Siraj Raval — No Thanks
The sordid story from inside his “exclusive” course
If you’re unfamiliar with Siraj Raval he’s a very likable person, much like my uncle! He’s also been outed as a thief and a con, like my uncle. This is the story of how a man with a vision and a half-million+ followers on YouTube sold an exclusive online course… and why I’m finally dropping out.
When Siraj announced his course, he said he was going to open the door to 500 students — that’s it! This rock-star is going to open the door to 500 students, that’s it! And for those 500 students, you’re going to get the works!
This guy can sell!
- Exclusively made content!? (Yes!)
- Time and personalized feedback? (Notice me senpai!)
- “Blockchain sealed” Certificate and Graduate Benefits!? (Boom!)
I wasn’t in love with the title of the course “Make Money with Machine Learning”, but hey! Who doesn’t want to learn how to make money while you’re building cool stuff? If you want to know more about what was promised, here’s the promo video:
Now up to this point, I had personally been funding Siraj on Patreon, and I enjoyed the free content he had been putting out in the world. I lept to join this course! I wasn’t the only one. Did I mention how likable he can be? Hordes of devs jumped in to buy this course. I had even helped out a student who didn’t have enough money to afford it. To say I was excited would be an understatement.
Doing some quick math 500 people at $200 a seat means Siraj is gonna get 100k for this course and rightfully deserved! He’s been putting out amazing content for the community.
The Decline and Fall of the Siraj Empire
When the course started, about 570ish students were added to the slack and excited banter was everywhere. People were connecting, chatting, and ready to change the world….
And then the lessons started…
The first lesson asked everyone to learn HTML/CSS/JS and Flask. The homework was fuzzy, and the materials were about 10 minutes of exclusive screen time. Lots of the materials were old YouTube content that was out of date, and the written reading materials weren’t written by Siraj. The homework was to go through a tutorial that Siraj did not write… funny enough, it was broken at that time. People weren’t extremely happy, but they lightly let their frustrations be known.
It was pretty unclear what we’d be getting, and for people who were promised a personal guided hand, it felt quite quiet.
People NEEDED that personalized help they paid for
From this failure… something beautiful happened. People started helping each other. I love people.
What an awesome dude! Jumping in as a TA to help manage the 500+ people and he even made a slackbot to help manage the confusion!
A tough course?! You betcha I’m gonna do it now! Me and these wonderful people are gonna solve any problem you throw at us. We’re ready!
That’s when the con started to crack… it was starting to get very very alone with just students, and at the same time… there was a strained and difficult communication.
In all the difficulty, it hit. Not only was Siraj MIA, but our TA discovered something unsettling…
EXCLUSIVE TO 500 STUDENTS? Yeah... per slack
How did Siraj not realize that giving bot access would out him? I guess he couldn’t be bothered. And so… the followers started to drop. This is where the refund-gate happened. Throngs of students had trouble leaving the course. They boiled over to the live-streaming comments and were deleted on sight.
People were clawing to get their refunds, many of whom live in countries where the course could cost a month’s salary. The mess hit the news:
YouTuber charged loads of fans $199 for shoddy machine-learning course that copy-pasted other…
Special report The AI hysteria has led to a rash of budding engineers hoping to land a cushy job somewhere in Silicon…
And the support faltered. Our unpaid TA called it.
The feel was starting to change from the community to CONmunity.
This raises the question, “Gant why did you stick around?”
While it seemed pretty dishonest, we did get a big explanation from Siraj. He spun it like this.
How can you be mad at him? Did I mention he’s likable? As for the materials, the reason I wasn’t falling behind in the course was that I had already taken the excellent courses from Andrew Ng. I was more interested in the exclusive connection, referrals, and certificate!
I’ve been working on my own online course at this time, so I felt he was a bit of a kindred spirit. I know it’s damn hard to write for 3 hours just to have 10 minutes of content.
Just, so as there’s no mistake, I will NOT be linking to my course in this blog post. While I’m proud of my work, I don’t want to pollute the real message here.
So I sucked it up and continued on with our new course of action! The two groups will be merged!
The Course is Reborn!
So all our slacks got merged into a single discord of students! Siraj heard us! He’s going to fix everything! I joined the new discord chat with over a thousand others.
For me, I used this as a chance to reconnect and find new people. Siraj added some really nice TA’s and they were extremely helpful. I got to chatting on weekends with them, and I have to say I’ve met people who enriched my life there. Siraj brought people together.
