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Chris Hull is the Co-Founder and CPO at Otus. Otus is the first edtech platform to centralize learning management, assessment, and data for educators, students, and families. Chris was also named a “20 To Watch” Educational Technology Leader by the National School Boards Association.
Our conversation spreads across both the challenges of education, remote teaching, empowering students and teachers alike, and how Chris became an effective founder and CPO (Chief Product Officer) by leveraging learning and a great team.
Chris, thank you very much for joining us. I’ve really, really loved the idea of the problem that you and the team at Otus are solving. And I really want to kind of go at two interesting angles of our discussion. One is, of course, what’s the problem that’s being solved? How are you doing it? And kind of like, why is this an important piece and your place in the industry?
And also is a CPO, right? The chief product officer is an interesting title and it’ll be neat to go into the background of what led you to that role. So anyways, before we jump in, for folks that are new to you, Chris, if you want to give a quick intro to yourself and Otus and then we’ll start diving into the story.
Definitely. So I was a former seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher. I was really focused on helping my kids learn to the best of their ability. And I was really honing in on that problem. How do you maximize learning for each kid? I would have about one hundred and fifty students every year, and I started to use technology as a tool to help me do that and a variety of ways using. Online applications, finding ways to have my kids become more engaged, and I was lucky enough to be a coauthor to a grant that brought one device to every kid in 2010.
And I thought that providing every student a device would completely change my life and education and really allow me to impact every single student. However, upon the rollout of the one to one device initiative, I quickly learned I was pretty naive back then. I still am naive. I was pretty naive back then because it quickly became apparent that technology can actually expose inefficiencies within a system or a process. And that is what happened. I quickly learned that there were inefficiencies between collecting data, getting information about kids, we call it, articulating data from one teacher to the next or from one grade to the next.
There was inefficiency there and there was no system that really allowed the teacher to understand or get to know kids in a way that was really powerful and efficient. So I was lucky enough with two other co-founders to start OTUS. And we really focus on providing the tools to help teach, which is again facilitating, learning, giving activities, connecting to content grade, which is the ability to measure learning, understanding what a kid is able to do and what a kid needs to grow and get better at Analise, which is the ability to take information that might exist outside your classroom.
It could be national assessments. It could be passions or interests or things that may be the were found out by a teacher from a year or two ago. Analyze all this in a single place and then plan, which is our final thing we helped do, which is really to monitor the progress on initiatives such as like skill building or behavior or civics, or if you want students to be good kids, being able to monitor their progress while they’re in your district.
So with that, we have a platform that really focuses on the efficiency of the student teacher relationship and then also transparency for families and administrators into the world of their students. At the administrative level, we really can aggregate the data to look at cohorts. So a group of kids and then four families. Again, I have four kids who are very young. If I ask them how school’s going, they’ll tell me, fine. If I ask them what they’ve learned, they’ll tell me stuff.
If I had high school students, they probably might use different four letter words that tell me how things are going. But really we focus on a platform that is able to provide a comprehensive understanding of how a kid is doing. And by having that information about one kid, we can also aggregate that to the groups of kids so that if we need to find trends or things going on and we do that providing the tools to teach, grade, analyze and plan.
So the thing that really stands out to me about this story and, you know, the problem solving is a real disconnect sometimes. And when we talk about like I’m I’m from the startup world and from the business world and we talk about customers. Right. And when you’ve got a system and the first thing to do is identify this customer and in effect, it’s it’s your student because they have a customer journey from K to 12 and you’re their progression follows them through that versus I’d say a lot of the problem, like you talked about, like even in person learning and the general school programs is there’s not clean hands, there’s not transparency of the journey from that that child.
Like we we go to the paper copy and but like you said then it doesn’t go to the parents, then it doesn’t get shared between administrators. We can’t really use data to drive a positive progression for that student. And I love that. But like you said, the digital experience can add this now. All of a sudden you’re like, oh, I can see that literally and agreed to this child, struggled with this thing. And then we formed a plan so that in grade six, they’re in the right spot where they need to be.
But right now, I feel sometimes that teachers are basically looking at getting through their year with their class and once the class is gone, that’s kind of the end of the program sometimes.
Yeah, I think you hit on some key things, right, if we look at the the product world, if we look at something like JIRA or a CRM or I know I’m jumping around, but the idea is those systems are trying to provide insight into what’s actually happening. If we look at some of our eses and why do we use JIRA when we’re using Djura so we can track projects, we can see how things are going, we can identify obstacles.
I think one of the key things I’ve learned is many of the best practices that are happening in product are what really happen in the classroom to it’s one of the reasons that the the jump from the classroom to the CPO role has actually been less bumpy than I would have thought. Because you want to know you want to identify things early. If there is a blocker, you know, typical stand up. What did you work on yesterday? What are you working on today?
What blockers do you have? That same approach works with students like what’s your blocker now? Sometimes a blocker can be for a child. Maybe they’re struggling to get to school on time. Maybe there’s something going on at home. You know, it’s not always like why I’m struggling to understand who the answer the basic question of who is this article about now? Sometimes it’s more than that. Maybe they’re hungry. Maybe there are things going on, but there is the same thing can happen and product where you’re trying to identify is there a blocker and the processor in the system?
And this is where in an organization we have several product teams for our delivery side of the house. Well, if there is one blocker we have one of our teams is called the assessment team. And if they all of a sudden encounter a blocker, we unblock them, we solve it. It would be a failure of our organization to not share that solution with the other product teams. Right? Oh, this is how we unlock. We have this problem.
We are struggling with a PR. We’re struggling with something around that. And it’s like, oh, this is how we unblocked it. The same thing happens in the classroom. Everything, unfortunately, can be very siloed where if I’m a teacher and all of a sudden I have a student who’s struggling with. Complex text or maybe struggling to get engaged in a school if all of a sudden have a solution. It would be great to note that solutions so that if the student or another student ever encounters it again, we kind of have that in our back pocket.
And education does this in a really great way. I’m not saying it doesn’t. There are things called like places, but so much of the student information is siloed that it doesn’t carry on. And again, if we look at I mentioned earlier, like a CRM, like a Salesforce or any other one out there, we have things about the client. Right. So if all of a sudden our main contact is really into football, let’s go soccer.
