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A podcast Series With Chet Kapoor

Season 1 · Episode 8

From Chalkboards to TikTok: Revolutionizing Education with Sebastian Thrun

Learn why Udacity (Founder & Executive Chairman) and Kitty Hawk (CEO) Sebastian Thrun believes job skill training and education needs to be a basic human right in every country, and how AI will help us get there.

Published October 27th, 2020  |  21:20 Runtime

Episode Guest

Sebastian Thrun

Sebastian Thrun

Founder & Executive Chairman at Udacity, CEO at Kitty Hawk

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Episode Transcript

Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast where tech leaders from global enterprises discuss their journey to scaling billion-dollar businesses. Chet Kapoor is Chairman and CEO of DataStax, with more than 20 years of experience working with global enterprises. Join us to hear about the experiences and mentors that played a role in their growth. 

CEO of Kitty Hawk and the Founder and Executive Chairman of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun is an entrepreneur, educator, and computer scientist. He also founded Google self-driving car team and Google X, the arm that created Google Glass and Waymo. Chet engages Sebastian about his passion for the world and putting knowledge into the hands of those who currently do not have easy access to it. People are the core element of every company, so give to those people and help them thrive through the power of education.

Chet Kapoor: Hi Sebastian, thank you very much for joining us today for the Inspired Execution podcast. I appreciate your time.

Sebastian Thrun: Hi Chet, good talking to you.

Chet Kapoor: So let me get started, but by the way, Sebastian and myself have known each other for a few years, and I'm always looking for different ways to associate myself and interact with Sebastian. He is a brilliant gentleman who accomplished a lot. So it really is an honor to have him here. Let me start with just a simple question, you've had a phenomenal journey, personally, professionally, you're CEO of Kitty Hawk Corporation, co-founder of your Udacity, Stanford Professor, and so much more, and you've said the three most important skills for starting a venture or thriving in technology, and it's well-stated, is to be arrogant, humble, and learn from failures. If you look back and reflect on your journey, of these three or any others you might have, what comes easy to you?

Sebastian Thrun: I am generally a curious person. I enjoy life the most when I am in the middle of learning something interesting, and it could be that I'm learning something about history or about technology, but I am most intrigued to learn about people, because they are the most complex and the most interesting thing that this journey has produced. What that means for me is, a job where I do the same thing day in, day out, where I am really good at that one thing, doesn't attract me. It is just boring because I might be good at it, but being good at something doesn't intrigue me. Learning something new intrigues me.

Chet Kapoor: And what was hard as you've gone through and become as successful as you are, what was hard?

Sebastian Thrun: I don't know how many hours we have to tell you all the things that were hard. As you become a professor, as you become an entrepreneur, or in my case, also a Google exec, there are just many mistakes you make. A year ago, in my startup company, Udacity, we went from 850 people to 300 people. The people who left, or the people I let go, were amazing people. There were people that came for the right mission, that worked extra hard, it just was the business hadn't really been worked out. And we had to focus on the business. And that's not easy, because you tend to think about employment and staff as people you want to make successful. You want to lift them up to become better versions of themselves, not as something where you end up and then laying them off.

Chet Kapoor: How long did it take you after you went from 800 to 300 to really go back and energize the company? Was it a short period of time? Did it take a little bit of time?

Sebastian Thrun: I took a violent part of the transition from a very broad company to a very focused company. I also started a new CEO search and we found after a year of search, a highly qualified person who became the CEO. And I would actually argue that the transition leadership helped the company turn a page. And now I think the company is extremely motivated, extremely focused, it's profitable, which is rare in Silicon Valley, but it's also rapidly growing.

Chet Kapoor: When you're going through things that are, you've clearly learned a lot, you've done so many different things, like self-driving cars, AI. When things are not going well, how do you overcome these hurdles? How do you get through it? What's your inspiration?

Sebastian Thrun: First of all, I wake up in the morning every day and think, what mountain do I want to climb? It doesn't change every day. It's 20 years or so. What is the thing which I believe has to be done to literally make the world a better place? In Udacity's case, it became clear to me that there is a thirst for education. There is a human right for education. In fact, job skills training, higher education should be a basic human right in every country. And there's an enabling power in education. If you educated women in Saudi Arabia, for example, all of a sudden we can change the structure. We can't change religions. So I'm a hundred percent convinced this is the right thing to do in my life. What's harder is to understand how to do it. Like, what's step number one? What's step number two? And you mentioned this in the beginning, I think there's two traits that collide, one is we have the steadfast compassion that something ought to be done for the world.

