How General Assembly Helps Learners Build Tomorrow’s Skills (Cornell Tech @ Bloomberg)

When her peers were joining banks and big tech firms, new Harvard Business School grad Lisa Lewin was passionate about finding ways to help people learn. 

“Education is that place that really offers true generational social mobility,” she says, having experienced the power of education first-hand.

My great-grandparents had, at most, an eighth grade education. Within two generations, my parents and their siblings all earned advanced degrees and had climbed the socio-economic ladder through education. I wanted to be able to bring my data, tech and strategy skills that I had developed to an industry where I could really have impact and work for mission driven organizations.

Lewin took this passion to the educational consulting space for a career that has culminated in her new role as CEO at General Assembly, a fast-growing global school that teaches professional skills in and around technology. Lewin shared her insights on the growing importance of continuing education with Bloomberg Television’s Scarlet Fu during an online talk on March 16, as part of the Cornell Tech @ Bloomberg Speaker Series.

Lewin began her career in research and consulting with The NPD Group and the Boston Consulting Group. She earned an MBA at Harvard Business School before joining McGraw-Hill, the academic publishing house, where she ultimately served as Vice President of their professional education group. She later founded her own educational technology company, and when she wanted to develop her coding skills, she signed up for a class at General Assembly. She continued her career in educational consulting with Pearson plc, a British multinational publishing and education company.

Her tenure with these firms came at a time of deep transformation for educational publishing. The industry was moving away from traditional paper textbooks as their reliable cash cow toward software accompaniment to textbooks, and eventually digital-first learning systems. Technology was disrupting how students learned, how teachers taught, and how administrators ran their schools. Participating in this transformative phase gave Lewin an appreciation for how quickly industries can change, and how cutting-edge educational platforms can help learners keep pace.

Given the accelerating pace of disruption across every industry, the need for continuing education has become a more critical component of knowledge workers’ career development. A bachelor’s degree is no longer going to carry a knowledge worker across four or five decades of their career. Educational startups with disparate approaches have arisen to try to fill in the learning gaps that inevitably arise as new technologies and business methodologies are introduced.

General Assembly began as a co-working space in Manhattan in 2011, and has evolved into a private school offering short courses, online classes, and immersive 10- and 12-week courses in various technological fields, with the goal of teaching practical technology skills to business professionals and entrepreneurs. These courses include mobile and software engineering, data science, product management, web design, and more. These classes are now held online and in-person across nearly 50 cities around the world. General Assembly was acquired by the Zurich-based HR services company The Adecco Group in 2018 for $413 million.

Several years after she took her first General Assembly course, Lewin would send her staff at Pearson to General Assembly to “upskill” and “reskill.” These courses helped ensure that her staff of over 1,000 technologists possessed the skills they needed to drive continual transformation for Pearson.

In August 2020, Lewin joined General Assembly as CEO, taking the reins from co-founder Jake Schwartz, with the goal of continuing its mission “to empower people to thrive and flourish in the world of work.”

“General Assembly really innovated and helped put the whole bootcamp model on the map,” Lewin says. But as the company continues its transition away from bootcamps a decade after its inception, Lewin is betting that the most innovative companies will prioritize continuing education for their employees in order to retain top talent and benefit from their professional growth. While a wide majority of General Assembly’s students are individuals looking to brush up their skills to better position themselves in the marketplace, the enterprise space — where organizations pay to have their employees take courses — is experiencing even stronger growth. 

In broad terms, General Assembly’s first decade was a quest to quickly scale up the number of engineers for the tech industry. As the company moves into the ‘20s, the demand for tech talent has not slowed. A skills mismatch continues to plague the tech industry, though the most in-demand skill sets have shifted. For example, many large tech companies are now rapidly scaling their AI and machine learning capabilities, and there aren’t enough ML engineers and data scientists to fill that demand. While General Assembly’s software engineering “immersive” remains its most popular full-time offering, the company continues to expand its range of classes to produce talent with expertise in emerging fields. 

The pandemic has only fueled public enthusiasm for upskilling, with record numbers of students signing up for General Assembly classes in the last year. For many, the pandemic represents an influx of free time, and industrious learners are taking advantage of this time with professional improvement. Although part of the appeal of General Assembly’s model is the chance to socialize and network with fellow learners and teachers, the untethering of learning from the physical campus was a chance for the school to experiment with ways to scale beyond what their physical spaces could accommodate. Lewin says that General Assembly’s future likely lies in a hybrid model that takes advantage of the social benefits of co-located on-campus learning and the convenience and flexibility of learning from home. 

Given her passion for education as a driver of social mobility, Lewin is enthusiastic about the various moves that General Assembly is making to open up their courses to those who might not have up-front financing. For example, its Catalyst program allows learners to take a course with no up-front cost. Learners only have to repay tuition after landing a job in which they earn at least $40,000. General Assembly also offers social impact-oriented programs and tuition discounts to provide more affordable options for underrepresented communities in tech, and a $1,500 tuition discount for women studying software engineering and data science through the See Her Excel Scholarship program.

Such programs are part of General Assembly’s broader push to not simply help the voracious tech industry find more talent, but also to establish new expectations for tech employers and workers in order to build a more inclusive, equitable industry.

“Every player in the technology space has got to be thinking about tech ethics,” Lewin says, citing ways in which human biases can seep into technology platforms and products and be coded into the products we use. “They’ve really got to be thinking about taking human-centered and ethical approaches to product design, ensuring tech ethics ends up getting centered in the conversation, because the alternative is a pretty scary one.”

You can watch the entire discussion below: