Build The Skills You Need In The New Economy
“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” –Clay Shirky
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Finding our mission is incredibly difficult if we have debt and can’t work at the job we want. In order to always be growing, many individuals will undoubtedly want to level up their skills. This is a great thing, but in order to do this safely, we must avoid the pitfalls of thinking that college will solve all our problems. College is a great choice for those seeking to get a credential that they can only obtain through college. But for both the college bound, as well as those who want to bypass bureaucracy, this article could help save you tens of thousands of dollars in debt and years pursuing a degree that may not pay off.
It’s a bit crazy that the average college student in America takes 5.6 years to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree. On average, these students are left with around $30,000 of debt, and the ones who find jobs typically work outside their majors, in jobs they didn’t need their degrees for in the first place. Collectively, there is $1.3 trillion of student debt! College costs (when adjusted for inflation) have risen 400% since the 1980s. Many college degrees do not lead to opportunities or job offers and carry with them a debt that can’t be expunged via bankruptcy. To make matters worse, we often don’t realize how long we’ve been pre-sold the idea of college throughout our K-12 education. In order to avoid these pitfalls, and overcome past conditioning, we must choose carefully when we’re pursuing training that will help us level up our skills.
This isn’t to say that college degrees can’t be extremely valuable; of course they can. But before we purchase a college degree or course load, we are allowed to double-check and objectively prove to ourselves the value of what we’re buying.
Trust, But Verify
A few months before my last deployment in the military, I was thinking about going to graduate school. I wanted some sort of credential that could guarantee me a great salary and future opportunity. Looking back on where I was then feels a bit pathetic now. I was looking for confirmation from a university about the type of value I could provide to employers. I was looking for a “quick fix” of getting a graduate degree, prestige, and a salary boost instead of doing the hard upfront work of making sure the degree I was going to purchase was valuable. At first, I thought I’d go to law school and get a JD. But I found a number of attorneys who had graduated in debt and were clerking at $40,000 a year. Others were at big law firms, but they definitely did not seem mission-driven.
Then, I thought, since I already had a bachelor’s degree in economics… I’d get a PhD in economics! That would be it! That credential would set me up for success! As I began to study and take the prerequisites needed for a PhD in economics, such as Calculus III, I started to ask myself better questions. Who had their PhD in economics that I wanted to emulate? Who found meaning in this choice? I decided I should start meeting people who had earned their PhD in economics and ask for myself. I had my sights set on a specific economics department at a specific college, so I dug around to find dissertations and resumes of those who had recently earned their PhDs. I cold emailed all of them. A few responded, and we struck up some interesting conversations. I expected to hear that they were making great money, they had learned a lot, or that they were generally content with the investment they’d made in their PhD. None of this was true.
To say they were not satisfied was an understatement. Each person I reached out to seemed confused, unsure of the value of their degree. To be blunt, some of them seemed to be harboring deep, passive aggressive anger towards spending five years on a pursuit that didn’t lead to where they were told it would. Many were working at the same jobs they had before the PhD program. In a few cases, they were still looking for jobs.
This was an icy wake up call about higher education. Looking to learn and take an interest in improving ourselves is great, but we should determine the actual potential value of the college degree we’re buying before we purchase it.
I talked to one of my former professors from undergraduate school for a final piece of advice before I decided whether or not to go to graduate school. He listened intently to my story of reaching out to recent graduates from the program. He responded with a few crystal clear points:
- Be thankful you didn’t waste five years of your life doing that
- Think about how much you could learn on your own, or accomplish in the business world, in five years
- You can find used editions of every book they read in class on Amazon, and read them on your own
His points hit home, and I got the wake up call I wish I had received before I devoted four years of time and money towards a bachelor’s degree. Making the choice to go to college or earn a credential doesn’t have to be difficult. It only takes a small amount of extra work for us to “trust, but verify” the value of what we’re buying. If we want to produce a certain outcome, earn a certain salary, or unlock certain opportunities, there has never been a more important time to reach out and discover if the path we’re thinking about is viable.
“Top-down knowledge is an illusion. Education without erudition is nothing.” –Nassim Taleb
“Thus the yeoman work in any science… is done by the experimentalist, who must keep the theoreticians honest.” –Michio Kaku
Finding our own truth about whether or not we should go to college is challenging. But consider starting here: ignore anyone who says, “Everyone should go to college” and avoid anyone who says, “Nobody should go to college.” Neither view takes into account your individual unique situation, potential, talents, ambitions, personal agency, or existing skills.
We’re allowed to learn on our own, and if we’re maniacal about our health, relationships, and crafting stakes and incentives around learning what matters to us, we might want to consider acquiring skills outside of college. If we’re unable to control and setup all those habits, or we need a specific degree or credential to unlock a job, then college might be a great choice.
