Jigsaw Academy: Training the modern workforce

Publication: Analytics Steps
September 6, 2021

There has always been a gap in our country between the theory taught academically and the skills that are needed by the workforce to function in the industry. This has caused professionals to seek education for the skills they need elsewhere, and this is where companies like Jigsaw Academy become relevant.

Jigsaw Academy makes education more practical and inclusive, opening up access to the skills that are needed by those looking for a place in the modern workforce. Especially in recent times, owing to the pandemic, there has been a surge of people looking to online courses to upskill themselves in times of uncertainty.

This exclusive Interview from Analytics Steps with CEO and Co-founder Gaurav Vohra, and COO and Co-founder Sarita Digumarti of Jigsaw Academy, delves into how the platform has been helping to build a modern workforce in India, industry-ready and equipped with knowledge of emerging technologies.

Focusing on Emerging Technologies

Award-winning online analytics training institute Jigsaw Academy is a part of UNext, backed by Manipal Education and Medical Group-MEMG. The company is known for the quality of its training programs. “We are essentially in the professional skilling space and we focus on emerging technology areas,” Vohra says about the premise behind Jigsaw.

He phrases their activities as “training the workforce of today on the skills of tomorrow.”

“When I talk about the skills of tomorrow I’m talking about technologies like data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, cybersecurity, IT full-stack…” Vohra explains. “These are all technologies that are in huge demand right now.” He also predicts that the demand for these technologies will grow even further in the next 18-24 months.

Vohra underlines the need for training on these skills by saying they are important today especially if India wants to be the global hub for IT services. According to him, the traditional IT skills and services that have been in demand for the past 15-20 years are now fading away, being replaced by new technologies. This is why they are focused on training the workforce in these technologies. “We are helping bridge the demand-supply gap in these new areas,” he says.

Things change at a rapid pace when it comes to technology, but in the case of the new and emerging technologies of today, things change even faster.

“Typically our academia is not able to keep up with that pace of change. We are essentially trying to bring the academia and the industry together, so students can have the best of both worlds. They can learn the concepts through a rigorous academic curriculum but they are also able to learn the most relevant and in-demand skills through some of the industry practitioners.”

Vohra explains that that is why Jigsaw programs are a mix of industry and academia. “As a part of that, we have collaborations with some of the top universities in India.” Jigsaw has three programs with IIM Indore and is on the verge of launching one more, with plans to launch even more in the next 6 months. They also have a couple of programs with Mahi University.

They are also closely linked with the industry. Jigsaw trains the workforces of companies including IBM, Infosys, McKinsey, Ernst and Young, and Deloitte, and so have a strong connection with them.

“We have very strong academic partners and we have very strong industry partners that we bring together,” Vohra concludes. “So our students can actually learn from industry practitioners, as well as academicians.”

Promoting Constant Learning

There is a general perception that studying is a task to be done when one is young. Platforms like Jigsaw Academy have broken this particular barrier and enabled people of all groups to study without any hesitation.

Digumarti observes that a large majority of the participants at Jigsaw tend to be people who are already working, mostly working in white-collar, functional roles involving engineering, technology, and the like.

“I think there is a realization for all of them that the way we work now is very different from how people used to work 30 years ago.” Continuing on what Vohra said earlier, the point rises again that there is a lot of change happening in technology, processes and domains.

She muses that the age when you used to have a certain set of skills which you used for the next 30 years in your career, is long gone.

“Our skill sets now probably have shelf lives of three and a half, four, five years at the most, you have to constantly keep learning, unlearning, and relearning.”

Digumarti thinks that people now understand that constant learning is expected, and so to a large extent, their audience comes in wanting to learn.

“Our job is to make sure that we help people who maybe have not stepped into a classroom for a long time,” she says, “and figure out how to make them learn in an engaging and interesting manner.” Jigsaw has a lot of experience in providing the pedagogy, platforms, and the right kind of environment that such people need to learn effectively.

They also have a lot of experience in providing online learning. Jigsaw started as an online company, even before Coursera. “How do you make sure that you’re able to give people the comfort of learning at their own pace, but at the same time being able to finish in a certain specific period of time?” Digumarti explains that they know how to ensure that there is no learner left behind in an online setup.

Relevance of Online Learning Today

With Jigsaw Academy’s experience in the space of online and digital learning, they are all too familiar with how the pandemic has caused shifts in the education system.

Digumarti affirms that Jigsaw has always been an online training company, and had started by being exclusively online. “Over time, we realized that it’s probably not fair to do an online versus offline comparison because they are different. There are places where offline works better, and there are places that online works better.” She firmly disagrees with the thought that online learning is a poor substitute for offline.

“The reality is that for many of our audience an offline course is difficult,” she says. Those who are working don’t want to spend another two or three hours commuting to get to a classroom.

“In online education, there are a lot of conveniences, there is a lot less stress, and there is also the fact that you typically have access to content in video format, so you’re able to review and go through the lectures when you want.”

