When a company the size of Blackboard makes substantial organizational changes, it can be difficult to assess what is really going on. In the beginning, the stories tend to look similar. The old CEO…decides he wants to “spend more time with his family.”1 Well-known long-time employees leave the company en masse, some of their own volition and others not. It’s a common enough story trope, but it comes with two distinctly different endings. In one version, the company accelerates its downward spiral until it crashes spectacularly. In the other version, everybody is amazed at the company’s revitalization and they live happily ever after. It is nearly impossible to tell from the beginning of the story how it will end. All of the people leaving the company are, of course, unhappy and are likely to have negative opinions of what’s going on. And often they have valid criticisms, even in the stories that later come to happy endings. When an executive is trying to turn around a billion-dollar company quickly, a scalpel won’t do it. Some meat cleaver work is necessary. Collateral damage is inevitable even in the best of cases. So reports from former employees are interesting but don’t tell the whole story. Customers won’t see the results of the changes for a while, so there will be few clues there. In fact, they may see things get worse before they get better due to the chaos of the reorganization. And even the employees who are on the inside often don’t know what to think in the early stages.
And so it has been with Blackboard. Up until recently, it has been very hard to tell which way the story will go. But I agree with Phil that we’re beginning to see early signs that we may get the happy ending here. I had an opportunity to visit Blackboard this week, and what I heard is very consistent with Phil’s recent experiences with them.
Returning to Roots or Growing New Ones?
In his recent public speeches and interviews, Jay Bhatt has repeatedly talked about Blackboard “returning to its roots as a product company.” The question that immediately occurred to me upon hearing this is, “When was Blackboard a product company?” In its earliest days, Blackboard was a consulting company. Almost every product it has, it gained through acquisition, including Blackboard Learn. Now, along the way, they did acquire some product companies. WebCT was a product company. ANGEL was a product company. Both of those organizations produced some innovations. Moodlerooms was a product company too, although in a slightly odd way due to their relationship with the Moodle mother ship. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Blackboard never produced quality or innovation in its products, those descriptors certainly were not hallmarks of the company. Not ever, that I can recall. Blackboard’s competitive strategies were all about business and finance, not about design. Even when they did innovate in design, those innovations were often driven by a primarily financial strategy rather than a grand product vision. And the product visionaries from the company’s acquisitions—folks like Chris Vento and Dave Mills—left. (Ray Henderson is a critical exception, although I consider him to be more of a product-focused leader than a product visionary.) To be fair, because I was persona non grata at Blackboard for a number of years, I had not attended a BbWorld or had other normal relations with the company until relatively recently. That left me with few opportunities to meet many folks in the Blackboard rank and file. So I wondered: Does Blackboard have the people it needs to become a product company?
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I put this question rather pointedly to Ray Henderson and Katie Blot. Unsurprisingly, they insisted that it does. Ray was particularly emphatic that there are good people who have been hindered by management priorities and Blackboard’s rollup-like internal organization. By his account, Blackboard began making changes to accelerate product innovation some time in the spring of 2012. (This timing is consistent with the changes that Phil observed at BbWorld this year, which weren’t obvious to me a year ago at BbWorld in New Orleans.) When Jay came on board, he immediately took some relatively dramatic steps to accelerate this change in focus, according to Ray. These changes have not been fully deployed yet, either. Ray pointed to the recent hires of Gary Lang and Mark Strassman, under whom product management and engineering will be united across products, as one of the important next steps. And of course, Jay has promised a very significant increase in investment in Learn development.
All of this sounds reasonable, but what impressed me the most was the level of enthusiasm I saw. I’ve known Ray for a long time, and while he is a very capable diplomat, he is not very good at selling a line that he doesn’t believe in. I have seen him, in the early days of his tenure at his current gig, when he was trying to be a good soldier about a policy that he didn’t agree with. He wasn’t very convincing. But this week he seemed genuinely fired up about Blackboard’s focus on product and ability to execute, as did Katie.
Meet the Product People
Later in the day, I had the chance to meet with Blackboard’s VP of User Experience Stephanie Weeks and Vice President of Product Management Brad Koch. Brad is a former ANGELista, while Stephanie has been at Blackboard since 2004. They impressed me. As I mentioned in a recent post, I have come to be a real believer in the value that Agile and Lean techniques can bring to educational product management. Everything that Stephanie and Brad told me is very consistent with the way that I believe product should be developed. Here are some highlights:
- The company has released 60 updates that “would be meaningful to the customers” in the last 14 months
- Because a lot of those updates are built on top of a newly beefed up version of the Building Blocks API, most of them did not require customer database changes or other changes to the core (meaning that they were a lot less intrusive to install).
- The company spent $4 million on QA automation testing and can now regress “the bulk” of Learn “overnight.”
- On average, 250 users had input on each feature. (It’s not at all clear to me what this number means in practice, but the fact that they are going to the trouble of keeping records that enable them to count suggests a product management value that I think is critical.)
All of this creates the preconditions for innovation by tightening the feedback loop and reducing the amount of development team effort spent fixing bugs. The degree to which the team has the talent to actually innovate remains to be seen, but I really liked the thinking behind the prototypes that Stephanie showed me. And again, there was the enthusiasm. I got the definite sense that the two of them felt unleashed. They confirmed Ray’s timeline, too. Something broke loose in the spring of 2012 and has accelerated since Jay joined the company.
“I’m Not Dead Yet!’
Blackboard’s LMS competitors generally don’t take them very seriously anymore. One industry insider who shall remain nameless told me at one point that they have been “feeding off of Blackboard’s carcass.” Other competitors have been just as blunt, if somewhat less colorful. With the WebCT platform transition completed, converting Blackboard customers was always going to get harder for those other companies around now. But we may—and I stress may—be about to see some renewed competition from the old giant. We’ll know for certain when we start seeing them win new U.S. customers. (Right now, Blackboard is still dropping press releases that crow about existing customers who choose not to leave.) But that’s a lagging indicator of the turnaround. We should have some confirming leading indicators over the next year, based on what the company releases between now and BbWorld 2014. We think there is a reasonably good chance that Blackboard will make some product moves that could starting putting pressure on their competition in the next 12 to 24 months. This is just a feeling based on process and affect at this point, but Blackboard appears to be doing the things that a good product company should be doing. You heard it here first.
I’ll be doing a follow-up post specifically on the state of their analytics platform.
- Or “hikes the Appalachian trail.” Pick your favorite euphemism. [↩]