Software systems to innovate and grow

Episode 48

Building Relationships to Support Employee Development: Blake Thomas with eSpark Learning

Show Details

Blake Thomas didn’t always know he would end up in technology. In fact, he had gone into mathematics as a college student only to discover that what he loved most about his studies was his side job, working in a computer science lab. After college, Blake started working in the tech industry. Soon, he realized that what was missing from this work was liking the people he worked for.

This led him to eSpark, a student centered learning platform designed with teachers in mind. A place where they believe technology should work alongside teachers. With a desire to be involved in teaching but avoid the pressure of teaching, he found his efforts compatible with the company and has since grown alongside them.

Tune in to hear more about Blake’s philosophy on how listening and understanding your employees passions can help both them and your company reach its full potential.

 

Topics we discuss:

1. eSpark learning
2. Technology doesn’t replace teachers
3. What you study vs the job you end up in
4. Mobile first company
5. Tech vs Education company
6. Growing employees based on interests and learning styles

Related Links:

1. eSpark Learning
2. Linkedin
3. Twitter
4. Github
5. eSpark Learning Blog
6. Apprenticeship Community
7. Case Studies in Apprenticeship
8. ENOVA Apprenticeship Reading List
9. Learn TLA+
10. Practical TLA+ by Hillel Wayne

Show Transcript

Carlos: Hello everybody and welcome to another episode of Tech People. Today we have Blake Thomas on the show. Blake is a Director of Engineering over at eSpark Learning. Blake has a deep passion for education that really shows not only because Blake chose this industry to grow into.

Today’s episode is about how he was able to bring his own passion for education to his work. Blake worked in an industry where he had some passion – he had something to learn and to provide – but being an engineer wasn’t entirely fulfilling for him; he also wanted to fulfill more of his own mission. With that he found education. He went into education and joined a company that is furthering education. I also think that we all should look into doing something like this if we feel unfulfilled in our current roles from a mission perspective.

So what I really liked about Blake is that not only that he grow into a role within this industry but also he brings his own passion for education in the way that he handles his team, he handles his team and the way he grows his engineering team. He understands that it’s not only about the widgets that we create, he understands that it’s not only about the widgets that we create or about the tools that we use but most importantly the people that create those widgets. So you’re able to support them and provide for them and be empathetic. I think that is some of the lessons that you can learn from this episode. You know, he grew into this role at eSpark Learning after the company had started. Just like many of you listening grew up into your IT leadership role. So anyway, without further ado let’s welcome Blake and I hope you enjoy this episode.

Blake, my friend, thank you so much for joining the show. I wanted to start off by publicly apologizing for the ups and downs that we had with getting this scheduled. I think we spoke about it and put it in our pre-recording just now but I wanted to start with that because I think you brought an interesting point that. You know, we are going to talk a bunch of topics that are near and dear to our hearts and that are important for our listeners to listen to but the one thing we didn’t think of talking was time and how time is an important key concept.

Blake: Yeah. I appreciate the apology but no apology necessary. One of the things that I’ve learned over time is that time is precious. It’s one of those things that is very difficult to trade in and impossible to get back. And the longer you work in technology you realized there is never enough time and you just have to be easy on yourself, so no apology necessary and I am glad that we have the opportunity to talk today.

Carlos: Same here. I am very grateful again for your patience here. But for those who are listening, you guys should know that these conversations, these podcasts, we put a lot of time and effort into them. We don’t just call up or just call up Blake and say, “Hey, let’s talk right now and record this,” right? We had series of conversations. Before this we had a pre interview like a formal pre interview. We got to know each other and we prepared something that we thought was valuable for you guys even though it sounds informal because that’s the idea is that it sounds like just a regular conversation. We did think this through. So anyway, we are very excited.

So Blake let’s get started. I can’t wait to start this. So Blake, tell me a little bit about yourself. I want to know the man and then we will get into the professional so tell me a little bit about how you got into tech. What was it that brought you into the field?

Blake: Yeah, I think it was. At an early age I was always fascinated with technology and I think you will have a lot of folks on the show or listening to the show who were going to tell you a story about when they were kid the thing they mess with and I could certainly go into that and there is interesting stuff there but I think that it probably, I think the critical juncture happened in college. At some point when I was at the University of Chicago I was pursuing a degree in Mathematics and my job was working at the Computer Science Mac Lab and somewhere along the line I realized that my hobby or the thing that I was just doing on the side, not the thing that I was studying, was far more lucrative, and in many ways interesting and rewarding than the kind of austere academic path that Mathematics offered me. And so I just kind of dove headlong into that.

