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  • Interview
  • 24 February 2022
  • 4 min read
  • Words: Northzone

A Fika with... Ariel Camus, Founder & CEO of Microverse

Northzone’s Michiel Kotting had a chat with Microverse’s Ariel Camus about combining remote work with education, scaling a more level playing field of opportunities, and making a long-term difference in people’s lives, one job at a time. 

Microverse is the brainchild of Founder & CEO, Ariel Camus. He started the company in 2017 to help educate and connect people from around the world to better jobs and opportunities. The approach is very unique: students collaborate with one another remotely, in real-time, just as they would with colleagues of a distributed team. This not only helps fill roles at a cheaper price for startups in need, but also elevates the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of capable professionals across the globe. 

Join Michiel and Ariel’s conversation about creating careers and opportunities, making a tangible impact through technology, and coping with remote-only challenges.

Ariel Camus, Microverse Founder & CEO

Michiel Kotting: Ariel, why don’t we start at the beginning! What you’re building is super exciting. What made you decide to embark in this field?

Ariel Camus: I think it was a trip to Burundi, where I spent almost a month teaching Computer Science at an East African university. Being there showed me an extreme example of people who were on the opposite side of the professional opportunity spectrum to what I could see in San Francisco, where I was based at the time. I remember thinking, “How do I fix this?” Do I go back to San Francisco and start a developper shop so that I can hire them? That’s not going to scale. So what is scalable? A year after that, I met Sid, the founder of GitLab, and I saw how he was growing, how everyone was remote, and how they were hiring around the world. Education has been my passion since I was 10 or 12 years old, so I thought, remote work plus education — there’s something I can do here.

What was it exactly that clicked? Was it a sense that there was a customer base for this, or that you could actually build a company remotely?

I think it was more the latter, but in an exaggerated way. It was like, wow, this solves all the pain points I keep hearing San Francisco startups complain about: there aren’t enough people, the salaries are too high, our employees are getting poached, retention is really low, and so on. At GitLab, they’re avoiding those issues: they pay lower salaries overall while raising salaries in almost every country they hire in. I felt it was inevitable that 1. companies would start realising this was possible, 2. there was a playbook on how to do it, and 3. there were already good tools and success stories to back it up. Though it came much later (this was all in 2015-2016), the pandemic did help us accelerate a few of those steps.

Let’s fast forward a bit. You’ve now built the product and you’re fully operational. How do you pitch the service to potential employers? Our audience includes a lot of tech companies who would theoretically be in the market for Microverse graduates. Tell them why they should hire someone from Microverse?

I would say two things, which are connected. First, we’re moving to a model where companies aren’t looking to outsource or nearshore, they’re simply looking for great talent for their team. Ideally, you want to attract and retain that talent. For us, that applies both to the way we work with students, and how I would approach hiring if I was an employer. I want to get to know these individuals. Are they great? Are they as good as someone in the US or in Europe? Do they have experience working remotely? Can they manage their own time? Can they communicate practically and work with people from other time zones, accents, cultures? 

Many of these are new skills for most of the market, and we train our students for all of them. That’s their superpower: they’ve already worked remotely for 1000 hours with people from 120 different countries, depending on each other to make progress. So when they join a team that is very international, they’re set up for success. Take Kevin, for example, a student from Kenya working for Microsoft. When the pandemic hit, he was the one who taught his team, including his manager, the best practices for working remotely. 

The second part is that employers want to hire someone directly, so we try to get out of the way as fast as we can. That means we’re not limiting our students to getting jobs through the partnerships we have, we’re giving them the tools to shine and empowering them to go and get jobs on their own. That’s where we scale. 

Clearly, scaling so you can help millions of people is one of your strong underlying principles. How does networking play into that? 

Absolutely. And peer-to-peer networking is one of our main focus points. Between code reviewers, mentors, group projects, learning partners, our students get to interact with a lot of different people in a highly competitive way. We’ve also started training ambassadors, where instead of having a referral programme, students are writing content directly with the marketing team. 

On the other side, instead of expanding partnerships, we’re getting students who already have jobs to share their Microverse network with their employers, vouch for them, and help them ramp up. We’re heavily focused on nurturing this community by giving even more incentives, like a discount on your income share agreements when you bring someone from Microverse to your company.

