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TECHNOLOGY

A $5.5 Million Bet on a Better Way to Learn Coding

The Flatiron School isn't a college. It just received venture backing, but isn't growing super-fast. And it isn't even in the Flatiron neighborhood. It has a ton going for it anyway.
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Sitting up as straight as is possible in an overstuffed couch in a room overlooking the iconic bronze Charging Bull sculpture in Lower Manhattan, a symbol of market volatility, Avi Flombaum proposes an idea some might find brash: "I don't think the best way to get an education in a technical vocation is to spend $200,000 and four years of your life."

He's not just in the oft-ridiculed Peter Thiel camp of libertarianism that advocates young people forego college in order to seek life experiences. Rather, Flombaum, a Web developer and writer, is an advocate of "cheating the system." He's created a fresh take on a trade school, called The Flatiron School, in Lower Manhattan, in order to test his theory.

New Path to Programming

His formula for a high-school graduate to find a fulfilling, well-paying career in today's economy without first spiraling into debt involves pursuing vocational skills, rather than a traditional education. It's with this goal in mind that he founded The Flatiron School alongside Adam Enbar, a graduate of Harvard Business School, who two years set out to rethink traditional higher education. (The pair connected on Twitter before meeting in coffeeshops, where they drew up both course plans and business plans.)

Avi Flombaum, dean of The Flatiron School

It's an interesting model for rapidly educating software engineers, particularly considering that a recent study about the New York tech industry found that half of New York City's technical work force doesn't have a traditional college education. The Flatiron School isn't a long-tested model. It's only less than two years old and has graduated just 125 students from individual courses, which are usually 12 weeks long and cost a maximum of $12,000. But the school Wednesday got a hint of validation to the tune of $5.5 million in investment in a round led by Cambridge-based venture-capital firm Charles River Ventures and New York City-based Matrix Partners. 

Also consider that early statistics out of the school appear outstanding. According to the founders, Flombaum, 30, and Enbar, 31, its first programming class--19 students--saw 100 percent job placement. That number, five classes later, still is hovering very close to 100 percent--and graduates who had an existing salary (you know, not starting at zero) before the course, saw a 48 percent increase in salary by three months after taking it. Graduates have found jobs at established companies, such as Boeing and The New York Times, and startups in New York City, such as Artsy and Venmo.

Changing Careers

Stephanie Oh fought for a few years in her early 20s to break into the music industry in New York City, but last year grew disenchanted with her stagnant career in administration of music-talent management firm. She started applying to work at music startups, but found few administrative gigs--and a lot of openings for programmers.

"I thought, the only way I'm going to rise above this is if I learned the hard skills," Oh said. "I saw so many job openings for engineers, so the natural thought was, 'how do I become one of those?'" She applied to The Flatiron School, and attended from September through December of last year learning web development at The Flatiron School. She's reinvented her career, and now is a front-end developer and project manager at Splash, a New York City startup that creates events websites.

"This is the creative outlet that I thought I'd get in music," she said. "It's fast-paced, and there's problem solving, and in front-end development there's a lot of aesthetics to consider."

Adam Enbar, president of The Flatiron School

The courses at Flatiron (which is actually located in the New York's Financial District, after growing out of its small original space on East 26th Street) are designed to teach a full range of technical and creative-thinking skills in either iOS app development, or the programming language Ruby on Rails. The Flatiron School also offers a Web-development fellowship, with a similar education funded entirely by New York City's Department of Small Business Services.

What's perhaps most compelling about The Flatiron School model is not just its potential as a pipeline of in-demand tech talent into Silicon Alley. It also has a nuanced understanding of the actual act of teaching--and great ambitions to master the pedagogy of technology--and do so before expanding its course offerings or moving into new cities.

"We just want to obsess over how we can teach better," Flombaum told me. When Flombaum teaches computer-science courses, he uses storytelling skills acquired while studying creative writing, and incorporates history into his lessons, including highlighting the programmer who created the concept at hand. 

It's tempting in this time of MOOCs to think education should be free, online, and flexible. Ed-tech is a promising industry, within the $1 trillion American education industry, with ed-tech startups attracting $1.25 billion in funding in 2013, according to CB Insights. But statistics show online education is far from a perfect solution to decreasing unemployment, increasing graduation rates. Flombaum and Enbar are dedicated to the idea that a classroom is a place for learning, growth, and collaboration (though the school does ask students to complete up to 150 hours of pre-course work before attending 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays for 12 weeks). 

One of The Flatiron School's investors, Antonio Rodriguez, a general partner at the venture-capital firm Matrix Partners, said "a lot of hammers looking for nails in this space." He said in contrast to "flavor-of-the-month" technology solutions in education, The Flatiron School is "bringing technology to service that relationship and not reinvent it in a way that is both compelling and effective for students, teachers, and employers."

A Promising Pipeline

There's plenty of competition in teaching coding at a quick clip. Would-be developers can find course on Skillshare and at General Assembly, or start out in a DIY-fashion online at Codecademy.com or Code.org. Udacity offers online classes, and DevBootcamp is a popular intensive in-person program in San Francisco.

New York City--which, through the Bloomberg years put outsized emphasis on boosting the startup ecosystem, and finding solutions to a dearth of programmers--has been quick to show support for The Flatiron School. In addition to funding the Brooklyn-based NYC Web Development Fellowship, the city gave Flatiron $250,000 to help it move downtown to the Financial District.

The new venture-capital funding doesn't come with the typical "scale this fast" strings attached. Flombaum and Enbar, who self-funded the operation up to this point and who say tuition alone can keep the school easily afloat, say they want to work first on perfecting the methods their more than a dozen instructors employ before expanding to other cities or to online courses.

"We want to have a small, massive impact," Flombaum says, contrasting the approach of attempting to change the lives--and career paths--of a small number of students at a time to that of online education, which can reach a lot of people, but is likely to have just a small affect on each one.

"We raised money so we can slow down," Enbar says. "We want to create a Ivy League-quality vocational school."

Last updated: Apr 9, 2014

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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