I spent a lot of time building websites on the side. You know, this is the heyday of the internet bubble so everyone wanted a website for their business even if it was a little five page informational number. I did a lot of that. Worked as an IT professional then moved into a test engineering actually which was really interesting experience. And then at some point I was senior enough and had developed just a lot of expertise at a company and went back to software development and really enjoyed that. Spent some time there and then went into leadership leading first my own team and then multiple teams at that time.

Carlos: One thing that is always surprising for me and, the word isn’t surprising but it is almost a pattern that I see that I’ve recognized along the way. And by the way we are going to talk into, about to jump into this for a second but it’s interesting how even at your beginnings, right, you started all this very generalist. The more experience we have or the better we become the more specialized we get, right? I think the evolution of that is then we start thinking of, “Ok, what problem in the world do I want to help solved?” Do I want to try to improve the like button, right? Do I want to design a fart app. I am sorry for those who are fart app designers but you could do better. That’s something that it’s ok if you’re a teenager maybe. If you are a high school and you are designing a fart app, hey, way to go, do it. Keep doing that. If you’re ahead in your career it’s probably not the right place to be, right? So the more we get along our path, the more specialized and interested in different topics we get. In your case, before eSpark you went to a financial institution and you learned that it wasn’t your thing.

Blake: Well, so I think the thing that, you talk about specialization I think there is an analogy for this and languages one of my sort of things I like to nerd out on but I think that the analogy here is sharpening, right? And I think the thing that sharpens us as professionals is the industry, the domain, the product or whatever not the tool kit. And I think a lot of this goes into the business or whatever of because of our love for the toolkit. We love technology, we love writing code. I know certainly I did. I love putting together just network applications that did interesting things or what have you.

So to kind of draw it in like the toolkit is the thing that fascinated me, that enthralled me but the thing that moved me forwarding and encouraged me to learn new skills and sharpen myself a little bit. Yes, there is that general love of technology but it’s the product focus or the need to solve a problem that really pushes us forward to become more specialized, to become sharper in a way and so I see that as a kind of process that I think that happens to a lot of folks. They started as generalists. They don’t know necessarily what they want to know except they want to know everything. And then as time goes on they are solving more and more specific problems, more and more acute challenges, whatever they are. And that half from generalist to specialist I think happens naturally.

Carlos: In your case what came first? The opportunity to be part of an education company or you already had an interest in education before you have the opportunity?

Blake: I actually had the interest first. One of the benefits of, it would be hard for us to argue especially at this point in history that technology doesn’t afford people just a massive amount of privilege. And I think that one of the great things that I’ve had in my life is the ability to stop and kind of take stock of what I was doing and decide what actually mattered to me. That’s kind of what happened. I stopped and took stock and said, you know, do I actually care about the product that I’m building or what’s going on?

In other words what matters to me about the work that I am doing? And I realized that I didn’t care nearly so much about the product as I cared about the people. I certainly enjoyed the work that I was doing but the product wasn’t a motivation for me. And so I thought, “Ok, what do I want to do”, and you know I have educators in my family. My wife is a teacher and so education occurred to me. And I didn’t really like the idea of trying to become a teacher myself because I’ve seen what teachers go through frankly. I didn’t like the idea of becoming some kind of an, educator sort of like a Director of Technology or anything like that. I wanted to stay outside of the kind of institution as it where. And so I started looking at edtech and I’ve found some. You know, I work in Chicago. Chicago is actually kind of an amazing place for edtech. There are some great opportunities and I’ve found one that I fell in love with and so that’s how it works sometimes.

Carlos: In way though you can still have that impact, that positive impact on kids’ lives even if it’s indirect, right? I mean, you do provide that without you, you doing what you do. Like you couldn’t do at the end what you guys do, right?

Blake: No. I think there are, there is interestingly with a long running conversation between anyone who sees the possibility that technology kind of forges us and anyone who is in a role or doing the work already without the benefit of what technology might provide us. A lot of teachers or educators in this conversation believe and frankly some of the less thoughtful technologist have thought and even said as much. And they are wrong for the record or at least I think I can say they are wrong and I am being diplomatic but they are actually I am just going to say, “They are wrong.” That the goal of education technology or edtech is to somehow replace the teacher, and that is false.

