Today’s Notable Young Entrepreneurs are Lighthouse Labs co-founders Jeremy Shaki and Khurram Virani, who are taking an innovative approach to tech education and training students to become professional developers through a hands-on, customized curriculum…
Elevator Pitch: Describe your job in a nutshell.
Jeremy: I am the co-founder of Lighthouse Labs, an immersive developer bootcamp that trains students in becoming professional developers through a hands-on, customized curriculum. My job title is Chief Talking Officer, which basically means I go build partnerships, run all internal meetings for operations and administration, and work on strategy, marketing and growth. All in a day of a one-year-old education startup!
Khurram: As co-founder and Head of Education at Lighthouse Labs, my days vary quite a bit. Some days I’m involved in providing instruction and mentorship to our past and current students, other days I’m meeting and interviewing other senior developers in the community to bring them onboard as part-time teachers, mentors or guest speakers for our Web or iOS bootcamp programs. That being said, curriculum and classroom innovation is my core focus recently and I’m most interested in questioning everything we know about traditional education and experimenting with new ideas and ways of sharing knowledge.
Why did you start working at your company? What was the inspiration for this career route?
Khurram: I’ve wanted to be a software developer ever since I first got a taste of it in high school. In fact, I ended up building the curriculum for my Grade 10 Computer Science class to help the teacher who was struggling to teach Java, a language they were not yet comfortable with. So while software development has been my passion, so has teaching.
Initially I pictured myself teaching or guest lecturing at colleges and universities a later stage in life, perhaps approaching or as part of retirement. I got my first taste of it earlier than that thankfully, when I was invited to teach part-time as an instructor at a new bootcamp, and it was this experience that inspired me to relocate to Vancouver, start Lighthouse Labs, and truly innovate tech education.
Jeremy: I had been working at Sugar Media, an events marketing agency in Toronto, for 7 years when I was approached by my best friend to be part of putting a bootcamp together in Vancouver. I was at the point in my life that I was itching to put the things I had learnt from an operations, marketing and strategy standpoint into place, and with my age and career path I was ready to take a leap of faith and a risk.
The idea of the bootcamp was extremely exciting to me, as it allowed me to work on something that would make an immediate impact on the lives of individuals we were teaching, while also providing a potential case study in alternative ways of delivering education. It’s pretty special to be able to work on innovating education within the field of technology, and approach it using startup methodologies. I wanted to do something that allowed me to really challenge the status quo in education and there is no better group of people to be working alongside than those in startup culture and technology.
What is the best part of what you do on a day-to-day basis? The most challenging part?
Jeremy: The best part is getting to have conversations with students, staff, co-founders, employers and interested parties, where our ideas are both validated and challenged. The energy is incredible, and it really pushes you to consider all aspects of your business and education both present and future. The most challenging part is to maintain focus on what is most immediately important while also working towards larger goals in the future. Prioritizing is constantly a work in compromise with yourself, and I’m a hard guy to compromise with!
Khurram: For me, growing Lighthouse Labs from three teachers to nearly 40 in the span of one year has been incredibly fun and rewarding. I’ve met some amazing senior developers here in Vancouver and most of them have ended up teaching and mentoring our students here.
The most rewarding part is definitely seeing each and every student go on to secure work as a professional developer and hearing their success stories thereafter.
What is one sign that you’ve seen over the years to suggest that your work/life balance is off?
Khurram: The most recent one was when I woke up in the middle of the night from a nightmare. I don’t remember every detail of it but the general theme was that I had forgotten the names of some of my students. Dreaming about your work is one thing, waking up in sweats from a nightmare about it is probably a sign that I need some more R&R.
Jeremy: I have too many signs. When you are in your first year of building your company, you kind of put everything on the backburner. The only thing that gets my attention other than my business has been my girlfriend, who gets all of my extra time, and my family who have to deal with sporadic phone calls. My friends, gym, and books all miss me a lot. At least I think they do!