You might mention that, hey, a great way to get them to open up and talk about soccer or hey, they really enjoy this type of food. All of a sudden it’s like those hints can be like to send a thank you note. They really like coffee and they really enjoy this brand. It’s like those secret things that you can put into a CRM or, hey, this is where they’re at in their process. It really helps continue the handoff within an organization so that you’re able to really maximize what’s happening for each person and client, customer, user.
They’re all the same, right? You’re in you’re engaging in interacting with someone and you’re trying to help them be successful. And that’s what we want to do for students. We want to help them be successful in their goals. And to me, that’s really learning how to critically read, write and think, having them become successful and what they’re passionate about.
Well, the advantage you get to when we systematize this process is that you can take the system and you can scale it outwards, right? You can now introduce it to other areas. I think the other challenge we’ve always got, especially, you know, we’ve got I’m Canadian originally. I’m living in the United States and we’ve got, you know, massive populations over massive geographies that act fundamentally different based on a variety of different scenarios. So they don’t tend to bring systems between them.
But meanwhile, they may actually have a ton of similarities that they could like, just say, OK, let’s just worry about the edge cases, but you can identify the cases if they’ve never seen outside their bubble. So you’ve you’ve really hit on a ton of interesting things. And it’s funny your language. You’re for an educator. You’ve got you sound like a great software developer. You’ve really seem to have tapped into both sides. And this is why, obviously the CPO is a great fit.
Now, when did you sort of decide that tech was a way to solve this problem, Chris, in the specific area that you wanted to hack into?
Yes. So I always thought I’m not the greatest technologist. It’s one of those things I’m constantly learning. I have an amazing team. I have a product manager, Zach, who is absolutely incredible, helping me learn along the way. Same with our CTO, Cory. They’ve really been amazing to help me learn because. There are these parallels, but to me, I was always a technologist in the way that I always wanted to become more efficient. I would sometimes say I always wanted to find the hack because trying to grade one hundred and fifty students papers is just really time consuming.
How can I save time but still do a good job? So I always looked at technology as a way to help me become more efficient, and that could be something like we’re going to use a platform to be able to better track something or to be able to better monitor something, or it could just be like we used to on our first. Technology we added to the classroom was actually first generation iPads, and we had a really simple problem, which was.
How do you put an iPad on a desk and how do you do that with twenty five students so that it’s not just laying flat? Well, my colleague, the other quote, the coauthor of the grant, came up with a great idea. And to me, this is always like a symbol of what technology can be. He took to doorstops that were like the triangles, and he created this little desk and we had a couple of pieces of wood, we had a wood shop, we could cut them all of a sudden.
Twenty five sets of doorstops created little stands on everybody’s desk. And now all of a sudden, they were the right angle. You could kind of type on them. And all of a sudden that was a source of technology. We took triangles at a certain slope and now we have these little stands for everybody’s desk and they could be movable. You could, like, tilt them a certain way. They were really great. Now, that was like, again, a piece of technology that helped do the job.
And one of the things I think has always been a lesson I’ve learned is if you’re just using technology for technology sake, you’re losing sight of what you’re really trying to do. That actually happened to us when we first rolled out our iPads in our classrooms. It became all about like, hey, look at this cool technology. And we were logging in to 15, 20 different applications and we’re logging into these applications. And it’s like we lost sight of our goal, our priority, which is helping learning.
And so I really like to look at technology not as what’s the latest and greatest, but what is going to help us do our priority or our goal or objective better. And I’ve been lucky enough to. Learn some of those things that have helped me in the from the classroom to the CPO about building a culture, setting a North Star or an objective, and then letting people really get there on their own, not by themselves with a guide, but not always giving them all the answers, because I have found that when a team is able to.
Discover and craft their own solutions, they have more ownership in them, and that ownership autonomy really allows them to thrive and succeed versus them going, oh, here is our process. I have to do it, and now it’s like harder to iterate on it. I really think the best, the best solutions allow for iterations because no one is going to nail it perfectly the first time.
And it’s very interesting, too, because, like you said, we seem to think like, oh, we’ll put an iPad in every student’s hand and that will that will be the solution. Like, no, that’s like saying cloud computing is the solution for business. Like it’s a path to the solution. The actual solution is how you leverage the tool, how you use it. And all of a sudden you’re you’ve got five browser tabs, two applications.
And in fact, you’re degrading the experience because now this child has you know, we’re really exposing attention, challenges and our acerbity on the right spot when we’re looking at. But it’s very easy for, like you said, for us to say technology for technology’s sake. And it’s it’s tough sometimes to be able to step back. And I guess we call it sort of the curse of knowledge that when you’re a power user of something, you just think like, oh, well, I use my iPad all the time.
It’s my I get on a plane, I have my book, I have my email, I have my three things that I need. So therefore, anybody could be handed an iPad on a plane and it’ll be productive for a three hour plane trip. And that’s actually not the case, but very, very easy for us to lose, especially with kids like because their iPad, when they go home, is a different, fundamentally different experience for what that iPad services.
So to suddenly give it a use case and a box around how you’re going to use this tool, it’s a it’s a really interesting and tough challenge.
Yeah, I think that’s where you have to have the clear objectives, right, and I, I know your audience is much more on the product side, but I always have found to be quite the the buzz word with certain people, like certain people, like I don’t like it. And I always have come to if you have a bad process and you try to put it into, juries are just going to make that worse. It’s going to expose all those bad things.
And that’s why a lot of people will tell you when you start with Djura, it’s always better to start super simple and then build it out over time instead of trying to overengineer it. And I think the same situation comes with the iPad. If all of a sudden we use your analogy about the plane, if you all of a sudden or let’s take the iPad and give it to a student, if you let the student decide what’s on their iPad, I’ll tell you what they’re going to put on it.
They’re going to put some really fun games that are going to be highly entertaining, but very distracting to learning. And if you kind of give that carte blanche out there, it’s like, oh, OK. But if you work with the kid and you say, OK, I think even games on the iPad are OK, I would sometimes have in my classroom I taught all the way until twenty eighteen. I would tell my students if they were productive, if they were productive, for we had 40 minute periods oftentimes if they were productive during the week on Friday, the last five to ten minutes of the final day, we would watch a funny video which I had reasons for doing, that there were students submitted.
