Seven Years of Student Success

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Seven Years of Student Success

Udacity - Seven years of student success

Udacity turns seven years old today. I’ve been with the company almost since its inception. I was employee #3! It was a very different company then, in so many ways. And yet, the reasons I joined then, are still the reasons I am here today.

I was already aware, from personal experience, that there were serious cracks in our higher education system. Too many people didn’t have the access they deserved. They weren’t getting the support they needed. They weren’t able to learn the skills required to advance their lives and careers. I joined Udacity because I wanted to change this. I wanted to help people transform their lives through greater access to education.

Udacity’s beginnings

In 2011, two Stanford instructors, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, made what would prove to be a revolutionary decision—they decided to offer their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course for free online, while simultaneously teaching it in-person at Stanford. Public response was incredible—online enrollment was capped at 160,000, with students enrolling from more than 190 different countries. But if that was unexpected, the results at the end of the course were even more so. 412 students from the general public performed better than the best Stanford student.

This was the beginning of what would become Udacity, and this was the company I joined.

From this one early experiment, we learned so much. We learned there was a worldwide appetite for online tech-focused education. We got clear proof that the world’s best talent didn’t just reside within the walls of institutions like Stanford. And most importantly, we witnessed what can happen when you give people access to opportunity.  

My beginnings

In 2011, I had personal reasons why I wanted to work on the problems of access and opportunity. My mom emigrated to San Francisco from Nicaragua when she was still a child. She met my dad in high school (on a Muni bus!), and they became young parents—2 kids by the time they were 20, and 2 more soon after that. Both of my parents started college, but neither finished—they had to support their family. My dad became a firefighter, and my mom became a full-time parent. They were supportive of me and my ambitions, but support and guidance don’t always align.

I was largely on my own to figure out what to do, and how to do it. But I kept trying, and despite some missteps along the way, I graduated from a good university, and thanks to a referral from the freshman dorm roommate of a friend, I landed a job at Google. I felt pretty lucky to be working in my field—and at a famous tech company—especially given that I’d had no role models or mentors to prepare me for that kind of opportunity. I didn’t know what the “tech industry” was at the time I started! I still feel grateful that it all worked out—but what if it hadn’t?

For every one person like me who gets a couple of breaks and has a little luck, there are hundreds, even thousands more who don’t have such luck. These folks work as hard or harder, have high aspirations, but simply never get a chance.

The need for learning new skills

I became a data analyst, working on Google Maps, after studying geography in college. This may sound like a logical progression, but while my geography background helped me get my foot in the door, I didn’t actually have the skills to continue, much less advance, in my career. The field was already predominantly technical and programming-heavy, but I had only taken one Java class in college, and wasn’t at all prepared for the Python-based work I needed to do. So, I signed up for a Python course at a local community college almost immediately after starting my job. The whole experience offered an important lesson about lifelong learning—continuing to gain new skills was going to be necessary for my future.

This made sense to me, until I thought about cost.

The cost of learning new skills

I graduated college with $42k in student loan debt. I was able to start my career, but with my monthly student loan payments totalling nearly 60% of my Bay Area rent, I was also going broke. The first course I took at UC Santa Barbara had taken place in a 900-person lecture hall. A professor delivered great lectures, assigned a solid book, and assessed our learning via two Scantron (computer-graded) tests. The knowledge I learned in this class was valuable, but at the price of roughly $1200, had it really been worth it? Given the financial burden I carried into my new career, I didn’t think so.

I had never thought of the value of my education in concrete terms like this, until I came to the Udacity “office” (Sebastian Thrun’s house) for my interview. I left my discussion with the Udacity founders fully understanding that there was a problem, and my mind on fire with ideas about how to fix it. I knew Udacity could provide the solution.

That was 2011. In the seven years since, we’ve undergone a great many transformations in pursuit of our mission to democratize education.

World-class curriculum at an online price

An important early success was partnering with Georgia Tech to create the Online Masters in Computer Science. Today, this groundbreaking program is the lowest cost, accredited online masters in Computer Science in the world. It has been instrumental in opening doors to segments of the population that could not have earned an advanced degree otherwise, particularly working professionals who could now learn without sacrificing their jobs or taking out loans. At a price of $7,000—almost a sixth of what a traditional on-campus degree can cost—the program continues to offer unprecedented opportunity to so many students.

In our early “massive open online courses” phase, we had started working directly with industry, in addition to professors. Some of our first collaborators included Autodesk, Google, and NVIDIA. With experts from these companies, we began to teach their latest tech, like 3D rendering, HTML5, and CUDA. These efforts, paired with important lessons from the Georgia Tech experience, would produce our next big leap forward.

