For one thing, he would get Chris Coleman to help him.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Chris Coleman is the president of Woz U, “education, reprogrammed” — and he’s no stranger to coding bootcamps, those immersive, intensive training programs that prepare students for a successful career in technology.
He was Chief Operations Officer and soon after, CEO of Coder Camps, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based skills-based program.
But last year, he partnered with Steve Wozniak (pictured above, back in the day) to launch Woz U and transitioned into his new role as President of Woz U.
“Based on the needs of our students, or the needs of the employers in the regions where the student comes from, we can custom tailor the tool set they learn to meet those goals.”
In this interview, Chris provides the backstory.
And—plenty of insight into what the thought process was behind it all, the importance of technology skills in this day and age, and what’s next for education, technology, workforce education and skills training.
This discussion is quite lengthy, but as Chris makes so much sense, it’s easy to follow, and if you want to get a really good feel for the entire tech-skills-workforce-training discussion happening in our world today – it’s well worth the read.
You have an interesting background. Let’s start with your work way back in the transportation sector. When was that? And what lessons carry forward into education from that? There could be a ton of word play here.
It’s the right vehicle for learning, a super education highway, you’re keeping a smooth flow of traffic, and heading in the right direction and all of that.
Anyway, maybe you can tell me a little bit about that.
Working back in the transportation days, we did a couple of pretty large statewide implementations of really large enterprise mobile systems.
Lessons learned for me that we try to apply here?
Well, one of our principles is that there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of developer.
We want to ensure that we’re offering our students the kind of flexibility to meet these different needs of the employer.
I’ve also worked for small start-ups with 15, 12 employees.
And the skillsets and the needs in those environments are very different.
Yet, a lot of the existing technology education offerings focus on this one-size-fits-all.
That’s why we’ve adapted a lot of formats to our curriculum and kind of a personalized approach to what we’re teaching to ensure that we’ve meeting the diverse needs of these employers.
Whether you’re building a small application that needs to be very visually appealing, versus a large-scale enterprise system that’s going to support 100s or 1000s or millions of users.
That was really my takeaway back then.
Just rolling that in, with some of the rest of my experiences.
The lesson I learned is different employers are looking for different things. It’s not always the same computer science graduate or the same boot camp graduate.
There’s an industry here that is evolving; recognize that there’s a spectrum of the classifications of the different technology talent that you’re looking for.
There’s a dichotomy between scalability and personalization. And you could balance those two?
People are recognizing that the type of program that we’re offering—we can adapt it to meet the needs of our employers.
One of our unique, differentiating aspects is:
Our curriculum is non-linear.
That’s one of the notions that I really wanted to challenge when I came in to join the organization.
I’ve been in a lot of leadership positions at a lot of different tech companies, and as we’re hiring engineers or as we’re hiring technology professionals, a lot of them bring their specific experiences in.
When I went to university, we learned object oriented programming and Java.
That was the emphasis.
I didn’t have a lot of options.
That was the core of my bachelor’s degree.
What we do is:
We offer the student a lot of different languages, a lot of different frameworks and architectures.
And we encourage the student to explore these different concepts to determine which one is the most interesting to them, or meets their goals the best.
And then, we teach the same foundational core education.
But we allow the students to select the types of technologies to learn.
A really good example of that is:
There are certain languages like Java or Microsoft .NET platform that are really suited to large-scale enterprise systems.
So you’ll see there in the background, I’ve managed a healthcare team that was responsible for 4 million lives.
So, based on the needs of our students, or the needs of the employers in the regions where the student comes from, we can custom tailor the tool set they learn to meet those goals.
A student that is in Atlanta may have a different profile of employers in his area that are looking for different technology.
They all need programmers, they all need the same common curriculum.
But the employers in Atlanta may be looking for a different set of tech than the employers in Seattle where Microsoft and Amazon are based, or the employers in Mountain View, California, where Google is based.
The different employers in the region are looking for a different set of tech.
So we have built a system that allows our students to be able to custom tailor the toolkit that they’re creating to meet the needs of the employers in their area—which we believe helps greatly in our outcome.
Why did Woz pick you? Or did you pick him? How’d that go?
He selected us.
We had gone through a couple of rounds of conversation with them, and I feel that the alignment there is him wanting to leave a legacy in education.
He’s got a strong background—donating a lot of his time, working as an instructor, working with the universities.
So he’s very passionate about education.
The alignment with us was based on what we were trying to accomplish based on this dynamic curriculum.
We’ve got a technology first approach to how we teach, so we’ve got an online learning platform that we’ve built from the ground up.
