101: Educator-First Technology with Paul Johansen of EdmentumPublished January 18, 2022
Run time: 00:52:57
Education technology should be intuitive and easy to use, and Edmentum’s Chief Technology Officer, Paul Johansen, joins the show to share how they’re working to save educators time, not take more of it.
Paul chats with Tim Bornholdt of The Jed Mahonis Group about how emerging technologies are being implemented in education (and the privacy concerns that go along with it), how feedback and stakeholder buy in fuel innovation, and the challenges and benefits of dispersed technical teams.
In this episode, you will learn:
- How listening to the market creates innovation
- Why building an evidence case behind innovation leads to stakeholder buy in
- How to organize product management
- How conversations around data privacy are becoming more enlightened
- How the pandemic has inspired the entrepreneurial spirit of teachers
- Challenges and advantages of a dispersed team
- The role of psychological safety in the feedback loop
- When to outsource a project versus handling internally
This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.
Recorded November 15, 2021 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski
Edmentum website | https://www.edmentum.com/
JMG Pricing Page | https://jmg.mn/pricing
Connect with Tim Bornholdt on LinkedIn | https://www.linkedin.com/in/timbornholdt/
Chat with The Jed Mahonis Group about your app | https://jmg.mn
Rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts | https://constantvariables.co/review
Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at building and growing digital products. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.
Jenny Karkowski 0:22
This episode is sponsored by The Jed Mahonis Group. We're a team of skilled iOS, Android and Rails developers who love partnering with enterprises who need help with things like code maintenance, server management, QA, and more. You can learn more about our services and a price breakdown of each by visiting our website. We found that being transparent about all aspects of building technology, including the costs, makes the process a whole lot simpler. So visit JMG.mn to take a look.
And while you're listening to Tim's conversation with Paul Johansen, please take a second to rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts. We're going for an algorithm play here. The more reviews we have, the more we'll show up in Apple's search results. So help us out with a rating and review. And we'll thank you with a shout out on the show. Visit constantvariables.co/review. And we'll take you right there.
Tim Bornholdt 1:14
Paul, welcome to the show.
Paul Johansen 1:15
Thanks for having me. I appreciate being here.
Tim Bornholdt 1:18
I'd love for you to take a chance to introduce yourself and your role over at Edmentum.
Paul Johansen 1:22
Sure. My name is Paul Johansen. I'm the Chief Technology Officer at Edmentum. We are a provider of K through 12, of curriculum and assessments directly to K through 12 districts throughout the United States. So we serve about 8000 districts in all 50 states, U.S. wide. My team has the pleasure of really leading up the technology aspect of our operations at Edmentum.
So when you think about Edmentum and what we do, it's almost like we're two businesses brought together. We are first and foremost an education company that is a education publisher of great educational material. So you know, things like courses and assessments, but we bring that educational material to our students and our teachers through technology. So we're also kind of an education publisher, coupled with a software as a service business. So when you think of it that way, my team is primarily in charge of all the things that go with the software as a service business. So whether it's, you know, the uptime and reliability of our products, the software development that's associated with the products, kind of innovation around data science, data analytics that goes with our products, all those pieces kind of fall within my purview at Edmentum as we bring our solutions out to schools across the country.
Tim Bornholdt 2:40
I'm sure it's quite a complex thing to cover, because you've got, you know, 50 different states with 50 different ways of doing education, even though I know there's federal laws and everything to kind of mandate that but I would imagine it's a lot to keep track of on your end.
Paul Johansen 2:55
Yeah, no, you're absolutely right. You know, everything from the technical aspects of kind of riding the wave of time zones across the US, right, the usage of our products is driven heavily by the school day. And so you get, you know, things starting early as the East Coast comes on, and things staying late, as the West Coast finishes up. And then of course, students will work on very different timelines than a lot of us. And so we get these kind of interesting surges in the middle of the night. And so there's things that, you know, that happen from that perspective.
But then also, like you said, there's 50 different states that have different educational standards, different ways they want to approach teaching different subject areas, even different subject areas that they teach. And so there's a lot of customization, configuration within our products to really accommodate this wide variety of stakeholders that we serve.
Tim Bornholdt 3:46
Absolutely. You've been with Edmentum for over a decade, starting back when they were mailing DVDs. And obviously, Ed Tech has evolved since then. I mean, I've been out of high school for almost like 15 years now and just looking back at technology, I have a kindergartener now and see what they're doing compared to what we were doing. I mean, things are rapidly rapidly changing. And then all of a sudden a pandemic hits. And that probably further accelerates the need for continuing to improve it. So I'm curious to hear how Edmentum is continuing to innovate while sustaining, you know, everything that's going on around us in this world?
Paul Johansen 4:24
I mean, I think that's one of the most challenging aspects I think that you'll see at really any software company, but certainly one that's in the, you know, an industry like education, right, that is sometimes challenged to change the status quo. Except for when things like a pandemic, it really kind of pushes that along. And so, you know, from our perspective, we have a mantra, kind of an internal mantra that we call educator first. And what that really boils down to is listening to what our educators and our teachers have to say, essentially listening to what the market has to say and so on.