If a student hasn’t understood something very clearly, having the option of being able to review the lecture again is very beneficial.

“I think the reality is that yes, there is space for offline and there is space for online,” Digumarti says, “and we do both, but for the vast majority of learning needs, especially with the rate at which technology is changing and the rate at which people have to learn new skills, online is really the most convenient and feasible option for people to learn.”

Vohra agrees, saying that it depends on the life stage of a person. He thinks that a classroom environment with interaction and an in-person experience is better for students in the earlier stages of their life where studying is their primary goal.

“But for us, the primary audience is not people who are in their life stage where studying is the most important thing,” he says. “For us, the audience is people who are now working. They have gone through the first 20 years of their life, they’ve done their studies, and now they are working professionally. And because the skills that they picked up are not relevant anymore or not as relevant anymore, they need to upskill themselves.”

These professionals also have a lot of competing priorities at the same time, he explains. They have their work, families, children, parents that they have to take care of, all of which demand a lot of time. “So with all those competing challenges, online education, in fact, is a far superior way of learning for them, than in person.”

Vohra talks about the advantages of online learning. “If you live in any big city, especially in Bangalore, commute times can kill you. And online education, of course, helps everyone cut down on their commute times. Even the time slot for studying doesn’t need to be fixed.”

There may be live online classes at certain times which you have to log in to, but there is a lot of space that you can go through at any time. Vohra talks of students who wake up at five in the morning and finish all their studies before anyone in the family gets up, and others who prefer to do it late at night when everyone has gone to sleep.

Online learning presents these options that offline learning cannot. “For a certain section of people- that section, of course, is becoming larger and larger and more important now- for them, online learning is easily the best way to learn.”

Digumarti adds that when comparing online versus offline, it is important to understand that there are very different ways of teaching and engaging with a class.

“Sometimes online gets a bad rap because you’re essentially taking methodologies and tactics that work for an in-person classroom and you’re trying to use it as is, in an online environment. And that’s not going to work. Online requires you to teach differently, to engage differently, to plan differently, to structure your content differently. If you do it that way, then, certainly, I think a lot of people will realize that there is a lot of value in online education.”

Vohra concurs with her, talking about the increase in the conversation around online learning owing to the pandemic. He points out that a lot of what we are reading about online education is more a knee-jerk reaction to how the last year has been. “What has happened in the last year is that a lot of people, a lot of institutions, that were not geared towards online education, that were not prepared for it at all, were forced into it because they didn’t have any other choice.”

“And because many of them were not prepared for it, they tried to use the same methodology, the same pedagogy that has worked in offline programs,” he elaborates. “And of course, that doesn’t work because online has its own challenges.”

But for Jigsaw Academy who’s been in the online training business for the last 11 years, Vohra thinks this has just shown people that done the right way, online education can actually be far more effective for learners.

The Most In-demand Fields

Talking about the programs that have the most demand, Vohra reiterates that emerging technology areas are at the top. Data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, and IT full-stack have been the most sought-after technologies for more than a decade now, he says, with the demand continuing to increase.

There is a huge demand for cloud resources, according to Vohra.

“Cloud computing in the last couple of years, especially post-pandemic, has emerged as the area which has seen the maximum increase in demand. Companies are begging us for people with these skills, and they are finding it very hard to fill their pipeline.”

Other than these, cybersecurity and product management are also areas with high demand. “For the last few months we’ve started seeing huge demand in IT sales, people who have the sales skills in the IT sector.” Jigsaw has recently launched a program with IIM Indore on Strategic Sales Management, which is specifically targeting this demand.

Vohra adds that although emerging technologies have been in demand for the last 10 years, what technology is in demand keeps changing. Within technologies like data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, the kind of skills people need to pick up, the tools they need to master, and the kind of technologies they need to have experience on, have all evolved rapidly over the last 10 years.

He illustrates this change by talking about their data science program. “The first program that we built for data science, focused on a tool called SaaS, which was the most in-demand tool at that time. Now SaaS has very few takers- it has been replaced by open source technologies like R and Python, and of course, big data technologies like Hadoop. So within data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, the mix of technologies that we teach has changed significantly in the last 10 years.”

The Growth of Jigsaw Academy

Digumarti reminisces with fondness on the history of their company. “Both Gaurav and I didn’t really have any prior experience of startups. Both of us have had corporate experience for quite a bit before we decided to start Jigsaw Academy.”

“And maybe we were very naive,” she says. “But our focus, at least when we started, was not really around how large the company can become.” She talks about how they saw a clear need for training for working professionals in application-oriented areas, which was not happening in the academic space.

“We started with data science because that’s our background. And we clearly saw the challenge there. So our focus was on just creating quality programs that people globally would appreciate.”

She also thinks that they were lucky with the timing, starting at a time when online education was just very much in its infancy, pre-Coursera. “Over time a lot of people saw the potential in this, we ourselves understood that there is a large market for quality education in these industry-oriented emerging technology areas. And so obviously, after about the first couple of years, then we also sort of focused on growth.” But she also insists that they have always been careful about putting quality and satisfaction over growth.

