Against all authority
“I told my parents, I’m willing to die on this hill. I don’t want to go on with this because it’s just about ticking boxes. My dad happened to agree.
“We went to the school, I think it was on my 16th birthday, and I withdrew.”
You may not know Keonne Rodriguez by name, but you know his story. From the age of nine he compulsively played with the family computer, and was being paid to code web pages for local businesses by the time he was 14. He would go on to major success in the blockchain industry – but despite his obvious talent and focus, he had challenges with formal education.
“I was in advanced programs, honors, advanced placement [but] I was really starting to develop an allergy to bureaucracy and things that didn’t make sense.” The breaking point came when his high school instituted a required computing course – one Rodriguez is certain he could have taught.
The college conundrum
Some of the most successful people in the tech industry either didn’t attend or didn’t complete college. Famed dropouts include Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak – world-changers who made billions of dollars without a diploma.
Those stories have become totemic in the tech world, even as broader skepticism of college spreads. That skepticism is partly driven by financial calculus: As tuition and student debt loads rise dramatically, there’s more reason to ask whether the investment in college is really worth it. Various startups and reformers have established alternative paths, from coding boot camps to online certification programs to radical new models like Minerva University.
Some organizations, such as Peter Thiel’s Thiel Fellowship, push an even stronger line: not that college is too expensive or inefficient but that, at least for some people, it’s a waste of time at any cost. The Fellowship awards $100,000 to “young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom.” Recipients must skip or drop out of college to be eligible.
That backdrop makes things particularly challenging and confusing for young people interested in careers in crypto. Spending three or four or five years on a campus could seem like a big sacrifice in an industry that changes so fast. And perhaps the single most widely admired person in crypto stands as an example of the potential of skipping school: Vitalik Buterin received the Thiel Fellowship in 2014 and, instead of going to college, used the time to build Ethereum.
But the data about college outcomes tells a much different story than the biographies of these few outliers. The average college degree holder will earn $625,483 more than a high school graduate over his or her lifetime. College graduates also have much higher lifetime employment rates, better lifelong health and even longer-lasting marriages, according to a 2015 study by University of Maine education researcher Philip Trostel.
Moderate critics of higher ed acknowledge this reality. “I’m a pragmatist. At the individual level, you should take the system as it’s constructed,” said investor Marc Andreessen during a 2020 interview that was otherwise quite critical of the status quo in higher ed. “I think it’s actually quite dangerous to give someone as an individual the advice, ‘don’t go to college.’”
The data about college outcomes tells a much different story than the biographies of these few outliers
The reality on the ground in the crypto and blockchain industries, too, seems a bit less freewheeling than the mythos would have it. While reporting this story, I reached out to about a dozen close contacts in the industry, asking if they knew anyone who had found a role building in crypto without going to college. Rodriguez was the only example I was able to unearth. Unscientifically, it seems the overwhelming majority of people with serious careers in crypto are college graduates.
That makes sense once you remember how many complex ideas are wrapped up in the design and deployment of blockchains. The crypto industry moves fast, but that’s in part because it draws from a many-layered, complex “stack” of intellectual traditions, legal norms and technical breakthroughs stretching back decades, even centuries. That includes not just extremely advanced computer science, but the far frontiers of securities law, economics, even sociology and art.
The bitcoin off-ramp
Keonne Rodriguez defied those odds and immediately thrived – not just without going to college, but without even finishing high school. Despite his outlier status, his means of ascent holds career lessons even for people who do take the college route.
Most importantly, Rodriguez was able to clearly demonstrate his real-world effectiveness thanks to a portfolio of web design work built up in his early teens. His portfolio was the first step towards a string of full-time positions that grew his skill set further, at the same age he would have normally been attending college. Eventually he found himself a very well-paid coder and designer at Cleversafe, a security company that’s now part of IBM.
But then things hit a rough patch, thanks to the same thing that was derailing a lot of tech careers circa 2012: Bitcoin.
“I got so obsessed with bitcoin that I couldn’t stop tweeting about it,” Rodriguez told me. “So [Cleversafe] got concerned. We mutually decided it was better for me to focus on my passion.”
Things moved fast after that. Rodriguez, who was based in the U.K., showed up at an early bitcoin conference organized in London by Blockchain.com.