All of our content is developed in house. None of stuff is licensed or contracted. We built it all in-house from the ground up with our own staff.
We do this because we’re challenging a lot of the notions of traditional education.
We want to empower students to have flexibility in what they learn.
We want students to be able to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes because that’s life in technology.
One of the principles which Woz brought to us, which we can all relate is:
I like to build something and then throw it in the trash and build it again and then thrown it the trash and built again. And around the fifth or sixth time I do it, I feel like I’ve got something that’s really done right.
That’s really common in programming.
It’s really common in tech.
And so, that’s been a really strong emphasis for us in our curriculum, showing students multiple different types of solutions, different ways of approaching a problem, different technologies that can be used to solve the same problem.
So there’s a lot of alignment there in the conversation with him, and I think that’s what interested him in joining forces with us and creating Woz-U.
You say “us” and then alignment. So you were already a free-standing entity. Did you have another name and then you came together on calling it Woz-U? How did that work?
We were operating as Coder Camps prior to that time, and that was the organization that I joined.
So I joined Coder Camps in about their third year.
We underwent a leadership change, we joined an education group called Exeter Education.
Shortly after our first year with myself operating Coder Camp, that’s when Woz got involved.
We rebranded the whole thing as Woz-U.
I saw that you were involved with Coder Camps, and I wasn’t sure exactly how that went, but now I understand.
Then, calling it Woz-U, so there’s a lot of people who are inspired by the man himself.
I’m just curious, in this, I don’t even know how to even start with this, but there’s a different sort of cultural context that seems to be coming along here.
So maybe you can address this “bro culture”, or how you might be opening up to having a different mix ,or a diverse mix of folks—if you know where I’m heading with this—maybe you could just step in.
I’m familiar with the bro culture. I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at here, but I can address a little bit of how the audience that we target.
There is, there’s a lot of different organizations that are trying to help support better education in technology.
We all know you’re not going to find any disagreement that there’s a high demand, and that education needs to change.
So then, it comes down to what’s our approach and where do fit in that spectrum.
And we want to be a program that is accessible to people.
We believe strongly that anybody—that to learn these skills really is a dedication and a drive thing rather than really requiring a natural high IQ.
This is an environment where we’ve seen students continually who maybe didn’t always know that this was something that they wanted to pursue or maybe questioned, Am I capable of being a software engineer? These concepts, they sound scary. So it’s like for me, there are other topics that I’m unfamiliar with that sound scary to me.
For our students, part of our mission is trying to educate and inform them that this industry needs help.
We need additional talent.
And while we’re trying to improve our ability to bring a high quality education to them that is effective and available and affordable, the companies that are creating the tools and the languages that technology is using — are doing the same thing.
So all of these corporations—Microsoft, Google, Facebook—all these different panels that are creating these languages: they’re trying to make them easier to use.
And in doing that, they’re trying to reach a broader audience.
The industry is trying to become more accepting and create a lower bar of entry for talent.
We’re trying to make sure that we’re accepting and inviting to students that have the drive and desire to take part in a career in technology, as opposed to be an elitist or exclusive type of organization.
That’s not our emphasis.
Our emphasis is in wide adoption, a larger awareness of the demand in technology and the ability for people who maybe haven’t considered this as a career, that they can be successful in this type of program.
And what it takes is dedication and patience and drive.
You have direct experience with literacy programs.
While it’s a different segment, perhaps of much younger students, how is this also relevant to creating an effective learning experience for any age student?
What key elements are involved?
My experience working in the literacy sector, what we were doing was some early pioneering around machine learning and really adaptive instruction.
What we learned during that phase, we were addressing struggling readers—the 10% or 20% that are not becoming successful readers through the standard means.
What we learned then—which is no secret in education—is that individualized instruction is much more effective than homogenized, general instruction.
So we created systems that start to identify the modality that’s most effective for the individual student, and can we deliver instruction to them in that mode.
Some students learn better through frequent repetition, some through video instruction, some students learn better through a lot of text and a lot of examples.
There are different kinds of modes that work for different kinds of people.
Back then, we were really focused on providing an individualized experience for that student.
That’s a lot of our emphasis, that personalization of education.
The fact is these students have different goals, students have different desires, and they have different skill sets.
We’re constantly striving to make our experiences personalized and individual as possible because that will allow us to be as effective as we can in education.
To that end, one of our issues that we’re working on right now is, we released a mobile app and also a web-based client that is an adaptive assessment.
We encourage all students to take this assessment to identify an alignment to the right program.
I’ll give you an example.
We’re not looking for prior knowledge, we’re looking for aptitude.
So it’s more problem solving, critical thinking, deductive reasoning.
