Most people who know me either IRL or from Twitter know that I am a big proponent of learning but against the current system of higher education. I actively explore how it is set up right now, what’s wrong with it, and what are the newer models. Growing up, I always chased credentials and grades. I believed in following a structured path and conventional wisdom without questioning anything.
Today, I am nothing like that. Exploring the education system, as it is currently set up, has exposed me to so many unpleasant facts that has compelled me to not only change my mind on a lot of things but also change how I approach my learning and career.
One of the organizations that’s trying to redefine how higher education system works is Holberton School. I interviewed Kiren who is a Holberton alum to get his perspective on what’s going on in the education space. In this conversation, he talks about what he thinks is broken with the system, how Holberton is tackling those problems, what’s working, what colleges can do to endure disruption, as well as his thoughts on the credentialism business, free education proposals, the correlation between the products he uses and personal agency, and much more.
Here we go :
Give us an overview of how you think about what’s broken about the current higher education system.
First of all, I want to thank you for having me Sar! Twitter’s the best place to discover people solely on the basis of their thoughts and I’m glad that Twitter has indirectly given me the chance to go deep with you in this interview.
Before identifying the problems with today’s university system, I should depict the purpose of higher education. The world economy is quickly transitioning from one involving farm work and manual labor to another involving knowledge-based and industry-specific work. For me, higher education is just a stage of instruction that occurs after secondary education that should: 1) give students the “soft and hard skills” that make them marketable to employers in the industry they want to pursue, 2) help them procure that “first job,” and 3) enable them to excel in their careers in the long-term. As such, a good analogy is to look at higher education as a protocol that fulfills the aforementioned criteria and the university system as merely its most popular implementation.
When evaluating the university system implementation through this lens, it fails on all accounts. While it’s awesome that colleges provide students with the ability to pursue so many different fields of study, the supply of grads with degrees in those fields is greatly dwarfing the actual demand for their skills. There are a lot of people who are still living with their parents and struggling to pay off their student loans as a result. In addition to flooding the market with less-than-desired skills, the entire career center experience at universities, whose primary purpose is to help students get jobs, is greatly underutilized by students for many reasons and provides an awful user experience for all parties involved. Lastly, as the nature of one’s career changes, colleges don’t foster lifelong learning of any kind to make sure that students are successful years down the road.
You studied at Holberton School. Tell us briefly what it is and how it plays a role in fixing the problems you just identified.
Holberton School, or Holberton for short, is another implementation of the protocol that is higher education. In its current form, Holberton is an alternative to the university CS degree, focused on training students through peer and project-based education in order to closely mirror a real-world work environment for software engineers. Unlike bootcamps, Holberton is a 2-year long coding school that’s separated into three parts. The first 9 months is spent intensely training on software engineering fundamentals. The next 6 months is spent finding and working a job/internship. The last 9 months is spent studying a specialization of your choice full-time, part-time while on the job, or on a “self-paced” basis if your manager signs off to waive the requirement to finish a specialization in that 9 months because you’re doing your job well. My first 9 months at Holberton was an amazing experience. Even though I ended up accepting Holberton’s offer for their open software engineering role, I’m in an unconventional situation where I’m still a student who’s not yet done with the full 2 years of the curriculum.
Instead of pursuing next steps with other companies, I decided to join the Holberton team because Holberton fulfills my criteria of what higher education should be like. The curriculum is inherently “full-stack,” comprising of everything that one needs to have to be successful as a software engineer. Not only do students learn practical hard skills like managing memory within processes and designing APIs/full-stack apps, but they also work on projects that help build soft-skills like collaborating with teammates on bigger applications, writing technical blog posts, and practicing public speaking.
“Writing code is the easiest part of an engineer’s job. The hardest and most important one is being able to articulate your ideas clearly, be it to your coworkers, boss, press, or users. That makes the difference between a thinker and a typist.” — Florent Crivello
Beyond the fundamental curriculum, Holberton helps students navigate the entire job-search process, including helping them prepare for interviews and giving them access to our vast network of over 100 mentors who work at companies like Pinterest and Dropbox. After finishing the program by completing the specialization of their choice, students have lifetime access to the network and every single specialization that gets created to do at their own pace. How’s that for lifelong learning? My favorite aspect of the school is that tuition is deferred until students are able to land the software engineering job they want. Once they do, students pay 17% of their earnings for 3 years as long as they earn over $40,000 per year. The fact that I was able to forgo that initial upfront cost was incredibly compelling to me when deciding whether or not I should attend.
