Q&A With Shawn Drost, Co-founder and Chief Commercial Officer of Hack Reactor

EdTech Times was privileged to speak with Shawn Drost, co-founder and Chief Commercial Officer of Hack Reactor, an elite software programming academy that aims to accelerate the students’ entrance into software development industry. Here’s what Shawn had to say about his startup and the state of programming education in general.


Company at Glance:

Shawn Drost, Co-founder and Chief Commercial Officer at Hack Reactor.

Shawn Drost, Co-founder and Chief Commercial Officer of Hack Reactor.

Website: http://www.hackreactor.com

Founders: Anthony Phillips, Marcus Phillips, Shawn Drost, Douglas Calhoun

Founded: 2012

Category: Coding school

Product stage: Market

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hackreactor

LinkedIn company page: https://www.linkedin.com/company/hack-reactor

Company Twitter: https://twitter.com/HackReactor

Founder Twitter: https://twitter.com/shawndrost

Github: https://github.com/hackreactor


ETT: What is the market segment your company is in and who are your core customers?

SD: Hack Reactor is a school for software engineers. We cover computer science fundamentals, practical web application engineering skills, and team collaboration over three intense months: 11 hours a day, 6 days a week. Our students have been studying programming on their own, and they are typically aiming to begin an engineering career after the program. We accept about 3% of applicants, and our post-program employment rate is 99%. This year, we will educate more software engineers than UC Berkeley, Stanford University, and Caltech combined.

Broadly, our market segment is “software engineering career education.” The segment is dominated by the university system, and the newcomers are web-based programs (e.g. Udacity, Thinkful) and schools like Hack Reactor. The sector Hack Reactor is in is variously called “bootcamps,” “accelerated learning programs” (ALPs), or simply “coding schools.” These schools have started across the US in the last three years.


ETT: How did you come across the problem you’re addressing and how did you define it – what was your process in identifying it?

SD: I was working as a team lead at a software company, OkCupid, and like every other company in San Francisco, our number one problem was hiring qualified developers. My co-founder Marcus was working at Twitter, and together we taught Marcus’ brother, Tony — another co-founder — to code. Tony had been running a language immersion school in Korea and it became clear that we had the means to solve a major problem.


ETT:  And how did you develop a solution to this particular problem and what was your process of arriving at it?

SD: Teaching Tony to code was like the first class of Hack Reactor. At the same time, we watched the rise of a school called the Code Academy in Chicago (now Starter League), which has now spawned three generations of schools — students or employees that later went on to improve on the model and build the sector. After Tony learned to code, he taught for a few months at Dev Bootcamp, which was co-founded by a Code Academy mentor. So we had all the ingredients for success just at the moment that a new sector was emerging — I believe we were the fifth coding school to get started. A whole new educational model was in a nascent stage and we brought our deep educational background to bear and set about improving things.


ETT: What is it that you’re doing differently than your competitors? And do you expect to develop other differentiators in the future?

SD: We lead the sector in academic quality. Our industry measures success via student outcomes (job placement percentage and starting salary) and we are at the top of that heap. We’ve been called the Harvard of coding schools.

We set out with that goal in mind, and we call our philosophy “data-driven education.” We apply it everywhere. Our admissions process is like “Moneyball” for students. Lecturers measure student progress every couple of minutes. We have internal dashboards that chart out student progress on every project. Other coding schools, and definitely traditional learning institutions, don’t have this — and the thing is, we’ve had it for 2 years and the benefits have been compounding that whole time. Even if someone were to adopt it now, they couldn’t catch up and optimize their curriculum like we have. We charted out industry trends and were the first school to adopt JavaScript as a primary teaching language, which many other schools have now adopted as the trendlines continue.

Our data-driven education mindset led to product quality, and product quality is creating other differentiators. Our online offering is still in beta, but early indicators show that it offers better outcomes than any other on-site coding school. Our new Extension School program allows software engineers and educators to open their own coding schools in their city. It is the first of its kind and we expect it to change the sector permanently.


ETT: Please describe your product development strategy and product stage. What we should expect to see from your company in the next 12 months – i.e. describe your potential next milestones?

SD: Our major initiatives for 2015 are already underway. We are piloting a new model, Hack Reactor Remote Beta, which is the first all-online full-time coding school — and we expect to have good data on student outcomes soon and will grow in quality and enrollment.

