Understanding Entrepreneurship -- Part II -- New Beginnings

Whenever I teach this JTerm course on entrepreneurship, friends and colleagues often ask me “do you miss it?” Meaning do I miss the business world. The answer has always been, “yes, but I love teaching even more.” This year the answer is different, this year the answer is… “yes, and I’m excited to tell you that I’m leaving Luther to start a new company!” Spring Semester of 2018 will be my last semester as a full time faculty member at Luther. I have accepted the separation agreement offered by Luther, and I’m really looking forward to the next chapter in my life and career!

This was not an easy decision – I have enjoyed my time at Luther, and Jane and I could not have asked for a better place to raise our family. JTerm is always a powerful reminder of how great our students are, and how much I enjoy getting to know them beyond the classroom. But, Kaia and Josh have both graduated from college, Kaia is married, in grad school, with a house, and three dogs in Sioux Falls, Josh has a great girlfriend, and a job he likes in Wisconsin. In short, they are launched (yay us!).

We are ready for the next phase of our lives. So, the house in Decorah is for sale and we have a down payment on a condo in downtown Minneapolis! We close and move in September of 2018! The bike trails are out the back door, we have a view of the Stone Arch bridge, the Guthrie is three blocks away, the light rail to the new MNUFC (Loons) stadium is a four block walk! It is a 15 minute bike ride to our friends Brian and Holly for happy hour! What could be better? – Well, if we could convince a few Decorah friends to move to Minneapolis that would be perfect, but we try not to be greedy.

Runestone Interactive, LLC

So, this January I’ve been listening very closely and thinking about how all of these great stories and advice apply to a guy in his mid-50’s. I’m leaving a tenured faculty position, at a college I love dearly to start a new company. Here is what I take away.

We heard the following from a lot of different people: “follow your passion!” Well, I admit I’ve told my students this many many times (although I could write a full post on the perils of telling 19 year olds that they need a passion.) But I have to say that for as much as I enjoy teaching at Luther College, Runestone Interactive has definitely become a passion. Runestone has grown from a small project for 30 Luther students few years ago, to supporting over 20,000 students each day from over 600 institutions around the world. This growth has all happened through word of mouth. No advertising, No booths at trade shows, no sales force, no full time development team! I really think that Runestone could be 2,000,000 students a day with focus and full time effort. – Yes, former students, that is what I think about in the shower in the morning!

The separation incentive offered by Luther gives me the opportunity to start a new company, incorporating what I learned from all the mistakes I made the first time around with Net Perceptions, and all of the experience I’ve gained in the last 15 years of teaching. It gives me one year to figure out if there is a business model that will keep the basic features and the books of Runestone free to everyone, while allowing me to build a small business that pays a salary, and hopefully allows me to bring others on board to work on this with me. It allows me to (1) follow a passion, (2) make the world a better place and (3) to play my part in “righting the wrong” that is textbook publishing today. Yes, $300 for a paperback textbook is a wrong! Wow, count them, that is three awesome reasons to start a company!

Democratizing Textbooks for the 21st Century

In our discussions of Guy Kawasaki’s books during JTerm we talked about companies needing a mantra. I think that the Mantra for Runestone is “Democratizing textbooks for the 21st century”. This could be another whole post, but I’ll just say that there is a huge need for computer scientists and there are a lot of well meaning, (but potentially under-prepared) teachers out there who we can help teach computer science. This is true at the high-school level where computer science is getting traction again, as well as many small colleges where it is almost impossible to find a computer science PhD who is willing to work for what small colleges can pay.

The second piece of Runestone is in the interactive nature of the books. Textbooks should not be static, read-only, words. Textbooks in the 21st century should engage the reader in interactive learning. Textbooks should also give instructors insight into what their students understand and what their students are struggling with… Textbooks should help answer the question “How can I maximize my time in the classroom today?”

Get Uncomfortable

We heard a lot about seeking opportunities that make you uncomfortable. It is through these uncomfortable experiences that you grow. For the last 15 years this has happened through teaching (especially new courses), and traveling to new places (many times with students) and experiencing new cultures. Leaving my faculty position – where I have almost total job security – is definitely a move in an uncomfortable direction. Especially for someone over the age of 50. But, I am convinced this is the right thing to do.

