22 min read

S3T Sept 1 - The Future of Talent and Learning - John Vandivier Interview, plus: special segment on Annual Review season.

S3T Sept 1 - The Future of Talent and Learning - John Vandivier Interview, plus: special segment on Annual Review season.
Photo by Hannah Wei / Unsplash

Special Labor Day Weekend Edition

🔊 Listen to this interview on the S3T Podcast

This week I had the chance to talk with John Vandivier about the future of work and learning. The written transcript is below and you can listen to the interview on the S3T Podcast.  

This interview is must read/must listen material for:

  • Talent Leaders who need to understand how the talent market and the learning markets are evolving (and in some ways merging)
  • Education Leaders who are committed to empowering learners of all ages
  • Individuals who are planning their learning journeys and careers.

In addition, a special briefing for Paying Members focuses on the communication, signaling and perspective-taking that is critical for this year's Annual Review Season. (See Signaling and perspective taking segment at end of this edition).

Interview Transcript

RP: Happy Friday everyone and welcome to a special Labor Day edition of S3T. Today I am so excited to be able to talk about the future of work and learning with John Vandivier the founder of Ladderly.io. John is an alumnus of the Innovation Garage who started off as an economic policy wonk, and then became a software engineer. Shifting from economic policy to technology was eye-opening for John. It led him to launch Ladderly.io which focuses on helping people find financial security by elevating their technology skills. Welcome, John, say hi to everyone!

JV: Hello, all. As Ralph mentioned, my name is John. I have a PhD in economics and I also have about ten years of experience working as a software engineer for companies you've heard of, like Amazon and Capital One. I had the great pleasure of working with Ralph in the Innovation Garage, and I'm very glad to be here to discuss an issue today that is of personal interest to me. And I also think it's socially important.

RP: Agree 100%. Helping people get into careers that give them greater financial security. Tell us a little bit about what you’re working on these days.

JV: My primary occupation these days is working as a software engineer for an interesting fintech called Upstart. On the side, I'm really interested in teaching people to learn to code. I'm a self-taught programmer, I don't have a background in computer science, rather it's in economics as we'll discuss. The career change changed my quality of life for the better and I want to share that with other people.

RP: We may have similar experiences  - I literally stumbled into technology in the early 90's right when everything was about to explode, and it made a huge difference in my career and quality of life. I think its so commendable that you want to help others get on this path. Are there some approaches that you find are most effective?

JV: I do this in three main ways: First is through social media. I have over 22,000 followers on TikTok. Second is through open source contributions and third is through maintenance of a website and associated community Ladderly.io. This website is open source, there's a Discord and a community you can get involved. The website promotes a checklist with steps starting from scratch to help interested individuals learn to code and land a programming role.

RP: Excellent - John if I remember, your research thesis focused on the evolving value proposition for higher education - how would you summarize the challenge that educators and learners face in the 21st Century?

JV: We've seen a lot of changes since the year 2000 so online education is now commonplace. The MOOC era in the 2010's initially flopped, now they've somewhat improved, so we have better practices but even still the top tier MOOCs have a graduation rate of something like 25%. So this is a different educational model compared to the traditional university - you wouldn't want a university with 25% graduation - and yet this model makes sense for some learners. Some learners don't have an interest in obtaining a certificate. They may only want to cover a module.

RP: Yeah...MOOCs...for anyone who's not familiar, MOOC stands for Massive Online Open Course - just refers to a free online course anyone can sign up for. And yeah, especially since Covid, it feels like there's this uneasy coexistence between traditional and alternative education.

JV: Traditional and alternative educators alike are seeking to fulfill a demand on the part of their students, and we know that students attend both of these institutional types for essentially the same reason which is to improve their labor market prospects: to get a job, to get a promotion, to get a raise, acquire new skills or something similar. Educators then are naturally concerned with employer relations, job placement, career services this sort of thing.

RP: So what made you select the value proposition of education as your focus? Was there some experience you had or something that led you to question the value of higher education?

JV: So I chose to focus on an analysis of the returns to alternative post-secondary credentials because of my lived experience - not because of an initial question on the value of higher education although that did come later. Again I'm a self-taught programmer and I was able to break into the tech industry and land a software development role on the basis of some skill certifications as well as a portfolio of work, social networking, and a few other tools and tricks.

