:38:18] RC: They have, but also I was lucky. My wife and I, Jill and I, we founded the company. So we owned the majority of it from the beginning. So as we raise capital, we weren’t diluted very much. So the brutal reality is that she and I own enough of the company that we can control the board and say, “This is what we’re doing and here’s where we’re going.”
[00:38:39] SY: So we’ve talked a lot about diversity, inclusion, systematic issues, and minority communities and what’s holding them back. And it is interesting to have these conversations with a white guy who’s the CEO. So when you hear these kinds of conversations, a lot of times what might come to mind is this white savior idea of having like this white guilt and coming in and like saving the community. How do you feel about that criticism? Is that a little bit about what you’re doing?
[00:39:09] RC: It’s 100% legitimate that people feel that way. So I want to acknowledge that, and I also want to state clearly, I am not a white savior. I’m not handing out charity. This is literally me using my privilege and my access for good. What I’ve learned this whole process is that solving the racial crisis in America and the gender crisis in America requires work from everybody. It’s not just black and Latinx folks and Native Americans that need to work on the racism issue in America, right? It’s not just women and trans folks that need to deal with the gender issues. It’s actually everybody. And so I as a super privileged, cis-gendered able bodied white male, I have a role to play and I’ve got to play it. Otherwise, that piece of the puzzle isn’t there. So I just always say, “You know what? I’m just using my access to just crack the door open so other people can run through it. I do get that criticism a lot and I understand it and I don’t blame people for feeling that way. There’s been a lot of white men who have really kind of extorted and taken advantage of everybody for a long time. So I think it’s fair that people are cautious about it.
[00:40:32] SY: You mentioned the pathway to success, one of the most common one being to go to college, get a degree and get a job. And I’m wondering, are you advocating against that or is this just simply another path that people can take to get to the career they want? Are you actively against the college degree or is that another option as well?
[00:40:55] RC: Unless you have a guaranteed paid apprenticeship that’s funded by the employer, I think it’s dangerous to say don’t go to college because the truth is in America, that’s still the primary path, right? So if you can go to college and if you can study computer science and ideally not load yourself with student debt, you should do that. But if you have a path to a program, like the Treehouse Apprenticeship Program or a program like it, take it because it is a more affordable, more sustainable, more equitable, more effective way to get a job and to build wealth for your family.
[00:41:40] SY: Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Ryan, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:41:48] RC: Let’s do it.
[00:41:50] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:41:53] RC: Take venture capital.
[00:41:54] SY: Oh, interesting! And you took that advice. So tell me about that. Why was that the worst advice?
[00:41:59] RC: Oh gosh, it turns out that not every company should do that. It’s great for models where you’re building a medical device that takes a billion dollars to make and then you figure out if it works. But gosh, most companies just instead, you should just go find customers, charge them money, and create a sustainable business. That’s really what matters.
[00:42:21] SY: Yeah. But taking VC money is such a badge of honor, but I feel like recently, maybe it’s because of all the tech IPOs that have not been going well, I feel like there’s a lot of pride in being able to say, “I own 100% of my company. I took no money. I did it. I bootstrapped my way.” I feel like now that’s invoked. So I’m wondering what the long-term perception is going to be of being VC backed versus bootstrap.
[00:42:44] RC: I think you named it. I think it’s happening. People realized, “Whoa, wait a minute. What are we doing?” Let’s build businesses that are sustainable and talent hired from their neighborhood. Thankfully we’re…
[00:42:58] SY: Coming to our senses?
[00:43:00] RC: Uh-hmm.
[00:43:01] SY: Yeah. Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:43:05] RC: My mom told me to read a book called How to Win Friends and Influence People.
[00:43:09] SY: Oh, I’ve heard of that one. Yeah.
[00:43:11] RC: It’ll change your life. It’s just how do humans work and how can you get things done. It sounds a bit Machiavellian and evil, but it’s not. It’s just, “Hey, smile, remember people’s names. Don’t condemn people.” It’s kind of Emotional Intelligence 101.
[00:43:28] SY: My first coding project was about?
[00:43:30] RC: Oh, it was about a… it’s kind of bonkers. I have a doctor, a friend who was a doctor, and he said, “Let’s build a medical charting business on a PalmPilot.”
[00:43:45] SY: Oh!
[00:43:45] RC: And it was a disaster.
[00:43:46] SY: Okay. Yeah.
[00:43:50] RC: It was like 10 years.
[00:43:50] SY: That sounds like a very big project for a phone.
[00:43:52] RC: It was, and a decade too early, but we learned.
[00:43:55] SY: Yeah. Yeah. Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:44:02] RC: Oh gosh, I think just how long things take. There’s this just belief that everything will be fast and it will work and so you kind of go from, “Hey, it should happen now or it’s never going to happen.” And in truth, it’s kind of like everything good takes a decade. And so I think there’s this actual realistic timeline that I didn’t let myself understand and now I feel very confident. Oh, yes, we’re going to create large impact because I’m patient enough to understand things take time, but yet I’m hurried today. So it’s kind of that friction of those two ideas.
[00:44:40] SY: Absolutely. Well, thank you again, Ryan, for joining us.
[00:44:43] RC: It’s been a pleasure, Saron.
[00:44:52] SY: This episode was edited and mixed by Levi Sharpe. You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us for our weekly Twitter chats. We’ve got our Wednesday chats at 9 P.M. Eastern Time and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 P.M. Eastern Time. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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