Software systems to innovate and grow

Episode 38

Turning a Textbook Company Into a Technology Powerhouse: Mike Jackson with Pearson

Show Details

Mike Jackson shares his insight on what it takes to transform a textbook company into a technology powerhouse.

As the world of education continues to evolve alongside technology, Pearson, the world’s largest textbook company, is looking above and beyond readable versions of textbooks posted online. What Mike strives for as the VP of Engineering is creating an integrated learning experience, which allows students to get the most out of their education.

Listen in to find out more about what Mike has in store for Pearson.

Show Transcript

Carlos: Mr. Michael Jackson, thank you for coming on the, how are you doing today?

Mike: Thanks Carlos, I’m doing great.

Carlos: Well, I’ve been waiting to have you on the show for a little bit now. I’m really excited because I think you have a particular view because you are in a company that is in education, so there is a lot to learn from that angle. I’m really excited to have you on the show.

Mike: Yeah, it’s great to be here. Thank you very much for including me in this.

Carlos: Alright, so Mike tell me a little bit about your background and how did you end up in software at Pearson.

Mike: You know, I’m one of those rare people who early in their life like in my Junior High days I was enamoured with technology, and software and what was happening in the world back then in the late 70’s early 80’s, so I’m dating myself here a little bit. There was a lot happening. I mean, software had started to really become something that was changing the world. It was very early and it’s kind of creation of lifecycle of software. I thought that would be a good career opportunity for me too so I started preparing myself in high school, and when I went to university I picked a major and I stuck with my major. Back then it was MIS, so there was a business aspect but primarily building software around business and I never looked back. I never looked back a bit.

Carlos: What about software that kind of intrigue you because even within technology and software there are so many paths that we can take. You can get into IT, you can get into data science. There are so many options. What about engineering made you?

Mike: Yeah, and that’s one of the great things about technology path is you can find your way through it. You don’t have to decide upfront. You get to decide as you move through your career, company to company. For me I got lost in software. And when I say that it’s like when I was writing my first programs and going into labs I felt really good about my decision when I was in a programming class and I went into the lab about 3:00 in the afternoon. I was working on a program and I looked and just about done, it was almost 3:00 in the morning. It felt like about 2 hours max and it had been 12. I knew if something can capture me like that I can just really enjoy it. And then as I started on my career it was always about writing software and then working for companies that build products and build software products as a solution. I worked for, early days, companies like United Airlines and built travel systems and I moved in to ERP, and I worked for J.D. Edwards, people soft in Oracle, and work through different options there. That’s the best of all the worlds where you’re profit centered and you’re building software that sold. And then I had an opportunity to move over to Pearson. And frankly, the reason I left Oracle and came over to Pearson was an opportunity to get to the VP level, to get to a level where I was able to have a bigger impact and take all my experience around building software in a software company and bring it into the education space.

Carlos: Kind of comes to mind is does the job make you a software engineer or does being a software engineer gets you the job? Does that make sense, because in times basically the job pushes you in a certain path? What was it for you? Was it your passion for software or was it the situation you are in kind of pushed you to that kind of career?

Mike: You know, when I first started the jobs I had started me down that path. And I’d say I got lucky from that perspective and that my degree was very hands on. I did an internship at the university and every job that I interviewed for college was working for a company building software. And then once I got to J.D. Edwards and that was the thing that really, that was like my rocket ship if you will. It was the late 90’s. There’s a lot going on around the Y2K. ERP was just coming into its own as a massively growing company. I learned there that what I liked to do is build that software solution. And through acquisitions I was asked to do other things. I have roles where I helped engage with customers and bring them into the mix with engineering teams. I’ve had roles where I helped managed the internal infrastructure that was used within the company. I did a lot on vendor management and dealing with global vendors around using global teams across the world. A lot of all those things are interesting. I always came back to what I love was building software. If you let your career happen to you, you can go on any path. But you do get a say where your career goes. And so really as you find what you love and I’ve been telling my kids this too, “Find the thing that you love that the world wants to pay you for.” And for me the thing that I feel I make the biggest difference in is building software and helping teams figure out how to do that and do that well.

Carlos: Going a little bit more in-depth again your progression and all that. For those who don’t know what Pearson is, what is Pearson, what does it do, how does it makes its money?

