Kathryn Parsons

Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Decoded

Kathryn co-founded Decoded in January 2011, with a mission to demystify the technologies behind the screen. Decoded's critically acclaimed course "Code in a Day" was launched soon after, which was the birthplace of the Pocket Progress Coach.
As one of the most respected names in London, I'm delighted Kathryn has found time to launch this interview series.

Kathryn, let's start with a simple question. Your success story is so motivating and widespread. Do you feel like you've made it?

I feel like we are just starting as amazing as that sounds. You remember the day you sat down and pondered whether we could do this. It was just an initial conversation. Everything is technology now, but it was 2011, Uber didn’t even exist. Steve and I were having a drink together. We hadn’t met before. I had my own business and was passionate about virtual reality and we realised we had very little idea about how the things we use worked.

Code are the instructions being sent to our machines, but we didn’t understand them. What’s more, pretty much every CEO we spoke to said the same. However, most people didn’t want to admit to that fact. We found that owning up to not understanding technology was a taboo. So we asked ourselves, "could you close that gap?"

We had a hunch that 99% of people out there were in the same position as us, but that was back in 2011 and we weren’t sure whether everyone would want to understand.

With so many customers from so many different backgrounds, do you feel Decoded has achieved its initial target, or has success and opportunity taken you down an unexpected route?

A big part has been about re-educating society – locally and nationally - getting coding on the national curriculum, which we are so proud to have been a part of (coding was made mandatory on the UK national curriculum in September 2014)! Creating a Zeitgeist; changing people’s perspective about technology.

Timing is important. Back then, East London wasn’t even Silicon Roundabout and society wasn’t being impacted so much by techology. People used to say "if I can drive the car, I don't need to understand what's under the bonnet", but with code, that is no longer true. However, if we had launched Code in a Day a year or two earlier, it may well have been too early.

We set out to create a transformational educational experience: learning that makes you go wow! We wanted to empower people to get active in that world, no longer a passive observer. Then we thought, everyone can share a day of their time to learn something new but we assumed very few working people wanted to go on a three year course, to sign-up for school again.

We delivered an outlandish promise regarding something people didn’t care about at all.

You started in 2011 and launched your flagship "Code in a Day" in 2012. How does one recruit the best people for something that does not yet exist and what have you learnt about leadership whilst your company has grown?

We are lucky that we are in a business which matters. We are so passionate about it. Decoded is more of an organisation than a company. We have a really flat structure with a lot of talented smart individuals. It doesn’t feel like one person tells others what do, but there is enough leadership to make decisions.

The Scale of technological ability here is astounding. We have some amazing specialists, but you wouldn’t know it to speak to them. We are therapists and guides. The bad thing about technology is, people can make you feel stupid about it, but for us, no question is stupid. In our world, the more questions you ask the better, because we have failed if we left someone behind and we take our feedback forms incredibly seriously.

If there is jargon and fear or a big issue like big data or hacking, we belong there, because we take those fears away.

Back in the 90s, IT students had an introverted reputation, but your office buzzes. Speaking to anyone on your team puts me in a good mood because they make you welcome in their cool world. Do you consciously encourage your team to spread their karma, or does it just happen?

This is the most exhausted we get. (Laughs) The team had to just pick up their bags and go to Singapore this week and there are so many things going on just now.

We’ve started talking about "being Decoded". We know within a few minutes whether people "are Decoded" are not – we don't know exactly what that means just yet, but we know if they are decoded or not… friendly, smart, respectful, no bullshit, non-hierarchical, curious, passionate about learning and technology. Those are the things you get an instant sense of.

I describe the people at Decoded as my version of unicorns. There are so few great coders in the world but there are even fewer with this level of empathy. That's why we need to be on all corners of the globe to do it and that's why it feels like we are just starting.

Staying in the 90s, we were promised that email would revolutionise business and make everything easier. I often tell my customers to stop reading their mails and was delighted to hear that you have switched your inbox off. How is life after email?

I never actually set out to openly say I am switching off my emails, but it certainly created a reaction. Some were angry, some resonated with it. It certainly shows we are all overwhelmed.

You cannot be in 10 hours of meetings and answer emails. Everyone feels the same buzz: that it's good to get through your inbox, but it is not focussing on the real task. Email is not helping us to get the job done.

I wanted to spend more time with the team, creating products that we want to use. Back then, I was more outbound, awareness-raising, but as we grew I said I need three months of not being distracted by others’ to-do lists.

I have come back online, but I have about 70% less mails and a lot of people realised they needed to speak to another member of the team. It was about re-educating me and them.

There are so many messaging tools meanwhile, but nothing has managed to replace the need to mail yet. Something will replace it one day that is smarter, is better.

Pity the world is having life disturbed by constant interruptions. We need to live in harmony with technology.

They say the hardest ship to sail is a partnership and success is certainly something which forces change. Do you have any tips for today's start-ups regarding how you and your co-founder, Richard Peters, have managed success?

I might get that phrase on a t-shirt.

We’ve worked together for so long, it’s insane. We have clear roles and responsibilities. We do sometimes disagree, but we always come to an agreement.

I guess we have known each other for so long now that we just really trust each other. We bring different things to the table and I feel really lucky, he's amazing. I do marvel those unique characters who have 100% ownership and are the sole guiding force in their business.

Decoded is developing an online teaching tool. How will this new venture affect your previous concept? Will this tool replace your face-to-face courses and when can we expect to see it for ourselves?

We have teams in Amsterdam, Sydney and New York. We have worked in 45 different cities over the last twelve months with some of the largest most creative companies in the world, trying to take them on their digital journey. They need to transform and cannot hire all the skills they need from outside. They just don’t exist. Next year will be our largest year of growth since we launched, that is already clear today.

The Guardian Media Group partnership only happened in February last year, but it feels like so long ago, we only had Code in a Day. People were flying in from Hong Kong, Boards of Directors from San Francisco wanted us to come out and see them. We set out to wrap our education around their daily business challenges.

Now it's all about global expansion, a digital suite of educational products and cyber security. We don’t like the phrase online training because it’s not enough. We will create a high quality educational experience in a really effective manner. That is the challenge, which we are cracking.

Some have suggested that the digital world is taking over and many feel that the level of surveillance poses a threat. Do you think that smart phones have a future?

There is a total disparity regarding average user knowledge about your data, what you have willingly given away, where it is stored and what it is used for. We shouldn’t forget that there are a lot of businesses striving to give customers a better experience. But its understandably hard to get that balance right and data security is a big issue of course.

It’s back to old school marketing about trust, putting customers’ interests first.

Having said that, there are so many companies sitting on so much data and they don't even know it or know what to do with it. Don’t you think it is almost as bad when a company has all the data to solve my issue and they don't help me?

Interview Date: 07/12/15