General Assembly: Big Data On The Curriculum As Tech Ed Startup Opens London Branch

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General Assembly, the New York-based education startup that offers classes and mingling space to tech developers and entrepreneurs, today officially opens its doors on its new London campus — marking its first expansion outside the U.S., and part of a bigger international strategy that will see the Yuri Milner/Jeff Bezos-backed company also expand to Berlin in July.

Adam Pritzker, one of GA’s co-founders, says that London was an ideal first move abroad because the tech world here “has a lot of the same dynamics New York did 1-2 years ago.” But that doesn’t mean this will be a carbon copy of the original: he also says that GA wants to cater to the local clientele, and will be expanding its program accordingly.

That could see GA put a new emphasis on big data development in the future, he says — speaking more to the finance and finance tech community here in London, as well as other industries big in the city and ripe for technological innovation.

“Some of the most exciting opportunities are those in legacy industries like retail, publishing, finance and advertising,” he told me when I interviewed him on the roof terrace office GA occupies in Clerkenwell, a location he said they chose because it straddles a few worlds: retail, publishing and advertising in the West End, finance in the City, and all the cook developer kids in the East End.

It also happens to be around the corner from Skillsmatter, a local outfit that has been providing software education around the corner from Clerkenwell for a number of years.

As with New York, the premise in London is the same: the world is catapulting ahead in technology, but it is doing so at a rate where many people cannot keep up: GA provides a place for developers and non-developers to pick up those skills and get more engaged.

Also like GA’s U.S. operations, the London branch will adhere to the same values of providing a “crowdsourced network” of teachers and students — the idea being that those who are coming to GA to pick up a new skill such as Ruby on Rails development may have skills to offer in return. But the group is also showing increasing signs of making more targeted moves to serving enterprise customers with specifically tailored training services.

One example of that was a recent deal with General Electric. Prtizker says that he noticed one GE employee taking a front-end web developer course at General Assembly, and when he asked to get connected to her boss, the end result was GE sending 100 more employees their way.

It may be that bigger organizations will also figure in London, too. GA was first wooed here by the Prime Ministers’ office, and it has also been working with the UK’s department of trade and industry to get the campus off the ground. Pritzker says that neither group have provided any money or business to GA for their London opening, but the people running those organizations will likely open doors to working with those who will. (General Assembly has had $4.5 million in backing from other investors and part of that is being used for this rollout.)

The London space for now is very much a younger sibling to the New York entity: for the 20,00 square feet GA has in Manhattan, it has only 2,500 here in London. But it can feel significantly bigger — at least on a warm, sunny London day. It’s arranged on the roof terrace of a building, with meeting areas outside, interspersed with glass-enclosed meeting rooms to be used for classes and other gatherings when the weather is not quite as agreeable.

Meteorology aside, so far the business prognosis for London looks good, and points to a gap in the market for General Assembly. Pritzker tells me that all of the programs it’s rolled out so far have sold out.

Looking ahead both in Europe and at home, General Assembly has its eyes set on new territories for its educational ethos: partnerships with colleges and universities are one, if they manage to break through the old-school resistance to change that pervades that world.

“Liberal arts is the core of the US and UK educational systems, and while that teaches people to think critically and creatively it doesn’t offer the skills to thrive in the modern workforce,” Pritzker said. “We do not think of ourselves as an alternative to any university, but there is a layer between those schools and the workforce, and there are not that many places or flexible offerings addressing that.”

Another is a move to more online/cloud-based offerings, a departure from the physical base that has so far been the basis of much of General Assembly’s growth. “We are starting to put our content online, but I believe that the future of education in the near term is blended,” Pritzker said. “Real life immersion, the offline piece will remain an important part of it.”