Co-founders Yasin Ehsan and Faizan Ahmed at a “Demo Night NYC” event where they earned first place. Photo courtesy of Faizan Ahmed. 

An AI-based startup is tackling the tough job market for software engineering students and recent graduates. 

At Headstarter, 23-year-old co-owner Faizan Ahmed creates AI characters such as a clone of Lindsay Browning, a business leader and angel investor. Clients are mostly early-career people in the tech field looking to gain practice and confidence. They participate in one-on-one simulated interview sessions with these characters, which are designed to mimic the voices and personality traits of their real-world inspirations. Their real-life counterparts must consent to their likeness being used. Most are flattered, Ahmed said. 

For Ahmed, the key to Headstarter’s core technology has been world-building. It was his interest in this kind of creative problem-solving that drove a younger Ahmed to skip karate classes at a dojo on Jamaica Avenue to play video games at a friend’s house. 

Sometimes, that problem-solving happened even closer to home. When Ahmed was a teen in Richmond Hill, Queens, his mother received a call from an unknown number. The caller said her computer was infected. She was told to download software to help troubleshoot. Ahmed and his mother would later learn the caller tricked her into logging into her bank account so they could transfer money to their own account.

“He was very young at that age, but I remember him [later] being like, ‘OK, no, you need to reset your password. You need to create a different bank account. You need to go to the bank itself in person and figure out what steps you can do to protect yourself,’” Faizan’s older sister, Mehreen Ahmed, said. 

Her brother coached their mother about future scam prevention. Then he went down rabbit holes to learn the scammer’s strategy. Ahmed had no idea he was, in a way, coaching himself into a future career as a co-owner and head of machine learning at Headstarter, an AI coaching company for software engineers. 

“From that point on, I really wanted to understand what [the scammer] was trying to do. It required understanding how computers work and software,” he explained. “So I [could] maybe prevent other scammers like him from affecting other people.”

As far as Ahmed knows, his parents have not been scammed since then.  

Co-founders Yasin Ehsan and Faizan Ahmed with advisor Marco Morales at EdTech Week in New York City. Photo courtesy of Faizan Ahmed. 

Mining the craft 

Ahmed had two experiences in high school that further drove him into the tech field and toward the collaboration he would need in his leadership role at Headstarter. The first involved an inspiring high school teacher who taught him computer science and eventually asked Ahmed to lead classes. 

Coding clicked for Ahmed because he was naturally curious and constantly questioned how everything worked. “I look at cars and everything around me, and I’m like, ‘how do people build that?’” he said. 

He also learned a lot through video games like Minecraft, where building systems appealed to his love of logic. “I was like, ‘I can build these kinds of things in the game — what are some other things I can build?’’  

Robots, it turned out, were next. Serving on his high school robotics team “was a huge kind of moment in my life,” Ahmed said. Teamwork is critical in engineering, especially when being the underdog. With scarce funds from their school, he and his robotics teammates were competing against New York City high schools with tuitions as steep as $60,000. He says the team made it pretty far in the competition despite this. 

He was the type of calculated risk-taker who got into stocks in college. He was even able to convince friends and family to invest. “As an immigrant family, I think we were all very skeptical,” his sister, Mehreen, recalls. “But he’s a very data-driven kind of person, so he was able to give us the statistics. He was able to say, ‘look, these ETFs are actually a sound investment. They’re more long-term. I know these are your concerns, but these are the potential outcomes.’ ”

Ahmed took another risk shortly after he graduated from St. John’s University: he declined a job offer from Amazon after an old friend, Yasin Ehsan, approached him about joining his AI-based startup, Headstarter.   

“I saw he was never gonna be this straight carved-out pathway kind of person, with no risk,” Mehreen said. “But for my parents, it was definitely, very, very jarring to be like, ‘OK, you wanna turn down this offer from one of the biggest companies to do your own thing?’”

Co-founders Yasin Ehsan and Faizan Ahmed meeting Headstarter’s first investor, Tariq Ahmed, the director of user interface engineering at AppLovin. Photo courtesy of Faizan Ahmed. 

Giving others a head start

Ahmed first joined Headstarter as an intern. The AI coaching company has a unique way of preparing tech and engineering students for an increasingly competitive field. This resonated with him because despite having a bachelor’s in computer science and a master’s in data science from St. John’s University, he was not confident he would find a software engineering role, especially considering the layoffs in the tech industry and what he saw as a decline in the value of a computer science degree. “We have students from the Ivy Leagues who are worried about getting jobs after graduating,” Ahmed said. 

Scoring an internship at a top firm would help students find a job after graduation. However, this requires internship candidates to pass a series of technical interviews. Ahmed explains one of those interviews includes a test where candidates are given a complex coding problem and need to find a solution. These problems are so complex it separates those who rely on their natural talents from those who master the craft. 

Cue Headstarter: “What we came up with was a learning platform where it’s a four-week crash course on software engineering; you get a resume review and basically learn the required things to become software engineers,” explains Ahmed. The startup also helps improve the speaking skills of software engineer candidates, preparing them for a field that demands more than just theoretical knowledge learned in school.

These skills were applied by Ahmed himself, as he secured a leadership position at Headstarter. When the previous co-founders left the start-up for more stable paths, Ahmed had an opening in the tiny company. He stepped up to a co-owner position, committing to working full-time and foregoing a salary in exchange for stakes in the company. 

His role as head of machine learning was similarly suited for him. Ahmed developed the core technology that scored Headstarter’s first investors and continues to lead engineering and technical aspects of the work. 

At a recent company event, Ahmed cloned the voice of a social media influencer who makes computer science-related content. Headstarter’s approach is to show the real person speaking, then the AI version on their platform.

While Headstarter only offers these sessions for computer science, the five-year goal is to expand to other STEM fields. 

Meanwhile, progress for the startup shows up in small ways. Headstarter recently posted a job opening for a software engineer intern and received more than 1,500 applications just two days later.   

“It’s a big deal for me because just one or two years ago, I was trying to find a job myself,” Ahmed said. “And now I’m in a position to hire someone. And I’m about to hire someone as a software engineer before I technically become one myself.”


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