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Flatiron School’s Fifth Anniversary

  An Interview with co-founders Adam Enbar and Avi Flombaum    

Edited for clarity by Marcos Dinnerstein, Editor, Digital.NYC

Digital.NYC: This month is Flatiron’s fifth anniversary so first off, congrats. In startup dog years that’s quite mature. So Adam, Avi, tell us about your backgrounds.

Adam Enbar: I guess I’ll start. First of all, I know we’re in the startup universe and we’re very closely connected to startups. Arguably one of the reasons for our success was we thought of ourselves as an educational institution first. We’re here to serve the startups and tech industry in New York City by creating great talent. That approach has allowed us to focus on quality rather than the typical startup’s growth metrics.

In terms of my background - it’s all over the place. I went to college and business school, had a bunch of jobs but felt that my education never really prepared me to work in the real world, to give me the skills necessary to be successful. I ended up working in venture capital and in researching the broader problem - the fact that education is more and more expensive and not able to get people jobs. I couldn’t find any entrepreneurs doing anything really innovative or interesting until i I met Avi. And Avi who was doing that.

Avi Flombaum: I think Adam and I almost have opposite backgrounds and Adam got great root: went to a great college and went to a great business school. I did terrible in high school and dropped out of college basically the second I got there. I’ve been programming my whole life and when I left college I worked at a hedge fund for three years as a programmer. Then I worked at another startup for around 4 years. When I left that I was originally planning on taking a year off but I ended up teaching programming classes on SkillShare and mentoring my best students and getting them a job. I fell in love with teaching and the amount of impact I can have on an individual level - to really change the trajectory of someone’s life. So i knew I was really interested in this ability to take someone, teach them enough code, mentor them and get them a job. I wanted to focus on that. I didn’t know exactly how that would manifest itself. Then Adam reached out to me on Twitter and said we should get coffee and he came to a few of my classes. He saw what all my students were learning, saw the energy in the room and said we should start a school. And that's how we ended up here.

Adam Enbar: According to everything they tell you at school I was suppose to be the one with the great skills that could impart wisdom to other people because I studied so hard and did so well in school. But by breaking the rules and pursing his passion Avi was quicker to do that  than I could ever dream of doing.

What is Flatiron’s bread-and-butter? If you were to distill it to the core value you give.

Adam Enbar: Transformative educational experiences. We want everybody who comes to Flatiron School and takes a course with us, to have a transformative experience that truly changes their life. Certainly, the first starting point is a career. But we try to think of that as a baseline - at a minimum get a new job.That is the bare minimum of what we find acceptable. We hope to inspire people to find their passion and think of what education is supposed to do - make you an inspired person.

Can you talk about how the admissions process relates to your job placement rate? My understanding is that you’ve got a very exacting process.

Adam Enbar: We are very selective but that’s more because of how much space we rather than how many students apply. We don't have a lot of real estate. Our admissions process does not ask for SAT scores or grades or anything formal like that. I think Avi found, the thing that makes people successful is a passion for this craft. In the same way the path to becoming a great chef is by practicing your craft over and over. A real, deep devotion to your craft is what matters and we try to look for people who will have that - the potential to really fall in love with it. We want to bring that out of them further and faster.

How do you identify someone like that - their aptitude? You must have applicants from many diverse fields.

Adam Enbar: Aptitude is a tricky one. We think of aptitude for programming as problem solving, creativity and communication. Those three skills. There are  a lot of people with aptitud. You can argue that anybody can learn this. Certainly a 15 week program this structured and fast moving is not the right environment for everybody. But everybody can learn this whether it is in this program or a different format.

What is most important is they show us they are truly passionate about this, that they started learning on their own. That they have become part of a community and been to meetups. We have worked so hard to release a lot of free online courses on our platform and make them truly community-centric. We want to see that people have done enough free work to know this is a craft they can be excited about and not just ‘I can get a cool job in a tech’ company.’  So that is what we look for - what are you, can you convince us that this is something you will pursue as a craft over the course of your life, rather than as a way to get a high paying job?

That leads into your fantastic job placement rate, which I understand is in the high 90%.

Adam Enbar: That data is audited by third parties.

