I understand that you were working at Twitter, then you left to start your own educational initiative. What made you decide to do that?
What made me decide to leave Twitter? Good question. First off, I don’t at all regret any of the time I spent there. Those years were super important for my own growth, and I got to work alongside some awesome people. However, near the end I found I wasn’t too caught up in my work. There are different behaviors that are needed to move up as an engineer in a big company. Some of those behaviors are related to engineering, some are not. I found that as my career progressed, I spent less time doing actual work and more time justifying why my work was important. This is actually an important skill, being able to sell yourself and your work. But I didn’t really enjoy doing it within Twitter, it felt a bit like playing a game that I didn’t really understand. I was excited to create and sell some of my own ideas, instead of the things I was doing at Twitter. So, since I was already interested in education and wanted to do more in that space, it seemed like a good time to make a change in both my work and lifestyle.
You mentioned that you’d been reading up about educational initiatives for a few years. Did you work in education when you were at Olin, or did you participate in any clubs or educational research?
I didn’t do any research in education at Olin - mainly I just taught. I was one of the people who founded Olin JS, which I think was the first credited course taught by students. I also helped get SLAC started - it’s a bit different from what you have now. At the time it was Olin’s first coding club called “Stay Late and Code”- I was part of the early team running some evening classes in Python. Most of my work involved trying to build experiences that could ideally get students ramped up to work at a tech job, without a traditional CS education. I found this both interesting and fun! So no research, I definitely I wish I had done research in education while I was at Olin. Instead I guess you could say I was just...doing?
So, what exactly are you doing in your work now?
My current company, Classadoo, does remote coding classes, so we teach kids how to code in China and adults how to code in Pakistan. We built software that lets us easily teach code things remotely as well or better than in person. So we can can see all the code the students write, we can edit their code, talk to them, and do live or recorded demonstrations. At this point we can teach a class of 10 students around the world better than if we were all in the same classroom. Everything about it is really fun, from building the software to teaching the classes. I can’t think of any work I’d rather be doing.
Did you start that company?
Yeah, Andrew Heine ‘13 and I started it around a year ago. Before that I did some other education-related work. I worked with Ari (Ariana) Chae ‘15 on a nonprofit after I left Twitter. I also founded a summer camp in entrepreneurship, known as Launch Camp. It was similar to what we used to call Foundations in Business and Entrepreneurship at Olin (FBE), but for high schoolers and middle schoolers. I did that for a year, and now Ari and Shane Skikne ‘14 run that program and I work on this. So, you could say this is my third-ish company that I’ve started. The first one never really went anywhere, the second one is still going somewhere, and now this is my third attempt to try to support myself through my endeavors. I’m making enough money now that I’m paying the rent and can pay for food. I don’t lose much money anymore, and that’s good. Still working towards the world of saving money, though!
So you’ve gone from a well-paid job to now barely being able to cover rent and food. What did it feel like to take such a financial risk?
It didn’t feel too scary because I had saved some money from my job. I honestly felt a little bit undeserving of all the money I made for the the work I was doing at my first job. I felt super lucky to have the chance to make that much money, and now I’m grateful to be able to try some new things. I’m taking this opportunity and making the most of it, working on something I’m passionate about and feeling personal growth at the same time. I was ready for this step - it didn’t feel too unsafe at the time. It will definitely start feeling unsafe in a year, though, if I can’t be earning a reasonable salary by then.
I understand you have some Oliners working for you?
We only employ teachers right now, besides myself and Andrew. We’ve had a bunch of different Oliners teach for us, and now we’re starting to hire some non-Oliners. That’s a good new thing, we’ve never done that before. We have people who are salary -based who now teach for us as well. Even though we’re starting to branch out, I tend to work mostly with Oliners. It’s a great community - I know I can trust everybody and there’s lots of accountability and we all share the same work styles and mindsets.
Do you reach out to the Oliners to get them to come and work with you or do they hear about what you’re doing and come to you?
Let’s see. Ari messaged me because she just wanted to hang out and I told her about the stuff I was doing to kind of give myself a self guided “masters” in education. She wasn’t working at the time so she decided to join me. I told her - hey if you don’t have a job, let’s work on something together. So in a way I reached out to her about it but she also she had some interest in it. I co-founded my latest company with Andrew Heine, from my class, ‘13. We always wanted to start a company together. Andrew was working at Uber and we each knew that someday this was going to happen.
When you first started, how were you funded?
We are currently self-funded. We make money from our classes and invest it back in the company. We considered looking for funding at one point, but recognized that would be a huge amount of work. We make enough money now to support the company and have a little left for our employees. So at the moment, we don’t desperately need funding, but we will be looking at that in the next few months.
What got you interested in education as opposed to some other business or nonprofit?
First, education, to me, is the most important issue in the world. By working in and observing classrooms, as well as reading about education, I started to get a feel for what education is for different people. Some people have a very different educational experience than the one I was lucky enough to get at Olin and in high school. I started recognizing how educational experiences could make a difference in a person’s life. I figured If I could find a way to give everyone experiences like I had, that would be awesome!
