Meet the Boss: Jeremy Johnson, CEO, Andela
1. What was your first job?
I started my first company, a system for buying and selling virtual currency and video games, at 15. It was actually a profitable business and an interesting experience. My employees had no idea how old I was. At 21, I dropped out of Princeton University to start my first education company. At 24, I co-founded 2U, which partners with top US colleges and universities to deliver online degree programmes. We went public in 2014.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
When a business is in its early stages, everything keeps you awake. I worry about helping to create structure to support scale and making sure we are finding the best possible placements in companies for the fellows in the programme. I worry about how we are training them, not just to be world class software developers but world class human beings and leaders. We are doing a pretty good job, obviously, but one can always do better. One of the hallmarks of Andela and our culture is the recognition that you can always do better. Andelans are constantly seeking to improve and learn.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
My parents are both entrepreneurs of sorts. They’ve spent my entire life building a non-profit in Trenton, New Jersey that runs an alternative high school for at-risk youth. I think their passion for education and impact had a lot to do with my interest in this space – and in finding ways to leverage education to create opportunity.
4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Argue like you are right and listen like you are wrong. The notion is that you want to be able to have a voice and clearly state your opinions, but at the same time you want to recognise that other people also see the world through the lens of their own experiences – and they know things that you don’t because they have lived a different life. It is better to listen and understand their point of view rather than try to talk over them.
5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I grew up in an environment where 90% of my classmates were from poor families. Later, at places like Princeton, I experienced the polar opposite. As a result, I have seen different types of people and it has helped me to understand that we are all kind of alike, regardless of cultural differences. We all care about the same core principles like integrity, honesty, perseverance, and respect. Once you can look past the differences, it becomes easier to see how the world could be different and how to better relate with people. And anything worth doing, depends on people.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
It depends on your goals in life. For me being on the job has always been the best teaching tool.
7. How do you relax?
I love food. If I find downtime, especially while traveling, my mind will often jump to “what’s interesting around here to try”.
8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
I’d love to be a morning person, but it’s one of the things I’ve never been able to crack. I am still working on it. Typically, I am up and responding to emails between 8am and 8:30am and at my desk by 9am.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
When I am interviewing people, what I am looking for is how they think and their level of curiosity. So I actually prefer listening to them to get a sense of how they’d deal with problems. There is no specific question I like to ask. The questions evolve based on the conversation.
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
The next decade is going to be extraordinarily exciting for the continent. If you recognise and embrace this fact, you can play an active role in shaping its future. Further, technology is going to lead the charge, so if you have any personal interest, now is the time to jump into the sector. My advice is to focus on the long-term, aim really big but also chart the course to get there, and be comfortable with the fact that it’s not going to be linear. Understand where you want to go and continuously work to do that, regardless of the challenges you encounter.
Jeremy Johnson is co-founder and CEO of Andela, a company that trains young African software developers and matches them with top international companies such as Microsoft. The company has offices in New York and Africa.