A decade ago, Adda Birnir was an arts major who discovered her love of coding by chance. Her next big discovery: That she could turn her love into a business, by teaching other women the same skills she learned. With Skillcrush, Adda is crushing the boys’ club in tech, one class at a time.
What originally brought you to New York?
I grew up in California and then came out east to go to Yale to study art. I moved to New York after graduating in 2007.
Did you have a job lined up when you moved?
I had a three-week internship booked, but it was up in western Massachusetts. By the time I moved to the city, I had some leads with photographers but nothing was certain. Getting a full-time job wasn’t really on my radar at that moment in time. I was just trying to figure myself out! [Laughs] I thought I would be interested in photo assistant work while I studied it at Yale—but like many things, the reality of the job was very different than how I thought it would be. Pretty soon, I was looking for other work and landed a gig as a photo editor at [urban culture site] Flavorpill.com. It’s a job that sounds fancy, but I was literally just finding images, cropping them, and uploading them.
The good part about that job was that my desk was in the production department, which sat very close to the development team. Before then, I didn’t even know that web development was a job—as far as I was concerned, the Internet just arrived at my computer! That was my first exposure to what would eventually become my career.
I had a lot of freedom at Flavorpill; as long as our work was done, we were able to pretty much do what we wanted. I usually finished my work pretty quickly, so I was always poking my head into other departments to see what they were doing. I started hanging around the development team, and they were really open to letting me help out and learn. I think they were happy to have someone who was enthusiastic about what they were working on.
Unfortunately, after about a year, the 2008 financial crisis hit and Flavorpill did a big round of layoffs. That put me on edge. I didn’t want to get laid off, so I started looking around for another job. I ended up finding a job as an associate producer at an interactive design agency. Ironically, after seven weeks there, I got laid off!
Wow, that must have been so stressful.
I remember I was really pissed, because if I had just stayed at the other company I would probably still have had a job. I had just moved into a more expensive apartment, so that made things worse. It made me stop and think hard about what my next steps would be. I was lucky enough to be able to recognize the way things were moving. I knew that there would always be work in technology, as opposed to editorial.
I had done a couple of small projects back at Flavorpill—I wasn’t actually coding, but I had participated in design and user experience and really enjoyed it. I took it upon myself to learn how to code. My former boss connected me with my first client, a woman who needed a website. Looking back at my experience level, I probably should have charged her only $500, but I asked for $1,600! I still can’t believe I asked for that much, but I needed to pay my bills. [Laughs]
How did you actually learn to code?
There weren't really many coding classes at that time, so I bought a book and then looked a lot of things up online. And I knew friends who were developers, so I could ask questions.
That’s pretty impressive! Code is a foreign language to me.
A lot of the time, you can pick things up quickly and learn as you go. At a workshop I led recently, the students had such a high bar for how good they have to be. They’ve been indoctrinated with this idea that they have to learn everything before they can start working. But that’s not the case. I’m not saying it’s good to be bad at something, but there are still so many things I don’t know to this day.
This is an interesting idea that applies to almost anyone who's learned a new skill or switched careers.
Totally! I’d been building websites for years before I thought, “I’m a developer.” I think this is fundamentally the case for anyone working in an industry that doesn’t have a clear-cut path. You’re never going to know everything. There are certain things that you can study for, but you're always going to have to solve a new problem. That's part of what makes it interesting and fun.
Did your client like her website?
She did! It's funny, though, because now I show it in class as an example of how horribly you can make a website and still get paid!
Did that first experience tell you that you were on the right path?
Definitely. I really enjoyed building the site, and I got a positive response from my client, so I kept going. After that, I was trying to do anything I could to make money, building websites and doing some freelance production work on films. Then I became friends with a designer and we decided to start our own business. We combined forces: My design skills weren’t strong, while she needed someone to code. We got an offer from a new client and we grew from there. We ended up incorporating, getting bigger and bigger projects; after a while we hired staff and had a design development agency.