Mike: Pearson is, I didn’t know about Pearson when I started and I hadn’t heard about it and all that. Pearson traditionally, the main part of their business was as a textbook company. It’s actually statistically impossible to graduate from college without purchasing a Pearson textbook, so I would like to thank all the listeners for that for getting this company started. Now, Pearson is really in a major transformation from print to digital. The things that I do now help to bring education alive for students across the world through using software. Software help them do their homework, help them study and learn, take tests and all those fun things. Pearson is the world’s largest education company actually. What I like about it now too is if you want to make a difference in education there is no better company to be at than Pearson. We have the largest scale, breadth and ability to affect learning and really change people’s lives through learning. Again, it’s a large company and just a quick question. How many people at Pearson?

Mike: 35,000 employees.

Carlos: 35,000 employees. Alright, so it’s a massive company. Can you give us a little bit of a census to where you fit in the company? What do you do as a VP of Software Engineering? What is your mission and how do you fit in the big scheme.

Mike: Yeah, there are several divisions in the company. I work in the technology organization. I’m focused primarily on higher ed products, though a lot of our products are also used in schools especially at the high school level for AP classes etc. But I fit in the division that delivers, in fact we’re the biggest digital revenue stream that Pearson has. I report to the CTO of Global Product Technology. He reports to the CIO, and he is a COO/CIO. What’s wonderful about this position is I get to operate at a level where I can have a big impact on teaching and learning at scale across so many different areas. Most of the products that I work on are things that are online products. Things that are used, what we say practice based learning for Math. For example MathXL, and MyMathLab is really the biggest digital product in the world. We have about 10 million enrollments per year and across that platform and other disciplines. We affect 20-30 million learners a year. We have Science products in the mastering series. We have products to learn how to use the Office Suite. We call those MyITLab. We have world languages. MySpanishLab is a product that’s fairly heavily used. And so these products are used primarily in the classroom and outside the classroom both. Some models, some institutions are using them in a model where they used those in a lab. They used during class sometimes and for taking exams. And then there is a lot of exercises, and homework and practice where students work separately and independently at home. These products are really in the mix of helping accelerate learning and driving much better outcomes for learners.

Carlos: Can you tell me a little bit about, I mean, you mentioned products so how does product management function. Where does your job as a VP come into play when you’re deciding let’s say what project to work on. How does that cycle kind of function?

Mike: In Pearson, the product management comes out of our Global Product Organization, and there is a president of that organization that partners with us in technology organization to deliver solutions to the market. Their job is to really help us to find that what, where do we invest, where do we spend our time, where is the value in the market, where should we direct our investments? My role as a VP is to contribute to that as far as the delivery of technology and how we can optimize our solutions, and so identifying areas where we should invest and a lot of this from our perspective when you talk about our roadmap planning and our planning that we do along the year is to help the business team understand what we need to invest in the technology to sustain the learning that needs to happen.

Carlos: How does things like choosing a technology come into play when similarly related to a product so how does the technology pick? Let’s say, is there like an R&D approach to it? How do you guys upgrade to the next frameworks? How are things like technical debt prioritize over feature work? Does that make sense?

Mike: Oh yeah, definitely. From a broad technology perspective, you know, we’ve grown historically through both building and buying products so our technology stack can be quite varied. But as we move forward and we see the cloud becoming such a major transformative technology as you see open source technology and how that’s playing. We’ve really been able to pick those standards. We have an architecture team, enterprise architecture team now that is helping us guide where we build, where we buy, and how we are building our learning platforms as we move forward. You know, managing those decisions is something that and across our organization we continually evolve, continue to experiment. If you’ve heard of bimodal IT which is there are some technologies and part of our business need to be stable. They are out there generating large amounts of revenue and delivering a lot of value in the market are things that we need to be a little more careful with. But then we have kind of like, mode two technologies that are places where we experiment and try those new technologies and spin them up and get those to start scaling and performing to meet our needs and being new value. You see, you mentioned data analytics earlier and this is an area where Pearson has really identified a great opportunity. For us we want to deliver better outcomes for our learners. The best way to do that is to really, you know, using analytics and understand what’s going on inside of a course. Understand where students are spending their time, where they are struggling, so we track that and stuff within our software. We have an ecosystem that we are feeding all of that data into that we can provide information back to the learner and back to the instructor and even the institution on acceptance of instructors and which courses and which materials are working best for them. That’s a very cool thing and in fact just recently we announced the partnership with IBM. We are exploring using IBM Watson within our products and by next spring we’re going to have 10 titles with two chapters each, and we are starting to experiment with how Watson can help us. And we’ve really got to kind of three places where we’re considering as you’re working through course materials where you could ask Watson a question, “Wait, I don’t understand this. Help me.” And Watson will ask you some questions back. Then when you’re doing quizzes, if you’re struggling with the quiz, Watson will interject and say, “Hey, you seem to be struggling where do you need some help?” And then finally as you’re preparing for a test based on all the inputs from those things we also have a hit map that says, “You struggle on these topics. Maybe you should study this area”, and recommend study guides and video or places for you to review those materials before you take the final exam to help you prepare for that. Our hypothesis is we have to figure out what combination of those things is most helpful and so we are doing a lot of experimenting around that. That whole process, and this is an initiative that’s really got a lot of interest both. It’s basically an online tutor if you will that helps you in your learning.

