“There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese.” — Feival, An American Tail.
“I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.” — President Barack Obama, 2012 reelection address.
Change Your Stars
“Dude, you earned it. This about all the hustle and the unknown and the frustration. But you made it. You can provide for your family forever, and comfortably.”
“Def. I’m just happy to be able to get my daughter her own bedroom man.”
Lambda School’s CEO, Austen Allred has this exchange with a student posted to his Twitter feed. It encapsulates what all the fuss surrounding Lambda is about. Before Lambda, the student’s wife was supporting their family earning under $20,000. Afterwards? He signed an offer for over six figures.
This is a life changing transformation.
The school’s premise is simple. Take a cohort of hard workers and break their heads open on some coding. Then, ship them off to the workforce to bring home some bacon. And then stage 3, when the students start paying back their income share agreements: profit.
The income sharing agreement part is supposedly Lambda’s secret sauce. Lambda only gets paid when the student succeeds in getting a job earning more than $50,000 a year. Then (and only then) will Lambda take 17%, up to a maximum of $30,000.
Compared to the eye-watering sums people shell out for college, that’s nothing.
Mitchell Wright, the Head of Growth at Lambda credits this Income Sharing Agreement structure with the success. Because they only get paid when students do well, Lambda goes above and beyond to make sure students are as prepared for the job market as possible. That may be why the company has just received $30 million in funding to expand its product.
Lunacy Now spoke both with Mitchell and several currently attending Lambda school students to get the details on this groundbreaking school making waves.
A Different Ethos
Critics have sneered at Lambda’s Income Sharing Agreement for what they say is inventing the concept of taxes (prompting a brief Twitter controversy). They argue you don’t need aligned incentives, you just need education to be free at the point of access with bills deferred until salary starts rolling in. It’s true that similar payment structures to Lambda exist in Europe. In the United Kingdom, for example, the government backs student loans which provide university free at the point of access for anyone who can secure a place. Those loans are payable back once students earn more than £25,000 a year ($32,129).
There are three main differences with Lambda’s sysyem. Firstly the threshold at which you have to pay the money back: Lambda doesn’t charge you unless you earn $50,000 or more. Secondly, under the British system the university is paid regardless of your job prospects. It’s the government which is liable for the debt if you fail to get a job, so the school is not incentivized to make sure they are equipping you for the workforce.
The third difference is the most crucial. Equipping people for the workforce just isn’t the point of a university. Oxford University’s motto, to take one example, isn’t “Good Jobs for Hard Workers,” it’s “Dominus Illuminatio Mea” (The Lord is My Light). Harvard’s is “Veritas” (Truth), changed from the original “Christo et Ecclesiae” (Christ and the Church). The purpose of these institutions was to educate a largely aristocratic elite, who reasonably expected to never have to work a day in their lives, into the hidden mysteries of universe, the theology of the church, and philosophy, along with later what became known as the liberal arts. If you want to know what that tradition thinks of paid employment, look no further than the granddaddy of them all, Aristotle, who said that “any occupation, art, or science, which makes the body or soul or mind of the freeman less fit for the practice or exercise of virtue, is vulgar; wherefore we call those arts vulgar which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind.”
If that quote is a bit fuddy-duddy, try this one from tech investment fund 1517’s New 95 Theses on Education (point 15): “Harvard could admit ten times as many students, but it doesn’t. It could open ten more campuses in different regions, but it doesn’t. Elite schools are afraid of diluting brand equity. They’re not in the education business. They’re in the luxury watch business.”
This isn’t to knock universities in the slightest. Getting jobs and earning money is only a small part of life. Having a connection to the bigger picture and a deeper way of thinking makes life more meaningful and pleasant. But it is therefore ludicrous to think, with such a pedigree, that the university system is capable of or even interested in preparing a mass body of students to be useful and engaged workers, capable of producing sufficient economic value to sustain middle class lifestyles.
Lambda hasn’t just shifted around the incentive structure. It’s an entirely different kind of educational institution, built on a completely different (some would say ideologically opposed) philosophical foundation. It’s much more akin in ethos to trade schools or apprenticeship programs like Praxis.
What They’ve Done Instead
Lambda beasts students through a gruelling 30 weeks of solid work. Over the course of the program there is support at every level. “There’s a wealth of information available in the Training Kit,” Lorenzo, currently half-way through the course told us, “that will generally cover the fundamentals, concepts, and implementation of the topic at hand, videos from multiple teachers, and resources, along with several generalized and specific slack channels dedicated to helping people who are confused or stuck on something.”
