After four and a half really interesting years at Oracle, I am moving on. As of Monday, April 4th, I will have a new job in a different company. I’d like to tell you a bit about what I’ll be doing next and how it will—and won’t—affect my blogging.
But first, I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words in praise of my soon-to-be-former employer. When I started there in December of 2006, I thought there was a good chance that I would become bored and cynical within a few years. That didn’t happen. For starters, there always seemed to be another hard and important problem to work on. Higher education still faces some daunting cyberinfrastructure challenges that need to be solved in order to get educational technology to live up to its potential as a change catalyst. I’m talking about things like making it easy for students and teachers to save, share, find, and re-use work (a.k.a. content management), making it easy for students and teachers to move seamlessly across disparate bits of functionality, possibly hosted in different places by different organizations (a.k.a. identity management), and being able to see what kinds of technology-enabled practices actually improve learning (a.k.a. analytics). These are all hard problems that Oracle actually knows a lot about. When it comes to me and my attitude about my job, it’s all about Archimedes. I’m looking for a large enough lever to move the world. And there is no shortage of really big levers at Oracle.
On top of that, the team that I have worked with is truly remarkable. The reason that there was even a place for me to come to at Oracle is that my manager Cary Brown and my colleague Linda Feng went to management and said that Oracle needed to do more to support higher education’s core mission of teaching and learning. And VP of Development Mark Armstrong had the foresight to agree with them and to find the resources necessary to create the team. These people, the rest of the people on the Academic Enterprise Services team, the people on the strategy team—really almost everybody I have had the privilege of working with directly in the higher education development business unit—are good, smart people. Many of them come from university backgrounds, and all are passionate about education. That shows in some of the investments that the company has made. I am very proud of the work we did (and are still doing) on the IMS Learning Information Services standard. It hasn’t been sexy or glamourous, but it’s important. And Oracle has made a much larger commitment to it than probably most people realize. We’ve put hundreds of thousands of person/hours into herding cats on the working group, building the first working implementation and a test harness to go with it, recruiting new participants, and driving adoption. I wouldn’t be surprised if Oracle’s total investment in just the standards development piece has approached a million dollars by some measures. Yes, this was an investment of enlightened self-interest. But I don’t see very many companies in educational technology who are both willing and capable of making such a large investment in cultivating an open standard with such a long time horizon for payback. It’s a big deal, and Oracle deserves more credit than it gets for this commitment.
Don’t get me wrong. Working at Oracle is not without its share of frustrations. Nor was working at the State University of New York. Nor is any job. One of the particular problems at a place like Oracle is that you’re working inside a ponderous global enterprise with over a hundred thousand employees. An enterprise that tends to think in billion-dollar increments. When the machine is that large, a squeaky wheel does not always get the grease. Because there are a lot of freakin’ wheels. But even in this regard, I have been surprised. Thanks to Mark Armstrong and to former VP of Strategy Curtiss Barnes, I was lucky to be able to get my proposals heard very high up in the organization. I didn’t always get the answer that I wanted to hear, but I always felt like I got a smart answer, I always felt like I got a fair hearing, and I always felt like the door was open for me to come back with my best stuff. At the end of the day—or, at least, at the end of most days—I felt pretty good working at Oracle. Win or lose.
So I wasn’t actively looking around for another job. This opportunity found me. And it was one that I couldn’t pass up.
Probably those of you who were perplexed at my decision to go work for Oracle will also be perplexed at my decision to go work for Cengage. But the textbook industry is at a really interesting moment. It is one of the last media businesses in which the traditional players still have pricing power due to their control over the sales and distribution channels of physical assets (in this case, textbooks). But that is changing at an astonishing rate. The textbook industry is not immune to the same forces that have reshaped the music industry, the newspaper industry, the movie industry, the trade book industry, and really just about any other media industry I can think of. And the tablet is about to turbocharge that change. The last walls blocking the all-digital learning content economy have been the walls of the classroom. Those walls are falling.
So what do you have in a textbook company today? You have a lot of really smart people whose vocation is education, who know a lot about educational content, and who are going to have to get very innovative very quickly if they want to have jobs three years from now. I find that to be incredibly attractive. The trick is, it has to be the right textbook company. Change of this magnitude is hard and scary. Some textbook companies, probably even some big ones, won’t have what it takes to survive this transition and carve out new roles for themselves in the new world.
But I’m betting that Cengage will be one of the companies that does survive. And thrive. I have seen what they have been working on, and it blows me away.
I will be working on Chris Vento’s team. I have written about Chris before. He is something of a legend in the field. I remember a visit he made to SUNY back when I was there in which he talked about how important it is to be able to bring all kinds of new tools and capabilities developed by third parties into the learning environment, and how important it therefore was to have an open standard to make that practical. This was back in late 2005 or early 2006. It’s fair to say that his comments had a significant impact on my colleagues and me as we were formulating our ideas for the Learning Management Operating System. Which is another way of saying that Chris’s early work had a significant impact on all the thinking I’ve done about digital learning environments in the last six years.
