Hey I'm Austen! Co-founder of Lambda School, which trains thousands of engineers & data scientists (at no upfront cost). AMA!

Hey everyone, what was once a small project four years ago has become a monstrosity of a thing :)

While we ended up raising VC we did so strategically in a way that we knew would increase the value of the company more than dilution.

Now we have 100+ employees, thousands of hired graduates, and [censored] revenue. AMA!

  1. 7

    Not here to ask anything, just wanted to say that I'm loving this AMA and your twitter Austen - keep it going!

  2. 4

    What do you think are the differences between Lambda School and bootcamps like Dev Bootcamp, Hack Reactor, App Academy, and so on, in terms of your approach to education as well as business? It's interesting to me that Lambda School was the one that got YC/VC funding, and not the ones that came before (although I'm not making a judgment here, it could easily just be a difference of scope/goals).

    1. 1

      Lambda School has the freedom to operate in a way where if we do a good job other schools can’t compete.

      Before flipping the business model on its head code schools weren’t really VC-backabke.

      Now we’re longer, spend way more per student, have a more in depth education, and almost all of our students pay no upfront tuition.

  3. 3

    Now we have 100+ employees, thousands of hired graduates, and [censored] revenue. AMA!

    You recently fired many employees, why?

    1. 3

      Simply put, we had too many employees for the number of students. We thought we would be ready to grow the number of students sooner, but we weren't, and wanted to extend our runway.

  4. 3

    How did you get your initial users?

    1. 7

      By teaching free classes.

  5. 3

    People know you for Lambda School but I remember your brilliant growth and customer acquisition stuff, like that old article on how you helped a friend selling neckties on Instagram!

  6. 3

    Hi Austen - I love what you do and have done. At any time in your journey have you ever had to overcome self doubt - the feeling that maybe you don't have what it takes to be successful at_______(xyz)? If so, how did you overcome?

    1. 5

      My mentality is that I absolutely don’t deserve any of this so I’d better work as hard as I can.

  7. 3

    Oh and a 2nd question: A few months ago, you tweeted about experimenting with a way to have Lambda grads hired at a company for a month, which Lambda would cover. Did that ever go through?

    1. 3

      Still running! We call it Fellows (lambdaschool.com/fellows). Last week 6 of 7 who finished that program were hired.

  8. 3

    Do you see your school model working overseas?

  9. 3

    I had no idea Lambda started as a side project - where can I read more about that and early signs of market pull

    1. 3

      Not sure, I don’t talk about that aspect too often.

      Originally the idea was this: if we charge $10k/student and train 50 students a year me and my cofounder can each pay ourselves $250k/yr and do things the way we think code schools should be run.

      We started that and it was totally working. Then I started asking students who weren’t signing up or paying why they weren’t sending us checks for $10,000, and everyone kept saying, “Because I don’t have $10,000 you idiot that’s why I’m trying to find a new career path.”

      Oh, logical.

      So can we do something for those folks? I let a student in on a whim saying pay us $1,000 upfront and if you get hired after pay us the rest later. He was so excited I figured more people might be interested in that model.

      We had a small mailing list at the time and I emailed it as I always did. Usually we’d get 1 or 2 applications as a result. This time, offering a small deposit upfront and pay-after-hired we got 150.

      So then we said ok what if we actually went all the way? We’ve always wanted to make the school 6+ months instead of the classic 12 weeks (which I still believe is fundamentally not enough), but we couldn’t get students to pay $20k upfront. They were fine to if they got a job, but what if they didn’t?

      So we sent out an email that was like, “OK, we’re going to do something that’s 6 months, $0 upfront, but you’ll owe us more if you’re hired.

      That time? 2,000 applications.

      We looked at each other and said, “Oh shit this changes everything.”

      I was actually pretty opposed to VC before that (bad experiences) and eventually decided to raise after a long talk and a lot of modeling with our Y Combinator partner, Geoff Ralston.

      4 years later we’re getting pretty good but still fighting the same battle we started on that day. Help people get hired in high-paying jobs at scale.

      We have more than 2,000 placed grads now. I originally have models predicting we’d have about 175 by this point.

  10. 3

    Do you use any specific frameworks/ways of thinking to help break down and solve the business' problems? What guiding tools do you use to help further the school's efficiency, both in operations and revenue growth?

    1. 1

      I’m sure I have a lot of them but rarely do I think of them as if I’m pulling from a list of mental models Charlie Munger wrote down (I do know people who do that and most of them are smarter than me so perhaps not a bad strategy.)

      Guiding tools to help efficiency? I mean that’s what 100+ people are working on full-time every day. How can we do x better/faster?

  11. 3

    What was the most unexpectedly-difficult part of your journey?

    Conversely, what did you anticipate being more difficult than it actually turned out to be?

    1. 4

      Frankly it’s all been difficult.

      The most difficult aspect for Lambda School is that we have to essentially build multiple businesses at the same time and integrate them with each other seamlessly. We have to figure out how to analyze students and enroll only those who will be successful - that’s hard. We have to build an effective online school that ensures every student is gaining the practical skills that they need. And we have to help students get jobs at high rates.

      If any of those things is broken we get a 0. Everything has to be working perfectly in sync in order to make Lambda work. It’s hard af.

      I thought raising money would be difficult. It was not. Its like 50x easier than building a successful business. (Or it was for me - everyone’s experience is different).

