Teaching the next generation of Filipino Zuckerbergs

Ezra Ferraz
Wong put up Action Stack, a startup that holds workshops and short courses on technology, web development and entrepreneurial skills

Walter Wong thinks that the future of the Philippines lies in tech literacy. [Photo courtesy of Jay Campos III]

MANILA, Philippines – While working for Teach for the Philippines as its Organizational Strategy Officer, 23-year-old Walter Wong tried to teach himself how to code in his spare time. Of this experience, he said, “It was a difficult and frustrating process, as the resources available online were scattered and at times contradictory.”

A few months later, Wong got back in touch with Oliver Segovia, founder of AVA.ph, whom he knew from Ateneo Debate Society. Wong said, “We exchanged stories – he told me about his frustration in finding good local tech talent, and I told him about my recent adventures in learning to code. Over a few weeks we developed the idea for Action Stack.”

Wong bills Action Stack as “a venture that produces workshops and short courses to teach tech and entrepreneurial skills.” And in true entrepreneurial fashion, Wong said, “We had a website set up to explain the basic concept, and to avoid the trap of over-thinking it, we jumped into action.”

Unique value proposition

Of course, there are many companies and organizations that try to teach the very same soft and hard skills that Wong wants to convey. In fact, Wong went on to name many such competitors later on in the interview, including formal institutions, like local universities and tech schools, as well as online resources, like Coursera or Codecademy. 

Wong wants to set Action Stack apart in reducing the amount of time it takes to teach those very same tech skills. He said, “In his book The First 20 Hours, Josh Kaufman makes the bold claim that decent skills acquisition can happen with as little as 20 hours of quality practice. That’s the essence of what we’re trying to do here: help you acquire skills in tech and entrepreneurship in record time.”

How does he intend to do this? In a word: teachers. Wong explained, “By recruiting various experts to be Action Stack Mentors, our unique value proposition is that we hack the learning process so that our students won’t have to.” They are able to achieve this, in part, because their teachers are truly experts in their field.

For example, an upcoming course on startup valuation is taught by Oliver Segovia, the founder of AVA.ph mentioned earlier. He is one of the few people in the country who graduated from Harvard Business School. Another class on iOS development is taught by Matt Quiros, a software engineer from Sulit.

Having experts who know the best practices of an industry truly cuts down on the learning curve. Wong said, “I’ve spent countless hours getting lost online trying to learn basic tech skills. That’s great if you have the free time for it, but more often than not proper guidance and mentoring go a long way in getting you fast-tracked in acquiring new skills.”

Wong continued, “This was something that stuck with me from my time in Teach for the Philippines: a kid with great teachers and guidance early on ends up miles ahead of a kid without similar guidance years later (in many cases, it’s difference between a college graduate and a dropout by grade 6).”

He sees this principle holding true across all fields of inquiry, especially tech. Wong said, “I think it’s the same for tech skills – you can try to hack through online materials and read everything yourself, but you can often end up with poor foundations and take longer than necessary because of the frustration from your own trial and error. That wastes precious time and ultimately there isn’t even any assurance you’ll pick up the skills you wanted to learn.”

Minimum Viable Product

Wong has bold ambitions for what he wants Action Stack to be. He said, “In the short-term, we want to produce a lot of quality courses for very specific areas which there is clear market demand.” An example of this kind of class is the upcoming crash course on front end web design. Beginners don’t often know where to begin when it comes to web design, so a class like this one helps them easily test the waters.

Wong continued, “However, as we build the brand we hope to start encouraging people to acquire skills that are a little more underrated or complex (hardware hacking, for example, or data science).”

The latter points to a cultural shift that Wong wants to initiate in the way Filipinos view the educational process. He said, “The tendency for Filipinos is to aim for certificates and formal accreditation on paper, even if ultimately they end up lacking the hard and soft skills to do good work. We want to create a movement that drives a different mindset through the culture we’ve established in Action Stack – learn quickly, build something, and take action.”

Despite these great ambitions for what Action Stack can accomplish, Wong is resolute in making his product incrementally better one step at a time. For example, for Action Stack’s upcoming iOS App Making Boot Camp, their minimum viable product was simply “a post of the course outline online we put up last February.”

From that outline alone, Wong was able to test several hypotheses as well as receive feedback that he did not necessarily anticipate, some of which were very particular to the Philippine context. For example, the bootcamp was originally slated to run the course of April, but prospective students reminded Wong and his team that many Filipino families would be leaving for vacation in the middle of it for Holy Week.

Wong moved the course to May and made other changes based on feedback. He said, “Our segmentation of combining high school and college was off because they actually have very different mindsets and goals.” As a result, they’re “dividing the class into two: one for high school and below, another for college and up,” each with its own focus. “The younger group will focus on gaming, while the older on more cut-and-dry app development.”

Wong and his team even learned something from the Facebook advertisements aimed at getting people to sign up for the course. He said, “FB ads should have been aimed at dads, instead of moms during the first run. The two who got in touch with me, ready to sign their kids up, and gave me feedback, were both dads. Intuitively this makes sense – dads are more techy (it’s sadly still male-dominated tech world) and could better appreciate the value of the class.”

The Art of the Hustle

Again, even though Wong has as ambitious of a goal as anyone in the startup community – he wants to “spearhead a bigger movement for tech literacy” in the Philippines – he makes it a point to never lose sight of what it will take to get there. He encourages other entrepreneurs, no matter how clear their vision, to do the same.

For example, Wong could have easily rushed into setting up the iOS bootcamp mentioned above. After all, demand was high for the course because many students and young professionals want to go into the lucrative business of iOS development. Rather than take this approach, however, Wong wanted to do a trial run so that he can give the best possible version of the course to paying students.

Wong said, “For the iOS boot camp, I managed to get a few of my former students from Ateneo to help me out by being the ‘test subjects.’ These are business majors with no prior programming experience, and over a 2-hour session we managed to get them to understand basic concepts in OOP (object-oriented programming) and design a very simple iOS app (you just press a button and it outputs ‘Hello World!’).”

Wong conceded that “that’s not yet too impressive, but even Matt, the iOS developer from Sulit teaching this class, was pleasantly surprised at our progress.” It will take focusing on many small successes like this one to get the Philippines on par with other countries like the United States and Singapore, who have made pushes to revitalize their tech education, seeing it as integral to their country’s future.

No matter their field, Wong recommends that other entrepreneurs take each success – and perhaps more importantly, each failure – in stride. Wong said, “Hustle and expose yourself: get out there, meet people, test your product / hypotheses – it’s always easy to keep planning and forecasting, but until you’ve actually met your first few customers, everything you know about your market will just be assumptions. Your ideas always sound better in your mind than when they’re executed – spending more time perfecting an idea that’s never met a customer will likely just be wasted effort.” – Rappler.com

 

Rappler business columnist Ezra Ferraz graduated from UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, where he taught writing for 3 years. He now consults full-time for educational companies in the United States. He brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Follow him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz

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