Beyond Degrees: Navigating the Future of Learning with David Blake, CEO & Co-Founder, Degreed
In a world that's constantly changing, formal education alone is no longer enough. The paradigm is shifting, and learning and upskilling have become daily opportunities.
In our latest episode of LEARN, David Blake, CEO & Co-Founder of Degreed, has an enlightening conversation with Ted Blosser. Together, they dive into the future of learning, redefining categories, and how organizations can foster Learning and Development (L&D) in this new era.
“We must break free from the notion that formal education is the ultimate answer. It's not. We need to keep moving towards a future where all your knowledge and skills are readily visible and actionable. They should open doors and opportunities, much like Degreed did for higher education,” says David Blake.
In this episode, David discusses:
- The future of learning and its accessibility
- The process of creating new categories and Degreed's evolution
- The shifting landscape of hiring: work experience vs. skills
Tune in to gain insights into the exciting transformations happening in the world of education and the limitless possibilities for your personal and professional growth.
David Blake: You know, if I were to ask you, ‘Hey, you know, to tell me about your health?’ And you said, ‘Oh yeah, I ran a marathon 21 years ago.’ You know, that'd be an absurd way to answer for your health. But when I ask you ‘tell me about your education?’ you know, a thousand times in a thousand, people will say, ‘Oh, I graduated from SMU.’ Marathons aren't bad. And at the end of the day, neither is university. But it is all to say we have to get past this dependency on thinking that our formal education is the be-all-end-all formal education is. You know, the answer to what we know it's not. And we have to continue to chip away at this future where everything you learn and all of your skills they're there. You can see them; you can transact on them; they're going to unlock doors and gates, just like the college Degreed did once upon a time. Like, that's the future we need.
Ted Blosser: Hi, I'm Ted Blosser, CEO and Co-founder of WorkRamp, where we're redefining the corporate learning space with the world's first all-in-one learning cloud for employee and customer learning. Welcome to the Learn podcast, where we learn from the biggest leaders in SaaS and hear what makes them successful. Hope you enjoy the show. All right, welcome back, everybody. We have a special guest on the Learn podcast today. We have Dave Blake, CEO of Degreed. Dave, thanks so much for joining us.
David Blake: Yeah, happy to be here.
Ted Blosser: Well, before we jump into the meat of our conversation, I wanted to see if you could give us an elevator pitch on Degreed. I think most people know Degreed, but in case they don't give us the quick elevator pitch.
David Blake: Degreed, we say our mission is to jailbreak the Degreed. And what we always meant by that is we exist to build that future where learning is lifelong and where you get credit for everything you learn and all of your skills, irrespective of how or where you learn that that's what we're all about.
Ted Blosser: Love that. If I were rating your pitch score, that'd be five for five on my scorecard there, so that's very well said. But, Dave, I want to start with a really fun topic. I was doing a lot of, I've known about you for a while being in the category, but I wanted to learn more about the early days. Back in 2012, you pioneered the learning experience platform category, so the LXP category. Tell us about those early days. What were the insights you saw? And then we'll talk about the evolution next, but let's go back to 2012. What did you see on the market? Why did you feel a need to start Degreed?
David Blake: Sure. I got advice somewhere along the lines that someone said being early is the same thing as being wrong and Degreed. We were probably just honestly at risk of this idea. we were early with this idea. you know, in 2012, it was still a time and place where college was the default pathway. The college Degreed was still sacred and unchallenged. And as we've seen the skills gap grow, as we've seen the demand for lifelong learning increase, you know, the world is starting to reevaluate how we look at talent and think about how we measure people. So it is a different world. But if you go all the way back to 2012, you know, I'd say the one insight for me, I fell in love with education, became passionate, and even falling in love is maybe to romanticize it, I was kind of, you know, more pissed off honestly at education.