RP: But you were previously in economic policy I thought?

JV: I had previously initiated a Ph.D. in economics in an attempt to influence policy which was my previous life so to speak. So, prior to software engineering, I was Director of Research at a Political Consultancy and I wanted to actually influence policy inside the Beltway. I had obtained undergraduate credentials with a Master's in Public Policy with an emphasis in Fiscal Policy. This plus a couple of years of experience was considered insufficient to weigh in on actual bill-writing, so that was the initial motivation for the Ph.D. While in the Ph.D. I decided I was not interested in pursuing a further career in politics and I sort of salvaged it to pivot to focus on the economics of these alternative credentials with a particular lens toward tech, as I had just experienced that in my personal career.

RP: In your research was there an aha moment that you had...like, oh wow, this changes everything! Or was it more of a gradual confirmation of things you already suspected?

JV: So the writing of the dissertation was certainly gradual. It was not written overnight, there were many small eureka moments that accumulated and a good number of confirmations, but a substantial amount of discovery as well. And some surprises. Skillgap research was pretty cutting-edge at the time, so I contributed to that literature. My dissertation chair Brian Kaplan had also published what was at the time a cutting-edge work The Case Against Education championing the signaling model of education over the human capital model.

RP: Signaling - in other words, education credentials are a way of signaling to an employer "I've got what you need"...makes sense.

JV: And the signaling model is certainly compatible with what I had experienced, which was: employers suddenly felt that I was valuable as a job candidate when they saw my skill certifications - and also the portfolio.

The gradual aspect was largely a matter of discovering those particular skill gaps that I had encountered. Which of those were personal to me? Which of those were standard among employers, which were sort of accidental and which were reliable? I think that was a gradual process of discovery and surprise.

RP: Are schools able to keep up with the pace of change? Are they doing better today than they were?

JV: I think schools are keeping up with the pace of change and doing better than they were in the past. There are public and private universities. There are better and worse schools. Certainly, we can find some schools that are struggling. We also see the emergence of whole new program designs, hybrid programs, and partnership programs.

RP: Think you and I were both involved in the partnership program with the Innovation Garage and NCSU. And I think you're right, they're doing better at keeping up. I remember through the 90's onward, there were these waves of new tech innovation...I wrote some of the first working examples of video playing on PCs - people lost their minds. Then it was HTML, eCommerce, Java, Cloud, Mobile...but I remember having this moment where I realized, that universities were coming to tech companies to find out what to teach. There was this prestigious post-grad management school, the Japan America Institute of Management Science - they hired me to teach their post-grads eCommerce. On paper I wasn't qualified, but I was building systems and using skills that they recognized as the future. Was there a tipping point where this started to become more prevalent?

JV: You might put 2018 as an important marker here where accredited universities partnering with a coding boot camp, for instance, would be more common after 2018. And some of this has to do with what we consider to be a school. So coding bootcamps themselves can be considered a school. Again, even if we restrict ourselves to traditionally accredited four year colleges. I think in this post 2018 era and with the addition of Covid, there is a new normal, a new acceptance of remote learning, hybridization and partnership with expert alternative educational providers. I see sort of an evolutionary step happening in the 2010's where many MOOCs failed, a few survived, and they survived by using new techniques that have now come into sort of widespread adoption. So in reaction to this story about university consulting with tech in the 90s, I think they're still doing that. And alternative education providers are also consulting with industry at the moment for individuals interested in learning to code.

RP: Any notable examples?

JV: The single best certificate that I'm aware of is the front-end certificate on Coursera, which is produced in collaboration with Meta and Meta has created many of the open-source tools used for front-end development. So who better to teach you how? Who better to design the curriculum than the employer? who also created the open source project?  

Who better to design the curriculum than the employer? 

With universities and coding boot camps, we also see partnerships with industry. I think the motivation is a little bit different here. I think this motivation has to do with the incentive of the educational institution to have job placement and they maximize that job placement by aligning the curriculum with the needs of employers. And I think that this is a healthy, sustainable, fundamental reality of the production of education. So I don't see this so much as an accident of the 90s or the 2000 or the 20 tens. I think this is just a healthy process to maybe educational design on the market that is likely to sustain unless there's some sort of exogenous shock that renders it untenable for some reason.

