Warren Buffet, arguably the best investor in the world, came up with the aphorism called ‘skin in the game’. He refers to his first ever investment fund, while claiming to have had his skin in the game while he was at it. The phrase talks about having a significant amount of time, money and assets involved in a particular investment, while being aware of the risks involved if the investment fails.
As for the current state of the education system in the country, there was a need to try and align the incentives of an educational institution in resonance with the motivations of a student. Having some skin in this game was certainly an ideal narrative, far away from reality. Besides, engineering graduates in the country are largely unemployable once they step out into the real industry.
A question our founder Prateek asked himself before he started Masai School along with co-founders Nrupul Dev and Yogesh Bhat was, ‘What if the educational institutions in India shared their monetary risk along with the students over the course of their education?’
On an average, every company spends about 6 months in training their new recruits before they step ahead to contribute to the company’s organisational goals.
Adding the dots together, the conclusion was clear that the roots are derived from the broken education system, and they needed fixing. Institutions clearly lacked the capacity to keep their skin in the game when it comes to making an engineer employable and industry-ready.
Prateek, Yogesh and Nrupul got together and charted out a reverse-engineering framework to teach the necessary programming and software skills to the youth of India. It started with identifying the skill-set and the kind of seriousness employers looked for, in today’s environment.
The result was a military-style coding school, based on 9–9–6 intensive training that runs for 6 days in a week from 9am to 9pm. The holistic programme included 1000 hours of hands-on coding, 100 hours of soft skills training and 100 hours of mathematics.
Prateek says, “We always believed that skills are greater than degrees, and that is deeply embedded within every inch of our course curriculum.”
The Product-Market fit
Masai School started in June 2019 with a pilot batch of 10 students, which had a 100 percent placement rate. The second batch however, started off in August while the team had just about 6 members. The general conception, naturally, would be that candidates with a background in computer science and engineering would find it very easy to find jobs in tech companies. But on paper, the co-founders had their adamant thesis that it is also possible to make non-technical people employable and ready for tech companies.
By January 2020, the second batch graduated with a placement rate of 87.1 percent, with the highest package being Rs 15 LPA for a student. In fact, many students who have had their packages above Rs 10 LPA turned out to be those coming from a non-technical background.
Even if one could safely assume that this was a stroke of good luck, the third batch of Masai School that started in October 2019 and graduated in April 2020, saw a placement percentage of 86.1 percent, with the highest going up to Rs 9 LPA. Considering the market was blown away by the repercussions of COVID-19, the third batch had its own fair share of hiccups.
Despite the pandemic, having about 86 percent of this batch placed in tech companies was a real testament to the adamant thesis of Prateek, Yogesh and Nrupul. Above everything, the biggest revelation that a major chunk of these batches had students coming from non-technical backgrounds.
Ankur Kayesth who heads Partnerships, said, “The idea was to continue iterating whatever we were doing, which we did, and open more campuses, which we did not.”
7 months into starting the company, now with 9 team members doing it all, in January 2020, the team had already processed somewhere in between 10,000–12,000 student applications. Interestingly, these numbers had nothing to do with spending too much time and money on marketing, barring editorial press coverages. Word-of-mouth really was the hero for Masai School at this time.
As for the hiring partners, senior executives from large-sized tech companies were reaching out to the startup themselves. Masai School had realised its product-market fit, and the adamant thesis was now looking like a reality. To validate the product-market fit, the team had all the more relevant stories attributed to it.
At a recent town-hall meeting, there was an update on certain feedback received from a hiring partner that quoted Masai School graduates as the ‘most skilled and professional’ software developers they have had, as compared to the other coding schools in the market.
The COVID Effect
Towards the end of March, India went into a nation-wide lockdown. Startups had to come back to drawing boards and look after cash reserves, while the only goal at the time was survival. Multiple businesses ceased to exist during this time. With the entire global workforce suddenly going remote, there were adjustments, new normals and significant changes in mindset. Nobody had a clear answer on how long the remote-working situation would last until.
As for Masai’s demand side of the spectrum, many companies just stopped hiring. There were cases of low-balling the packages and revoking some offers that were already in place. The biggest surprise was that companies suddenly had their expectations raised on the candidates they were hiring.
