Doing it Right with Adda Birnir
In S2E3, we fall hard for Adda Birnir, founder and CEO of Skillcrush—the online coding school with a heart.
While coding bootcamp programs tend to talk about turning students into rockstar programmer gods, Skillcrush focuses on using tech to build a fulfilling, creative, and sustainable career. And the message is working: after some early ups and downs back in 2012, Adda has taken the business from a fledging idea to a stable, profitable, and growing company of 35 employees. And she’s here to tell us all about it.
At some point I decided that I wanted the business to survive and I was going to figure out what it would take for it to survive and do that. And that really meant sort of letting go of kind of any idea I had about what the business was going to be.
—Adda Birnir, founder and CEO, Skillcrush
Listen in for a super-real convo about:
- Bootstrapping a business instead of raising venture capital
- How to bounce back when the bank account runs dry
- Why women are flocking to Skillcrush to learn technical skills—while most bootcamp programs struggle to attract them
- Building pay equity into the heart of how Skillcrush runs
- Making sure you don’t end up hating the company you built
- Friend dates, cheese plates, and ordering as many desserts as possible
- Vocab swaps for “crazy” and “guys” (for more ideas on this one, check out this article from The Establishment)
- Morning people: are they a fuck yeah! or a fuck that?
This episode of NYG is brought to you by:
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Sara Wachter-Boettcher [Ad spot] This episode of NYG is brought to you by our friends at Shopify, makers of great tools that help entrepreneurs around the world start and grow their businesses. Shopify started with just a few people obsessed with personal growth. Now they’re a team of more than 3,000 with offices and remote workers pretty much everywhere. What’s next? Oh, just redefining the future of entrepreneurship. If that’s interesting to you, visit shopify.com/careers to see what they’re working on [music fades in, plays alone for ten seconds].
Jenn Lukas Welcome to No, You Go [music fades out], the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. I’m Jenn Lukas.
Katel LeDû I’m Katel LeDû.
SWB And I’m Sara Wachter-Boettcher.
KL Today on the show we’re talking to my friend, Adda Birnir. Six years ago she developed and launched an online coding course and has since built a thriving company around it. We talk about the early days of starting a business; how to decide when and if you need financial help as a startup; and we dig into what the future of working in tech might look like. But before we get to that, can we talk about our co-host date we just had?
JL We can definitely talk about this. So, last month was my birthday, and I had the chance to go out with these two lovely ladies. And it was so awesome, we went to dinner, and drinks, and then dessert, and then we went another place for more dessert [laughs, others laugh].
SWB It was my favorite part about our co-host date.
KL We know—we know how to do dessert. We know how to like do a night out. Clearly.
JL I think that is definitely true. And I—I think that, don’t get me wrong, I love this podcast, and hanging out with you during this podcast, but I really loved hanging out with you over dinner, drinks, and dessert times three.
SWB I was soooo happy to… get out and just kind of have fun with both of you because I was thinking a lot about this like we’re all busy and have so much different stuff going on in our schedules, and we all have like other work to do that’s not the podcast, of course, right? And so it’s really easy for like the only social time we have with each other to also be podcast time, and then you realize like… all we do is work on the podcast. And as much as—you’re right: I love it. Like I love doing it—I wouldn’t do this otherwise. But then you’re like, oh wow what used to be friend time is also now work time. And then you’re like, oh what happened to like just having friend time with my friends? And so I think that’s really cool that we sort of were, you know, making that time and I think we gotta make sure that happens more often.
JL A lot of us are so lucky to be able to have found friends that we can work with which is so cool because you’re just like doubling down on awesome time spent together but I—we—I keep coming back to this: this balance thing, right? And trying to figure out how to remember that… [under breath] I don’t have to remember that you’re my friends, I do know you’re my friends [laughter].
KL Do you remember why we fell in love? [JL laughs boisterously, others laugh along]
JL The next Nicholas Sparks book! [Laughs] No, You Go: a Love Story.
KL Yeah, yeah, exactly [chuckles].
JL But I think it’s—we all keep coming back to this balance thing, finding that balance. So, I don’t know, just going out to dinner with you all just reminded me (not that I forgot, I promise I didn’t forget) but just like, again, that this is the reason I think I love this so much is because I’m doing something I love with friends that I love.
SWB I also love having like a cheese plate and not also talking about whether or not we can sign a sponsor, or what we’re going to do for the upcoming episode, or how many downloads we got this week. Like that was a pretty good cheese plate and also we didn’t have to talk about the podcast. Which, like, I love the podcast but that doesn’t mean I want to talk about it all the time. I love work but I don’t want to talk about it all the time.
JL That’s true.
JL We did talk about one thing about the podcast which was that we should bake this in every time we finish the season: a No, You Go…Out to Dinner [all laugh].
SWB Yeah, I mean, totally! I love this idea that we work that in as sort of like these celebratory moments. And like a season is little; like we’re talking 10 episodes at a time right now. That’s what we’re, you know, that’s what we’re calling a season. And it’s not like we’re, you know, doing these like major milestones, but it’s like these little mini markers that like, “Yeah! We accomplished something and that matters!”
