As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure of interviewing Gautam Tambay.
Gautam is CEO & co-founder of Springboard, a rapidly-growing workforce development company focused on digital economy skills like AI & Machine Learning, Data, Design, Software Engineering, and Cybersecurity. With students in over 100 countries, Springboard helps digital economy aspirants get job-ready with 1:1 mentorship from industry experts. Springboard grads work at more than half of Fortune 500 companies and many top tech startups. Gautam spent the first decade of his career working on technology, data, and strategy at InMobi, Bain & Company, and Capital One. He holds an MBA from the Wharton School and studied engineering at IIT Delhi.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
There are two big pieces that explain how I came to co-found Springboard. First, the personal. I come from a family of educators, so I’ve always understood how meaningful and formative teacher-student relationships can be. At the same time, my sister was interested in going to grad school to study UX design. She applied and was accepted into some great programs, but ended up declining them all because the loan burden she would have to take on was monumental. So that was a really important experience for me to see firsthand that really brilliant people are regularly forced to choose between training for the careers they’re meant to thrive in or remaining in control of their financial destiny.
The second piece is professional: my career journey kept pushing me toward entrepreneurship. I first studied mechanical engineering in India, but realized pretty quickly that I enjoyed learning engineering, but it wasn’t my professional calling. After I graduated, I spent some time working in finance and consulting. I had an opportunity to be part of a small team that launched Bain & Company’s presence in India, and through that experience, started to zero in on entrepreneurship as the place where my interests and skills intersected. And that brought me to Silicon Valley and into the world of startups and learning to be a kind of “utility player” — leaning in and being versatile and making things happen.
Shortly after, I met Parul, my partner in founding Springboard. She had some similar beliefs as me in regards to how inaccessible higher education was, and we were both seeing the same gap that desperately needed to be filled.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A couple of years after founding Springboard, we faced a crisis that ended up being a pivotal moment for the company and my evolution as a leader. We had built a strong product, but we hadn’t figured out distribution. Our revenue had been declining for a few months, which made it impossible to raise more capital from investors. If we didn’t turn things around, we’d be out of business in 4 months. For my co-founder and me, this was incredibly stressful. This was everything we stood for, this was what we had put our heart and soul into. We were going to let everyone down — our team, our investors, and most of all, our customers. But we were afraid to talk to anyone about it, especially to our team.
That’s when three of our teammates took us out for dinner and said, “We’ve seen the numbers. They are not good, and you must be stressed. Why aren’t you involving us?” We told them we were afraid that sharing the company’s troubles with them would cause the team to quit. What happened next blew our minds. They said “Are you kidding? We’re in this together. We want to be part of the story, that’s why we chose to work for a startup instead of a big company”.
The next day we held an All Hands meeting and told the entire team that we had a problem. Over the next 3 months, every single person on the 20-person team rallied behind one goal — growing revenue and getting to profitability. It wasn’t easy, but together, with the entire team working on it, we turned the ship around.
This was one of the biggest leadership lessons of my professional career. I used to think that my job as a CEO was to shield everyone from bad news. Now I try to have bad news flow to the team as quickly as possible, and get more people working on the problem. The hardest challenges become easier when you have a village working on it.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re constantly analyzing the work landscape to determine if we need to add programs and make sure the programs we do offer include the most cutting edge and up-to-date curriculum and skills development opportunities on the market. As an example, one of our newest programs is our Cybersecurity program, and that was born from the huge range of unfilled jobs in the Cyber field. There’s huge demand for skilled workers, there’s a national security interest in training workers, and yet there are nearly 500,000 open cybersecurity positions across the US. So we’re circumventing both the four-year college pipeline and years of slow on-the-job training, and preparing our students — no matter where they are in their careers — for those jobs in just six months.
We’ve also partnered with universities across the country to make these really quick and effective programs more visible and accessible. We have more university partnerships in the pipeline, so that work will continue to expand.
And we have some exciting partnerships with other great organizations, too. We partnered with Women Who Code to offer scholarships for Springboard’s software engineering, data science, and machine learning programs, and we’re committed to continuing to chip away at the gender gap in tech.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
Parul and I founded Springboard in 2013, so I’ve been totally immersed in the space for eight years now. We got into this work to solve a simple problem. Traditional higher education was inaccessible for too many people, either because the cost was prohibitive or the in-person model was too rigid and inflexible to fit into people’s lives.
It took us some time, but we figured out where we and the rest of the online education field were going wrong — it was missing the human-to-human connection. In the early days, Springboard students were dropping out because if they ran into a barrier — say, they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with a coding project they were working on — they had no one they could turn to. So our work has been to really integrate the things that have always been essential to great education (like guided mentorship) and trimming away the things that aren’t working (like rigid classroom hours and dated curricula). To do that well, that has meant becoming a student of the higher education system and really understanding what the pain points are for the many students who are being failed by the system.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
On a certain level, higher education in the US is still the premier education system in the world, and that has a lot to do with the connections to companies and people that students can make here. If you’re studying engineering at the University of Texas, you might be interning at Tesla on the side. Maybe you’re studying business at Berkeley, and you have a great professor who can share real experience from their time in startups.