Blockchain “had just gotten some money from Roger Ver and they were building out the initial staff. I just told [them], I’m interested, here’s my portfolio and if you guys need someone let’s talk. I was interviewed by Dan Held and Changpeng Zhao.”
Those names may sound familiar. Nearly a decade later, Held is head of growth at the crypto exchange Kraken. Changpeng Zhao is slightly better known as “CZ,” the CEO of Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange by a country mile. Rodriguez became employee number eight at Blockchain, living and working with a small initial crew in York, U.K. He eventually became head of user experience for Blockchain’s wallet, then its main product.
But can you write poetry?
Rodriguez, who evolved from web coding to front-end design, could clearly demonstrate results. But in fields where results are less tangible, that approach doesn’t work as well. “Anyone with hopes of a managerial position needs a college diploma,” for example, according to Steve Mintz, a historian and education researcher at the University of Texas.
That also applies to much of the high-level, back-end system design work involved in blockchain projects. In fact, blockchain encompasses so many deep concepts that it’s an ideal introduction to computer science as a whole.
“I use blockchain as a way to introduce a number of computer science fields in my courses,” says Professor Ron Van Der Meyden at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “Here we’ve got this brilliant application which, to really understand how it’s working, there’s a lot of pieces of computer science we can introduce – cryptography, consensus. And each of those has a whole lot of [complexity] behind them.”
That sort of deep theoretical knowledge may seem abstract from the outside, but according to Van Der Meyden, it’s extremely practical.
“You can look at a particular thing you need to code, and identify within that problem, [for example,] here’s something that a finite set automata would be good for,” he says. “You learn how to think about, ‘I’m not just going to write a program, I’m going to really care about how efficiently that program performs.’ That requires a conceptual toolset.”
That’s why Van Der Meyden believes there’s little comparison between the strictly functional coding knowledge conveyed in condensed courses, and what students get from a full computer science degree.
“With respect to code camps, I would say that what those are giving you is just the coding skills. It’s kind of like, you can speak English but can you write poetry?”
Van Der Meyden also believes those pushing against college may have a point – but only within their own very narrow sphere. Peter Thiel “is thinking of his experiences in Silicon Valley, Harvard, Yale, that small fragment of the world,” he says of the entrepreneur’s Fellowship program. By contrast, many of Van Der Meyden’s students come from developing parts of Asia. UNSW considers educating these students something of a social mission because it ultimately helps their home nations advance and grow.
“That’s a very different world than the world Thiel is thinking about.”
College in context
As Marc Andreessen pointed out, it’s important to separate the broader debate over college from individual decisions. Simple math shows that going to college is still the right choice for those who have the option. And this is crypto – we trust math, right?
Still, it’s important to be tuned in to the broader debate, which breaks down into essentially two camps. On one side are those who focus on declining public spending on higher education, which has pushed costs on to students. On the other side are those who argue the university model itself is broken, and that new educational approaches and less reliance on credentials are the longer-term solution.
It’s important to keep in mind that critics of traditional colleges are often trying to profit from the alternatives. Andreessen Horowitz has substantial investments in edtech startups trying to disrupt college with new models for financing and delivering education. So does Peter Thiel – making the Thiel Fellowship as much a marketing expense as a philanthropic project.
Broadly, would-be education disruptors “unbundle” the college experience – with its partying, athletics and residence halls – from pure education. For example, it was for a time thought that Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOC, would upend the traditional college model by providing free or very cheap lectures from top-tier professors, available anywhere in the world.
But the promise of edtech has become much hazier. The coronavirus pandemic shutdown of most in-person schooling was a chance for online learning to shine, but it largely wound up demonstrating the limitations of education ripped from its social context and individual feedback. Endless Zoom lectures and isolation have led to mass burnout for students and educators alike. That shouldn’t have been a surprise – remote alternatives had already proven ineffective for most learners. Fewer than 15% of participants, for instance, complete MOOCs.
“I think it’s much more than creating great content and putting it up on the web,” David Deming, professor of education and economics at Harvard, said on the a16z podcast last year. “I think that’s why MOOCs haven’t revolutionized the market, because that’s not what education is. Education is not just content, it’s also engagement and personalization.”
It’s also worth remembering that even as some members of the American elite voice skepticism of traditional college, others are willing to go to absurd lengths to get their kids on exactly that path. The 2019 college admissions scandal arguably showed just how valuable college is to the wealthiest Americans, who were willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and commit obvious fraud to fake admissions credentials for their unimpressive spawn.