JL And I really like it. I mean and I think scheduling stuff is ok. And we’ve talked—and we’ve talked about this before with guests, right? I mean I know last week with Carmen, Carmen had mentioned, you know, how she’d scheduled weekends off. And, you know, to have that specific time booked. And, you know, and Lara Hogan has talked about how she likes to celebrate with donuts, and I think having these things that you specifically whether you mark them on a calendar or they become habit or routine. Something that really reminds you to keep celebrating these victories, these friendships, these professional milestones, anything that you want to love, to really celebrate that about yourself, some way or another. It can be something small, it can be something big, whichever fits into your lifestyle.
KL I love that and I’m so glad we did that, and I can’t wait til the next one. Something else that I really like that we’re doing is, you know, just working on improving ourselves a little it and part of that has been, you know, this new thing we’re going to do with the vocab swap. And I just thought, like let’s check in on that a little bit. So, vocab swap is something that we are starting because we realize we were saying things like “you guys” a lot or, you know, things like “we’re going crazy” about something, and we just—we wanted to change the way we were talking and just be a lot more aware of those things, and learn more about how to practice that a little bit better. So h—how do you feel like it’s been going?
JL I feel like it’s been going well. I’ve run into a few hiccups here and there. For “you guys” I’m really good if I’m typing: I can type “y’all” or “folks.” But it feels weird for me to say “y’all” or “folks” out loud. The face I’m making right now [chuckles] is like mmm. It just doesn’t roll off my tongue that well. So, I don’t know, are you—are y’all saying something else?
KL I also find that if I simply just take a beat and say “you” because that can apply to a group of people. If I’m not sure or like don’t feel comfortable saying “y’all” or “folks” or, you know, whatever, I like saying “friends” or “pals” [yeah][mm hmm]. I don’t know, just kind of thinking of all those different ways you can kind of experiment. I had a hard time with it, too, and then I was like, “I think I just need to force myself to say it,” and then it became a lot more comfortable.
SWB I think that a lot of time like other things sound weird in our heads [yeah] because we’re not used to them, but they don’t actually sound weird. But I think, you know, something I—it depends on the context, right? Like so at the beginning of a conversation if you’re like introducing yourself or, you know, you’re saying hi for the first time, it’s like—I sometimes find that something like a “hey everyone” is more comfortable for me [yes yes] and then in conversation if it’s like, you know, “What do you guys want to get for lunch?” I find myself not saying that anymore because I find it’s pretty comfortable to say like, “What do you all want for lunch?” Not a y’all but like, “What do you all want?”
KL Right. Yeah.
SWB I found that those—those are the ways that it tends to work for me I think most of the time.
JL And then the other one for me, you know, we were talking about substituting “crazy” for things like “wild.” So, “I’m wild about that.” And I love that, but then I ran into something like, what about if I’m saying, “This drives me crazy.”
SWB Yeah, so I mean that’s an interesting one, right? Because what you’re implying there is that this is making you mentally ill. And that’s kind of like what you mean, right, when you say that but it’s not really what you mean, right? And so for a lot of people it feels like that’s making light of people with actual mental illness. And so, you know, it’s hard to just swap out a word there. It’s like you kind of need to change up the whole phrase [mm hmm] so that you’re not—because if you say some other word that’s a substitute for crazy, like, “This is driving me nuts,” you’re basically saying the same thing [mm hmm]. So—so we started brainstorming some potentials [laughter]. Ok, so, “That makes me frustrated.” That’s a—that’s a good baseline one. You can use that pretty much anywhere.
SWB What else did we come up with?
JL Uh, “This really grinds my gears.”
SWB [Laughs] These get bad so quickly [laughs].
KL “These really—really get my panties in a bunch.”
JL [Laughs] Uh, “This makes my blood boil.”
SWB “This really rubs me wrong.” [Mm] Meh [laughter].
JL That phrase, “Rubs me wrong,” rubs me wrong [laughter].
KL “That really… steams my mussels.” [Laughter]
SWB Is that a thing?! [Laughter]
KL No!! [Laughter][Music fades in, plays alone for two seconds, fades out.]
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Interview: Adda Birnir
KL I know my way around HTML and CSS because of one person: Adda Birnir. She is the founder and CEO of Skillcrush, the online coding school with a heart, which she’s built from the ground up over the past six years. Adda helped me learn programming languages, but more than that, I felt confident after learning something new, which is amazing. She’s helping thousands of people learn to code so they can make a living doing work they actually love. Adda, I’m thrilled to have you on the show. Welcome to No, You Go.
Adda Birnir I’m so thrilled to be here!
KL So let’s just get into this: how did you launch Skillcrush?
