CEO of online school Treehouse
Jul 28, 2019, 15 min read
Interview by Julia Wagner
A while ago, we realized that in order to move the needle on diversity and inclusion, we have to get men on the table. Today we are honored to say: Here HE is: Ryan Carson.
Ryan is the Co-Founder of Treehouse, which he founded together with his wife to bridge the tech talent gap with diverse talent and open the door to successful careers for thousands. In 2016 he signed the Diversity Pledge and in the process realized that his company was ‘majority white male’. Today he helps other companies gain a strategic advantage through building diverse tech talent from the ground.
Read about the privileges of a white, able-bodied, tall, male born in times of peace, how to acquire a mentor through a streamlined sales process, why you should embrace sales from day one and why hard skills are way overrated in the workplace.
Hi Ryan, welcome!
Hello. I'm honored to be on the show. I'm really nervous because I'm the first man. I feel the pressure of representing.
No pressure, only excitement, and curiosity! Let’s start with a summary of what Treehouse is.
At Treehouse our mission is to diversify tech through accessible education and apprenticeship. We do all that through teaching people how to code, and then we find companies who need amazing talent, who need diverse teams, who want to do the right thing and hire people from their neighborhood, and we help them do that. My wife and I founded the company nine years ago. Every day I wake up and just can't believe this is my job. It's just so amazing to be able to serve and help people like this.
What is the importance of a degree?
I got a computer science degree from a traditional kind of university in the United States, got a job, and then I was just shocked to realize that actually, 80% of the skills I learned were not useful. But I have gotten a job because of the degree. And I knew deep down that I got the degree because somehow I was privileged, I didn't know what to call it. But I figured, "Gosh, my parents had enough money to send me to school. It was easy for me, I had a computer in the home." I kind of felt like the system was rigged, and I was benefiting from that, and it bothered me. 10 years later, my wife and I finally decided, let's do something about this.
"I don't want to die doing this.
I don't think this matters."
Was there a game-changing moment for that lead to the creation of Treehouse?
My wife Jill and I believe that technology gives you access to power, and we started a company to teach people technology, in-person trainings at the time. Then in 2008, we had our first kiddo. Having a kid really made me feel my mortality in a way that I'd never felt before. I just realized I'm not the youngest one anymore, I'm going to move on, and I'm going to die someday. I asked myself: Are we actually changing the system? And the answer is no, we're not. We're not actually changing anything, we're just making it easier for you to learn if you're privileged. I said, "I don't want to die doing this. I don't think this matters." My wife had the idea, in 2010, that putting our lessons on the internet would make the education accessible, effective and affordable. I immediately knew she was right. We did it, and we bootstrapped it. I got a bank loan for 50 grand, this is not fancy venture capital stuff, I was just trying to make it happen. And we launched Treehouse, and that was the beginning of this journey, that nine years ago. And as I've explained, we've come a long way since then. Now we've taught 850,000 people online.
It is. But yet has the system changed? No, it hasn't yet changed. That's why we're refocusing on a more practical, powerful path through apprenticeships.
What I realized is that I'm extremely privileged as a white, able-bodied, tall, male. I really am at the top of the privilege chain, born in America at a time where there wasn't a war. I actually have tremendous power and I can use it for good. And what I have access to is the door to opportunity, I know how to get in. I know how to work the environment, I know how to get access to powerful people.
Can you talk a little bit more about that? Why is the door locked? What's in the way?
It turns out that we have all these systems in place that kind of perpetuate the wealth gap. And there's a really good study I would recommend everybody download it's free, it's by the Kapor Center, and it's called The Leaky Tech Talent Pipeline. And it explains with research and data why this is happening. It actually starts in K-12 in America. If you can't afford to put your kid into Pre-K at age four, you actually immediately start falling behind. If you have money, like we do, to pay for Pre-K, your kids immediately start getting ahead.