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Khurram: I’d love to continue on this path of evolving and shaping a new way of learning and share my experiences with others by guest lecturing technical and non-technical classes at larger institutions, instead of just my own school. I’d love to take our refined and battle-hardened immersive teaching model and truly revolutionize education by helping larger bodies (governments even?) get behind it.
Jeremy: Truly a strange question to consider right now. The next year will be so pivotal to the future of Lighthouse Labs and how far we can take it, that there are a never-ending number of options as to where I would be. Where I’m aiming to be in my next 5 years is to be working with industries and government to alter the landscape of education in a substantial way. The HTML500 event we have just finished bringing across Canada is one of the ways I have been helping that conversation take place within the circles of people we are talking to.
What is one major challenge that you’ve had to overcome in your career? How did you overcome it?
Jeremy: My biggest challenge has always been trying to balance the concept of building myself a professional floor where I won’t fall beneath, and being ambitious and aggressive enough to take big leaps forwards. I didn’t come from any wealth, and so I don’t have anything behind me that acts as a cushion. Early in my career, I decided to build my professional skillset to the point that I knew I could earn a certain amount of money if my risks didn’t succeed. At the same time, it was a constant battle of questioning yourself as to when you will know to take the risk. I overcame it with patience and a firm faith in myself that I would know the right risk to take when I saw it. It also helped to have a fantastic boss who challenged me to get better at my job while also supporting me in grander ambitions.
Khurram: One thing I struggled with recently was with the Learning Management System (LMS) that we were using initially at Lighthouse Labs. We chose to go with a popular, well-backed SaaS that was already out there and being used by other similar schools. However, it was really not built for an immersive, full-time, bootcamp-style teaching model like ours, and really got in the way more than anything. After a few cohorts, we thought “wait a minute, we train developers!”
So we decided to have our alumni, with the help of some of our teachers, build an alternative open-source LMS that suits our flipped and full-time bootcamp style classroom needs. It’s the software that the staff and students (love to) use on a daily basis. Not only did we open-source it from the beginning, but subsequent cohorts have contributed changes to the software and future alumni will continue to do so. Making decisions that affect our students learning are always major challenges, but certainly ones I relish.
What does success look like to you? Does Money = Happiness?
Jeremy: It’s where I am able to be passionate about the work I am doing, be in control of the amount I work, spend time with the people I love and have financial freedom to make decisions that are best for me. It’s some nice balance between achieving, impacting and living.
Khurram: Success, and happiness alike, can be very different things for different people. For me, success is not one final massive moment but rather a series of small yet important moments, and perhaps even an infinite number of them. The more important thing to understand is that as we experience these successful moments, along with all the ups and downs in life that is, we subconsciously reflect on them and tend to redefine the next set of success points.
What is the most memorable milestone in your career?
Khurram: When I graduated university, I actually was the antithesis of an entrepreneur. Not only was I not business-minded, I also didn’t care much for it, or so I thought.
After a couple of nine-to-five tech jobs that I kept for only a few months each, I realized that the corporate world really wasn’t for me. I remember quitting one support job in two months before even having found a replacement. Meanwhile others had been in the same role for years, having the same displeasure in their job.
After working with a few tech startups thereafter, I ended up catching the “startup bug”, and haven’t looked back since. I went on start my first venture, a CRM product that I sole-founded and built out of my basement. While I can’t say that I was successful in raking in the big bucks, I learned a lot about startups and what not to do.
That landmark shift away from the corporate world fuelled the learning that allowed me successfully found both Functional Imperative, a development agency in Toronto, and Lighthouse Labs, our coding bootcamp in Vancouver.
Jeremy: The day I got on stage in front of 500 people to open The HTML500. It represented the ultimate symbol of having used the career skills I had learnt up to that point but to do it for myself, for a company I started and for an initiative that I felt passionate about. It was the symbolic point of the transition of my career and I got to do in front of 500 participants that I was helping learn to code for the first time.
Do you have any advice for other young professionals?