AB We started, you know, in April of 2012 and basically at that point I had been working as a developer for probably about two years or so, and was kind of interested in this idea—was a moment in which startups were really hot, and it was like right when a lot of those incubators were sort of coming out. And it was kind of like everyone had a big idea and I was like, “I want in on this too!” So I was playing around with some different stuff with some friends of mine. At the time I was—I was running sort of a very, very small design/development shop with a business partner who became one of the founders of Skillcrush, and we were kind of experimenting with different ideas around apps and services and stuff like that that we could offer people. And we’d actually had one that had totally flopped and that had been a really good lesson for me because it was definitely one of those things where instead of starting with a problem and a customer, we started with a solution so we were, you know, there’s kind of a typical startup thing like a solution in search for a problem. And therefore I wanted to do everything with Skillcrush totally the opposite way. So we actually launched the first like first thing where we put the Skillcrush name out there was just a newsletter that we launched, and we launched it at South by Southwest [SXSW]. And by launched at SXSW, we put like an email form signup on an iPad and like walked up to people at SXSW and [laughs] tried to get them to buy it with an email address. So that was the first sort of genesis of Skillcrush in the form that it is today.
SWB What did you tell people at SXSW? Like what did you tell people they were signing up for?
AB Basically the kind of like hypothesis or like the question that we were trying to answer for ourselves was: would women buy a product that was about technical topics if we positioned it in a much friendlier kind of way? That was kind of like the scientific experiment we wanted to do. Our hypothesis was that it’s not really that coding, per se, is unattractive to women, it’s that the way in which every other, you know, major university, education, everything outlet talks about it is the problem. And so if we repositioned it in a much friendlier way that seemed a lot more relevant to women’s lives, would they be willing to buy it? And our thought was if we can’t get women at SXSW to buy it, we’re screwed. Right? Like this is—this is definitely like the early adopter audience, and what we sold them, and by “sold,” again, it was for free with an email address. But what we sold them was a tech word of the day newsletter. I think. And it was like, every day we were going to define a new tech term in like a fun and interesting way. But I’m sure our pitch changed a lot, I’m sure, person to person, because we were literally doing direct sales person to person.
KL I—I remember that newsletter. I mean, I signed up for that and I remember thinking like, “This is such a great entry point.” So, I don’t know, it—it worked.
AB I got Katel!
KL [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. So in the early days, after you grew sort of from making just that newsletter, you started doing these tutorials… what were those early days like creating all those tutorials? And like you—you yourself were at the center of this brand and kind of giving the lessons. Like what was that like?
AB It was just a lot of work [laugh]. I mean it was like… I would literally—I mean I think that’s sort of every founder when they start, right? It’s funny for me to think about now because there’s people who’s like full-time job it is to video edit for us, for example. Whereas I used to write the content, do the video, edit the video, upload it to the site, code the site, you know what I mean? [KL laughs yeah] It was just like every single part of it. Yeah, I mean—I mean honestly like I think I am somebody who happens to be—like really enjoy that aspect of it. I mean I love Skillcrush and what it is now, but like I miss those early days. I miss the days when I could like have an idea… you know? Run through the entire production cycle and have it up the next day. That was super duper fun. It was also like soul crushingly like… you know like the weight of like, “Is this going to work?” You know, “Am I deluding myself?” Like all of that stuff was really, really hard. So, you know, it’s a—it’s a give and take.
KL Did you always feel like you were the kind of person who would start a business? Like, when did you know that you were that person?
AB I… discovered that I was the type of person to run a business probably like four or five months into running my first business when I realized. I mean I really had to like have a heart to heart with myself and be like, “You know what? I’m running a business.” Because what had happened is that I had basically been doing this job, I was working at MTV at the time, and I really didn’t like it. And I met this friend who became my business partner and she had run a freelance—she’d basically been like a solopreneur kind of freelancer, sole proprietor, before that as a designer. And she was basically pitching to me that like I could be the developer, she would be the designer, and we could take on bigger projects together… And I was basically like, “I’ll do anything but stay here.” [Laughs] So I was like, “Sounds like a great idea. I’ll do whatever you say. You seem to have a vision.” So I did that and then I like had that—I had some sense that we needed to incorporate the biz—the whatever it was that we were doing. Again, I was not thinking about this as a business. And so I did all this research into co-op business models which is actually like a thing you can incorporate as. And I had this like fantasy that we were going to be this cooperative, and I was doing all this research about what that meant and like all this stuff. And then eventually like it just got to this point where I was like, I just dug myself, like really dug into some rabbit hole, and she was like, “We just need to make an LLC and be done with it.” I was like, “Ok, fine!” And that was kind of the moment at which it dawned on me that like this was a business that we were starting. Skillcrush obviously was very different. When I started Skillcrush I had already run a business for two years, and gone through a lot of the things around like incorporating, and, you know, hiring your first person, and then, you know, what does it mean employee, contractor, like you know—health insurance—like all of that stuff which is its own big learning curve.
SWB Adda, when you started Skillcrush did you kind of go all in right away or were you still doing client work and kind of doing this on the side? Like how did you spin it up into what it is now?
AB Yeah, no, definitely not going all in like right away. I started, you know, we were doing—we were a design and development consultancy, effectively, so we would you know build websites for clients for hire and so that, you know, luckily it lent itself really well to this because we kind of were—like we had a workflow that sort of accounted for a lot of different projects and moving them along at the same time. So it wasn’t so hard to like slot in a personal or a sort of, you know, more of like a pet project for us. But so we started off that way. We did apply for an incubator. So that was helpful for us for a number of reasons: they gave us some money, which was great. And then, you know, sort of allowed us to dial down the client work and really focus for awhile. I think it also was, you know, at the time like I think it was like a lot of validation for us—which, looking back on it, I don’t really think that getting validation from like any sort of incubator or investment really means very much, but at the time it did. You know, like, I guess what I’m trying to say is objectively, it’s not like they really knew that we were, you know… going to work out as a company. But I think just having anyone tell you that this is a good idea and then put some money behind it like obviously is really helpful and encouraging at that moment in time. So.