That leads to the topic of the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting (CIRR). What is this group?

Adam Enbar: We are not part of it right now. Back in 2014 we were trying to look ahead and saw there's a lot of good happening and a lot bad. For profit universities scam people out of a lot of money and in 2014 we said, this industry is growing. How do we make sure it stays on the right path? Our industry is a good and powerful thing and so we decided to release an independently audited report on job placement in the hope that it would push the whole industry forward. So we invented that method of transparency reporting and since then it has been exciting to see. I don’t think any education outside of ours is this transparent - higher education, community colleges.

You mentioned your free online courses. Can you talk about those?

Adam Enbar: One of our goals, since the beginning, was to give a ton of scholarships. We are constantly trying to figure out ways to increase the access to these kind of skills to different demographics. While we love the in-person program it does require $15,000, requires you to quit your job, to be in New York and be a full-time student for 3-6 months. We always felt that format was a little constraining in terms of how many people can take that. So we moved online to create programs that were way more flexible, that were self-paced and people could do if they had a family, part-time job or even full-time job. We made free versions of those courses and even opened our entire curriculum in order to make the barrier to entry as low as possible. Then you can decide if you want to take the big leap to a in-person program or try the paid online program for a month or two.

Avi Fombaum: We have done scholarships like the Woman Tech Scholarships with Birchbox and Bustle to widen access and make this as easy for people to try, especially for underrepresented demographics like women and minorities in this industry. That provides people with an opportunity to try this at a way lower price point. We are really passionate about our partnership with New York City and New York Tech Talent Pipeline to create a ton of different courses that reach different demographics; 18-24 olds with no college degree or foreign-born New Yorkers. The mission of the school from the beginning was to stretch the number of people we can serve, create different formats and be really flexible. We are trying to build educational models that work for individuals as opposed to abstract generics.

Then finally, what is the future of the software industry? Will coders be out of work when software eats software - to misquote Marc Andreessen.

Adam Enbar: Avi can expand on this…

Avi Flombaum: I have given this a lot of thought. I can’t imagine a world in which AI is writing the kind of software that people write. We can barely get AI to recognize the difference between a Corgi and a muffin so maybe in a hundred, two hundred years... behind those models you will still have programmers essentially building them out. I also think that it’s so easy to conceive of the jobs that software will replace but it is impossible to conceive of the jobs that software hasn’t even created yet. For instance five years ago nobody was even talking about machine learning or AI because that industry simply didn’t exist. We weren’t talking about CRISPR, Cast Iron or Bio Engineering or Genetic Engineering. We weren’t talking about the blockchain, about autonomous driving in vehicles. It’s so easy - virtual reality, augmented reality - it’s so easy to think, well maybe a computer could automate building a web form. It is hard to conceive of the jobs that simply don’t even exist because the technology hasn’t caught up to it.

The world is becoming more digital and skills are becoming more and more technical. So whether you are a journalist and have to visualize data or you're a marketer and can no longer just write ad copy, you have to understand google analytics and UTM  sources and Facebook - all jobs are inherently moving to a real technical location where an understanding of code and these networks and digital skills are crucial.

Adam Enbar: The last jobs to be automated will be programmers. So if we ever get to that point where we’ve automated our programmers we have a much bigger problem because we have automated everything else and there are no jobs .

That means the programmers get to turn out the lights.

Adam Enbar: In theory, if every job is automatable and it’s a programer doing the automating then the last job standing is the programmer’s and if we get to that point there is a much bigger social question to ask here.

Avi Flombaum: Yeah, I don’t see it happening any time soon. I think it was Tim Berners-Lee (who is a legendary programer) who said, ‘The future is always bigger than the past’. I don’t know what it is about our humanity. When we conceive of the future, that we see something small, even though the entire history of the world has proven that the only thing that happens in the future is things get bigger.

Adam Enbar: This exact conversation happened with the Industrial Revolution. Well, we got factories so there are no more jobs and everybody is screwed. We couldn’t have conceived of technology and of course we make the same mistakes that we made back then, which is to say, ‘Well now we’ve reached the peak. Now it’s the end.’ But of course it’s not. That’s crazy. Read Complete Article