So I kind of got to know the kids in a fun way. And then also I would let the kids sometimes on their iPad, take five minutes, play a game performance. That’s that’s OK. But again, the goal has to be clear. Like this is not the purpose of it. But yeah, you can have a game, but download the download the right books, make sure you have the right tools that allow you to like what you focused on.
We did a lot of writing, so we did a lot of Google Google Docs, but it really becomes interesting without that clear goal. Yeah, I’m going to use it for what I’m interested in and then that can really take you in a lot of different directions and cause yeah. You give somebody something for their plane trip. Hey, use this on your plane. Well, they might play solitaire all the entire time. They’re not getting that productivity right.
But they used it. That’s really by defining what the goal is, is really helpful.
Yeah, well, it’s funny you mentioned Jeeralang. That’s a classic thing we bump into is that the tool doesn’t solve the problem. Like, yeah, it’s like saying like running doesn’t cause any problems. It finds them right. Like if you’ve got something it will immediately surface when you do certain things. And like I said, applying a workflow tool like a JIRA, a ServiceNow or something like that, even any automation process is I’m a I’m a king of of hating being doing the same thing repeatedly.
So I’m lazy in the greatest way because I want to automate as much as I can. But immediately, once you have to, like, systematized that thing, it makes you stop and say, OK, what do I actually do? And you realize, like when I say I’m just going to go and grab this file and put it up on the server and that’s it, then it gets read by the system. You’re right. It’s like, oh, now I save it, I export it.
I add some stuff to the end. I do a search and think, oh, wow. And now all of a sudden you’re like, it’s good to visit because it allows you to say, do I need to do it at this stage? And sometimes you go to real first principles and say, like, well, what are we actually trying to achieve? Student needs to get content. Content is here. We need to measure the effectiveness of how they get it and how they use it.
But it’s hard because. Look, of any system that’s got Whalsay legacy as the coded system right intact, we always talk about legacy systems. How much more legacy and effect is our education system and not legacy is bad. But I mean, legacy is really just it’s been evolving very slowly for a long time. So it probably was even more challenging to suddenly come in and say. I’m going to put some questions to how we’ve been doing it for a couple of hundred years.
Yeah, I think that you get you hit on something where I think legacy is sometimes seen as bad, but it actually just become such a I sometimes referred to this will seem like a really bad comparison, but it’s kind of like the Titanic, which now legacy has that really bad. But in some ways it’s so big and it’s just been added onto so much, it’s really hard to turn it and become very navigable. It’s hard to move it around.
And one of the things with learning, teaching and learning needs to be more agile and not as waterfall approach because things change. And this is where I think one of the things that OTUS does help with and not trying to be on the sales soapbox too much. But one of the things that has happened in education is for administrators and the people who are kind of managing all of this. Their feedback loop is really long, it can be almost a full year where it’s like, oh, this is how we’re doing, this is how it’s going, and it’s almost like a full year passes like this is how third grade what what are we going to do differently for third grade next year?
And what Otus is trying to do is we’re trying to provide the tools all in a single place. We’re trying to collect the information efficiently and in the background to teachers. And students are just doing their thing of teaching and learning. But because we’re collecting that information and making it transparent to all the stakeholders, we want to shorten that infinity loop. We want to basically that feedback loop. I call it an infinity loop, the feedback loop. We want to shorten it because if all of a sudden we have these goals and we’re monitoring them regularly, all of a sudden you’re able to measure, you’re able to build, you’re able to adaptable.
And that is what other industries have done. So effectively, the idea is the waterfall approach. Why was that so problematic? Well, by the time it actually went out, things changed, things adopted. You misread something you weren’t able to iterate as you went. And when we get to this more agile approach or this approach where we’re able to do things in shorter, you don’t want to release once every year. Right. You want to release as quickly as you can.
Now, some people could debate how often is good for the user, but that, like the idea is once a year is not often enough. And in education, it would be great not to over measure. I don’t want to test a kid every single day, but observation, observations or measurement. So if I am adapting and iterating and able to tweak what I’m doing on a daily or weekly basis, that’s really where your best teachers are at because they’re able to find where the kids that find out what those obstacles are, find those blockers, adapt and then continue to see improvement over time.
And if we can get schools to. Be able to help students that way, but it also one of the things I think OTUS also helps do is it helps with the professional development. We had talked a while earlier in the conversation about how. If let’s look at a product, if you’re a product leader, you’re a team or a program manager and you’re trying to solve something, your toolkit has to be like so big to solve every problem out there.
The same thing happens with teaching. But if we’re able to pinpoint what a problem is, hey, students are struggling, multiplying fractions. OK, we have a very specific problem, multiplying fractions. It’s hard. What are things that we can do to help with that specific goal? Well, now, when I’m giving professional development to the teacher, how do I make the learning of multiplying fractions more fun and happening faster? And the same thing goes like if all of a sudden in the product world, if we’re struggling with the collaboration between you and developers and we want them to be more collaborative so that.
Are you are you are you X components are being built better. OK, that’s a very specific problem that we can figure out. How do we increase the collaboration when building out a component between a developer and you? X Well oh let’s do pair programing or let’s have we added a column to our job board where we call it UTI so that it’s actually being checked for that. And one of those things that happens is like, OK, now you can solve this specific problem because it’s not, hey, we’re having inefficiencies with our delivery.
Well, what is the inefficiency? What is so when you’re able to pinpoint it, you’re able to better solve the problem, but you’re also better able to collaborate and also build out that toolkit so that it’s not just all these general uses or general ideas.
You’re the teacher I wish that I had. It’s it really comes through No. One, Chris, the passion of the way that you’re approaching the problem, plus the fact that you’re able to see beyond. Like I said, you’re the the phrasing that you use, the description of the challenges and the solutions. Like you you you may not feel that you’re as comfortable necessarily on the technology side, but you’re fantastic compared to a lot of folks that I find that being able to bridge between, like understanding the problem and living the real lived experience and then bringing that across and then building a solution for it, you’ve really, really crossed that that river beautifully and that you can still see both sides of it effectively.
And that’s it’s a rarity because quite often we have just purely like systems thinkers and then we hand them user stories and we hand them things and and it comes back as the old even like the waterfall. Project Management was the classic joke. Right. They’d show the like the little eight, you know, caption cartoon. And it was like what the user asked for and what the user wanted. Know what the project manager thought it was, what the developer thought it was.