Sebastian Thrun: And it's worth anyone's life to just do it. But then at the same time, we have to be honest to ourselves, there is no book you can pick up at Amazon that has the 10 rules on how to do it. You have to invent the rules, and tease out the rules and learn. And that means many things you try don't work out the way you expect them to work out.

Sebastian Thrun: I give you one, quest for democratizing education. We opened an office in China. We thought China is the biggest country in the world for people, if you only catch 1% market share, that would be a great impact. It turned out it didn't work in China. Our brand, our name never resonated. And both us and our competitors all ended up closing the China offices. It worked really well in Egypt. Egypt is a small country. It worked really well in the UAE, in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, because there, we were able to garner the support of the federal government, and then go in and create the trust and the brand recognition necessary for people to trust us.

Chet Kapoor: Is your inspiration, what would you say is your, because you did say it's not the what, right? Obviously, we get obsessed about the what, but the how part is hard. And when things get rocky, is it the failing fast mantra that you use, or is there some other way that you get through it?

Sebastian Thrun: Yeah, so I don't like failing, whether it's fast or slow, and I don't think anybody or I know anybody who loves failing. So I don't think of it as failing, I think of it as learning fast. My mantra is, you can make any mistake, but you can make it only once. You are a fool when you make the same mistake twice. And that's great. If I make a mistake, that's not failing, to be honest. It's just you made an honest mistake. Check, okay, in my rolodex of mistakes, that one is now crossed off, but I better learn from it, and there's just no negative feelings attached to this.

Sebastian Thrun: Okay, I made a mistake. We tried that, it didn't work. It's like, you navigate a city that you never navigated before, and you find yourself in a dead-end. You're not going to be depressed. You just realized, okay, I took the long turn. Let's retract and try a different turn.

Chet Kapoor: I remember this quote from somebody, and it doesn't matter whether you're a golfer or not. But I think it was Tiger Woods that was being interviewed. And somebody said, "You cannot spend a lot of time thinking about your last shot. You must think about it for a little bit and then move on. Think about the corrections you have to make, learn from what you have to do, but don't dwell on it. Just move on.” 

Before we got started, we were having a conversation, very fond of what Udacity is doing and everything that's going on in the re-skilling world, in the education world. Very passionate about it.

Chet Kapoor: So before we talk about COVID, let's just go to something that's near and dear to your heart, long before COVID happened, which was AI. What is your perspective on how AI is going to change the education and the job market in the future?

Sebastian Thrun: Well, AI is this... Let's call it machine learning to be a bit more specific, is obviously one of these hot things that surround us today that will have a broad impact. Sometimes I think of AI akin of the book, the capability to have a reputable printing press, which was invented in 1400 in Germany. The book allowed smart people to take their knowledge and spread it among millions of people. Prior to the book print, smart people could only spread knowledge among dozens of people. And as a result, whatever decision is covered spread much faster than most viruses, to use a contemporary example.

Sebastian Thrun: AI is, even more, it can watch people do their work and pick up those patterns without even people even having to write a book, and then take those skills and give it to others. An example is self-driving cars, we have built AI that watches human drivers drive for a month or so, and is then able to drive as capably as the best human drivers. We've built AI to watch medical doctors, dermatologists, diagnose skin cancer. And after watching a few hundred thousand images, it does it as good as the best human doctors. We built AI that watches salespeople in the process of selling things online. Now, after watching 100 of them for like a month, it can do as well as those people and assist salespeople to be stronger. So for me, any repetitive work, even highly paid expert repetitive work from lawyers to doctors, eventually, AI will just pick up those skills and do them for us.

Sebastian Thrun: And for us, that means we are being freed to do the repetitive slave labor, in some sense, we can do more creative things with our lives. And that's where your humanity is always driven.

Chet Kapoor: Great point, there is obviously a pattern to which industries it affects first, but I think definitely a process-oriented work will get affected sooner rather than later, so that's clear, but what about the classroom? What about the education market? How does AI affect the education market?

