How to Recruit and Build an Effective Team of Developers

Hiring great developers is one of the top challenges cited by many technology startups, if not THE top challenge. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here is a technique that will help you put together a high-performing, cost-efficient, and loyal team of technical engineers. I’m writing this from the standpoint of software engineers, though I have been told it could apply to hardware engineers as well.

The premise is to have the right mix of junior developers to veteran developers (perhaps a 80/20 mix), because:

  • New developers are relatively easier to find, especially from schools and development boot camps.
  • New developers can be easily trained and don’t come with a lot of baggage.
  • New developers can bring new ideas to the team that may challenge traditional ways of thinking.
  • Veteran developers can act as mentors and share best practices.

From a recruiting standpoint, it is easier and less expensive to find and hire novice developers than experienced ones. A lot of large corporations already know this. That is why you often see Google, Facebook, and Microsoft on college campuses. Startups need to do this too.

Changes to Recruiting and Team Building

This has repercussions in the recruiting process and team dynamic though.

Recruiting Senior Developers

  • Strong technical skills are of course required. System architecture and design skills may also important, though it depends on your needs.
  • Interpersonal skills are especially important in this model, specifically the ability to coach others and communicate abstract concepts clearly.
  • Including other developers on your recruiting team to help you attract senior developers will really help.
  • This person does not necessarily need to be a manager or team lead. There can be separate manager/lead and senior developer on the same team, where the manager/lead handles more of the interpersonal tasks and the senior developer handles more of the technical tasks. The key is to have someone experienced enough to coach and guide the junior developers. This is both good for career progression and recruiting ease, because good developers are attracted to teams from which they can learn.
  • A person that embodies the first two points well is not easy to find, though you will have an easier time having to find a few of them vs a whole team of them. If you find one, compensate that individual well. You can also train someone for this role with a combination of opportunities within your company and workshops outside of your company.

Recruiting Junior Developers

  • Interviews need to be more about assessing potential, innate talents, and the ability to learn, than gauging existing skills. These are traits that interviews would assess anyways, but most technical interviews aren’t set up that way. Most interviewers may find it difficult to assess such traits, but this is an interviewing skill that can be learned.
  • Include your senior developer on the recruiting team. Junior developer candidates will get to meet their potential mentors right away and both sides can ascertain if there is a good fit.
  • As a startup, you won’t have the same salary and perks a large corporation can use to attract candidates, so sell them on your mission, impact, team, and learning opportunities instead.
  • I should add that “junior” does not mean “young.” Age has little correlation here. Some of the best developers I know changed careers later in life and still share the same energy and ability to learn as recent college graduates.

Training Junior Developers

  • Both the manager/lead and the senior developer (or the same person, if one individual has both roles) hold a key role in training the junior developers. Work with them to set up training plans for each of the junior developers.
  • Establish an environment for constant learning and collaboration. This can include code reviews, paired programming sessions, informal brownbags, formal mentoring programs, etc. For informal brownbags, encourage the junior developers to host them and share something they learned, even if they aren’t considered the “expert” of that particular domain. Teaching a topic is a great way to learn that topic.
  • Such an environment also requires a company culture to match. The culture needs to be supportive, open-minded, and willing to take risks. Setting such a culture needs to start with the company’s founders and leadership team.
  • This also means giving junior developers opportunities to own aspects of the codebase while getting support on their system design and code. Don’t simply throw junior developers into new features all on their own. Have regular check-ins and code reviews to guide them along the way.
  • Training doesn’t need to only be technical. If a junior developer aspires to be a manager one day, offer leadership opportunities and training. And if not, make sure your organization has a technical career path.

With the right environment and guidance, these junior developers eventually became senior developers that can help mentor other new developers and continue the cycle as your organization grows.

How Educational Mobile App Developers Can Sell to Schools

A common question I see asked is, “How do I sell my educational mobile app to schools?” Many people building educational mobile apps are parents and educators who are creating good products. A good product isn’t enough for a viable business though; a business also needs a good marketing strategy.

