clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Udacity, Online School From Google X Founder, Crosses Milestone After Switching Direction

Give a man a self-driving car or teach a man to make a self-driving car?

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty

Pop quiz: What did two of the world’s foremost artificial intelligence experts do after leaving Google?

Did you answer, “Go start online education startups?” Well done! That was the move of both Andrew Ng, co-founder of Google’s deep learning research, and Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of the Google X research lab. Ng left for Coursera, only to step back from the role last year after returning to AI as chief scientist for Baidu.

Thrun stuck with it. His new venture, Udacity, a four-year-old startup, began as a pioneering provider of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, with the broad edict of tackling all of higher education. In June of 2014, Thrun swiveled (very publicly). Udacity narrowed its focus, aiming for students that want specialized software training to advance in the tech workforce. Udacity now concentrates on “nanodegrees,” certificates from its online courses that are transferable to big-name tech companies.

Today, Udacity announced it has graduated 1,000 students from the program. Why did Thrun give up on self-driving cars and Google Glass, which he once led, for the messy, political world of education? It was “a calling,” he told Re/code in an interview earlier this year. Perhaps, also, the minds behind the economic shift toward artificial intelligence know best the technical skills it will demand, and the job displacement it will bring.

“I direct my work not towards what I’m best at, but where there’s impact,” Thrun said. “If you can build a self-driving car, that’s great. But if you can teach people to build a self-driving car, that’s even better.”

After starting in the U.S., Udacity has expanded globally. Its student number 1,000 is Momen Zakaria, a 29-year-old Egyptian living in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Zakaria trained as a physicist, but shifted to software around six years ago, teaching himself to code. He took an engineering job in Egypt, but hit a ceiling in technical ability.

So he trained more, taking classes with Coursera and, the online education company LinkedIn acquired. They weren’t satisfactory, he told Re/code over Skype. “They just give you an assignment and throw you in the sea,” he said.

In March, Zakaria enrolled in the front-end Web developer course with Udacity after starting a position at Umm Al-Qura University in Mecca. He was able to swim. He attributes Udacity’s distinction to its mentors — the company’s paid graders who assess student work and offer feedback. “I needed someone to help me write better code, not just a code,” he said.

Thus far, Udacity says some 150 other “nanodegree” students have graduated, landing new jobs or moving up in their company. Udacity charges $200 a month for the program, but hands back half of the money to students upon completion. Zakaria took seven months to complete his courses, about the average.

There’s money to be made here, maybe more than in its previous incarnation as a MOOC. Udacity, which has raised $55 million, said it was profitable last year and continues to invest in itself.

It faces competition from a deeper-pocketed LinkedIn and a slew of startup specialists, as well as larger tech companies that are wading into education.

Udacity has help, however, pulling resources and support from big tech firms, including Thrun’s old employer. With the launch of “nanodegrees,” Udacity partnered with AT&T to offer scholarships. Last May, the startup roped in Google, which started to lend curriculum and instructing staff for tailored courses. Google was also behind launches of the “nanodegree” programs in Egypt and India.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.