Due to a remote-working environment, students also had to be good at writing, communications, and technical documentation, apart from mere programming and execution. In a pre-COVID world, it was easier to overlook these softer aspects in a candidate.
Besides, there was a minor online component to the entire curriculum, it was not until January 2020 that the Masai team did a pilot online batch. The team wanted to test if an online curriculum in a 9–9–6 military style environment would really work. The biggest fear as soon as COVID hit India was whether students would be able to learn fully online, considering the startup was all about skill-building.
“If a company was hiring for an SDE 1, they wanted the candidate to be as good as the best SDE 1 they already have in the company. I remember having to take down some recruitment opportunities by noon, which I posted in the morning. There was suddenly a huge pool of talent applying for jobs, and the recruiters were picky to have their own set of high expectations, all thanks to COVID triggering this phenomenon,” says Prateek.
Interestingly, this also made the team understand that the curriculum had to be improved a lot with respect to softer elements like team collaboration, technical documentation and communication skills. Though there was a component of soft skills since the beginning, COVID helped the team realise things like code walkthroughs, demo presentations, pair programming and several collaborative team techniques were also important enough to make them truly employable.
Taking these interesting takeaways into action, Masai School made the course curriculum air-tight, leaving no room for inefficiencies. The fourth batch that started in January 2020 and graduated in August 2020, had a massive placement percentage of 90.9 percent, which was when the pandemic was still in its worst shape in the country.
The quick iterations and improvisations to the course curriculum yielded immediate results, and Masai School’s uncertainty and fear of COVID-19 affecting it, only became a thing of the past.
The Virtual Transition
The countermeasure during the nation-wide lockdown was to suggest to the students to move back to their hometowns or wherever they were safer. Besides, the entire team had no choice but to take the remote-working route to keep operations intact. With the pandemic also hitting personal finances for most students, Masai School started to offer monetary support to students coming from an economically disadvantaged background on a case by case basis.
The response, as Yogesh Bhat opines, had been terrific, when the team moved from a campus to a fully remote situation overnight. The entire Masai team had moved to WFH and they assured the students that there would be no disruptions in the coursework.
He said, “Reflecting back, over the last 9 months, we haven’t lost a single day or a session because of the COVID situation. Both the team and the students quickly adapted to the situation, and the former was also assured that there would be no pay-cuts or retrenchment.”
Masai School’s largest ever batch of students came during the lockdowns in April 2020, with 93 students enrolled into it. And all these students were taking the fully-remote route for learning. Over the course of the last 9 months, Masai had a new batch of students about every 10 weeks.
The idea of having physical campuses in Bengaluru and Patna came from the fact that around 70–80 percent of the students came from these underprivileged backgrounds and also from Tier 2 and 3 markets. The question was about whether they would have a stable internet infrastructure. Masai only wanted to help them avoid these struggles with the right infrastructure. The premises of having a physical campus came only from this objective.
Now that everything had shifted online, the idea remained the same but some students were given a monthly allowance to keep up with their costs.
This initiative was also the root cause that helped develop the Glide Program at Masai School. Based on the overall performance, Masai School chose the top performing students who would be eligible for the living allowance of Rs 15,000 which would later be adjusted for, in their ISA payments.
Looking back at 2020
A large part of the edtech surge all around the world came from that part of the market which was already working and looking to learn coding part-time. But Masai School’s differentiator was that it had physical campuses in Bengaluru and Patna. Even the course curriculum was designed such that it is directly tapping into the fundamental problems in the higher education system, but wasn’t acting like just another course that was complementary for upskilling.
As for alumni engagement, students who got placed and started to work as entry-level developers would work as coaches or external teaching assistants (ETAs) and help the ongoing cohorts get through the coursework.
Till date, the team has always built in-house capabilities for technical teaching and has not outsourced any faculty whatsoever. Giving due respect to the core problems, Masai School made sure it never looked towards rapid scaling that yielded quick growth hacks and results.
“Going by the relationship we have with our students and thanks to the powerful community of developers that was created, the trust factor really went high up with the students. We don’t charge them a registration fee anymore, we removed the security collateral of Rs 1.5 lakh in undated cheques. Going into 2021, I think these are the things that we would want to continue doing at Masai School,” Prateek ends.
Disclaimer: Placement statistics are calculated based on the number of students who accepted an offer after graduating from Masai School.