Interview with Darrell Silver, CEO & Co-founder of Thinkful.com

By Darrell Silver

As companies continue to search high and low for software developers to turn ideas into living, breathing products, the demand is still outpacing the supply. Fortunately, several solutions are surfacing to tackle this problem by teaching people how to program. That's why we sat down with Darrell Silver, CEO and Co-Founder of Thinkful, to learn more about the trends in the developer education industry.


With so many bootcamps and intensive software schools out there, why start Thinkful? Can you tell us a little bit about Thinkful?

We started Thinkful because learning alone isn’t nearly as fun and effective as learning from experts. Smart people take large pay cuts to work with smart people because they see the interaction and education they’ll receive at work as investments in their career. We’re trying to bring that type of education to everyone.

Bootcamps offer a similar service – and they’re growing really fast as a result. But not everyone can quit their job and change cities to go to one. Thinkful offers a way to learn engineering skills the right way – slowly, self-sufficient, using projects and experts – without having to reshape your entire life to do it. It’s a much more accessible program to many more people.

How do you differentiate from other schools?

The skills we teach are what employers are hiring for. That’s our promise, and there are other schools that offer that as well. The biggest difference with Thinkful is our mentor team: We’re vigilant in hiring, training, helping and improving our awesome team of mentors, many of whom have over ten years of experience as engineers. We also strive to keep our education affordable for anyone. It’s not an easy task, but if it were someone would have done it already.

What do you say to those who criticize the concept of becoming a developer in 12 weeks?

They’re absolutely right! I’ve been an engineer for over 15 years. In that time I’ve learned a few programming languages, taken a bunch of classes, did too much sys admin (remember Bind configs and sendmail?) and built a ton of software. I’m still learning today.

There’s no such thing as going from beginner to job-ready software engineer in three months (unless the job is to be trained as an engineer, which isn’t actually that crazy right now). I actually think there’s an implied insult to experienced software engineers when someone claims one can learn this complex, artful craft in three months. We should probably be more vocal about that.

To learn complex skills you must put in the time. Struggle is important, failure is important, and giving your brain time to take in and make use of new knowledge is the key to remembering it. But struggle doesn’t have to be painful, and it certainly doesn’t have to take place alone. Too many learners struggle to the point of losing motivation, which is a shame. At Thinkful our mission is to help learners struggle less, learn more, and do the whole process more efficiently. Our students spend only a fraction of their years of learning doing so with us. When they graduate they’re self-sufficient and far advanced from where they’d be without us.

Do you think intensive software schools can replace the 4 years it takes to get a degree in CS?

Yes. All the best software engineers I know spent their college years working on side projects much more than they did working on coursework. Engineering is a skill learned through doing, not from a textbook.

For many software engineers, especially the vast majority for whom programming is always in service on a non-programming business task, a traditional 4-year CS program, or Master’s program, would be a waste of time. The benefit of a traditional software engineering education is the foundation you build. So, for many areas like search or big data that’s crucial. But those problems are in the vast minority.

Peter Thiel once said “if Harvard were really the best education, if it makes that much of a difference, why not franchise it so more people can attend? Why not create 100 Harvard affiliates?” Should intensive software schools start franchising the model and curriculum? Have you considered franchising Thinkful?

We think what’s crucial is the community. Harvard has a brand, no doubt about it. If you can do it, getting into Harvard is an achievement by your 17-year-old self that will pay off for your entire career. But even at Harvard what matters is the community around you. And it’s not just surrounding yourself with smart people, though that’s a big part of it. Your community (peers, teachers, mentors, culture, etc) must be diverse but at a similar skill level and goals as you. Your peers need to motivate you while also being challenged by you.

This is how we think about franchising. If we found we could create the best community using franchising then we’d do that because it would be good for education. But so far we like the strategy we have now where we can learn from our community and react to it very quickly.

Incidentally, as we hire for Thinkful this is exactly the dynamic we strive for. It’s not easy, but if you can do it the benefits are enormous.

With the cost of 4 year education increasing each year and students coming out of college with more and more debt, can the model of intensive software schools be replicated to other fields such as finance, biology, engineering, and so on?

Absolutely. Anything where results are the gateway can be done more efficiently, and more cheaply, than a typical undergraduate education. More engineering will move toward a more accessible model, and most vocational skills will follow. On the other end of the spectrum, skills where reputation are key, like lawyers and dentists, will still see accreditation continue acting as the proxy for being “job-ready.”

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Maybe, but Universities are by design slow to adopt. They see themselves as the keepers of knowledge about all computing, and the only ones who can think long-term about the future of computing. Much more likely, and we’re already starting to see this, Universities will add on external partners that provide more specific skills training (you might call them “job ready” skills). These programs, and Thinkful definitely fits here, act kind of like finishing schools for higher education.

For cities in the Southeast or Midwest where there’s a shortage of software talent, how important is it for cities to support intensive software schools?

Very important – but of course I’d say that! But seriously, I remember in my first job after college we used a special software package where most of the engineers worked at one consulting firm from Ireland. At all the social events for this vendor all the engineers were these 20-something Irish guys (notably, there were few if any women). Now, the clients for this software were truly global, but all the engineers were Irish. It was the weirdest thing so I started asking around. Turns out, 20 years ago the Irish government started investing in technical education for kids. It wasn’t a coincidence. Investment in technical education – from grade 4 through age 60 or beyond – will pay off for the regions that do the investment.

If you could say one thing to those who are on the fence with deciding to take a Thinkful class, what would you say?

Learn more. I could pitch you, but much better would be to come to one of our info sessions to hear from students, or talk over email or phone with someone on our team about your specific questions. We’re all about one-on-one relationships.

Also, we’re not interested in taking your money if you’re not happy. We have a very strict policy here that I think explains the amount of trust we’ve been able to build as a company.


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