Something was strangely quiet again. People started sharing homework answers and even making videos of answers to solve this unguided course. If you’ve ever taken a course on Coursera, things like this are pretty looked down upon. Siraj never showed up to say if it’s OK or not… and his course recordings began to slip into unedited and confusing globs.
^ That excerpt was from the actual course… not a blooper reel. This is what was shipped.
Next, we hit our biggest assignment to date, the midterm. The midterm was simple and yet terrifying with the title: “Build an AI Startup”…
Wow! If you’ve ever done a hackathon before there are all kinds of wild problems with “who owns what?” and scope of work. The midterm instructions were a bit chaotic. Keep in mind, we’ve been taught to search for code, and a lot of students are still trying to grasp basics of Web much less AI. Quite a few desperate students filled the midterm chat asking for direction. I helped where I could.
I don’t know how many people successfully formed a team and accomplished this, but I can tell you I saw a lot of people fighting to keep partners, organize concepts, and actually deliver this mid-term (was 2 weeks but got extended to 3 weeks). I’m sure a lot of people worked very hard because I spent a significant amount of time working on my midterm in time to have it done, all while seeing people make posts like these:
I tried jumping in and helping a few people. I even did a Zoom call with a fellow student to help him get caught up on his homework. Maybe we didn’t start with 500, but people were dropping left and right. The weekly live-stream count was dropping and dropping … and then it happened.
The Straw that Broke Me
FINALLY, I had caught up on finishing the mid-term, I had finished the two weeks of homework I fell behind, and the people I’d helped were on track to catch up. All the while, I’ve got a major deliverable at my full-time job.
And then I saw this:
Wait… did Siraj copy and paste his course content from this blog article? No… it’s worse… he changed it just enough so that no one would catch him.
I’m not going to play the copyright high-ground here. We can all name people who mess up a quote, use an image they don’t have rights to, or maybe even have a friend with a bootleg movie. There are a lot of situations where copyrights turn into silly games. Legal systems are complicated, but this one wasn’t. This felt wrong. Very wrong.
I reached out to the author to see if they knew. This was a shock… followed by another shock that hit the same day.
Siraj bragged to us in a live-stream about him publishing this paper, but as it turns out, it’s just another plagiarism. It looks like he even used the same word-flipper which actually, in some places uses the wrong words for the tech he’s discussing!
Sirajaholics jumped to his aid, and disgruntled non-refunded students railed against them. That argument got stomped out by Siraj himself, who took the blame.
Suspicions confirmed… 🙀
I’ve had a good-spirited chat with fellow students. We discussed quite a few things, like “Will this certificate be worth anything?” and “Do you think he’ll actually make those connections at the end?” and “What did I really learn?”
But I have to put utility aside. Could I make lemons into lemonade? Of course. I’m lucky enough to be in a place in my life and have the privilege to complete this course on the off-chance that it provides a fraction of the sunk costs I’ve invested. I’ve only got 3 more assignments left!
But the problem isn’t material anymore, it’s moral. I can’t ascribe my name to something that’s clearly amoral. With a little Googling, I found Siraj has frustrated quite a few people. This isn’t the first time he’s been accused of stealing content either! It took me a minute in chat with the other students, but the thing that really called me to Siraj in the first place was gone.
It’s not cute, it’s not fun, it’s honestly disturbing.
I don’t want the cert, the referrals, or the videos. I don’t want any of it. It’s all tainted now. And that’s the worst part. Those poor students who put this certificate (if they ever get one) on their resume. There’s no spin that shakes off this stink.
A Note to Siraj
Maybe it’s hubris that makes me think you’ll read this, but given the story from above, it seems like the right place.
Siraj, your superpower is people. When you do something great you make the world a better place, and when you take code, blogs, and money from others without properly attributing either in time or credit… it brings us all down.
Your discord chat is still echoing with people displeased on all levels and every time you announce you’ll do better in some public forum. Meanwhile, the people who believed in you are still met with a disgusting silence.
You had the people and the chance to make a huge difference. I’m not sure where you were, or what you were doing, but it should have been you helping students as you promised. Your course is empty, your words are meaningless, and your fans are leaving.
To all your remaining students, I wish the best, but speaking for myself, and probably a lot of other x-fans, when it comes to you, “no thanks”.