GA Founder: ‘Berlin is Like New York a Few Years Ago’

By David Knight |

General Assembly‘s new Berlin campus will help provide a “vocational education for the 21st century,” according to its co-founder. Matthew Brimer sat down with Silicon Allee at the NEXT conference, where it was announced that GA – which already has sites in New York and London – will be coming to the German capital this summer in partnership with Deutsche Telekom. And Matthew said he was extremely excited about the scene in Berlin, comparing it to New York a few years ago.

The campus will be open to everyone and will offer classes designed to teach the practical skills and knowledge in technology, design and entrepreneurship needed to thrive in today’s economy, and Matthew explained how important such skills are for both employees and employers.

SILICON ALLEE: What are your aims with General Assembly?

MATTHEW BRIMER: The focus is to provide really meaningful educational programming and opportunities for people who want to learn these skills of the 21st century. If you ask what a vocational education looks like in the 21st century, it’s the skills that you need these days post-college to be relevant and useful for the growth areas of the economy.

SA: And what sort of skills are you hoping to impart?

MB: Skills that startups are hiring talent for, that agencies are hiring talent for, that big companies are hiring talent for. So as the Internet and digital technologies continue to transform and disrupt industries across the board, whether it’s fashion or finance or film or music, technology is becoming increasingly important in all these different industries. Whether you’re a big company or a startup, you’re probably going to be looking for this sort of trained talent which has these sorts of abilities. Traditionally there haven’t been these kinds of institutions that have offered this very hands-on, up-to-date type of education.

SA: What kind of people will be taking the classes?

MB: Anyone who wants to develop their skill set and pursue career opportunities that are relevant to these intersections of technology and existing industries. So that means people who graduated from college; the liberal arts core is central to the educational system in the States and in much of the world, and it’s a good foundation. But there are additional skills required in order to be in the modern day workforce.

SA: How exactly does what you teach benefit the students in the long run?

MB: We want to help people realise their potential. If you spend time learning these skills and developing these abilities, you could start your own company, you could get a job as a web developer, programming Ruby on Rails, you could become a mobile designer, you could be a user experience designer, you could have these career paths open up to you that would not have been available with only a collegiate education. I think (college is) an important foundation, but ideally you would be able to complement graduate school offerings.

SA: So colleges don’t teach the skills which you do?

MB: What we’re offering is almost vocational in nature, but vocational for the modern day era. What we have found is that this talent is in demand, these skills are in demand, employers are hiring for particular proficiencies, and yet there is not a lot of training going on in teaching these sorts of skills. We want to provide complimentary, skills-orientated training that in our experience we haven’t found traditional educational institutions focusing on as much.

SA: How do you decide what to teach?

MB: I think a key characteristic of how our educational system works is that we develop the curriculum in house; we work with experts who are practitioners in their fields to understand, by working with them, what are we teaching, why are we teaching it, how are we teaching it, to make sure that it’s structured and designed in a a way that’s really meaningful and teaches people these skills, and is also measurable. So we have project-based assessment, we focus on learning by doing; not just theory but actual practice – really getting hands on. All the instructors, the people who are up at the front of the classroom teaching, leading seminars, leading lectures, working with students on a one-on-one basis, those people are practitioners who are leading in their fields. You’re not having someone who has been out of the workforce for decades running a course; you’re having someone who’s doing this for a living. For teaching web development, we have someone who is a web developer, explaining how it works in the real world.

SA: Why did you choose Berlin for your third campus?

MB: I think what’s happening in Berlin right now is very exciting; it’s an up and coming startup ecosystem. You have this intersection of creatives, of young people coming to Berlin from all parts of Europe and all parts of the world, building companies, developing this real grass roots community of entrepreneurial activity. More than that, you’re seeing people being inspired by this entrepreneurial experience. So even if you don’t necessarily want to start your own company right now, maybe you’re working at a bigger company, you want to have that mindset; you want to learn these skills. Maybe you’ll start your own company one day down the line, maybe you’ll work at a startup, but this is becoming increasingly relevant for industry these days. Technology is transforming so many industries and you almost can’t afford to be missing out on these skill sets, no matter what you’re doing. If you have ambitions and you’re in an industry that’s changing, the Internet is probably going to fit in somehow to your industry or your company, and being able to have these skills and these best practices in technology, design and entrepreneurial business is going to be important no matter who you are.

SA: Having had experience of the New York startup scene, how would you compare it to Berlin?

MB: Berlin is a nascent up and coming community. If you look at where New York was a couple of years ago, I think you see a parallel to where Berlin is now. It’s on an upward trajectory. You’re seeing the community come together, there’s more capital flowing, you’re seeing the media start to pay attention. There are a lot of people moving to Berlin, collaborating, starting companies, doing innovative stuff. Once you get this momentum going – we saw this in New York over the last several years – at some point it can’t be stopped. It’s cool to see Berlin in this similar trajectory.

SA: You’ve started searching for a site for the Berlin campus. What exactly are you looking for?

MB: We’re still figuring what the exact venue is going to look like. We have a number of spaces that we’re exploring and we’re working with Deutsche Telekom to make that a reality. I think you’ll start to see General Assembly educational programs coming this summer, with a longer term vision of what the full campus will end up being like in Berlin.