“Manipal [Manipal Education and Medical Group] was our first investor, we were bootstrapped for the first five years. So, while we’ve grown, and we’ve grown quite a bit in the last 10 years, I think one of the things that have helped us from an investment perspective is, I feel, the sharing of a common long term vision, which is to understand that in education it takes time to build a brand, it takes time to build growth.”

“It’s a little dangerous to sort of go after growth without focusing on what is the value of your product and the quality of your product,” Digumarti says, a point worth noting.

She talks about the ed-tech booms over the years. “We are seeing another boom, right now, lots of ed-tech players are raising money. And I think that is just a signal for how large it potentially is, especially in India, where we have a large set of people that are graduating that are not really employable. And we have a large set of working professionals that are working, but they understand that they need to constantly keep upskilling, in order to sort of stay in the job market and in order to build careers.”

Even when talking about the market she reaffirms the importance of building quality products. From the perspective of UNext, she thinks there is a lot of similarity of vision with MEMG. “As a group known for quality education, they’ve been around for a very long time and their vision is to build something that stands for reliability, for quality, for trust. And that is also what we want to do. We grow, but we want to grow in a manner that is satisfying for us and for our students.”

Vohra repeats Digumarti’s sentiments, saying that education is a very peculiar sector in certain ways. “Word of mouth, the quality of your product, the learning outcomes that you can provide to your students is very, very important. So you need to have very strong fundamentals, you need to have a very strong offering for the students before you can look at growing.”

He appreciates their luck in having a strategic partner like MEMG who has been in the education sector for many decades. “They understand the sector very well. They know what is required, they understand the peculiarities of the sector. And so we’ve worked very well with them because the thoughts and the vision have matched. And like Sarita said, ed-tech is going through another boom right now. Both on the UNext side, and on the Jigsaw side, we are seeing huge potential, and we have aggressive plans for the next 12 to 18 months to grow both of these companies.”

Staying Ahead of the Curve

The ed-tech field has changed a lot through the years, and Jigsaw Academy is facing tough competition. “When we started off, like Sarita said, in the pre-Coursera days, we were one of the very few ed-tech companies,” Vohra says. “Now, of course, the field is very saturated- there are tons of players- completely new ed-tech players, like us, or even older education players who’ve now gone the ed-tech route. So there is definitely a lot of competition, both from homegrown companies, as well as foreign competitors who’ve come here.”

He points out that companies like Udemy, Udacity, and Coursera, have raised huge amounts of funds and have much more resources at their disposal than Jigsaw. “So there are challenges in competing with such competitors,” he says, but is not worried about Jigsaw’s place in the market.

“I think one of the key things that we focused on is providing a very tailored, customized learning approach to our students, where the learning outcomes for them are clearly defined. And once students see those learning outcomes, we’ve seen that they don’t hesitate to spend that extra money with you. So because our focus has always been on providing superior learning outcomes to our students, I think we are in good shape.”

Foreign competitors are more focused on mass-producing, he says, with less customization, primarily because of the way they are set up and the scale at which they operate. “Whereas Indian consumers prefer a lot of hand-holding, a lot of custom learning that we are able to provide.”

Vohra also explains that while these technologies are geography agnostic in the sense that demand for data science is there not just in India, but in the US and Europe and everywhere else, at the same time, the specifics of that demand- what kind of tools, what kind of technologies, what kind of domains are in demand in particular geography varies.

“Because we work very closely with all the top Indian companies that are in this space, we have a very good sense of what kind of skills are going to be in demand 6 months from now 12 months from now, and we are able to tailor our programs accordingly,” he says. “I feel this staying relevant to what is in demand, what is sought after in the Indian industry is a key thing that is going to help us stay ahead of any competitors.”

Digumarti echoes Vohra’s opinions and says that there are a lot of ed-tech players, but there are a lot of different audiences as well. “I believe, we are very clear about the sort of experience or the target audience that we are going after.”

Their focus is on people who want to learn emergent technologies, which are essentially things that are rapidly changing and somewhat niche and complex. Digumarti says that people who want to learn them in order to generate very definite outcomes- either transitioning into a role that is based on those technologies or a promotion- those people are looking for, not just a high-level understanding, but something fairly detailed and fairly hands-on. They need a lot of help in learning.

She explains that self-service content only goes so far and if you want to learn some of these complex technologies, you do need access to people who can help you, resolve your doubts, and give you the ability to try things hands-on. This is what they focus on.

“We do this not just for individual students, but also for enterprises,” she says. “And because we work quite extensively with enterprise clients, we also have a good understanding and some sort of a leading indicator of what companies are looking for in terms of skill sets, that we are able to make sure we incorporate into our courseware.”

Digumarti concludes by saying that where the learning needs are complex and where there is technology involved, hand-holding becomes a necessity, and that is the kind of programs that Jigsaw delivers. “And therefore, I feel, that that keeps us differentiated.”

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