And what we’re looking for is a profile for our incoming students.
We match that profile to the outcomes of our outbound students, so we can say:
Based on this assessment, an incoming student profiled like our successful outcomes in data science.
So this student might be well aligned to take the data science program and vice versa, with the rest of our programs, as well.
That big emphasis for us comes from that experience working in literacy is how do we find students, align them to the right program based on their current skills and current aptitude.
Then, once they’re in the program, how do we ensure that their experience is unlike other students’ experience and their outcomes meet their specific goals and their specific skills.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, if somebody went to a four-year university, they got a degree and maybe they were an engineer of some kind, an electrical engineer or in computer science.
How does Coder Camps, now Woz-U — fit in?
It’s really shifting the paradigm, isn’t it?
You could be a high school dropout, but still go to Woz-U or take courses with Woz-U, and you wouldn’t have to worry about having a four-year degree.
It would be kind of a liberating experience for that person that came along on that sort of a track.
Does that lead to the crumbling of—and I know you probably don’t want to pit yourself against four year universities or higher education—but that notion is crumbling down when you have something that’s a little more up-to-date and fast-track like Woz-U that’s moving forward in a very practical, vocational sense that’s going to get individuals paid $70,000 plus a year versus the opposite.
What we believe is key here, is incremental education.
Consider that, when I did my computer science degree, like I mentioned, we were taught Java.
I had a very successful 17-year career in tech.
I’ve never coded in Java in the workforce.
Nor would I have been able to, or desire to go back to my university to reskill at that kind of granular level.
The only reason I would go back to university is for my master’s degree.
But that doesn’t solve the problem of the employer that I’m speaking with is looking for a different set of technologies.
What I need is like a two-week course or a four-week course to get me caught up to speed on what I need now to get to the next stage of my career.
So that’s really our approach, is believing in—we take the extracurricular aspects out of it.
We are laser focused on teaching the essential skills that you need for the job that you’re coming to get the skills for.
“We are laser focused on teaching the essential skills that you need for the job that you’re coming to get the skills for.”
Beyond graduation, we want you—when you’re ready for the next stage in your career—to be able to come back to us for the next incremental stage in your education.
If you have friends who are ten years, 15 years out of college, or two years out of college, and they say I’m going back to school, it’s almost absolutely because they are dissatisfied in their job, and they’re trying to switch careers.
You rarely hear that somebody is going back to school to gain the next incremental set of skills to progress in their current career.
And we think that’s broken.
So our approach is, in the spectrum from—a lot of people in technology, they start as a very general education.
They know a little bit about a lot of topics, and in the course of their career, they start to specialize.
So you start to identify that I enjoy working in data, so I’m going to specialize in data science or big data or some of those concepts.
That’s one path for me.
Well, we want to be able to educate them along that path, so as they are progressing toward more advanced and more focused topics, and as they are progressing towards a more specialized role throughout 10, 15, 20, 30 years in their career, they have a healthy relation with their educator that they can come back for the next stage and the next stage.
And it’s not a huge, lifetime commitment like going back for a master’s degree or a Ph.D. would be.
That’s why most of us don’t end up doing it is because that’s a huge commitment.
And I don’t necessarily need all of that education.
I just need the next piece that’s relevant to me, and my goals, this year.
So we like breaking it down into a more agile approach through incremental education.
A student who comes in and takes our software developer program, our first commitment to them is—we’ve got a program that we called Woz for Life.
That means that as our curriculum team is constantly evaluating and updating our curriculum and expanding to support additional languages and additional technologies, our graduates of our software development program get access to all of that coursework free of charge.
That’s part of our commitment, is to continue to allow them to explore and learn new concepts within the role that they’ve enrolled in.
We believe that’s a better approach.
As you want to move into more advanced concepts we have other programs that’ll help suit them as well, and we’re constantly developing those as well. In our first year, we launched four programs, and we’re continuing to grow that as well.
We see it as this lifelong incremental approach.
What’s the next desire for you in your career, what’s the next stage?
You can come back to us for that next incremental piece.
And we try our best to make it affordable for the student and accessible and available to them in part-time options that can be taken online or in a physical campus.
So, wherever our students are at—what that next goal is for them—we’ve got a solution for them.
Is that really how you define agility? It’s used quite a bit these days; it’s a pretty specific word, so what would your definition of agility be, and what does that mean in the context of how Woz-U works?
I like that because agility to me, coming from a background in software engineering and leadership, is about being flexible and being able to adapt to unknown, changing requirements.
“Agility to me, coming from a background in software engineering and leadership, is about being flexible and being able to adapt to unknown, changing requirements.”