RP13: Is education going to have to evolve its idea of a curriculum? Seems like a preplanned curriculum is always going to be vulnerable to relevance problems?

JV: On the relevance problem, I think you have a good point here, and I liken it to the problem of innovating a new technology and regulators necessarily lagging that. So you can't regulate something that hasn't been created yet, right? Similarly, it doesn't seem possible to design an educational curriculum that optimizes for the needs of employers when the employers haven't yet started demanding labor for the new thing. And so maybe what you want to do is move to a model of continuous just-in-time learning. Universities are not well adapted to just-in-time microlearning.

RP14: Very good point - S3T is actually functioning as a form of just-in-time learning for a set of skills that aren't often taught together. I think it relates to - sometimes there's this problem of what to focus on: My working relationships with universities allowed me to compare what students were learning vs what I was learning or what skillsets I was hiring for. One big difference that stood out to me was I guess I would call it relevant focus, like ..in the academic setting, they'll teach you this big range of things as if they were all equally important. But they're not. And the lens that I had was different ....like "in the real world, ok this and this, you better really know this, in fact you need to know this deeper than what they're teaching you...these other things you'll probably never use them. Now, there is something to be said for broad learning and I don't know if this amounts to any kind of existential threat to higher education.

...maybe what you want to do is move to a model of continuous just-in-time learning. Universities are not well adapted to just-in-time microlearning.

JV: I don't see this as an existential threat to the university. As long as there are federal subsidies subsidizing traditional education, many people will take advantage of that and then those people will graduate into the labor force. As long as the labor force is populated by individuals with college degrees, they will expect the status quo. They will expect new employees to at least meet their bar in their mind. And there's a sort of inertia that happens here.

I think the solution to this problem, if we're considering the university system to be the problem, would be employers actively measuring the productivity of their employees, correlating to those credentials, realizing that targeted micro-credentials just in time learning are satisfactory, the degree is no longer required -  you can use alternative credentials. And once we normalize this over time, you will see a fade in demand for degrees on the part of employers. So I think if we want to reduce demand for degrees, it has to come from the employer side. I don't think we're going to see students dropping the degree while employers still want it, nor should we want that.

RP: Agree, I think some of what you're saying will be welcome news for for a lot of people listening who feel like you have to go through an awful lot of overhead and expense in order to get to a usable education - usable from a career standpoint.

JV: I certainly think that the average or median college is relatively inefficient and the system as a whole has room to improve.  As a consumer, one of the things that you can do to address this is be selective about the college that you go to - make colleges compete with one another. Colleges compete on price and educational quality, of course, but also on the method of awarding credit. So WGU would be one example I would cite with a focus on competency-based education over credit hours. So demonstrating competency through examination portfolio and other means besides being sat in a chair.

Be selective about the field, of course, so prefer a STEM degree or a business degree. Also try to graduate early. The opportunity cost of not being employed is generally much higher than the out-of-pocket cost or the tuition or something like that. So try to get an internship while you're in school or just graduate early if that's an option.

RP: Are you familiar with the book BS Jobs by the late David Graber. One of the things he covers is the way education costs have been inflated as universities added very large numbers of administrative staff, so much so that the ratio of administrative staff to educators has actually changed.

JV: Your point about administrative bloat is well taken. I guess the question becomes what is society to do about this? We could do something as drastic as eliminating the Department of Education. Remit accreditation back to the market from whence it came. I'm pessimistic that drastic actions like these are feasible or realistic, and I don't know how important they are at the individual level for individual decision-making. I would reiterate some of those individual moves that I mentioned. Being choosy with your school and your field. Seeking to graduate early, credit by examination, credit by portfolio and so on.

RP: A new phrase emerged recently - have you heard about this? - The "Paper Ceiling" which refers to barriers faced by people who do not have college degrees but who in reality are probably qualified to do the job.

JV: So the Paper Ceiling is real and unfortunate. Let me give a couple strategies that might make this a cup-half-full situation. Walmart today and other Guild education partners are able to attend college for $1 a day. I worked at Walmart years ago and this was not available at that point in time. Similarly, if you are able to get some job, maybe even a programming job without a degree, you can leverage an employer benefit and potentially go to college for free or nearly free.