And it was like a swing. This all the kid wanted was a tree swing. And it’s like all these different iterations. In the end, it was just like a piece of wood laying on the ground with a rope hanging from a tree. It’s it’s really interesting that you really, really understand both sides of the experience. So how did that come to be? Like I said, because your background is is obviously an education and you’ve got a really and your education wouldn’t tell me that you’re a solid on the on the tech side as you are.
Yeah, I think that it comes from. I appreciate the kind compliments, it’s sometimes hard to hear, but I do try to understand what I do well and what I don’t. And one of the things that I have found is I was a political science and world religions major. I really enjoy learning how systems and processes work and how they impact the individuals involved and also understanding where you best fit into the puzzle. And so. I am pretty good at seeing the ninety thousand foot view I can I can really see it.
I can set I can understand what the market is doing. You mentioned, you know, the tree swing. You know, one of the things that we’ve been talking about is not always doing exactly what the customer wants, but instead we really like to bring out what are the problems that are causing something to occur. And the question that I always like to come back to, it’s a broken record for me, but it’s what is more difficult than it should be.
And so really focusing on the problem. But what I really learned is that the details do matter and building out a team to kind of complement those. So like our product manager, Zacky, is, he’s got the best he’s the best at details that I’ve ever come across and having him work with me and then also working with we have a great UX team and we’ve identified some of these key things like UX is essential. You know, the technology literacy in education really spans the gamut.
It just is huge. Like you have students who are amazingly tech savvy, like they can figure stuff out. But there are some teachers. I had to help install apps on their iPhone and there are others that could do anything way better than me. So it’s like understanding what is going to be needed, building out these specifications, but then also really relying on the people who are experts like our CTO. Corey is incredible. He helped. He helped really another startup in education really have the good core and skeleton and understanding that we have team lead.
So we have team leaders across the board. We have one for assessment, one for all of us. We have all these people who have these expertize that I don’t know, we have one of our our alums lead. His name’s Colt. He’s he was a great experience and internationalization. I can understand what the term is like. Oh, OK. We got to internationalize Otus. We’ve got to localize the product. Like, I can understand the high level, but.
Implementing it, I that’s not going to be my strength now, setting the vision of why we want to internationalize, we want Otus to be able to be understood again efficiently for all stakeholders. Well, there’s a very diverse group of families out there, and it’s important that education can be hard enough to understand when it’s in your non-native language. Let’s bring as much as we can into their native language. Let’s help this all stakeholders get onto the same page that fits our vision.
Then you hire the people who know it and then you build in the structure to allow them to do it and. I think that I’m constantly trying to learn, and I think it’s been amazing to have the team at Otus really helped me do that and they really are the experts. One of the things that I often will say is. Otus’s in education technology, which is also often referred to as EdTech. And I really don’t like that term as much, because I think ADTECH often means you’re short changing one or both either tools are super like, wow, the technologies really knew what they’re doing.
This is so impressive. But they didn’t get the educator point of view or to be the opposite, where it’s like, oh, man, the educators clearly. We’re helping develop this, but then they won’t be as stable or scalable or all of a sudden it’s like man who designed their UI, UX like it’s like one of those things where I really want us to embrace the skill set of both. We have about a third of our employees are former educators.
I want them to have a voice and that educator voice, but also with people who aren’t educators but are parents or family members. OK, what would you need from the system in that situation? And also the technologies? How do we build scalable solutions? How do we have data portability? How do we have security, all of those things? I’m not going to be able to speak to other than OK, that’s important. Let’s make sure we take the time to do it.
And I think it’s understanding what you are able to do and understand where you might have room to grow and then finding those people who can teach you and taking the moment and the time. I guess it’s more than a single moment because learning for me takes a lot longer than it probably should. I really have to have conversations, ask questions that are sometimes. Pretty silly, you know, it was one of those things just today we were working on some of our load testing in terms of next year, and we came up into a situation where it’s very technical for why it wasn’t giving us like the same results as we expected, and it was why.
And then I had to ask like two or three very clarifying questions because we were using a small subset of accounts to extrapolate over. Right. Taking a thousand accounts and make reusing them ten thousand times. Well, that caused our systems going to react differently when the same thousand users are signing it all the time instead of it being fifty thousand four hundred thousand unique users. Well, there was a technical reason for that. I looked a little silly as I asked my questions, but again, it’s being willing to know and the team knows that I’m in it for the right reasons and they’re willing to help me learn and then it clarifies it.
And now next time it’ll make sense. And it’s one of its venturing out. I like to say risking failure while striving to be your best. Striving to be my best. But I was risking failure and asking a question that I probably should have been able to figure out.
It’s it is good to have the humility to bring that question to the room, though, and this is something that we often struggle with. This is a human tendency of like, well, I’ve got to I think this is going to be a dumb question. So you hang on to it. And in fact, sometimes it’s people. Oh, OK. Well, actually, now that we say that right, we’ve we’ve reused a thousand accounts. It’s going to perform differently than if we took ten thousand because there’s a diversity of life.
So there are genuine reasons why that needs to be brought up sometimes. And the good thing is the comfort among the peer group and the team in being able to say it’s OK. Right. We often have this thing of culture as we talk about in team culture is the success in culture is the ability to feel like you can fail and you can fail with this group and be comfortable that it’s a learning experience, not a punishment experience. It’s it’s something that, you know, when you choose your co-founders and your team, you have to stuff you find out in practice.
Right, right. I think that’s where a culture like that’s the biggest parallel to me that really has opened my eyes is that is what a teacher does, right? They’re building a culture of learning with their students so that. You need them to be able to ask questions. Can I work with seventh and eighth graders like they’re not going to know the history of all that’s going on? That’s that’s not they haven’t had the opportunity yet. But you have to build a culture of understanding, a culture of community where they can ask that.
You know, I always had I had three guiding principles that I use everywhere from for my own kids to Otus to to my classroom, which where, you know, respect, honesty and then strive to be your best while risking failure. Those were the three. And it’s been interesting because that same culture building is exactly what happens on product teams or in. Specific components and we use teams a lot, we have product teams, but then we have platform teams, so it’s sometimes use of teams.
