Learning Experience

Tech Titans and Learning Communities

Tech Titans and Learning Communities

Jack Ma, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs. Three of the most successful businesspeople of the 21st century, each a billionaire many times over. Is there anything about their education or early careers they have in common? Not surprisingly, each was strong-willed, scrappy, and driven. But take a closer look, particularly the way they gained foundational knowledge early in their careers, and you’ll notice a common thread:  each benefitted from a simple, but powerful form of education, a learning community.

What’s a learning community? Here is my definition:  a group of people with varying levels of expertise who share a common interest, committed to supporting each other. Members of learning communities discuss topics freely, ask questions based on their interests, and help each other get ahead. Following are examples of how learning communities helped to foster the careers of these three tech titans.

Jack Ma’s Hotel University

Internet giant Alibaba is arguably the most influential Chinese firm today, and Alibaba founder, Jack Ma, arguably the most influential Chinese business leader. Born to poor parents, Ma nevertheless started dreaming big even as a young man. He instinctively knew learning English would be key to his success. So, when Ma was a teenager, he spent nine years working as a tour guide at his uncle’s hotel in Hangzhou. As Ma engaged hotel guests in conversation, particularly those from the U.S. and the West, he listened attentively and internalized what he heard.

According to Ma, his experience at the hotel shaped his future in fundamental ways. He learned fluent English and built confidence interacting with others. Most importantly, Ma’s time at the hotel opened his mind to learning from any source at any time and inspired him to tackle ambitious goals in business. He internalized lessons that would guide him throughout his career. Ma credits the conversations he had with guests as a critical factor in his later success and informal professional development.

Steve Jobs’ Designer Community at Reed

In a 2005 commencement address at Stanford, Steve Jobs recalled his decision to drop out of Reed College after just one semester. He explained how guilty he felt taking his parent’s money for tuition (his foster parents were not wealthy) when he was unsure what he wanted to do professionally.

He dropped out, but didn’t leave campus. He audited classes, attending only those courses in which he had a personal interest. One of these courses, a calligraphy course taught by renowned font designer Lloyd Reynolds, would prove particularly impactful. In Job’s words:

“Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

- Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Address, 2005

His passion for design and fonts, sparked in this course, would later guide his software design for the MacIntosh computer, a product that put Apple on the map. But it wasn’t just the content of the course that influenced Jobs. At Reed, he found a group of kindred spirits who shared his interests in topics like design, philosophy, and world religion. It was the community at Reed that helped Jobs formulate his vision and foster his interests.

Bill Gates' Nerd Crew

Most people have heard the story of how Bill Gates started Microsoft from his dorm room at Harvard. What many people don’t realize is how Gate’s engagement with an informal learning community at Harvard shaped his future.

As a teenager, Gates befriended Paul Allen, a classmate at Lakeview high school. Paul was one of four Lakeview students, including Gates, who was barred from CDC (Control Data Corporation) for a year for hacking code. During college, Gates remained in contact with Allen, and even worked with him at Honeywell during his summer break at Harvard in 1974. The following year, with the release of the MITS Altair 8800, Gates and Allen saw the opportunity to start their own computer software company.  

During the time he was starting Microsoft, Gates admits his focus was not on his required courses, but on starting his company. He dropped out, and began building Microsoft full-time. On the other hand, like Jobs, he did gain a lot from a community of learners. As he describes it, a group of “math nerds” would meet at his dorm room every week, talk about various topics, including how principles they were learning could be applied in the real world. He claims this community played an important role in his development as a technology entrepreneur.

Where’s Your Learning Community?

Learning Communities can significantly improve learning and skill mastery. This is especially true for people with minimal access to quality education and networks. People learn faster and retain information longer when they focus on what truly interests them and when they have an opportunity to prove their know-how by sharing it with others. Learning communities also provide networking hubs where people can build relationships and discover opportunities.

There are many ways to find your learning community.  You can enroll in a formal training program - an online or offline course, degree program, or corporate training program. Or, you can join or start an informal learning community. Offline communities include meetups and clubs like Meetup.com or Startupgrind. Informal, online learning communities can be found at sites like Redditt, Tumblr, or Stackexchange, media platforms like Youtube and Medium, or Q&A platforms like Quora and Ask.

