This story was crafted by Job Portraits and commissioned by the San Francisco-based company Academia.edu. The interviews below were conducted at the Academia.edu office, starting with a chat over breakfast with Richard Price (Academia.edu’s CEO) and Nate Sullivan (a software engineer).
What does Academia.edu do?
Nate: Academia.edu is a network where academics can share their research papers. Most people sign up because it’s an alternative to having a homepage on a department website, and Academia.edu looks nicer and has built-in analytics so researchers can assess their impact.
How are you disrupting academic publishing?
Richard: The current process is, you do some experiments, you write a paper and you submit it to a journal. Then the journal sends it to a couple of people who peer-review it, which means they write a page of comments about the paper. That takes 12 months. Then the paper ends up behind the paywall, and you have to pay $35 to read it.
Our vision of the future is that, having finished writing your paper, you post it to the internet immediately and it’s accessible for free straight away. The peer review happens post-publication, not pre-publication, and it happens with a large community of academics, not just two or three. After review, the paper is completely free and accessible along with all the data within it.
How are you making the world a better place?
Nate: I think freedom of information is a powerful equalizing force in the world. If people in the first world, who have the privilege of being at wealthy institutions, are the only ones able to access research, that’s inegalitarian.
And yet, the way we encourage people to make their papers open-access is not by making emotional or ethical appeals, it’s by creating compelling products. That’s why we think a lot about how to align individual incentives with stuff that’s good for the research community as a whole. We like that academics join Academia.edu for career reasons, and then as a positive side effect they end up making their papers freely available to everybody.
Richard: It’s very difficult to get a job in science and research these days. If we can make that easier, that’s also a great thing. Users frequently report sharing their papers’ analytics with their tenure committees to make their case more compelling.
How do you learn about the needs of academics on the site?
Nate: We usually do user interviews, especially when we are developing a specific product. For example, I was recently working on the discussions product, so we wanted to get background on the ways discussion currently happens — whether that’s chatting in a hallway, going to a conference, or grabbing beers. To understand all of that, we did a bunch of users interviews at Berkeley and Stanford.
What are the stats you provide to users on the site?
Richard: One of the most popular is a view of traffic broken down by country and city. You can also see what search words people are using to find your paper. We recently released something called “percentiles” where we notify you if you are in the top 5% of the site by page views for the last month. We see people tweeting those very often. Then there are other metrics tied to the site’s mechanics, such as follower counts and having your paper bookmarked, which is kind of like re-tweeting.
Still today, you mostly put your work out there and don’t know if anyone’s read it. If you meet someone at a conference and they say they’ve read it, it’s very exciting, because there’s no feedback loop whatsoever. It’s appealing to have your paper on the site and see people reading it and following you and marking your paper. You can see they are interacting with your precious, precious work! It is good from a career aspect, but it’s also satisfying on a personal level.
How did Academia.edu come about? What was the spark that lead to it?
Richard: I was at Oxford doing a PhD in philosophy at the time. I had done a few papers and when I finished, I was looking to publish them online. It was immensely difficult. If you wanted to create a personal homepage, you’d have to learn some HTML and know about user experience design. Then you’d put your paper up there and no one would visit. So I went and raised $600,000 from venture capital firms in London, moved straight out to San Francisco, and we launched the company a year later, in September 2008.
At that time no one really talked about open access. There wasn’t a name for it. It wasn’t a movement yet. Now we’re part of this even more ambitious movement called “open science.” Open access takes down the paywalls. Open science is rethinking scientific examination from the very first step and basically getting rid of the journals. That movement is really taking off and we’ve helped drive it.
What else has changed since the company started?
Richard: When you’re just starting a company, you’re glad when you have 50 sign ups in a day, right? Now we have 70,000 people joining each day and 25 million unique visitors a month. We’re the biggest research sharing platform in the world by traffic by a long way. The next biggest has 16 million a month. And yet we’ve stayed quite small as a team, with 16 or 17 people.
“I think any startup should be inspired by Gandhi’s quote ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’” — Richard
After lunch we spoke with a few Academia.edu team members about their experience at the company, starting with Software Engineer David Judd.
Why did you decide to work at Academia.edu?
David: When I moved back to the Bay Area from New York, one of the things I was looking for was a place where I could feel like what I did at work mattered to somebody beyond my co-workers. The company I’d been working for in New York was an advertising company, which was a good place to work, but at the end of the day, if I’d built a feature very well it meant that one dentist would get a customer that would otherwise have gone to another dentist. With Academia.edu, I was attracted to the mission of trying to change the academic publishing industry.
So what’s different about working here compared to bigger companies?
David: I have to work more on everything. If the site is having problems, there’s probably no one who knows more about it than I do. I don’t specialize, which is good in forcing me out of my comfort zone and forcing me to learn new things. And there’s just something about spending a lot of time with a small number of people — you get to know them very well.
