In 2008, Adda Birnir found herself laid off with some light technical skills- she knew this was the time to learn to code and become an indespensable asset. After a few freelancing jobs and a position at MTV.com, Adda was ready to bridge the gender gap in tech and teach women (and men!) to code. She founded Skillcrush, an online community complete with courses in Web Design and Web Development, and it continues to grow. We spoke with Adda about her experience teaching herself to code, her inspiration for Skillcrush, and how students are learning with their unique Blueprint courses.
Can you give an introduction from when you were laid off to where you are now at Skillcrush?
I started at an online magazine called Flavorpill, one of the first email newsletters. Although I came on as a photo editor, I experienced this thing while I was there that powered all the work we did and I was fascinated: I wanted to see how this “technology thing” really worked. I started sitting in on production meetings and learning how software developers work. In my experience, they were happy to have me sitting in on all their meetings if there was any chance that I could help with the workload. Soon, they actually let me start editing copy in the HTML.
In 2008, everything just fell apart -- it was like the apocalypse -- in New York. I survived the layoffs at Flavorpill (I was actually spared because I had dug my heels into the technology side and I was considered “technical staff”). But I was worried that working there was not stable, so I decided to get another job. I hadn’t pursued a job in the technical division. I was there for 7 weeks when they laid off ⅓ of their company. And this time, I found myself on the other side of that divide where I was a non-technical employee. This was a company of well over 30 employees and they laid off 12 of us: only one was a developer.
When you’re working in a company where the internet is the bread and butter of what they do and you are not a technical person, you’re expendable.
After getting laid off, I had the fortune of a lot of time on my hands and nothing to do. Somebody had told me that when you’re unemployed, spend only an hour a day sending out resumes and the rest of the time working to make yourself more marketable by learning something. So I learned how to code.
How did you manage that learning? Did you use books or online resources?
I mostly used really dry, boring books! It’s unbelievable how much the resources have changed in the time since I learned to code and even since the time that we started Skillcrush. I bought some books at my bookstore and got to work. I was very lucky because I had some people who I could ask to point me in the right direction from my job at Flavorpill. They would sit down with me for an hour and show me the right stuff to focus on and learn. That personal touch in the learning process was priceless.
How long did it take you to learn to code on your own?
It’s hard to answer that question but within a couple months I was building websites for people for money. Then, the next job I landed was working as a technical producer where I was working with developers all day. I’d ask them questions about coding, and they would help me, look at my work and give me advice. I’ve been really blessed in having a lot of people who were willing to help me through my learning process.
I think having mentors and real people helping you is why the bootcamp style of class works so well. It is also why you’re seeing more and more companies like Bloc and Thinkful and Skillcrush try to bring that experience to people online!
What inspired you to actually start Skillcrush?
I got hired by MTV to work as a technical producer for their integrated marketing team. The team was very good at sales and coming up with great ideas, but didn’t necessarily know how to use digital tools, nor understand the production time and costs of the things they were pitching. What was interesting to me was that it was very gendered: all the women were on the marketing side and all the guys were on the technical side. It just felt like there was this huge divide, so they hired me to bridge that gap.
I had just gone through the process myself of moving from non-technical to technical and had found it to be nowhere near as scary or difficult as I had thought it would be. For me, understanding more about the technical side of things was empowering and it opened up a new world of creativity that I hadn’t associated with technical skills before. I felt like these women on the marketing team were very intimidated by coding, didn’t understand it, and didn’t see the value in taking the time to try and understand it. That was really where I got the inspiration for Skillcrush.
So did you do the dev work for Skillcrush, the site?
Yes! I have had a little help from my developer, Emily, and the two of us have built the entire Skillcrush site on our own. Running a startup is so hard, but the site, our classes, and our processes have been getting better and better.
Skillcrush is a resource and a community- what sort of audience are you catering to? Has it changed over the years?
It’s grown, thank God. There’s this whole question about whether we’re made for women, and the answer is that we’re not exclusively for women. One of the things you have to do when you start a company is be really targeted about who you’re speaking to. Otherwise, you’re just making decisions in a crazy black hole. Our initial target market was professional women, 25 to 45 who were working in companies where technology was a big part of the business.
It’s been really interesting to see the reality of our audience. The people who were most likely to get started on Skillcrush are women who are either graphic designers or web designers. 10 years ago, you could be a web designer and not code, and that really doesn’t work anymore. So we get a lot of designers who need to up their game.
