5 questions with Jason Becker: Leading product development through an equity lens at Allovue - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Sep. 9, 2019 10:09 am

5 questions with Jason Becker: Leading product development through an equity lens at Allovue

Bringing a background in urban education policy and data analytics to Baltimore edfintech company Allovue, Chief Product Officer Jason Becker shares the strategies and development structures that make diversity, equity and inclusion a part of everyday life at the software company.
Jason Becker is chief product officer at Allovue.

Jason Becker is chief product officer at Allovue.

(Photo by Margaret Roth)

You never know when helping out a friend is going to be the action that changes your career.

In 2014, Jason Becker was working at the intersection of school reform and data analytics building education finance accountability systems for the Rhode Island Department of Education. With what he calls his “superpower” of being a middle man, Becker became the translator between district level leaders working in education policy and software developers that needed to build systems and tools that actually worked to analyze school performance.

At the same time, Jess Gartner was starting up on that very same problem and looking to do it at scale. And it would take an ice storm, rerouted flights, and a coincidental run-in with a former classmate, to get them in the same room in Austin, Texas, at SXSWedu.

Drawn to the conference session to support his friend who was speaking as part of a panel, Becker knew that somebody had to break the ice and ask the first question for the Q&A and raised his hand. Gartner, ready to connect with a Maryland district leader who was one of the other panelists, sat directly behind him. She thought it was a really clever question.

“I still don’t know exactly what the question was, I think it was something around data use. She came up to me after the session and was like, ‘That was a really good question. You should have my card and I should have your card,’ and three days later I was hired,” said Becker.

Five years later, Becker leads a team of 12 as the Chief Product Officer of Remington-based Allovue in building solutions that empower leaders and school districts to make the best decisions they can to make sure the right resources get to the right students in order for them to succeed.

We sat down with Becker to learn how he brings this mission of equity to bear in product development, hiring, and culture building, as Allovue works to deepen its role in the operational processes and implementation strategies of the districts it works with. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is it about working at Allovue that motivates you? How do you make a culture that motivates your team?

I think we are really good about reviewing how we do our work and I think that’s been a big part of what has led us to be successful and able to adopt new practices that help us to succeed going forward. Three or four times a year we do a blameless retrospective, which is a way of looking back at the work and the idea is it’s not about whose fault is it or that it’s anyone’s fault — it’s what about our system or process led to the results that we got and do we want to make changes to our system or process so that we get different results next time we go through this.

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We’ve been doing this for four or five years, and what we do is get together as a product team, we go through our last cycle. There are a bunch of different ways you can do this. There’s different agendas. We do a different one each time to some degree, but we review our process. Sometimes it has led to small tweaks, and other times it’s led to wholesale changes. For example, we’re not an agile shop. We don’t do sprints. We don’t do points. We don’t measure velocity. We’ve done things closer to scrum and agile in the past and they didn’t work well for us. We looked back and said, we’re not getting the things out of this system that are purported as benefits of this system, so we’re not going to do that anymore. What are we going to do going forward?

While we do these blameless retrospectives consistently from a time perspective, we also have events that trigger them. If we define a project’s success and the project does not go well, we might trigger one. If we get to a point where three or four things have ended up on our team’s list, that will trigger us to do one and address those challenges. It’s good to do it with some sort of regularity because you need some time to see if something works and sit with it, let it cook and figure out what are the edges. But then you can also say ‘Hey here is something that we know should work and it didn’t for some reason.’

The key is that the reasons are never people. It’s building a structure and process and system that makes it so that success is the most likely outcome for individuals and the project as a whole, and to understand that when we fail we failed as a team and our processes have some failure point and we need to try and figure out how we can avoid that process failure point again.

What is unique about your tech stack and how did you make these decisions?

We use Rails as our backend on top of Postgres as our database. All of the data integrations —the stuff that pulls the data out of a district’s systems and into ours — is largely written in R and pure SQL. The reason was really because I was the one who had to do it. R is like a programming language that is mostly used by data analysts, and so I did a lot of work in it to build structures that set up a really clean contract between what developers are responsible for and what integration people are responsible for here at Allovue.

I think this has been really important to our success because it allows us to talk to any system and essentially custom build the attachment we use to pull data out of the districts and do it in a way that really is a data analyst level skill rather than a developer-level skill. That way we can pass that work to developers so that our application software in the Rails world stuff is maintained by the developers here but they’re always getting a consistent, same look data set. Our developers don’t worry at all about the differences. We worry about differences in core data, but they don’t worry about the differences in all the systems out there. They are only really responsible for the connective tissue between the two which allows us to be very quick and very adaptable, because it’s almost as many different customers we have is as many different integrations we end up needing to build. So that sort of separation and contract between what a data analyst needs to do to get the data out and shaped right and what the developers need to worry about has been really important to us being able to scale out and sort of not worry about what would otherwise be a really complex problem.

Our frontend is Ember, which is somewhat unique. When we made this decision, the whole team was really comfortable building web apps in Rails and when we moved to Ember single page apps were just becoming a thing at that time. Ember had a really good testing story, Most of the other stuff that was out at that time did not, and we had a team that really valued writing tests. We have probably over 2000 automated tests in our test suite right now which is both a testament to the complexity we have in the application and that nothing goes through without automated testing. They felt that the community valued upfront from the beginning having a good testing story.

How does purpose of your product and the values of your company impact how you build and how you hire?

I think first we are a company that strives on delivering product to our customers, not cool tech. Allovue was not founded because somebody did a PhD on an algorithm, and now our job is to find a use in the world for that algorithm that people will pay for. We are talking about solving a problem for real people in their everyday jobs in school districts. Which is a part of why our structure has me sitting in a role of CPO where I’m really doing product management, and the development and design is really all flowing in one direction because our goal is to solve this problem for folks, use tech to lower the barrier to how difficult it is, and make that a much smoother, better, more capable process for people.

