Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet in Conversation with Gabriel Dalporto

In this EdTechX Stories episode, Gabriel Dalporto, CEO at Udacity joins Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet for an enlightening conversation about the events that led Gabriel to take on his role at Udacity, his views on the digital learning experience and what needs to change in online education. Learn about the work Udacity is doing in the digital reskilling and upskilling space, and discover what it is that makes Gabriel rock (something to do with the Midlife Crisis)!

Watch their conversation below and stay tuned for future EdTechX Stories to be released very soon! 


Note: EdTechX Stories are produced as video podcasts and are designed to be watched and heard. The following is a transcription of the audio recording generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers which, in some cases, may be incomplete or inaccurate. Please check the corresponding video audio before quoting in print.

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Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet in Conversation with Gabriel Dalporto

Gabriel Dalporto Hi. My name is Gabriel Dalporto. I was born in the mountains of West Virginia here in the United States. I currently live in California. I'm the CEO of Udacity, and I'm here to talk about the skills gap that has been created by a generational shift towards digital jobs, about the simple things that businesses and governments can do to rapidly rescue their workforces, and ultimately, how we as a society can close those skills gaps.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Gabriel, welcome to EdTechX Stories. You are the CEO of Udacity, but before we talk about your business, let me start with a personal question. How did you end up in that position? Is there a defining moment, someone in your life or education that inspired you to lead an education technology business because you were at Lending Tree before? So how do you go from Lending Tree to Knowledge Tree, I guess?

Gabriel Dalporto Well, I mean, I would kind of go back to my childhood and growing up in West Virginia. So, at the time when I was growing up, there was a pretty vibrant natural resources economy, things like coal and steel and things like that. People could earn good wages working in those industries. As those industries automated and developed, people's jobs got eliminated. And West Virginia really didn't invest in reskilling their workforce. So, as I grew older and I moved on in my life, I moved to New York and other places. West Virginia kind of got caught up in a little bit of a time warp. And when I go back today, the people I was growing up with are still there. People who got 4.0 grades and were smarter than I am are working in service industry jobs, making $20,000 a year. And I just kept thinking, like, what is going on here? There's so many smart people, so many talented people, but they're not progressing. Like, they're barely living on subsistence wages. And I just came to the conclusion that the world has changed, skills have changed, and you have to forget the skills and the jobs of the past.

You have to invest in the skills and the jobs of the future. And if you really want to reboot an economy like West Virginia, you need to reboot their skills. And the university system really isn't set up to do that. So, I really set down this path of making it my personal mission to figure out how you crack a state like West Virginia. And about this time, I met Sebastian Thrun, who's the founder of Udacity, and at the time, they were looking for a CEO, and he said, look, this isn't a West Virginia problem. This is a global problem. This is happening all over the world, and why don't you join us and do this on a global scale? And from that first conversation on, I was completely hooked, and I knew this was the right place for me.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Okay. And here comes Udacity. So, if I describe it well, is it an upskilling platform that turns talent into greatness with a focus on digital skills? That's what I read.

Gabriel Dalporto I think I need to hire you for our marketing team. Yeah, I think of Udacity as the fastest, most effective way to get people job ready in digital skills. And when you think about the landscape, right, and the fact that hundreds of millions of new jobs are being created, but there's just not enough people on the planet to fill those jobs, the university system isn't set up to deal with that scale. Like, if you tried to put hundreds of millions of people, extra people, through the university system, you would break the system, and you'd probably bankrupt the world because it's too expensive. There's a whole category of online learning providers, like online catalog providers called MOOCs, and they're great because they're very broad in content and very inexpensive, but they're only about an inch deep. And so they're not really set up to transform your workforce. They're set up to provide really light learning on a broad range of topics. And so, we set about making Udacity that one company who could, at scale, at cost, deliver incredibly high graduation rates, incredibly high productivity, where people take a program and they sit down the next day and they're coding, they're building machine learning models, they're teaching cars how to drive. And really, that's how we've structured this company.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet And so how do you do this? How do you make this platform better than others? And what are the differentiators? How do you make the digital experience better than the physical one or even your competition online?

Gabriel Dalporto So there's really two key pieces to this. One is how do you create the content and the learning environment and make it better than anything else? And then the other is, how do you actually make sure... That's necessary but not sufficient to use a mathematical term, right? So, how do you actually input all the infrastructure and scaffolding and services around that to drive really high success rates? And those are two different things. So, in terms of the actual content and learning environment, the simplest way to think about this is you don't learn karate by watching Bruce Lee movies. You learn karate by doing karate. And you don't learn machine learning by watching a professor talk about machine learning and algorithms for an hour. You learn machine learning by doing machine learning. And so, we start with that premise that to teach someone how to get job ready, they actually have to do the job. And so we start with an employable job resume. We work backwards. We said you should have done each of these four bullet points on your resume. We create projects where you're actually literally teaching a car how to drive. So, in your capstone project, in our self-driving car engineer course, you have to upload your code into Udacity self-driving car.

