Tag Archives: generation flux

Generation Flux: Multimedia Production

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.”

In the spirit of GenFlux, we decided to interview some of the “fluxers” here at Knewton. Earlier installments of our series focused on design, data visualization, marketing, and product management. This post will feature Multimedia Producer and long-time Knewtonian, Ian Parker whose past and current work includes teaching, computer science, and film and television production.

CY: Tell me about your work here at Knewton and how its evolved over the years.

Ian: My title is “Multimedia Producer.” I’m one of the oldest Knewtonians here. The first thing I accomplished when I joined the company was make hundreds of videos for an entire GMAT course. I was also responsible for the live classroom setup. We built it from the ground up and got everything working– the soundproof stations, the cameras, the software– and had to keep it working.

My role has definitely evolved since we’ve hired more people and pivoted to platform and college readiness. I’m still doing similar work, but there’s a much bigger video pipeline. We went from creating hundreds of GMAT videos to thousands of readiness videos. It’s exciting to think of all the students who are learning through these videos. It feels good to be a part of that.

CY: 5 years ago, did you see yourself working in tech or edtech? How did you find your way here?

Ian: I grew up as a huge video game nerd, so I think I’ve always been interested in balancing the humanities and technology. I went to college for an experimental computer science and art degree, but oddly enough, my first job after graduation was working as a high school math teacher. The experience had a permanent effect on me–it really solidified my interest in education. I didn’t have a lot of breathing room in the curriculum, but I loved the opportunity to give my students hands-on, creative extra credit assignments. I found ways to make the subject more interesting. I come from a long line of educators, and I’ve always viewed teaching as an honorable profession.

From there I worked as an in-house editor and web/TV producer in London and Los Angeles for a couple of years, but it wasn’t very rewarding. So I headed to NY to do the freelance thing for a bit. Around that time, Knewton software engineer Ashley Miller gave me a call. She brought me in to meet the team, and when Jose gave me the pitch and mission, I was totally sold. That was three and a half years ago. So, to answer your question, I’ve always seen myself working in tech, but I actually didn’t hear the term ‘edtech’ until joining Knewton, and it was the sweetest thing I ever heard.

CY: How has your work at Knewton informed your extracurricular work?

Ian: On the job I’ve learned a lot about agile development, team building, and new and upcoming tech tools. There’s nothing like that “dive-right-in” start-up training philosophy. And of course the hard deadlines that hone your project management capacity and your ability to roll up your sleeves and just get stuff done. That type of drive inspires and guides me constantly.

CY: Any thoughts about media, technology, and the times in which we live?

Ian: I’m really interested in this notion of remix culture and how it relates to media literacy. The written word is still important, but there’s a new generation of kids who are exposed to an overwhelming amount of media (ads, news, data, movies, music). It’s so crucial for them to know how to digest the media that’s rushing at them from all directions– how it’s created, how to read it, and ultimately, how to analyze and critique it, too.

Here at Knewton, Robbie Mitchell, the Indiana Jones of the marketing team, is famous for saying “I work here to improve the past version of myself.” I completely agree with that. Looking back at my education, I can see that if concepts were presented in a slightly more creative or interactive way, I could’ve been more empowered at a younger age. I think media literacy gives people more opportunities to explore that creativity and interaction, and it could play a huge role in empowering the next generation.

CY: That seems to be a theme among people here–this idea of improving the “past” version of yourself… so what’s the point of it all in the end?

Ian: Tools are becoming inexpensive, the internet is an astounding resource, and more everyday people are designing things to streamline our lives. It’s democratizing everything. The possibilities are endless! Hopefully, we’re gaining more of an ability to relate to each other, and helping others do the same in the end.

CY: To wrap up, tell me about a project that informed your work here and vice versa.

Ian: When I first started at Knewton, we were about 15 people working insane startup hours.
Oddly enough, I found that my favorite way to spend my short windows of free time was to make goofy videos with my friends under the name Goddamn Cobras.

One of the first videos we made was a live-action remake of a Brat Pack mashup video on YouTube set to the song Lisztomania by Phoenix. Today, our video has over 350,000 views on YouTube, and people from 45 different cities worldwide have made their own remixes of it. The remix guru, Lawrence Lessig, even mentioned the call-and-response phenomena in his TED Talk! Probably my favorite thing to happen out of that though was getting interviewed by a 4th grade class in Kansas about the making of the video.

I’m always learning new things, applying them to Knewton and vice versa. Since then, I’ve never had a shortage of fun side projects to keep me on my toes.

CY: What are you working on now?

Ian: I’m developing an interactive storytelling app for a short film we made last year. Stay tuned!


Generation Flux: Marketing & Product Management

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.
Nathan and Robbie

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.

Robbie Mitchell

Robbie Mitchell

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.

Nathan Lasche

Nathan Lasche

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.

Generation Flux: Design and Data Storytelling

Conventional career wisdom encourages delayed gratification, steady commitment to a single career or skill set, and a long and slow climb up a traditional corporate ladder. Traditionally, most cultural, educational, corporate, and political establishments do not support rapid change. Recently, however, the fluctuating pecking order–the swift ascent of giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Zynga and the dramatic downfall of other companies has suggested that times are changing. To chronicle this chaotic new reality, Robert Safian at FastCompany published an article which identified speed, chaos, and uncertainty as defining qualities of business in the twenty-first century: “The pace of change in our economy and our culture is accelerating–fueled by global adoption of social, mobile, and other new technologies–and our visibility about the future is declining.”

For some, this is a distressing trend. Many long for the “old days” when one could purportedly sit back, pay one’s taxes, and expect some security and certain life progression. Others, however–Safian identifies them as GenFlux–have survived and even thrived in the new economic climate. Safian defines the GenFlux mindset as one that “embraces instability, that tolerates–and even enjoys–recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions.”