If you had to get a student who really believes in the current system to at least be open to exploring what’s broken, how would you go about doing so?
In general, it’s incredibly hard to open people up to new ideas if they’re firmly rooted in their stance about something. This is something I face on a daily basis and I always have to remind myself to take a step back when I think I’m absolutely certain about something even when I have the completely wrong perspective. Defending ourselves is a primal animal instinct that’s the result of a few hundred million years of evolution, making it easy to get caught up in our own arguments without approaching problems with an open mind.
Keeping this in mind, I would have a formal debate with that student. I would point out concrete instances of people who received degrees from respectable universities, but are still living with their parents because they can’t find jobs. However, it’s also important to listen to the facts and counterarguments that the student presents. There must be mutual respect between the two parties. The most important thing is to make sure that emotion does not seep its way into the conversation. If you establish early on that it doesn’t matter who’s right, but only focus on discovering what’s actually true, everyone wins.
If you apply the innovation model to colleges, teachers and college administrators are the incumbents that are going to be disrupted. How do you think they can best position themselves to withstand competition from the newer models in next 5 years?
In my opinion, the easiest way for colleges to stay in the game is to completely revamp the career services experience. Most students coming out of high school pursue college education because they believe it’ll help them get a job. I’m a firm believer in Pareto’s Law — small changes in the career center experience will result in massive gains.
Teachers at schools and colleges are no longer gatekeepers of knowledge. We are seeing a new crop of teachers who use videos and blogs to teach on the internet. Why do we not see more people aggressively moving from the first category to the second? What do you imagine teaching profession will become in ten years?
I’m going to quote Naval Ravikant on this one: “The tools for learning are abundant. It’s the desire to learn that’s scarce.” The web is amazing and you can learn everything you want to know on there if you really want to. However, I can bet that most people who are on Youtube aren’t consuming educational content on a regular basis. Right now it’s hard to implement solid incentive and accountability structures with an educational system that’s only online.
What we’ve generally noticed at Holberton is that the students who physically come to school the most usually end up doing the best after they’re done with the first 9 months of the program. The people who are physically present are able to get help from peers and members from other cohorts who might be more advanced at algorithms or technical writing.
In 10 years, I believe that teaching will not solely belong to either the online or physical domains. It will be a variable blend of coming into a physical location and studying from home on some days. I also think that VR is an incredibly promising format for education. It’ll be a much better medium to ask for help than something like Slack or email when working remotely. Having quality interactions with others is an essential human need and VR might be able to bridge the gap in that regard.
There is no denying that colleges are in the credentialing business. How can new models incorporate credentials to increase their credibility and adoption?
It’s unfortunate that credentialism plays such an important part in getting high-paying jobs that don’t actually require those extra credentials to be a top performer. However, that’s the current reality and change is unlikely to make its way to the mainstream within the span of a few years.
The best way that new models like Holberton can combat this inertia is to start building up a solid track record of graduates who go on to great companies. That’s exactly what we’re doing, as some of our students done with their first 9 months are now working at amazing companies that include the likes of Apple, Google, Pinterest, and Docker. So far, there have only been 4 cohorts that have finished their first 9 months and it will take a lot more consistency to build confidence with potential students and parents as well.
Besides Holberton School, what are some other interesting experiments in the space in terms of both business models and products?
I’ve been reading a lot about Lambda School, mostly through my Twitter feed. I follow Austen Allred and he has a lot of great thoughts about education. There seem to be a lot of similarities, mostly noticeably the idea of deferred tuition. There are a lot of differences as well, like the fact that Lambda is completely online and that they have teachers. As I mentioned before, my personal belief is that there are drawbacks to having a school that’s solely online, but I also have a gut feeling that Austen is executing well on these problems. Regardless, the market will definitely not be winner take all because everyone has different learning styles and there’s a ton of room for brand differentiation.
Innovation in higher education can happen across two vectors : business models and the product experience. Do you see changes across those two dimensions happening concurrently or will we see stripped down versions of traditional schools with new business models go mainstream first before we see drastic changes in how the experience is reimagined?
