Tag Archives: interview

Photo from zacheryjensen on Flickr

Cross-pollination at Knewton: Marketing & Software Engineering

I still remember when I first came to Knewton for my interview over two years ago. I said I was interested in marketing. I was told I could start off in academics drafting verbal coursework. The director assured me that there were plenty of opportunities for “cross-pollination” (at the time, I thought this was an original metaphor :) ).

Within a few days, I started blogging for the marketing team. Within a few months, I was working 50/50 in academics/marketing. I was both building products and marketing them (and sometimes answering customer service tickets!). This was followed by a brief stint in tech, which helped me grasp the science behind recommendation and the intricacies of adaptive learning. It was like my own “rotation program”: I had exposure to customers, and I came to understand the platform from different angles.

There are other benefits related to wearing multiple hats at a company. Working at a startup, you’re exposed to cutting-edge technology and business concepts. This is invaluable from a long-term career perspective because it helps you understand other emerging technologies and business trends. You can be assured that you’re investing your energy and developing expertise in the right areas. In this sense, working at Knewton has been transformative for me personally, professionally, and intellectually. As a result of working here, I feel that I have a more visceral understanding of technology and its impact on business and culture as a whole.

So that’s my story. In this series on cross-pollination, I’ll interview other colleagues of mine who have benefited from the unique career opportunities at Knewton. This first post will feature Jonathan Bethune, one of my old teammates from academics who also started off drafting verbal coursework for our GMAT product.

CY: How did you find your way to Knewton?

Jonathan: Before Knewton I taught humanities in Tokyo and New York City. I left a position with a charter school in the winter of 2009 and decided to look for non-teaching work related to education. Knewton seemed like a natural fit.

CY: What was your first position here?

Jonathan: I was a Content Developer for my first year and a half. At first I wrote test-prep questions and GMAT lessons, then moved on to developing the Knewton Math Readiness course.

CY: Tell us about your transition to tech. What got you interested in coding?

Jonathan: I’d done basic web development and scripting since high school, but really only started at Knewton when a colleague and I worked on a program to automate question creation for one of our projects.

I really enjoyed working with the tech team then and began putting in a lot of time outside of work studying programming and computer science.

I switched to half academics and half tech work in the late summer of 2011, then moved to full-time software engineering in January of the following year.

CY: What are you working on these days?

Jonathan: Currently I am on the Systems Engineering team. I manage software deployment templates and configurations, and help developers structure and launch software stacks. I write a lot of “glue code” in BASH and Python to help automate and validate services before launch.

I also serve as the Deployment Engineer in charge of updating services in production and staging once I get the word from QA.

CY: What advice do you have for someone right out of college who’s interested in making a career at a tech startup?

Jonathan: Being proactive is probably the most important thing if you want to be successful. You cannot sit back and wait for a manager or team lead to hand you an opportunity. You have to look for solutions to problems others do not perceive. You have to anticipate.

CY: Great advice for the working world in general. But how did you initiate that transition?

Jonathan: In my own case no one invited me to join the tech team; I was interested, I studied, and I made my own opportunity by spending weeks annoying a lot of engineers and dev managers. If you want to carve out your own role and rise to a position of substance, you have to have moxy.

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Personalizing Education for the Planet at the Georgetown h.Innovation Summit

Knewton COO David Liu and I recently had the privilege of participating in the inaugural Georgetown h.Innovation Summit. The two-day summit on Georgetown’s hilltop campus kicked off with a Day of Ideas, where Knewton and other startup technology companies like Fog Creek and LivingSocial shared their innovative products and ideas with Georgetown students, teachers, and administrators. Best of all for this Georgetown alumnus — the event was held in Riggs Library of Healy Hall, a mostly-forbidden library that looks straight out of Beauty & the Beast, in a building that could be a stand-in for the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Here’s a picture of David’s presentation, titled “Personalizing Education for the Planet.”

And here’s the awesome whiteboard pictorial transcript captured live during his talk:

The second day of the summit, the Day of Action, brought together startups, administrators, teachers, and students into workshops and breakout sessions in order to brainstorm solutions to issues faced by the Georgetown community, like collaborative space availability and barriers to the adoption of classroom technology.

The Georgetown h.Innovation Summit tackled head-on the challenges of innovating within a large bureaucracy like a traditional university. By inviting some of the country’s most forward-thinking companies to share their ideas and solutions, Georgetown solidified its role as a model for innovation within the higher ed arena. We’re looking forward to participating in the next event in the fall!

After the summit, I had the chance to ask some questions to one of its founders, Michael Wang. Michael is a fellow Georgetown alumnus, former investment banker (also former Director of the beloved student-owned and operated Midnight Mug coffee shop inside Georgetown’s main library) and recently the first Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) of Georgetown University.

Here’s a picture of Michael (@zmwang) emceeing the Day of Ideas ahead of the Knewton session:

How does it feel to the be the CINO of your alma mater?

It’s a humbling experience. I’m grateful for the opportunity to collaborate and learn from such inspiring and brilliant people across the Georgetown community from University leaders to students to professors to alumni. It’s a blast. There are people being innovative all across campus — my job is to listen to their ideas and think of ways to 1) support them, 2) share them with others and 3) champion them.

Why did you decide to create the Innovation Summit? What were your goals?

The world has changed. We are more connected, more engaged, more informed, more empowered, more distracted, and more collaborative than ever before. It’s a super exciting time to be in education + technology. The goal of the inaugural Georgetown Innovation Summit was to reimagine the role of technology in higher education and to inject energy into the community by spotlighting ideas and projects being spearheaded by students, faculty, staff and other leading thinkers in the space. We wanted to set a robust foundation for our University community to grapple with the big question: What’s next in higher education?

We heard you have a new Chief Information Officer! Tell us a little about Ms. Lisa Davis?

Our new Vice President and CIO Lisa Davis is awesome. As the University leader driving strategy in technology, Lisa has brought a new energy to campus and sharpened our focus to serving the needs of our stakeholders — only when you understand what kinds of technology your constituents find valuable and relevant, be it old or new, can you effectively support and empower them. Under Lisa’s leadership in just 10 weeks, we have collaborated with various University stakeholders from the Office of Communications to the Office of Mission and Ministry to The Corp to the School of Continuing Studies and launched GU Mobile with ModoLabs, migrated to Google Apps for Faculty/Staff, increased Wi-Fi on campus lawns and partnered with Destiny Solutions– this is just the beginning.

What was your favorite part of the summit (other than the Knewton presentation, obviously)?

The random collisions. Our staff talked to companies about their products and established next steps and action items. Students got internships and jobs with companies. Professors met students who were interested in their work, classes, and projects. Companies learned about cutting edge projects and research from professors.

What are your future goals for the Innovation Summit?

We are appreciative of the support from our Chief Operating Officer Chris Augostini and our senior leadership in launching the first Summit. We are planning to host another event in Fall 2012. With renewed excitement in the community, we will look to build out the Summit to a larger audience and begin to focus on specific areas and challenges, in an effort to create solutions (Don’t worry, there will be more time for “random collisions” as well!). We planned this first Summit in six weeks. Now, with six months, we have… a bit more time to rock out!

What advice do you have for companies, organizations, or schools looking to become more innovative?

1) Understand who you are and what you value. You can’t “innovate” without an understanding of who you are and what you want to become. 2) Champion your innovators. It’s happening in your organization. Let them be the influencers to inspire others. Build ecosystems around them. Empower them.