For students falling behind in class, they have Lambda Async, which takes students over the elements they find difficult again, in isolation. The entire course is structured using such a mastery based progression model, which divides up the curriculum in terms of skills, and pushes students to redo areas until those skills are mastered. For students facing financial strain during their time, there is a perpetual access fund, which provides students in dire straights with financial assistance so they can complete the course and get hired. That was set up when a student told Austen he would have to drop out of Lambda because he needed $400 to make rent. After the course is finished, Lambda Next is a six month program to help students land jobs.
Without exception, all of the students we spoke to mentioned the level of attention, care and support they receive. Casey told us that Lambda is structured far more like a corporation, in that it focuses on training for workforce applicable tasks, rather than theory. She used to be a caregiver for disabled relatives and has moved through various low paying jobs. She found out about Lambda last January, and started in June. Just six months later, she has finished a Capstone project, working with four other team members to produce a fully functional app, tracking nutritional intake. She said she previously did a course on Python at a community college but dropped out due to lack of support. But at Lambda she was able to secure work as a Program Manager (Lambda’s equivalent of a teaching assistant), while on the course.
Head of Growth Mitchell Wright shared a personal story of his own brother, a high school orchestra teacher. He never thought of himself as a “mathsy” person. He struggled at Lambda and would have dropped out at a normal school. But he was able to repeat the modules he found difficult and succeed, thanks to the support provided by Lambda.
Although universities do have scholarships, bursaries and other forms of assistance available, mostly they do not have this level of holistic support. It’s only really seen in religious institutions, like Orthodox Jewish yeshivas, where the goal is to keep you in full time study for the greater glory of God.
Additionally, at a regular university the student is restricted to attending classes at the physical campus. At Lambda, everything is online. “I think Lambda’s core superpower is its ability to effectively teach and build a strong community that is so geographically distributed,” Kermitt, a UX Designer in training told us. Of course this distributed residential system enables Lambda to significantly cut costs. Those savings are then ploughed into the business, making student education and market readiness the number one company priority.
This has both pros and cons. “I absolutely love that I can live where I want while making friends from around the country and from all sorts of backgrounds,” Samuel told us. “But the disadvantage of that is that while I spend all day with my classmates, there’s scant opportunity for in person meeting (for me at least, not being based near a metro area with a larger number of Lambda peeps). We spend all day struggling side by side, but we can’t go out for a beer after a particularly challenging day.”
Nor does Lambda just guess what the market wants. According to their website they speak with leading industry professionals about the skills ideal employees would have, break them down into specific component parts and then teach that.
What’s the catch? “It’s tough. There’s very little spare time, you have to learn to prioritize self-care,” a student named Julie told us. “Unfortunately, the schedule change and hyper focus on tech has strained my friendships/relationships so I began creating in-person meetups and retreats for our students who felt similarly. We’ve built some incredible lifelong friendships, because only other Lambda students truly understand the sacrifice and pressure of the program. I think it would be difficult to do without a supportive family or spouse.”
Lambda is an eight to ten-hour day every day, with extra work in the evenings if you want to really push yourself and make sure you understand everything.
Lambda in Context
So why is Lambda needed anyway? Isn’t the economy good? Here are some statistics. According to financial technology company FinFit, 71% of Americans do not have enough money on hand to cover six months of living expenses. Right now 800,000 federal workers have been suspended without pay, or worse, forced to keep working without pay, due to the government shut down: $2 billion in lost wages every two weeks. That’s before noting that a week ago Trump cancelled a cost of living adjustment which would have raised federal employees wages in 2019. According to PayScale, real median wages actually declined 1.7% since the end of 2017, once adjusted for inflation. And this massive, crushing despair is having consequences. As noted in our feature on the modern apprenticeship program Praxis, median wages have remained flat for 50 years, while house prices have skyrocketed. Millennials are the first generation in recent American history to be poorer than their parents at equivalent life stages (across certain metrics like home ownership & savings). “More than 2 million Americans are now hooked on some kind of opioid,” Intelligencer reported, “and drug overdoses — from heroin and fentanyl in particular — claimed more American lives last year than were lost in the entire Vietnam War.” An estimated 52,000 Americans will die this year in opioid-related deaths.