Creating a culture, charting your own course

We heard from a lot of people that had worked in both large and small companies about how great it was to be part of a small organization. in a startup, everything you do is important. From making the coffee in the morning, to setting strategic direction. I get that. I remember those early days from Net Perceptions. I miss those days. I miss that sense of ownership for the whole enterprise. The “shared governance” model used by most small colleges is about as far from agile as you can get.

This course reminded me, yet again, why I admire Jeff Bezos and the culture he has built at Amazon. I was blown away that all of the young people we spoke with at Amazon understood and could talk about many, if not all of, the 14 leadership principles. If you don’t know them here they are:

  • Amazon’s Leadership Principles

    • Customer Obsession

    • Ownership

    • Invent and Simplify

    • Are Right, a Lot

    • Learn and be Curious

    • Hire and Develop the Best

    • Insist on the Highest Standards

    • Think Big

    • Bias for Action

    • Frugality

    • Earn Trust

    • Dive Deep

    • Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

    • Deliver Results

You can get more detail on each of them here. But I can only fantasize what a great company Runestone would be if I put these into action. I also think that higher-ed could benefit from all of these principles, but the conditions are so hard to make this happen!

So as I finish up this post, I have a week until Spring Semester classes begin. Am I sad that this is my last semester? Of course! Luther College is such an integral part of my life – I’m an alumni, a parent of an alumni, a faculty member, and a donor. I’ll only be losing one of those four tags. I look forward to finding new ways that I can serve the college in the future. I’ll also miss the students and all of the energy they bring. I’ll miss watching them grow and develop into the successful entrepreneurs, developers, and managers that so many of them have become. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy my final semester to the max. I get to teach two of my favorite classes, and I’m eliminating non-essential committee work to go out on a high note!

Understanding Entrepreneurship -- Lessons Learned (part I)

The students are on the plane home, and I am now in Napa taking a few days of R&R and thinking about what I learned during the month of January. TLDR – Lots! But the two things I would like to focus on are the answers to the questions:

  1. What can we do better to prepare our students for the real world in the computer science department at Luther College?

  2. What stands out the most to me from all our meetings? This was also a question that some of our hosts asked of the students in the closing days of the course; and one I hope they will reflect on in their final papers. So, it seems only fair that I do the same.

I’ll do this in two parts. This is part I.

Redwood Hike

How can we (Luther CS dept) do better?

One of the best things about this trip was the number of alumni we got to meet with, several of whom are alumni of this course. I’ll take a brief diversion to brag a bit – We have alumni at Amazon, Microsoft, YouTube and Google. We have alumni at small companies like SafeGraph and Benetech. All of them were super gracious to meet and host this latest group.

Another standout lesson revolves around continually improving. We heard lots of great testimonials for “lifelong learning”. I think this is one of the consistent themes I’ve heard at Luther over my 15 years at the college. As a department, I think that is one of the things we have done well over the years too. Asking the question regularly about how we can improve.

We asked the Luther alumns a couple of questions each time we met with one. What advice do you have for the students as they move on from Luther? What do you wish you had learned at Luther that you did not?

The answer to the second question was nearly unanimous, and quite surprising to me. It is just two words: Unit Testing. How interesting, I don’t know that I had an answer that I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that. But as I reflect on other things we heard it makes sense.

Companies are definitely trending away from the development team composed of X number of developers and k*X number of QA people. Now, testing is part of everyone’s job and unit tests are a big part of that. I think there are a number of ways that we can incorporate this into our curriculum at Luther. The Runestone textbook already uses unit tests to automatically grade a lot of assignments. But I think adding them to project based courses like Internet Programming and even the Sr. Project will go a long way toward helping students learn to write and use unit tests. The biggest obstacle is helping them understand the why.

One of the wisest things I heard on the trip came from a young engineer at Amazon who said, “It’s important to remember that unit tests are not for you – you know your code works. Unit tests are for the people who come after you and have to make changes.”

I have been thinking a lot about unit testing lately as I think it has been a real hinderance to the Runestone project. People who contribute to open source want to know that they are not breaking your stuff, and the best way to help them over that hurdle is to have a big suite of unit tests. My new years resolution, which I’m doing pretty well on, is to write a unit test every day until June.

Its not just newcomers either, its also me in my role as maintainer. When someone comes with a cool new feature that also changes a bunch of existing code I get seriously anxious. After all, there are people (teachers and students) that rely on this to work, and I hate to disappoint.