You know, when I was graduating from high school and sat for the ACT, I was like, you know, holy hell, this three and a half hour is how the grownups decided they were going to sort all of us, 17-year-olds in, and out of our future. And I was like, no, not, this can't be what all the grownups decided to do. Like, you know, I was a bit pissed. and so I started to think about education as a system and how it is going to need to change. And to come back to 2012, what was, it did come right on the heels of the MOOCs. So exciting stuff was happening. There was disruption in the air, but everyone was working on content. Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, Pluralsight linda.com, edX, Khan Academy Code Academy, all of the innovation at that moment, was a hundred percent on how we democratize learning.
How do we get the content and, you know, make it free or low cost and get it distributed across the world? And my brain and experience, I was hyper-focused on how we signal, how we credential, how we answer for our education. So while everyone else was working on the content side of the equation, I was one of the few at that moment thinking about the credential. And so, you know, the short version, you know, it's a long journey. We can double-click on any of it, but I wanted to give people a way to answer for all of their education and skills. And it's still largely true today, but it was especially true in 2012, which is you ask someone, tell me about your education, and they will tell you where they went to university or that they didn't go.
And there is such an absurdity to that, you know, if I were to ask you, Hey, you know, tell me about your health, and you said, oh yeah, I ran a marathon 21 years ago. You know, that'd be an absurd way to answer for your health. But when I ask you, tell me about your education, you know, a thousand times in a thousand people will say, oh, I graduated from SMU, you know, as if that is a, a, you know, an honest rational, you know, the cogent answer to the question, it's not. And its marathons aren't bad. And at the end of the day, neither is university. I believe in the system of higher education and the role it needs to play in the future. But it is all to say we have to get, you know, past this dependency on thinking that our formal education is the be-all-end-all that formal education is, you know, the answer to what we know it's not. And we've gotta, you know, continue to chip away at this future where everything you learn and all of your skills, they're there. You can see them; you can transact on them; they're going to unlock doors and gates, just like the college Degreed did once upon a time. Like, that's the future we need.
Ted Blosser: That's such a good analogy, I'll use that more in our, maybe, our sales pitches moving forward. in terms of the marathon analogy when you look at 2012. You're spot on where I think even then, when I pitched WorkRamp to venture capitalists right away, they think, your market's, the Coursera market or the Udacity market. They don't think about the distribution and the software portion of it, which is where WorkRamp focuses, for example. Why create a new category though in 2012? Why not go into the l m s category or an existing category at that time? Why did you want it to be different? Give us some backstory on that.
David Blake: Sure. There's like a really generous framing, which is somehow, you know like it was all a deliberate, intentional choice or strategy or, or you know, we, the honest answer is I didn't set out to create a new category and I didn't set out to like create the next generation of, of corporate enterprise learning. It really was focused just on the problem statement. How do we, how do we help people answer for a lifetime of learning and skills? And we started to work backwards from that. Okay, well, you know, if it's really gonna be lifelong, then it needs to be portable. It needs to be actually owned by the consumer. So Degreed actually got its start with the consumer profile, which is still live today. and we are re kind of introducing the importance of that on the Degreed platform. you know, okay, well, if it's gonna be all of your learning and skills, we need to be able to track your academics, your professional training and corporate learning, and all of the stuff you're doing formally on your own.
So we just start chipping away that problem, all right, how do we, ingest your college transcript? How do we integrate with all of the new MOOC platforms and all the new learning platforms? And then as we started into that corporate side of things, that's where our vision started to meet the market and the needs that they had. And we were keen to unlock enterprise because we believed even if people start tracking all their learning, if companies don't know or care, it's never really going to unlock things in your career and in your life the way that your college Degreed does. And so we knew we're gonna need the buy-in of the corporations of the world. We're gonna need their buy-in to start thinking this way for hiring, for, development, for learning, for training, for internal mobility. And so we didn't know exactly, the short version is we explored actually making Degreed a platform that companies could use for, hiring, sourcing, and hiring.
And we ended up hitting friction, friction, friction, friction. And then we started to explore using it as a platform to help in learning development. And that's when it came together. And so our dream, our vision, our mission met the needs that the corporate learning and development chief learning officers were feeling in that moment. And it was, you know, that marriage that really did then create the category it unlocked, you know, it unlocked the use case and it really happened at that point, almost overnight Degreed. That's cool. Has like this many years to become an overnight success kind of hockey stick in our, in our story.
