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Cross-pollination at Knewton: Marketing & Software Engineering

Posted in Knerds on August 2, 2012 by

Photo from zacheryjensen on Flickr

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.