Education as a pursuit will never be as effective as it would be with a teacher at the head of the classroom. What education technology at its best is trying to do is to make a more sort of compelling, more useful, more helpful textbook. Really. That’s one of the things that I like to point out and the reason why I think that is pertinent here is just this idea that we are having an impact and I would argue a fairly direct impact but we are not having the impact that a teacher or that a person in other words in a classroom would have were having the impact that the tools of education wouldn’t have. So in other words, the impact I get to have is the impact of chalk, or a pencil, or a tablet you know. And that does have an impact on a student’s stay in a very meaningful and valuable way.

Carlos: So I think that where this is going at some point though for example in medicine. I recently had a guest where their product is about helping doctors make better decisions with data so I think it is data decision making support. Something like that as the actual title. So I actually see teched or edtech go into that way where they are empowering teachers and almost think of a, and this is my weird thinking, but when I was talking to this other company. I was thinking of this exoskeleton. Have you seen those exoskeletons for soldiers where they can kind of carry like 500 pounds?

Well, I thought of like it’s similar. It’s like this exoskeleton for the doctor’s brains because they see x number of patients per day every single day. Imagine the cognitive load on them. So some of that contextual base decision making support is huge. So I am sure that at some point we are going to get there with teachers as well like how can you support them so they can do their job better.

Blake: Well, so they and there is a lot of precedent outside of education for that kind of an idea. For the listeners like I encourage you to go to look for articles in this direction because it is some fascinating reading. But there are some studies that have been done that would suggest to that. We are actually by virtue of using of less of it, losing some of our long term memory capacity because we are carrying around phones that are essentially like information gateways. If you think about it 20 years ago how many phone numbers did the average person have memorized.

Carlos: Yeah, I was about to say, I don’t even know. I mean I know my phone number but if you ask me and probably people are going to gasp at this, I have to look at my wife’s phone number.

Blake: The thing is if I force myself to do it. You know, I am fairly good memorizing things like that but I don’t have to. The mere fact that I don’t have to means that I’m less practiced at it it’s a little bit harder. Let’s extend that cognition idea to any kind of a profession where if you have tools that actually supports your ability you don’t have to expend the cognitive resources on remembering where to find all of the things.

Now, there is a kind of sentimental loss to that. I mean we all love the librarian who knows the library like the back of her hand and can find any kind of little article that we might need or any book or whatever. But there is a very real power in, well think about a Kindle or any e-reader device like that is essentially the library of Alexandria right in my hand, right? When we can put that kind of technology but do so in a way that actually empowers teachers to not have to think about as much of the resourcing or in any case empower them to do more amazing resourcing and give them resources that are fantastic. When we can do that like think about how far education can really reach. I see the work that my wife does as an educator to put together resources for classrooms. he loves what she does, but she would have an easier time if those resources were more easily discovered. She would remove have an easier time if those resources were more easily discovered, if they were better organized, if they were cataloged according to their Lexile and all kinds of different things. I think we have the opportunities to do that over time and I think that’s the direction we are going in a lot of ways, so it’s an information society I think.

Carlos: So, getting into eSpark Learning I want to know I think what should explain a bit more about what the company does. So what does the company do and how does technology play a role? And let me add to that question. It’s sometimes, I think we spoke about this in the pre interview but it’s common for a company to say build widgets or protein shakes. And software is just a tool to build that protein shake, right? But I also know of some actual supplement companies that technology is like the heart of the entire company. There are actually tech companies that their tech helps them produce the supplements, and yes the outcome is supplement. But they see themselves, the way that they operate it is as a tech company versus a supplement company. Tell me how do you guys see yourselves and again how does technology play a role?

Blake: Yes. Let me start by saying what we do. So we have two applications, the eSpark App which is aimed at primarily K through 3 learners and it provides curated contents that meet standards for Reading and Math tied up into curricular units that can be assigned that empowers student’s to pursue kind of a differentiated instruction path so it needs their Math level. We also have a product called Frontier which is aimed at older students. So we are talking like 3rd or 4th, really 4th through 8th let’s say. And is more of a reading and increasingly a writing focus application that is primarily on the web as opposed to cross platform at this point I should say rather than something that is geared more towards iOS devices.

Carlos: If we can just get a bit into that say vision of self identification. Because you know a second ago you mentioned that you thought of yourselves as an extension or let’s say almost like a tool for the classroom let’s say like a chalk or a pen. But to me honestly you guys are way more than that so tell me do you see yourselves as an education company or as a technology company? You see there is a finite difference.

