Ask an Engineer Series: Shane Skikne’s Engineering Journey
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) leverages technology, community-driven solutions and collaboration to help solve some of today’s toughest issues — from eradicating disease and improving education, to addressing the needs of our local communities. Our mission is to build a more inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone, and we decided to get an inside look into what products CZI’s employees are building to help achieve this goal.
Shane Skikne is a Senior Software Engineer at CZI partnering with educators and researchers to build products within our Education Initiative. We sat down (virtually!) with him to get a closer look at the work he and his team is doing, as well as learn about his personal highlights of his time at CZI so far.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do at CZI?
I’m a senior software engineer and tech lead on the differentiation team for our Education Initiative. The differentiation team owns a lot of our core experiences used by teachers and students on a daily basis. Our overall focus is on helping teachers give every student a different experience, based on their strengths, their growth areas, and their unique needs. Students can all be in the room together working on the same overall project, but having an experience that is tailored just for them.
Within this role, I am primarily collaborating with my team to build more features in the platform that supports differentiation. Another part of my role is helping other teams integrate their tools and their projects into the differentiation products that we’re building.
What is your why? What drove you to come work at CZI?
I came to work at CZI because it was the first place I’ve found where you really get to integrate being an engineer with the organization’s theory of change. You get to understand how our vision comes to life in the tools that we’re building with teachers, students and researchers. Elsewhere, it seemed like engineers built the thing — they’re given this exact spec to build and they build it. Here, engineers are thought partners and get to deeply engage with how we bring these beliefs to life.
Starting in college, I found myself interested in education. I went to an experimental college called Olin College. It is designed to rethink how you teach engineers in the 21st century. At Olin, there’s a lot of opportunities to reflect on what motivates you, how you learn, and how to take ownership over your education. While I naturally learned a lot about engineering there, I also became passionate about education and taking some of the work being done at Olin and thinking about how you can apply it elsewhere in the world, especially K-12 education.
After graduating, a friend from Olin and I started a small nonprofit, called Launch Studio. Our goal with Launch Studio was to explore how to help students connect what they’re doing daily in their classes with the real world, by helping them start small businesses. They’d use what they’re learning in school, along with other curricula from us around design, prototyping, branding, and pitching to get their businesses off the ground. I loved working directly with students, but I also missed getting to work on things that are designed to scale.
In the classroom, we would develop an amazing curriculum and, then the next year, have to figure out how you scale that to two or three classrooms. And so, what eventually drew me away from that and towards CZI was the opportunity to still think at that classroom level but have a bigger impact by designing tools that are going to work for classrooms across the country.
What drives you to continue the work you are doing at CZI?
I appreciate that CZI is thinking carefully about what role technology can play in education and not coming at it with the belief that technology should play every role in education. Technology cannot fix the challenges in education by itself — and it is no substitute for great teachers — so I appreciate CZI’s interest in figuring out how to responsibly use different types of levers, with technology being only one, to set up students and teachers for success.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I am working on redesigning our assignment flow to better match the way teachers are trying to use it. We’ve been hearing a lot of feedback from teachers about how they would like to personalize the assignment that they’re doing. We’re taking that feedback and allowing teachers to give students different ways to demonstrate their learning. This is also an opportunity to make our assignment flow more accessible and clear.
Can you tell me a little bit about your work on Notebooks?
Within the Summit Learning Platform, we’ve built our own version of a document editor specifically for education called Notebooks. We are reimagining what a document editor would be if it were built specifically for teachers and students in the classroom. Part of my role is to work with the team to figure out what features we want to add to empower teachers and students. Towards that goal, I’ve been working on a project called Resources in Comments. As teachers are leaving comments on their students’ work, they’re now able to attach different curriculum resources from the platform. So if a teacher is telling their student to focus on X, the teacher can attach an activity that they want their student to do to that comment so it’s easy for students to connect the feedback they’re getting with an action they can take.
From A/B tests to just monitoring usage, we’ve been able to start learning and iterating as we launch. For this project, beyond just understanding what teachers are attaching, we want to understand how this more concrete feedback affects how students internalize and engage with feedback they’re receiving to better support teaching and learning.
How have you partnered with educators to build this?
Throughout my time at CZI, I’ve always appreciated how much we involve teachers from beginning to end. Even when we’re not working on projects, we have an amazing support team that is engaging with teachers all the time and working to understand and represent their challenges on the platform and their ideas to improve it.
The Resources in Comments project is a great example of the way we partner with educators throughout our process. When we start a project, we want to understand how we could better support teachers in creating differentiated learning experiences for their students. First, we do user research where we interview teachers and gain an understanding of what their behavior looks like in the classroom and how they’d want to be approaching differentiation. We combine those learnings with the research and insight from researchers and our collaborators at Gradient Learning, an organization largely made up of educators that we partner closely with and who run the Summit Learning Program.
We can then develop concepts of what we could add to the platform and share those concepts with teachers to get feedback. For the Resources in Comments project, we got some great feedback from teachers that validated our beliefs about how it could impact differentiation. After releasing the feature, we do more quantitative and qualitative analysis to understand what effect this feature is having. We’ll talk to teachers who have been using the feature for months and teachers who are seeing it for the first time.
Can you tell me about one of your favorite things you’ve been a part of at CZI?
A unique CZI opportunity that I had was getting to work on the Community Fund grant partner review panel. The Community Fund is an annual grantmaking and capacity building program for organizations that are helping to create a more socially, economically, and racially just San Mateo County — where people have the opportunity to shape their lives and communities. As a member of the review panel, I reviewed Community Fund applications and helped support grant partner selection. This started with multiple rounds of training around responsible grantmaking.
Coming from my work at Launch Studio where I had been applying for grants, I was excited to see what it’s like on the other side. I describe this as the hardest experience I’ve had at CZI and I wholeheartedly recommend it. The 2022 Community Fund launched earlier this July, and I was excited to see the Community team introduce a new model of the review panel to ensure grantmaking decisions are informed by community participation and feedback. The new 24-person Community Fund review panel is composed of San Mateo County community members and CZI employees.
How about outside of work? What is something people wouldn’t know about you?
I love exploring and learning the history of the few blocks right around the places I live. To start off, I’ll walk around looking for interesting buildings and hidden art; it feels like a real world scavenger hunt. I then talk to long-time community members and read online to learn about how the neighborhood has grown and changed with the city. As someone who has moved around a lot in my life, I always appreciate getting to better understand the area I am staying in and how it came to be.
What is something interesting you’ve learned since being at CZI and on the Education Initiative?
I think coming to CZI I imagined that once you don’t need to worry about revenue, it would be so much easier to do your work. But, it actually unlocks a new challenge: What can you measure instead that actually represents meaningful impact for teachers and students in different contexts across the country? It’s not simple to define metrics that are meaningful, measurable, actionable, and not gameable. For example, there are clear metrics on an annual basis that are meaningful, but you can’t iterate quickly on annual metrics. Further, it gets much more difficult to draw direct connections between features and their intended impact when working on an annual timeframe. Overall, I wouldn’t trade this challenge for the alternative, but I definitely did not expect this coming into CZI.
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