Nanodegree programs

In 2014, we launched our first Nanodegree programs with AT&T. At that time, AT&T had a 240,000 person workforce globally, and they were in the midst of transforming this workforce from a traditional telecom company to a modern tech company. They needed to scale learning and development for their employees, and this made them an ideal partner for Udacity, because at that point, our goal was to combine the scale of our early online courses, with the world-class, longer-form curriculum we’d been able to develop with Georgia Tech. In working with an industry partner like AT&T, we were able to add the third piece to this puzzle—we were able to assure students they were learning the right skills; the skills that industry needed them to have.

We created Nanodegree programs so that people could master in-demand, career-ready skills online.  

In the three years since, we’ve grown to have more than 100 industry partners, who together support nearly 30 different Nanodegree programs. We offer scholarships funded by global companies like Google, Lyft, and Bertelsmann. We have operations in Brazil, China, Egypt, Germany, India, and the United Arab Emirates. We have alumni in nearly every country in the world.

Students

Ryan was 19 years old when I first met him. He’d been working two low-end retail jobs for minimum wage, when he heard about a job training program called Year Up. He applied, and was accepted. He started exploring the tech industry, learned front-end web development with Udacity, and got a summer internship at NASA through Year Up. This was great progress for Ryan, but without any other technical work experience, he still struggled to find a full-time job. I remember talking to him at that point, and listening to him explain that without a bachelor’s, he knew he would need to work twice as hard to prove himself. That’s exactly what he did. He created evidence of his experience and skill through building sites on his own and for friends. Then, through his active GitHub profile, he was sourced for a web developer role to work on OSHA. He jumped at the opportunity. In the subsequent years, he’s completed three more Nanodegree programs, and has been promoted twice. Today, he is an active mentor in the Grow With Google Mobile Web Specialist Scholarship, and is very popular with our students for his expertise, helpfulness and positivity.

Ryan’s story is a great example of a great career liftoff. But something important that we’ve learned, is that new workers like Ryan only represent about half of our student base. The other half are people who are already in careers, but need to make changes in order to advance, and find long-term fulfillment.

This was where Kiyoko found herself after being laid off from her 10-year career in semiconductor processing. Many jobs were being outsourced in the industry, and she realized she needed to make a change—it was time to reinvest and move towards a career with a future. She had done some coding and data analysis before and had enjoyed it, so she started learning data analysis and machine learning with Udacity. She was ultimately able to draw on her previous experience and knowledge of semiconductors, to do machine learning in the same field. It was the change she needed to put her life and career on the right track.

Closing the skills gap

At Udacity, we want to empower you to learn the skills you need to advance your career—not just once, but on an ongoing basis. Technology changes rapidly, and that means the hiring landscape changes just as fast. In 2012, the average US worker changed jobs 4.6 times in their career. Today, that number is estimated to be more than twice as high. Ryan and Kiyoko each took different paths to career success, but along the way they both absorbed the same lesson about the importance of always learning new skills. This was the same lesson I had learned while still back at Google.

The difference for me, was that I didn’t have a Udacity. I didn’t know who to turn to for support or guidance. There were times I didn’t think I’d even go to college, let alone graduate, or find a job. I often felt lost, and today, I recognize these same feelings in so many of the people who come to Udacity for answers, and to learn. Before you have someone to turn to, it’s hard to know where to start. This lack of clarity leads to a lack of confidence, and it can produce that imposter syndrome feeling we all know so well (and now have a name for!).

These challenges are compounded for underrepresented groups, making it even harder to overcome the obstacles without support. I’ve learned that this is not a unique experience, but it’s also still not well solved. There needs to be many accessible paths into careers. I’m proud that Udacity has grown to be one of them.

A big leap forward

Human-powered support, and an engaged peer community, have emerged as two of the most important components of the Nanodegree program experience. Not having to face an unknown future alone makes a huge difference when taking a big leap forward.

Joining Udacity was a big leap for me, and it’s proven to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I have learned and grown professionally, and continuously. I have worked my way up to be a manager, then a director, and then a VP. MIT recently named Udacity one of the 50 smartest companies in the world. CNBC ranks us as the 8th most disruptive company in the world. We have 40,000 Nanodegree graduates and counting. The confidence and career successes of our students and alumni impresses and motivates me daily. And, we’re only just getting started! We’re making a dent in the audacious goal of democratizing education, but we have our sights set on global economic opportunity: we want to see the world’s GDP double!

On behalf of myself, and everyone at Udacity, I want to thank our students, our alumni, our collaborators and partners, and our community, for seven incredible years. Let’s get moving toward the next seven years of student success!

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