This is an interview that Ranjani Sundaresan, a junior at Seattle University and intern at EdSurge over the summer, conducted with Strasser. This post appeared on EdSurge, September 16, 2017.
What’s it like for an engineer to dive into education?
Sam Strasser is Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Summit Public Schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. But he also has had a long career working as an engineer at companies including Microsoft and Facebook. At Facebook, he helped develop Summit’s personalized learning platform, which is now used in more than 100 schools throughout the U.S. Strasser spoke with the EdSurge Jobs team about how school looks from an engineer’s point of view.
EdSurge Jobs: So, give us a 60-second description of your career trajectory up until this point in your life.
Strasser: I started my career as a software engineer at Microsoft for a couple of years. I worked for a few edtech companies as a engineer and engineering manager and then as a contracted engineer. The contracting phase really helped me find the next thing that would be a good fit for me. Summit Public Schools was one of the organizations I worked for as a contract engineer.
As you may know, Facebook partnered with Summit to provide the engineering support for Summit’s personalized learning platform. I eventually moved over to Facebook, working as an engineer and then as a product manager. My most recent move has been back to Summit as the CIO.
What was that ’something’ that made you jump into education and edtech?
When I was working in the tech world, I didn’t feel my work was connected to the things I wanted to contribute to the world. It wasn’t fulfilling for me. Education is something that has interested me for a long time. In college, I wrote my senior essay on the intersection of technology and education. I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do in education, but I knew it mattered to me so I decided to pursue that path.
So, why did you join the particular edtech startups and companies that you did? What was the draw towards those particular ones?
I believed in the educators who were leading them. They have all been led by an educator or very deeply co-led by one. One of my fears when moving into education was that we, engineers, would see only engineering problems and lose sight of our users. Because of that, I always try to make sure that the loudest decision-making voice has had some real education experience.
That’s very interesting. As an engineer, which of your skills have been the most important in your career?
I would say the most important skills haven’t been related to any algorithms or coding or architecture, but learning how to apply an engineering-style thinking and problem-solution thinking, particularly to complex problems like education.
What skills have you had to develop on the job?
Working for and with a school is very different than working for a tech company. I’ve had to adjust and learn new skills working in this environment. Some of the differences are surface-level, like benefits and paid time off, but others are pretty deep, like collaboration and feedback style.
Here’s one example of these differences: A big part of teaching is reinforcing positive behaviors. By contrast, part of my [engineering] job is soliciting critical product feedback to make improvements. When I first started at Summit, I noticed that teachers were very good at finding positive things to give feedback on. This quality is great in the teaching context, but can be challenging when trying to get at a product’s flaws. I’ve learned on the job how to create safe places for educators to give more critical feedback and how to better glean insights from feedback that might not be as overtly critical as I was used to.
Having been in education and edtech for so long, what is the toughest part of having a career in this particular sector?
I think there is a funny disconnect in the industry. A lot my engineering friends say, “I really would love to find a way to contribute and use my engineering skills to help out schools.” And a lot of my teacher friends say, “If only I had some technological solution for X problem so that I could focus on the part of my job that I want to be doing.” There seems to be some kind of mismatch between edtech companies and end users.
Learning how to work with a school, understand its needs, build a product and build a business around it is not a clear path by any means. There are some really positive examples out there of companies that have done it. However, the hardest part of this industry is learning how to understand the needs of a school or an educator and then turning those insights into an actual solution to their problems.
Well, you’ve already answered this question a bit, which was: What advice do you have for folks who are interested in engineering in the education field? Is there anything you would like to build on?
I think by far my biggest advice is this: If you don’t have classroom experience and are building a product, it’s tempting to think you know exactly what you’re doing because we all went to school, and we think that we know what school is.
But, we don’t know what school is. And we definitely don’t know what teaching is, especially as engineers. So my advice is to over-correct for this and build empathy for actual teachers in actual classrooms—not the theoretical idea you have about what teaching should or could be or was for you. Because that almost certainly is not going to land with educators today.