To chronicle the chaotic new reality of our times, Robert Safian at FastCompany recently published an article which identified speed, chaos, and uncertainty as defining qualities of business in the twenty-first century. Some—Safian identifies them as “Generation Flux”—have survived and even thrived in the new economic climate by adopting a mindset that “embraces instability, that tolerates—and even enjoys—recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions.”
We decided to interview some of the “fluxers” here at Knewton. Our first post focused on design and data science. This post will feature Senior Marketing Associate, Robbie Mitchell, who started his own educational rap company, Rhythm Rhyme Results, and Product Manager, Nathan Lasche, who has worked in a range of for-profit and non-profit organizations in the entertainment, tech, and public health sectors.
CY: What do you do here at Knewton? How has your role here changed over the past year or two?
Robbie: I oversee product marketing, paid search, and online acquisition. As part of these areas, I manage knewton.com and lead most technical projects for the team.
We now have a marketing team of about 7, but when I started two years ago it was just me and our former VP. I spent every day in the weeds and started by focusing on analytics and A/B testing, but quickly worked on everything from affiliate management to SEO to email marketing. Over time, our team has taken on more specialists, enabling me to spend more time working on team-wide goals and cross-functional projects.
Nathan: I am a Product Manager at Knewton. That means I try to envision and define the types of products and features we hope to create and then work with our teams to actually build them.
The focus of my role has changed a lot over the past couple years mainly due to evolving focus of the company. When I first arrived at Knewton, I worked on improving our test prep courses, since those were the only products that we had at that point. As we moved into higher ed, I focused on helping to build the original version of our College Readiness product. Now I work closely with our largest partners—mainly publishers and universities—to incorporate Knewton’s adaptive learning technology into their products, which serve millions of students.
CY: 5 years ago, did you see yourself working in tech or edtech? How did you find your way here?
Robbie: No way. 5 years ago I was pursuing a career in global trade, working for an economist and taking extra math and econ classes. On the side I was starting the educational rap thing, but it was a hobby. Parallel to this, I was heavily involved as a volunteer with National Model United Nations, a conference I had competed in as a college student. Both of those side activities kept me involved with education in different ways. I’ve been into computers and the web since 1994 or so, but hadn’t seriously pursued it in any way.
Nathan: From early on in my career, I had a feeling that I would end up in tech, although in hindsight, it took me a while to get there. I’ve always been driven by innovation and the ability to impact other people’s lives. At its core, that’s what I believe tech, and edtech specifically, is all about. Back in college, a friend and I started on online video rental store on our campus. This was in 2001, before Netflix had gone mainstream. It turned out people loved the store, because it was a new, more convenient way to rent movies. And while it was a very small endeavor in the grand scheme of things, it was an amazing entrepreneurial experience and one of my first glimpses into the potential that technology has to affect the status quo and delight users in ways they previously hadn’t even considered possible.
I later worked in Hollywood, sourcing and developing feature film projects for Sony Studios, and in Africa, co-founding the Uganda office of the Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative, where I focused primarily on increasing the pediatric HIV detection and treatment coverage. In each of these instances, I felt satisfied that I was achieving my primary goal of impacting other people’s lives, but upon reflection, I concluded that it was possible to have even a more widespread, global impact than one could achieve in these particular fields.
CY: How did this lead to your work at Knewton?
Nathan: Around the time of this realization, I had returned to the US and was in an MBA program. I started focusing on industries and areas where there was a great potential for innovation on a large scale, which could in turn impact the lives of millions of people. This, of course, led me back to the tech sector, and one of the companies I thought had this potential world-changing impact was Knewton. Education is one of the sectors that I believe has the most to gain from embracing technology. And in doing so, has the chance to improve the lives of millions of people. Everything stems from education. And I believe Knewton will be at the forefront of this trend when the revolution happens.
CY: Robbie, tell me about a learning experience you’ve had with your company that has informed your work at Knewton.