In the spirit of GenFlux, we decided to interview some of the fluxers here at Knewton. Their eclectic talent and out-of-the-box approach are imbued in both the products and the culture of our company. This post will feature Master Data Storyteller, Franc Camps-Febrer who holds a degree in neuroscience and Visual Designer, Abigail Ricarte who started her own headband company, Bambako before coming to Knewton.

CY: What do each of you do here at Knewton?          

Franc: I work as a data storyteller. This means that I look at the data coming from different origins… students, academics, technical and some business measures… with an inquisitive attitude and explore the narrative in it through statistical analysis. The goal is to find a story in the data that is informative and useful and that will help people make effective decisions. For information to be useful it needs to be readily understandable and easily accessible. The best way to do that is to present it visually, so that the digestion of that information occurs in a natural and intuitive way.

Abby: I’m a jazzhand weaver of dreams. No, but really, I’m a visual designer. Half of my time is spent designing and iterating on pages for our marketing website and campaigns and half of my time is allotted to helping design our student-facing products. This entails working with our brilliant team of user experience and interaction designers.

CY: Abby, tell me a bit about how you made the switch from marketing to design.

Abby: When I started at Knewton, I started as a social media intern and this led to a full-time position as social media coordinator. Since I knew Photoshop, it was easy to make changes to things like banners on the fly. Working at a startup, there’s ample opportunity to wear different hats. Rapidly, my marketing design work evolved into more robust projects. During this period, a position opened within Knewton for a junior user interface designer. I applied and switched from being a social media coordinator to a designer.

CY: 5 years ago, did you see yourself working in tech or edtech? How did you find your way here?

Franc: Definitely not. I started looking seriously at my interests in technology and the startup culture just when I moved to the US from Barcelona. Most of my educational background and work experience was in science. I was in grad school for neuroscience, but always felt that the academic research environment was not where I could contribute and grow the most. I had some background in communication, too, and started developing my skills in design and focusing my programming abilities on data visualization. It felt like the natural way to go because it seemed to pull together a lot of my interests, more so than any other field.

Abby: No, but in college I always imagined myself ending up at a company that had an altruistic edge to it. I had no idea what user experience design was in college, but I certainly knew that I wanted to be dealing with the web and interfaces. They interested me from a very early age from the days of AOL profiles and making pages on Geocities and Angelfire.

In college, I was on a track to work at a record label. I majored in marketing, and all my internships were at record labels. By senior year, I had my own radio show on the college radio station. I decided to start a music blog just because this made it easier to keep track of artists. That was my first foray into social media.

CY: So you started Bambako, your headband company, after college?   

Abby: So this is how the story goes… I wanted something nice to wear in my hair for a friend’s party. I went to Urban Outfitters, saw a headband that cost $40. I knew I could make it (I had the time, too, had just finished of school, didn’t have a job). So I went to an arts and crafts store that night, got the supplies, and made a headband. After that, I just had to keep going. I made 10 by the end of that night, didn’t end up going to my friend’s party. Then came the epiphany: I needed something on my resume to prove that I could “social media the shit out of something” and what better way to do this than to start my own company?

The day after this revelation, I made more headbands. By mid-week, I took photos of all the headbands and made a website. By the end of the week, I had a website for my company. It was a total adrenaline rush. I remember not sleeping for the whole night and working for hours straight until 11 AM or so, and then crashing.

CY: So what was your strategy? How did you end up getting in some of the hottest fashion magazines out there?

Abby: I don’t know if this was the best strategy in retrospect, but back then I knew there were certain bloggers I wanted to contact, so I made a hit list of 500+ bloggers. I contacted a few per day and simply did not stop. I wanted to be as genuine as possible, so I took the time to write a personal email to every single blogger. Slowly I got some good mentions.

CY: Instyle, Glamour, Vogue, Elle, Self, NY Daily News, right? All this happened in the span of 3-4 months? And I know you got into some really great retailers too.             

Abby: Yes, it was crazy and it all happened very quickly. The main challenge here was scaling a handmade business.

CY: Franc, are you working on any side projects right now outside of work?

Franc: New York is a very exciting place to try out artistic initiatives, but it also consumes your time really fast, which can be conflicting. I’m trying to find some time to start DJing again and get a little music project started.

One of the projects that I would like to develop this year is to find a solid way of combining data visualization with information taken from how people dance during a DJ set. I’m trying to figure out any possible solid measures from dance and work on some sort of visual interaction there.

CY: To wrap it up, do either of you have any advice for young people shaping their careers and looking to navigate these tricky economic times?

Franc: I think that one of the qualities worth working on in such a confusing economic environment is the ability to reinvent oneself. You can get a lot out of the effort of looking at the skills you already own from new perspectives. For me, it is important to dare having interests that are diverse. It is good to nurture that diversity because it allows you to learn faster and be rapidly adaptive.   

CY: Yeah, that totally makes sense. The idea of “daring” to have interests that are diverse.

Franc: It looks like the main characteristic of the economic landscape of our time is instability. Changes are fast and of great magnitude. The wider your reach and the shorter your reaction time, the better.

CY: Super solid advice. What about you Abby?

Abby: Learn how to multitask and work at a level that’s fast-paced and on tight deadlines. If you don’t have deadlines, impose them on yourself! This will help you think on your feet and develop unconventional campaigns. It will also help you evaluate your progress constantly and iterate on plans. Also, if you want to do something–just teach yourself or don’t be afraid to ask questions. The great thing about working at Knewton is being surrounded and inspired by a team with such diverse interests and talents.

Stay tuned for our next post to meet more Generation Flux Knewtonians!