The Cost of Cynicism

One of the more popular pieces to hit the internet today is a New York magazine article about the Lambda School, a coding bootcamp where students don’t pay any tuition up front, but pay 17% of their pre-tax income for two years (up to a maximum cumulative total of $30,000) once they obtain a tech job paying more than $50,000 per year.

The article is extremely negative, often adding critical asides that have little to do with the facts themselves. For example, the author (Vincent Woo) writes about Lambda’s founder Austen Allred:

His previous work was mostly concerned with “growth hacking,” which is Silicon Valley jargon for finding underappreciated (or, less charitably, underhanded) ways of marketing something. He’s also published several articles about entrepreneurship — including one with the inauspicious title “Successful Entrepreneurs Are Usually Liars.”

While there are some unethical or deceptive growth hackers, the discipline itself is not “underhanded.” And while the title “Successful Entrepreneurs Are Usually Liars” is too good not to quote, leaving out the context of the title is itself dishonest. Woo doesn’t include a link to the post, but anyone who actually Googled it and read it (as I did) will learn that Allred is actually referring to the fact that entrepreneurs rarely explain the gory details of the endless work it takes to actually be a success when they tell the story of that success. Allred writes:

“Almost all entrepreneurs intentionally leave out the secret sauce. It’s usually something that anyone could replicate if they were told, but it takes a long, long time to figure out.”

Citing the title, as Woo does, while leaving out the context, implies that Allred believes that deception is the key to success, rather than what Allred actually wrote, which is that entrepreneurs usually gloss over the details of how they succeed. It might be that Woo simply didn’t read the post he referenced, but that negligence seems nearly as bad as deliberately leaving out the context.

This is not to say that Woo’s article is inaccurate. When he describes Lamdba School as deceptive, he is correct. It appears that the school and Allred claimed that 86% of graduates were able to obtain $50K+ jobs within 6 months of graduation, and that Lambda only made money when they did. In actuality, according to Woo’s reporting, the placement rate is 50%, and Lambda works with financial intermediaries to sell the rights to its income share agreements for up front cash.

This kind of deceptive advertising and making false statements are clearly wrong, and Woo and New York Magazine are doing the public a service by doing the investigative reporting to uncover the truth.

However, in their righteous indignation, Woo and New York Magazine have produced a piece that seems designed not to correct misleading claims, but to take down Lambda School as some kind of punishment for its actions. Woo writes:

“There is some virtue, still, to Lambda’s mission. Technology and economic change has opened up new job opportunities, and many Americans are desperate to join an industry that promises a future. Coding boot camps offer a kind of solution for one moral conundrum of technology — can we build a future that doesn’t diminish the people who helped us get here? Not, it would seem, through Lambda School.”

Ultimately, what Lambda School has done is to find a way to allow anyone to participate in a coding bootcamp without having to pay anything until they obtain a $50K+ job. And amazingly enough, Lambda places about 50% of its graduates in such jobs. Yes, this falls far short of Lambda’s inflated claims, and Lambda graduates are struggling more than they were led to expect, but if you told me that you had designed a program where people could get trained for high-paying tech jobs, with no up front cost, and no money owed unless they got such a job, with a 50% success rate, my likely reaction would be “That sounds too good to be true,” not, “Wow, what a scam!”

The danger in giving into the current anti-startup mood and muck-raking with the intent of closing down flawed solutions like Lambda School is that these flawed solutions are still better than the status quo. If Woo and New York Magazine claim Lambda School’s scalp, and it shuts down, the main people harmed would be the many underprivileged individuals who would miss out on a 50-50 path to a high-paying technology job.

I believe in the power and importance of the press, and that the public deserves to know the truth. But the truth includes the whole truth, including the full context, and including an accurate big picture reckoning of all harms and benefits.

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