3 Reasons I'm Afraid to Work at Your EdTech Company

Josh Kim offers a (perhaps skewed) perspective from within higher ed.

March 1, 2017

Improvement in postsecondary productivity will require partnerships between non-profit institutions and for-profit edtech companies.

I believe that edtech companies play a critical role in our postsecondary ecosystem.

In my experience, some of the most dedicated, passionate, and experienced higher educational professionals work at edtech companies.

Despite my strong belief that edtech companies can play an indispensable role in driving postsecondary progress -- and my belief that the people who work for edtech companies are valued peers and colleagues -- I would be personally afraid to make the leap to working at an edtech company.

The reason that I’m putting my own fears about working at an edtech company out into this public space is that I’m hoping that you will set me straight. Maybe I’m wrong. 

It also could be that I’m not alone in my fears, and therefore your edtech company is losing out on great potential employees. So having this discussion might just help some other folks.  

Finally, maybe my fears are not totally crazy -- but there may be room for some companies to differentiate themselves with different sorts of internal cultures -- and other companies to make some changes that would attract higher ed people.

Fear #1 - Intellectual Freedom, Thought Leadership, and the Risk of Pissing Some People Off:

A core value of higher education is that of intellectual freedom. Our colleges and universities are places where scholars with unpopular ideas can think, discover, speak, and write.  

Yes, the freedom to speak and write without fear of retribution is not absolute in higher ed. The ability to share ideas that are outside of mainstream thinking -- and which may be radically unpopular with the current dominant modes of thought -- does not extend to all scholarship. Norms of peer review, collegiality, and institutional values do set boundaries on appropriate communications. And I don’t have tenure.

Still, as a higher ed person -- particularly as someone who works at a liberal arts institution -- I do not worry about sharing unpopular views and ideas.  

Seldom do I see people who work at edtech companies voicing opinions and ideas in which many people are likely to disagree. In my experience, edtech company leadership actively avoids publicly stating controversial views.  

I think that this reticence of edtech employees to engage in the big debates about higher education is actually a mistake. In higher ed, we respect people who have strong and informed opinions -- as long as they prove that they are open minded and willing to listen.  

If nobody disagrees with what you have to say, it is probably not worth saying it.

Fear #2 - The Value of Transparency and Information Sharing:

One thing that I love about working in higher education is our cross-institutional collegiality and transparency.

We compete fiercely with peer institutions for students, faculty, (sometimes staff), resources, and status -- but we compete by collaborating and cooperating.  

This is a weird form of competition. We share almost everything we do, and evaluate our colleagues at peer institutions against the quality of their sharing.  

The reason that we operate this way is that our peer colleges and universities all share a similar mission. We exist to advance knowledge, educate students, and serve our communities.  

We believe that we will succeed as institutions to the extent that we can grow the higher education pie. We don’t believe that knowledge creation and learning is a zero-sum game.  

In fact, we think that the more our peer institutions succeed in getting betting at educating students and creating new knowledge the more we will succeed as well.

For these reasons, I imagine that it is difficult to make the transition from a culture where transparency and knowledge sharing are the coins of the realm -- to one where information is a strategic asset that needs to be closely guarded.  

In higher ed we share almost everything. Sharing is the default.

In the for-profit corporate world, knowledge is a competitive advantage.   

Again, my feeling is that the edtech world is too worried about information sharing. The reality is that ideas are easy, it is execution that is hard.  

I’ve seen edtech companies be way too concerned about keeping their product roadmaps secret, for fear of either providing a competitor some important information, or a worry that existing or potential customers will be upset if there are deviations from that roadmap.  

My advice is to worry less, and see what happens if more information is shared. A willingness to move towards transparency can be an important differentiator in the higher ed space.  We appreciate companies that are willing to be open with their plans, their ideas, and their constraints.

We think that openness and transparency results in better edtech products and services, as those products and services can be developed as part of an ongoing dialog.  

Fear #3 -  Long-Term Time Horizons:

The final fear that I have about working for a for-profit edtech company is one of time horizons.

In higher ed, we have very long time horizons. We think in decades, not quarters.

The work we do today on our campuses is intended to create the conditions for the longterm resilience and success of our institutions.

Many of us work in places that have been around for many many years, and we expect that we will be around for many many years to come. Therefore, decisions are almost never made with shortterm gains -- or even medium-term gains -- in mind.  

We look at how a certain decision, investment, or policy will impact our college in 2020, or 2030, or 2050. We seek to do the right thing not only for our current students, but for our future alumni.  

The challenge with working on longterm horizons is that the pace of change can feel too slow, too deliberate.  Institutions built for decades (or centuries) are seldom agile. We believe in the value of traditions, as we are aware of the danger of following the current popular fads.  

How many companies operate with long-term time horizons?  How many companies put core values at the center of their operations, and follow those core values even when doing so means enduring short-term pain?

OK, what am I getting wrong?


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