Focus on impact

Why I left Facebook to improve education

If there’s one thing I took from my time at Facebook, it was this: focus on impact. Mark Zuckerberg puts it this way:

If we want to have the biggest impact, the best way to do this is to make sure we always focus on solving the most important problems. It sounds simple, but we think most companies do this poorly and waste a lot of time. We expect everyone at Facebook to be good at finding the biggest problems to work on.

While I worked there, I definitely felt the pull to work on the most important problems. In 2009, for instance, it became apparent that we had an opportunity to connect more people through apps if we did so on mobile platforms in addition to the web. We shipped new distribution mechanisms in October 2011. Afterwards, we closely monitored how many of the top iPhone and Android apps had used the new features, and aggressively made changes to encourage the results we wanted. Since then, the new platform has become a very important source of traffic for mobile developers.

After that project, I started thinking about how to focus on impact in my own life. There are many problems afflicting the world, but one way to fix things generally is to improve education. A person’s life outcomes are determined — for better or worse — far more by their childhood birth and childhood education than by anything that happens as an adult, so if we can change someone’s trajectory early on, we can have a very significant impact on their life. And if more people have their potential unlocked through education, then as a society we will make better decisions and we can solve all of the other hard problems more effectively.

So if we can improve education, then we can have incredible impact on our society and the world. But what’s the best way to do that?

To have strong impact, you have to know what you’re measuring. I wanted to either join or possibly start a company that had a zealous focus on measured, mission-driven impact. So I went hunting, and I met with dozens of people and companies — both in the Bay Area and Chicago — looking for one that I could throw myself into. Surely, I thought, if mobile ad networks and games tracked and monitored every click and button press, then companies working something as important as students’ education would monitor their effectiveness even more precisely?

Surprisingly, it was rare to find companies that spoke directly to the student outcomes of their work. Some did, but a lot of companies rely on indirect measures that maybe correlate with student achievement — or just talk in anecdotes without hard data to support their efficacy.

Mostly, I think this is because it can be quite hard to measure — do you use standardized assessments, which face bias, inconsistency, and increasing protests from teachers and parents? Or do you rely on grades, teacher feedback, anecdotal evidence and the like, which can be perhaps more reliable within a single school but less consistent measures across different types of districts? Figuring out the right measure is one of the toughest parts of improving education — it seems that in mobile gaming and other industries it can be much easier, but it can be harder to measure something when the true life outcomes won’t be known until the student grows up.

But the question remains: how do you move the needle on something like student achievement if you’re not sure where it even is or what it’s measuring? I wanted to find a place where I could know — through data — that my daily work was actually making a difference to students.

One person I met with was David Vinca. He founded eSpark in 2010 to offer more personalized learning to elementary and middle school students using iPads. One thing that struck me about David is that even from the very early days of the company, he hasn’t been satisfied by anecdotes — he has always used analytical methods to get a deep understanding of what is working and what isn’t.

Rather than let test scores collect dust, eSpark uses them to drive instruction in the classroom by building a personalized learning plan for students. A nice side effect of this is that the test scores can be used to measure whether the product is working. From the earliest days, David has placed a strong emphasis on holding the program accountable using the collected data.

Needless to say, I was hooked, and quickly joined the company. Over the past year and a half, we have built up a strong team and continued to show incredible growth — both in traditional measures of test scores as well as softer metrics like teacher and student satisfaction and engagement. I am very happy about the decision to join the company, I’m proud of the progress we have made, and I’m really excited about the future potential to measure the transformative impact teachers can have on students’ lives using our product.

In future posts, I’ll give more details on our team and the results we’ve seen in students’ lives. Thanks also to my wife, Nicole, for inspiration and being a thought partner along this journey. Also, we are hiring. Please feel free to reach out with any feedback!