THE BLOG

Can A Three-Month Coding School for Career Changers Diversify The Tech World?

06/23/2015 09:01 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Kristi Riordan is the COO of the Flatiron School, a school whose mission is to align education with reality. Flatiron, which began operations in fall 2012, puts students through a rigorous three-month coding school. Currently, the school places 98% of adult student graduates within 90 days, with an average starting salary of $75,000. Kristi talks about what Flatiron does, it's mission-driven business model, and applying lessons of small business ownership - she is the daughter of a small business owner - to her growing startup.

What does The Flatiron School do?
At Flatiron School, our vision and our mission is to align education with reality. While it will take us a long time to make that happen, what that means today is that we have created accessible education to help people develop technical skills that are highly valued in the marketplace. Our adult program is designed primarily for career changers, people who are about 25-45 years of age. They've previously had a career, and their either unhappy with it or discovered that they have this love for coding and want to build software, but they don't want to go back and pursue a four-year education. And in fact they don't need to. Our programs are designed to be able to give them the skills that they need for an entry-level software engineering job in just about twelve weeks. They work really hard though; they put in about 750-850 hours of work, with a little bit of pre-work, and then a lot of that on our campus during that twelve-week period. It's a lot of hours per week.

Who are the students?
One of the things I'm most excited about at Flatiron School is the diversity of candidates that come into our programs and go out into the marketplace. I think many people are aware of the diversity challenge that exists within the tech industry. We just create a learning environment that is welcoming and intentionally available for a lot of different types of people. We often times talk about building a class, and admitting a class, rather than individual students.

We look for having diversity of perspective, which can be all sorts of things beyond the types of things we might be accustomed to in terms of gender, race, ethnicity. We look for people who have different types of backgrounds. Many of our students have completely different backgrounds. Not just from a place like investment banking, but we've had former professional baseball players, we've had a lot of musicians and artists, people who have come out of a lot of different careers. Those who hire our graduates have a greater opportunity to find a fit for their organization. For example, if you are a company that's selling retail, you may be very interested in finding someone who's passionate about fashion. That diversity of perspective is important because it changes the way in which teams are able to collaborate and how software engineers understand the underlying product of the business and the customers that they're trying to sell to.

Are there things from your childhood or growing up that have helped you be a great leader at Flatiron School?
People often mention the entrepreneurial aspect of being at a startup, and do people have a 'startup mentality'. My father was a small business owner. Though nobody talked about startups in the late '70s and early '80s, I think a lot of the mentality of what is necessary to be effective, and really thrive and enjoy being in a startup, is analogous to small business ownership. If it's your business, you have to be accountable for everything. You have to make sure your customers are well served. You have to make sure that you can meet payroll every month. You have to make sure your employees are happy and engaged, because that will make your customers happy and engaged. You have to understand what is the product that we should be offering.

My dad had an automotive business; he did auto body repair work. And that doesn't seem analogous at all to the tech industry. But I remember my dad talking about how somebody wanted to do old car repairs, Model T cars and things that were sort of tinkering cars. And he said that's not a good business because the margins are low and there aren't a lot of people who have those. So if you get known for being that kind of shop you're a specialty shop. And we're in a small community in Iowa so we won't be able to serve the community. We need to have those relationships where people bring us their business so you have referrals. It was a business that was wholly unrelated at first glance to everything that I'm doing today. But those fundamental concepts of treating your employees right, making sure you get them paid on time, balancing your books, and paying attention to the customer having the customer lead your business, those are fundamental concepts that transfer to any kind of a growth organization. So I think that a lot of what I saw growing up has led me to want to be in agile, nimble environments.

Flatiron is a business but it is also mission-driven. How has that affected your hiring, recruiting, and ability to make an impact?
I think there's a change that is taking place in the corporate environment today. Young professionals are much more mindful of having a purpose-driven career.

Many people who come from a foundation environment or nonprofit environment that's mission-driven have limited resources available to them. And in fact I think that's why many people end up leaving government or leaving a nonprofit or leaving a foundation because they feel like their ability to impact a particular mission is limited. And when you're in a high growth company, you are limited by your ability to focus, to strategize and hire exceptional talent. Anyone who wants to move really quickly is usually given fuel to move even faster. So I think that's an exciting thing for people who have been historically only mission-driven, being able to be in an environment where they have the fuel from that commercially-driven organization as well. And those who come out of a corporate-oriented, commercial organization, they love having that feeling of true purpose in what it is that they're doing.

Listen to the full podcast interview with Kristi Riordan here.