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An Entrepreneurial Venture to Train Computer Scientists

By Adrienne Burke | Small Business

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Ashu Desai was 16 when he built his first product—Helicopter, a game app for iPod that was purchased 50,000 times. The experience opened up job and internship opportunities for the Palo Alto, Calif., high schooler and spoiled him for college. After just a year as a UCLA computer science major, he says, “I was disappointed with the curriculum. I wanted to be building more real-world products, but there wasn’t the infrastructure for that and classes weren’t teaching it.”

Desai’s former Menlo School classmate Jeremy Rossmann, who was building apps as an MIT sophomore, joined Desai in taking a year off from college to “try to build some cool products and see how things go.” They agreed that if things went well, they’d fully drop out of school. Winning financing for their idea from the well-respected tech startup accelerator Y Combinator and top tech venture capitalists Andreesen Horowitz, Tim Draper, and Alexis Ohanian was the signal that things were going pretty well, Desai says.

“Y Combinator was the tipping point—it was our license to drop out. It gave us a structured learning program, a community, and a network of startups in Silicon Valley,” Desai says. “Not every student has a chance to do something like that.”

What Desai and Rossmann are building, however, could give more students “a license to drop out of college.” They are co-founders of Make School, a live and online educational program launched in 2012 to replace the traditional computer science degree. The school boasts a 1-10 faculty-to-student ratio, instructors with industry experience, and deferred tuition fees set at 25 percent of first-year post-graduation salary.

Over 500 students have now taken Make School in-person courses, and over a million have used its online tutorials. During summer 2014, 120 high school and college students learned at Make School how to build iOS apps. And in the 2014-2015 school year, Make School is piloting its first one-year college supplement program, teaching mobile and web development, computer science theory, and development-focused career skills to a class of 11 students. The school year culminates with an internship at a tech startup. Desai expects to enroll between 30 and 50 students for 2015-2016 and eventually expand beyond the coworking space where Male School operates in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood.

Desai says students study the same things university computer science students do, but faster, while building real-world products, and networking with builders and developers in Silicon Valley. “For high school students who have already been building apps and who are passionate about building websites … college really isn’t a good fit; they’re already qualified to start working,” Desai says. “College is tailored to people who have never done programming. We’re hoping to provide them opportunities to build real products as they’re learning.”

The Make School application process is also unlike that for college. An online application is followed up by a personal interview with one of the school’s two founders. Says Desai,  “We look at their programming background—they have to have a year or two of programming coming in. We look at what websites and apps they have built in their free time. And we look for other characteristics in terms of the kind of people we would want in community. We ask, ‘When was a time you changed a behavior in order to improve yourself?’ Or, ‘How did you deal with a disagreement with a friend or family member?’”

Desai points to several early success stories. A 2014 high school graduate who spent the summer at Make School decided to defer his acceptance to MIT to join a startup company for a $90,000 salary. Another Make School summer student left MIT after a year to accept a job offer from SnapChat. And others are earning equally impressive first-year salaries at tech companies including Edmodo, Pandora, and Dailymotion.

As for the argument that college education is about more than learning a trade, Desai notes that Make School students are not missing out. For one, they’re exposed to an incredible network of entrepreneurs, investors, and industry experts. Make School courses also emphasize the “soft skills that we think are important to teach,” Desai says. “That means not art history, but things like interpersonal communications, economics, entrepreneurship, concise writing and storytelling, and the psychology of persuasive sales.” Other humanities courses address the role of computers in political affairs and regulations, the history of computers, and the role of technology in influencing countries with unstable currencies.

And Desai points out that deferred tuition based on post-Make School earnings is designed to hold the school and its instructors accountable for student success. “If the students don’t have good outcomes, then they don’t have debt. If our education is failing them, then our bottom line is being hurt. We’re financially incentivized to make sure our students’ outcomes are great,” Desai says. University and college computer science programs might have a tough time competing with that.  

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