After that, the next big group is people who work in media: bloggers, writers, editors. The third demographic is women who are underemployed, unemployed or in positions where there is really no upward career trajectory: women who work in customer service, assistant positions, and even secretaries. I’m truly excited about reaching them because that’s the group that we have the biggest opportunity to help change their careers.
After completing one of the Skillcrush Blueprints, have you seen people actually get new jobs in technical roles?
This is the first time we’ve run a Blueprint, so I can’t say anything specific about that just yet. I can say that we’ve seen our students get work and even entry-level technical jobs after taking individual classes, which is amazing. Our goal is to create a program where you can start as a total beginner and become hireable in a junior position. A big part of being hired in that type of position is your confidence in interviews and your willingness to learn on the job -- we are incredibly proud to cultivate these characteristics in our students as a byproduct of our community and unique class approach, as well. I can’t promise that you’ll get a job after taking a Skillcrush class, but we have built our program with that goal in mind if that’s the outcome you desire.
How did you develop the curriculum for the two Blueprints?
It is very much based on what I’ve seen in practice, in terms of what skills I needed in order to do dev work and also talking to people in the industry and seeing what the minimum is. And then of course, we have to decide what’s reasonable to teach people. We are looking at a beginner population that generally doesn’t self-select into Computer Science: we don’t want to throw them into the deep end without a flotation device.
The classes are three weeks each and you do three of them in succession for a Career Blueprint. What’s realistic for you to learn in three weeks? How far can we get you? A big part of what we’re trying to do is to open a lot of doors for you and then you’re going to have to walk through them.
There are specific start dates for these classes, right?
Yes, classes and Blueprints start on a monthly or bi-monthly cycle. We have been running online classes for over a year, and we think that the structure of a schedule is crucial to the learning process.
Do the students get some sense of a cohort or a community? How do cohorts communicate with each other?
We use Mightybell, which is an online social networking platform. When you enroll in a Blueprint, you get invited to a Mightybell circle, where you can post questions or to get to know the other people taking the class with you.
Our Skillcrush instructors monitor the groups and respond to questions as they come in all day. Mightybell is very personable and is a really beautiful product. It is designed for multimedia sharing, which includes the ability to share code. They actually have a feature where they format your code so that you can share code samples. It’s awesome!
The community in Mightybell is definitely one of the most important parts of the class.
How many students are in the cohort now?
There are 116 in our Web Developer Blueprint. The Web Designer Blueprint has 75 enrolled. We’ve had over 1,500 students go through all of our programs.
How do you compare your Skillcrush Blueprints to Thinkful or Bloc programs (two other online programs)?
I think what differentiates us is our focus on beginners. Our environment is really friendly for pure beginners. We spend a lot of time thinking about what turns people off to technology and how can we make a radically different experience of it. Our tone is super friendly, warm and inviting, and encouraging.
The second important thing we’ve found is that you have to make the projects and exercises as interesting as possible, and still educationally valuable. For example, we do a Web Font challenge, where students recreate the Holstee Manifesto. This exercise gets our students excited about practicing with colors and web fonts, because it’s relatable, beautiful, and fun. They get really into it! Several students have written their own manifestos and we have built an amazing collection for students to look at each other’s work. Exercises like this make sene and really work.
Your whole leadership team is women, right?
Yes. And what’s really cool is that we’ve graduated over 80% women.
So even though men are obviously welcome, you clearly have an overarching commitment to helping women learn coding skills. What’s been your experience as a female CEO?
It’s been very mixed. I don’t know what it’s like to raise money as a man, but I think I have a million things going against me: I’m a woman, I’m young, blond, I talk like a Valley girl. I run this company for women to learn to code. I’m every investor’s worst nightmare.
I’m horribly put off by a lot of the tech scene. However, I’ve been the recipient of an unbelievable amount of kindness and mentorship from men and women alike in the industry.
I think the women who have it the hardest are the women in technical roles on big technical teams in big corporations. It definitely feels like the “insider” tech community doesn’t take women developers as seriously. This lack of diversity means that they are very myopic and insular in the way that they do things, the solutions they come up with and the companies that they start. Think of how much opportunity that creates to do things differently!!
Any plans to take Skillcrush offline and do some in-person courses?
That’s a good question. I think in the short term it’ll be more along the lines of meetups, but we’ve toyed with the idea!