Another option is now Brightmind, a new type of knowledge sharing platform that delivers both learning and community in unique ways. While a person can access learning pathways on their own and learn passively, they can also plug into communities related to their interests to get answers and share their knowledge.

No matter your interests, with all the options available to a hungry learner, there is more opportunity than ever to find the skills, answers, and relationships you need to build and share your expertise. Ready to join the professional skills revolution?

Join Brightmind today--and let us know what you think!

Being Scrappy Is Overrated

It’s generally viewed as a good thing to be scrappy: fighting against the odds, finding new angles, and mobilizing people and other resources to produce a desired outcome. But, is being scrappy always advisable?

In my experience, when scrappiness is relied upon more than real talent, when it is prioritized above human relationships, or when it causes people to be overly optimistic and unrealistic, it can run the risk of undermining the inherent value it brings.

I’ve built my career pursuing interests in education technology, gaming, and development technology. A couple of times I’ve held roles in early phase startups. In every new role, I had to get scrappy to be effective. This was often a painful and tedious process and I learned first-hand about the benefits and pitfalls of being scrappy.

Gotta Get the Skills First, i.e. the First of Many Learning Experiences

It was 1998. I was a recent college grad with a ton of ambition, so the most logical decision I could have made would be to pursue an opportunity in a venture capital firm. My background didn’t exactly set me up for success:  I had majored in International Relations and German in college, and lacked the foundation in economic math or business administration that many of my colleagues brought. How I finessed my way into a job that was far beyond my skill set I chalk up to the hubris of youth.  

Acquiring the knowledge and skills I needed took a lot more time and effort than I had anticipated—ONE YEAR of diligent attention to trial and error before I reached any meaningful skill development, before I confidently assessed my own deals. I learned the hard way that scrappiness is no substitute for professional skills (or at the bare minimum, the traditional education that would have set me up for success)..

Relationships Matter:  Don’t Forget About People

Flash forward to 2005:  as a founding member of the e-learning startup, The Academy, I decided to build a games production subsidiary. As CEO, I was responsible for budget, hiring, partnerships, securing initial customers…. basically, the viability of the company.

Even though I had held executive roles in the past, I had never been a CEO. It was exhilarating and daunting at the same time. One of the key tasks was securing production and marketing partners that had a real interest in helping our business grow. 

In my first few partnership deals, I moved too quickly to get the deal done. In my haste to ink a deal, the unintended sense of urgency created an underlying distrust and distance between me and the partner executives. Realizing that I’d have to bridge the communication chasm to regain our initial momentum, I made a concerted effort to get to know the individuals at these companies on a personal level--not just as business managers. The result? Our new-found common ground made all the difference in building a strong foundation of trust upon which we could pursue our common interests.

The Power of a Heartfelt “No”

Scrappy people are often “can do” people; they aren’t easily dissuaded by an opportunity or challenge. But this can get them into trouble. As the co-founder of the ed- tech firm, Brightmind, I’ve been in several pitch meetings where an investor or potential partner suggests an idea for a business model or feature. It is tempting, as an entrepreneur, to say “of course we can do that!”

I’ve had to learn to wait a couple beats and, grounded in my firm’s business model and vision, speak a firm but well-reasoned “no.” Without this discipline, I may impress a stakeholder in the moment, but simultaneously compromise my firm’s long-term potential and, ultimately, my own enjoyment of my project.

Better Find Your Balance

There is certainly value in being scrappy, but it can’t be the only thing you bring to the table. I learned the hard way the importance of gaining a solid professional skills base to anchor my ambition. I also learned that relationships matter just as much as product or strategy. Finally, my experiences taught me the danger of too readily accepting challenges that run the risk of compromising my own vision.

The motivation behind the career skills platform Brightmind stems from my interest in helping scrappy people like me progress faster and avoid sabotaging themselves. At its core, Brightmind is a vibrant and supportive community of learners and experts who provide answers to urgent questions and contribute real world best practices. Supporting your study of every subject are targeted learning paths. The result is a platform that provides learners with access to customized career skills training and professional relationships.

If you’re the type of person that has more ambition than opportunity, Brightmind can help. As I look back on my career trajectory, if Brightmind had been available to me, I’m confident I could have avoided some embarrassing moments and hard lessons when my ambition outpaced by ability, when my scrappiness nearly derailed my vision.