And then the gap widens because what happens is, if you're black or Latinx or you're a woman or you're LGBTQ, when you go into computer science classes at your high school, if you're lucky enough to have them there, you don't see anybody that looks like you. And then you're much more likely to quit. Also, we have fewer people studying computer science in high school that are from underrepresented groups. If you're someone like me, you grow up in a home where you are well-fed, you have a computer in your home, and you look at the tech industry and you see white men like Jeff Bezos and Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs, you just go, "Oh, I can do that."
These people are like me. And what needs to happen instead is proactive work by white powerful men, like me, to say, "You know what, we actually are going to do something about this, and it's not their job to fix this it's actually our job." It's pretty neat what can happen, once people do that.
Was there a pivotal moment for you also just say we need to make a change with regards to diversity at Treehouse?
Yes. In October of 2016, I signed this document called ‘The Diversity Pledge’. It was kind of obvious to me. Of course, I believe in diversity, I'm a moral person. I signed it and then that immediately caused me to realize that Treehouse, my own company, was majority white male. If I believe that, then how did I do that to my own company? And I even started a school that was supposed to solve this and we did all these things. We anonymize our job application, so when you apply we don't know who you are. You're not allowed to upload a resume so we don't see, we don't know anything about you. All we say is tell us about a time when you did X, Y, Z. And yet we still had hired white men majority, I just thought something's really wrong. Because it's definitely doesn't seem to be equal opportunity.
I just went into learning mode and I started reading books like The New Jim Crow, I started listening to podcasts like Seeing White. I started just listening to people, spending a lot more time with people from groups that have been locked out of tech. And I learned so much, it was just amazing. And we realized, okay, we have to do something different. We built this pilot apprenticeship in partnership with our community Boys & Girls Clubs program for ourself, it wasn't supposed to be a product, it wasn't supposed to be a thing, it was just the wish to change Treehouse.
What are the skills that you want to teach and that you want people to have after having run through your program?
It turns out that actually most of the skills you need to be successful in today's market are soft, what we soft skills. They're actually not soft, they're actually really hard to get. How do you collaborate? How do you work creatively? How do you process data quickly? I mean, there's so much to that, that we teach a lot of that during the period, during the tech degree and in the apprenticeship period. We basically start preparing for this reality, Okay. You're going to be using tools like Slack, you're going to be doing stand-ups, you're going to be communicating over email. How do you do that in a collaborative, helpful way so that people want you to stay? How do you get around the work culture? How do you navigate it? How do you be successful? That's actually a large part of what we do. The hard skills actually aren't that hard to teach. How to code is like learning how to bake, it's straightforward. It's not easy, but it's simple. And I think that's kind of part of it. I would say the hard skills that we teach are probably I would say 50%, and then the other 50% are soft. And then there's another problem connected to that as well, which is basically the perception around how valuable is that education. And that is on both sides. But the vision though that we have is to expand outside of coding into other exciting job titles as well.
"(...) I'm extremely privileged as a white, able-bodied, tall, male. I really am at the top of the privilege chain, born in America at a time where there wasn't a war."
One the one hand, there is evidence that individuals are not aware they might not need a college degree for certain tech jobs, but then it is also reported that many companies won't consider them for an interview if they don't have a computer science degree. That seems like a chicken and egg situation.
What we're doing is going to companies directly who have the money and the power, and say, "Do you have like 300 jobs open right now? Do you need help filling them?" "Yes, we do." "Do you actually need that talent to be diverse and balanced?" "Yes, of course, we do." "Do you want that talent to literally be created for you from your local neighborhood?" "Yes, we do." "Okay, great. Just say yes and fund the program." And actually the company is excited and welcoming this cohort of apprentices, they want them to win. And they realize, "Oh wow, there's all this talent in our neighborhood, and we're just not interviewing them." And then you build an emotional connection and a powerful bond. And it's way better than anything you could do through a traditional kind of hiring model.
Speaking from the mindset of young women or girls in high school, what do you think we can do to raise more interest, and even just make these types of jobs more exciting?