Blake: Absolutely, and I wanted to talk about what we did before I go there. What I do see us as is a technology company first. And I think the reason is complex but I think it has to do with I think there are two ways companies or any endeavor really forms. I think you see a challenge and you look for a solution. I think that’s one way of kind of building an endeavor and their gradations between these. But I think the other one is you see the power of some tool or some ability and you see opportunity in that and you go and try to solve challenges. And I think that that ladder description more accurately reflects our history and I think that as part and parcel of what makes a technology company. You are a company that looks at the vanguard of technology or looks at the promise of technology and says how I can I use this to make the world a better place and make education better, whatever it is you know in terms of industry or domain and make that better. I think that’s reflected in our founding story which I’ll briefly share.

Our CEO around 8 years ago saw the rise of the omnipresence of mobile devices and realized that there was really profound opportunity to put this kind of a device in front of students and curate content on that and make it essentially a learning machine. And so I was musing or thinking about this before our conversation today and realized I think that eSpark is maybe one of the oldest mobile first companies in that we aimed for the mobile platform before we even thought about the web. I think that we saw the promise in technology and continue to see the promise in technology to meet challenges in education. And so I think we are first and foremost a technology company.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t steeped deeply and all feel very personally as a company as well like a deep abiding kind of obligation to education as a pursuit but I think that. We are first and foremost a technology operation.

Carlos: So one of the things that I know was interesting for you that was say unique in your position. I don’t want to say unique but this is if you think about it just thinking of the problem itself there is probably more people that happened to than not. Basically you step this company as a leader where you were in part of the foundational development, right, as you mentioned in the beginning. So I am sure that this is something that might happen to other leaders. They come into a company say a new CTO, there is a lot of historical knowledge that they don’t have. And what was the hardest thing about that when you stepped into.

Blake: Well, first an observation about the regularity of this. I will point out that for any successful company it’s bound to happen that someone who is a leader in the company is coming in without the full context of the origins and founding of the company. Inevitably, right, because people aren’t going to work forever. Even if they do work for their entire career at one company if the company a success eventually they will retire. But in any case I think that one of the most interesting challenges is that I had to inherit perspective. And that perspective though historical was kind of incomplete and flat in way that it wasn’t for the folks who were there when the company was founded. So there is no way that I can walk into the company with the kind of expertise. The company specific, product specific expertise that the folks who work there are going to have. I have to lean on what I see as a profound and necessary strength of any good leader or leadership arrangement: trust. I have to absolutely trust those folks, and I have to be confident enough in my ability and the value that I am bringing to that equation that I can be humble and ask questions and admit when I don’t know as much as or even anything at all about the problems that we are solving.

The value that I bring to that equation is of course my experience and my time solving more general problems that may illicit or illuminate patterns that are valuable generally that applied to this specific instance. It’s a really interesting thing to have that foreshortened and imperfect history given as a kind of gift on your way in. You know, I have this absorbed tribal knowledge that isn’t experiential per say but it acts kind of an index when I know who to ask about what usually but I definitely didn’t experience it.

Carlos: What do you think has been the toughest thing? Has it been kind of building this background of knowledge that you’ve had or background of knowledge that you need in order to make the right decisions in a role? Or what do you think has been the hardest thing that you’ve had to do?

Blake: The hardest thing that I’ve had to do is, I wonder if that isn’t one of those things that the answer changes every couple of weeks.

Carlos: True.

Blake: But I think probably one of the hardest things is trusting myself on answers or on ideas that are, or what have you that are company specific. Because I think it is very for anyone inheriting that kind of context or absorbing that kind of context to say. Well, do I really know enough especially if you’ve had really profound, really deep knowledge of any product, or any stack, or any technology, or what have you and you have this memory of just, not even knowing like being the answer in some ways. It can feel very limiting or artificial or something to say, “I think the answer is here but I am not sure.” And so at some point though you’ve been doing the work, you’ve been there long enough that you have to be able to say, “You know what I’m quite confident that we’re going to find the answer around here.” Nearer to that is you have to have the humility or the self possession to say, “You know what I was really sure that we’re going to find the answer there and this is the one time that I was wrong.” And it has to be ok, so I think it is that. It is the confidence. Developing that confidence is maybe the hardest thing.

