Blackboard Brain Drain: One third of executive team leaves in past 3 months

In August 2013 Michael described Ray Henderson’s departure from an operational role at Blackboard. As of the end of 2014, Ray is no longer on the board of directors at Blackboard either. He is focusing on his board activity (including In The Telling, our partner for e-Literate TV) and helping with other ed tech companies. While Ray’s departure from the board did not come as a surprise to me, I have been noting the surprising number of other high-level departures from Blackboard recently.

As of December 24, 2014, Blackboard listed 12 company executives in their About > Leadership page. Of those 12 people, 4 have left the company since early January. Below is the list of the leadership team at that time along with notes on changes:

  • Jay Bhatt, CEO
  • Maurice Heiblum, SVP Higher Education, Corporate And Government Markets (DEPARTED February, new job unlisted)
  • Mark Belles, SVP K-12 (DEPARTED March, now President & COO at Teaching Strategies, LLC)
  • David Marr, SVP Transact
  • Matthew Small, SVP & Managing Director, International
  • Gary Lang, SVP Product Development, Support And Cloud Services (DEPARTED January, now VP B2B Technology, Amazon Supply)
  • Katie Blot, SVP Educational Services (now SVP Corporate Strategy & Business Development)
  • Mark Strassman, SVP Industry and Product Management
  • Bill Davis, CFO
  • Michael Bisignano, SVP General Counsel, Secretary (DEPARTED February, now EVP & General Counsel at CA Technologies)
  • Denise Haselhorst, SVP Human Resources
  • Tracey Stout, SVP Marketing

Beyond the leadership team, there are three others worth highlighting.

  • Brad Koch, VP Product Management (DEPARTED January, now at Instructure)
  • David Ashman, VP Chief Architect, Cloud Architecture (DEPARTED February, now CTO at Teaching Strategies, LLC)
  • Mark Drechsler, Senior Director, Consulting (APAC) (DEPARTED March, now at Flinders University)

I mentioned Brad’s departure already and the significance in this post. Mark is significant in terms of his influence in the Australian market, as he came aboard from the acquisition of NetSpot.

David is significant as he was Chief Architect and had the primary vision for Blackboard’s impending moving into the cloud. Michael described this move in his post last July.

Phil and I are still trying to nail down some of the details on this one, particularly since the term “cloud” is used particularly loosely in ed tech. For example, we don’t consider D2L’s virtualization to be a cloud implementation. But from what we can tell so far, it looks like a true elastic, single-instance multi-tenant implementation on top of Amazon Web Services. It’s kind of incredible. And by “kind of incredible,” I mean I have a hard time believing it. Re-engineering a legacy platform to a cloud architecture takes some serious technical mojo, not to mention a lot of pain. If it is true, then the Blackboard technical team has to have been working on this for a long time, laying the groundwork long before Jay and his team arrived. But who cares? If they are able to deliver a true cloud solution while still maintaining managed hosting and self-hosted options, that will be a major technical accomplishment and a significant differentiator.

This seems like the real deal as far as we can tell, but it definitely merits some more investigation and validation. We’ll let you know more as we learn it.

This rollout of new cloud architecture has taken a while, and I believe it is hitting select customers this year. Will David’s departure add risk to this move? I talked to David a few weeks ago, and he said that he was leaving for a great opportunity at Teaching Strategies, and that while he was perhaps the most visible face of the cloud at Blackboard, others behind the scenes are keeping the vision. He does not see added risk. While I appreciate the direct answers David gave me to my questions, I still cannot see how the departure of Gary Lang and David Ashman will not add risk.

So why are so many people leaving? From initial research and questions, the general answer seems to be ‘great opportunity for me professionally or personally, loved working at Blackboard, time to move on’. There is no smoking gun that I can find, and most departures are going to very good jobs.

Jay Bhatt, Blackboard’s CEO, provided the following statement based on my questions.

As part of the natural evolution of business, there have been some transitions that have taken place. A handful of executives have moved onto new roles, motivated by both personal and professional reasons. With these transitions, we have had the opportunity to add some great new executive talent to our company as well. Individuals who bring the experience and expertise we need to truly capture the growth opportunity we have in front of us. This includes Mark Gruzin, our new NAHE/ProEd GTM lead, Peter George, our new head of product development and a new general counsel who will be starting later this month. The amazing feedback we continue to receive from customers and others in the industry reinforces how far we’ve come and that we are on the right path. As Blackboard continues to evolve, our leaders remain dedicated to moving the company forward into the next stage of our transformation.

While Jay’s statement matches what I have heard, I would note the following:

  • The percentage of leadership changes within a 3 month period rises above the level of “natural evolution of business”. Correlation does not imply causation, but neither does it imply a coincidence.
  • The people leaving have a long history in educational technology (Gary Lang being the exception), but I have not seen the same in reverse direction. Mark Gruzin comes from a background in worldwide sales and federal software group at IBM. Peter George comes from a background in Identity & Access Management as well as Workforce Management companies. They both seem to be heavy hitters, but not in ed tech. Likewise, Jay himself along with Mark Strassman and Gary Lang had no ed tech experience when they joined Blackboard. This is not necessarily a mistake, as fresh ideas and approaches were needed, but it is worth noting the stark differences in people leaving and people coming in.
  • These changes come in the middle of Blackboard making huge bets on a completely new user experience and a move into the cloud. These changes were announced last year, but they have not been completed. This is the most important area to watch – whether Blackboard completes these changes and successfully rolls them out to the market.

We’ll keep watching and update where appropriate.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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5 Responses to Blackboard Brain Drain: One third of executive team leaves in past 3 months

  1. George K says:

    Phil, while I’m sad to see everyone go their separate ways, I’m excited for what lies ahead for each. There are some real, genuinely good people on this list of departures. It reads kind of like a post I wrote a while back called One Year Later (http://edutechnica.com/2013/11/24/one-year-later/) which cataloged prior Blackboard employee “migrations.” Not on this list, however, are many talented engineers and engineering leaders who have also been leaving in a steady stream more recently including Matt Johnson, Mike McGarr, Danny Thomas, Jim Riecken, Matt Saltzman, Stephanie Tan, Nori Tatsumi, and Steve Feldman. (Again, all for good reasons, no smoking gun here either.) It’s one thing to lose the executives who steer the ship; however, it’s another to lose those who power its engines. Time will tell if those who remain will have the endurance to keep rowing or if the company will just float along with the currents. I still have hope, just with this news maybe a little less than I used to.

  2. Phil Hill says:

    George,

    Thanks for the note. I would add Matt Maurer to the list as well, who was great to work with.

    The choice of highlighting executives was more based on clear public record (About > Leadership page in particular) and not meant to prioritize them over “those who power the engines”. Like you, I’m excited for what lies ahead for them.

  3. Gordon Cunningham says:

    Well said George – you were one of those tech eng at one time. I concur with the importance of Danny Thomas leaving to go to Netflix – the pathway people take characterizes the quality of the person and the opportunity they have earned not necessarily symptomatic of a bad environment.

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