Ted Blosser: I've blog posted about category redefinition, like we're in the l m s category, it's, we're basically redefining it much easier. And I saying, Hey, whoever can define categories like the Qualtrics of the world, Degreed. Yeah. That is a much harder job. And I had never heard that origin story, so that's cool to hear. I want to see maybe if you can take on this challenge of condensing about the 11 years from your founding into, a little bit more of a story here about the evolution of LXP, and then we'll kind of come to the present day. But and we could do a three-hour podcast on your career journey at Degreed, but you also started two other companies during this time. You've taken the SEAL role on, again, walk us through maybe the two things, the evolution of the LXP category in your personal journey, and then how they kind of came back to a head, to present day. And then we'll jump into present day. But I'd love to hear about how you saw everything evolve over the last decade or so. It's gonna be a hard challenge if you can squeeze that in into an answer there.
David Blake: Yeah. I mean, it, it was a journey. and I wouldn't say, you know, we've kind of arrived per se. you know, I've always loved reading about Walt Disney, read a couple of biographies on him, just his personal journey, you know. There is always this kind of, I mean, especially you and I, I mean, just like Disney was already a global phenomenon by the time we were born. Like, it just has always been there. It's always been the most successful storytelling, the most successful, you know, animation studio. Like it was just always there. But of course, that isn't true. You know, he had to build a brick by brick, and the journey, you know, was one of leaping from one lily pad to the next for Disney. You know, it was first Lucky the Rabbit, and then it was, you know, Mickey Mouse, and then it was Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs and creating the first full-length animated film, you know, and then they would get to Fantasia and Cinderella and sleeping Beauty.
David Blake: The war would come; it would disrupt their arc and their journey. It was precarious, many times almost, you know, went on a business. Bank of America was actually the, the who, the financier who stepped in, you know, kept it alive. But then, you know, television shows up after the war and they start working on television and doing a series and, you know, and it was never, kind of, it was never in a defensible place until they actually got to the parks, building the park, and then that created, this kind of way in which it all connected together. And that's when it stabilized, and that's when it, you know, really began to be this platform by which they could tell any story and connect it all together to rides into merchandise and to, you know, series.
And, then, it became the Disney that we know. And for us, it's to say, Hey, talk about, you know, category creation and LXP in the middle of the journey. For us, you know, I still think we are in the middle of the journey. You know, we're still jumping from one lily pad to the next. The future is still moving fast. And for Degreed, what I think the kind of our, what's analogous to Disney, creating the parks, you know, or the castle, you know, what is, what is the castle that you're going to defend For us, it's always been moving to this world where skills is the currency. And so we were solving one problem at a time, going from one lily pad to the next.
And you know, I, I mentioned a couple of them to you. Okay. You know, how do we track all your academic learning and solve that problem? How do we track all your informal learning? Okay, solve that problem. How do we solve, track all your ir, professional learning, and solve that problem? Okay, well, just tracking your inputs. You took the course; you write a book, you write an article, listen to a podcast, you know, that doesn't immediately tell me what skills you have. So then it solves the next problem. Translate activity into, you know, competencies and well, that requires assessment and certification. And so, you know, how do we start, look, how do we think about that problem? and we've just been solving one problem at a time, all to this North Star. It's been there the whole time, which is we want to be the place that helps you answer for a lifetime of education and skills.
And I think we're getting close, and this takes us, you know, maybe you want me to double click on some of the other things here in the middle, but, you know, I do believe some of it's the democratization of AIand the capabilities that are unleashed on the world. Some of it is the maturity of the market. We all needed to solve problems, you know, one, one step at a time. But the market is coalescing around skills-based organizations and skills-based hiring, and our capabilities of measuring and inventorying people's skills are getting better. And so I think we're there. We're right at the doorstep of what is going to be, this foundation that I think is going to affect how we think to learn work now for decades. We're shifting from a role-based economy. We are shifting to a skills-based economy. . . And that is going to be fundamental. It's going to be radical; it's going to be hugely transformative if we get it right, and there's always the risk of unintended consequences, but if we get this right, it's a more equitable future. You know, it's less about where you went to school, and it's more about just do you have the skill. and so, you know, we're almost there.