AB That was super helpful. And then we actually got a follow-on note from another investor so that gave us a little bit more runway. But I will say, like, we burned through all that money and then literally had negative dollars in the bank account and had to like figure out what the hell to do with ourselves [laughs]. So then we went back to doing client work. So it was definitely like it was a long road. Like I… went full-time on Skillcrush in the fall of 2014. So that was like over two years after we had batted the company.
SWB That’s really interesting. So… so yeah something that we hear about a lot is when people start talking about, you know, running a startup, they’ll—they’ll immediately launch into… how they went from an incubator or whatever into, “Ok when we got our Series A,” and, you know, “Going for our Series B.” And did you kind of stop going down that investment path or did you continue once you went past the incubation stage? Can you tell us more about how that played out?
AB Yeah so we did basically an incubator, which was $25,000, which is kind of traditional for an incubator. Then we did a convertible note, follow-on investment, which was basically like we just got—we got handed a $50,000 check and we didn’t even have to ask for it. But convertible notes, for those of you who aren’t familiar: basically they’re debt that will convert at the point at which you raise more money. Meaning that it’ll convert to equity. So it’s like you owe $50,000 on this timetable, but the idea is that instead of having to actually pay that back you raise more money. Like a Series A, for example. And at that point it converts to equity instead of being a debt. So we basically got a total of $75,000, and we used that to sort of fund the initial creation of our product and at that point we got ourselves to a point where we were making money but very little money. It was like $5,000 or something like that which, Katel, that’s probably like, you’re probably like one of the first dollars in the door [laughs, KL laughs].
AB [Chuckles] But yeah, so, and, you know, I think at the time like we were like, “Oh $5,000, that’s awesome.” Like, “Next month it’ll be $10,000, and then $15,000!” And instead it was like $5,000, then it was like $4,000, then it was like $3,000, and then we were like, “Oh no! This is a disaster.” And that was the point at which we had to, you know, just out of necessity, had to go and start doing other work to just make a living—I mean just to pay my rent. But in terms of the whole question of like whether or not to raise. You know, honestly this is something I fought with my co-founder about a lot, and I think she would be comfortable with me saying this. One of my co-founders I think kind of like basically left because I effectively refused to fundraise at that point, and the reason I refused at that point was I really didn’t—I just didn’t know even where to begin with that. Like I didn’t really know what I would do with the money if I raised the money. I didn’t really know what potential there was. I mean for me, this was so new at that point in time. It just wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing or wanted to do and I also think like that there was an extent to which like I had this sense of like, like, “I have a lot to learn here.” Both like myself as a person but also just like in context of this, like is this a viable business? What is needed for it to be a viable business? What does it look like? What needs to happen?
AB [Continued] And I think I just didn’t want kind of the pressure that bringing on more people would bring into it. So yeah, so I didn’t raise money. And then later on when I got to the point where I could’ve started to answer those questions, it kind of felt like the same thing, except for now I like was more knowledgeable, like I felt like I didn’t want to make promises I couldn’t keep. I—it was growing really organically, and it was growing at a high rate, but not at a sort of venture-backable high rate. And at that point I didn’t need the money, like I—we were profitable. So I just kind of continued to grow it like that.
SWB I ask about it because I feel like so often when we have any conversation about a kind of tech-related business, nobody seems to understand that like… this is actually one potential path you could take. It’s almost like people have forgotten that since, you know, like people have been starting businesses by doing work for money [chuckles] for a really long time, and then it’s like, all of a sudden, it’s like everybody collectively forgot that, and assumes that what you have to do is go out there and get, you know, large amounts of funding and that it is all about raising capital, and then having to make those people happy. And so I—I really like, you know, looking at what are other ways people do this kind of thing? And then, how does that change what you offer, and how you offer it, and how you choose to grow?
AB I don’t regret anything about what I’ve done. I mean I will admit, just for full disclosure, I did raise money from an angel investor in 2015 and the reason for that was that at that point we were making a lot of money but I also had a lot of costs. It was making it hard for me to invest as much as I wanted to in growth because, you know, I think as a young company, like it’s really hard to sort of build up the cash reserves that you need in order to feel really stable. So at that point I did take on some money just to sort of have some more cash in the bank, and allow us to continue to invest in the growth of the business. But… running a startup business, like I have—it’s really keeps you honest and I think that I can’t imagine like even for me now like having more money in the bank like it does fundamentally change the way you make decisions. And sometimes at some points in the business I think that’s like ok and appropriate if you know what you’re doing. But early on, I mean you’re literally just spending blindly. Like you have no idea what to spend money on, or like you just—you don’t know how to do anything. I mean you don’t know how to like spend your time or money, and that just lends itself to spending money on things you shouldn’t be spending money on. And it’s not that it’s impossible to like raise money and then do it right, but I think that it’s impossible to bootstrap it and not do it right, right? Like you can’t do it for very long if you don’t do it right. So it like really, really forces you, in such a healthy way I think, to know what the hell you’re doing—or to learn really fast.
