Hacking the Education System

What do entrepreneurs do when their passion is not in reach 5 days out of 7? They find a solution, a hack.

Hi, I’m Simon. 25 living in London, originally from Belgium. My career so far consisted of a bunch of my own projects and also full-time careers at Microsoft, Cloudflare, and now Vercel. At the age of 15, my parents and I chose the path of self-directed learning. What made us decide on an alternative path was a mix of elements. The key ones being that 8:30 to 16:30 classes with 19-25 other students, the context switching every 50 min, the sensory overload in school and the outdated curriculum was not the ideal learning environment for me. I wasn’t allowed to bring my laptop to boarding school. Teachers either didn’t understand me or wouldn’t because of the workload they faced. Some were just unfit for the job, as an example: a teacher once told me “I don’t like children with an opinion”. So, we took a step back and looked at the broader goal. The aim was to build a learning structure that would comply with the educational requirements and allow me to pursue my dreams and develop my talents in the fields of technology, connectivity and product management.

My view of the high-level goals education should achieve:

  1. empower the ability to critical thinking
  1. form an opinion based on factual information backed by science
  1. offer exposure to a wide range of subjects allowing individuals to find their passions
  1. build a social circle that offers continued exposure to new subjects as they emerge

I cannot stress the first element enough; critical thinking is what allows for a democracy to function.

Education is a broad and generic concept. In Belgium, going to school was the most straightforward path, but it was not mandatory at the time. However, ‘learning’ up until the age of 18 was mandatory, and certain learning milestones had to be achieved by a certain age. This also meant that exams would take place at “the examination comity of the Flemish government”. When you weren’t formally registered in a school, you could expect checks as - rightfully so - government needs to keep track of your development. Keeping record of what you did while others were at school was the right thing to do.

The broadness of the law in combination with the system of “the examination comity of the Flemish government” allowed for a more flexible education system. Afterall, Belgium was one of the first countries in history to legalize gay marriage, the roots of a progressive country are there. This system already existed before the internet became a commodity and was primarily used by students that couldn’t go to a school because of travel, health or other reasons. Think of the Greta Thunberg-type of profile or kids that grew up on a boat traveling the world. With the internet, this system accidentally enabled a more modern approach to formal learning and also reduces school drop-outs. I don’t use the word ‘accidentally’ easily in this sense. Education officials clearly have not rewarded the value of this system for some time now as they cut funding consistently.

In a way, I was part of the first generation that used the internet as a primary means of learning. There is no better environment that enables to dig deep into certain subjects than the internet. On top of that, if schools don’t offer a curriculum including subjects you are passionate about, the internet does.

Do you see why I don’t call this ‘homeschooling’? Home is not necessarily where the learning takes place. Circumstances at home may not permit homeschooling and in many cases, parents do not have the time or resources to support homeschooling. Often parents need to be at work, while you work on your education.

I shaped my education as follows: I had a tutor that helped me prepare for a certain exam subject for a period of a few weeks. 2-4 Hours per day and the rest of the day I could work on whatever cool subjects I found on the internet or do contractor work if it didn’t interfere with my schoolwork.

Amazingly, for many years one tutor, a master in mathematics with a profound background and interest in history managed to teach me all subjects. However, while preparing for the last round of exams, I decided it would be beneficial to ramp up the speed and get other tutors involved closer to home. I built a team of atypical teachers that lived and dreamt their subject. A history teacher that worked in the local museum as a side job, a French teacher on sabbatical from her day job as a social worker language teacher in a bilingual city… The team grew and the team also needed managing. And this taught me unique skills.

After normal school hours, I would look for people with interests similar to mine. Social exposure wasn’t a problem. Better to gather a small group of friends you share core interests with. Quality over quantity.

During the day, I ran various businesses. I had a network consultancy firm specialized in a tough type of customer: the SMB’s that operates from home. Think of the huge house that doubles as an office and warehouse. I also rented out Kinect game consoles for events, managed social media for a few companies, built websites…

For a while on Saturday, I worked at the local technology store and dealt with real human problems and learnt about how the average human is unable to deal with certain technology over other. De-escalating stressful situations, dealing with unsatisfied customers, helping people with their problems, evaluate what made a customer happy to the extent they would email the manager about my support and the solution I offered. I learned a lot of crucial Product Management skills there and to this day, I feel that that weekend job taught me a lot. Roughly around the age anyone else would graduate, I graduated. Right after my graduation I joined Microsoft as an FTE as I was already working with them before as a contractor. I was probably – although this was never confirmed – one of the younger people at the company at the time. I relocated to Dublin, and moved around a few different places before I landed in London. This is now my home.

All in all, the mix of the government required learning and the activities combined with my side-activities made for an educational experience I wouldn’t have had in a Belgian school. My parents enabled and paid for me to be able to do this, and went through various phases of disbelief as what I was doing was risky and certainly not widely accepted. However, it worked for me.

Something I learned on this journey, is to never settle for fundamentally misfitting solutions. It is always worth striving for better, even though the path there may not exist yet, and the journey is stressful at times. It is almost always possible to find a hack that will make something better.

Today, learning remotely has gotten easier than ever before. Coders can be celebrities on Twitch, Discord groups can be the basis of great friendships, Tiktok can teach you facts schools never talk about, FreeCodeCamp can teach you the basics of CS, some random person online can facilitate your first job… Without feeling pressure, you can make huge moves from your laptop at your own pace.

What I did worked for me. My circumstances are probably different from yours. It's OK to learn what’s possible from others, but you can build your own path. Don't be afraid to be the first.

I hope that helped

That's me out of words for today. Any questions or feedback? I'm on Elon Musk's website.