For unlocking jobs at great technology companies or small businesses, we most likely need to be able to say:
- I have this skill you need (cite where and why they need it to showcase our knowledge of their industry).
- Here is a demonstrated, real world example of me using this skill and creating value (a consulting project, working app, testimonials from past bosses, or projects that showcase our abilities).
Now, let’s look over more ways to reverse engineer opportunities and work that matters. Along the way, we’ll also answer the college or not question.
Reverse Engineering Outcomes
- Find where we want to work.
- Confirm that the area we’re interested in is growing rapidly, or there is increasing demand.
- Determine the skills needed for entry by asking employees, managers, and executives already working there.
- If the skills and credentials they cite can only be obtained via college, consider the specific colleges that employees at the company you’re interested in went to. The college might have a pipeline to that company, which will make getting hired much easier.
- Reach out to the college in question to confirm placement rates, and get details on where those graduates are actually going to work (the person we contacted at the company in question might be a fluke or abnormality).
- If the field we’re going into does require a license or certificate to enter, we need to ensure we’re obtaining that license or certificate in the quickest and most affordable way possible. We also need to be sure the training institution or college has several real world examples of this license or certificate leading to great outcomes for students.
- If the field we’re going into doesn’t require a license for entry, such as business, programming, technology, design, or technical marketing (growth hacking, or just growth), then we need to figure out if college is the best path to entry, or if an alternative is a better choice. As of this writing, the most affordable and quickest way to land a great job in technology is through a technical bootcamp. Developer bootcamps are three- to six-month training programs, largely focused around filling jobs startups need to hire for. The main types of bootcamps revolve around training programmers, designers, data scientists, and business developers. These programs are less expensive than college, and most bootcamps proudly showcase their placement rates and track records of helping their graduates find high-paying jobs.
- If we’re still considering college, we can reach out to recent graduates from the programs we’re considering applying to or are currently enrolled in. We can ask them: if they could do things over, would they make the same choice? Did their salary pan out to what they thought it would? How did the college they graduated from help them get a job? Do they know of any open positions that we may be a great fit for? Generally, we can get the inside scoop on the real value of a degree before we make a purchase.
- When in doubt, we can choose the path which gives us the most options (i.e., a degree with a credential or license, or a degree plus a developer/design/scientist/sales bootcamp). Or maybe we discover that attending a bootcamp while starting to teach ourselves skills online is the best path.
Now, we can reach out to the employees of businesses we want to work at or apply for. The quickest way to do this is to email them. A simple message could be based on a template such as:
Hi (Name Here),
I’m (introduce yourself, keep it short).
I’m hoping to get a job similar to yours in the near future. I’m excited about this industry and (their employer) because (whatever you can cite to demonstrate you know where this field is headed).
I’m curious to know what skills you have that helped you get hired. I’m thinking about (college or traditional choice here, or considering this bootcamp).
Which one do you think would give me the greatest chance of getting hired at (where they work)?
Thanks for your time!
The tricky part about most job listings is that oftentimes the requirements listed aren’t what’s actually required. When we reach out to people working at the company, we’re well on our way to building the relationships necessary to be recommended for the job. When we have enough rapport, connections, and proof of our skills, we can bypass traditional job application pathways, and even find job opportunities that are never listed.
Another idea to reach out after we’ve found a specific job of interest to us:
Take the company we want to reach out to and contact the CEO or other decision-makers with an email along these lines:
Hi (Name Here),
I’m (your name and brief skills overview here). I was looking to apply to (cite the job you want to apply for here whether it’s open or not).
I’m hoping to get your expert opinion on whether pursuing Path A to get there (maybe that’s a DevBootcamp) or Path B (maybe that’s a BS in computer science) would be more valuable to your team at (their company). Are there any skills I can demonstrate that you’d like to see? Or is there any free work or a project I could tackle for you right now?
I would love to get your feedback and appreciate your expertise.
(Your name here)
(Social proof links to who you are and your skills)
Connectors and Training
“It is far better for a man to go wrong in freedom than to go right in chains.” –Thomas Huxley
“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.” –Joseph Campbell
Now, let’s jump into some of the best connectors and training for skills. Many of these platforms can be utilized to help discover if a college degree, bootcamp, certificate, or some other credential is the best route for us and our dollars.
Accelerated Entry into a New Field with High Growth
Mike Rowe Works Scholarship: Mike Rowe is spearheading an initiative offering scholarships for those who want to learn trades which are in high demand.
Upstart: Started by an ex-Googler, this is the platform you want to go to if you need funding for any venture you’re working on. If you need to raise money for attending a bootcamp not covered by the Post 9–11 GI Bill, Upstart is a great place to do it.
