17 Mar 2015
The First Five Years: Adam Enbar (MBA 2010)
The Flatiron School cofounder and CEO on coding, education, and why his future does not include a sweet mustache.Topics:
What’s the story behind the Flatiron School, and how did you come up with the name?
“The Flatiron School was born when I met my cofounder, Avi Flombaum, while researching innovations in higher education at Charles River Ventures. I had always been interested in education—I taught first grade and later volunteered teaching at a prison. A couple of years after leaving HBS, I became interested in the idea of the ROI of higher ed; that a college degree used to be the best investment someone could make, and was quickly becoming one of the worst. I spent a year looking for companies trying to solve that problem, and all I found were innovations in textbooks or classroom management; people were bringing radical efficiencies to a failed model. Then I met Avi, who had taught himself how to code as a kid and had an amazing career without having graduated from college. At the time, he was teaching people web development for fun, and getting them amazing jobs and careers. I was blown away. That’s when the light bulb went off. Since then, we’ve done fairly well. We’ve trained over 500 graduates and maintain a 99 percent job placement rate and have worked with some incredible hiring partners.
“The Flatiron School is named after the Flatiron Building. It was the first skyscraper in New York City, and, for a long time, a symbol for technology transforming the landscape of a city. We hope to use technology to transform the landscape of education. We also like that it’s tied back to New York. The Flatiron district is home to ‘Silicon Alley,’ where the New York technology ecosystem was born.”
What’s a typical day like as president of the company; or is there no such thing as a typical day?
“It’s changed dramatically over the past few years. Early on, it meant doing a little bit of everything. I would get in at 6 a.m. to clean the office and make coffee, and then just do whatever needed to be done in order to move the ball forward, from sales and marketing to finance and accounting (top of my mind during the first 18 months, while we were bootstrapped, was making sure we’d hit payroll). Today, we have almost 50 people working at Flatiron School. One of the great benefits of working with an incredible team is that your job isn’t necessarily to manage them, as much as it is to make sure they have what they need to execute effectively. Today, I spend most of my time either working with the team, recruiting talent, or building partnerships/infrastructure to help us grow in the right direction.”
What’s been the best part of the Flatiron School journey? What’s been the most challenging?
“The best part is definitely the mission. Changing education is a tall order. Luckily, aside from the technology we’re building, we get to have actual students on campus. So even though, like most companies, we are working toward big, long-term goals, we get amazing victories, day to day, when students walk into our office in tears because they have been able to change their lives and pursue new careers.
“That mission is also the most challenging. The goal of higher education should be nothing less than to provide people with a better life. Students put a lot of faith in us to deliver on that promise; they quit their jobs and pay us a not-small amount of money in order to attend our programs and launch new careers. That’s a heavy burden, and we don’t take it lightly.”
How are you trying to, as your LinkedIn profile states, “fix education,” and what will success look like to you?
“For the most part, people have two options when they graduate from high school. The first is to go to college. That works out great for a lot of people, but it’s a really bad idea for an increasing number of people. Unfortunately for the latter group, the only thing worse for them than going to college is not going to college. There should be other paths to building a great life and career. That’s what we’re building: an alternative path to the traditional form of higher education.
“We’ve already seen success. We’ve taken people without college degrees and have consistently placed them into incredibly high-paying jobs after just a few months of training. But the way we do it now is very expensive and resource intensive. Success will be opening that up to the world, so that anyone, from any background, can be on a path to a great life and career based on their ability to do great work, as opposed to the line on the résumé that says where they went to school.”
How can teaching people to code help make a difference—in education and also more broadly on a society level?
“We often think about technology in the context of the ‘tech’ industry. The reality, though, is that software has transformed every industry out there. Everything we do today, from medicine to transportation, is controlled by code. And this has all happened at the hands of a relatively small group of people, with largely homogenous backgrounds. As more people, and especially ones from more diverse backgrounds, gain the ability to manipulate technology, these tools will be applied to the world in a way that we couldn’t have imagined.”
The video on your website describes programming and coding as an art form that anyone can learn. Can you elaborate on this?
“A few weeks ago, I got to hear fellow HBS alumnus Sal Khan speak at a dinner. One thing he said that caught my attention, and I’m paraphrasing here, was that:
‘Five hundred years ago, it was generally accepted that only 10 percent of people had the mental capacity to read and write. We look back and think that’s ridiculous. But if I asked you today what percent of the population has the potential to cure cancer, or make strides in quantum computing, what would you say?’
“The purpose of technology is to help people solve problems. In the same way that poetry is more about symbol and metaphor than grammar and spelling, technology is more about understanding and connecting to people than defining variables.
“Also, I have to give credit to Greg Beauchamp from The Bindery (section mate and husband of Birchbox cofounder Katia Beauchamp) for the video; they just sat Avi down in front of a recorder and asked him why he loves code.”
How did your HBS experience help prepare you for this work?
“I always say that the most important thing I got out of HBS (aside from meeting my peers, of course) is that it reset the bar for what’s possible. Being on campus and constantly surrounded by so many incredibly accomplished people, and then realizing that they’re just people like anyone else, made me rethink what was possible. If they could do it, why couldn’t I? I guess the best word for it is chutzpah.”
Did you have a favorite course at HBS? If you did, what was the course and what made it so impactful?
“I don’t think that’s an answerable question. What makes HBS so special is the case method— that the learning is almost entirely driven by the discussions between the students, as opposed to anything else.”
What advice—professional and/or personal—do you have for current HBS students graduating in May 2015?
“If you want to work at a startup, learn how to build, or learn how to sell. Nothing else matters. Permanently delete the words business development and strategy from your vocabulary.”
That’s a pretty awesome mustache mug you have on your Twitter profile (see https://twitter.com/aenbar). Any chance you’ll be sporting a real one in the future?
“Ha-ha. Not likely.”
Can you finish this statement? “The Flatiron School is…
“…the future of higher education.”
Follow Adam Enbar on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aenbar.
For more information on The Flatiron School, go to http://flatironschool.com/.
Class of MBA 2010, Section A