So much of that relies on who you study with. I remember when I was doing my MBA, part of what made it so special was that there was a real mix of people in the class. How do you factor that in?

In addition to encouraging multiple ways of interacting, as I mentioned before, we also have a rigorous admissions process — our selection rate is below 1%. A lot of that is selecting for what we call readiness, i.e. you have full-time availability, financial support for a year, a strong internet connection, a high level of English, and so on. While we want to accept as many people as possible, we know exactly who we can help today, who will do well in the programme, and who will positively impact the experience of their peers. That’s very important to us because as you say, the people who are part of your experience will determine the quality of your experience. 

Now that you’re a few years in, what kind of impact are you seeing? 

Quantitatively, we’ve seen the average salary increase almost 3x compared to what it was before, and that’s not including the people who didn’t have jobs before Microverse. 20% of our graduates have noted a salary increase of 10x compared to their previous jobs, and that’s just an entry-level job. The average salary increase from our students’ first job after Microverse to their second job is about 40%, and it keeps going up.

Qualitatively, we’ve witnessed a lot of intangible benefits. For example, students who’ve graduated and received a big salary increase are paying for their brothers and sisters to go to school, they’re renting a better place for their parents to move into, and they’re becoming an inspiration to other members in their community. These are real stories that many can relate to, and they’re so powerful.

Michiel Kottting, Northzone Partner

Inspiring. What countries would you say most of your students come from?

Africa represents around 40% to 50% of Microverse students. As a continent, Africa doesn’t just have potential, it also has a lot of momentum. Within Africa, our top country by far is Nigeria. The energy Nigerians have… it’s something I haven’t seen in any other part of the world — and I’ve been to more than 80 countries! 

Africa’s Achilles’ heel is infrastructure. But the future is bright! There’s a city being built outside of Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. It’s called Nkwashi, and a Zambian asset management firm is deploying $1.4 billion to build 10,000 houses and world-class infrastructure to demonstrate that if you can provide Africa with world-class education, you can get world-class outcomes. Microverse, together with GitLab, has a house there, where any Microverse student from Zambia can live for free for the entire duration of the programme. They have access to stable internet, electricity, housing, food, and they pay nothing — it’s all covered. The incentive is that those people will stay after they land a job and help build the city up. It’s all very promising. 

The other vast majority of our students come from Latin America, which has the massive advantage of being in the same time zone as the US. As a result, we see much higher employability and much higher salaries than in Africa. Their Achilles’ heel, however, is their level of English. If Latin Americans can conquer that, they’ll be unstoppable.

What’s the ultimate dream? What’s your long-term vision in building this?

It goes back to the idea of inevitability. I just can’t imagine a future where we keep wasting 90-95% of the world’s human potential. We have so many massive challenges to solve: climate change, extreme poverty, COVID… which, by the way, highlighted how bad we were at global collaboration. To me, the more we evolve as a species, the more complicated these challenges will become, and the more global collaboration we’ll require. Microverse’s goal is to accelerate that transition: how can we take something that might take humanity 1000 years to develop and make it happen in 100? In a nutshell, our long-term vision is to create a system that can accelerate this transition to a world where the place where you were born doesn’t have to determine your opportunities in life.

And you’re seriously drinking your own Kool-Aid, having built a remote-only company. Can you share some tips on how to manage that?

I could talk about this for three hours, but ultimately, I think it all comes down to communication. How do you communicate important information to everyone who needs it? When everyone is in the office, a lot of that communication happens organically through informat chats, bonding opportunities, and so on. When you’re remote, a lot can be lost in different time zones, especially your capacity to move quickly, which is so crucial to any startup. The way to make up for this is by being extremely systematic. At Microverse, we’re ridiculously obsessive about documentation and hyper transparent about where to find it. All the information someone might need is available and properly structured so that whoever needs it can access it without having to ask. Without this, you lose all velocity and it will just kill you. 

Amazing, thanks for the tips and thanks for sharing your vision with us, Ariel! The world is lucky to have people like you who are hungry to make a difference, and who have the drive and skill to actually do it.