Darrell Silver and Dan Friedman founded Thinkful to add the human element back into online learning, combining an online curriculum with over 100 mentors to teach over 1000 students.
We talk with Darrell about the Thinkful mentor network, their project-based approach to teaching, and his take on becoming an accredited institution.
How did Thinkful start?
My co-founder, Daniel, and I started looking at online education because Dan had been learning to code himself or the past year, and the process proved both fascinating and incredible inefficient. I’m a much more traditionally trained engineer- so when we started working together, our dynamic proved really powerful- one person with a trained background, the other trying to learn quickly. So the answer was sitting in front of us the whole time: adding the human element back into online learning, started as mentors ourselves, working with students one-on-one, and that has evolved into what you see today.
How long have you been operating and how many students have gone through Thinkful?
We launched in February 2013. We’ve had well over 1000 go through Thinkful. Right now, we have over 400 students enrolled.
How many mentors do you have in your network?
We have well over 100 mentors in the network. They're the face of our company, and we work hard to make sure they're helping our students each day. The scale of the mentor team is also key to our success. We got some feedback when we had a couple dozen mentors, but we found that a truly diverse group gave us the unique opportunity to learn lots of new ways to help students. Basically, more voices is making better education, every day.
Take us through the teaching process at Thinkful. What’s the curriculum like and how do you help students get through the material?
What makes it work is how we combine three things together: curriculum and technology, a group of your peers, and a mentor with whom you work one-on-one. Any one component isn't enough: it's the combination of all three that makes Thinkful magic.. When you enroll,you start with between 20 and 40 peers whom we match with you to be at similar skill levels to your own. It's crucial that students are empowered to ask questions other platforms may discourage as being too junior. We've found that if students are comfortable they'll ask more questions, and more questions leads to more learning. It's just that simple.You talk with a community manager who sets you up in the curriculum, and then we set up a time with your mentor. Once in a class, you follow a tutorial that teaches a skill, then build a project based on that skill, and then you have time with your mentor throughout and afterwards to review and ask questions. The community is with you the whole time and the skills get more advanced as you go through the course. By the end of it, you have a portfolio that you’ve created throughout.
You have courses in Python, Rails, and iOS. How did you choose those?
Which of your classes are the most popular?
We carefully monitor that and so far they’re all growing basically at the same rate.
What do students get out of an online bootcamp like Thinkful that they may not get from an in-person course.
Thinkful offers flexibility for those who aren't ready (or can't) risk quitting their jobs, changing cities or spending $5,000-15,000 on their education. That being said, if you can access and afford the better bootcamps – Hack Reactor, for example – they can be a compelling offering. We've seen a lot of students take Thinkful and use their knowledge to really excel in other bootcamps.
What are you looking for in potential students? Do students need to have a technical or programming background?
The most successful students are the ones who are curious. The students who have tried Codecademy, and they want to go deeper- those are the students who do really well. Many of our students are complete beginners. You can really do well when you get personal attention and you have curiosity; we can provide one of those, and we try to inspire students to expose the curiosity that they have.
Do you ever reject an applicant?
We believe learning should be accessible to everyone. That being said, it's crucial that our students are successful and so we have two policies to help students achieve success. First, we encourage students to talk with us on the phone before signing up – it helps them get comfortable with the program, it helps us know their learning goals, and it helps make sure students have the time for Thinkful. Second, if the class doesn't work out for you for any reason we immediately give you your money back any time within the first two weeks. If we can't deliver on our promise, then we shouldn't benefit. Refunds are pretty rare, but often when I speak with people who are on the fence I suggest they give it a try because there's simply no risk!
Do you facilitate offline meetups for Thinkful students?
Not as much as we want, although it does happen now that we have so many students. We just hired another community manager who is working with students in the NY area. When I’m travelling, I visit mentors and students, listening to feedback, and charting our next phase of growth. We sponsor Startup Weekends and Hackathons, and we are able to do some neat things in the community here in New York. Because our mentor network is so large, we like to pair mentors with students in the same location if we can- that has a huge affect on the engagement of the students and the potential for their future.
Does Thinkful help graduates find jobs in tech once they've completed the program?
We are doing a lot of work with companies who want us to train entire teams using the Thinkful method. Most of our students have full-time jobs, and it’s becoming natural for students to get a promotion in their job through Thinkful, and then the company sends a whole group of folks to us- so we facilitate that. Upon graduation, we build a portfolio page with students with all of their work and the source code. For students who are looking for a job immediately (which is the minority), we’ll help them more informally, if they’re qualified.
What makes Thinkful different from Tealeaf and Bloc.io?
The biggest distinction is that we’re flexible in terms of time commitment, dollars and skills required at the beginning. Frankly, Bloc is doing well, and I think that’s great- we’re all in the same rising tide. If you’re a student comparing a 25 hour/week vs a 7-10 hour/week class, then you probably know how much time you have available. If you don’t have a full-time-job’s worth of time to spend, then Thinkful can be a better choice. I recommend that people poke around on something like Course Report and read reviews to pick the one that’s best for them. We’re much more interested in opening doors for people who can't go back to graduate school but need to learn to advance their career.
After the VentureBeat article came out about regulating California schools, is Thinkful concerned at all about becoming accredited as an online post secondary institution?
You never know what the future holds, but I don’t think we’re on the path to being accredited. I don’t think that’s a valuable asset to our students. I think the skills you learn and being able to demonstrate them are going to win out. That being said, I think this actual change in the regulation shouldn’t be overanalyzed- really, what they’re doing is trying to prevent fraud. And that’s a good thing, because removing or preventing fraud will help grow this world of education.