You know, there's a lot that we have to do for continual improvement on our products for just kind of keeping them moving along the promise of software as a service, the promise of having a subscription product is continually improving and adding new features, making it easier to use, all of those great things. So we continue to move those things along at a consistent pace. But like you said, kind of how you inject innovation into that can be tricky. It can be challenging, but the way we do that is really listening to the market, right. And I think innovation happens when we hear a problem. And we think about it in terms of, Well, no one's actually solved that problem yet, or there isn't a really apparent solution available to that problem.
So there's certain things in our roadmap right now, where we know that none of our competitors, no one else in the market has really solved this. We're not exactly sure how we're going to solve it ourselves. But that's where we really focus on applying innovation, working through different processes to come up with solutions. And really, you know, try different ways of thinking about it to be able to do that. And so I think it's constantly that balance. But really, I think innovation is driven through listening to the problems that you're trying to solve clearly from your customers or from our customer base, and trying to apply solutions to those in ways that might not be the traditional ways to solve it.
Tim Bornholdt 6:22
It's funny. I think a lot of times people think innovation happens with your, you know, it's sitting in a white room, I mean, it's kind of like the Johnny Ive of Apple approach of like, you're sitting in this white room, and you're just kind of like getting a whole view of the world while you're meditating. And then all of a sudden inspiration strikes. And it's like, I don't think that's usually how it works out. Usually, it's more of like what you're saying, it's like a lot more of, you're listening to your customers. And the fact that you're putting educators first is interesting, as opposed to like students or parents or administrators. It's like hearing it from the teachers themselves, they're kind of already the person that has to deal with like, parents on one side and administration on the other, and then actually, you know, facilitating this information to the kids, you know, using their insight and what they're already tackling. It's like you can hear, just sit and listen to a teacher talk for a half hour, I'm sure you've got your roadmap covered for the next five years of what to add in.
Paul Johansen 7:20
Yeah, yeah, teachers are definitely not shy about what they need and what they're trying to solve. And so they are absolutely fantastic at providing that level of feedback. But they also see problems kind of from a different light, right, in terms of how they look at it. We do talk about educator first, right, as kind of our mantra and you said, you know, we have multiple sets of stakeholders, multiple sets of groups that we're worried about, whether it's administrators, students, of course, parents. And especially with a pandemic, and the role of the parent in education has evolved and been magnified even more, but nothing, you know, we still firmly believe that nothing replaces this connection between a student and a teacher at this point. The technology is just not there to replace that. And so our goal is to provide the students with great curriculum with all the great resources they need, and provide educators with the time and the tools to really continue to enhance their ability to connect with those students. And so that's why we tend to focus on the educators as we firmly believe that teachers are the ones that are continuing to change the world, continue to inspire students, and that the resources that we provide are great tools for both the students and the teachers. But amplifying that connection is absolutely the best thing we can do.
Tim Bornholdt 8:39
On the same vein, I mean, we've talked about how you have multiple stakeholders, and it's like you index towards the educators, but you know, at the same time, the administrators cut the checks, and the students use the products. So it's like, you kind of have to figure out this, like delicate dance of how you, you know, get everybody's feedback in and mix it all together. So I'm curious to hear what you think about or how you go about balancing out all of the different voices, along with, you know, obviously having the teachers and the educators being the focal point?
Paul Johansen 9:14
Yeah, I mean, it is a constant battle to ensure that we get everybody represented. And so again, I think it is, it really comes down to listening to all those different voices, ensuring they're all at the table. You know, whenever we put out a new feature or if we're bringing a new solution to one of our products, we spend an extensive amount of time out in the market, listening to all stakeholders, right? So when we go do testing of user concepts, we don't just test those user concepts with the teachers. We'll work with them, you know, with customers of our products or our teachers, with teachers who are not customers of our products. We work with students, we work with the administrators. We work with parents on features we develop for parents, so it really is getting that voice of the market bought into it. And that creates that buy in not only amongst those who are using our products, but when you think about buying, we also have to get buy in that this is the right area to invest in and get buy in that this is the right features to roll out. So there's kind of the internal buy in aspect of it as well. And having, you know, obviously, there's things like business cases and pieces that go around it. But also having that true voice and feedback from the market from our end users is really critical for having that buy in of, even though we're maybe approaching this in a different way than other people have approached before, we're approaching it in a way that hasn't been done before. Here's the evidence, you know. Trying to take, like you said kind of something that is this innovation is viewed as this concept that is not, you know, maybe necessarily super founded in data or process, but essentially still building an evidence case behind that this innovation that we're working on, even though it may be different than how we've looked at it before, we have the data that shows us that this is going to have the impact that we need.
Tim Bornholdt 11:01
Yeah, I often think about and I ask this question of a lot of our guests. I think about how you keep all of these stakeholders happy. And it is like this balance that there's never a perfect fit or a right answer. And some organizations have different approaches of how they approach it. And that's it, I just think it's a really interesting line of conversation, at least as to try to think through how that works out. And I can't really think of other ways to do it other than the way that you said, of just actually getting out and talking to people and collecting that feedback and trying to make sure you know, you're not going to make everybody happy all of the time, but doing the best you can to get everybody at least something they need and make sure that you're not hurting anybody actively in the process as well. It's just this, it's a never ending struggle. And I'm always just endlessly fascinated with how different people approach that topic.