We’ve heard from over a hundred potential partners in the week since we announced our Extension School program, and we will see that develop into several new best-in-class schools across the country and world, harnessing the engine of our curriculum and methods. At our school in San Francisco, we’ll continue to roll out new curricula, hone our educational practices, and widen the gap between our program and others in our sector. We also have several unannounced not-for-profit initiatives, centering around broadening the reach of our programs.


ETT: Could you tell us about other startups or product builds that you have been a part of and what your role was?

SD: I’ve been an entrepreneur since my late teens. A decade ago, I started a nonprofit with my co-founder Tony — that’s where we developed our philosophy of impact-oriented for-profits.  Since then, I’ve developed products and companies in solar power, real estate, daily deals, and dating. I always think like a founder and I do whatever needs doing with the user in mind, but often my business card says “engineer” — I’ve been writing software since fooling around with my TI-83 in high school, and I studied CS at USC.


ETT: Did you or do you currently have a mentor who is/has been helping you through the startup stages of the company – who is that mentor? 

SD: My co-founders are my mentors. Doug is the heart of the school and is a constant reminder that in order to make an amazing school, I must goof around with my students and coworkers like it is my job. Marcus is a laser beam of focused intellect and he inspires me to raise the quality bar every day. Tony is an incredible CEO, manager, and systematic thinker, and I am always asking Tony for advice when I must prioritize my task list, make a new hire, or lay down new processes for an emerging role.


ETT: Where is the education technology market going in the next few years? Especially relating to the programming courses specifically for developers and self-learners?

SD: Several major dynamics are at play in this sector:

  1. The US is short about one million programmers. This is a powerful engine of growth for Hack Reactor (and several hundred other companies).
  2. Software engineering career education is currently dominated by the university system, but that system is not particularly career-focused or eager/able to shift focus.  Many Hack Reactor students are choosing our program over college, because it is about an eighth of the cost (in dollars and time) but offers superior student outcomes (in terms of placement rate and average salary). This isn’t a knock on college — I had four fantastic years at USC and I wouldn’t want it to become Hack Reactor — but empirically, most college students are in it for career reasons, and they are adopting new paradigms quickly.
  3. Pure-web edtech offerings are shifting focus towards career preparation. Udacity in particular is trying to leave behind the MOOC label and the university course model, and if you were to visit their front page, you’ll see that the focus on a career/job is mentioned throughout. It’s funny — we became a Udacity content partner last year, and our module became a part of their newly-launched “microdegree” program, and though we are very different, they can be considered a competitor to our online program.
  4. Many would say that we will see consolidation among coding schools. Kaplan purchased one of our competitors, and I’d be surprised if they’re not working on a plan to open up in new markets. Our extension schools will draw great students wherever they open, and it’s not clear if rising student demand will counterbalance the supply of schools.


ETT: What advice, if any, do you have for someone thinking about launching a company in the education technology market?

SD: If your readers want to teach people to code, I recommend they investigate our Extension School program. We’ve started our application process and would be happy to hear from interested EdTech Times’ readers.

Here are several other ideas. If you’re reading this and you start working on any of these ideas, say hi on Twitter — maybe I can help.

  • We have seen several new ALPs focused on different niches: design, product management, business, etc. That seems like a good idea.
  • If you build a product called “How to get into any coding school in a month” (internally we call this “the on-ramp”) – you will have a lot of paying customers on day one.
  • More abstractly: most edtech products don’t aim for a clear student outcome (though this is changing). I don’t recommend this path. Instead, start out with a clear goal that you can measure, like “my students will get a promotion from [role 1] to [role 2]” or “my students will place in the top 10% of [some competition].” Incorporate your genius delivery/methodology/format ideas with this aim in mind, and if they don’t help, come up with new ideas.

EdTech Times thanks Shawn Drost for his time and we recommend you learn more about Hack Reactor at:

Hack Reactor

Yevgeny Ioffe

Yevgeny Ioffe

Yevgeny Ioffe, or as people call him, Yev, has been working in both the startup world and established companies. His career spans from joining Xplana Learning as it launched to Cengage Learning to MBS Direct when it acquired Xplana in 2009. Yevgeny brings to EdTech Times his passion for start-ups and technology, along with his interest in the ever evolving world of edtech. Yevgeny obtained his BSc and MA from Brandeis University and MBA from Boston College.