Innovation & technology

InnoPodcast #49: Data and AI Specialists as a Service – with Arun Sharma, Co-Founder 10 Academy

Behind every successful transformation, there are people with visions – like Arun Sharma. With his start-up “10 Academy”, he recruits people with high potential and trains them to become data and machine learning engineers. He explains what prompted him to quit his job in Canada as a management consultant in the InnoPodcast.

Stefan Kern

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Foto von Arun Sharma
Photo: Stefan Zeyen /

It may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Africa. One man who has made it his mission to change that is Arun Sharma. His 10 AcademyTarget not accessible isn’t any old aid project offering self-help guidance. Arun trains people for professions with a potentially global impact: data and machine learning experts.

No motivation, no training opportunity

Why Africa? Finding high potential recruits is the least of Arun Sharma’s worries. Three to four applicants sign up with 10 Academy through word of mouth alone on a daily basis. Far more important to him is motivation. “We don’t motivate people. Anyone looking to join our programme needs to be motivated from the get-go. We then teach them the skills that companies need all over the world.” That’s why candidates have to complete an extremely tough industry-relevant task to gain a place on the programme. This task, though solvable, requires between 12 and 15 hours of work a day over the space of a week. Only those candidates who succeed can then go on to acquire the necessary skills during the three-month training programme.

Performance as an “equalizer”

Just three months to become a machine learning and AI specialist sounds very ambitious. Why not allow more time? Arun wants to keep training costs down to the equivalent of one/two months salary of the course graduates. By comparison: in the USA, a university education quickly amounts to 100,000 dollars in tuition fees, which often equates to over a year’s wages for new entrants. For Arun, this system isn’t sustainable. This puts off people on low incomes, or they end up trapped in debt for years: “We want performance to be an ‘equalizer’”. Socio-economic status shouldn’t be what determines who gets a place.” This brings to mind an aspiration that, in the western world, is still more of an ideal than a reality in 2021 in many areas.

The 2004 tsunami – a personal turning point

Arun is no stranger to change. His parents come from India. Arun himself grew up in Canada, and used to work for the management consulting firm Accenture in Toronto. These days, he works for 10 Academy on a voluntary basis, and earns a living from various side jobs. What brought this big career change about? Images of the 2004 tsunami changed his outlook. “Maybe I watched far too much TV back then as well, but ultimately I decided I wanted to make a difference in the world.” Money and status used to be the benchmarks of success. Now, however, it’s the “ability to use time effectively.” Or, to put it another way: impact, and not status, is what drives him today.

Machine learning and data engineering – made in Africa

10 Academy specializes in careers in data engineering and machine learning. “These areas offer very good career prospects, and are jobs with a future.” Arun recognizes that his trainees could well end up working in Europe or elsewhere thanks to this course. But these jobs also allow remote working. This, in turn, helps stem the “brain drain” (i.e. the emigration of highly trained workers).

After three months of intense training, those who successfully complete Arun’s course can’t go it alone. “But they can take up a position in a larger team that’s working on a new product/service and manage systems that are already up and running.” The idea of machine learning is that systems learn by themselves, but this isn’t possible without ongoing monitoring and continuous optimization. “Machine learning = software + data science. Change data. There always needs to be a person in the loop to ensure the system is headed in the right direction.”

10 Academy is another approach to bringing about lasting change in Africa. Arun’s “professional aptitude” approach is also different: for him, it’s important his course graduates publish their codes on GitHub, keep this profile up to date and are able to explain their work to potential line managers and lay people. 

“Good intentions aren’t going to change anything.”

Arun SharmaTarget not accessible wants to bring about change – and is not one to shy away from change either. Following his time with Accenture, the qualified electrical engineer went to Sudan and the Ivory Coast to work for “Doctors without Borders”. He also spent a year working in India, his parents’ native land. After working in other positions,  including for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Afghanistan and with the AIMS Next Einstein Initiative, he founded 10  Academy in 2016. A look at his CV also reveals his ethos in life: “Karma is about taking action. Change is only possible through action – not prayers or good intentions.”
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The Innopodcast shares knowledge, inspires and motivates. We set the stage for people acting bravely and shaping the future of their organization and their environment.

written by

Stefan Kern