When I’m talking to external folks, it makes me sound a little little team happy. But the idea is like the UX team needs to be able to collaborate with the front end team and the back end team and our data team. But they also have to be one group on our product team, which is like assessment where we have multiple members on. And it’s like that type of camaraderie and that problem solving, the open problem solving and communication only occurs with the right culture.
And it’s the the culture thing is interesting, especially in the classroom, too, because, you know, in business, we’ve people generally have a long view of how they’re going to fit, you know, in the in the educational system. Well, let’s say you’ve got twenty five kids and one teacher. They’re basically looking to just survive nine months together. And because there will be a brand new cohort, a brand new selection, a brand new pool.
So the culture has to be discovered, evolved and then sort of measured for success and hopefully capped off with, you know, everybody feeling good about how they what they took away from that nine month experience into the following year so that when they see that teacher in the hall, they’re like, oh, hey, Mrs. Johnson, you know, hey, Mr. Hall, how’s it going? You know, versus like, oh, boy, I missed your whole last year is driving me crazy is a real he was a real hard nut around math.
You know, it. So culture is it’s very interesting that in the education system. It’s as a as an educator and then as a somebody who’s bringing in systems into that seeing that experience, then ultimately probably play out in data. Right. What data have you seen now through OTUS that’s kind of taught you lessons about that, the real in classroom experience.
Yeah, I think that I think data, you know, sometimes a four letter word, but information, right, is when you really are able to pull information, you really find that there are connections or correlations between things that are happening and, you know, behavior and attendance and engagement really do impact learning and. Having a teacher able to focus in on a couple of very specific things you need to get better at can really drive great improvement and that improvement can really be seen across the board.
And the data can really show that where if you have a. A teacher who does a really good job of driving engagement, really getting the buy in, and then you can put in the work to do learning, because to learn is an action that requires effort and that that effort is important. And so when you can really get to that real crux of learning and let’s say you really have been able to identify the main point in informational text. You’ll see those benefits in in science and social studies and all of these different areas, and it’s such a cascading effect where you’re really building these essential building blocks that really can impact their entire performance throughout the day.
It can even impact their performance and physical education if you’re able to understand informational text. Well, now, when you’re being asked to learn the rules of a new game, you’re able to pull out the main points to such a better degree. It really has been amazing to see how the data really does show that and it’s not always easy and I think there are successes. I also think the data shows that it’s not this like straight line. It’s not even like that in the other spaces of technology where you want that hockey stick approach.
That’s not that’s not what happens in education in some ways. A lot of times it’s like two steps forward, one step back because. Kids are just complicated. They’re just really something that takes time to be able to unlock and then for them it’s almost like, oh man, I had two great days and then you’re trying to replicate it. Well, now some a little different was something said on recess with something set on the playground. Did something happen at home that they if they were on a sports team, did something happen there?
And so. It really is one of those things that when we can. Collect more comprehensive information, we can pinpoint when they need something. Maybe it’s just a conversation, maybe it’s just. One on one time, maybe, I’d say we just got like today is a rough day, we got to be a little bit calmer or more understanding empathetic today. That was the word I was looking for, empathetic. I think the information can provide those insights.
And I think that we’ve seen when you really are monitoring things, you can you can get better overall growth, even though day in, day out, it might be a little bit more. Two steps forward, one step back. But if you’re monitoring it, you’re able to really identify. We’ve got to step back. We’ve got to really push forward now. Whereas in the past, you might all of a sudden only be looking at something data wise every three to six months, and then you might have missed something that could have been uncovered.
When just like many software or applications or whatever it is, you’ve you’ve got the consumer, the people that are actually involved in it, the people that ultimately buy it, and we talk about the user persona, the economic buyer persona. We’ve got the in the consumer maybe that, you know, the educator and then ultimately the student. So. How do you how do you bring those personas together and make sure that they’re all kind of in agreement on what you’re measuring?
Because I I know one of the challenges we’ve often had in education is this idea of like standardized testing, like, well, this is it’s a very distinctive and regional unique thing, but it’s not really. But there are enough idiosyncrasies and oddities and differences. Maybe it’s better a better way to describe it. So when you bring anything, that’s a system. Like, how do you where do you find the resistance’s maybe in people taking it on?
Yeah, I think this is where we’ve really we have an amazing client success team and they really work very closely with our districts. Because they’re the they’re the people making these decisions, we have a really flexible platform that can measure. What a district would like to measure, it’s very adaptable, so we really work with the districts to make sure they’ve identified what you want to measure. Let’s define them, let’s expand on them, let’s make sure they’re explained well, and then our system can then go in and do that and.
Because of that approach, I really think that we’re able to. Have the client feel success at the end of the day, our clients are the districts, but the districts are serving students and teachers and families. So that’s why we kind of need to incorporate it. But we’re there to that. We’re the tool to support the district initiatives. We are the tool of the district. The data is the districts, and because of that, we need to make sure that we are accountable to what their goals are.
And that really comes through a really great process we have of discovery of what are you looking to measure? What are your end goals? How do we get your path there? And we’re really shaping that customer journey with them because of how adaptable our system is. But it really does cause some challenges because it can be moving. Education right now is going through a huge transformation. The pandemic is one reason, but also there is this call for. Accountability and standards and these common assessments and this common movement and maximizing learning and districts are figuring out how to get there on their own in each person’s implementations, different depending on the state and federal situation they’re in.
But it has caused a couple of curveballs to be thrown because all of a sudden the district, we could have a plan in place and then halfway through the we need to change and adapt and pivot and then say, OK, we’ll pivot. But we might not be collecting. We might not have been collecting C, not because Otus can’t collect A, B and C, but because they weren’t inputting the data for A, B and C, so therefore we don’t.
So it gets into these things where it really does take careful planning, careful conversations, and really it’s exciting to be able to do it. But it is a learning process has been it’s been a great opportunity for me to talk to districts, our team. We have an amazing former superintendent who leads our team. His name’s Phil. He does a great job, his entire team does, to have these conversations. And one of the things we really believe in is we want conversations to happen as often as possible.
I’ll join them. Oftentimes we have a UX researcher who joins them to collect so that we can kind of identify trends that are taking place. That kind of I think I loosely answered your question, but that is the challenge is districts are currently. Providing what is their path forward and there is some changes on the way because educational administration is going undergoing change this past year for superintendents across the country, it is a very difficult one. I don’t think they were in a no win situation because they had constantly changing CDC guidelines.
