Thinkful recently acquired Bloc, which means that two of the largest and most established online coding bootcamps are now joining forces. But what does this mean for students? We sat down with Darrell Silver, the CEO of Thinkful, to get the scoop on job guarantees, career support, mentorship approaches, and how students can choose the right program for their needs.
Our Takeaways on the Thinkful + Bloc Acquisition:
First, tell us the news about Thinkful and Bloc. Can you share details of the deal?
The news: We’re thrilled to announce, Thinkful has acquired Bloc. Bloc was looking to quickly build its community and add new programs. We've been talking to Bloc since December about this deal, and to the team for years. Spoiler alert: we did not disclose the financial details.
Bloc and Thinkful have been competitors for some time – what did you admire about them?
Building online education is hard – I admire anyone who’s done it and has the data to prove it works. When Thinkful started connecting people offline back in 2016 Bloc was figuring out how to do the same kind of thing online for those that can’t commute. Bloc created the best way to get a career breakthrough fully online, while Thinkful created the best way in every city in which we operate.
Bloc today has two great existing programs – the Web Developer Track and Designer Track. Bloc also has an amazing team. Our teams have been working in parallel over the past six years on how to drive great outcomes in self-paced, career acceleration, so the Thinkful team got really excited about finally being able to learn from the shared experiences. The smartest people in technical career acceleration now work at Thinkful.
From a student's point of view, Bloc has the best online flexibility and support while Thinkful brings world-class education and one-on-one support. The combination of those is powerful.
Bloc also has a powerful technology platform. They've approached their mentor community and tracking differently, so that has really interesting consequences for how we want to learn from each other.
Will Bloc continue to operate independently?
The programs will continue to operate as they’ve done, and we will keep investing across all five programs. There won’t be changes made to those programs as a direct result of the acquisition, though both Thinkful and Bloc continue to get better: we’ll never maintain the status quo.
Does this acquisition expand Thinkful's reach at all?
Thinkful has done a lot of work to expand in the US, so far in Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego, LA, and DC, Portland. Those six cities drive a lot of our innovation. We don't really consider ourselves fully online even though a lot of students come to us to learn purely online. On the other hand, Bloc is 100% online, and great at it.
What are the differences you’re seeing between the Bloc student and the Thinkful student?
Fundamentally, we're seeing meaningfully different groups of people going to Thinkful vs Bloc. For example, in the Bloc Designer Track, more than 70% of students identify as female, which is just incredible. And the Web Developer Track still stands out as above average in the industry with about 45% women in the Web Developer Track, up from about 25% a year ago. We need to figure out what’s driving that trend and how we be more public about that going forward.
We also see different learning styles in Thinkful students vs Bloc students. The different demands for more flexibility versus more support mean students have different expectations around career services and the flexibility of self-paced learning.
Fundamentally, when we think ahead to 10 years from now, there will be students who want more support, more one-on-one help, more classrooms. Others will want to be more independent, more self-paced. Some may want to commute to a classroom, others will not; and some will have full-time jobs. The variety of learners looking for high-growth careers in tech will continue to grow. And of course, we can't support that with a single program. We have to offer different ways of reaching each student’s goals.
So what type of learner should go to Thinkful vs Bloc?
Thinkful is best for students who want the highest level of 1-on-1 support and more structured courses, to finish faster and start a new career, this is especially true in its communities in Atlanta, D.C., Los Angeles, Portland, Phoenix, and San Diego. Bloc is best for students who want more flexibility, with incredible amounts of group support, leaving more time for your other responsibilities as you transition into your new career.
Bloc did a lot of great work in December to drive more group support both through the technology, the pedagogy, and the tracking, and now we're seeing the rewards of that. They really cracked something that a lot of people missed that we’re pretty excited about supporting.
What did other schools miss? What did Bloc crack?
The success of all education is all about how you persevere through the program. Basically, Bloc started to integrate support beyond 1-on-1 into the core student experience. When Thinkful started connecting people offline Bloc was figuring out how to do the same kind of thing online for those that can’t commute. We now have a lot of metrics around both sets of experiences how to measure the effect of grading an assessment halfway through the program or every lesson.
Each interaction point that a student has with the program is now much more measured than I've seen anyone else do. As a result, we can overcome some of the limits of online ed. Students are getting faster responses to their questions, they are getting to know more of the network, and they’re relying more on the expertise of the network for each program. That's really intriguing.
Do you see a future where Thinkful and Bloc merge into one school?