I’ll be working on Cengage’s recently-announced MindTap platform. MindTap isn’t an LMS, an LMOS, a post-LMS, or any other kind of LMS-with-a-twist. It’s something different. Something pretty new. I don’t know of a product category name for it yet. I’ll call it a content-centric social learning environment for the purposes of this post, but that doesn’t really capture it either. You have to really see it to get it. I hope to be able to write and show more about it in the coming months. (More on that in a bit.)
In addition to working as part of the product management team for MindTap, my job will be to work with third-parties who have apps that should be integrated with the platform. Cengage calls these MindApps. In other words, I’ll be looking out for the long tail of learning applications. I will be helping to both identify the right apps and figure out the best functional integration for maximum educational impact as well as craft the partnership relationships with the developers of the apps. In that second part, I’ll be working with my friend and mentor Curtiss Barnes. I learned a lot from Curtiss when I was at Oracle and I expect to learn more from him at Cengage. In fact, I expect to learn more from a lot of people at Cengage. Both Chris and Curtiss have assembled jaw-dropping collections of talent. Seriously, almost every person I have met there so far has been intimidatingly smart. And I don’t intimidate easily. I’m excited, and a little nervous.
You may be wondering how the job change will affect this blog. In at least one important aspect, it won’t change anything at all. At Oracle, I had tremendous freedom to write what I wanted to write. It wasn’t unlimited freedom, but there never was anything that I felt I really needed to write that I couldn’t. The restrictions that I had were not ones that really hampered me. I tried to comply with the company policies and to be sensitive to any awkward positions that my writing might put my colleagues into. In return, they respected my independence. In fact, they strongly defended it, in ways that I can’t go into here. Suffice it to say that they had my back. I would insist on maintaining that level of independence wherever I went to next, and I have been given assurances that I will have it at Cengage. If I want to write about the good things that Cengage’s competitors are doing, I will. If I want to write about exciting new developments in the world of OERs, I can. As with Oracle, I expect to have a dialog with my Cengage colleagues at appropriate moments. And as with Oracle, I don’t expect that the level of cooperation they have asked for from me will prevent me from writing about the things that are important to me or taking the positions that I feel are right.
But that doesn’t mean that nothing will change. Because I am not a paid professional journalist, I can’t afford to spend my day hunting for stories that would round out a publication. I can only write about the things that I run into during the course of my day that I think are interesting and that I can find the time and passion to write about. Since I will have a new job, I will be running into new things. At the very least, I expect to be writing more about tablets, content, and different ideas about digital learning environments. Ideally, I would like to be able to write directly about some of the stuff I’ll be working on at Cengage. That would not be without its challenges, either from Cengage’s perspective or from mine. My blog is not a company blog, and a prerequisite of my ability to maintain my independence is that there can be no question in anybody’s mind that I may be writing as a spokesperson for the company on these pages. If my brand is my own, then by extension Cengage’s brand is their own. I can’t mess with that, even by accident. And for my part, I have no desire for e-Literate to become a press release factory, either in reality or in perception. When I got elected to the Sakai Foundation Board and started writing more Sakai posts, a few people complained that I had become too much of a Sakai partisan and one or two even told me that they were going to stop reading e-Literate because of it. On one level, I can’t worry about that. I write about what I’m learning at the moment and what lights my fire enough to get me to the computer when I could be doing something else. I was spending a lot of time thinking about and learning about Sakai, so that’s what I had to offer. It was either that or nothing. But on another level, part of what gets me to write is that I want to do something useful for people. My ability to do that will be limited if my objectivity becomes suspect. Also, I won’t take responsibility for defending every business decision that Cengage makes any more than I took responsibility for defending every decision that Oracle or SUNY made. I don’t want anybody to think that I will. e-Literate is about what I, personally, am learning about. Nothing more and nothing less.
In the end, I’m not that worried about this particular issue. I’m pretty optimistic that I will be able to work out the right balance with my new colleagues and with all (or at least most) of you. I’m just letting you know that I can’t know what that balance will be until I’ve had some time to work this through with the folks at Cengage.
While I’m on the topic of the blog and its editorial policies, I’d like to address something that doesn’t have anything to do with Cengage but which I’ve been looking for the right opportunity to write about. I have been just blown away with the amount of attention that all of you have been willing to give to e-Literate. I’m just some guy in his office in the mountains of Western Massachusetts writing whatever comes into my mind. When I started this blog, I had no idea if anybody would read it. Luckily, getting readership wasn’t critical to success as I defined it for myself. The writing was (and still is) its own reward. Nevertheless, readership has come. And every time I think I have reached a stable plateau, something happens that makes me feel like I’m suddenly on a whole new level again. This is wonderful and incredibly gratifying, but it is also work. I spend much more time managing comments than I used to, and I now get many private emails asking for advice or consultation. So many, in fact, that if I answered them all, I would have trouble meeting the obligations of my day job. For the first time, I am simply not answering some emails. That feels terrible, but I don’t feel that I have a choice.
As a result, I have created a new page of editorial policies for e-Literate. What I’m hoping is that, by being clear about how I can and cannot help, I will get fewer emails that I am forced to ignore. This is very much a work in progress, and so suggestions are most welcome.
Anyway, the bottom line is that I am delighted that you have come this far with me on the journey and I hope that you will find the next leg of it enjoyable. We really are still at the very beginning of a grand adventure trying to transform education and I, for one, can’t wait to see what the next chapter has to offer us.