And I think that’s an important distinction, I think there are a lot of companies where the goal of their tech team is to figure out something no one has ever figured out how to do before from a technical standpoint, whereas for us each little component that we do is something that any developer out there can do. What we want are the folks who are going to understand that the sum of those parts is a transformation for somebody and who is driven by delivering solutions to folks and making their jobs and lives easier.

As a result, our work is organized around functionality that we’re trying to accomplish and problems that we’re trying to solve and making sure that each unit of work that we complete is solving a problem for somebody. We spend a lot of time gathering feedback. We want to know what’s hard, what we made easy and we should double down on or what capability are we missing. It’s sort of a trope, but everyone thinks that they want a faster horse when you need a Model T, so a lot of our work is trying to holistically understand this process that schools go through of tracking, evaluation, planning, implementing, tracking, evaluating, planning, implementing and finding each of those friction points and thinking really strategically about how can we best, from where we are today, remove friction points on one of those points in that line with each piece that we do.

Day to day, we’re using our values of simplicity, collaboration, initiative, urgency, and judgement as a part of our hiring process, so that we look for people who hold similar values. So during things like in our culture screens for our initial interviews with anyone who is coming to the team, we use a rubric that is basically on those 5 values. We’re asking basic questions that are meant to drive or figure out where you have had examples of making something simple that could have been complex. When was an area where you had to exercise good judgement? How do you deal with urgency? What do those situations look like? What makes you successful under those conditions, or not?

In terms of sort of broader goals, we use the three Es — engagement, expansion, efficiency. All the time when we’re doing our product work we are doing one of those three things. We’re either looking to improve engagement by making the people who use the product today happier, want to use it more, or feel more successful when they use it. Or we’re doing expansion work, where we’re going to be able to solve a problem we couldn’t solve before for customers we couldn’t get before. Or we’re working on efficiency, how can we deliver this faster easier more simply and set ourselves up for success. The values are wide, but even when I communicate to the company on what we’re going to build over the next year, I do it both by product line and to those three Es: What are we doing to make Manage apply to more people? What are we doing to make people happier and able to use Manage more effectively who already have it? What are doing to make it easier to do implementation or lower our costs? We’re always talking about our work along those dimensions.

What are some of the strategies that you use to make Allovue a diverse and inclusive place to work?

We really as a company pride ourselves on doing diversity, equity and inclusion work. It drives what our product is. Why are we doing education finance work? Because fundamentally, we believe that a huge problem in this country is that kids are not getting the right resources that they need to be successful, and those kids are not the kids who look like me. They’re not white people who grew up middle class, relatively wealthy. There are cases of that for sure, but there are broader systemic failures that are not reaching people.

The idea of equity is embedded in our product. What we want to do is take away the excuses that its difficult to make good plans, its difficult to spend smart — we hear all the time that form a political standpoint that people don’t want to give more money to school systems because they are not going to know where it went and they don’t think its going to be used well — I want to take that excuse off the table. We need to do that by helping school districts operate incredibly smoothly, articulate why they are doing the things that they are doing, and be intentional with every dollar. Which I think most districts are, but the process to get there is so gummy and complex that it becomes difficult to communicate externally and difficult to communicate internally.

Having worked in schools and state departments, it’s not uncommon for some folks not to be on the same page because that communication chain is gummed up, and each department or each school may have this great nugget of clarity on what it is that they’re doing but it doesn’t end up fitting into the whole ecosystem and the whole process because it’s just difficult. We need to take away the rationality that it’s too much to ask a principal what resources do we need to make available to make the kids in your building successful. That it’s too difficult to say that we’ve aligned our resources and made really intentional changes with our money. We want to make that as easy as possible.

This idea that there’s a lot of inequity because of the ineffectiveness of the practice that exists because the tools and supports have not made it a feasible task to make this a reality is built into our work. That’s where we come in and then we apply that internally.

We care a lot about hiring for a diverse team, we want our team to be people who are moved by our mission of equity, and we need to create an inclusive space for them. As a result, we do things like, eat a chunk of our space out of our lease to make sure that we have spaces that are gender neutral of equal quality and caliber of the spaces that are currently single gender. It means that we have quite a number of staff members who are having children or community members who are coming into our space at night and they need a safe space to do pumping, so we are building out a lactation space. The equity is so embedded in the mission of what we do, it is what we’re trying to hire for. We want people who want to do that, and as a result, in order to do this successfully, we need to have a diverse team and an inclusive work space.

What are the things that you do for yourself every month to keep you charged up?

There are two main things that I’ve gotta do to stay happy: I’ve got to keep reading fiction and I’ve got to go to the gym. This year I already finished my GoodReads challenge. I’m only allowed to read fiction for my challenge because I can read nonfiction all day at work and that’s not actually helping me reach my goal. I’ve only met it three of the last five years and I have met it now in August. So I read 30 books this year. I’m very close to my record number of pages and books for a year. I will exceed that probably before the end of the month, so that was a huge win.

Of the books I’ve read this year, everyone should read The Calculating Stars. Imagine if the space race was urgent because the earth was not going to last that long and we had to go to the moon in the 50s instead of in the 60s and we did it with a much different cast of characters. One of my favorite things about it is that the main character is Jewish. I’m Jewish, and it’s one of the only books that I’ve ever read where Jewishness was essential to the character but was not a plot device. It impacted every aspect of what was happening and the experience of tragedy and loss and triumph and all these different steps along the way without it being about Judaism. It was really impactful to read that.

And then on the gym: I don’t even sleep at night when I stop going to the gym.

Connect with Becker on Linkedin.

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