We’ll definitely see innovation happening along those dimensions, either serially or concurrently, way before we see traditional universities make the switch to a deferred tuition model. This is true for any big traditional incumbent in every industry who’s dead set in their way of doing things, especially when it comes to changing a business model that “currently works” for them. I predict that the changes in business models will emanate from smaller institutions. Then it will slowly creep its way into the ivies and schools that have strong brand names.
I do not want to get into politics here but a big part of the policy discussions around higher education involves making access to it free. Maryland just announced that it will grant free access to community colleges to low income students. What are your thoughts on this from a strictly cost-benefit standpoint?
Free education would be great for a lot of people, in that instruction is accessible to everyone and students get the chance to learn without having to worry about money as a barrier to entry. However, I don’t think it would be great from a market perspective. The job market has certain needs, as employers demand that candidates have certain skills and are able to execute well on the job that candidates were hired to do. Schools that best prepare students for jobs should be rewarded accordingly and the promise of reward will incentivize schools to better innovate when it comes to their products. Making education free will take away that incentive, with schools knowing that they have a fallback in the form of taxpayer money. The deferred tuition model is the best of both worlds, making instruction accessible to everyone and schools having to align their product with the needs of the market.
I am going to pull a Thiel now. What one thing do you disagree the most on with these three groups — your friends, edtech investors and your peers in tech?
Friends: You’ll achieve happiness by being true to your yourself, not by being what your friends or family want you to be.
EdTech Investors: The future of education is not solely online.
Peers in tech: Mobile is just getting started.
You recently tried to develop a correlation between products you use and personal agency on Twitter. Can you unpack that idea for us?
Absolutely! I’m very much into the idea of using technology in order to take control over the various aspects of my life. I don’t like how humans are slaves to their emotions, so I’ve been using Headspace in an effort to better counteract my “primal self.” I don’t like how the government and banking services have control over my money, so I’m very interested in the idea of using Bitcoin and other native digital currencies/protocols to hold my own keys. I don’t like how little control I have when it comes to maintaining my relationships with others, so I’m making my own personal and professional relationship manager called WarmPush. I don’t like how I’m being told to consume certain content through algorithms, so I started my own startup TuneItch (which failed), but I’m going to start rebuilding it from scratch and open source it after I have a solid foundation on WarmPush development. I don’t like how you have to get a high paying job through excessive credentials, so I attended Holberton and I’m now working with them to make it easy to get a job just through your “soft and hard skills.”
I’m going to have to dig more into this, but this theme feels right and could honestly become my life’s work.
What trends in tech are you very excited about? What’s being overlooked? What’s likely overrated in the short run?
Excited about: Quantum computing, quantum cryptography, artificial intelligence, decentralization
Overlooked: Mobile, by far. Much of the world doesn’t even have Internet yet and there’s still a huge opportunity for innovation and penetration.
Overrated in the short term: Cryptocurrency!
What are your 2–3 most used apps and make a case for why you probably shouldn’t use them as much.
Twitter: The best service to develop friendships, but I could probably scroll less and get just as much value from it as I am now.
Spotify: The music service with the best user experience, but it’s completely controlled by labels. I should probably hit up the blogs more and do more unsigned artist crate-digging.
Slack: Definitely a necessity, but I could probably benefit from being in fewer channels.
Favorite twitter follows in the following categories — great at curating content, great at engaging in conversations, great at memes, great at surfacing new people to follow, great at thoughtful takes on hot topics.
Curating content: @archillect, @alftirado, @nikillinit
Engaging in conversations: @sehurlburt, @rrhoover, @grlalx, @adamsinger
Memes: @NeerajKA, @broazay, @MerriamWebster, @netflix, @boredelonmusk, @elonmusk
Surfacing people: @eriktorenberg, @garrytan, @sarthakgh
Thoughtful takes: @juliagalef, @david_perell, @patio11, @sknthla, @devonzuegel, @Altimor, @naval, @pt, @NelsonMRosario, @kevinakwok
Name a few hustlers in tech that we should know about across venture and startups.
@arlanwashere, @nbashaw, @aaronykng, @romainhuet, @AriannaSimpson