SWB Right. There’s no pile of money sitting around that you can misuse—
SWB —because it’s not there [giggles].
AB Exactly. Yeah. It’s like I mean and you feel the pain. It’s like you’re looking at negative dollars and you’re like, “[Choking sound] What am I going to do to get myself out of this?”
KL [Laughs] Yeah. You feel the effect right away and you have to make a decision to turn it around and—I mean the—I don’t want to say the cool thing is, because sometimes it doesn’t turn out to be cool but, you know—an interesting thing is that when you make a decision to try something else or something new you also get that feedback like right away. You’re like, [chuckles] “Ok this is working. Keep doing that.”
AB Yeah. And granted like it only works for certain types of businesses and there’s other types of businesses that it’s very difficult and stuff like that, but I am really thankful for the experience, I’m really proud of having gotten through that. And I think Skillcrush is a much stronger company today because of that fact. So I definitely would recommend it. That said, though, like, listen: it’s true, nobody give you a—you know like I was profitable, like, I don’t know, maybe my third year in business or no, my second—or whatever. My first, my second full year of business and like nobody gives you a parade for that. And then you raise like a Series A and everyone’s like, “You’re amazing!” So like, I don’t know… I get it.
KL That’s totally true.
SWB It also seems to me like that’s sort of part of the problem [AB yeah] with like the tech industry and sort of like, what it chooses to celebrate and not celebrate. and what kinds of incentives that gives people.
AB Yeah, I mean listen: if we want to get real cynical, I think the tech industry is premised on like wealth consolidation, and like, what are you rewarding at the end of the day? Like some VC invests a bunch of money and then sells the company. Who is actually benefiting from that, right? Like I don’t—I don’t know. So yes. So I think there’s like some fundamental problems with what the tech industry and what our world values. I could not agree with you more.
SWB Well, totally. You know what, though, I don’t think—I mean—I don’t actually perceive that as cynical, or maybe I don’t know maybe I’m just cynical, but I perceive that as being sort of like celebrating other ways of doing things. And, you know, like speaking of that, I’m actually really curious. I mean you kind of went around building the business a little differently than what some other people in tech might’ve done, but also the message and the sort of positioning of Skillcrush has been pretty different too. I mean you mentioned that when you mentioned the SXSW launch and sort of going up and trying to make it approachable for women, and I’m wondering if we can talk more about that. Like, how do you see Skillcrush as being different than other code bootcamps or academies and things like that that are out there?
AB So [sighs]… I—it’s funny. I had an interesting conversation with a founder of another bootcamp and he was basically asking me, like, how do you—you know, because I think a lot of the other bootcamps struggle to attract women. And like our audience is 80 percent women. And we’re, you know, we’re literally enrolling hundreds of women a month. So it’s like they’re not not there, and they’re not not interested. They’re interested. And it was just funny for me because I was sort of like, “Oh it’s so simple.” And at the same time, like, you’d have to change everything about what you do. I think—like I can tell you how we do it in a million different details and sort of how we execute on it, but I think fundamentally it’s that the mission of our organization is focused on this audience: it’s women who are looking to make a career change because they want to make more money, have more flexibility, be more creatively, you know, fulfilled in their jobs. And we believe that by empowering them with tech skills, it’ll give them a lot more opportunities they don’t currently have. And we want, you know, to help them sort of make that transition. So then what that means is that like… we start everything from that premise. Like I mean we actually literally have a persona and she has a name and everything is like, “Is this what she would want?” Right? Does she want this class? Does she want this color? Does she want this design? Does she—like would she resonate with this imagery? Like so it’s just like it’s completely baked into every aspect of how we run the company. And—and I mean I would go as far as like to a certain extent like—I mean [sighs]… this is where like the persona and me I guess get a little conflated but like [chuckles] you know the company also is sort of—we want to build the company that would be a company that she would want to work for. Right? That is—that sort of does right by our people in the way that we think that like, you know, they should be done right by. So yeah it just… it’s just how—it’s the air we breathe.
SWB I’m thinking about even just a really tangible way that this plays out. You know I was taking a look at… how you talk about Skillcrush like on the website and I was looking at the reviews that you have, and I was noticing the difference between… what I see there versus like what I see on like a lot of these kind of bootcamp sites which is a lot of those feel so sort of like aggressive, like that you get out and you’re immediately this like coding rockstar who’s going to get this six-figure salary and I think, you know, that may well be true for somebody who comes out of the program, too, that they’re going to end up getting a great salary, but there was a lot more message of like, this very achievable feeling of like, “Yeah, I was able to transition into a job in tech doing support and then I was able grow that from there into this bigger position,” and it feels a little bit more like realistic? Maybe. Or a little bit more… just not—not so aggressive in that—in that like super… domineering way.
