Learning as a lifestyle: A conversation with Álvaro SanMartin Cid

Many people preach about the value of learning, but few truly live a learning lifestyle, one where development, in the widest sense of the word, is baked into everything one does. Álvaro Sanmartín Cid, the Co-Founder of Floqq and now Growth manager at Udacity, is one such person.

His commitment to learning is perhaps only surpassed by his desire to take on new projects and initiatives. But, as Álvaro was quick to remind us, the two are closely connected. Recently, he’s been focusing on Udacity’s Android Scholarship Programme with Google, which is attempting to reinvent the classroom with the help of 10,000 scholarship students.

Read on to hear more about Álvaro’s story and his insights into making learning work in the digital age.

Álvaro’s key learning takeaways:

  • Take the time to invest in your learning and really live a learning lifestyle. Establishing a routine is important as you can’t learn if you don’t set aside specific “learning time.”

  • Look beyond your discipline and industry for inspiration. Apply concepts and lessons from the past to be more successful in the present.

  • Look to develop your skill-set in the round. Growth is a holistic concept so look to develop as many skills as possible.

  • Reflect on your learning strategy and create a “personal budget”: an inventory of what you want to learn over the next year. What is it that you most want to learn? Pursue it with vigour.

  • Embrace an entrepreneurial mindset. Starting new projects is the fastest way to accelerate your growth.

Floqq, the Ed-Tech company you co-founded, reached over 300,000 people with affordable, online video courses. Can you tell us a little about your journey to founding and leading it?

It unfolded very naturally. When I was at university – where I studied electrical engineering – I realised that my main skill set lay in building and managing teams. I wasn’t necessarily the best engineer, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I was good at helping people work together to reach an ambitious goal.

The teams I was part of always did very well in interuniversity competitions, and we routinely placed in the top three. So when the time came to decide what I wanted to do after university, it felt like an easy choice. I was always better with people than my studies, so starting my own business was the logical outcome.

How did you develop the skills to succeed as an entrepreneur?

Most of my experience has come through doing things. I sympathise with a quote that goes something like: “We will go from failure to failure until the final victory”.

“When I was in high school, for example, I started a mini-business, where I would rent movies to my classmates and their friends. I’ve always been taking on new projects and starting new initiatives — this has always been the way that I’ve learnt new skills.”

It’s always important to be able to work with people who have a different worldview, but it doesn’t provide you with all the answers.

Who are your heroes in the industry?

I try not to focus on my industry in isolation as I’ve found you often learn the most from people in other fields and disciplines. I’ve always preferred to look up to people like Alejandro de la Sota, an architect who created an architectural movement applicable to the sciences.

“Applying lessons from the past, from people in history who were enormously successful, is another way that I like to learn. Drawing from the lives of others has always been very powerful for me and I think you can take a lot out of people who have come before you.”

Ernest Shackleton’s story is another example that made me think hard about my own projects. He led the British expedition that crossed the North Pole for the first time and was a true model of leadership if there ever was one.

On a more local level, is there anyone you find inspirational?

Of course! I feel truly lucky to have built the relationships that I have over the last few years. They’re all brilliant and super-smart people whom I really admire. They also range across disciplines, from people working in artificial intelligence, people working for Facebook, people working for Google.

“Two close friends of mine, both of whom are psychologists, have taught me a lot about the brain and how it functions. This has had a big impact on my work because I’ve stopped looking at learning as a process or as an exact science and I’ve started to look at it on a more human level.”

I also have other mentors who help me achieve my goals. One is actually the son of Alejandro de la Sota, who’s been a director at one of the world’s biggest telcos for the past fifteen years. I talk a lot with him about the future, key trends and what’s going on in the world more generally.

What’s been your best learning experience?

There have been a few different experiences that I’ve learnt a lot from, but I’d have to say that the two summers I spent in residence at UC Berkeley and Harvard, where I learnt about organisational behaviour, changed my life. I learnt a lot about how people and companies behave and how to talk and listen to people.