Sebastian Thrun: Well, in two ways. For one, if you are a college student today, you better know about AI and the impact on all jobs in the world. If you ignore those technologies, then good luck being productive in the new world order. But also, education companies, like Udacity, are putting AI at the core. There are so many facets of AI that it is very hard to pinpoint it to one thing.

Sebastian Thrun: But one thing that AI does really is data and analytics, understanding what are the patterns. And when you understand what the patterns are, you can improve much more systematically. So AI is able to pick up the smallest amounts of variation among different learners, different curricula, and different problem sets, different lectures, and really optimize those to have maximal efficiency when they come to the student. They can do this much, much better than your run of the mill professor, like myself because we don't have that much ability to observe that many students at the same time.

Chet Kapoor: Yeah. I would not call yourself a run of the mill professor, but nevertheless, I think there are certain things that machine learning definitely brings. But would you say it's still in its infancy where we are, but companies like your Udacity are using it a little bit more, but it's not shown up in what we would call a traditional classroom, like in elementary schools or in schools or in colleges?

Sebastian Thrun: Yeah, over the last thousand or so years, class instruction has always been very teacher-centric. Around the early 19th century 1802, someone invented the chalkboard, and there was a vivid discussion among educators whether turning your back to the class while you write on a board is suitable and will still lead to the desired learning effects, and that was kind of the most recent radical innovation in classroom education. The reason why this is slow is education takes a long time. So as a result, innovation in education takes a long time, and people in education tend to be somewhat risk-averse. And it comes from the fact that especially in K through 12, that if you try to innovate in K through 12 and you make a mistake, you might actually hurt a child, and the child might not even have a say. And that makes it hard for people to try crazy new things.

Sebastian Thrun: I do however believe that there is an opportunity. And the opportunity that I see is actually, I wish that we would change the American classroom. We are doing it now through COVID. I just learned yesterday, since COVID started, only half of American high school students have even locked into a system for learning. The other half hasn't done anything. So there's certainly innovation happening, whether you like it or not. But further, than I think the real opportunity is in places where education is just not present. If you go to the Middle East, you go to Africa, you go to South America, you go to Indonesia, you go to big parts of China, Russia, India, I've just listed you three-quarters of the world population, you really want to find a good college there, a top one hundred university.

Chet Kapoor: Absolutely. The disruption in education is coming, and it has to be thoughtful. Like you said, if you don't do it right, it affects an adult or a child's life, and without them having any control of it, but I think COVID is going to do, as we were talking about before, I think COVID is going to do nothing but accelerate that process. And I hope it moves a little quicker because we certainly don't learn the way we live. There's an impedance mismatch between the way we live and the way we learn. So I think it's great to see you Udacity to all the innovations that you are, because all the educational institutes can probably learn from it in a massive way.

Sebastian Thrun: We all are familiar with the idea that we don't know something, we go Google it. That's learning, in my books. I'd say YouTube is a massive educational success. I actually watch kids spending endless hours on YouTube teaching themselves stuff that might be math or calculus, but it's still a lot of stuff that they learn from YouTube. So the human mind, in my opinion, is wired to learn. Sometimes the adults forget this, because we are scared of the unknown, and we want to be in a safe place. And man, some of us live a life that they cherish doing the same thing every day. But we look at children, children are sponges for learning. And it's amazing to see how they grab anything they can get to learn something.

Chet Kapoor: And it's really interesting, one talks about things like TikTok, I learned how to crack an egg with one hand with TikTok. There's learning happening all over the place. However, for a child, you have to structure it, because if my daughter spends 12 hours on YouTube, and it's an unproductive side, and that's the structure that needs to come into the education system, the human mind is wired for learning because I think that is... We're doing it even when we don't know we're doing it.

Chet Kapoor: To shift gears, Sebastian, you always said, and you said this in the beginning, I think about what the world would look like 50 years from now. Give us your sense of what education might look like 30 or 50 years from now.