Second, Education is just a super interesting and unique problem. How do I help this person learn to do the things I can? How do I explain what’s in my head and make the person understand it? My work is partly the technical task of creating a space that generates impactful experiences for my students, and then partly the softer task of guiding them through that space. Both are really interesting, and take together, even more so!
So you were trained as an engineer at Olin. Did you feel prepared to start educating people?
Did I feel prepared? Maybe. I guess there’s a stereotype that pops up with Oliners - which is that we tend to think we can do anything. We take all these courses in different subjects and we say yeah, I can do that. So I guess I thought - I can do education - I’ll learn more about it when I get there. This was good and bad. Good because I was able to figure it out. It wasn’t easy, but I think I’m a pretty good teacher now. And bad because, well I wasn’t that great at it when I started. But I got the hang of it.
In one of my first classes, I had this idea and wanted to try it out: teaching students remotely from my home, by having them all use some software I quickly made which let me see what they were typing on their computers. I brought my ideas to two schools and I said, “Let me teach classes for free and we can see what happens.” For some reason they agreed! So I taught classes in these schools for about 10 weeks. To my surprise, some of the students enjoyed it! It was pretty rough at first - so hopefully I didn’t scare the others away from learning to code. After that I taught my entrepreneurship summer camp, and some after school programs for about 8 months, which built a lot of confidence.
When I started Classadoo, I realized that teaching online is different than teaching in person - it’s a totally different skill. It’s almost more like acting. Especially in our software, where students learn a lot of stuff on their own, the most important thing for the teacher is to be super animated. On a video, you’re only getting about 10% of the energy that you would get from a teacher in the classroom. I tell my online teachers they have to be super excited and high-energy - they are actors! They need to play the part of the excited American, in order to connect with their international students.
So what brought you from teaching in the classroom to the online business of teaching internationally?
My initial trial of remotely teaching showed me there was potential, and I figured, if I could teach kids here remotely, I could probably teach the same content to young kids in China! I had met some people who were involved in China’s education world through my summer camp, and they were interested in working with me to make it happen. They knew there was demand for English-speaking teachers in China, so we decided to try it.
For about 4 months, we worked out the logistics of creating an online system for China. Lots of challenges there - the internet is very different in China, and they don’t have Google. We use Google for so many things here!
Also, the education market in China is totally different from the one in America. Here, we expect education to be free. And in general, we have a pretty great system compared to much of the world. While of course there are things that can be improved, the expectations are that you’ll get good education in the US, for free. In China, however, there’s a huge for-profit education market. In some areas, they have a good public education market, but that is lacking in many others. Parents value their kids education over everything else and will pay for resources that will provide a slight educational edge. The potential for for-profit education is much bigger in China, especially for kids. So it’s a good market, and it’s a better fit for our product. But, someday we hope to bring this business back to the US.
When you do your classes, are you mostly doing one on one with students or is it more like a class that you're calling in to?
We’re usually teaching a whole class. And it’s distributed, so every student’s at their home on their own computer - we teach around 10 kids at a time. We think we could probably handle 15, but most parents prefer to cap it at 10 to be sure their kids get more individualized attention.
Is there a language barrier?
Sure, but it’s less important than you’d think. The kids range from almost fluent in English to not understanding a word we’re saying. That does make it harder, and therefore we build in a lot of visuals. We create tools for visual demonstrations, so that all of our lessons are visual. There’s really no lecture - we show them a piece of code we want them to build or show them how we built it. Then they try it on their computer. We work hard to create a ‘safe’ environment, meaning if they don’t have a clue about what’s going on, they can still experiment and they’re not going to break anything. Every action they take has some response or feedback, so they know what the action did. That helps with the language barrier.
Any suggestions for Oliners today?
I feel like you should pay me to make this suggestion. (haha!)
While I was at Olin, some of us were interested in founding our own companies rather than go to a boring corporate job. I went to Twitter first, mainly because I didn’t have an idea yet for my own company, and I didn’t have any co-founders. So I got a job. In hindsight, it was a good idea not to start a company right after college. There’s great benefit to working for a big company first. I wouldn’t have been able to do the things I did with my own company if I hadn’t had Twitter on my resume, and Olin, too. But especially Twitter.
When I actually wanted to go teach at random schools to try out my product, they were hesitant until they saw that I had worked at an established tech company. I don’t know why that makes me a good teacher,I guess they feel like it gave me credibility. It has helped me all along the way, and convinced people to give me a shot. There are certain people I know at Olin who did start a company right away, and were pretty successful. That’s awesome, but it’s unusual.
Start with PGP, so they can help you find your first job out of college. The cool thing was that I was starting to think about and work on my own thing while I was at Twitter. I was teaching while I was there, and I was still working on my own projects on the side. There’s no reason that you can’t move forward with your own ideas while you’re working at a big company. And it gives you a better financial foundation, because hopefully you will be able to make money with that first job that you can invest in your dream to become an entrepreneur.