Tech-Boom Bet: Coding School General Assembly Raises $70 Million

Jake Schwartz co-founded General Assembly in 2010.
General Assembly

In a new video game, a thimble-sized character in pajamas wanders around a disheveled bedroom floor blasting demonic bunnies and elephants with a rifle.

At first glance, “Thimble Nightmare” looks like a professional title built by a full-fledged studio. But the free online game was actually created in a few weeks by Sabastian Belser, a former human-resources worker who learned programming languages like Ruby on Rails during a three-month course that he hopes will prepare him for a career in coding.

“It’s a pretty dramatic transition from HR to Web development, but one that I’m excited about,” said Mr. Belser, 26, who graduated from the program in mid-September and is currently looking for a job in programming.

His crash course in coding happened at General Assembly, a five-year-old education startup training workers in software programming and other technical skills increasingly in

by employers. The company now offers classes in 14 cities, from San Francisco to Sydney, and has helped more than 240,000 students learn new skills. It says more than 99% of them seeking new jobs have succeeded in doing so within six months of completing a course.

To continue fueling its expansion, the New York-based company has raised a $70 million round of funding from investors led by Advance Publications, the owner of Condé Nast. Steven Newhouse, chairman of Advance Publications, is joining General Assembly’s board.

The infusion is a bet that the current boom in tech startups will entice more people like Mr. Belser to technical professions, and that a growing number of employers outside the tech realm will pay to train workers in emerging areas such as data analytics and digital marketing.

General Assembly is one of several young companies providing professional training to workers in specific areas, saving some of them the time and expense of getting a degree in engineering.

Many 20-somethings have flocked to online training programs such as Codecademy and Udemy and offline courses run by Startup Institute, Flatiron School, Dev Bootcamp and others. But the growth of such programs has also raised concerns about their ability to prepare students for careers in less than one college semester of training.

General Assembly offers 12 courses in 14 cities.
General Assembly

Students in these programs are unlikely to compete with engineering grads for roles at major tech firms, but they can help serve an “unmet need” for workers with some technical training at many other companies, said John Reed, senior executive director of staffing firm Robert Half Technology.

“You can at least come in and say, ‘I have taken some technical coursework, I have some familiarity with it,” Mr. Reed said. “It’s not practical, real-world experience but it’s better than the guy who has nothing.”

For its faculty, General Assembly prefers to hire professionals with years of experience working in a field rather than a teaching pedigree. To become a teacher, one needs to pass an interview, submit a coding exercise, teach a sample lesson and then, if selected, receive a license from their state.

General Assembly charges $10,000 to $12,000 for full-time, 12-week classes and $3,000 to $4,000 for part-time courses. Employers including L’Oreal, Visa, American Express and Viacom have also paid for corporate training programs, which combine offline and online instruction.

Jake Schwartz, who co-founded General Assembly in 2010, said corporate customers now make up one-fifth of the company’s sales and represent one of its biggest opportunities for expansion. He also plans to develop more online tools for helping alumni network with each other, in the hopes that they return for more training later in their career.

“I think of that community as the beating heart of [General Assembly] and the thing we have to keep investing in and keep growing over time.” Mr. Schwartz, the company’s chief executive, said.

Around 40% of General Assembly’s alumni return to one of its offices at least once a quarter, to attend one-off seminars or networking events, and about 5% of students return at some point for another full-time class.

It currently offers a total of 12 different courses, including both full-time and part-time, and expects 15,000 students to go through the courses this year.

General Assembly adds courses when it sees an uptick in demand from students and employers. This year, it added an entry-level data analytics course to help train more students in the area, which, according to a study done by General Assembly and career site Burning Glass, had the biggest percentage increase in new openings over the past four years

Mr. Schwartz declined to discuss his company’s revenue or the valuation it got from investors, but said this funding is “the last round we ever need to take before we are a fully self-sustaining company.”

The startup has raised a total of $110 million from investors including Institutional Venture Partners, Maveron, Jefferson Education Accelerator, Learn Capital Venture Partners, Rethink Education, Western Tech and Harmony Trust. Mutual-fund manager Wellington Management was the only other new investor in the recent funding round.