Probably not in the way you think. However, what's really going to be interesting to watch is when we launch a new program. We’ll pull different features from each school (from tech, pedagogy, etc) to drive the next programs.
We’ll learn from both legacies – we're going to look at how to increase support and accessibility in one program, and how to adapt to some offline components in the other. The question that I think is most interesting is: “Where’s the future of tech hiring going to be 1, 2, 10 years from now? How can we reach students other cannot?” We'll find out together.
Will the admissions process change? If an applicant is accepted to Bloc, are they also accepted to Thinkful?
The short answer is no. They should use the admissions process to discover what's right for them. They should go through the admissions process to learn what they're going to get, how that's going to work for them in terms of their schedule, price, and locations for their current and next job.
Will you onboard mentors differently?
Mentors go through separate screening and onboarding processes, and they’re introduced to the program that they’re working in – whether that’s data science or design. Bloc and Thinkful have both done really great work around the mentor community, so now we’re figuring out what to share with each team of mentors. When you get into the specifics the jobs, and certainly the expectations, are completely different.
In the past, Bloc has also allowed students to choose their mentors. Will that stay in place or be extended to Thinkful?
They’re both working as is, but the question is how do we learn from each other? There’s 12 years of history; we’re now closer than anyone to knowing which approach is best in what scenarios.
Will job placement services now be handled by the same team across both Thinkful and Bloc?
Bloc has a powerful Student Success team, and Thinkful a powerful Careers team. We will have one Careers team that supports all five programs (across Thinkful and Bloc). It will take time to get the teamwork right, but the vision and mission for both sides is that the teams collaborate. One of the first topics is CIRR: Thinkful is a founding member and welcoming Bloc to CIRR will be a great achievement.
All the teams are already working together as a single company (or nearly so).
Thinkful is a founding member of CIRR. Do you expect that Bloc will start reporting CIRR outcomes now?
Yes, Bloc will join CIRR. Bloc reports student outcomes already, and CIRR has just done a great job of standardizing that reporting.
It's a lot of work so I'm not sure what the exact timeline is, but everyone wants to join it. The bar is getting higher; you need to have audited results and release them every six months.
Will the job guarantees remain separate?
We spent a lot of time talking about this because the job promise, guarantee, and tuition refund policy are sacrosanct. Both Thinkful and Bloc offer a tuition refund: if you put in the work but don't succeed you get your money back.. That's very consistent and critically it’s very simple. The biggest difference is that Bloc calls this a Tuition Refund Guarantee (TRG) and Thinkful calls it the Job Guarantee.
One of the biggest differences internally (and this is also going to remain different) is that Thinkful says a student is “placed,” while Bloc says they have a “successful student outcome.” The difference is actually really meaningful.
What’s the difference between a “placement” and a “successful student outcome”?
Thinkful maintains an employer network in each of our cities and also nationally. That network provides a direct pipeline to employers. Bloc has built a robust program for the 90% of the US population that doesn’t live within such a short distance. Both work really well, as our outcomes reports show. The difference is in the different needs: Bloc helps you learn how to find employers in your area that are perfect for you, and so we call that a successful outcome because it’s the student that did all the work. Thinkful calls it a placement because we helped the student with a particular connection and intro. Again: It’s about the style you’re after and the opportunities where you are. Both Thinkful and Bloc reach students where others cannot – and it’s because of our flexibility.
Before Bloc, Thinkful had also acquired Viking Code School and The Odin Project. Any lessons that you learned from that acquisition that you’re bringing to the Bloc merger?
We learned two big things – both about people. You have to plan for the team and make sure that we can offer what people want in their careers. At the very beginning, I told the Bloc folks that I expect everyone is working at Bloc because they want to be. They’re based in San Francisco, so if they wanted to walk down the street and take another job, then that would be open to them. That’s also always been the case at Thinkful. I know we create a great work environment for the folks that have just joined our team, but it takes time and trust. The Bloc office will remain in San Francisco and the Thinkful office will remain in Brooklyn. We have great teams in both locations - and across the country, as even those two offices together only represent about 30% of the total team – most Thinks are remote.
The second lesson was about our students and mentors. We want to make sure everyone is influential, informed, and knows about things before the public does. We're not going to have a perfect track record, but it’s critical that our communities aren’t surprised by changes.
Liz is the cofounder of Course Report, the most complete resource for students researching coding bootcamps. Her research has been cited in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, and more. She loves breakfast tacos and spending time getting to know bootcamp alumni and founders all over the world. Check out Liz & Course Report on Twitter, Quora, and YouTube!
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