AB Yeah I mean I think there’s a lot of culture in tech that I really struggle with, which is very much about virtuosity and [exhales sharply] sort of extreme technical ability, extreme, you know, you want to be the best coder ever! Who knows like the most languages! And like so fancy, and have like a really tight hierarchy of like what technical skills are valuable and which ones are not valuable. And fundamentally that is not a message that resonates with our audience. Like if we were like, “We’re the single best, most advanced, most intense place to learn Python,” like our audience would not come to us because that’s just not what they’re looking for. And I think like that is a huge distinction that I think differentiates us from everyone else basically, and I think that’s kind of what you’re speaking to. And I will say, too, like (and this is anecdotal) but like we do have male students and we also will get a lot of male students who will look at our programs, and it’s so funny because like… it’s so different in talking to them. And they tend to be much more interested, like they’ll really like hammer on our customer support of like, “What languages do you teach?” Like, “How do you teach them?” “How updated are they?” “What version are they?” Like all this stuff. And that just isn’t, you know, with our core audience it’s much more about what you can do with it rather than like kind of like how hardcore and how like legit are my skills going to be when I walk away from this program. And like, we still are legit. And like teach awesome stuff but, you know, that’s kind of not necessarily like our number one value proposition.
SWB Yeah I like this idea that—that there’s lots of ways to do tech. Like there’s lots of ways to work in tech and like, sure, you might be the kind of person who wants this like super intense kind of thing but… there’s so much work to be done in tech and there’s so many interesting problems to solve that like you don’t have to be that person to find like a really cool career in the field which I like—I like that that message is coming through. I love that so much.
AB Yeah I mean I think again, you know, fundamentally like our audience is not sitting around being like, “The most important thing to me is that I work in tech.” That’s just not what they’re motivated by. Like they are motivated by, you know, having a career that is more fulfilling to them in like, you know, in lots of different ways. Whether that is that it’s creative and flexible or that they make more money, I mean whatever, you know, that can mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people. And kind of the role that we’re playing is saying, “Listen: like tech is not even like a career. It is the career,” you know what I mean? Like it’s—it is the world we live in. And the more empowered you are from a technical perspective, the more choice you’re going to have, and the more options you’re going to have, and the more power you’re going to have, frankly. And this is kind of that moment. Like it’s like the industrial revolution or something, it’s like if you don’t sort of get on the bandwagon now, like there’s just a—there’s a lot to lose, potentially. And so, you know, we’re trying to—you know, trying to sort of bridge that gap.
KL Yeah. That makes so much sense and in making tech, you know, and sort of this whole world more approachable for women do you—do you like ever worry that they’ll, you know, what they’ll encounter in the culture when they get there?
AB If I thought that the only that you could take advantage of the skills that we’re teaching you is to go work at a tech company, I think I would feel a lot more conflicted about what we do. But from my perspective like and, you know, and I say this partially from my own experience and also from, you know, just what I have observed and also just, you know, reading lots of data on jobs and where they’re moving. Like I don’t think that the only way that tech skills is useful to somebody is like to go work in the tech industry in sort of traditional like quote/unquote like “development” job. And I have major concerns about people who go do that and I definitely like would caution anyone. I mean, you know, and to go in with open eyes. Like I think—and I think [sighs]… it’s complicated like obviously I want women to have those jobs and I want more women to be in those roles but I also think fundamentally like, you know, it’s the big, I don’t know, you know, I’m just going to throw out some names here. Not to just single out any single company but at the end of the day I really do fundamentally believe that it’s like Google, and Apple, and Facebook, and all those, and Uber, like they’re the ones who have the most to lose by not diversifying their workforce and I don’t want to promote an idea of a like—I don’t believe in the idea that like… we should be begging them for jobs or begging them to like—like I fundamentally think that what’s amazing about the internet is that it really does democratize and distribute the power in a way that is kind of unprecedented in human history, and I’m about like distributing that power, and I don’t necessarily think that anyone should feel like they’re at the whim of some, you know, sexist tech company’s culture.
KL Well, speaking of that like what [exhales sharply] what could change there in terms of I don’t know, like, this industry and those people just being, you know, better at supporting more diverse folks coming into it?
AB Honestly, like I don’t know that I’m always like the best person to comment on this. I mean I can tell you like the things that we think about in terms of like how we create our company to try to combat bias, you know? And from a structural perspective: it’s hard. Like I get that. You have to do things that are not sexy. Like, you know, a big thing we did was institute these salary tiers where we really kind of worked really hard to equalize people’s salaries, and not—it doesn’t mean everyone makes the same amount, but like sort of create really strict standards of how we divvy up salaries and decide on salaries. And I mean I think it’s super sexy, but like from an individual’s perspective it’s not. It means you can’t, like, maximize your salary at Skillcrush. Like that’s not something that’s going to happen to an individual because we think about it from like sort of the collective perspective. So I think, you know, it’s about really reexamining the values of what these companies are going after.
KL Yeah totally.
AB And that’s hard.
SWB I’m so into this idea of like thinking about it from the collective perspective, I mean if you are working in a traditional environment where nobody is thinking about it from the collective perspective, like obviously you kind of gotta like… get yours or whatever. Like that—that ends up being like a mindset you have to get into to survive there. But if you are in a company where there’s this collective feeling in where you do have a sense that people are in it together. I think that you can approach situations totally differently. I love that.