And using your code, if drivers are on course, stops on red, goes on green, doesn't hit stop. It's that level of, like, getting your hands dirty. Piece one. Piece two is we went out and partnered with industry people who are creating the technologies on the bleeding edge, and that's where we're creating the actual content and the lectures and the theory, as opposed to maybe a university professor whose lecture hasn't changed in a decade. Right? So the second thing is just really industry focused, state of the art curriculum. And the third is we build a network of thousands of experts around the world who are certified and available, 24/7 on demand to answer your questions as you're going through these courses. So, human interventions only at that exact moment when you need them, asynchronous learning for scale and project based learning for efficacy. So that's the core learning program. We can talk about the things you have to wrap around it to actually drive success through the program, but the actual program itself works better than anything else in the world.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet And you talk about the experiential part of learning, which is critical in my view. And I have this view of the world that when digital is going mainstream, experiential is becoming premium, right? Look at retail, live music, sports, gaming, video, all those things have to reinvent their digital experience as something that is much more tailored and experiential. And we start to see in education concepts like Eduverse and introduction of augmented reality and virtual reality. Is that a thing? Is that a gimmick from your standpoint? Does that play a role at Udacity? Do you see that as the future or not really.

Gabriel Dalporto It depends entirely on what you're trying to train. And so if you're trying to teach a mechanic how to fix a specific pump that's maybe new to them, like some augmented reality device can help provide instructions overlayed into the real world. And that becomes very useful. If you're an NFL quarterback and you want to learn how to read defenses faster. Like, you can simulate that in 3D, and that can be super effective. If you're coding, it's hard to imagine a world where that's really going to be that helpful. If you're building, like, a cloud data storage area, I'm not sure exactly how that's going to be helpful. So, I think you just have to think about your context and be kind of pragmatic about it. And from our perspective, I think there's just a lot more effective ways to do the things we do, which is training people in digital skills, than AR/VR. But I think there's other situations where it can be super helpful.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Udacity is a pretty global operation. You have operations in the UK and Europe, in the US. From your standpoint, are there workforces or nations that are better suited to be reskilled or upskilled? Are there better government support, better ecosystems, better corporate support? What's your view on this?

Gabriel Dalporto Yeah, I'd say the older your country and the more kind of established in a Western country, the more it can't get out of his own way. And so, in the United States, as an example, I worked really hard for a couple of years trying to lobby Congress and state governments to rethink about how they take their dollars and invest in training and skilling. And there is just very little political will to do anything different, even though the existing systems are utterly failing. Right? And so, like, the US is kind of just collapsing on its own bureaucracy. You take a country like Egypt, for example, where you have an incredibly successful program. Here's a country that just realizes they need to build additional economy, they have a university system that's failing and is not doing that, and they need a solution, and they partner with us. And we are training tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people every year and mapping that to, like, them graduating from programs, getting jobs and earning more money, and providing 10x ROI to the Egyptian government. Right. So there's an example of a country that totally gets it and moves faster.

And Europe is probably somewhere in the middle, but super protectionist, right? I mean, typically wants to work with companies inside their specific borders. So, I'd say there's a lot of countries around the world, but the kind of older and more established, the harder is to work with them. And we're doing some really incredible things across the rest of the world, moving super fast and literally transforming their societies and measuring our impact on their GDP growth directly. That is amazing. And so, I think it's just country by country.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Is there one thing about online education that you wish was discussed more or better understood?

Gabriel Dalporto I think that almost everybody is going about it the wrong way.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Okay, well. Tell me, then.

Gabriel Dalporto By that I mean, like the actual purchasers of the technology. Right? So we work with large global 2000 enterprises to transform their workforces from the workforce they have into the workforce they need. We work with nations to transform their workforces into the workforce they need to achieve their goals. Most nations and most enterprises think that signing up an online video catalog is their objective and then job done. And, typically when you do that, you get something like 4-5% utilization rate, so almost no one uses it. Yet, of the 4 to 5%, 4 to 5% graduate, so some fraction of a percent actually graduate, and almost no ability to tie that to ROI. And the way people should be doing this is starting with a... Like, here's a mission critical goal that I'm trying to achieve. Like, I have a billion dollar Microsoft Azure migration and I'm failing because I don't have the talent, and I need to train that talent. So, start there. Right? Like, that's real. It's tangible. That's something I can measure. That's going to have a massive ROI on my business. And then what's the specific program/ not generic program that's customized to me, that's going to deliver on that, so we can customize our programs to our clients' needs.