However, this is still a very new market and there aren’t any “tried and true” methods yet. I’ve heard of a handful of tactics though. If you are an educational mobile app developer, perhaps some of these may work:

  1. Focus your messaging, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and App Store Optimization (ASO) on schools. This means understanding issues that are important to schools, such as student outcomes, Common Core State Standards (CCSS), COPPA compliance, student privacy, data portability, School Information System (SIS) integration, etc.
  2. Get in touch with a school district’s technology integrator (also known as a technology specialist, technology coordinator, etc), whose job is to evaluate, integrate, deploy, and support the technology throughout their schools.
  3. Get information about which schools use mobile devices and may be receptive to or are currently seeking new mobile apps. This info isn’t cheap and can be found from organizations like MDR and EdLights.
  4. Hire an educational sales consultant to contact those people for you. LinkedIn can be a good starting point for finding one. Or try reaching out to some of the consultants who spoke at this previous Ed Market 101 session held by the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) in 2013.
  5. Get enough press that technology integrators take notice of you. This means targeting sources that schools pay attention to, such as conferences (e.g. ISTE), publications (e.g. Education Week), blogs (e.g. Edutopia), Twitter hashtags & chats (there are lots and lots), etc.
  6. Get into and integrate with online platforms and directories like Edmodo, Schoology, Clever, eSpark, EdSurge, and edshelf.
  7. Partner with a company that already has a contract with a school district, such as a Pearson or McGraw Hill.

Selling mobile apps to schools isn’t significantly different from selling other kinds of software to schools, in terms of requiring multiple licenses and school-wide deployment. But it does require knowing which schools use mobile devices in their curricula and understanding what schools care about and how to reach them (which is a question of both where and when).

The technology teams at school districts are constantly sold to, so many are wary of a sales pitch. Whatever you have to say, chances are they’ve heard it before. They need to justify their purchases, so sales pitches that include data on demonstrable improvements in student outcomes tend to be the most effective.

What to Look For When Selecting The Right Edtech Tool

A teacher recently asked me, “What are things to look for when selecting the right tool?” This is a question I’ve asked myself many times and I’m constantly evolving the answer. I hope by sharing my current answer here, I can get some feedback and evolve it further.

Like many questions, I believe the answer ultimately depends on one’s situation and goals. Here is a broad framework that may encompass a variety of situations and help narrow down one’s selection. This is written from the standpoint of a classroom teacher, though it can apply to any kind of educator.

Ask yourself:

  1. What are my goals?

    If this is for my students, what are my instructional goals? What kinds of outcomes am I seeking? If this is for myself, what am I trying to achieve? What problem am I trying to solve?

  2. What kinds of activities do I want to do?

    If this is for my students, am I looking for a solo activity or a group project? Should this be interactive or is it more about rote learning and drills? Will this take place inside or outside of the classroom? Should they make something or consume something?

  3. Who will be involved?

    Will my entire class be participating, or just a subset? What are the grades/ages of my students? Are there any special needs and concerns? Will parents or other individuals be a part of this too?

  4. What are my device constraints?

    What kinds of technologies do I have on hand? iPads, Chromebooks, an interactive whiteboard, a shared computer lab, students’ own devices, etc?

Steps 1 and 2 can be broken down into many sub-steps, such as alignment with Common Core State Standards and fit within Bloom’s Taxonomy, TPACK, SAMR, etc, depending upon your preferences. Going through these steps will progressively narrow down your choices from thousands of tools to hopefully a more manageable number.

Once you have that, here are some ways to help you decide between the final choices. Look at:

  • Expert and peer reviews

    What do experts think about these tools? What do my colleagues think about them? Which opinions are most relevant to me? Which opinions do I trust?

  • Ease of use

    Can I use it easily? Can my students use it easily? Is there a demo I can play with right away?

  • Support options

    If I need help, are there tutorials or guides to help me? Is there a way to contact customer support?

  • Security

    For websites, does the URL start with https://, with the s there? A lack of this doesn’t necessarily mean it is a bad site, but having it is a strong plus – with one exception: if the site has a page that asks for a username and password, that page MUST have an https:// in the URL. Otherwise, don’t use it.

  • COPPA compliance

    If my students are under 13 years of age, is the tool COPPA compliant? Does it ask for parental consent before my students sign up?

  • Data ownership and portability

    Will you and your students own your data, or does the company own it? Will the company use your data in ways that make you feel uncomfortable? Can you export your data from the tool? Does it integrate with your school’s student information system?

If your school is fortunate enough to have a dedicated technology team, they can help you with all of this, and much more. If not, I hope this broad framework can help you.

What things do you look for when selecting the right educational tools?

The Problem with Edtech Review Services

Education Week published an article on edtech review services in August 2013 that concluded with the following statement:

As the review sites evolve, observers are watching to see which will emerge as the “go to” resources for educators making decisions about technology tools.