And that is more true now in technology than it’s ever been.
So agility for us is building a curriculum framework and a learning platform that allows us to recognize that the technology and the skills that are in demand today will not be the same two years from now or maybe even six months from now.
We’ve built our system in a very modular fashion that allows us to modify the curriculum as the demand from employers changes.
If a certain unit of our coursework is no longer in demand, we can adapt very quickly toward the new demand, and it allows us to keep our content current.
Agility for us is getting feedback from employers, students, and our instructional faculty, and constantly adapting towards better and better outcomes and reducing our exposure to the risk of changes in demand.
We welcome that change instead of fearing it.
That’s a big piece of how we approach agility.
We know things are going to change.
We want to be ready for it.
We’ve designed our system in a way that those changes are not crippling to us as an educational institution, that we can quickly adapt.
And current students and graduates have access and the ability to adapt along with the industry and along with us.
And they don’t incur any additional charges for it.
Could a really smart, responsible, high school student pick up on this?
Yes, actually we’ve got a few hundred high school students that are taking our program currently.
High school level Algebra is the prerequisite for it.
Once students can grasp the notion of abstraction and how variables work, then they can be well suited for this program.
We see this all the time.
These high schools are covering AP programming courses and all of it.
So, absolutely, students who have that level of experience are more than welcome to join this program.
About the state of education these days:
You see these high schoolers coming through.
What are your thoughts on the state of education from your vantage point as a somebody that’s, I don’t know what you’d call Woz-U, more of a coder camp, vocational, very practical, job related, workforce training?
You probably have a keen eye and a very good interest in what the state of education is.
I think education is shifting towards more of a narrow view on career preparation, and that’s where we come in.
“I think education is shifting towards more of a narrow view on career preparation, and that’s where we come in.”
There are a lot of great educators out there doing the best that they can to serve these students.
And ultimately we’ve got to—as a country—adapt towards where is the demand, where are the available jobs today.
And how do we ensure that not only are students prepared with a fundamental understanding, but also the awareness of it.
Last year there were about 530,000 open computing jobs, and our universities, nationwide, are producing are 60,000 computer science graduates.
That’s a pretty big gap.
And I’m not sure that our primary school and high school students are aware of that gap and the demand that exists there.
What we’re passionate about it, developing both that awareness and then also the scaffolding that goes back down into early elementary with some of these STEAM initiatives to get them an awareness of technology—and our shift as a country towards having so much opportunity in this field.
We like a focused, career-centric approach to education.
We like ensuring that our elementary students are aware of this opportunity and demand that’s out there.
Those are our thoughts on education.
Let’s get things more aligned towards the jobs that are available ensuring students both prepared and aware of the opportunities that are out there.
All right, well, Chris, I know you deal with educating about technology, but what do you believe is technology’s role in education?
That’s a really great question, and I think that we’re really just scratching the surface right now.
You take a lot of the modern trending topics in education:
How do we start to extract the trend and behaviors out of the data?
How do we create a customized experience for this specific user’s needs?
So technology’s role in education to me is twofold.
One, it’s about creating things as personalized as possible.
And two, it’s about creating things more affordable.
If we want to offer a very individualized experience for a student and we want to do that with great faculty, without technology, it’s incredibly cost prohibitive to get one-on-one instruction from a qualified educator.
Technology allows us to try and capture that level of dynamic instruction and adaptive instruction and deliver that to students, but we don’t want to get away from the human aspect of it.
We certainly are not interested in a wholesale technology can take over education type approach.
It’s more about a blended approach between highly qualified educators that are giving the students that personalized feel and that human touch and empowering those educators with better systems, better insights.
We like the notion of flipping the classroom and giving the students the instruction they need systematically.
And then, as they are applying those lessons and concepts, they’re doing that with an instructor or mentor that’s working with them.
The big challenge in education, we’ve got great educators, but everybody’s always trying to do more, and the funding is always a challenge.
We see technology as a way to keep the cost of educating in an individualized fashion, to keep the cost down there.
I’m coming from kind of an English major background, you’re coming from an engineering type of background. There’s a little bit of a split there.
The interesting thing is that, I’m going and putting my hands into technology, and you’re putting your hands in the other way, where there’s a call for leadership, well-roundedness, self-awareness, all these other sorts of skills.
You see there’s sort of two buckets there, if you will.
Now, nerds are good. Well-rounded nerds are better.
You certainly teach software skills.
But do you teach soft skills, like change management, leadership—or does that come along with the territory the way it’s set up?
And you don’t necessarily require a specific non-tech course just for that?