AB Yeah. I mean I think the thing is like from an employer’s perspective like everything is collective actually, right? Like I—like, you know, and this is based in my actual experience: like if I negotiate with someone and they negotiate an extra like $30,000 for their salary. That’s $30,000 dollars I can’t pay someone else or pay another like three people or whatever or raises I can’t give or bonuses. Like there is—it is a zero-sum game. I don’t have endless amounts amounts of money and I guess what I became really concerned with personally was pay equity, which I think is what you’re addressing, right? Like when you don’t have standardization and you don’t have pay equity then yeah, you should just basically try to get everything you can for yourself because like otherwise you’re just a sucker [laughing]. It’s like getting the short end of the stick. But I just, I mean like, I’m like whoever would think that that would create like a good structural outcome?
SWB Right, like, that’s more about like how do I—how do I like… exist in this environment or this culture in this system that is not like actually designed in any sort of healthy way, versus what would a system look like that was actually, you know, going to be like positive and good for people. And those are such fundamentally different questions that I think maybe we don’t spend enough time like parsing out, like, the difference between those things.
AB Yeah. Absolutely.
KL So we were reading an interview with you where you talked about how you get out of a rut, and part of your answer was sometimes you, quote, “Must surrender and trust that you won’t feel so uninspired forever,” and we—we just really loved that like, you know, getting caught up in the idea of forward momentum and I think so many of us do that. That, you know, that kind of like unrelenting [laughs] you know push that you feel. Like how, I don’t know, how do you—like how do you deal with that?
AB I think step one is always acknowledging it, right? Like I think that it was a big revelation for me just to be like, my role at this company has really changed, and I don’t get to be the person coming up with all the big ideas all the time. You know, and I really miss that, and I don’t—I don’t really have a solution for it. It’s been really helpful for me to talk to other people. Like I have a mentor who sort of gave me warning. He was like, you know, like, “You know like when you get up to like 30 to 50 people,” and we’re at 35 right now, he was like, “A lot of founders wake up and realize they hate their [laughing] lives and hate their companies,” because it’s just this, like, weight. It’s like all the fun parts are drained out of it, and like now all you do is like bureaucratic stuff, and for a lot of people that’s not why they got into the business at all. And that can be a real challenge. And that was kind of a warning he gave me and, you know, I don’t hate my company, but it was good for me to sort of have some warning that that wasn’t—that was like very normal.
KL Yeah some perspective that you’re like, “Ok, I’m not the only one going through this.” Well, ok, so we’ve got one last question because we know we’re running out of time. But so, what would you tell someone who is considering building their own company or, you know, starting something new like that?
AB It’s really funny because I feel like I do get asked this question a lot and I meet with people and it’s funny because it’s like I feel like I’m always like there to rain on their parade. And that’s so not what I want to do [KL chuckles] because I’m like, “No! You absolutely should go for it. It’s awesome.” So I—let me start by saying that: like you should totally go for it. It’s totally awesome. It’s completely—I think something that’s really important for people to understand is like there is a method to the madness. Like there is a way to make it much more likely that you will succeed. You know? It’s not just luck. And then, you know, and then to rain on your parade: I would say that like, you know, fundamentally—and this is something I say to people and they don’t like, but I will say it anyway—you at some point have to decide whether you are more attached to running a successful business or more attached to like realizing the vision that you had for your business. And in a perfect world and actually like I will say for myself like Skillcrush exceeds my expectations like by like a factor of like, you know, 25. Like it’s—I’m so proud of the company I’ve built and the product and there’s so many aspects of it that I couldn’t have even—like that I literally just would never have known to do, and that are so phenomenal. And like going on that journey has been, outside of like marrying my husband, the best thing that ever happened to me. But I think that like it’s successful from a business standpoint because at some point I decided that I wanted the business to survive and I was going to figure out what it would take for it to survive and do that. And that really meant sort of letting go of kind of any idea I had about what the business was going to be, and really base it on, you know: what was the problem? Who was the customer? And how was I going to solve their problem? And I think when I say that to people like they hear it as me telling that their like baby’s ugly or like they need to throw out their baby or whatever which I understand why they see that way but I really believe it’s about like letting go of like your vision of your baby, and like trusting in the process to like bring you an even better baby [laughter] and like I don’t know how much longer I can stretch this baby analogy but uh—but I just—yeah. I just think that like you—it’s like being in business is—like to really, really fundamentally be in business, it’s a lot of like really, really painful, hard choices that in the end, I think if you like come at it from the right perspective and don’t just like become a diet pill company or something like that, it will lead to like a much better outcome than you could’ve even imagined on your own. But I think it’s a very humbling process.
SWB Thank you so much for being on the show! This has been sooo interesting, and helpful, and thoughtful, and I am so glad we could have you.
AB Yeah, no, it’s so good. No, thank you! [Music fades in, plays alone for two seconds, fades out.]
Fuck Yeah of the Week
KL So it’s time for one of my favorite parts of the show: The Fuck Yeah of the Week. Jenn, can you tell us what that is?
