How General Assembly Is Helping Workers Evolve in Their Careers with Coding Bootcamps
You’ve probably heard by now that coding is the must-have skill of the future. Among the many reasons for that, one is the prospect of a high salary.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2017, the mean annual income of a computer programmer was about $87,530. Compare that to the national mean annual income of $50,620, and it’s clear why even those with years of experience in other careers are flocking to computer science.
With the urgent demand for coding skills and the monetary incentive to gain them, throughout the course of the past ten years, coding bootcamps have popped up across the world and the world wide web.
One of the first coding bootcamps, General Assembly now has campuses in 20 cities across the globe with over 35,000 alumni worldwide. They also now teach a bit more than coding, but still stick to in-demand fields like UX design, marketing, data analytics, and business.
To learn more about this pioneer in coding bootcamps, we had our CEO, Hester Tinti-Kane speak to Liz Simon, VP of external affairs at General Assembly. Listen in to our interview with Liz to find out how General Assembly is using accelerated learning to help prepare adults for the next step of their careers.
Hester Tinti-Kane: This is Hester Tinti-Kane with EdTech Times and today we’re speaking with Liz Simon, Head of Public Policy and External Affairs for General Assembly. Liz, welcome. Can you start by sharing a little bit of information about yourself and about General Assembly?
Liz Simon: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for having me, Hester. So, my name is Liz Simon. And I wear a few different hats at General Assembly. I serve as both general counsel and head of external affairs. So that includes public policy, social impact communications, work with government, etc. So it’s a pretty broad ranging portfolio. And General Assembly, for those of you who may not be familiar, it’s really a global education company that works, you know, both with individuals and companies to help them develop in-demand 21st-century skills and create sustainable talent pipelines. So, you know, we see ourselves as kind of transforming the world of education and employment. Particularly in today’s, kind of, core in-demand skill set areas and really working to close that global talent gap that we face.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Great. Thanks for that description, Liz, that’s super helpful. Can you tell us a little bit about your own professional background and what brought you to General Assembly?
Liz Simon: Sure. I am a lawyer by training, for the general counsel title. And I actually spent many years working in Washington D.C., both in private practice as a lawyer and also in policy and politics as part of the Obama administration. And I joined GA just over four years ago to actually help the company navigate its first interaction with regulation and becoming a licensed school, and how to navigate the complex state licensure regulatory schemes. And very quickly, being here at a startup, there was no shortage of other work to be done. I was the first lawyer on the ground so there was no one else doing any other legal work. And so the portfolio has really just expanded from there.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So, General Assembly is one of the most recognized alternative credential providers out there. What is the history of the organization, and how is it earned this place in the market?
Liz Simon: General Assembly started back in 2010, here in New York City, which is where the company is headquartered. And the initial vision of the company was actually a co-working space. We’re one of the early co-working spaces here in New York, supported by the local city government, EDCD. And it was really kind of a critical component of the tech ecosystem here in New York. Education was always part of the mission of the company, part of the vision. And so, we always had a classroom. And very early, on we had co-working members get up and teach things to other folks in the community. We were offering classes and workshops and there were clearly a lot of demand for both in terms of folks who were looking to build companies but also people looking to gain particular skills in this sort of technology space. So, quite quickly we built on that demand. We started running a range of programs here in New York, from just the one-off workshops to classes that met multiple nights a week over 10 weeks, to what I think we’re best known for today, which is kind of the full-time … or “bootcamp model” where students are coming to us nine to five, five days a week for a period of about 12 weeks. And so, you know, quickly we grew. Flash-forward six-plus years from our location here in New York to 20 campuses around the world. We’re on four continents. We have a global alumni network of over 40,000 full and part-time students. And we offer a real breadth of programs ranging from web development, which is obviously one area we are certainly known for. But data science, UX design, digital marketing, product management, etc.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That’s great. So tell us a little bit more about what General Assembly looks like right now, the different modalities that you use to teach the programs, and how those programs can build on each other. It seems that there are a couple of different ways students can engage with General Assembly.
Liz Simon: It’s interesting. I mean, we very much believe in terms of modality is that, you know, while we have physical campuses around the world which allows us to serve people at scale. We really believe that blended is the future of our education programs and so we use online and our online platform to one, engage students in markets where we don’t have our presence. But also you know, to help the learning experience even for students who come here to a physical classroom. So we do offer some fully online programs, but that’s more the exception than the rule. And those even fully online programs involve some sort of mentorship or synchronous online component. And so, that community that we create in the classroom, particularly for the transformational educational experience, we think is very important. And there certainly is potential for the programs to build on each other. I would say most people who take, for example, a full time course at GA, may not go on to take another full time course.