One of the main ways that a college degree becomes a bad return on investment is if you drop out, and being in a situation where you study while you work does have a significant impact to your propensity to drop out as well as negative academic performance.

So it's not general advice for everyone, but if you can swing it, the employer subsidy for education can allow some students to achieve a really high cash-on-cash return to their degree. And further, if you obtain a degree while you're already employed, it's common to use this as performance review material so you can get an additional benefit that will accelerate your career. You may have a bit of a lagged start, but when you hit this paper ceiling, you can in some ways turn it into an advantage.

This effect is not constrained to the undergraduate level. You may find that in order to obtain a management role or after you obtain that entry-level management role to progress further, you need a graduate degree and similar effects obtained here where the employer benefit can cause a master's degree to have a really high return. And if you can get your employer to agree ahead of time to use this for the purpose of performance review, you can get a double benefit out of it.

Do be careful here. Many graduate degrees have a low and - with a surprising frequency - even a negative return on investment. A lot of this has to do with the field. If your employer encourages you to pursue a particular degree ahead of time, you're not likely to face this problem. But do be careful.

RP: Good advice. Let's switch gears - I want to get your thoughts on the following: There's a lot of negative noise right now in the workplace about the future of work and learning. "AI is going to steal your job." There are memes on LinkedIn "In 5 years there will be no programmers!" How do you think about this?

JV: I love the AI question. Returning to Ladderly.io for a moment, I recently implemented a chatbot that helps people learn to code and in my day job I frequently use code assistants like GitHub Copilot that are based on AI, Other language models and generative AI tools. So I see AI as a productivity enhancer. It's not technically possible for AI to replace many of these roles.

One of the memes that I saw was a construction building. This was in physical space in the real world and construction buildings - while they're in progress - it's common to put a sign up. And this sign was a meme and it said something to the effect of "GPT finished this building."

And the joke is that it's not technically possible for a software program to build a physical building. What's more surprising to some is that the AI tools we have today essentially can't build programs either. The most advanced tools we have at the moment are only able to produce toy projects, and these toy projects are not self-hosted, they're not accessible by the public.

So if you want to build a website, engineers still need to do work to make that website accessible to end users. The value in these tools today to engineers is accelerating their work, not replacing their work.

RP: What would you say to someone who says, "Yeah but 5 years from now...its going to get better and better."

JV: Two responses to that: One, is who is going to make it better? It's going to be engineers. So this is just more evidence that there is demand for engineers. And second, is we'll cross that bridge in five years.

If the AI tools are anything like what they are today, they will still need to be directed by human users. These people may or may not be called software engineers. They may be called prompt engineers. In any case, the skills and experience you gain today will be substantially reused.

RP: That's reassuring. So do you have recommendations for young people - and their parents - who are taking all of this in, and at the same time thinking about college. What kind of advice would you have for people who are in this position of deciding how to enable a financially secure career and future?

JV: Put yourself in the shoes of a future employer. Would you rather hire a new grad or would you rather hire someone with five years of experience coding along with AI and now just using AI without any code at all?

"I think there's a compelling argument to be made that when we get to a no-code future, the engineering work will be all the more interesting."

In many ways, that future is appealing rather than threatening, because I would get to forget about syntax details, particular keywords and function names, and I would get to focus on the higher-level ideas and direct the large language model to take care of those less important lower-level details.

So I think there's a compelling argument to be made that when we get to a no-code future, the engineering work will be all the more interesting.

RP: Describe what you think learning will be like 10 years from now? More of the same? or something different?

JV: So my prediction for ten years from now is that the singularity will not have occurred. I think it will be rather boring compared to that, although it's hard to make a prediction so far out with much confidence. I expect the subsidies to continue and the attendance to remain high. I think humans writing JavaScript with their own hands or typing it anyway will still be common.

RP: What about the economic picture?

I do think the economy will have rebounded compared to what it is today. And with that, new highs in labor demand in tech, employers bidding for talent, including a willingness to hire those with a non-traditional background, a caveat here would be that ten years is such a large time frame that the economy may have rebounded and become ruined again. So these effects may be transient.