Carlos: On that same note, I know that one of the more important things for you as a leader is developing your team, developing people. But if you have people in your team that were there before you there is a different identity that you have as you said grow into the confidence for in yourself but also grow as a leader for those folks. And I know again that this professional development and sponsorship is important for you. How do you bridge that gap between coming into this company. Like not only your knowledge but also building theirs and kind of building that relationship with them.

Blake: Yeah, it’s frightfully similar to the process of just getting to know a person because it’s essentially that. I think you get to know the folks you’re working with the folks on your team and you understand what’s valuable to them. What motivates them, what they care about, what doesn’t motivate them, what discourages them. You know, just a quick example, some folks like congratulations or appreciations in public, some people don’t like to have that level of scrutiny applied to them. They don’t want the public applause or whatever. The point that I’m getting at in the course of learning the those things you also learn what their goals are, what their professional aspirations are, what they want to find out, how they want to grow, and you become a kind of facilitator both within the organization using the kind of connections that you build outside of your specific capacity. And also outside of the organization using your general knowledge both in terms of networking and in terms of what opportunities are available. And I am not strictly speaking talking about just jobs.

There are all kinds of networking opportunities. I’ll just give you an example. Speaking opportunities at conferences can be a huge thing. One of the folks previously, an eSpark engineer, who I encouraged and supported as he was putting a together a talk for Strange Loop is now writing a book for O’Reilly. Those are the kind of things that if you understand what goals folks have you can kind of support them in that journey. The process starts with getting to know them and understanding what their goals are. And never and ever presume that everyone has the same goals.

Carlos: It’s almost like being a teacher, right? Like there is that educator in you there.

Blake: Yeah. If assuming that, you know, that last thing I said is a bit ironic in that light because I said never assume that everyone has the same aspirations. The truth is that we should never assume that is at the same level even if they have the same title. Everyone comes with their kind of own packages of knowledge and experience and their directionality what they tend to accomplish maybe a little bit different too. And I think that differentiation is absolutely necessary in order to support these folks in terms of their professional development as a leader.

Carlos: And I think that in a sense of giving as an understanding of how you’ve gone through that journey of growing into the company or let’s say letting that knowledge grow into you. In order to be that leader you need to have that contextual knowledge and humility in order again to ask the right questions of the right people. But at the same time the empathy of those working for you and help them develop themselves. You know, that’s shows this level of empathy and also self awareness that is something that we should all learn from.

Blake: And I am still learning and I encourage everyone to join me on that journey. I think it behooves us to there is a comedian who does a late show and he is a bit of a jerk but I think his sign off on the show is fantastic which is “I think we could all do a little bit better.” And I think that that’s a fantastic line I think we could all just do a little bit more and try to go a little bit further. And I certainly think that as much as I have found some success and being a supportive and empathetic leader I think I could do a little bit more and I try to everyday.

Carlos: Man, with that said I think we have a great interview here. I think I told you at the beginning that I really like this arc of figuring out how you started and how you’ve grown into this company. How the role of the company itself that is something aspiring and then your own way of thinking about all of this. I think it’s something we should all learn from any like this straight. So Blake thank you so much for taking the time to chat. I do have two actually last questions before we wrap up, these are just short questions, but do you have any resources that you might share with us. If you want to send it to me and I’ll put some links later that we could do that. But if have any books, any links we would love those. And also how can people find you and find eSpark Learning if they want maybe to apply for a job or knock on your door. Maybe they are motivated or inspired and maybe would ask a question or get some insights from you.

Blake: Well, let me just say really quick, I would love to share some resources with you and provide some links. I am going to give that some thought and follow up with you on that. But as a really quick plug if anyone knows a really fantastic data analyst who is looking for a job that’s something that we very much need right now in Chicago or San Francisco preferred. Either one. I would love to hire fantastic data analysts. So if anyone wants to talk to me they can reach out to me directly I suppose, blake@esparklearning.com, and I would love to talk to them. Otherwise, yeah, you can follow me on Twitter. I am just @dijjnn, spelled kind of funny, dijjnn. I am also on LinkedIn at just bwthomas.

Carlos: Alright Blake, well thank you so much again for your time today and for those who are listening. Hope you guys enjoy this episode and again if you’re a data analyst and you’re good at it. If you’re bad don’t go knock on Blake’s because you’re going to embarrass me. Only if you’re good, ok guys? No, I’m kidding. Hope everybody has a great day and that you enjoyed this episode. Blake, thank you so much for being a part of the show.