Paul Johansen 11:56
Yeah, yeah, one of the things I think is interesting, so the way, you know, when you look at product management, right, who tends to be the advocates for a product or the advocates for certain aspects of a product, traditionally, and it's the way that we're organized as well, right. You typically organize your product management around your products around the products you're actually bringing to market that you're selling to the market. I've heard of some companies, and there's a local one here, that's also an edtech that does this, where they've actually organized their product management team around personas, right. So they have a product management team for students, they have a product management team for teachers, a product management team for administrators, so instead of, you know, our different products, or, you know, courses and exact path and Study Island, and that's how we organize product management, they're actually organizing around the personas to make sure that those stakeholders have that level of kind of advocacy within the organization to do it.
And so I think, you know, that's always kind of intrigued me as well, in terms of some of the, you know, some of the different ways you can think about it, because I agree that there's just there's a million different ways to think about that and accomplish it. And every organization has their slightly different flavor, but some have taken kind of much more, you know, abstract approaches to doing that. And it's, and they seem very successful for them as well. So there's a lot of benefit to talking through all the different types of opportunities there.
Tim Bornholdt 13:24
I love that concept. I don't think I've ever heard of that before of organizing around personas. But that really does make a lot of sense from at least making sure you're capturing that voice. I think it probably would get a little confusing if you're having multiple teams impacting a single product or something, but it's at the very least, it's a concept worth exploring. I have to dig into that some more.
Paul Johansen 13:46
Yeah, I think it's like any of those, like, you kind of you optimize around one problem, and then you swap out to other problems. So I guess it's, you know, it doesn't make everything perfect, right. But it's certainly, when you think about advocating for that specific group of users, it definitely puts that at the top of where you're optimizing.
Tim Bornholdt 14:03
100%. So I was mentioning before, you know, it's been 15 years since I'd been in high school. And I remember still like having to plug into an ethernet jack and getting rejected from our, one of our teachers for trying to get another switch, so we could have more than one computer on the internet at once. So I think technology has definitely evolved as time has gone on. One thing I'm curious about, and I always bring this up on when we interview guests is privacy and customer data. And being that you're working with students from you know, the whole age of a whole range of spectrum there's kicking up a lot of data for these kids. And I'm curious to hear how you integrate your emerging technologies and we haven't really touched things like AI and AR but these things are starting to become more common in classrooms. So I'm curious how you guys think about integrating these emerging technologies while also protecting the students' data?
Paul Johansen 14:59
Yeah, no, it is, that a great topic and one that's certainly, you know, over the past, like you said, I've been here for 12 years, and it was a conversation, you know, even more than five years ago, that wasn't had a lot in terms of privacy. But today, it is everywhere. And it's super important. And I'm glad that there is more understanding of it, and understanding of the importance of it. So it's something we talk about a lot. And it is, it is consistently a balance, right, because in order to continue to improve your products, in order to build some of these innovative solutions, especially those that depend on things like machine learning and an AI to be able to put in place, it does require a lot of data. So there are certainly, you know, we've had a lot of advances from even from a legal perspective, which is fantastic, to really ensure that students data is held private.
Tim Bornholdt 17:19
I like something you said immediately was that you like having this conversation around privacy. And I don't know too many technologists who don't like this conversation. But there's certainly a lot of stakeholders in technology that don't like to talk about this stuff. It's like, it's interesting to me, how we, you know, being a nerd, I've seen this stuff my whole life. And I know how all of it works. And you understand how Facebook is a multi billion dollar company and all these other companies make all their money is they do some not great things with people's data. So it's interesting to me, like, it just kind of made me chuckle thinking like, you know, technologists are like, Yes, we've been wanting this conversation to happen for years. And it's only been, you know, over the last few years, that people all of a sudden are understanding like, Oh, we really do need to take this seriously and not just kind of collect information for the sake of collecting it. It's like, No, we've got to have an actual purpose for this data. And then, you know, feed that back into actually providing value back to the students and the faculty and everybody else involved.
Paul Johansen 18:26
Yeah, no, absolutely. It is. It's great that we're having a more, you know, for lack of a better term, I guess, enlightened conversation around it. And that, you know, everybody's knowledge and understanding of it is increasing, because that's what, it's critically important, you know, as we move education forward in that way.
Tim Bornholdt 18:45
100% agreed. What are you seeing as some of the more promising technologies on the horizon for education today?
Paul Johansen 18:53
Yeah, certainly, it really comes down to, I think what we're seeing that's very promising, so I guess maybe I can put them in a couple of different categories. So some of the things that are really promising in terms of very actionable happening right now is this ability for, you know, technology to be able to take these large amounts of data, be able to pull them together, find patterns, and present that back to a teacher, right? Because a teacher in front of the classroom with 30 different students, you know, has a set of information that they understand and they can learn about those students, but there's so many different aspects coming in of data from that student, you know. How did they maybe do in the next class that that teacher doesn't have? What are the different aspects of where they're struggling, where they're spending more time, the patterns of the type of questions that they can answer or are struggling with, to just again, be able to provide that educator more insight, more understanding of where they may be able to spend time with that student. Or even better, you know, here's a group of students that you could pull together and you know, use this type of lesson that could be most effective. So again, kind of finding these shortcuts, finding these optimizations in a teacher's day for how they can use their time.