Learn Business Development, Coding, Design, Technical Marketing, or Data Science in Person
The Iron Yard: If you’re on the East Coast or down South, the Iron Yard is a must to consider. http://theironyard.com
Starter School (Chicago): As a company which is part of Basecamp (formerly 37Signals), I trust them to do bootcamps the right way.
Starter League: Similar to Starter School.
Jumpstart Labs: A bootcamp and training company that “builds developers.”
DevBootcamp: The original developer Bootcamp. A fantastic choice to accelerate your learning and break into technology.
General Assembly: One of the premiere locations to learn skills necessary to break into technology fields. Locations all over the country.
Galvanize: Colorado, California
Full Stack Academy of Code: NY, NY
Tradecraft: “We train smart people to succeed in traction roles at high-growth startups.”
Turing School of Software & Design: Denver, CO.
Learn Business Development, Coding, Design, Technical Marketing, or Data Science Online
Exercism is a site updated daily with new programming tests and challenges.
Bloc Web & App Development
Viking Code School
CodeAcademy: Learn to code for free, right away.
Thinkful: Learn Swift, the updated programming language for iOS apps. Or any other programming language that suits your fancy!
Treehouse: “Learn how to build websites & apps, write code or start a business.” Want to start learning web design or coding for the 21st century jobs?
Accelerators and Incubators to Build or Join a Startup
Expa SF, NY: “Design + Data” Led by Garrett Camp, this is part accelerator, incubator, and VC fund for early stage companies.
Techstars: If you don’t need the soft start of Patriot Boot Camp and have users, revenues, advertising dollars, or growth, go big at Techstars.
YCombinator: The top accelerator for startups worldwide. They’ve funded over 700 startups, several of which have gone on to become multi-billion-dollar businesses.
FishBowl: An incubator for technology companies which is free to join. They’re based in northern VA at the AOL campuses.
DreamIT: Baltimore, DC, and Austin
500 Startups: Focusing on funding mid-size startups in CA and expanding worldwide.
AngelPad: Los Angeles, CA
Co-Working Spaces and Incubators to Freelance or Build Your Business Around Others
WeWork: Both an accelerator and incubator space, quickly expanding nationally.
1776: Evan Burfield’s startup incubator. “The world’s biggest challenges. 1776 is passionate about reinventing our lives as citizens. We’re creating a global community by connecting startups with the resources they need to grow and succeed — from mentorship and corporate connections to capital and media attention — in sectors such as education, energy, health and cities.”
Funding for a Business
There aren’t any wrong answers to fund a startup or business pursuit. There are only funding options which leave you with either fewer or more options. Some options to fund a startup which can leave you with fewer options might be a loan or venture capital investment. Funding and growing a business with cash and revenue typically leaves us with more options. At a certain point in a startup’s trajectory, investment from the right investors makes perfect sense. The best places to get started with learning about startups that are growing, as well as how they’re funded, are listed below:
AngelList: AngelList helps match startups with the best accredited investors and syndicates, many of which provide much more than just money. If all you’re looking for from investors is money, your business will probably not succeed. Investors or angels from the trenches of the industry in which you’re starting a startup have connections and experiences that are especially valuable.
If your startup is already pulling in huge revenue, or you uncovered a steady stream of secrets that is enabling you to build a monopoly ten times better than any competition, then great! AngelList lets you use your numbers to attract great investors to you. Or, you can pitch the top-tier VCs below, which are the firms rebuilding America at scale.
Top Tier Venture Capital Firms
A16Z: Want to work at the hub of an amazing venture capital company? Getting hired or funded by A16Z might be challenging, but this firm is the best of the best.
Lower Case: This is a venture firm started by Chris Sacca, who came back from over $2.1 million in personal debt… in his own name! Rather than file for bankruptcy, Sacca paid back every dime of his debt and wrote credit card check investments into some of his first major wins as an investor. He invested early in Twitter and Uber and now has a firm managing well over $1 billion.
Founders Fund: If you’ve read and resonate with Peter Thiel’s amazing book, Zero to One… this is where you want to go. Zero to one innovations future-proof humanity, whereas spreading 1 to n puts us all at risk.
Foundry Group: Brad Feld’s venture fund, they also run Techstars and Techstars Patriot Boot Camp.
Google Ventures: The venture arm of Google with a roster of 250+ companies, many going after huge “moonshots.”
First Round Capital: A firm with a great reputation for treating founders with respect and an impressive portfolio of companies.
Upfront Ventures: A founder-friendly LA venture fund.
True Ventures: “We are serial entrepreneurs ourselves: the True partners have founded 14 startups, and three of our partners are active Founders and CEOs of companies in today’s technology ecosystem.”
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