Next up: Kate Miltenberger, head of user operations and formerly the company’s office manager, until Carla Butigan took over the role.
Why did you decide to work at Academia.edu?
Kate: The thing that really drew me is this mentality of, if you have an idea of something you think will help the company, just run it by some people, figure out how to do it, design an experiment, and test your hypothesis. Like with this meetup we’re preparing for today. George [Bashi, a software engineer] was like, “I think this will help us with recruiting.” So he put down all his thoughts, organized everything, and we’re going to see what happens.
Do you think there’s a kind of person who wouldn’t do well here?
Kate: You do really well if you can handle uncertainty. You don’t necessarily have to love it but you have to handle it. If you see a huge challenge, instead of being, like, “Run!” you need to be able to think about it and come up with a solution and then just do it. I didn’t necessarily know that was in my personality until I started here.
I really hit the ground running. The day I started we had our 10 million user landmark, and Richard was like, “You have some event planning experience, can you plan a party in two weeks?”
Were there things that surprised you about working here?
My entire life, I’ve always enjoyed playing hooky. But I never get that here. Even when I do get the impulse to not go to work, I’m like, I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing with this day. A lot of that is because of the people. All of my best friends in San Francisco work here, and only one of those people was my friend before I started.
Next we sat down with CTO Ben Lund and VP of Product Conway Anderson to discuss what they’re looking for in new team members and how they organize and prioritize work. You can peruse Academia.edu’s open positions here.
How do you decide to hire someone?
Ben: We have always looked for people we can trust to make good decisions about what to work on and those who can tackle anything that might plausibly come up. We’re small, so one day you’re building a dashboard and the day after that you’re building a deployment tool. If we had people who just specialized in the front end, and our next highest priority was the back end, that would really slow us down. We have about ten engineers but we’re just starting to look for people who have a ton of experience with one specific type of problem.
“Academia.edu is still frictionless in terms of getting things done, and that is a hundred times more frictionless than any other place I’ve worked.” — Ben
How do you judge if someone is going to be able to tackle a lot of different problems and move between them well?
Ben: When you ask someone to describe a project that they’ve built, you want it to be like they’re describing a painting they’re looking at. They can see it very clearly. We’re also looking for people who can sort of flip their mind between the code, the process, the architecture, and the product — up and down these layers — at will.
One of the problems we give people we interview is to design our new peer review system. Then we see what they start talking about. Do they start with the concepts of users and papers and connections and events and following, or do they talk about data structures? Can they flip between those layers? I’ve found that people who can identify the right level of abstraction, those are the people who can solve any problem.
How do you think about prioritization here?
Ben: It’s very simple. Lots of ideas get generated and then two axes are drawn: impact and ease. How hard is this to do, and how much impact will it have on the mission of the company? Once you break it down into those two things, it’s obvious what you should be working on.
Conway: We generate so many ideas at this company, it’s crazy. Now we use Trello to record them but we used to have sticky notes on the wall. The problem is, whatever tool we use, we generate too many ideas for it to handle. The UI just breaks. Because the whole team is basically made up of product people.
Conway, you joined the team as VP of Product recently. What drew you in?
Conway: I had been consulting for early-stage companies, but I hadn’t come across anything that was super compelling. I started working here in a contract capacity and then just slowly got more and more interested. It’s amazing the amount of people we’re affecting and how small the team is. We have more than 13 million users with 70,000 sign-ups a day — that level of impact is pretty rare.
What are your biggest goals in design?
Conway: We’re still trying to figure out what the design culture at Academia.edu looks like. But a big benefit of that is that most of the engineering team has adopted a design philosophy. They’re thinking about the end experience, like, is the load time fast? Is the front end built properly? All of those things relate to design.
Thankfully, we’re optimized for this with a multidisciplinary team, where everyone’s a little bit technical, everyone’s a little bit of a designer. Everyone here is working at a founder’s pace. Everyone thinks, “This new thing needs to happen, therefore I’m going to go do this and then I’ll just ask someone for feedback briefly before we ship it.” That’s very different from, “Let’s brainstorm for two weeks and set a deadline and it will get produced two months from now.”
What kind of people are you looking for in design?
Conway: Right now my strategy has been to bring people in to do small projects and get a feel for working together. In the industry at large, design is just now getting its seat at the table. So the skill sets and personalities of people we are thinking about working with are completely different from when I started just a few years ago.
I think what we’re looking for is two types of designers: architects and explorers. They’re very different, but they would both fit in really well here. The architect is going to rely on a ton of experience, a ton of process and planning. They’re thinking about engineering problems, design problems, business problems; that’s kind of the quintessential product designer. With explorers, they’re just going to dive in and rely on some level of intuition and rapidly ask questions and find answers.
Which are you?
Conway: I’m probably closer to the architecture side, but in a startup, you have to be at least one part explorer.