Jeremy: Don’t discount the value in proving yourself. When you work at something rather than have it given to you, it leads to faith in yourself and faith from those around you that you can get things done. That faith, both from yourself as well as your network, becomes invaluable when you decide to take risks in your career.
Khurram: You’ll often hear people say “fail fast” and “learn from your mistakes”. While that’s a good philosophy, I think that it’s even better, where possible, to learn from the mistakes of others and avoid them entirely. As developers, we’re trained to not be wasteful of our time and resources, and this translates well into life as well. Learning from other people’s mistakes is more valuable than learning from your own, and of course, less wasteful.
Where is your favourite place to wine/ dine in your city and why?
Khurram: For dining, I’m pretty picky about my Thai food and Maenam in Vancouver is, in my opinion, the best modern Thai food one can find. For drinks, I’m a big fan of Scotch and really like Shebeen Whiskey House in Gastown.
Jeremy: I am constantly trying to find new places I love. I tend to not stick with one place. Right now, I’m a particularly big fan of the BaoQi Eatery on Davie and happy hour at The Flying Pig or the Gyoza Bar.
When you’re not working how do you love to spend your “Me” time?
Jeremy: Relaxing with my girlfriend and puppy on a rainy Saturday afternoon while we listen to hip hop, have some good food and drink and play backgammon is probably the best time I can have… that or playing, watching and consuming sports to unreasonable levels.
Khurram: I’ve always wanted to learn to fly planes and I’ve recently started taking flying lessons on weekends and hope to have my private license in the next 6 months.
Where is your favourite place to travel? Why?
Khurram: San Sebastian, in the Basque region of Spain is my favourite place to travel. It’s a very under rated city, which is part of its charm, I suppose. Many consider it one of the food capitals of the world, with enough Michelin rated restaurants to rival Paris. It’s heaven… Do a Google Image search if you don’t believe me!
Jeremy: I enjoy travelling too much to too many different places to make a decision on one and why. I don’t think I will ever want a massive house or a fancy car, but I want the financial and career freedom to travel and experience the incredible diversity the whole world has to offer. How can you compare, when they are all so exciting in their own ways?
If you had to choose a theme song, what would it be?
Jeremy: Let’s say “Happy” By Pharell. Every time that song comes on, I just can’t help but give some awkward shoulder shake and leg kick. That or maybe James Brown “I Feel Good”.
Khurram: Theme song? Music? Funny fact: I’ve never been to a concert. I listen to whatever is on and not annoying.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would you be doing?
Khurram: I’d love to own and operate a whiskey distillery and become a master distiller. I love how they get to sign their favourite batches. I’d also love to be an astronaut. So I guess that means that I’d love to be making whiskey… in space?
Jeremy: How do you answer this question? Politics, Sports Commentator, Comedian, Rabbi, Life Coach, Startup junkies, Marketer, Actor? Only thing I would rule out is a male model, and that’s only because it wouldn’t be my choice.
Do you support any charities? If so, which one(s) and why is that important to you?
Jeremy: I give small amounts of money to a lot of different charities, but the one I think I am most passionate about is Doctors Without Borders. It’s not that it’s important to me, it’s that it’s important to so many people across the world. Truthfully, I struggle with how to divide my charity money as there are so many worthy causes and I want to support them all.
Khurram: I donate annually to the World Partnership Walk. The funds collected support meaningful projects identified and implemented by local communities – projects that revitalize a rural economy, ensure clean water and sanitation, strengthen community-based organizations and educate new generations of girls and women
What to you is notable?
Jeremy: Pushing boundaries for reasons of merit.
Khurram: Making yourself replaceable as soon as possible is notable because it’s the true mark of a good entrepreneur.
Your favourite device? iPhone, Blackberry, Android or Other?
Khurram: iPhone – gotta get the apps from our iOS bootcamp grads!
Jeremy: Despite owning my own tech education company, I am actually not a huge device guy. I have my iPhone, my Macbook and iPad, so I am an Apple sell out I guess. Really I just wish it was cool to have a pager.
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