I think you need to see more people like you that you want to be like, who happened to be software engineers. I think there are some really neat things going on, on Instagram where women of all colors, of all sexual preferences, are beginning to show that you can be a woman and not act like a man, not be like a man, you can truly be a woman and you can be successful, and in software engineering. And it's creative, it's powerful, it's high paying. I think we're at the beginning of that movement where younger women are going to start to see women they look up to doing these things. That's why I got into tech. I could see Steve Jobs, I could see, and it's like, "I want to do that. I want to change the world, and make things." And I think that's the start of it.
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Do you mentor any young professional women and what is the advice you give them?
Yeah. I actually, I do allyship for a couple of women right now where I basically do phone calls with them, and I give them access to the knowledge that I have because of my privilege. And I basically explain: "Okay, this is how the system works. I'm going to help you navigate it. And I'm also going to, behind the scenes, I'm going to advocate for you."
What's something that someone at that stage needs to learn?
The biggest thing is how to network and build relationships. There's a very powerful method. What you do is you identify 100 people that you want a meeting with. And ideally, you want to meet with them to say, "Will you be my ally? Will you be my mentor?" And you're going to ask for something like three meetings with them. This is the ask, you're trying to get to a point where you say, "I would like to have three meetings with you one hour each where basically I learn from you because I respect you." You're selling that, so how do you do it? How do you get someone to say yes? This is, it's basically a sales model. You find 100 of those people and what you do is your outline, usually, it's usually 17 steps that you're going to take per person. This is what I do: In the first step is to connect with them on social, follow them on Twitter, or follow them on Instagram, or connect with them on LinkedIn. The second step is, start commenting on what they say on social. The third step is to comment again on what they do, and then the fourth step is, an email where you basically say, "Hey, I know you're probably not going to read this, I know you're really busy, but I just wanted to tell you I appreciate your work on this concept." Something genuine that you truly believe, that is flattering to them. They probably won't read it, maybe they will. But, but the idea is they start to see your name over and over again.
"If you can't sell something you can't win."
You know, "Gosh, Julia, I keep seeing this name. She's liked my stuff, she's emailed me, what does she want?" You just keep giving, giving, giving, giving, giving, and then you ask, "Okay, I'm going to ..." And then step eight is an ask. It's an email, "You know what, I respect you. And I want to be blunt, will you give me one hour of your time so that I can learn from your vast experience, it would mean the world to me." And they probably won't reply. Then you keep giving, you reply to their posts, you send them more flattering emails, you just give, give, give, give, and then you ask again. "I just want to ask again ..." And you do that 17 times. And out of those 100 people, you might get 10 replies. And then out of those 10, you'll get one meeting. And then you do that over and over and over again, and that is how you get access. Once you have access, then you have power.
It just takes discipline and hard work and knowing how the system kind of works to begin that process. It's easier if you have privilege, yes, I understand that, but I think if you start exercising that muscle it will cause results eventually.
Going a little bit back, how is it, was it working with your wife?
It's awesome and challenging. I think we're very lucky to be in love and to also be best friends. And it's been trying and hard sometimes, but I think because we're doing something that we truly believe in, and that's been a game-changer, she decided to be a full-time stay at home mom, for about seven years. That was very hard for her, that she chose to do that. And now that she's done with that period and our kiddo is a little older, she's come back into the business as my co-founder and is working about two hours a day. I feel, again, very lucky I get to work with my best friend, were married, and we own a company together. It's been great.
What’s something that is hard?
There's plenty of times. I remember one story when we first started the company, we were probably like a year in, we were driving into work and started fighting about something. And we had to walk in and act like everything is normal. Also, because we were both equal power at the company the employees were sort of like, "Who do we talk to here? Who is control? Jill is saying one thing, Ryan is saying another.
Sticking with women in your life, what's good advice that your mother gave you?
My mom handed me a book called How to Win Friends and Influence People, and it changed my life. That's probably the best advice she ever gave me. But the best thing she ever did for me is love me and support me, and I would not be who I am without her. She added stability to my life, she told me I was good enough, she gave me a foundation that I could leap off of, If I had been beaten down physically or emotionally, it would've been extremely hard to be who I am today. I owe her my life. I love my mom.