And then what's the actual learning around that, which we've already talked about? And then what's the scaffolding around that to drive success? We found that when you drive people together, you assess people beforehand, make sure they're going to be successful. You drive them through in cohorts. You provide community based support and other kind of incentives. You align management. Like, all these things are really important and they're not that hard, but you just have to do them. And when you do them, you get 80%, 90% success rates, graduation rates. People move into their jobs and they have an average 503% 1st year directly measured ROI, right? If you just sign up a video catalog, you're going to be frustrated. Your employees are going to be frustrated, and nothing's going to work. So, I just think that everybody needs to take a step back and really think hard about what's the right way to do this. And most people aren't doing it the right way.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet It's interesting. Tech CEOs or CTOs sometimes talk about tech debt, right? In a company. Is there such a thing as a learning debt in corporations? I mean, do you think that's something that's tangible, that you can measure?

Gabriel Dalporto It's massive and we see it every day. I just literally yesterday, I spoke with a CIO of a massive pharmaceutical company that I'm not allowed to name. And he said to me, like, if you're not learning in IT, you have no role in IT. Right? And most organizations haven't had that culture. And so when we go out and talk to these large companies, they've got thousands of employees sitting there with just obsolete dying skill sets and they don't know what to do with them. And the reality is they're smart people. They want to learn, they want to do stuff. You just got to give them the path and you got to match it to like, projects and jobs and then put the programs in place. So there's an enormous tech debt, and one of two things is going to happen. One, those thousands of people in every company are going to get laid off and they're going to have a really hard time. Or you can actually take the asset you have, which is people who know your culture, know your company, like, really want to do some great things and get them skilled up on future forward technologies and watch your company kind of accelerate and explode.

So, I couldn't agree more with your statement.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Okay, well, good, we agree. I'm guessing you're a lifelong learner?

Gabriel Dalporto I am.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet What are you learning right now?

Gabriel Dalporto I'm learning how to be a better guitarist. And I ...

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet I saw you're on the board of a guitar board. Right? Tell me about this.

Gabriel Dalporto So I'm on the board of Guitar Center, which is one of my passions. Education is my passion and then music is my passion. And I'm very fortunate to be able to participate in both on a professional level as well. But no, like, at the age of 40, I guess, on a dare, decided to start a band. And it's been one of the most amazing things I've ever done. And I really like challenging myself. I play guitar and learning, like, leads on particularly technical or challenging leads and things like that. Practicing with my band and then we go out and actually do live performances. I think a week and a half ago we did a fundraiser for a local school system, so it's a lot of fun.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet What's the band called?

Gabriel Dalporto It's called The Midlife Crisis. [laughing] I'm very literal!

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Very good. What style of music do you play?

Gabriel Dalporto It's mostly, I mean, it's my generation, so it's 90s alternative rock.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Okay. Proper Midlife crisis. Very good. Gabriel, we're going to get to what I call the rapid fire question section of the interview. So I'm just going to ask you a couple of questions, you have to answer by A or B. Are you ready?

Gabriel Dalporto Yes.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Degree or skills?

Gabriel Dalporto Skills.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Tech or creativity?

Gabriel Dalporto Tech.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Remote work or every day in the office?

Gabriel Dalporto Remote.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet State school or private school?

Gabriel Dalporto State.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Profit or impact?

Gabriel Dalporto Both.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Not allowed, but anyway...

Learners or shareholders?

Gabriel Dalporto Learners.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Teacher or technology?

Gabriel Dalporto [hesitation] Technology.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Very good. Finally, two more questions. You've been a brilliant guest. If you had to nominate someone who you think is changing education or workforce development, who would you nominate and why? Do you have anyone you would like to be on this show soon?

Gabriel Dalporto I do. And Luis Von Ahn. He's the CEO of Duolingo. I met him earlier this year and it was just a mind blowing experience. What he has done for language learning is just completely stunning. When I think about when I learned Spanish in high school, it was an awful experience. It was an exercise in misery, it was an exercise in memorization, boring, tedious conjugations. And after years of studying, I still couldn't have a simple conversation with a native speaker. And if you think about what he's providing today is a completely addictive experience. People have streaks of 800 straight days in a row in language learning, of all things. They will literally log into Duolingo from their hospital beds when they have serious illnesses just to get their daily fix. He has completely turned learning, and particularly language learning, upside down. And I just really admire what he's done there.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Okay, well, Luis, here we come. Gabriel, thank you very much. Thank you very much for being on the show. We learned a lot. I might have one more question for you. If you had one prediction that you would like to make for the edtech industry.

Gabriel Dalporto My prediction for EdtechX is we are moving to a skills based hiring model and a skills based economy, and we are moving away from a degree and university based economy. And I think this is an incredibly positive opportunity, not just for everyone, but in particular for people that come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I think it's a great equalizer when you are forced to have hundreds of thousands of dollars and years to go through a university system. It's just exclusionary by design. And as we move into a skills based economy, I think that is going to change pretty radically.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet Okay, Gabriel, thank you very much. This was Gabriel Dalporto for EdTechX stories. Thank you.

Gabriel Dalporto Thank you.