“What they’re trying to do is a noble goal, because I do believe that teachers have an overwhelming number of choices in the marketplace,” said Rob Mancabelli, the co-founder and CEO of BrightBytes Inc., a San Francisco-based learning-analytics company.

“One of the things the review sites need to do better is to base the reviews on data,” he said—for instance, matching a student’s areas of deficiency with technology proven to address those shortcomings.

Mr. Chatterji, who is working on EduStar, agrees with the need for more data.

“We’re all chasing after the same North Star, which is to raise educational outcomes with technology,” he said. “In the ecosystem of [review-site] players, the gold standard is evidence.”

I totally agree. How is an educator or parent to know which math app they should purchase? Which will definitively lead to an advancement of their student’s or child’s knowledge?

After thinking obsessing over this problem non-stop for a few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get this kind of information.

Why?

  1. Which metrics should you use?

    The student’s scores in the app? Not all app vendors will be willing or able to provide this data. Even if you have it, normalizing it for comparison against thousands of other apps is a monumental feat. How about the student’s standardized test scores? Those metrics are already questionable, as any educator will tell you.

  2. How do you conduct a scientifically-controlled evaluation?

    There are many factors that influence a student’s education, from teachers to parents to peers to instructional materials to socio-economic factors to genetics to, well, you get the point. Determining whether a specific app has made a discernible difference is a significant challenge. Some vendors already try this, but knowing how an app will perform in a classroom or home full of distractions versus a pristine laboratory are very different things.

  3. How do you account for individual differences?

    Some students will take to a game and learn a lot from it, others will just learn how to cheat the game. Some will excel with just a bit of hands-on guidance, others will need constant attention. How an app performs depends a lot on the learner. Does this mean the app is effective or ineffective? Unfortunately, one size does not fit all.

  4. How do you account for rapidly changing products?

    Let’s say you do find a way to conduct a scientifically controlled test in a classroom environment using a reliable metric. The likelihood that the developer will read your report and incorporate your findings is very high. Apps are constantly being improved and evolved. What does that mean to your research? It is out-of-date the moment a new version is released.

There are some fantastic and noble efforts underway to solve this challenge, though I think we are all a long ways off. That gold standard of data and evidence is monumentally difficult to get in a repeatable, reliable, personalized, and scalable way.

One solution involves using rubrics through which to evaluate all of these apps. Though the evaluation requires manual work from someone trained in pedagogical assessments, it is a reasonable proxy of quality, if not true efficacy. Many current edtech review services use some kind of rubric, with some differences in breadth and depth.

Another involves in-depth reviews written by an individual with a good understanding of the domain of the app. This is similar to the product reviews seen on popular electronics guides. Such reviews are limited to the expertise and biases of the reviewer, though they can at least provide information from someone who has used, poked, and prodded the app.

One of the weaker solutions is the use of ratings. Since they are relatively easy to get from reviewers, they harness the collective intelligence of the crowd. Ratings are also easy to understand at a glance and to use as a basic filter. However, they fail to provide any context. Some services get around this by offering multiple rating dimensions, but these can also suffer from the problem of averaging out very positive and very negative ratings.

These solutions sit on a spectrum with the wisdom of the crowds on one end and the wisdom of experts on the other.

If you believe the pedagogical value of an educational app could be obtained from the crowd, then try the Yelp model. If you believe the pedagogical value needs to be evaluated by experts, then try the Consumer Reports model. Edtech review services are currently employing strategies all over that spectrum because getting to a true gold standard with actual data and evidence is so difficult.

Will these solutions be enough? Will someone be able to crack the gold standard? I’m not sure it is possible, but I sincerely hope someone will.

Edtech Trend: Content Creation

The impact Khan Academy has made on the edtech market is widespread. One such result is in the growing market of content creators.

Though there has always educational videos online, the simple bite-sized format of Salman Khan’s videos attracted a wide audience on YouTube. Then donations from prominent investors like Bill Gates propelled his humble efforts into a full-fledged non-profit.

With this attention came criticism from educators. Some reacted to the grandiose statements made about him in the press. Others reacted to the pedagogical content of Khan’s videos. And others decided to create alternatives. At one point, I was able to count 60 sites similar to Khan Academy. There may be more now.

At the same time, a handful of entrepreneurial thinkers realized they could make it easy for anyone to create Khan Academy-style (i.e. digital whiteboard) videos. Instead of using someone else’s videos, you could create your own that are tailored for your students and curriculum.

