Women in Business Q&A: Adda Birnir, CEO and Co-Founder, Skillcrush

06/01/2015 08:37 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Adda is CEO and co-founder of Skillcrush, an interactive tech-learning platform with friendly instructors, an active student community, and laser focus on helping you achieve your career goals with technology. With her self-taught tech skills, she has built sites for the New York Times and MTV, and her work has been featured in the BBC, Fast Company, NBC, and Mashable. When Adda isn't developing or teaching on Skillcrush, she enjoys falling into Internet rabbit holes.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My family immigrated to the United States from Iceland, so from a very young age, I had to take more responsibility for myself navigating the outside world. My parents didn't really understand US culture, especially when it came to schools. They had no concept of a field trip or a school dance or standardized tests. I remember never having the right paperwork, so I used to fill out permission slips and put Xs next to where my parents should sign and then hand them the form. In high school it only got worse. I remember signing myself up for the PSATs, buying a book, and studying without my parents having any clue what was happening.

In short, I got really good at figuring things out and learning how to look for answers on my own. And, I got lots of practice learning how to do something (usually from a book) and then doing it. This figure-it-out mentality has proved invaluable for me in founding and building Skillcrush into the company it is today.

How has your previous employment experience aided your positions at Skillcrush?
One of my biggest frustrations at past companies was feeling like I never had all the information I needed to make the right decisions. There was rarely a feedback mechanism that was tied to the end user or the health of the business. Instead, things got thrown over the wall to my department, and then we threw them over the wall to another department, and we never had the follow through to know how things worked for our customers or whether they positively or negatively impacted revenue. It was paralyzing and confusing, and led to a lot of unnecessary bickering, because we had nothing to go on but our own opinions.

At Skillcrush, the user feedback loop is core to our business, and our success. I talk to customers everyday, and we do extensive user testing for every change, update, and product we roll out. In addition, we have defined metrics of success for everything we do that are always tied directly to our customers experience and revenue. Keeping that line of communication open between us and our users transforms our team's ability to create products that people love, and we know people love them because they pay for them.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Skillcrush?
We are still in business after 3 years! And growing! That is certainly a highlight. What I live for, though, is hearing about Skillcrush students that get jobs or launch businesses with the skills they've learned in our classes. Sarah Greer is my recent inspiration-she is a mom of 4 who homeschools her children, and now runs a bustling freelance web development business making twice what her husband makes per hour of work!

Running a business is an emotional roller coaster, with very high highs and low lows, which is a challenge in and of itself. But, the biggest challenge-and source of pride-is that I support the livelihoods of my team of 16 people. The endless pressure to continue growth and sales so that I can meet payroll for all of the wonderful people who work for Skillcrush can be overwhelming and stressful.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in your industry?
You don't have to have a college degree in Computer Science and you don't have to be 20 years old to break into tech. It is totally possible to build a career in technology with no prior experience, and to start when you are in your 40s! Just think outside the box of what a career in tech means: a lot of the most interesting opportunities are applying tech to other industries, like fashion, food, or education, to name but a few.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Haha, I don't! It is very hard to have a healthy work/life balance when you are starting a company, so this is very much a work in progress for me. I'm trying to get better about setting rules for myself (and sticking to them!). For example, the latest rule I have set myself (which I mostly break) is that I don't stay online after 9 pm. When things get especially hairy, I go for a run, get a massage (luckily in New York, massages are cheap!) and when all else fails I "lose" my phone and go for a walk or meet up with a friend.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Flexibility. Fortunately, Skillcrush isn't a traditional work environment, but what I see with the women in the Skillcrush community is that having to fit into a rigid, inflexible schedule is really really difficult. It's not a lack of desire to work, or even a lack of time to work, but rather having to be somewhere at a specific time, and potentially having to stay there for longer than planned, that makes it very very hard for women to rise the ranks and be successful at work while also living the life they want to live.

Our entire Skillcrush company works remotely-we have team members across the world from Paris to Brooklyn to Buenos Aires-and we hire several part-time and contract positions. We have all experienced how much work gets done, and how much better life can be, with this kind of flexibility. You'll find dozens of free webinars, resources, and guides on the Skillcrush site about how to work remotely, negotiate part-time gigs, land freelance clients, and other ideas for people looking to find a flexible job situation.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal lives?
It has made ALL the difference. I owe everything to my mentors. Being an immigrant, I've had to rely on mentors to help me fill in many gaps. The truth is that not knowing how to do things like start a business or get a new job or whatever isn't an experience unique to immigrants, but I think that being an immigrant gets you really used to having to look for help from others to navigate! There are many people who really believed in me and encouraged me to keep going at all of the tough points in Skillcrush's growth so far and I am so thankful for their love and support.

I have one mentor in particular who has really helped give me a framework to understand how to slowly, step-by-step build a business, and he has helped me tremendously in pushing Skillcrush to the next level. I joke that we have an unspoken understanding which is that he gives me advice as long as I do what he says.

I think the takeaway there, for anyone reading, is that part of being mentored is being a good mentee. No one wants to waste their time giving advice to someone who doesn't listen.

I really do feel like I've been so lucky, and that I've received more than I've given back.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
At this juncture, I tend to be attracted to women who have done amazing things in an unconventional way: Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal, Lynda Weinman of, Sarah Blakely of Spanx. They have built HUGE businesses without a lot of the traditional support that other comparable businesses have had. There are thousands of examples of other amazingly successful female founders who aren't household names, too: Raegan Moya Jones of Aden +Anais, Brandi Tysinger-Temple of Lolly Wolly Doodle, Ali Brown, Marie Forleo, and Jane Wurwand of Dermologica are just a few more for inspiration.

Other than being women, what all of my heroes have in common is that they have started something from scratch. Starting from a dead stop is so hard, these women have serious grit.

What do you want Skillcrush to accomplish in the next year?
This year, we have moved into the next phase of our company-we've proven that we're not just an ongoing experiment, but rather that we've found something that WORKS and should continue doing it. There's actually a name for this phase of the company and it's called the "Go-Go" phase. The big challenge at this stage is building out the team and the organization in a sustainable way, so that is my number one focus in upcoming months.