Liz Simon: But we think about the role that we have as part of the ecosystem of lifelong learning. Which we all know about the shrinking shelf life of skills and peoples’ need to continually evolve in their careers and so for our 40,000+ alumni we see ourselves as a resource throughout their career. We have many people who take multiple part-time courses who come for/go to bootcamp or a workshop or a weekend program to brush up on particular skill area. And we want to be that destination for people to come to throughout their career. And that’s either on their own, or through a company they work with. It could be in any number of ways. And so, our student business is broader than just folks who show up on our campus. We’re doing a lot of work today, on-site directly with companies. And that’s part of our student population as well.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That’s really interesting. Can you tell me a little bit about why you think the General Assembly learning model works really well for people right now?
Liz Simon: There are a lot of skills out there. And the model is one of sort of accelerated learning where we’re taking, let’s just sort of explain it for people who are not familiar. You know, we’re taking sort of practical skills taught by practitioners with real world experience over an accelerated time frame, blending with sort of nontechnical communication, project-based learning skill sets and that’s where that combination that the model encompasses is you know both helping prepare people for the workplace but also helping them with the technical skills side of things. What we’ve learned is there are a lot of skills that are to be deployed on the job that can be taught over a relatively short period of time. the concept of sort of the accelerated.
Liz Simon: We didn’t invent the concept of an accelerated learning program. But I think we’ve worked to figure out what topics can be taught over a shorter period of time in a more accelerated time frame and how to make that really relevant for people to take back into the job quite quickly. And so, I think it’s important to say that we don’t necessarily position this type of program as an alternative to an undergraduate degree or bachelor level program. The vast majority of our students do already have a college degree or some college. Now, it’s not a requirement. But we do see more students coming to us who are mid-career, on average 29-30 years old. And actually looking for a career change or an opportunity to up-skill in a current job versus 18-20 years old as an alternative to college. Now, it’s not to say that couldn’t happen. It’s not to say we’ve meant to do more in that space and actually we do a lot of work with nonprofits and government-funded grant programs, etc. That are focused on populations who are less likely to have a college degree. But it’s not but it’s not the way we’ve positioned ourselves in the market.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So is General Assembly accredited by any of the academic boards?
Liz Simon: We are not accredited. We are licensed in every state that we operate in, and some foreign countries. So where it’s required. And licensure is, you know, typically overseen at the state level by either a consumer protection agency or a state education board or sometimes the workforce agency. And so there are you know mandatory processes that we’ve got to go through that are more consumer protection focused. We have purposefully not pursued accreditation and so we’re not eligible to receive Title 4 funding. And that is obviously a voluntary process that it’s not something that are on our strategic roadmap because, frankly, people are obviously looking for quality programs. But I think that the brand that we’ve been able to build and our sort of commitment to transparency around outcomes and outputs versus sort of the traditional input evaluation of accreditation has been more important for our student population than any sort of stamp of approval from an accreditor for example.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So here’s a question, after students go through your programs, do you provide any career services?
Liz Simon: Absolutely. So career services is actually a huge part of the model for our full time students. So people who are coming to a full time program at GA have typically either quit their jobs or are unemployed and they’re looking for a career change. And part of the value proposition to them is “we’re going to help equip you with skills to get that new job and we’re going to help connect you with job opportunities. We’re not gonna get you the job for you. Right, you’ve still gotta put in the work. But we’re going to make it easier and help facilitate those connections.”
Liz Simon: So we have people who sit in every one of our local markets. Two people: one whose job is career coaching who works one-on-one with every full time student and two, someone who is responsible for employer partnerships. Going out to the community and developing relationships with employers. So that those employers can be connected to our graduates, either through you know, meet-and-hire events or our online profiles tool, which matches candidates and employers. And so it’s a big part of what we do is a big part of what we invest in and the resources that we make available to students and everything from like helping them from resume prep and job interview prep to actually then providing introductions, sending them job listings, sort of talent consulting, and things like that. And that’s something that, again, we put a lot of focus on.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That’s great, Liz. Now earlier in the interview you mentioned an alumni base of something around 40,000. Do I have that right?
Liz Simon: Yeah.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So do you connect the alumni with one another? Is that one way that people can network and find career opportunities?
Liz Simon: We do. And actually like alumni hiring another grads, just like in the context of sort of more traditional higher ed, right? It’s something we see a lot of. So one of the things we love to see most is alumni might come back and as they over the last six years often these are people who are advancing in their careers they’re now becoming managers, they’re now becoming hiring managers.