Also being able to do that with students as well, right suggesting the right materials for students, suggesting the right, you know, next piece of curriculum that is going to be most important. Some of the most powerful things that our products do, and that products in the industry overall continue to evolve, is to take the results, or we hear a lot about testing and state testing, and over testing kids, and all of that is very real. But when you can take that and actually be actionable against it in a very meaningful way, you can make that assessment time more valuable, more meaningful for the student, because you can drive specific learning activities out of what those assessments do, right. Those assessments are crafted, whether it's mental assessments or other assessments, you know, reliable, well crafted assessments can provide you a really, really strong set of information about where that student asks that you can be very predictive, and prescriptive about what that student will need next, and being able to use that to create, you know, individualize learning paths for students in a very adaptive way, is extremely powerful as well.
So you know, every student is kind of following their classroom teacher of what's happening during the day of what topics they're learning, but the type of materials that they're provided to learn that topic or the type of materials are provided to maybe learn things that they're, you know, struggling with, that they're behind on, or things that where we need students to be able to accelerate them forward, because they're understanding these concepts at a faster rate. So there's, you know, all of those pieces of just finding the right resources for the right student at the right time, is where I think there's just a ton of possibilities.
Tim Bornholdt 21:52
It sounds really, yeah, it sounds really exciting, because you would think that the best approach would be to have like, you know, a guidance counselor, or somebody that's overseeing each student individually and walking them along the way. And, of course, that's not, labor wise, just one thing, but just like, it's not feasible to have somebody walking with the student, every single class. So doing that with technology, and especially with AI. Like, the cool thing with AI is it finds patterns, you know, that sometimes we as humans don't find and it's, you know, whether that's good or bad, it's just, it's interesting. It's new data. And it's all about finding ways to help students learn more efficiently, or at least find how they learn and maybe adapt their technique for learning. You can take this data and say, Oh, they learn better with, you know, doing experiments, as opposed to watching Bill Nye, or that dates me. But you know what I mean?
Paul Johansen 22:48
I'm with you though.
Tim Bornholdt 22:50
I think that's fascinating, though, like that's where we're kind of going is having like a more personalized care to students and catering the experience to how they learn best.
Paul Johansen 23:01
That's right. Yeah. Because that's the key, right? We talk about engagement a lot for students and, right, a lot of times people will kind of equate engagement to like gamification, right, or making learning, you know, feel like, you know, some game that you're playing Fortnight or others. But it's, engagement is also making sure that that student just has the right material, that is something that they're ready to learn, that they can kind of sink their teeth into and learn and presenting it in a way that they learn best, right. That alone can create huge amounts of engagement to keep students motivated, moving forward, right, outside of other extrinsic, you know, tactics around, you know, motivation, principles, gamification, all of those pieces as well.
Tim Bornholdt 23:46
Definitely. I was actually talking about this today with somebody else. And it's just, it happened to be coincidental that I'm chatting with you right now. But I was thinking back when I was in college, I remember a professor saying that there have been studies that have been, you know, done, basically, since universities were formed that doing large scale lecture type of, you know, disseminating information just doesn't work. It works to a certain degree, but to have somebody sitting still for an hour, and then afterwards, asking them what they learned, they retain, you know, put, like, small percentages of that information. And it's just always when I heard that, it just struck me like, then why are we still doing it? Like it was when I was in college that was like, you know, 20, around 2010. And it's like, we've known this for a decade now. Yet, this is still the preferred way of doing it.
Now, when you throw in a global pandemic, which makes those old kind of stodgy rooted in ways infeasible or impossible, now, you have to turn to technology to have new ways of learning and gathering information. So it's, I don't know if I really am leading towards a question on this ,more of an observation and just hearing your thoughts around that. Like, do you see like, acceleration from the pandemic causing there to be new ways of learning? Or are we, you know, effectively taking these ways that we know don't work and trying to digitize them?
Paul Johansen 25:12
Yeah, well, no, that's a great, your last comment is really what popped into my head initially is, unfortunately, right, a lot of what happened in the pandemic was taking old familiar concepts, I shouldn't say a lot, many times, you know, the cases where you've heard where the learning really didn't go. Well, it was taking these existing older concepts, and trying to apply them to the pandemic, right. So instead of lecturing to a whole group of people, your recording, you know, kind of a plain talking head video of of doing this, or someone standing in front of a whiteboard, right. And so you're replicating that same experience. And it's even worse, because it's just one way, right? A student can't raise their hand and ask for clarification, and those kinds of things, or you're just taking a textbook, and you're digitizing it, and you're reading that textbook, right. That's, you're not getting the advantages. You're getting the advantages of scale from a technology perspective, but you're not getting the advantages of truly digital learning, right, where you have digital first providers, like Edmentum or other providers in the industry, right. We're designing our curriculum around a digital experience, right, where it's, sure, there may be as two or three minute videos, or four or five minute videos mixed in, but then it's moving a student to a different activity to apply that and it's moving a student to a game to practice it, or other things, right. So you're kind of, you know, using this different pedagogical design or pedagogical approach that is more appropriate for, you know, student led digital learning than it is trying to take these existing concepts.