They had constantly changing what are we supposed to do with the pandemic? And they were unable to focus as heavily as I would hope on learning, but because they had to focus on the safety and security and the well-being of their staff and their students. But it was one of those things that it’s too often the case that schools are unable to focus on the learning and they’re instead being distracted by things that are that are the administrative tasks that are important but are not the core, the priority that I think schools should serve, which is helping maximize learning for every kid.
And that really is the goodness gracious like of all things that we faced as a society in the last 18 months has tested us in ways that I hope that we gather solid lessons from it. And and it’s like I obviously anybody would would give up any lesson to not have had the experience. Don’t never of course, this isn’t a trade off that we ever wanted to make. But when faced with a and a trade off that we didn’t have a choice and know being suddenly remote.
I’ve been a remote worker for years. And somebody said like, oh, this is this is must be what it’s like to work remotely. I’m like, no, very different. Right. Like suddenly remote is not a remote work experience that you you interact differently. Hybrid is different. As we then go back to now bringing education into a combination of I think by September, hopefully we’ll have stabilized and everybody will be back in the classroom. But like, let’s leverage what we learned about the digital experience and how we can empower kids through some remote tools.
Because when I was a kid, I was in grade, you know, I was in grade school and when I went into high school, I got mono. Right. And this is like the classic thing. I, I missed a lot of school because I wasn’t able to go. And I lost an entire year of school because I missed enough education days and there was no remote learning. So that was it there. Just like you’ve missed too many days and so you have to lose your year.
So I lost a bunch of courses and then I went back kind of grudgingly and got my my last year done in one semester because we just switched over to semesters. And it was so now I think if I’ve got these tools, I’ve got ways that we can measure the health of their home experience and hopefully bring it into the system. But we can empower every kid to be successful for that year and beyond, right?
And I think that’s the thing. Right. And I I really am reflecting on my comment, like educators have done such an incredible job this year. But the task they were they were faced with was so. So daunting, I’m actually the superintendent of my students district, my sorry, my kids, my my kids district is also where I taught he actually hired me. They also use OTUS. It was one of those things we’re talking to him like the challenges he was facing between there would be a CDC announcement at like noon.
Then the mayor of Chicago would make an announcement or the governor of Illinois would make an announcement like 90 minutes later. And he was then tasked a minute after all of that. Well, what are you going to do? And I’m like, he just got like a bucket of information. How is he supposed to process check with X, Y, Z? But now he’s being asked, like, what’s what’s the reaction? It’s like to have to do that in real time.
Like educators and superintendents, they were they were facing problems that I don’t think anybody could have ever foreseen. So they had so much time and energy focused on the health and safety of everybody that. In some ways, education, like the learning, took a step back and it’s like, OK, how are we going to address? Because you made some good points, right? Like Bono or or kids who need to be home, like, well, now you can do things.
I don’t think it’s good to be doing them. And endlessly. I think there is a huge place for human connection, for being a person, for collaborating. Again, I have very young kids. My oldest is seven. I think it’s really important to understand, you know, but it’s also one of those things where. I would teach again, 7th and 8th grade, I had 40 minute periods and I would tell my you know, I tell people it’s like.
Teaching and learning is not happening all 40 minutes every day week, you know, five days a week, 40 minutes a day, that’s not all we’re doing. We’re doing connections. We’re doing culture building. We might be doing. Icebreakers, we have to get to know each other, we have to do that culture building, we have to I enjoyed going on some tangents if it’s going to help develop critical thinking skills. And it was one of those things where with everything being on Zoom, it’s like, OK, what are the expectations?
You know, it was one of those things that is very fascinating to me. And if we can really focus on the learning, I really think we can take things away that were we faced during the pandemic.
And that experience of being remote and on video, it’s especially for the durations that you’ve got to do it like I’m I before we were all remote, I had a great experience because I knew at a sort of slot my meetings and you had to do stuff. And then what happened was when everybody was suddenly remote, they had this unfortunate feeling that they had to fill this time like that. They had to do all these meetings, that they were doing ad hoc and schedule them and schedule them an hour long.
And so all of a sudden, we’re all on Zoom’s together. And look, there’s a huge like we got through it together because we were able to stay connected and do things. But it’s cognitively tiring to be looking at a panel of people for hours at a time. It’s we need to be able to, like, put the lid down on the laptop, sometimes walk around like, well, you got to do that. The whole fun of the hallway track at a conference is that you are going from one place to another and you’re like, you know what, I’m going to be late for this one because I just bumped into this person in the hallway that didn’t exist anymore.
Right. And it’s really, really tough. That’s why I hope we can find this sort of hybrid experience. And now, like, look at what you’re doing. You have now the ability through what you’re doing with Otus to take these measurements with this cohort for the coming years so we can actually then see what the the the downstream benefit are like, what was good and what may be challenges come up relative to previous cohorts, right?
Yeah, that’s inside of like what’s the impact going to be? I think it’s you also hit on some really big points, right? I think we we dealt with this at Otus. You know, the idea of. Yeah, I’m going to schedule an hour meeting. Well, I feel like if you schedule an hour meeting, at first you felt like you had to take the hour meeting, right. Whatever length of time you put the meeting, you just somehow drag it out.
And it’s like, OK, let’s schedule twenty five minute meetings. Let’s or. Let’s not meet let’s see what we can do asynchronously, and I think that’s where we are now, a remote company, and it’s been it’s been an interesting transition. And I think we’re getting better and better where it’s like, OK, we don’t we can do more impromptu things or we can just have, like we call them, hangouts where it’s like drop in if you would like.
But there is no pressure and or no video for a couple of days because you have videos. I used to be pretty good, I’m not I used to be pretty good at reading a room, you know, I did a lot of teaching. I think that’s one of the things you learn really well. You know, again, I had six classes, twenty five kids apiece. So I would be forty minutes a day, six times I would have to read the room.
I felt like I was pretty good at it. I can never read a Zoome room to save my life. I can’t avoid you. I have no idea how it’s going. And so I think that’s really where we can learn. I think teachers, they say like, I don’t know how you could connect with students to the same degree, because I used to tell people I loved holding the door open both for my classroom, but also at Otus, where it’s like that two minute conversation that time in two minutes, that twenty second conversation going in and out of a room.