Carlos: I wish I had that when I was in school. By the way it sounds cool.

Mike: How cool would that be, huh?

Carlos: How cool would that be? How many Cs could have been Bs in my high school track?

Mike: Or Bs As, or A- A+.

Carlos: Yeah. I mean, probably a little unrelated but there somewhat of a feeling that I’ve seen across the years that people blame teachers for sometimes too many things. In some cases fairly, and some cases unfairly. I think the unfair part is that being an educator has not evolved as much as say technology has. You as the professor, you’re somewhat the same. You could be teaching a class today somewhat similarly than you taught it 20 years ago.

Mike: Or 100 years ago.

Carlos: Or 100 years ago. I hope that this type of technology gets into the classroom and into higher educations. Again, I don’t think professors think about it. It’s not their fault that that’s how it’s done. They are taught a certain method because they were taught that way as well. And I think by leveraging this sort of technologies is going to be better education for everybody.

Mike: Yeah, and you know what’s really in your spot on and so there’s been a lot of discussions about how technology plays and how instructors can use it. One of the notions in that you can use technology is to almost flip the classroom. You go from the notion of the sage on the stage where you spent all the time in a classroom and explain concepts. You flip that so that the student can absorb material, and watch videos and read material outside of the classroom, do some exercise. And then in the classroom, now you are actually working through really mastering those techniques. Our programs like MathXL, Mastering, these products are extremely configurable so that the instructor can customize what’s presented to the learner, when, what kind of study guides or integrations with third party products that help visualization and help with learning, and the teacher can customize that. They can change the order, they can change which concepts are presented and when. They can change how it’s created, so all of these things are actually moving learning forward in a significant way.

Carlos: Now, let me switch the coin a little bit. So how does a VP of Software Engineering stay educated with the latest trends, with the latest everything, right? Again, you’re a busy guy. You are working in this massive company and you’re up in the ladder. You work close to a CIO level again through people that you report to but you’re up there essentially. How do you stay on top of the new technologies and experiment with trends. How do you do that in your spare time? And is that important to you career?

Mike: Oh yeah. You know, Pearson has a tagline it says, “Always learning” and I’m always learning. I spent time in the last couple of years I’ve been actually focusing more on. I mean, it’s a combination of technology and leadership. I read a lot of books. I’ve had an opportunity, and had some great training here at Pearson’s Assessments that have helped me to grow as a leader. From the technology perspective, just the access to information now is amazing. You can get what you need. I spend time during the day, I spend time at night, I spend time on weekends in googling things looking at different sites, going to resources like Gartner or other practices. You know, folks who are experts in the technology and then working on dev ops recently, right. Looking at people who are out there practicing it and learning it and what you can learn from them. What are the different dev ops topologies and what would fit us. But each of these things I’m working with a team, and sometimes I get to learn on the job. And sometimes you need to spend a little bit of time learning it on your own too. I participate in other. I’ve been a part of Agile special interest group with engineering leaders and talking with other leaders about challenges and I have gone to a leadership summit, technology leadership summit. In fact, I just went to one recently. It was very hands on and got to meet people both in the industry who are leaders. I got to meet Jeff Sutherland and Tom and Mary Poppendieck and Scott Atwood. Stack overflow, the creator of Stack Overflow was there. Got to meet these people and talk with them, and talk with other leaders about challenges in developing and building software in organizations. And you learn from each other.

Carlos: Just now that you talk about challenges. I just want to kind of interject and add an extra question as you’re answering this one. What’s the biggest leadership challenge you’re facing. It seems to be a core area of focus what about leadership? Why is it important to you? Tell me about your opinion and what kind of makes your blood boil about some other people that do leadership the wrong way and how is it supposed to be done? Teach us a little bit here.