Ted Blosser: This might be a hot take, but I came up with it while you were giving that answer. Would you say, even when you're talking customers or analysts, like, or fellow analyst, Joss person, would you, would you say that people should stop thinking about this as a category of LXP, for example? Like yes, that is a component of it, and think of this more around lifelong skills development. Like, would you, if you had the opportunity to redefine the category or help me coalesce the old category which you created and what you're saying around, Hey, this is skills development for the future. How would you think of those two things together? Or they could both be true in the same sentence. It's a little harder of a question.
David Blake: No, it's very apropos. It's a great sort of insight, you know, and, maybe, to borrow from my previous, you know, analogy. It's like defining Disney circa 1938 as, like, an animation studio and then just never being able to see in Disney anything but an animation studio. But, if you get to like Simon Sinek, start with your why. You know, if you see Apple launched the, you know, iPod, it didn't confuse anyone, but when, you know, Dell launched, what was it, the Zoom or Microsoft launched or whatever, you know, it, it
Ted Blosser: Confused every, hopefully, you, hopefully, you didn't buy one. Hopefully you didn't buy one.
David Blake: Nope, nope... you know, because look, Disney, his goal was never to be the world's biggest animation studio. You know, he just wanted to tell stories. And with every new technology that showed up, he took advantage of a new way of storytelling when color showed up. He used color when, you know, TV showed up. He used TV when, you know, audio, breakthrough showed up. He used them. And then, you know, he broke out of media. How do we tell these stories using, you know, a ride? How do we tell these, you know, how do we reinforce and tell a story using character? How do we if you, I will say, if you think of Degreed strictly as an LXP company, the market probably is going to be confused by what we are about to do? But if you understand that our mission has always been to build this future, then it will make; it's just the next problem to be solved.
It's just the next evolution of, of it's the next step in that journey, and it feels coherent, you know? And so I think, you know, it's interesting because categories, you know, just look, if we step back, not l and d, if we just think about like business startups, you know, operating, leading category creation is both, this like serves you exceptionally well, but then it also sort of defines you, you know, your benefit. You've created a box, you've put yourself in a box, and like now all of a sudden that box, you know, people have the budget, analysts can call it something, everyone can coalesce around it. There can be conferences born, you know, too, to help people understand it and mobilize to it like it does do a whole bunch of incredible things for you as a business, but then you're also in a box, you know, and that, that can be limiting. So I hope everyone knows that Degreed, you know, Degreed is not satisfied just to be the creator and leader of the LXP category. You know, Degreed is on a mission, and we're not stopping until, you know, you can transact on all of your learning and skills.
Ted Blosser: Hey, everyone wanted to take a quick commercial break within this great episode with Dave Blake of Degree. Dave is talking about how he's created the LXP category and transformed it to be the leader of skill development. I also want to tell you about WorkRamp, which is the leader in the L M SS category learning management system category. We're building what you call the learning cloud. The Learning Cloud is your all-in-one L m Ss to serve both your employee and customer learning all in one platform. If you'd like to learn more about how we're transforming learning customer education and enablement of companies, visit us at workramp.com. Now, back to the show with Dave. We're talking a lot about skills now, and learning and skills are how you want to define your future. And I was, I was doing my research ahead of time; I did a control F on your product page, and you said skills 16 times. So, you're probably SEOing well on that page on skills. but my question is, and this is more for the l and d members of the audiences, how should we be looking at skills moving forward, especially for l and d professionals, and how they make skills a more important part of the organizations they serve? Give us your, give us your take on that.