If you are a former student and are reading this I would love to hear from you. Do you agree? What else? What do you think is the best way we can incorporate unit testing into the curriculum?

In Part II I’ll talk about my own takeaways from our three weeks.

Fending Off “Day 2” at Luther College

I’m a fan of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, whether its because he “got it” and was the first customer of Net Perceptions or because of his fascination with space or just because I admire him as a leader. It doesn’t matter, I pay attention to what he has to say on a lot of things.

The building at Amazon where Jeff has his office is called Day 1, even when he moves to a new office he brings the name of the building with him. This is because he is always reminding himself to act like it is Day 1.

This morning I read his latest letter to the shareholders of Amazon in which he was asked what does Day 2 look like. Here is his short answer: “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

In the letter he goes on to expand upon his ideas for how to fend off Day 2. I’ll give you his one sentence synopsis, and in the rest of this post I would like to share with you how I translate his ideas into the context of Luther College.

Here’s a starter pack of essentials for Day 1 defense: customer obsession, a skeptical view of proxies, the eager adoption of external trends, and high-velocity decision making.

Its not a surprise that customer obsession is number one on his list. The amazon mission statement is pretty simple: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” I am not a fan of viewing students as customers, but I think student success is a good substitute. So here is a lightly edited version of what Bezos had to say, plugging in student success where appropriate.

Obsess About Student Success

Staying in Day 1 requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see student success. A student success obsessed culture best creates the conditions where all of that can happen.

That statement pretty well sums up the lens through which I view the discussion we have had on campus lately regarding program eliminations and reductions and how we evolve as a liberal arts college in the 21st century. We have to be bold and willing to try new programs at Luther. But we must equally be willing to accept that something we have tried did not work as well as we had hoped, and when that happens we should move our resources somewhere else. If we are student success focused then we can view moving on as a victory for the students rather than a defeat for a particular program of study. If we are student success focused then this frees us from endless debate about whether a particular subject is “central to the liberal arts.”

Its easy to view starting a new program as “planting a seed,” and as we heard over the past few weeks, when we do try a new program we must commit to making that program a success. As teachers and mentors I think we are always planting seeds in our students. Some of those seeds sprout quickly others need to be protected an nourished patiently over the course of three or four years. At the end of an emotionally draining faculty meeting Dean Krause gave us a great reminder that that we can and must challenge our best students as well as our weakest students.

Of course we could probably have a long discussion about what it means for our students to be successful. Some might define it in terms of outcomes, or jobs at the end of four years. Others might define it in terms of creating a “well rounded” person. For me, this translates into my classes in a different way. I have a pretty minimal syllabus with a set of goals and topics for the semester. How fast or how slow I go, how many of the topics I cover depends on the students in the course that semester.

Resist Proxies

As organizations get larger and more complex there is a tendency to manage to proxies. Bezos mentions two proxies in his letter than resonate strongly. Process and Surveys. Here is what Bezos has to say about process:

A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us?

Bezos goes on to talk about a second dangerous proxy: market research and surveys. We cannot let surveys become proxies for our students, faculty, staff or alumni. Good teachers and administrators deeply understand their students and programs. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys.

I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering.

The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.

These big trends are not that hard to spot (they get talked and written about a lot), but they can be strangely hard for large organizations to embrace.

What big trends are we fighting against right now? Here are a few I might suggest we think about, I’m sure others can add to this list.

  • The trend to develop alternative revenue sources?

  • The trend toward online learning?

  • A more diverse student population?

High Velocity Decision Making

Day 2 companies make high- quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly. To keep the energy and dynamism of Day 1, you have to somehow make high-quality, high-velocity decisions. Easy for start-ups and very challenging for large organizations.

First, never use a one-size-fits-all decision-making process. Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. For those, so what if you’re wrong?

Second, most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.

Third, use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes. This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too.

Fourth, recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately. Sometimes teams have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They are not aligned. No amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision.

“You’ve worn me down” is an awful decision-making process. It’s slow and de-energizing. Go for quick escalation instead – it’s better.

I think we can learn from all of these examples. But I especially worry about the second and fourth with respect to our work in faculty governance.

Note: I originally wrote this post for Luther’s Ideas and Creations blog

If you are interested you can find the full text of Bezo’s letter here: This is the Jeff Bezos playbook for preventing Amazon’s demise - Recode