One of the toughest learning experiences, however, was my engineering degree. It was so intense that it felt like a form of military training. For example, I had to resit a test nine times until I got it just right. That taught me a lot about resilience and mental fortitude — it prepared me well for the life challenges that came afterwards.

Where did your employees at Floqq go for training?

It was easy for us to find resources, as we were a learning company. What was more difficult for me was making everyone understand how important learning was for both the company and their own personal development.

“We regarded learning as a core Key Performance Indicator. To get this message across we actually made sure that everyone took time out of their day to learn. It sounds crazy because you’re literally forcing people to stop working, but I really believe that people should invest in themselves.”

It’s something that I’m very proud of. We created a culture where it’s about how much you learn rather than how much you earn. We placed much more emphasis on the learning side of the equation.

Are there any conferences or events that you encourage your employees to attend?

We prefer to let employees discover courses and content for themselves, but I would say that the best conferences you can go to right now are in San Francisco, like Google IO, Facebook F8, or Austin SXSW, etc. Most of them are related to new technologies and new kinds of learning technologies.

“Conferences are not necessarily a great place to learn new things; they’re a place to connect to people. You can watch a conference on your laptop and the takeaway is going to be the same.”

But what you can’t do on a laptop is talk about the field with the person sitting next to you. That’s the true value of a conference.

And what attributes do you look for in candidates?

I’ve always looked for the same thing when assessing whether to hire someone. I look at where they are now and how much potential they have. Their eagerness to learn plays into this. How keen are they to learn new things? How good at learning are they? The nature of work changes so much that people need to be able to adapt and learn new skills quickly.

“We also look for people that have a shine in their eyes when they talk about how they’ve learned a new skill or created a novel product feature. I’ve always told my team that we have to feel more like a band of artists than an army of soldiers.”

What do you think we’ll see in the learning industry in 2018? What are the big trends?

We’re going to see a movement towards educational platforms that bolster technical skills. This is simply because they’re the most in demand skills on the market.

In the corporate world, big companies will start changing their providers from traditional training companies to more tech-focused companies as a function of lower costs and increase performance.

“The way we measure learning is also set to improve. Technology enabled learning is much easier to measure than traditional learning because if you’re simply sitting in a room listening to someone speak than you can’t measure anything.”

If you’re watching a lecture on your phone or your laptop you’ll be able to track how long you watched it for, how well you did in your tests, and how well you did in relation to your peers. We’re going to see a lot of disruption in this area.

Where do you find videos and content?

TED Talks are my go-to for videos, while most of the resources I use come from a handful of learning platforms, including Udacity, CodeAcademy, One Month, Blinkist and Treehouse. I use these various platforms to grow in different areas of my life.

“Every year I do a personal budget: I disconnect for a few days and figure out the ten key things I would like to learn over the coming year. It’s important for me to have a learning strategy in place so I can spend my time effectively. The objective sheet, which lists my ten key learning goals, is really helpful in this regard.”

I firmly believe that we should look to grow in as many areas of our life as possible. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which suggests that people have seven or eight intelligences, suggests that it’s unwise to just pursue, say, logical intelligence at the cost of interpersonal intelligence. I’m always looking at ways that I can develop myself in the round.

Where do you find your employees?

I have a theory that great people tend to be surrounded by great people, so my first source is always people I admire and my own team, and this extends to our interns, all of whom are exceptionally committed and talented. We always ask our interns to invite a friend of theirs to see what the culture and work is like.

We’ve also used events in the past to recruit. We generally use events to target a specific audience and speak to potential recruits. It’s important to always put a positive image out there in order to attract the best talent.

What’s most important for progression?

The right partners for the trip. I think that’s the best way to grow: partners. It goes back to what I was saying before about always being surrounded by the right people. If, for example, you surround yourself by people that speak better English than you, you will end up speaking better English, but if you surround yourself around people who are miserable in their jobs, you’ll also start feeling wretched.

Partner up with people who are creating new projects and starting new things. This is the best way to grow and never stop learning.