      Lambda School is one of those companies that will change absolutely everything when it works and scales. Making it do that is a bitch.

  12. 2

    What other industries could a Lambda School type solution be applied to? I've heard of https://nanahome.com/ but nothing outside of it.

    1. 2

      I’ve seen them in a lot of industries. I think it works almost everywhere there’s a decent-paying job on the other side, but some industries only work if you can decrease the cost of training students while increasing the average earnings of most programs.

      If the average existing school just plugged in an incentives-aligned model like an ISA they just die. It’s really hard, and I fear we forced a lot of schools into that situation.

      Making it work is hard, hard, hard.

  13. 2

    Could you tell us the story of how you assembled the first MVP for your company?

    1. 5

      So the real MVP was I launched a Kickstarter course to teach Haskell (a programming language that some believe is the best), and from there realized the market was much bigger if you were teaching stuff that was more applicable and, like, humans had heard about before.

      Later our only motto was “an online code school that doesn’t suck.” There were none.

      Then we started fixing all the things that are broken about code schools and universities.

  14. 2

    Hey Austen,

    Thanks for doing this! I took a similar path but exited much earlier than you (https://twitter.com/frantzfries/status/1395006971300941827?s=20)

    The question I always get is when do you decide to focus on just the side project as your full-time gig? Is it a revenue decision, gut instinct or something else?

    1. 3

      This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think it’s often a personal decision for the founder.

      For me I had a family (a wife and one kid at the time - now I have three 😳) and I wanted to be independent but I also had to support a family, so I waited until I was confident I’d be able to pay myself enough to survive. Then I proceeded to not take a salary for a while but that’s another story.

      1. 1

        Congrats on the 2 additional wives. Hope it works out!

  15. 1

    Hey Austen - love how thorough your answers have been! It must be so rewarding to see all the students who've been able to pivot as a result of your help. It seems like there are a few growing pains, have seen some disgruntled tweets - what is the biggest challenge you're facing right now?

  16. 1

    You once said "you'll make a killing" when I pitched you my job board for devs without degrees. Care to expand on that?

    Also, would you be interested in appearing on my podcast and debating with a bootcamp opponent?

    1. 1

      Don't remember the context, but I think you could go after employers and get them to pay you a bunch to attract more diverse candidates.

      Not really interested in debate, that seems unproductive. Happy to come on. your podcast though.

      1. 2

        Awesome! I'm doing a sales week next week so will push on that angle.

        Ok, that's great! You can grab a time here https://calendly.com/nocsdegree/60min

  17. 1

    if you were to start a new school what would be the main focus

    1. 2

      Hmm, I think the hard part of school is success/cost.

      If you can increase the success and reduce the cost that's the key. So I would probably hire one instructor, one engineer, and one career coach, and just start automating as much as I could with a small number of students.

  18. 1

    Hi Austen, if you were starting Lambda School from scratch today, what would you do differently? what would you double-down on? what would you avoid?

  19. 1

    Hey Austen!
    How can I contact you by email? I've got the topic you could be interested in.
    Good job with Lambda!

      1. 1

        Thank you. I'm writing an email to you!

  20. 1

    I appreciate the insight you provided on my previous question. Thanks a bunch for doing this AMA; I've been following you guys for almost 3 years now. This is super informative and it's awesome to see the massive growth! I actually recommended Lambda to a UPS driver a bit ago and I believe he recently applied; so cool to see the educational transformation it provides.
    I've just got a few last questions.

    What are some of the things you learned in regards to organizational management during these last 4 years of rapid growth?

    What are some of the scalability issues you face in a disruptive company like Lambda? Are there any "trade-offs" per se that have to be made to scale at large?

    In addition, is Lambda's current structure more fixed or variable cost-leaning and does this contribute to some of those scalability issues? If so, how do you anticipate handling this without changing the core model?

    Thanks again!

    1. 1

      Well four years ago I knew basically nothing about organizational management.

      I think the biggest things I've learned are:

      1. The importance of recruiting a stellar executive team who are the right fit for the role you have. There are execs who would be perfect at being at one company and solving one problem, but aren't as good at solving another.

      2. You really do ship your org chart.

      3. If you don't have a single-threaded leader (to use the Amazonian term) working on an important initiative virtually 0% chance it gets done well.

  21. 1

    What did you value most when making your first couple hires? What mistakes did you make in your first 10-15 hires?

    1. 1

      We didn't hire enough engineering early on because we were so focused on the school. We built up more technical debt than I would have liked.

  22. 1

    What are the biggest challenges Lambda is still trying to figure it out?

    1. 1

      There are 87 of them, but success/cost is really the key. We've spent years ramping that up and will probably spend another 10 years doing so.

  23. 0

    I have a nice cushy job in tech but I’ve felt the itch to quit and build something for a lot of years. I’ve boiled it down to a few ideas, and I’m financially ready to quit, what should I do next? How do I get zero in on the “best” idea and get the ball rolling?

    1. 1

      Start getting someone to pay you any kind of money whatsoever. That will tell you where the good ideas are.

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    This comment has been voted down. Click to show.

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      Convince me as to why I should

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    This comment has been voted down. Click to show.

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      We have a big product and engineering team! Software fully handling the entire teaching experience doesn’t work as well yet, though.

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