But that’s just the egregious tip of the double-standard iceberg: One recent study found that 43 % of white Harvard students were either legacy admissions (students attending the same college their parents or other relatives attended), athletes or related to donors. (The rate was under 16% for non-white students). If those kids aren’t going to code camp or getting an education on YouTube, maybe you shouldn’t be either.
On the other hand, it’s true that college isn’t for everyone, and it’s certainly not perfect. I know that firsthand: My initial career goal was to become a professor, and I even earned a PhD and landed a short string of research jobs.
Ultimately, I found myself leaving academia. I had a variety of reasons, but a big one was that I saw the life of the mind dying a slow death in American higher education. During my career I taught at universities and colleges of various stripes, and found that many of them were havens for mediocrity and stasis, with professors merely pantomiming research – and even more often, pantomiming teaching.
There are still many colleges full of brilliant, engaged people in wonderful, grass-green settings, and I have walked that sort of glorious lawn. But not every college is the intellectual Arcadia of myth – in fact, it sometimes seems that fewer and fewer of them are. And this, too, is borne out by the numbers: For non-technical fields like business and social science, the rank and quality of a school has a major impact on the career prospects of its graduates.
The quitter’s dilemma
On both sides of the college debate I heard consensus on at least one good reason not to go to college: if you really, really don’t want to.
“For someone who is convinced that they’re a genius and don’t need a college education,” says Trostel, the education researcher, “they’re not going to put in the effort and they’re not going to get much out of it.”
In other words, it’s not that being brilliant guarantees you’ll succeed without a degree – it’s that without some humility, you’ll never earn one. Unlike most investments, education doesn’t just require time and money, but also mental and emotional focus. If you can’t or won’t apply those, you might as well not waste resources trying to earn a degree.
Going straight into the workforce might seem like an immediate way to learn practical skills – but it’s hard to say in advance what ‘practical’ really means
This was certainly true for Keonne Rodriguez. As much as his clear passion and portfolio justified skipping college, he was also very self-aware about the challenges he would face with a traditionally structured education. He even tried to attend college, twice, after completing his GED. His second try was at a computer science program at Oxford.
“I figured, it’s such a prestigious program, it must be different,” he says. “But I figured out it’s not the program, it’s me.” He dropped out, and soon after that he joined Blockchain.
Cases like Rodriguez’s, it must be emphasized, are exceedingly rare – particularly because Rodriguez, whose father was a lifeguard, didn’t come into the world with either a thick family bankroll or a built-in professional network. Many of the world’s celebrated dropouts rely on those advantages: Bill Gates’ father, for instance, was a prominent lawyer, and his mother was a major business figure who helped Microsoft ink a crucial early deal with IBM.
And as much as we celebrate successful dropouts, it’s just as important to remember those who fail. We don’t know most of their names, but you might include Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook has made him fabulously wealthy, but blindness to complex social impacts may earn his creation the same infamy now accorded tobacco and oil companies. Or take Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who modeled herself after Steve Jobs, in part by dropping out of Stanford. She is now facing criminal fraud charges in large part because of her lack of education in the basic medical science at the core of her failed company. At age 37, her name is tarnished forever.
“There’s also an ethics component” to education, says Matthew D’Amore, a professor and associate dean at Cornell Tech, which offers courses on blockchain and the law. “How does my idea fit into the world? Is my idea just designed to make money or is it designed to improve people’s lives? Those kinds of things don’t necessarily come naturally to folks, and the opportunity to get that perspective exists on a college campus differently than elsewhere.”
It’s a final helpful way to think about the college question for aspiring blockchain innovators. Going straight into the workforce might seem like an immediate way to learn practical skills – but it’s hard to say in advance what “practical” really means. The complexity of crypto isn’t just in the technical dimension: It touches on nearly every aspect of human life, and its transformative potential is so profound it demands truly deep, expansive thinking. And the industry rewards that: it’s certainly why I’m here.
Famous dropout Steve Jobs, surprisingly, is also evidence for the value of a broad education. Though he left the formal college track, he frequently sat in on college courses. The most important one wasn’t about computers at all: The seeds of Apple’s nuanced design philosophy, the differentiator that helped it become the world’s most valuable company, were planted by a course on calligraphy taught by a former monk.