After about two years, I was getting really tired of the process of taking on one project, and having to worry about that next one. I wanted something that was more long-term and I had more control over. This was also around the time when the tech industry started booming again—it was a tech “gold rush” and I wanted to get some gold! [Laughs]
We started planning out different ideas for companies we could start. On the side, we were also playing around with the idea of launching a site about technology, where we could write about tech in a way that would appeal to women. We’d experienced two sides of the industry, which we felt nobody was talking about. One: It was so full of creative opportunities. Two: For women in particular, it could also be very intimidating.
I imagine that’s why so many women don’t start down that path.
Exactly. I applied to this community program at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism that focused on innovative digital journalism. Through that program we met this woman Jennifer McFadden who was researching education opportunities, and I came to her with the early concept for Skillcrush. We all started working together and ended up applying for an incubator to get a bit of funding. It wasn't really market validation, but it made us feel validated to get some money.
So Skillcrush was always about teaching people?
Yes! At the beginning, Skillcrush was a newsletter for women working in tech. It was also a concept that was a card deck. I had this crazy idea called the Diva Deck, which was a stack of flashcards for learning code. On one side would be code or a question, and the answer would be on the other side. The cards would also link to our newsletter and online tutorials. I wanted to create something that was super simple and really broke down coding into an easy-to-learn system.
Now Skillcrush is an online institution! If someone had never heard of Skillcrush, how would you describe it?
Now, we're an educational company that teaches digital skills. The mission of our company is to empower women with the skills they need to get more flexible in their careers and on track for higher earning. We really focus on the unique challenges that women face in workforce. What holds women back? We want to use all the advantages of technology to help women break through those blocks. When you sign up for our classes, we teach you digital skills but also how to apply those skills: how to get freelance work, remote work, transitional work, and full-time work.
In your view, what’s the main reason there are fewer women than men in tech?
One of the biggest things is the way that the tech industry and technology are talked about and taught. People in tech are often seen as “in the know”— like they almost have special powers, or speak a different language. Which is a ton of bullshit! These things are not hard to learn; you can do it if you want to. It’s also why so many students go through a year of study and still feel completely overwhelmed by what they don’t know, so they don’t feel like they have the skills to go for jobs in the industry. This is an inaccurate way of thinking—you just don’t need to know everything in order to go for it.
These are just some of the ways of thinking that exclude women. The irony is that tech is really well positioned for women. This is why I started Skillcrush. Women feel that they can’t overcome these obstacles, so we’re teaching them that isn’t the case. You can do it!
That being said, we don’t just teach women—although 80% of our students are women. Anyone is welcome.
I remember reading an article about how women apply for jobs, versus how men do. Women will not apply for a job unless they are 100% qualified for it. Men will give it a go, even if they don’t fit all the hiring qualifications.
Exactly. I think there are so many reasons why this happens. Women are taught from a young age not to take as many risks. We’re very slowly seeing the tech industry change, but it’s still very much a boys’ club. It can be intimidating to try to “crack” into that when you haven’t worked in that field before.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
There’s a piece of advice I often give that can seem like I’m trying to crush people’s hopes and dreams. [Laughs] It’s about building a business that has a better chance of becoming successful. People often have an idea—they feel like they won the lottery because their idea is so brilliant. But that’s only a fraction of your business. It has to be able to interact with the market to ever become something. Running a business is about identifying a problem the customer has and then solving that problem. If you're lucky, your brilliant idea solves a real problem that a real customer has. If it doesn’t, then you’re probably not going to be able to make it a business.
What does New York mean to you?
New York is so complicated. I feel like part of loving New York is hating New York, you know? New York is the place where I started my business. I don’t think I could have done this anywhere else. In Silicon Valley, where there are so many tech startups, it would have been harder because everything I’m teaching is taken for granted. This city has been good to me. We’ve made it work here!
Learn more about Skillcrush here.