Mike: That’s a big question. So for me, I think the first one, the things I’ve really learned is to be a really good leader you need to understand yourself, you own strengths and your own weaknesses. You need to understand the environment that you’re working in and you need to really collaborate and work together across an organization. I think the biggest challenge is getting everybody rowing in the same direction. Across the whole leadership, get everyone understanding where you’re building products for example. It’s different than operating package software and what are those differences and how do you really implement agile and how do you implement dev ops and how are you deploying to the cloud and how are you using the cloud. And it continually changes. It’s one of the beauties of our industry that makes it, fun and hard. Like the hard part is that it’s always changing. You have to keep learning that’s the fun part too, right? So for me, I strive to be a servant leader but understanding where my own strengths are has been probably the biggest thing where you learn where you can possibly influence people and move the organization and move the teams forward bringing positivity to the table and energy that teams feed off of and making it clear to them, what good is. And driving the disciplines within your organization that helped drive that creation of that high quality software. You’re very predictable, you can deliver, meet our stakeholders, meet all of our product owners and stakeholders needs. And when that part it gets the customer the learner in our case to have a very positive experience and keeping that system running all the time and running at scale. So for me, it’s a big challenge around, it’s an ongoing challenge around the people that you’re working with and then you get changes in people and direction and technology and that creates this kind of dynamic environment where you need to be adaptive. You need to be able to understand the whole ecosystem, everything that’s going around you and help the team understand what they need to focus on to really deliver and be successful.

Carlos: Aside of leadership as a theme, what else are you excited about at Pearson. What’s in the future? Like, what does 2017 look like and what’s something there that kind of you’re really looking forward to?

Mike: Pearson is in the middle of a big transformation, right? From focusing on print we basically started selling textbooks, and then those CDs that were in the back of the textbooks kind of became an online access to that which now the whole thing is online. And then changing it from being, it’s being inputted into the learning process to being a part of it, and so we’re building. In the past, Pearson grew through acquisition and we accumulated assets to help us meet those objectives. Now we know what good is and we’re building a global learning platform and we’re bringing all of that together and driving the innovation in learning that we’re right for. And you mentioned earlier, learning hasn’t change the whole lot. But every learner has a device, multiple device and has access to information and making that learning process better for people providing new technologies and analytics, and understanding of how the learning is working, and adding value and helping large entities and small alike both be able to take these tools and implement them to the benefit of the learner, and instructor and make that a better process so. We still have a couple of years left in this transformation I would say. It’s not easy any time you’re going through major shift it requires a lot of commitment across the organization to that change. You know, 2017 is just our next step and we’re going to keep moving down that path.

Carlos: As part of that transformation, I’m going to ask this. We are a front-end engineering shop so Angular and React are always in our vocabulary and all their front-end frameworks. Angular or React, what other options? What’s in store for the future for you guys?

Mike: We’ve been on a path improving and implementing front-end technologies here as well. We did a lot with Angular. Angular was our standard, starting about 2-3 years ago for everything newly built. Over the last years we still do both, we do Angular but we have shifted towards React a bit. We’re developing some of our own components that we can implement within that ecosystem. I don’t know that there is a winner between Angular and React or if there’s need to be. But for us I think we’re a little bit more going towards the React side for us here.

Carlos: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense for many companies. It’s a little bit of what we see. A lot of the times it’s subjective, the more tools that we have the better. The more competition, it’s sort of in the free market that we have a lot of competition. There’s better products out there so, I think that the more competition there is in the front-end and there is Javascript world, the better the frameworks we’re going to have, the better tools we’re going to have.

Mike: Exactly. And we learned from some lessons. We had Dojo in here. We had issues and fix us to do. We had Dojo and major framework upgrade that requires total rewrites. We used a lot of JQuery and it provided some value and helped us with responsive products and responsive applications. But I think we’ve got a new place with Angular and React.

Carlos: Alright Mike, this has been an amazing interview but I have three last questions for you and I may actually squeeze a fourth. These are more geared towards you. What advice would you give your younger and less experienced self? You ran into yourself a couple of years earlier, what would you tell yourself?

Mike: I think, as I look back through my career, it’s really important to true to yourself. Find that thing that you love and stick to it and do it. I think for me, I am a very intense individual and driven, and stepping back and make sure I always have keep perspective. As I have gone through my career there were some times of pretty immense stress. Really what I learned over time, was to just keep perspective on what things really meant. You know, a lot of times when you’re going through those challenges and there is no way you’re going to solve a problem, and no way you’re going to get through something. You know, if you step back and you say, “Who else could do this any better?” in the whole scheme of things. How important is this? Let’s just do the best we can and go into the next thing and keep moving it. I’ve tried to evolve as a human too, and as a person, as a leader, as a technologist, and continue investing in yourself over time. So to me, I think that perspective is a big thing.