Robbie: One of the big mistakes I made in early pitch meetings for our songs with Disney and Viacom was thinking they would recognize a good prototype (educational rap songs) and understand how to morph it into a profitable business. Because of this, we held off on marketing the product directly to customers in order to “reserve” it for bigger companies. Eventually we went to market, learned how to sell content online, and have now built a surprisingly successful e-commerce business out of it.
CY: What did you take away from that experience?
Robbie: Don’t rely on your audience to interpret the value for you–show people something concrete they can pick off the rack and evaluate. This lesson applies all the time—everything from presenting design ideas to senior management to telling customers how to use what they are buying from you.
CY: What about you, Nathan? Any experiences from the past that have unexpectedly informed your work at Knewton?
Nathan: While at a first glance, some of my past experiences seem unrelated to my current responsibilities, I’ve actually drawn on them a lot in my role at Knewton. As a Product Manager, one has to work with a diverse group of people—engineers, designers, content developers, and a variety of different partners—to arrive at a vision for a product and implement it successfully. When I worked in film development at Sony, I had to work with writers, directors, agents, and studio executives to shape scripts in ways that would satisfy everyone’s requirements and that would lead to a successful movie.
CY: And what about your work in Uganda? I imagine there must have been a good deal of consensus-building there as well.
Nathan: Similarly when I was building the HIV/AIDS treatment program in Uganda, I was constantly working with a diverse group of stakeholders—the Minister of Health, large NGOs, doctors, and patients with HIV. In both these situations, it was crucial to get input from all the various groups, build a consensus, and make decisions that I believed would lead to a solution that would benefit the greatest number of people and achieve our goals. This type of experience has been extremely valuable to my work building products at Knewton.
CY: Have any advice for young people shaping their careers and looking to navigate these tricky economic times?
Robbie: Anyone can say they’re interested in something, but surprisingly few people prove it by actively pursuing their interests. There’s no excuse for not learning and experimenting on your own; either you’ll get better or you’ll realize you don’t care as much as you thought.
CY: Great advice. It helps in job interviews as well: most candidates for entry-level positions straight out of college don’t go through the trouble of thoroughly researching a company or a field before they go in to interview. So it sets you apart if you really know what you’re talking about.
Robbie: If you’re interested in software engineering, the languages are free and the tutorials are cheap. If you’re interested in marketing, almost everything is free—blogs, YouTube, analytics, AdSense, and basic design apps. Blogs and FAQ communities abound for just about any topic.
CY: Speaking of software engineering, one of our coders, Jon Bethune, recently wrote a post about why everyone should learn to code. Definitely worth reading… what are your thoughts on this, Nathan? Any advice for young people these days?
Nathan: I know it’s a cliche, but try to find something you’re passionate about. Of course, in more difficult economic times we don’t always have the luxury to wait for the one job that is perfectly suited to our interests and passions, but whenever possible, try to hold out for something that really excites you. Don’t settle for the first thing that comes along, as tempting as it may be. I’ve had too many friends and colleagues take a job purely for financial reasons or because it was the “cool” job to take, and then wake up 5–10 years down the road unhappy with their careers and regretting their decisions. How you spend 40, 50, 60 hours of your life week-in and week-out will have a huge influence on your overall happiness.
CY: Great advice, and helpful to hear in these times when so many young people feel pressured to give up on their dreams. Any concluding thoughts about “Generation Flux”? Robert Safian at FastCompany says the future of business will be defined by “chaos,” “speed,” and “rapid flux.” What do you think?
Robbie: Type faster and learn keyboard shortcuts.
Nathan: I think it makes sense. Our generation is characterized by the ability (and need) to move from one job function or industry to another, quickly and seamlessly. We’ve been trained to adapt constantly and view our careers as dynamic, ever-changing events, because if we don’t, the world might pass us by. Things are changing at lightning speed. Fifteen years ago, no one had cell phones and social networks didn’t really exist. Now huge parts of our economies are directly tied to these sorts of recent innovations. In another five years, everything will have changed again, and most likely, we’ll have changed with it.