Liz Simon: So seeing those people come back to tap into our community is something we see happen all the time and that we absolutely think is a critical part of the value proposition of what GA brings, that frankly others in this space don’t, is that really robust network. We have meetup groups in all of our cities, of alumni who get together, not just your own cohort, but often opportunities for alumni to engage, just like any sort of, again, more traditional higher ed institution. There are get-togethers, events, programming, et cetera for our alumni network in those cities. A lot of it is frankly run by the alumni themselves, who’ve taking ownership over kind of maintaining that community of forums to communicate and chat on a regular basis. So again, I think that’s one of the key differentiators for GA given the scale that we have is that sort of global network that that people automatically have a network into.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Well, that’s great.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Yeah so we…Earlier we were talking about accreditation and the fact that General Assembly is not interested in pursuing it, at least at this point. So what funding sources do students have to tap into for the courses that they take?
Liz Simon: Yes, so this is a really important question, one we spend a lot of time thinking about. I would say when we first get started we were primarily doing it with people who could pay out of pocket. And people who were able to go to friends and family. Put it on a credit card, et cetera. Without your government funding available. Well that was what people were doing and they were kind of looking at it you know, the R.O.I. versus Prep’s graduate degree, which this is obviously a lot cheaper. But you know as we’ve grown financing options become more and more important as you can imagine. Today students are able to take out private loans to support their GA education and there’s a whole class of lenders that have sprung up just to support this accelerated learning industry. And you know, those are still based on credit score largely. So folks who have poor credit or frankly little credit if they’re younger actually still have a problem with those. So we are trying to innovate around this every day. You know, we have robust scholarship programs that are either government or philanthropically funded to support students who are not eligible for funding sources. We’re increasingly looking at models like income share agreements and things like that, that will allow us to frankly eliminate financing as a barrier for students. What I will say is the strategy of going after government funding is not something, of the title four nature, is not a thing that we’re pursuing. Though we are excited about things like the G.I. Bill, and things that we are eligible for today that we’re going through various applications. We hope to get to a point in the future where access isn’t limited whether you can afford it or not.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So Liz, how is General Assembly working with employers now?
Liz Simon: It’s interesting, working directly with employers has been a part of our strategy since 2011. We’ve got a team that’s focused solely on working with the enterprise. What what we’re seeing today is companies who are struggling to find the talent they need.
Liz Simon: And we’re seeing leading companies step forward to look for new avenues to acquire talent and that can come in a lot of different ways. So companies are coming to us to number one: re-skill talent that they have internally already, whose skills, for example, maybe becoming obsolete. And they’re looking to provide them with fresh skills. These are people who are, you know, loyal, who the company wants invest in versus. And it is frankly cheaper and better to, you know, invest in training them versus laying them off, severance, recruiting new people, etc. We’re also seeing companies look at us as an on-boarding tool. So we’re working with one major Fortune 500 company who’s hiring liberal arts grads and then putting them through a GA immersive web development program. They hire them to be entry level web developers and software engineers, and these are liberal arts grads who don’t have a technical background. But it’s part of their on-boarding and a lot of this is being done through assessment, right? We are figuring out where people’s starting point is within the enterprise, you know benchmarking and then developing sort of customized learning paths based on where people need to go, where their skill level is.
Liz Simon: So use the assessment as both formative and summative ways to look at where people are starting at, what companies need to invest in to get their people to a certain level, frankly, where their competitors are, where their industry is. And then actually delivering the training to help people get to that level. So I think companies both look at this as an opportunity to one to obviously hire new talent out of our programs.
Liz Simon: But also once they’ve already hired people either at the beginning or somewhere down the line, you know, radically re-skill them to put them in a new career and this is something that I would say we’ve really seen explode over the last year or so even though we’ve been doing upskilling work within companies for quite some time. So it’s a really exciting growth area for us and it kind of converges, you know, the business model of teacher, consumer, and enterprise in a really nice way where we can deliver the stuff online, on-site at a company or they can come to our campus. You know, if there’s one nearby and buy out an entire course or send their people to our program. So having that skill allows us to do that really seamlessly.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Great. That sounds like a really interesting expansion of the work that you guys have been doing.
Liz Simon: Yeah it has been. You know again it’s always been kind of part of the model I would say the extent to which we’re seeing companies invest in radically re-skilling, you know, their own folks as a means to sort of create the talent pipeline that they need. So that’s something that’s really exciting for us, companies are starting to realize that rather than thinking about 20 to 40 thousand dollars of spending on recruiting someone new, know they should be thinking about that money versus the you know kind of more poultry you know average one to two thousand dollars that employers spend per person on corporate training if they re-thought about a talent acquisition solution and that those things kind of merge in an interesting way.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Great. Well thanks very much for sharing that , Liz, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Great, such a pleasure! Thank you again.
This podcast episode is brought to you by work+EDU, an action-based event hosted by EdTech Times.
Join us in Boston June 20, 2018 to hear how educators and employers from the fastest growing industries are successfully bridging the gap between education and work. Together with speakers and attendees, you’ll brainstorm solutions for your own community.
If you’re interested in attending, speaking, or sponsoring, visit workandedu.com.