And unfortunately, you know, a lot of what we saw happen during the pandemic was, because of a lack of time, because of a lack of resources, because of a lack of training, a lot of existing concepts were just attempted to be applied online. But there were also many, many places where it truly opened up new ways of looking at it, new ways of thinking about it. How teachers, there's so many great stories of how teachers curated different resources together and kind of created their own structure, right, where they were maybe doing some live lecture and then mixing in other activities. Teachers are incredibly resourceful, and innovative, and did some great things there, as well. So there, you know, while there were many cases of kind of just reapplying the old, there were also many, many cases of new ways of thinking, and we strongly feel that it moved the whole industry forward in ways that just I'm not sure how otherwise would have happened, right.
So many teachers became virtual teachers understood how technology can be used at scale, and how it can be used effectively at scale. That it really kind of move the industry and just retaught a lot of districts how education can be. And we're seeing, you know, obviously, you know, as we went into this year, we thought it was going to kind of go back to being more normal from the pandemic perspective. Obviously, unfortunately, what we've seen is, you know, a lot of different closures and things happening. But even when we get back to kind of a more normalized state, where COVID isn't, you know, or the pandemic isn't affecting how we're doing school, we are sure that we are going to see a higher use of technology, a higher offering of virtual education, just because of the successes and the understanding that the industry now has, compared to what it used to have even just three years ago.
Tim Bornholdt 28:36
Yeah, I think when I was giving that example of me being a student and hating to be sitting in a lecture hall, I honestly believe teachers don't like that, either. So it's kind of just like, whether it's just a fear from faculty or administration or whoever to change those ways, I think at the very least, like you said, you know, this pandemic has really accelerated that maybe entrepreneurial spirit of teachers or just that willingness to try new things and shake it up. And you know, teachers want the same thing, right? Like, they want the students to learn and they want to be able to get that feedback. And yeah, just throwing a video up online is cool. But is that actually the most useful way and productive way of teaching somebody? Probably not. So having the ability to swap in and try new things and switch it up is like, it really feels like a dawning of a new era for Ed Tech of being able to now that you kind of were forced to see the benefits, of course, there were downsides. But being able to see the benefits of what distance learning and virtual learning can bring, it's like, Okay, now we've got something here. We are in 2021 and doing 2021 things. Why don't we try? Why don't we try doing it this way, or throw in this thing or switch it up? It's like, it seems like a really exciting time at least to be in this space.
Paul Johansen 29:59
Yeah, it is. You're absolutely right. It's, you know, I've always felt it's exciting. I guess that's why I've been here for a long time. But this is like nothing else that I've ever seen in terms of the excitement, what we're able to do, and the willingness of, you know, the education market to change and accept these different ways of doing things. So it is an incredibly, you know, these next several years, especially as there's, you know, continues to be good federal funding coming into the schools to allow them to fund you know, really important things from infrastructure that, you know, students have more access to devices, have more access to high speed internet than they've ever had before, because of the funding, that's come into play, and also the funding to invest in innovation, and finding training and professional development around these new ways of doing things. And so there's a lot of support, not only from, you know, kind of just the mindset perspective, but there's truly some resource support that federal and state governments that are providing that's above and beyond what the education industry has seen, as well, which will certainly help with move it forward as well.
Tim Bornholdt 31:06
That's a really great point to make, too. I mean, we've talked about the digital divide on this podcast, and about all the different ways that, you know, it's hard to educate people, especially with all the technologies we have, when there's no funding to help support some of that growth. And it's, you know, I'm not good at saying you know, where the funding should come from, or anything. But other than the fact just to point out that if you ever stepped foot in most schools and tried to get on their Wi Fi and run speed tests, you would be very surprised to know most buildings aren't well equipped with high speed internet, and especially as you get more rural, out into the rural areas. But even in the inner city, it's like, I know in Minneapolis, we've had, I've seen some schools recently, where it's like, Well, we lost our line to CenturyLink today, so school's down for the day, can't get anything done. It's like these infrastructure things are super important when it comes to education. And it is, like you said, it's really great to see that we actually are investing in these infrastructure upgrades so that we're not running T1 lines or anything like super slow into schools anymore. It's like we're modernizing, we're getting faster, we're utilizing technology to the greatest extent we can.
Paul Johansen 32:20
Yeah, I would imagine, right, probably for a lot of the listeners on this call. And certainly from my perspective, like you just take for granted that access to technology. You take for granted that access to fairly reliable, you know, we all get mad when our cable provider goes down for a couple hours, but pretty reliable access, where you're exactly right that you get into urban areas or, you know, rural areas, it just, it isn't there. And a lot of you know what students have at home, or what their parents have at home for technology is a cell phone that's connected to the internet through that cell phone provider, right? They may not have a laptop and a computer and other aspects or even Wi Fi in the house. And so it's being able to provide that was, you know, a huge challenge during the pandemic, and certainly getting better. But that is where we'll continue to make real strides for, you know, equitable access to all of these resources for everyone.
Tim Bornholdt 33:16
Oh, yeah, definitely. So your engineering team is spread pretty wide, right? Like, you're you're not all located in one space. Is that right?