Sebastian Thrun: I believe that education will become part of the entire life in a very positive and enlightening way. Today, we split life into the first five years of play, and then the next, whatever, 17 years are learned, and then the next 40 or so years of perform and work, and then the next 10, 15 years are rest. I think these slices of play, learn, work, and rest will all occur at the same time. That is, even a 35 or 40-year-old person will realize, wow, there's this new thing called DataStax or whatever it is, and I've got to be on top of it because I can actually do something interesting with it.

Sebastian Thrun: And then we engage, and just go into the journey to rediscover how to become on top of the latest innovation. The reason why belief is this is these two forcing functions here. One is we live longer than ever before. And second, technology changes faster than ever before. So I challenge any computer science grad, who is out of grad school for say 10 years, to point at something that they learned that is still up to date today, because the systems, the APIs, the programming languages, the technology is constantly changing, and maybe the basic skill sets stay somewhat the same, the same logical thinking, but you can't have graduated 10 years ago and know about the latest programming languages. So for them, that point, I believe the myth of one-time learning will be replaced by lifelong learning, by stackable credentials, by something small, and literally do maybe five or 10 minutes every day.

Chet Kapoor: And I also think that our mindsets are shifting, because we have this industrial era thing of, hey, you get educated, you go to this massive institute and you then go and work and you work till you retire, and then you have some fun. I think the new generation that was born on the web, and coming up and learning about AI, I love the concept of they're going to do all three of these together. So it's not like they're just going to learn in the first 22 years of their life. They're going to learn throughout, and they're going to have fun throughout, and they're going to work throughout, because they're probably going to be doing it until they're 80 or 90 years, or even a hundred.

Sebastian Thrun: Yeah. That would be wonderful. Imagine how wonderful life would be if you get the chance to do something new. Imagine you'd be a lawyer for 10 years and then become a medical doctor for 10 years. And then you become a CEO for 10 years, how great your life would be because now you get these incredible new challenges in life that you have to master.

Chet Kapoor: Sebastian, I've got two questions, how difficult is it for you to change gears between doing Kitty Hawk and doing your Udacity? Because they are two completely separate businesses. And I understand you've recruited a CEO and he's running Udacity, but you think about Udacity quite a bit?

Sebastian Thrun: I'd say in both cases, I love the mission. I love what we're trying to accomplish here. We are literally reaching for the stars. Obviously, Kitty Hawk is a pre-revenue company, which is very different in style from a company that tries to be cash-flow positive. But in all cases, I think the core element is people. You have a team of people that you have to build up and trust and elevate.

Sebastian Thrun: And that's true for both companies. I'd say last year I was the CEO of both, and I had the misfortunate job to focus, and somewhat shrink Udacity and it's staff, and that's intense. That's just a lot of work and a lot of emotional work as well, because you have to say goodbye to people. But then in both cases, I'd say I get most engaged when I can help the most, when my time is best spent. And I love to get to the point where I can just blindly trust my leadership teams to do the right things, which is usually the case, in which case it's not that hard, in which case I have time for, for example, this chat with you, Chet, this morning.

Chet Kapoor: Thank you. So to wrap it up, when the story is written, so when Ken Burns wants to produce a documentary on how Inspired Execution impacted your company enterprises and the world and how it came about, when the documentary airs for the first time, what will the narrator say in the 30 second promo to entice us all to tune in to this episode?

Sebastian Thrun: Oh my God, first of all, I'm positive it will never be written because there's so much more better entrepreneurs in the Valley than myself. But I do remember a while back I got a brain scan, and there's a region in my brain that's missing, it's filled by fluid the size of a walnut. And I showed this to my team and said, this is the fear center, and some of my brain didn't develop yet. When you ask people about me, for better or worse, fear is not a quality that affects my thinking.

Chet Kapoor: And that is awesome. Sebastian, thank you very much again, and really appreciate it. By the way, thanks a lot for showing me that picture. I've had a chance to see it as well. So it's actually pretty cool. I appreciate the time. Good luck with everything that's going on. And I know you're going to continue to evolve the, not just Udacity, but evolve the education system and lead by example. So thank you very much for your time, again.

Sebastian Thrun: Totally. Good talking to you.

Narrator: We hope you take away the value of education and how innovation through AI can make it more accessible. We're always on a path to learn. So become an intriguing leader by staying curious. 

Narrator: Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests with phenomenal stories to come, so stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new conversation is released and feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at