We absolutely do.
And we think that’s essential.
Surprisingly enough, I actually started as a creative writing major.
That’s kind of a tangent there.
But in our program, we believe that’s essential, and we think that technology, it made that shift.
The value on being able to clearly articulate and communicate your intent, to be able to speak with stakeholders, that’s already there.
That’s not a shift that we’re undergoing.
That’s in place currently.
So part of our program is teaching a lot of those concepts.
We work in a group setting, and our students, as they’re building out their capstone projects, they work as a group, they have curriculum around even software project management and agile project management.
We’ve got dedicated units on career skills, how to interview, how to conduct yourself, how to handle a situation when you don’t necessarily know the answer.
We believe really strongly in that well-rounded approach, both on the technology front as well as how to—what do you expect in these type of settings.
What does working on a software team look like and feel like?
What’s my role, and how do I ensure that I can articulate the skills that I have, that I can feel comfortable asking for help when I need to?
We absolutely encourage that.
And we see a lot of strong leadership develop out of that.
Some people take to it: they want to help lead the team, they want to fill—or they get more enjoyment—filling the project manager role.
Of course, all of our students—part of the graduation ceremony, they present the product they created.
That’s rite of passage for our students.
They have to stand up in front of an audience of maybe 100 people, their faculty, their peers, businesses from the local community.
We stream everything online, so they get a pretty large audience.
And they have to stand up there and answer the questions people are asking.
They have to explain the project they created.
Why did they create it this way? What was the team dynamic? How did you work together? What kind of challenges did you face? How did you overcome them?
That’s something we think is unique about our program in comparison to traditional education.
If you can get on stage in front of 100 people physically and another thousand online, and you can clearly explain your skills, your process, and how you handle conflict, then you’re going to be pretty well-rounded once you get into that team setting.
You’re going to be comfortable in an interview setting to make sure that you’re able to express the skills you have, so that employers can get a good glimpse at you.
So yeah, we’ve got a strong emphasis on ensuring that their communication skills are tight, and that they get some exposure to leading the team.
Okay, great. It’s very impressive, your bent on leadership—very nice.
Let’s shift to talk about cybersecurity.
We live in interesting times to say the least.
You have some emphasis on cybersecurity.
Maybe just some final words about that, and we can wrap this up.
I really appreciate your time today, and we can take it from here.
Sure. So you know cybersecurity was the third program we launched, started with our full-stack web development program, we then moved into data science, our third being cybersecurity.
We’ve got mobile application developer preparing to launch now.
So the cybersecurity specifically, there’s a huge demand for it right now.
Really, we try to take a holistic approach on it.
So our program, it’s a little bit more advanced, it does require some prior knowledge—but it’s focused on teaching the core skills that are needed in the security field as an analyst or somebody who can understand the different level of threats and where they come from, whether it’s through your network configuration, through your hardware or software that your organization or a certain population of people are using.
So understanding the common threats.
Understanding how to protect against them.
Knowing and having the tools to identify when a breach or something malicious has happened, how to act and respond in those events.
Those are all concepts that we teach in our cybersecurity program.
So there’s been a tremendous amount of demand for it, and we’re trying to support that.
It takes a different sort of structure.
Our software development course is all about building something.
So the emphasis is on giving them the skills and the understanding they need to be able to develop a fully functional application or product.
And that’s really the key to getting hired as a software space:
Being able to show a body of work, of what you’ve accomplished.
In security, it’s a little bit different.
We’re not necessarily building something, and so the approach we take is working through challenges.
So, a student may be given a virtual environment where a certain operating system or network has had some type of compromise happen.
And the student’s required to use their forensics skills to get in, look at the audit, look at the data, start to understand what may have happened on this system to get to this compromised state, and then from there how do I remedy it, how do I report to management on what happened and what kind of ramifications it has.
So it’s really an interesting type of program because it encourages them to do a lot of forensic work.
And identify what may have happened within the system.
Then they get the gist.
We’re really excited about that.
And again, it’s the evolution of our platform.
We had to evolve to support an experience that’s effective for them.
“We had to evolve to support an experience that’s effective for them.”
So things like:
Networking diagrams, how do we build out a network in this type of situation that is going to be secure? And our system helps to identify any insecure aspect of it.
We give them a unique experience working through our platform to learn those skills.
Excellent, well Chris, that’s it for now, but I’d love to stay in touch with you and we can follow up in a little while to see all the progress and what’s happening down the road, and if you’re getting to where you want to be.
Absolutely. Well, I really appreciate this time, Victor.
It was great talking to you.
And best of luck until we talk again.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: email@example.com