Paul Johansen 33:25
Yeah, no, that's right. We span from the Pacific Time Zone all the way to the Bulgaria timezone. So we stretch across, Yeah, we have primary offices in, you know, here in downtown Bloomington, and then in Dallas, and Seattle, here in the US, and then about two hours north of London in the UK, and then we partner with a firm out of Bulgaria as well for for team members there. So we kind of have some centers, I would say at least pre pandemic where we were more centralized. We've always supported kind of remote developers in a lot of different locations, even before the pandemic, but certainly now, when we look for team members, we really aren't, you know, aren't focused on getting somebody into an office. We're focused on getting the best person that can, you know, help us move our mission forward.
Tim Bornholdt 34:18
That's awesome. I mean, the pandemic definitely did accelerate that remote working thing, but once you are you have the system in place, since you're already so spread out, I would imagine, you know, you've started with this remote talent pool, and now you've got a lot of people kind of fishing in that same pool. So I'm curious to hear what challenges you've been overcoming by having a dispersed team and then also some of the advantages of being spread out so wide and far?
Paul Johansen 34:49
Yeah, I mean, some of the advantages, you know, that we didn't necessarily anticipate, especially as we went into the pandemic was, it really did level the playing field, right. So we would have, you know, we had teams that came into the office every day and in Minneapolis and Dallas, and in the UK, and a lot of things were solved kind of within the context of that team, hallway conversations, or maybe, you know, stand up meetings that were happening there. And so there were a lot of things that maybe a team in Dallas, you know, didn't necessarily care about, not because anybody was trying to hide anything. It just wasn't kind of top of mind.
But what one of the advantages we certainly saw was that, hey, if you're going to grab six people together that were on a Minneapolis team, there's no more effort to pass on that Zoom meeting to two people in Dallas and one person in the UK, or if you're going to send out, you know, if you're taking notes and sending them out, there's no reason that you're not, can't just send them to those team members. And so it really helped kind of level the playing field and ensuring that we didn't have kind of silos of work happening where communication wasn't getting out. So that was one of the advantages, kind of pleasant surprises that we saw.
But on the other hand, right, I mean, it does certainly make some of the, especially when you think about the planning sessions, getting people together to do planning, it makes a lot of those more challenging. So you have to, you know, to, surprisingly exhausting to sit on a Zoom meeting for eight hours to do planning, as compared to right being in a conference room where you can get up and use the whiteboard and take breaks, and you know, and chat with colleagues. So you just have to be much more intentional about how you're going to make those sessions engaging, how you're going to replicate some of the value of when we did face to face. And so I think that's certainly been, you know, the bigger challenge is kind of the bigger planning events, the bigger problem solving events where we would typically, even those would be the occasions where we would say like, Hey, let's just fly everybody in. Let's lock people in a room for two or three days, and let's go figure out, you know, what the next version of reporting for this product is going to be or whatever it might be. And so those things that we would defer to, Hey, this is a hard problem, let's get together. Trying to figure out, this is a hard problem, how are we going to do this, right. And so it typically, tactics, like instead of, you know, Hey, we're going to have three or four days of full sessions, we're going to take a whole bunch of different half days, or a whole bunch of different two to three hour sessions, and be very specific about who we're having there, and how we're going to engage them to be able to do it. So a lot of it was kind of doing the same activities, but maybe slicing them up in different ways, maybe being intentional about how you do breakout groups to kind of create these, you know, smaller group conversations that would otherwise maybe more naturally happen in person. And so it's a lot less about the technology, and hey, how do you use Zoom, and a lot more about thinking about how would people interact in a different way and trying to replicate that or where we can even improve on impossibly.
Tim Bornholdt 37:55
Yeah, I think one technique I'm curious is, is if you use pair programming, and for those who, you know, this is supposed to be non technical show, so I sometimes want to explain some.
Paul Johansen 38:06
Tim Bornholdt 38:07
Usually pair programming is when you have two people basically sitting around one computer and working through a problem together. You're literally talking through and solving a problem so you both are on the same page with whatever it is you're trying to solve. And I've seen a lot of remote first companies use this to great effect of having a programmer if you're, you know, you have someone in Bulgaria, right? You said Bulgaria, right?
Paul Johansen 38:30
Tim Bornholdt 38:31
So you get somebody in Bulgaria, somebody in San Francisco, you kind of find a time for them to get together and you have a problem and you work together to solve it. And in that way, the knowledge of how that works isn't just localized to one office or one area, but it's then now two people have got it and you can kind of help disseminate that throughout your organization. Do you guys do a lot of pair programming?
Paul Johansen 38:53
We don't. Well, it depends on you know, so there's like kind of this very formal definition of pair programming around like, always. We don't do you know, that aspect, but we do a ton of pair programming, whether it's onboarding someone, like you said, learning, doing the odd transfer to ensure that other, you know, that all the knowledge isn't kind of locked up in one person's head. And so there's a lot of different, you know, that's where these collaboration tools do such a great job, whether it's the tools we use to kind of check in our source code. You know, those tools have great kind of collaboration aspects built into them that allow you to engage other team members kind of in an asynchronous manner. And then certainly using tools like Teams or Zoom or Slack to be able to just kind of seamlessly or, you know, less formally, say like, Hey, can you hop on here, take a look at this with me or I want to show you how this is working. You know, some of the values we have as a team are really being, openly sharing information and openly asking for feedback is a critical part of how we want our teams to act and what we want to do. And so we try to really embed that into the way that people work.