But the world of work has changed rapidly and universities haven’t kept pace. The one-size-fits-all value proposition offered by traditional undergrad and masters’ degrees, and the related opportunity cost, are simply not a good fit for a lot of young people right now. Even when I think back to my time in the Wharton MBA program, which was really good for me, I question whether a traditional MBA is the best use of two years and $150,000 for someone who wants to be an entrepreneur.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- Research and Development. US higher education institutions remain the best in the world when it comes to investment in world-class research, lab facilities, and faculty — and the research coming out of these institutions continues to drive real innovation and impact across various industries.
- Trust of local communities. Many universities have built a deep well of trust in their respective geographies, and are respected by the community. We partner with universities to offer our courses through the university, and the university in turn offers our courses to their audience, regardless of whether they’re an enrolled student at the university or a community member who wants to pick up a new skill.
- Proximity to industry hubs. Many of the world’s biggest tech hubs are based in the U.S. — from Silicon Valley in California to the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and universities in these hubs work in concert with industry to create opportunities for students to participate in industry, whether it’s via internships and projects, guest lectures, or visits.
- Project-based learning. Learning by doing is one of the most valuable experiences students can have. It checks for understanding, creates opportunities for collaboration and creativity, and allows students to start building a portfolio. A number of universities, e.g. Northeastern, are finding creative ways to bring workplace learning into their curriculum. European universities have done a great job of this for decades, e.g. apprenticeships in Germany. Progressive universities in the US are catching up to this.
- Dropping degree requirements. Not so much about the education system per se, and more about the industry — there’s been a wave recently of companies dropping their degree requirements for job applicants, which is a great change. The future of education has to be less rigid, and prioritizing knowledge and skills over meeting somewhat arbitrary degree requirements will open many doors.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
I’ll share some systemic issues I see with the US higher education system below. While there are systemic issues, I’m seeing some forward-looking university leaders start to address some of these issues head on, and we work with a number of them.
- Affordability. Education isn’t accessible until it’s affordable, and it’s not affordable right now. The last Department of Education Federal Student Aid numbers have outstanding federal student loan debt at over 1.5 trillion dollars. Higher education is a ladder for students who come from money and a ball-and-chain for those who don’t.
- Responsiveness to labor market. A lot of higher education is sluggish in understanding the needs of employers and providing the right education and career services for students so they can be ready to work from the time they graduate, if not sooner. About 40% of American employers say they cannot find people with the skills they need, while 43% of college graduates are underemployed in their first job. Where’s the mismatch?
- Remote and asynchronous flexibility. Most higher education hasn’t evolved to fit people’s lives, which really fails non-traditional learners and adult learners. The average professional today is expected to have 15 jobs over their career, and the job you’ll have 20 years from now doesn’t even exist yet. This means education needs to become a lifelong pursuit. People will need to pursue transformational reskilling multiple times in their careers, and education needs to fit alongside everything else in their lives, like their jobs and families. The traditional immersive university degree model doesn’t allow for this. With thoughtfully designed online learning that incorporates mentorship, human connection, and self-paced flexibility that accounts for other responsibilities in people’s lives, I think we can unlock economic opportunity for people whose life circumstances wouldn’t otherwise allow them to pursue traditional education.
- Personal mentorship. The most valuable moments in my development as a professional have come from times when an experienced mentor took me under their wing and guided me on my path. “This is what people in the industry need you to know, not that. Here’s what you need to be working on. Let me introduce you to five of my colleagues, and now you have a budding network.” It’s really hard when you’re one of a thousand students who all are vying for a professor’s attention in a given semester. For all the money in higher ed, where’s the personal touch?
- Diversity and inclusion. The effects of poor diversity and inclusion at the higher ed level cascade into the workforce. In tech particularly, there are huge implications. When you think about how vulnerable AI and machine learning are to human bias, and how central AI and machine learning are to hiring, housing applications, and much more, the urgency of getting things right at the higher ed level is obvious.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
We could be doing better. The U.S. last placed 30th of 64 countries in math on the international PISA rankings, and a recent White House report from 2018 found that only 20% of our high school graduates are ready to succeed in STEM majors. Those numbers show that by the time a high school student is starting to make decisions about their career goals or dreams, many STEM doors may already be closed to them in higher education, or they’ll at least have to work very hard to catch up. In some ways, the issue is less about engagement and more about performance.
One of the biggest challenges is for the U.S. education system to diagnose where we’re failing students in math and science. That’s a huge task, and one that many people have been working on for a long time, but interest and engagement in STEM can only go so far when we’re not giving students the knowledge to pursue their interests.