David Blake: The greed and the message, you know, in 2012, I felt a little bit like a, you know, lone wolf out there sort of preaching a gospel that no one else, you know, was, was thinking about or talking about. I do actually think this moment feels different in that it feels like it's a wave, you know, it feels like it's upon us, it feels inevitable. and I'm seeing a lot of really great thinking coming from, a lot of places, you know, from the McKinseys and Deloits of the world to the chief learning officers at, you know, Citibank and, you know, Unilever and otherwise, it definitely feels like this wave is here, but I think, and I think people are feeling it. We can talk a little bit about it, but actually what's, you know, most interesting is to try and look out five, 10 years and understand what this is going to do to the world. you know, right now, McKinsey published research about two and a half months ago about skills-based hiring as three and a half times more effective than hiring based on academic credentials. And at this point, that's not a surprise to too, too many people, but like, blow your mind away, incredible, is that skills-based hiring is twice as effective as hiring based on experience.
Ted Blosser: Wow.
David Blake: And if you sit with that for just a second, it's literally billions of people are getting hired every year based on their work experience. Like 99% of all job interviews and all hiring is in the framework of, you know, your work experience. And for skills-based hiring to be doubly twice as effective is radical. And I think it does go to show that I think this is actually gonna happen fairly fast. I think it's going to materialize pretty quickly. And, it's not just a fad because it is, you know, so much, it's just such a better way of operating and thinking.
Ted Blosser: What changed in the world where someone could argue in 2000 it was more of a fat it's Dave preaching from the, from the rooftops around skills. What do you think actually changed in the last decade that where you now truly feel like it's a, it's a wave that's unstoppable? Are there macroeconomic factors here? Or maybe tech, the technology caught up, or may maybe you were just that persuasive,
David Blake: Well, that's a generous way of thinking about it, but no, I, I mean, let's start with the macro because it's pretty simple and pretty clear actually, and I think does help to actually like, understand why such radical shift in the world. You know, two lines cross that have never crossed before. It's, we're, we're in unprecedented times. And that is the rate at which technology can scale surpass the rate at which humanity can learn. And what we've had in the past, we've had these industrial revolutions, and that was a moment in time where technology surged the change in technology, advanced faster than humanity could adapt, but humanity did adapt and caught up. And so we've had this kind of surge moments. Still, why this is fundamentally different and why I don't, I believe to think of this as like an, an industrial revolution, even like AIright now, to think of it as like somehow an, an industrial revolution that we're gonna like absorb back into society and catch up to, it's not true.
It's fundamentally different. And the difference is not the rate at which the technology advances. The difference is the rate at which technology scales and technology now scales faster than humanity can learn. So, in times past, the skills gap essentially ebbed and flowed. It was the surges and then catch-up. It was recessionary; it was, it was a corollary to recessions and bad economies. It put people back into the labor force and tight economies, you know, it, it kept everyone working. What is fundamentally different is now, the technology scales faster than humanity can learn, which means the skills gap is getting bigger every day, week, month, and year. And we do not expect that it will ever close ever again. And that's like radically, fundamentally different. We exist in a different context than we have ever existed before. The skills gap will we have right now, and we have no expectation that it'll ever close again; there is nothing AI included that could help humanity catch up to the rate at which technology is scaling.
So it's why, and like, look evidence of this, we're in a recessionary environment right now, and yet we're still in the tightest labor market we've ever been in. And that's the new normal, and so this, the need for skills is going up, which means companies are starving for skills, which means it's forced them to start thinking differently and looking differently. And that's the force that's, that's pushing this, is that they're starving for skills, and they have to get more efficient and better at both developing 'em, finding 'em, inventorying, inventorying them, all those things. It's that macro force behind it all.
Ted Blosser: Geez. That's the best framework I've heard of in terms of, hey, the why of skills today reminds me of; I remember at a conference when re Hastings gave a simple analogy of, like, think of the world before automobiles were invented. It was all about horses for many hundreds of centuries, right? And when the automobile hit, it just, it's transformed all of humanity, right? And you're almost talking a similar, along a similar vein, but with knowledge work, and individuals and our capacity to advance as a civilization. So that is a good sales pitch if we had to pitch to a co or l and d buyer there. Let me, actually, we're, we're coming up on time here. Let me close here with our learn rapid-fire round, Dave. There was so much great information that you shared with us. Lemme, lemme get sound bites there. I'm going to be able to use a lot of these as well too. This is going to be very well promoted, but let's, let's go into our learn rapid-fire session. This is the session where I'll ask you a few quick questions. You could give me one to two-line answers for each of these. They're all focused on learning, right? And so the first question I'll ask you is, who have you personally learned the most from in life?