Carlos: I love that, that how perspective feeds our inner peace is something that we need to keep in mind because the world is not going to end, right? Well, hopefully it doesn’t. But I say it in the sense of like because we do something it’s not going to end. By the way, I was just laughing because today, we’re recording this on Election Day so we’re hopeful the world won’t end. So what’s a book that you would recommend on some of these things we discuss today? Just to bring some of the topics we talked about leadership, we talked about education and technology. It could be also any books that you feel that have made in impact in your life.

Mike: Wow, ok. I’m going to give you several leadership books because I think at a VP level as folks want to come up through management, leading technology is the trick. And so I mentioned earlier understanding your strengths was really important and there is a very good set of tools Strength based leadership is a book that I read and there’s an assessment that you can do and then you can actually know where your strengths lie. And when you know where your strengths lie and you know where other people’s strengths lie, you know how you can use each other to get to good. So I think Strength Based Leadership has been something that has helped me grow as a leader recently. If I was a new leader I’d want to other books. The first book for a manager to read and I think helps you to understand servant leadership, situational leadership, a lot of things. It’s kind of a compilation of a lot of different writers along with Ken Blanchard, and he wrote one called “Leading at a Higher Level”. It’s kind of almost like a primer for someone who really getting into leadership. And then one that I really like, Five Levels of Leadership and it’s by John C. Maxwell, is awesome. A little bit more of the technology band, The Phoenix Project is a good one.

Carlos: Oh, I love that book.

Mike: Yeah, that’s a great book to help people understand dev ops and how that can make a difference. And then the final thing, I’m just going to give you a little insider into myself like when I talk about perspective and gaining perceptive. There is a little book I read every day, it’s called Jesus Calling. And that’s a spiritual broadcast in it, proposing I think. But it helps me keep myself grounded of where I am, so I read Jesus Calling by Susan Young. Here’s an app for that so I actually have the app and I use the app. But that helps me keep my perspective everyday in my life so there are my books for today.

Carlos: I love those recommendations and we’ll have those in the show notes with links so you can check them out. Alright, now the obligatory question Michael Jackson do you get a lot of, what’s the story behind that, and I say not the story behind the name. But tell me a couple of stories. I’m sure you have a couple that are interesting.

Mike: It’s funny you get a name like this. So I’m only like 4 years younger than the Michael Jackson, so my parents gave me a name and they didn’t know what they were doing at that time. But by the time I was 6 years old, it became pretty obvious it was going to be something. I’ll give you two stories. When I get my first check book, from the bank they gave it to me and they said, “Michael Jackson.” And I couldn’t write a check without getting a hard time. And so I had to learn really quick and then even in the phonebook and these are back in the days, I got a lot of prank phone calls so I had to go to Mike Jackson instead of Michael to avoid those things. And the last funny one was I actually was flying on the day that Michael Jackson passed away and they cancelled my reservation. I think they think I don’t need it anymore.

Carlos: That sucks.

Mike: Yeah. Having a name like this, it’s a good icebreaker. We had a lot of talents with some idiosyncrasy as well.

Carlos: And you get to tell stories about it.

Mike: Yeah. We can usually make some fun with it. Alright, well now, and for everybody who is listening to the show we had Michael Jackson first on this podcast.

Carlos: If you guys are hiring, and this is a two part question, how can people jobs at Pearson and how can they apply? How can people actually get notice to work at Pearson? Aside of that how can they get in touch with you and find your work if they have any questions?

Mike: That’s right. Well, Pearson has on their website, so or I’d have to go and take a look. But right on our website we publish all the jobs that we’re putting out there and we have locations all across the U.S., London and other locations as well. You know, that’s the best way to find the opportunities. How do you get notice? For me, if anyone sends me their information I can help guide things through the process and make sure people are aware. I think anytime you apply for a position, making sure that people can see how you’re experience that you have in the past can really help you deliver for them in the future is really a good key. So having a good cover letter, good preamble, that talks about that helps people get noticed. And then finding me personally, I’m on LinkedIn and it’s probably the best way.

Carlos: Alright. Well, Mike, man I want to thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. I know we had to do the pre interview and now the interview so it took a chunk of your day from again this 30,000 people company so I appreciate the time and joining us. It was very fun.

Mike: Thank you so much, Carlos. It has been a great experience. I appreciate it.

Carlos: Thank you so much Mike and I look forward to meeting you soon.

Mike: Me too. Take care.

Carlos: Thank you!