JL I can, Katel. How about fuck yeah, mornings! Question mark?!?
SWB Ugh!! Are you sure?!?
JL I’m not sure. But I am sure and I’m going to try to be sure. I’ve been trying to dig into more about this whole morning-people thing that I’ve been hearing so much about my whole life. And I—I’m not so much a morning person, and I—right now I’m not an anything person because I’m sleep deprived and with a one-year-old, the mornings are the nights, and it’s all the same. But even before that I only dabbled in and out of being a morning person, but I feel like I’ve always had that pressure to like want to be a morning person. You know? I get it. It’s great. Sunshine. Do a bunch of stuff. It sounds amazing. Right? Like get stuff done before work, enjoy the coffee, there’s so many things about the mornings that are awesome, right? There’s so many things that like, fuck yeah, mornings! But there’s still something about the mornings some days that you get up and you’re just like, “Ugh! Mornings [laughs].” So I’ve been trying to think about how to more fuck yeah, mornings! And one of the things I read recently that I really liked was that… when you get up instead of being like, “Ugh, you know, I didn’t sleep well,” or, “I’ve got this thing to do.” Instead ask yourself: what am I looking forward to today? And I love that, so the other day I got up and then I said to myself, “I’m so looking forward to seeing my friends today,” and when I like reframed the morning like that to then think about the positive things that were coming up, it completely flipped the script. So it like switched how I was going to look at the rest of that day and all of a sudden I was like… “Fuck yeah, morning!”
KL I like that so much. I—I think of myself as more of a morning person than like a, you know, a night owl, but I still find it like over this winter it’s just been, you know, extra hard getting up and it’s dark and all that. But I always love like the first coffee [mmmm]. And there’s something about it that like always gets me—I’m just like, “Yes, if I can just like get to that, it’s all going to be good [laughs].”
JL Something I started doing a few years ago was not waiting to get to work to have my first cup of [KL yeah!] but making sure that I woke up and had that cup of coffee at home. So that like I could really enjoy it and didn’t feel like I was rushing all around. So I’ve always made sure, even like with changes in schedule, that I have at least 15 minutes to enjoy that cup of coffee and have that be my time.
KL That’s so funny. That reminds me of—and this like a while ago but my sister at one point I—I just like hadn’t realized that she did this, and she was like, yeah, you know, she and her husband would like—they would go get out of bed, make coffee, and then get back in bed, and drink the coffee in bed and just like sit there for 10 or 15 minutes like enjoying coffee! And I was like, “That sounds amazing!!!” I was like, “Oh my god. Why am I not doing that?!?”
SWB You should’ve all seen my face when Jenn said that she realized that she didn’t have to like wait till she was at work to have the first coffee [laughter] and I’m like, “I don’t understand. How did you get to work?” But like how did you move your person from your home… ? [Laughter] But anyway so like ok, there’s that. But also I really think like—I don’t think of myself as a morning person necessarily. Like I can drag myself up and out for something early when I need to and occasionally for like an early workout when I don’t think I can do it later or something like that, but I kind of like to, you know… wake up a little more slowly and like not have to talk to anybody right away [laughs]. Like I don’t have to be a morning person, necessarily, to still say like, “Oh! But I can find some joy in what’s coming up that day,” right? Like you don’t have to transform yourself. You don’t have to wake up smiling, you can still be kind of dragging ass, but you can also say, like, “Ooh! What do I have to look forward to today?” And I’m—that’s a habit that I want to start getting into so that I don’t go into the day like with that general sense of dread and [laughing] foreboding and instead identify something good that I’m looking forward to that day. And if I don’t have anything to look forward to at all that day, then maybe I should take a moment in the morning and come up with something because—
SWB —like if you don’t have anything coming up in the day that you can be like, “That’s going to be good. That’s going to be my time,” [inhales sharply]… maybe that’s the problem… maybe it was never the morning’s fault.
KL Maybe we can all learn to love mornings.
JL You know this is like what we’ve talked about before where sometimes you just like—like with salary numbers in one of our previous episodes we were saying, you know, if you’re going to go in for a salary negotiation, keep saying the number that you’re going to ask for until like you sound confident in it. So maybe if I just keep repeating over and over again… “Fuck, yeah, mornings! Fuck yeah, [laughs] mornings! Fuck. Yeah. Mornings!” Until I really really believe and then it will happen [laughter].
KL I believe it. Fuck yeah, mornings.
SWB I’m a little unconvinced but I’m going to say—I—I’m going to say, fuck yeah to taking a moment to think about things I’m looking forward to on any given day because: fuck yeah, I like looking forward to things.
JL Fuck yeah!
SWB Well, I think that wraps up this week’s episode of No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. NYG is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia, and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is by The Diaphone. Thanks to Adda Birnir for being our guest today. Be sure to check out “I Love That,” our new, biweekly newsletter. Sign up at noyougoshow.com/ilovethat. And if you like what you’ve been hearing, we’d love if you’d give us a review on whatever podcast app you use. We’ll be back next week! See you then [music fades in, plays alone for 30 seconds, fades out to end].