David Blake: Let's see, professionally, a woman named Dan Duane, I quote her every week of my life. she gave me the template by which to lead and build companies. I think there's a podcast by a woman named Jennifer Finlay and Fife. It's all around, kind of our relationships and marriage, and I do appreciate the wisdom of others and the chance we have in today's day and age to learn from great minds.
Ted Blosser: And who, who was Anne? What was the relationship?
David Blake: So Anne's, the CEO of the first startup that I joined, Zinch, would be acquired by Chegg, which is now one of the bigger ed tech, publicly traded companies. Anne was the co-founder before that, a military.com, and, you know, just a really clear thinker, a really hard worker, you know, and she had put in the work to translate, you know, the things that had brought her success in her career. And that's a real gift, you know because you can see successful people, and you can try and emulate 'em, but, you know, not all of us do a great job at turning around and kind of codifying, you know, the principles that we believe, you know, drove it. And she did a great job at that.
Ted Blosser: That's great. That's great. Alright, next one. If you have, if you had all the time in the world, let's say you're on a beach, you can learn a new topic today; what's that topic you would love to learn about?
David Blake: Yeah, it's summertime. I was on a beach, just a week ago, so it's not that hard to think about. And was learning about, hospitality, love, and looking out at other industries to get tips and AI, and I still have a lot in the curve, around ai. I mean, I feel like, you know, all of a sudden, we all have a lot to learn, sort of, on that front.
Ted Blosser: Well, you gotta tell me, what have you picked up on the hospitality front that you wanna bring, bring back to business? Anything unique?
David Blake: Sure. The, oh man, now I'm on the spot. The founder of Shake Shack is this great restaurateur. Yeah. I'm blanking on his name. Danny,
Ted Blosser: I heard a podcast about him. He's like, he's like a former, yeah. Was he a former, former salesman? I can't remember. Or banker. I can't remember what it was.
David Blake: Well, you know, he in his restaurants, and I've eaten at one or two of his restaurants too, to be able to attest to this, you know, they enable everyone inside the organization to be able to do whatever it takes essentially, you know, pull down the most expensive bottle of wine and give it to someone because it's there, you know, anniversary or because, you know, they messed up the meal. Like enabling the organization to be able to mobilize that way. Being able being thoughtful at scale is hard when you have hundreds, thousands of customers. How do you be thoughtful at scale? And they systematized being thoughtful where every customer that comes into the restaurant, they take notes, and so they're able to follow up. And in eating at, one of his New York restaurants, my wife and I were exchanging, I anniversary gift and they found out that my wife is vegan and it was our anniversary and that we were there on, on vacation and they themselves are a vegetarian, vegan restaurant, but they came back and 30 minutes later they hand printed their recommended list of other vegan restaurants for my wife to try while on.
While she was in the city, and, you know, it's just, you know, think of what that took. It took like being exceptional, you know, you're standing at the edge of the table just reading, you know, the, the day's specials, you know, it took notice that moment. It took running to the back room, finding stationary, doing research, you know, typing it up, printing it off. And I mean, that is just the above and beyond. but they really, he is, he is inspiring in the ways in which he thinks about, you know, service and the customer and, and that lifetime relationship. you can get, do it, well get it right
Ted Blosser: And more, more tech companies can learn, learn from him. So that's a great answer. Okay. The last one I'm going to ask you is, is a career advice question, but what's the biggest piece of career advice you would give someone?
David Blake: Absolutely. Right now, learning velocity is the most sustainable advantage any of us can have. it's the most sustainable advantage any organization can have. Learning velocity. Good, good at learning.
Ted Blosser: Alright, Dave, great final answer. Thanks so much for joining us. It was great having you and another five to seven questions I could ask, but that would be too long of a podcast. But it was great having you, Dave.
David Blake: It was fun. Thanks so much.