"I've gotten used to the idea of being afraid
at work all the time"
I've checked out your LinkedIn profile of course, and I've seen a few people that you're following. There are Sallie Krawcheck also on there, I'm just wondering, what do you like about her? What do you admire about her?
I'll speak generally about a lot of the women that I follow. I'm inspired that given the systematic hurdles that are placed in front of women, period. Across the world, any woman who is successful is impressive to me. Because I started like three laps ahead, and I think anyone that's done that and stayed strong is impressive to me. Women trying to navigate having children and keep their careers going is one another thing. It's another hurdle that I don't have to deal with. It’s true admiration.
Is there something you would try if you had no fear?
There's a lot of things I don't do now because I don't want to die. There's too much going on at Treehouse, and my family would be a wreck if I died. I'd probably skydive if I had no fear. But I've gotten used to the idea of being afraid at work all the time, it's weird. I feel almost every day this feeling of like, "Oh, I'm nervous about this meeting." But I kind of know that if I feel uncomfortable, it probably means I'm doing the right thing, that is where success is. I'd rather be in my jammies at home, I'm an introvert. But I try to embrace that.
If you do look back at where you are at and all the experiences you've had up until this point, is there some advice you'd give your younger self or something you would do differently?
Oh my God, yes. I would have embraced being a salesperson from day one, I hated sales. And I told myself over and over again, it was like a dirty thing. It was what other pushy people do, it was you're trying to get someone to do something. And I've learned that's literally the opposite of the truth. That if you can't sell something you can't win. And what I described to you earlier about how to get a meeting is a sales process, and it turns out that process is applicable to almost everything. I just didn't know that, I was naive, complacent, I believed that we were going to win that Treehouse because we were doing something that was morally good. When I realized it just wasn't true, I needed to get my act together and do it. And my whole life has changed since then. Sales, yeah, good old sales.
You've already shared this process of how to extend your network and reach out to people that at the beginning seem out of reach. Were there any other tools, books, resources, trainings, or strategies that you can share to become a better salesperson and embrace that mindset?
It is shocking how you just have to ask people. And you really think, "Gosh, yeah. They'll just say they want something." What I found over and over again is they won't. What's weird is people actually want you to ask, if you're doing something that they like and they want to be a part of.
One thing that I do, because I battle that self doubt every day, is I have a very clear idea of what my mission and vision is. What I quoted to you at the beginning of this podcast. I wake up early every morning, and I have to almost recite that because I have to remind myself, what is true and what am I working towards. Even if I don't feel good about myself today, I know that this is important.
And then I basically change my brain chemistry by listening to upbeat music. It's just science, we're just machines, let's just hack ourselves. If I listened to music that I love, it changes the way I feel.
Ryan, thanks so much for sharing all these amazing insights, and thanks for being the change in the world that we need. And I hope more people will embrace the apprenticeship model, and open some doors to people.
Amen. Thanks for having me on the show. I'm honored and proud to do this work and to serve.
Ryan Carson, CEO & Founder of Treehouse, is a leader and champion of self-directed learning - inspiring others to take the helm of their own education. He is also an advocate for equity, diversity, and inclusion within the tech industry - specializing in helping companies invest in their local communities, creating diverse teams, and creating generational wealth for families who have been locked out of tech.
Treehouse is an online school that’s trained 850,000 software engineers and helps companies like Airbnb, Nike, HubSpot, Mailchimp hire top tech talent and create diverse teams. Their mission is to diversify the tech industry through accessible education and apprenticeship, unlocking the door to opportunity and empowering people to achieve their dreams. Their vision is that by 2026, they will have served and placed 20,000+ apprentices, raising annual incomes by $30,000 or more. This will create a total of $50+ billion dollars of new lifetime wealth for hard-working people that have been locked out of the American dream.