This is just one example of the educational content creation trend. Right now, I see tools creating the following types of content:

  • Videos – Digital whiteboards, lectures recordings, screencasts, etc.
  • Audio – Podcasts, songs, etc.
  • Images – Lesson plan illustrations, diagrams, infographics, etc.
  • Animation – 2D cartoons, 3D cartoons, etc.
  • Presentations – Lecture slides, project presentations, etc.
  • Lesson Plans – Online multimedia lesson plans, offline lesson plans, etc.
  • Books – Textbooks, ebooks, storybooks, etc.
  • Interactives – Math manipulatives, simulations, maps, timelines, etc.
  • Websites – Class websites, blogs, wikis, etc.
  • Games – Mobile games, desktop games, web-based games, etc.
  • Quizzes – Exercises, worksheets, polls, etc.
  • Video Quizzes – Quiz questions mapped to certain points of a video
  • Online Courses – Instructional media followed by assessments
  • Digital Stories – Animated multimedia stories
  • Portfolios – Examples of student work
  • Electronics – Robots, mechanical devices, pre-made kits, etc.

One of the newest types of content to the market are online video quizzes. I am sure there will be many more to come.

This trend is part of the larger maker movement that many teachers and students are wholeheartedly embracing. It empowers teachers to craft materials suited for their classrooms and students to demonstrate their learnings and creativity in an engaging way.

Content creation going into the hands of teachers and students is a significant shift for education. Though the largest publishers may continue to dominate the market for some time, content created from the bottom-up (teachers and students) will increasingly augment content from the top-down (publishers). Bottom-up content won’t replace top-down content entirely, as there will always be a need for standardized materials, but the growing number of new publishers with high-quality, low-cost content will certainly be a threat the big publishers. And many of these new publishers are working with or are a part of the content creation trend.

There is already a wide diversity of offerings. This number will continue to increase, as well the variety of content types available. This will mean a wider range of quality in the content too. That’s where aggregation and curation will be necessary, so the most relevant and highest quality services and content can be surfaced.

What do you think?

Edtech Trend: Aggregation and Curation

The market for education technology is exploding right now. As of this article, there are over 90,000 iOS apps in the education category of the iTunes App Store, and over 90,000 Android apps in the education category of the Google Play marketplace. That’s 180,000 mobile apps between iOS and Android. If you throw in the hundreds of thousands of educational websites and desktop apps as well, that is a lot of edtech through which to wade.

This explosion is fueled by:

  1. A growing group of entrepreneurs passionate about education, as well as tech-savvy, entrepreneurial teacherpreneurs
  2. Advances in technology that have made the development of websites, apps, and digital content easier and cheaper
  3. The introduction of Internet-capable mobile devices and apps
  4. Increasing investment capital from investors

But with all of this technology available, how is a busy educator to sort through this ocean of resources? Where would one start?

The answer is in aggregation and curation services:

  • Aggregation services gather all of the resources available into a single destination. Some aggregators also label and organize them into a searchable directory.
  • Curation services sort and filter the resources so the worthwhile ones rise to the top. This can be done using computer algorithms, human selection, or a mix of the two.

Such services are already emerging. There is a number of aggregation and curation services for educational videos, lesson plans, online courses, mobile apps, etc. on the market, and that number is growing. I predict that this trend of aggregation and curation services is going to continue.

The diversity of such services will also increase. There are many ways to handle curation, as mentioned above (i.e. computer algorithms vs human selection). While each has its pros and cons, we will see services experimenting throughout that range. I suspect the right balance will fall somewhere in the middle.

Personalization will also be a factor. To curate for a particular classroom or student, the resources selected must be personalized to each specific context, because in education, one size does not fit all. This requires some awareness of the students involved. Current trends in data privacy will have an influence into how this awareness is collected, but without a personalized service, you run the risk of “solving for the middle,” which is just as bad as “teaching to the middle.”

We will also see these services as features of existing products. Within educational content creation services, curation will be an important factor in surfacing quality content.

One last prediction: This trend of aggregation and curation services will put many new solutions on the market before they consolidate and the least effective services fall away, just like the resources they will be aggregating and curating.

What do you think?

How Can An Edtech Startup Enter the K-12 Market?

The answer is the same for any other market: Find an agonizing problem that a significant number of people have, then offer a better solution than the existing alternatives.

And I would add: Identify a sustainable business model for your solution as well. It does schools no good if you build a great solution, only to make no money, run out of savings, get no funding, and close up shop. I know this from painful personal experience.

It may seem difficult to make money in the K-12 market, but there is more money than most realize. If your customer is a K-12 school district, their total IT expenditure in 2011 was $9.4B.