Tim Bornholdt 40:06
Yeah, it's hard, it's really hard with that feedback side of things. Because, you know, it's one thing when you can kind of deliver a compliment sandwich, or whatever they call it in person. You know, it's easy to kind of give that feedback of, Hey, you did this thing, great. Now, maybe here's the thing that I actually wanted to talk to you about, and you change that. But then here's this other thing, you're doing great. And there you go, compliment sandwich. Like, that's easy to serve that up in person, and you can kind of feel it out. But virtually, it kind of makes it harder to do those sorts of things. And especially when you want to deliver, you know, without putting the, sandwiching it with compliments, if you just want to deliver the, Hey, you should try doing it this way or that way. It's so hard to infer context. And, you know, you kind of have to train that into your team, I would imagine, of here's, you know, how to give good feedback. And then also here's how to receive good feedback and in an asynchronous and virtual, you know, manner.
Paul Johansen 40:58
Yeah, no, absolutely. And I think, you know, that is 100% an area that we're investing in as a company. So literally, the, you know, the things you just mentioned, we have our talented human resource team works really hard to provide formalized training on doing those things. And it sounds like, it almost sounds silly to say, like to give and receive feedback, that you need training on that. But it really is super important, especially with not necessarily being able to do that face to face. Understanding the context of that we're always going to have remote team members there, and it brings a whole different way of doing that. So we, you know, internally, we have tracks that we do that we engage outside team members.
So you know, one of our great partners is Matt Norman and Dale Carnegie. I'm not sure if you know him, but we work with Matt Norman a lot on helping teams, in all situations, virtual and not, you know, do things like leading through influence and how, you know, getting their ideas across and those kinds of things. And feedback ultimately becomes a part of that as well. So we, you know, we invest both heavily internally in terms of time spent, as well as you know, externally bringing in outside resources for experts in this to help us move that forward as an organization, because it is, it's so important. And if you overlook those aspects, this transition to a fully remote team and not wanting to lose productivity, or wanting to gain productivity as part of that, it just, all of those little pieces that are more, you know, the soft skills, or the non core technology parts of your job, becomes so important to emphasize.
Tim Bornholdt 42:39
Yeah, when you said that it might sound weird to get training on those things, is honestly surprising me, since we're talking about edtech, that that's not something that's more commonly taught in schools, from day one. I mean, especially when you're talking about a remote first culture, you know, the way that we in the Twin Cities give and receive feedback is vastly different to the way that you would give and receive feedback in a downtown Manhattan, you know, Wall Street environment, you know. Whereas we might try to spend 20 minutes making you feel good about what you're doing wrong, and then passively aggressively tell you something, you know, somebody on the west coast or on the east coast is going to just walk up to you and say, Hey, moron, like, do it this way. And they value that feedback. And, so I think that would probably be something too, that you're you're dealing with actively is just different cultures have different ways of dealing with this stuff. And so that's not necessarily how, you know, nobody needs to understand how to give and receive feedback around the peers that you're dealing with. Because you kind of learn that through through culture and through just, you know, living everyday life. But when all of a sudden, you're dropped into a room with somebody who lives halfway across the country or across the globe as you, let alone the country, you know, there are ways that you just, if you just level set with each other and say, This is how we're going to give and receive feedback and, you know, it might feel like it's going to hurt feelings, but it won't. And here's why. And just getting people on the same page, I would imagine there's tremendous benefits for doing that.
Paul Johansen 44:12
Yeah, absolutely. And it's, you know, that's why it's really important whenever we do any of these trainings, we try to create kind of this wide representative group to go through it together, right? So we're not just taking like the Seattle group and saying, You do the training together, and then the Minneapolis group and saying, You do it together. We do intentionally always mix and match those, right, so you're setting those expectations. You're getting on that same level playing field across all those areas because like you said, it certainly you know, kind of East Coast versus you know, Midwest kind of approach to things are very different. But you know, also with the Bulgarian teams are, they're fantastic and they provide very blunt and very direct feedback and we absolutely love that. It's one of the things we appreciate with working with that group, but it can be you know, it can put you back in your chair a little bit too, if you're not, if you're not ready for it as a kind of a, you know, more of a laid back, passive aggressive, Midwestern, or as, as many of us are, right.
Tim Bornholdt 45:10
Oh, yeah. I've been feeling that over the last few years, we've been getting a more diverse set of clients. And I've always thought, again, being Midwest born and raised, that, you know, those jerks on the East Coast, and they're so blunt and whatever. But then, the more I've been in business and dealing with different kinds of people, it's like getting that feedback, as long as you have a relationship, and you know it's coming from a spirit of growth and like, you know, positive place of like, Hey, we're just trying to make this better. I'm not trying to make you feel bad. I'm just trying to get you what you need to know. It does really shave a lot of time off for what I'm used to.
Paul Johansen 45:48
Yeah, I mean, it's definitely an overused term a little bit, I think, but you know, this concept of psychological safety. Like you said, if you know that it's coming from the right place, if you know it's in the spirit of, you know, advancing the solution or moving forward the work that you're doing, you know, that sets the foundation, right, that you're creating that safe way for these team members to work together and ensuring that you have common sets of values, common ways of working, common understanding as to how we're going to provide feedback. That's what makes it all possible, right. And that's why I am kind of looping back to where we started, like having that formal training to talk about how we're going to do that, as kind of out of places that may sound to some listeners, is so important.
