Andy Huang is a content developer at Knewton.
What do Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, and Knewton have in common?
Great places to work? Check.
Brilliant people? Check.
Cutting edge technology? Check.
Ultimate Frisbee? Check.
Played on college campuses across the country, Ultimate Frisbee has long been known as a sport for techies and nerds. And as those Frisbee toting techies and nerds graduate and move into high tech companies and startups, the sport of Ultimate Frisbee has migrated along with them. On any sunny afternoon in Silicon Valley, it is not uncommon to see teams representing the cornerstones of the internet economy fighting for pride over a game of Ultimate. Facebook, the relative newcomer to the game, seems to have taken the upper hand in these contests.
“I think a lot of them were, actually, were like hardcore ultimate players at Harvard, and they kind of wanted to prove themselves as new kids on the block, that, you know, they were like the team to beat. And right now, they are.” says Yoon-Jin Kim, a software engineer at Google.
What makes the sport of Ultimate Frisbee unique is also what makes it the perfect sport for people who spend more time with their computers than with their athletic shoes. Ultimate Frisbee is a sport that is noncontact, requires little organization, and is played without referees or officials. People play as competitively as they wish, and there is always a spirit of mutual respect and camaraderie throughout the game.
Because Ultimate Frisbee resonates with the tech community so strongly, it has even become a way to find the right people for tech startups. The Startupprofessionals.com blog has this to say about selecting an ideal startup co-founder: “Look for diversity in outside activities. Major universities, like Stanford and MIT, are flush with smart people from all cultures, many of whom would bring a whole new energy and creativity to your startup. Certain activities seem to attract the right kind of independent thinkers, like rock climbing and ultimate Frisbee.”
The Startuphoodlum.com blog even recommends using a game of Ultimate Frisbee as part of the interview process for selecting the right employees. “I GUARANTEE that after watching an Ultimate Frisbee game for a few hours, I can tell which players are the most successful, ambitious, passionate- it is an amazing way to screen employees.” Although Ultimate Frisbee can be useful during the hiring process, most people play the game simply because they love it.
While the internet powerhouses of Google and Facebook are maintaining the tradition of Ultimate playing tech companies on the West coast, Knewton is keeping the tradition alive here in New York City. Every Wednesday at noon, a group of Knewton employees step away from their computers, put on their Ultimate gear, and in true New York fashion, hop in a taxi and head to the turf fields on the East side of Manhattan.
The CEO of Knewton, Jose Ferreira, is an active participant in the weekly Ultimate games. Having learned the game at Carleton College, he developed a deep passion for the game which is rubbing off on the employees. Armed with a deadly accurate hammer and a wicked forehand, Jose plays the part of the field general constantly giving orders and maneuvering the troops. Despite being the most veteran player on the field, he can still hold his own against the younger competition, and will still lay it out horizontally for the disc. That same energy and enthusiasm is also the driving force behind Knewton, which is the product of Jose’s vision to revolutionize the education industry.
A few of Knewton players had also played Ultimate Frisbee in college, including content developers John Davies (Harvard) and Andy Huang (Williams), as well as software developer Nate Burke (Harvard), but most are just learning the game. John Davies says, “They (the games) are competitive, but friendly and really spirited – and the non-ultimate players are surprisingly good.” Experience does not matter in this game because the focus isn’t on winning but on having fun together. That same attitude can be found in the Knewton offices where people will take the time from their busy schedules to draw funny comics, organize board game nights, and challenge each other to epic games of Smash Brothers.
Knewton employees definitely have a lot of fun, but they also work incredibly hard. Twelve hour days are the norm, and sleepovers are not uncommon. No one knows if Faculty Director Brad McIlquham goes home at night because no one has actually seen him go home. The days may be long, but the work somehow does not feel like work. Because when you get together a group of passionate, talented, and incredibly motivated individuals working together towards a common vision, working actually becomes satisfying.
Whether Knewton will be able to revolutionize the education industry and provide everyone in the world a great online education any time soon is yet uncertain. But what is certain is that Knewton will carry on the tradition of Ultimate Frisbee, and that next Wednesday, at noon, there will be a great game of Ultimate on the East side of Manhattan, overlooking the river.