But when focusing on engagement, I’d love to see better access to youth coding programs, better access to project-based STEM learning — like robotics clubs — that allow students to experience how fun STEM can be, and a wider variety of projects that showcase the diversity of STEM work — tech is embedded in every job now, and the image of tech work as an insular and unsocial practice is outdated and unhelpful.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
It’s important because it’s morally right to make STEM education and careers available to anyone who is interested, and it’s important because our work suffers when about half of the population is forced to face unreasonable and unfair barriers to participate in it.
When women aren’t involved in the design of algorithms, in the review of data sets, or in user experience design, there are huge misses in the eventual products and services, whether that’s inbuilt bias or not meeting people’s needs. No matter what level you look at it, we need to do more not just to bring girls and women into STEM but to ensure they can thrive in STEM.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Culturally, we are moving in the right direction, but it’s just not happening fast enough or decisively enough. Research indicates that even when women get into STEM fields, and particularly tech fields, they bounce out at much higher rates than men. Part of the reason for that is that women aren’t able to tap into the same networks that men do, so the low rates of women in tech is reinforced by a negative feedback loop in that way.
One of the ways we’re trying to break that cycle is by partnering with organizations like Women Who Code that specialize in helping women in tech to build career networks. Another obvious but meaningful solution is offering scholarships, which we do for all women who take our programs. And it works — for instance, while only about 25% of UI/UX designers are women, Springboard’s UI/UX Design courses consistently enroll 70% women, helping bridge the gender gap in that field.
A third piece of the solution is to do a better job of showcasing all the dimensions of what a tech career can look like. I recently read about a survey that found that women majoring in computer science at Stanford overwhelmingly picked Operating Systems as their favorite class, a notoriously difficult class but one that allows for greater creative expression. The current image of STEM careers as a rigid and purely analytical field, combined with how girls are socialized from an early age, steers away a lot of women who would be excellent computer scientists.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
I think that an emphasis on the arts is an integral factor in fostering well-rounded individuals and perspectives. So much of STEM work relies on creative problem solving, and while students who study STEM do develop creative thinking and reasoning skills, having an arts background gives you more layers to pull from. You can’t be a great data scientist if you don’t know anything about the subject you’re analyzing. We recently had a data analytics student who completed a capstone project in which she used Census data to map pollution in the US relative to the density of People of Color in a given area, and she found that People of Color are disproportionately affected by pollution. Her work is a great example of how tech and humanities overlap.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Personalized learning
Technology must exist in service of the incredibly diverse needs of higher ed students. Higher ed can no longer orient so heavily around the “traditional college student” — the classic stereotype of the student who just left high school, lives on campus, and doesn’t need to work a job or two to cover tuition and room and board. That persona just isn’t valid anymore. As AI and other tech continues to transform existing jobs, students who don’t fit that traditional mold will be more prominent. We’ve found great success in offering self-paced, remote learning, as well as different types of payment plans.
- Orientation toward lifelong learning
The barriers to entry in higher ed, like standardized test scores and a rigorous application process, are discouraging to many people who could benefit from a return or late start to school. Some universities are making progress in this arena, like our university partners who offer Springboard courses to the general public regardless of enrollment status or location.
- Clearer career alignment
Higher education isn’t just about job-specific skills. There are great social benefits and experiences that prepare students for a well-rounded life. But when traditional (university-based) higher education is this expensive, there has to be a promised return on investment. Higher ed needs to recommit to providing best-in-class, up-to-date skills training that offers demonstrably better value to job seekers than if they had spent four years working their way up through entry-level roles.
- Higher accountability for student outcomes
When a student fails a class, traditional higher education says “try again and pay again.” Even when a student succeeds with flying colors, a 4.0 GPA, and then struggles for over a year to find a job because their program didn’t properly prepare them for the needs of the job market, there’s no accountability for the higher ed institution to make that right.
At Springboard, we’re tying our success not to whether or not a student enrolls in and does well in our program, but whether or not they land a job in their desired industry. If they don’t do that in six months, and we give them all the support we can to succeed in those six months, they’re eligible for a refund on their tuition.
- Better STEM pipelines in grade school
Kids today learn so much about technology because they’re immersed in it, but we can do a better job of providing structured learning and actively bringing kids, and especially girls, into the tech world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mentor Dan Shapero, who is now the COO at LinkedIn, shared this great tip about receiving feedback. Whenever you receive feedback, remember that it’s between 1% and 99% true. I’ve never come across a piece of feedback that has no truth, or is 100% true. Our job as leaders is to be genuinely receptive and curious when we hear critical feedback so we can seek out the truth and act on it. This framing has transformed the openness with which I’m able to receive feedback, and it has made me a better leader.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Phil Jackson, who coached the Chicago Bulls throughout their incredible streak in the 90s. He pulled together an insanely talented yet challenging cast of characters, got them to work together as a team, and delivered incredible success. That’s inspiring and hard to do in both sport and business.
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