Tim Bornholdt 46:29
Oh, yeah, definitely agreed on that. So you mentioned also at the, when we were kind of talking at the beginning that you have not only an internal team of engineers, but an outsourcing partner as well. And I'm curious to hear your thoughts around when it makes sense to outsource a project, especially, you know, as a technology company, you know, when do you outsource stuff versus handling it all internally?
Paul Johansen 46:53
Yeah, no, I mean, that is the million dollar question, I guess, probably many million dollar question. You know, I've done a lot of different iterations of offshore development in my years. And the way that we're approaching it now, and where I'm a big fan of is, is we ensure that the team members that we're bringing on from an offshore perspective, are at the same level as the team members we have here. So I've certainly worked in models and in for some projects, and some industries, it's great, where you kind of carve off work and say, Hey, this is a little easier work, or this is maybe work that doesn't need as much business context or doesn't mean as much understanding. And you could provide more maintenance activities to offshore teams. And you can do things in a very cost effective, quick turnaround manner. And that works great.
The way that we're using this firm is it's both, you know, availability of resources in terms of access to, you know, another talent pool, because it's hard for all of us to find team members these days, and can have the flexibility to flex up as we need to add, you know, capacity to specific initiatives, specific areas or to flex down, you know, if we're moving capacity to different areas as well. And so when we look at it from that perspective, kind of the key aspects for us is, we ensure that those team members go through the same type of rigorous interview process that any onshore team member would so that what you're getting from the team member in Bulgaria is the same as where you're expecting from a team member in Minneapolis or Dallas, and we fully integrate them onto our team.
So we're not kind of outsourcing a project and saying, like, Hey, go work on this, and then come back when it's done. They are part of a sprint team that owns a product. They participate in daily stand ups, every part of the ceremonies. They come to our department meetings, you know. They become a member of the team just like anybody else. And for us, that's the model, that when we need to ensure that we're providing the level of quality and expectations in our products, that's the model that we've chosen to take on for that work, to provide that flexibility in terms of finding talent and being able to flex up and down from a resourcing model that works extremely well.
I mean, the downsides are that you have to spent a lot of time, just like you have to spend a lot of time finding really good talent if you're searching locally, to be able to do that. So it's not as easy necessarily as just kind of picking up the phone and saying, Hey, give me a couple of people who can work on this project. You have to put in the investment. But in the end, it's worth it. And we have, you know, really good tenure, very low turnover with our partners in Bulgaria, just like we do with our onshore teams as well. And I think that's one of the positive aspects that comes out of it. You're not going to, churning through this consistent cycle of new team members and retraining and bringing on additional, you know, having to onboard or bring on additional people all the time.
Tim Bornholdt 49:45
Yeah, I think it's interesting when you come at it from a non technical standpoint, and you think like, Well, we're just going to outsource and we'll have a team and they'll be spun up, you know, and like in a couple of weeks, they'll be able to start writing code and contributing. And it's like, you know, I've never seen a team that successful, getting people going back quickly. It really does take a good investment in understanding, you know, not just the product. The product is one thing, but it's really the culture and all the back stories and everything that comes along with building software and doing it in such a way that, you know, actually provides value. Because, you know, developers make a million micro decisions throughout the course of building software. And, you know, if you're making, if you don't have the proper context for making those decisions, then you're going to start making you know, 1000 tiny little paper cuts in your own software that you're gonna have to go back and fix later with the right context. So I totally agree with you that there is an investment to be made. But if you find that right partner, and both sides are feeling good about it, then that's really a slam dunk.
Paul Johansen 50:52
Tim Bornholdt 50:55
Paul, this has been an awesome conversation. I'd love for you to, you know, take a chance to shout out anything you'd like to shout out on the show or direct the audience to come and find you if they got any more questions or want to learn more about what you're doing over at Edmentum.
Paul Johansen 51:09
Yeah, no, absolutely. It was great to be on here. And I really appreciate it. We're always, you know, love having conversations about what we're doing. We're always looking for great team members, whether it's technology or not. So certainly look us up, you know, on all the socials, on our website for Edmentum. That's, you know, Edmentum is educational momentum smashed together, kind of one of those brand words that sometimes gets a little confused, but we love what we do. You know, I think what makes Edmentum who who we are is the passion that people have for the mission, the passion that people have for education, and how they can take their talents and apply it to something exciting. And so you tend to, if you're interested in learning more, you tend to find people who are certainly excited to talk about what we do and tell our story.
Tim Bornholdt 51:56
I love it. Well, yeah, hopefully people here can go and check it out and help you pick up a couple of folks to come and work for you. And thanks again for coming on the show. I really appreciate it today.
Paul Johansen 52:05
Yeah, thank you. I appreciate it as well, the opportunity. It's been great.
Jenny Karkowski 52:09
Thanks to Paul Johansen for coming on the show today. You can learn more about Edmentum at Edmentum.com.
Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co.
You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. Or you can find us on Twitter @CV_podcast. The best place to connect with Tim is on LinkedIn.
Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the upstanding Jordan douDaoust.
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