Also, all school districts want to know that you have a sustainable business model because they want to know that you will be around for years and years, rather than be a transient startup that could disappear at any time. This is a very important point that many aspiring edtech entrepreneurs don’t realize. Selling to schools is a B2B business model. Both businesses and schools prefer to procure products from companies that will be around – and schools even moreso, because integration can be such an intensive process.

This is in stark contrast to individual classroom teachers who don’t control a budget, however. Selling to teachers is a B2C business model where most consumers have come to expect free products.

My suggestions for an aspiring edtech startup entering the K-12 market are:

  1. Validate that your product is solving an agonizing problem.

    This problem should make your solution a “must-have” and not a “nice-to-have.” The average teacher does not have a lot of extra mindshare for new products that are only a nice-to-have. They have to need it. A lot can be written about this. If you have not done so already, go read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, since his methodology can apply well to B2B businesses.

  2. Validate that your solution solves that problem effectively.

    Find some local teachers or students and watch them use your product. Test the outcomes using the scientific method. See if there is a demonstrable and repeatable improvement from the use of your product. Finding teachers or students willing to do this is not an easy task, but if you are truly solving an agonizing problem, it shouldn’t be that difficult. Being able to come up with quantifiable data to prove your solution will help you win more customers and provide you with a valuable case study and testimonials. These teachers or students are essentially your innovators, as detailed in Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm.

  3. Identify your actual buyers.

    In the K-12 space, the end-user is often not the same person as the buyer. There are many buyers in a school district. They can range from superintendents to principals to IT directors to curriculum directors to department heads. Some end-users can at least be influential in the buying process than others. If you cannot identify the buyer, your end-users may be able to help you too. Note that schools often pay with purchase orders (POs), which could take the form of a check that will arrive in months.

  4. Validate that your buyers will pay for your product.

    Concentrate on making that first sale. Your price point doesn’t matter that much in the beginning. As long as it is not absurdly low, don’t obsess over the right price. If you are lucky, you will have a buyer who is willing to work with you on a reasonable price. Look at competitive products and their pricing structures as a basis for yours. Understand the issues that the buyer cares about. Having a case study to validate your efficacy will go a long way in convincing them. Some may even require this kind of proof first.

Once you have made that first sale, listen to your end-users and buyers, then tweak your product as necessary. Meanwhile, go focus on your next 10 sales. Then your next 100. Then 1000. Going in small incremental steps will keep you realistic.

Or even better, look into different distribution and viral growth models that can accelerate your sales. The best kind of growth is the kind where your customers naturally want to tell their colleagues about you.

This is a simplified view and each step has many nuances, depending on the exact nature of your solution. Hopefully this provides enough of a starting point for any aspiring edtech entrepreneur.

This article was originally posted as an answer on Quora and modified for this blog.

How to Be a Product Manager with a Portfolio of Thoughts

I spoke with someone today about being a product manager. He is completing his MBA soon and has little work experience. “Without much experience, how can I get a job as a product manager?” he asked.

Here is what I told him.

Companies want to know if you have the right mindset, critical thinking skills, and culture fit. If you don’t have the work experience, you can do this with what I call a “Portfolio of Thoughts.”

Just as designers have portfolios and developers have code samples, product managers can demonstrate their skills with a collection of essays on how they think through the development of a product. This can be as simple as a blog.

For each entry, I would recommend topics such as:

  • Picking a particular problem and proposing a solution for it, in as much detail as possible. Go through your thought process and rationale.
  • Picking an existing product and offering a balanced critique. If you love this product, why? And if you don’t, why?
  • Picking an existing product and proposing how you would make it better. Again, offer your rationale.

Those three topics ought to provide you with enough material to accumulate a portfolio of thoughts. A recruiter who reads this will get a great sense of your product sensibilities and thought process.

After you have a long list of posts, don’t worry about going back and revising old entries. Feel free to add updates though. Include a note indicating that you have updated the post too. Everyone’s skills grow and evolve over time. What you have written about a product in the past may differ from what you would write now, so an archive of your thoughts can serve as a demonstration of how you have grown as a product thinker.

Also, take the time to follow and read the blogs of other product managers. Read books on being a good product manager. Meet and have coffee with experienced product managers. Pick their brains. Study good products. Study bad products. Study this craft. And keep up your portfolio of thoughts.

In lieu of a job, doing all of this will grow your skills while providing recruiters with a fantastic way of getting to know you.

As an added bonus: This will be a great way to build your personal brand too.