RP: Final question...if a change leader is thinking about a new initiative, new learning program, or maybe a new startup...what would you advise them to explore?

JV: A good question about the change leader. A lot of this depends on who the change leader is. Is this change leader already a provider of education? Is this a major employer? Is this a smaller but innovative employer? I think the solution is to continue on the market trajectory. But the way that you integrate that will vary depending on where you're starting from. So if you're a smaller, innovative employer, you might want to grow an association or network with other larger employers. If you're an educational provider, you need to partner with a large employer. If you're already a large employer, you could partner with an educational provider or create a branch of your organization responsible for internal training and then even external training. I expect in those ways, a change leader could scale the market.  

RP: What if you want to fundamentally alter the market?

JV: If the change leader wants to actually alter the structure of the market, I think that change leader needs to also be a market leader. And so here I would imagine a scenario where Amazon or Google or Microsoft or some other large employer that already has an educational wing and already provides external training and certifications, they want to take things a step further, I think the opportunity here is for these companies to hire cheap and train up.

These organizations today typically want to hire seniors. They want to hire really smart, really high-talent people and pay them a bunch of money. I think there's a large missed opportunity for profit for these companies and also for social welfare to be had in the form of hiring lower-productivity workers and then either improving the productivity of those workers through training or allowing those workers to remain at a stable, low level of productivity and simply giving them assignments that net out a profit anyway.

RP: I think there's something to this, that we could dig into some other time. I think there is a lot of work that is very necessary, high-value work that doesn't get done because it doesn't measure well in whatever OKRs and dashboards happen to be in fashion with the current corporate status quo. It's work that hasn't been given its proper valuation because of the overly narrow short-sightedness and ignorance of the dominant market players. An employment approach that ensures this work gets done could be game-changing. Anyway, love your idea - what do you think it takes to get someone to embrace this?

JV: So I think these large tech firms typically only take on projects that are expected to be highly lucrative. This is not a profit-maximizing project selection strategy according to standard price theory. Instead, firms should take on projects as long as they're profitable. That is, firms should be willing to fund more projects until the marginal cost of a project equals its marginal benefit. So if there are less lucrative projects on the table and in my experience, there always are, firms should be willing to execute those projects. And if the resources on hand are too expensive, the option of picking up some cheaper resources should be taken more seriously instead of just throwing the project out.

RP:  Wow, that is some fascinating food for thought. Yeah I think we're on the verge of starting a whole new thread there.  John, thank you again for sharing your thoughts, where can people follow your work or connect with you?

JV: Thank you so much for having me, Ralph. It was great to speak with you. If people want to get in contact, check out my YouTube channel Programming with John. (That's not Coding with John. That's another person). So Programming with John or ladderly.io, that's spelled just like "you're climbing the corporate ladder." And then the final option would be TikTok or Twitter, where my handle is @JohnVandivir.

A post-interview note:

I hope you've enjoyed this conversation and taken away some key insights you can use in your work and planning. I would like to make it clear that at this point in time, I personally am encouraging my own children and family to attend and graduate from college. I realize that the tools and processes of education are changing and that its important for universities, corporations and government agencies alike to partner, adapt and evolve together, in order to enable healthy financially secure communities. I hope this conversation surfaces some provocative and actionable ideas for how to do just that.

Ralph Perrine

Opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not reflect the official positions of companies or organizations those individuals may be affiliated with. Not financial advice. Authors or guests may hold assets discussed.

Signaling and perspective taking during Annual Review Season: Talent Strategy Briefing for Paid Members

Annual review season is just around the corner with its crucial conversations when managers walk the delicate balance between the company's budget constraints vs. its needs for highly engaged employees. This year may be more challenging than usual - especially for companies that rely on technical talent.  

Tech talent today is bombarded with confusing messages about where technology is headed and what will happen to their jobs. If you are a manager responsible for retaining technology talent for your company’s mission-critical product development and service operations, you want to be able to think and communicate clearly on these matters with your teams.

If you are feeling the pressure, you are not alone. Managers and HR teams across the economy are seeking clarity on exactly how to retain and empower their key talent in this time of economic and technological transition.  

It’s not just what you say - it’s what you signal

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