What are political movements doing about this smog of despair?
Newly-minted Democratic congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has just proposed a whopping 70% marginal tax rate on top earners on Anderson Cooper’s show. Meanwhile right-wing stalwart Tucker Carlson opened the year with a blistering assault on the Republican establishment for not caring about ordinary people being unable to get married and start families due in part to an economy which makes it difficult to get ahead. He also blamed women earning more than men as one of the causal factors at play, arguing that women don’t want to marry men who earn less than they do.
Whatever your thoughts on Carlson or AOC, it’s clear neither major party has a popular, thought through, costed plan to deal with the economic stagnation faced by millions.
Nor does college seem to help; an estimated 43% of college graduates are underemployed in the first year out of college, meaning they are in jobs that don’t require a degree. Mitchell Wright agreed when asked that the present rates of student loans (which are un-dischargeable even in bankruptcy) are hopelessly unsustainable. The jobs which were promised to graduates simply aren’t there.
Mitchell said one of the reasons he was so happy to join Lambda school, as opposed to the business-to-business sales he was doing before, was to make be involved with a company making a tangible difference in the world.
In this context, Lambda looks like the American dream. This is why people who don’t speak English are swimming across the Rio Grande in the middle of the night, to get into the one country in the world where something like this can happen.
Whatever the accusations levelled against it, who else apart from Lambda is taking ordinary people and putting them into highly skilled well paid jobs in just 30 weeks?
Reskilling the Economy
Rahul used to be a strategy consultant, and walked away from a six figure promotion to attend Lambda. He told us one Lambda grad was hired by a company, then rapidly promoted twice to become a team lead in just a few short months.
If people on solid career tracks at good firms are looking to Lambda, and not a Masters Degree to further their career, that alone says something. If someone whose only previous job has been stacking shelves at Walmart can do a seven month intensive coding bootcamp and come out capable of coding better than graduates in computer science from major universities, that has a number of serious implications about the education system.
Coding is billed as some highly specialized profession only open to a few. Yet student after student that we spoke to said this is not the case. Yes, the work is difficult and requires long hours of study. But it doesn’t sound like it’s for the highly intelligent only. Rahul compared it more to learning another language, or linguistics or music theory. There are certain building blocks around which things are structured, and other elements layered over to contextualize it. In short, most people are capable of learning how to do it, with enough practice.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t geniuses. People like Mark Zuckerberg, Palmer Luckey or Bill Gates have an innate technical ability which most others will never have. But compare that to languages or music. Most people could learn Mandarin or the flute or linguistic theory if they really worked at it. They certainly could if they were in an intensive bootcamp which had the financial incentive to push them to succeed. That doesn’t mean that everyone can pick up a guitar and become Jimi Hendrix.
There are many professions and skills people used to have on a mass scale which hardly anyone possesses today. The fleets of sailing ships which patrolled the world were staffed by thousands of men trained in the complexities of the sea. Very few 21-year olds alive today would be able to reef a topsail in a force 5 gale going around the bottom of Cape Horn in a schooner. But if you slung a random high school class onto a tall ship with an experienced Captain and senior crew to guide them, how long do you think it would take to show them the ropes?
This has two major implications.
Firstly, there are many, many highly capable people who are being severely underutilized. If anything Lambda School proves the socialist argument that ordinary people are vastly more competent and intelligent than they are allowed to be and can succeed with the right institutional and psychological support.
Secondly, if coding really is accessible to anyone, then the American economy may be in for a huge reskilling shift. Training hundreds of thousands of people to code may not only fill all the roles the economy has to offer, but also kickstart more innovation as the tech sector fills with more highly trained individuals thus capable of achieving more complex results. It may also free up the truly genius and creative coders from doing the laborious yet relatively simple tasks of building and maintaining code, enabling them to focus on creating and designing new products.
Some other side effects are possible. Eventually the influx of workers into the sector may rebalance the economy, lowering/stabilizing wages for coding roles. Equally, as more people leave sectors such as media and service, supply and demand may see wages in those industries finally start to rise. It may take some time for these developments to take place. At the moment though the tech sector is producing jobs faster than the schools can keep up with. That means more and more coding jobs each year that need to be filled, and not enough workers to fill them.
Lambda school alone is not going to redress the problems facing America’s creaking economic structures. But for those who pass through its (virtual) doors, it seems to be making a life changing impact.