That’s how you can really bond. Or it’s like that that that side comment you can make where it’s like, I don’t want to announce this to the entire class or the entire resume. I just want to have a little back and forth, you know, how is your kid doing? Or I know you play golf. How’s that going? It’s like, hey, what what’s the latest? It’s like those little tidbits that I don’t think you want to put everybody on public blast.
That’s like a that’s the difference between an icebreaker. We’re all here. Let’s all answer an ice breaker. It’s not the same as like, hey, let’s have like a little side huddle. I used to do that with my my students all the time. Like, we’re going to the side hall. We’re going to talk for two minutes. How’s it going? It’s like such a different energy and connection that is fostered that way. And it’s really something that I really going back to school for students is going to be important.
I think that the engagement was really hard this year in terms of being invested in what was happening for all students. Some are able to some are self-motivated. Some are able to go in there. And I got this. But the idea is, what about for the students who need that nudge or need that connection to be able to push faster? And I think it’s also happening in the workplace. It’s just we’re in we’re in store for some interesting change coming up here.
The the one thing that you bring up, too, is that those holiday conversations and the door opening conversations, especially with students, even if we say like, OK, the Zoome room is for X, right? We’re going to talk about something for an hour. You know, the subject matter. You know the agenda. Sometimes you can slip in and hey, how’s it going. But there’s twenty two people on the on the room with you so it’s harder to have those conversations.
So what do you do. You take it to Slack Wall or the chat area like. Well no, because they especially for students, they need to know that if you say like hey, you know, I know you’ve been struggling like you just sort of catch them in the hallway. You know, if you need any help, just feel you you know, you can come and talk to me or the team and they may at that moment open up or they may come and see you after class.
But they’re less likely to go into the chat area on software to have that open conversation, because there’s always a sense that what I’m saying is being recorded or seen or like and you don’t type like you talk. So it’s you don’t see that. All right.
I think the one example that really comes to mind is I used to always try to pay attention where it’s like, oh, you have a big dance recital, you have a big competition or an art show. You could just be like, oh, how’d it go this weekend? They didn’t have to always say anything. You might just see this like this kind of downward glance or it’s like, oh, that probably didn’t go great. Or you might see the smile of, like, all mad.
It must have went really well. It’s like you miss that and it’s like you don’t want to put it on blast because it’s like. You miss that, right? It’s like, oh, how the Arko go if they just like, take that pause and they’re that momentary, like their shoulders go down and it’s like, oh, man, like like tell me about it. Or it’s like you might have that like they might, but I’m on a slacker on a chat.
Good. It’s like, oh well they’re telling me right then it’s like you’re losing that moment where it’s like how’d it go. And then you could read it and then it’s OK, I’m going to put a pin in that, like maybe there isn’t that opportunity to dove in deep, but maybe the following day it’s like I know it didn’t seem like your art show as well. Do you want to take a minute after class and just talk it out?
It’s like it’s impossible to do that with some of the technologies and that and that’s just unfortunate. It’s no one’s fault. But that’s one of the reasons that I think. In the K-12 experience, it’s why. I really don’t think remote is going to be feasible forever, and I think it was it was a good solution for the situation we were in that was unfortunate and again, a global pandemic. But in really in order to maximize learning, we need to be able to have those connections be built to really be able to unlock that.
And students. And I think that comes from the teacher student relationship. And that’s that’s the piece that to me. Where that’s what I focused a lot of my time on when I was in the classroom, I really wanted to get to know my students. I’ve been lucky enough to stay in touch with several of them, even after I’ve left education and they’re now out of college. It’s like makes me feel very old. But the idea is like that type of connection, it allows them to achieve great things.
And I really. That was what Otus was built to do. It was built to be able to create this collection of information so that you could get to that moment of connection sooner. It’s not going to be done by the system itself. Otus isn’t going to have this machine learning that’s going to unlock every kid for you. But the idea is it’s going to have information to give you a jumpstart on this kid, really into soccer or this kid is all about, damn.
So this kid’s all about Archos or hey, this one’s all about music. Oh, cool. Like that gives me a head instead of me fishing, trying to figure it out. It gives me a head, gives me a jumpstart. And that’s that really can be a huge way to get the connection going.
These are the signals that, like you said, there’s a lot of non-verbal stuff, there’s a lot of things that we experience acutely through the year that you don’t necessarily pass on because it’s like but just like a CRM, you say like, oh, I just found out this guy’s got his kids are going to Brown next year. And, you know, it’s like, see, you you put those things in there and then it becomes a talking point, a reminder later on.
And although it’s in the context of like warming the sales relationship, what it really is, is building a relationship and creating that comfort. One thing that’s interesting that I’ve you is I’m not sure how to even measure it right now that we’ve gone through Zoom and we’re doing digital platforms, there’s a real power of the democratization of it, right. That everybody’s kind of got the same access. We everybody is from the chest up. Right. Like, that’s kind of our view of the world.
But it also takes away things. Because if I were to stand next to you, Chris, I happen to know that you’re a rather tall gentleman. So but you and I looked like we’re about the same height. In fact, I’m a couple inches taller than you on camera. But that doesn’t come through when we’re digital. Right. And one of the fellows I work with, I worked with him for four months through this experience, and I helped him with onboarding things.
And then they showed I saw his picture on LinkedIn and it was the first time I’d ever seen him from the above or below the shoulders. And he mentioned that he was a veteran. And then I found out that he had lost his legs from the middle of his thigh down in in battle. And like that, I don’t know that it’s like plus or minus that that wasn’t discovered. But that’s a very unique and distinct thing that he and I actually had great conversation.
But after the fact. But like, I never would have found that out until I because I only see him from the shoulders up like that. Just it’s a very weird experience now, like especially students. Same thing is like we probably open up opportunity with students, which is positive, but then we take away some of that uniqueness that we can really, like, bring in like nurture and bring into every year as they go through the learning journey.
And I think, as you said, it’s just a it’s a very small glimpse into the world when you’re only doing a zoom as you might, I’m six, seven. I don’t think anybody on this would have any idea that our idea is like there are things that make people unique, that your story about the veteran is very touching and the idea of like that’s who it is. But students express themselves and so many unique ways. And I actually just ran into a former student who’s going to college and he was actually making money being a he was working for Dauda.
Or maybe he was just delivering pizzas for Malnati’s, we eat a lot of Malnati’s cheddar, that is my former coach Malnati, but he was we were talking it was funny because he came up and I came up to my he didn’t know it was me. Like, I thought it could be you because of the name. I’m like, he’s like, oh my. I’m like, how are you doing? In seventh grade he wear shorts every day.
Shorts. He wore the same athletic. It was either blue or black shorts every day, one or the other. And it was funny because he goes, how did that all the way through high school I was like, I’m like, well now you’re pants. It’s like now I’m an adult. And I was laughing because it was like such a small, unique moment. Right. But it was like that perception was like that’s what he wore. There are other people like, you know, I had students who would love to draw one of the things I did for my.
From my classroom was I actually painted my desks with whiteboard paint one year because I really believe that, like doodling and drawing and I had a couple students who. They just would draw the most amazing they just were amazing artists, and it was like I would never have noticed that if were on a zoom, right. Like I would I would never have caught what I’m doing, you know, drawing down here, doing. And it’s like those are the connections that really can unlock that next level.
And I feel like I’m a broken record here, but that’s really how you can. Pushed through the difficulty that can happen, the obstacles, the Blocher’s, you can push through that when you get to know somebody.
And really this is why, like I said, I, I when I saw you come up as a guest, I thought, this is it. You can I’m passionate about the potential for technology to affect human life in some small way every day. Right. That’s I do mentoring. I do lots of things. And I’m using, you know, tech where possible to augment that. And the fact that you’ve literally said I’m going to throw we’re going to throw this awful K-12 experience towards this and measure effectively to empower kids and empower education, then this is something that it’s a long tale to write as a founder.
Sometimes this is not a quick win. So for a lot of folks that are looking like every founder story doesn’t have to be the hockey stick of, you know, I grabbed crabbiness some seed and jumped into a serious AI and I went to 10 million. And we’re like, I wish we can affect human lives in incredible ways by doing this stuff. And this is where technology is such a such an enabler. And I really applaud what you’re doing.
No, I appreciate it. It’s definitely it was hard to leave the classroom, but I definitely do feel like I’m still having an impact on helping teachers do. They’re the most amazing job. I just have so much admiration and and. Just praise for them for what they do on a daily basis, and same with parasite families. I like to say families who are helping with kids are just they’re doing the most difficult task. I’m often at wit’s end with my four, but.
Well, that’s and it’s that’s the thing is we no one’s perfect all the time. Right. And that’s why we can use these things to, like you said, every every kid, every student, every teacher, principal, character, anybody who’s involved in the educational system, they are they can hit those moments. We’re like we’re going to be a little different for the next couple of days because something happened. And the fact that you can take that and sort of bring it through the experience and then because sometimes it’s longer form, right?
Death in the family, you discover something about about a child that’s very positive. That was kind of a hidden treat. And now you can bring that to that next level for them to help them on either side of how it goes. One thing that’s interesting and I know is, of course, you’ve got the the the privacy badges. Like, we didn’t go deep into this and we don’t have to necessarily, but like the data that you’ve got to gather.
I’m curious, Chris, was there any resistance challenges around the fact that you have to be able to collect a certain amount of of potentially personal data as part of this process?
Yeah, so one of the things that was interesting about the whole what data are we going to collect? That’s where, you know, to our previous point in the conversation, that’s where the districts are really deciding. And it’s not our data and it’s really the district’s data and it’s being collected somewhere. So why wouldn’t we collect it in a single place and by collecting stuff that’s already been collected? We haven’t had that. That obstacle has not been as high.
It’s like, why are you collecting this? Well, you already were collecting it. Now we’re going to put it into a place that’s more visible and more transparent. So that’s been helpful. But it does get in conversations. There’s some data that people don’t want to put into because we do believe in. And when I say visibility, it’s visibility to people who have permission to see it. So it’s not just like everyone in the world can see it, but there is this idea of like.
It starts the conversation that’s really important, one of the mistakes I made was I thought everybody would want to be very transparent. I think that one of the things that really can unlock real growth is getting everybody on the same page with the same information. But I think there is. A process to get there. They want to start and say, let’s start with this, let’s problem solve that amount of data. Now let’s get to the next level.
And so we have districts who’ve been with us for several years. They’ve unlocked so much through the time. But it’s also something that’s a progression. You don’t want to just overflow people with like reams and reams of data. So that’s been a conversation. What’s going to be helpful? What’s going to help you problem solve? And we can grow with you. We can grow with you and help you achieve what you want to do.
It’s it is the the good thing is at this point in sort of society’s understanding, I think we’ve like you said, this is data that’s being collected elsewhere anyways. We’re just bringing it and and looking for signals within it to get positive benefit. So I think especially at this range, you know, K to 12 is such an ideal spot where so much growth and learning can happen, the more we can do to speed and empower that. I think very rare cases where people wouldn’t want to know that their data is being held somewhere.
Like you said, it’s it’s not that it’s not being held anywhere. It’s always been somewhere.
And we put we we take it we have we’re part of the data privacy pledges and we would take that very seriously. We want to treat data with the utmost respect and we try to do we try to be on the cutting edge of everything to make it as secure as possible.
Well, you’re on the cutting edge of something fantastic, Chris, it’s been a real pleasure to share time with you and for folks, of course, we’ll have links in the show notes if they want to find out more. So Otus’s ot us dot com. And if anybody wants to reach out to you directly, Chris, and have a chat, what’s the best way that they could do that?
LinkedIn is probably the best way I’m on LinkedIn. Also, my email is pretty easy to figure out. It’s Chris Chris at Otus dot com and I definitely welcome the opportunity to continue learning and appreciate the conversation today. Eric, it’s been absolutely wonderful. You have a terrific podcast. I’ve been lucky enough to subscribe in preparation for this, and you do it well.
Thank you very much. I appreciate that. There you go, folks. This is it. You just learn some incredible lessons, Chris. It’s been a real pleasure.
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Leon Kuperman is the CTO and Co-founder of Cast.ai. He’s a Technology Executive with 20+ years of experience in product management, software design and development all the way through to production deployment.
Our conversation spans everything from the challenges of Kubernetes, multiocloud, K8s operations, Kubernetes on the cloud, building enterprise software, distributed teams, and a ton more. Lots of great lessons in here.