November 20, 2017
Photography by Jim Prisching

Even though technology can be found in virtually every corridor of many universities, for Scott Kelly, edtech isn't going far enough.  

“My opinion is that too many startups are trying to disrupt education instead of improve it,” said Kelly, chief technology officer at RedShelf. “The future of edtech isn't in reinventing the classroom paradigm of professors, course content, homework and testing. Instead, technology should focus on radically and rapidly amplifying the educational impact of the classroom, which is exactly what RedShelf is doing.”

RedShelf, which delivers e-textbooks more affordably and simply, is doing both, Kelly added. It's disrupting and improving education by removing barriers to access. For instance, the company's recent rewrite of the front-end application will enhance the user experience for people with disabilities. And RedShelf’s accessibility coordinator focuses wholly on this mission.

We asked the team to tell us more about their work and the state of edtech.

 

RedShelf

FOUNDED: 2011

WHAT THEY DO: Make digital educational content accessible to everyone anytime, anywhere.

EMPLOYEES: 58

TECH TEAM: Responsible for all things development, from bolstering features on the eReader to developing internal tools that support other teams.

LANGUAGE: Python on the back end; Javascript on the front end.

CORE TENETS: Hold yourself and others accountable; focus on team success over individual success; continuously strive to improve.

END-OF-WEEK TRADITION: Burgers at Shake Shack Fridays.

 

Scott Kelly, Chief Technology Officer

Kelly is responsible for all things tech. This means hiring the smartest and most passionate people he can find. And he leads initiatives to improve the RedShelf product and make it easier for users to access content.

BEYOND WORK: Kelly can’t tear himself away from the computer; he spends his spare time improving his grasp on different programming languages.

 

Describe an ideal candidate for this team.

Kelly: At RedShelf, we don't focus on skills-oriented hiring. We focus on the person. We ask questions that are meant to coax out the candidate's passions and interests to ensure they would enjoy working here. Every interview is seen as two-way street. We don’t just look for our ideal candidate. We also make sure we are the candidate's ideal company.

At RedShelf, we don't focus on skills-oriented hiring. We focus on the person."

What is your style of managing?

Kelly: A manager's main responsibility is to understand what makes their team productive and focus on encouraging those things. Companies have issues when they try to standardize their teams into assembly lines. Encouraging different opinions and experimentation is key to making sure people feel that they have self-determinism and emotional investment in what they build.

 

Why did you join RedShelf?

Kelly: RedShelf attracted me because of its higher education mission. I was a recent college graduate who had first-hand experience with the current state of e-books in college. It was really exciting to talk with our co-founders about their vision for RedShelf in improving student outcomes and affordability.

 

Tell us your thoughts on the state of edtech.

Kelly: My opinion is that too many startups are trying to disrupt education instead of improve it. I think the future of edtech isn't in reinventing the classroom paradigm of professors, course content, homework and testing. Instead, technology should focus on radically and rapidly amplifying the educational impact of the classroom, which is exactly what RedShelf is doing.

 

Hadas Werman, Junior Software Developer

Werman works on the front end of RedShelf’s eReader platform. Her favorite part is building something that people can actually use. “It's really neat to make something and then see it out there,” she said.

BEYOND WORK: You can find her with headphones on, listening to Kanye.

 

Tell us about your team values.

Werman: We value hard work, optimism and, probably before anything else, motivation. This doesn't mean that you need to be working 12 hours every day. It does mean that you want to always be contributing to the success of the project and team. When the time comes for a sprint, there's no question that you'll be putting in the effort to make that happen.

 

If you think about your team’s day to day, what’s the typical balance of meetings versus coding?

Werman: We have our daily stand-up that lasts four minutes max. Twice a week, we meet to plan the following sprint. We make an effort to have at least two days per week with zero meetings, so we can spend the rest of our time writing the code, writing the tests for the code that we just wrote and reviewing other team members' code.

Lead devs are genuinely happy to help junior devs and there is an emphasis on mentorship."  

Reflect back on when you joined this company. Is there anything that surprised you?

Werman: I've been surprised to see the real emphasis placed on improving skill sets. Lead devs are genuinely happy to help junior devs and there is an emphasis on mentorship and continually improving.  

 

Jeff Collar, Director of Platform

Collar leads the platform team, so if you’ve ever consumed content through RedShelf, you can thank him and his crew for it. He finds himself spending equal time mentoring developers and enhancing and performance-tuning the RedShelf product.

BEYOND WORK: He acts in amateur and semi-professional theater productions.

 

Share a team achievement you’re proud of.

Collar: We recently completed a significant rewrite of our front-end application and it is currently moving out of beta. We reduced our total lines of code by over 60 percent and only removed a couple of very minor features. Part of the rewrite will significantly enhance the user experience for people with disabilities. It will also improve usability on mobile and provide a more consistent user experience regardless of the type of content.

 

What attracted you to RedShelf?

Collar: About five years ago, I decided that I only wanted to work for companies with strong missions that focused on improving education, healthcare or the environment. It took me a while to get here, but I love that my work directly improves students’ lives. There’s something powerful about working at a company where every employee can articulate the mission.

 

Share your thoughts on the state of edtech.

Collar: I’m shocked at how little technology has actually penetrated the education market. Many people would find that statement controversial because technology is basically everywhere you look on college campuses. But very little of it is focused on improving education.

I’ve worked for companies where analytic data is examined hundreds of different ways to reduce quality problems by 0.2 percent. But measuring learning and making improvements to the process has very little traction. For me, it’s a very exciting opportunity to make a significant impact that could benefit millions of students.

I’m shocked at how little technology has actually penetrated the education market.... [V]ery little of it is focused on improving education."

Erin Lucas, Accessibility Coordinator

Lucas’ job centers on the notion that accessibility to educational content is a right for everyone. She works with internal teams and external partners to remove barriers to access. No matter who or where you are, Lucas wants to make sure you can experience RedShelf’s digital educational content.  

BEYOND WORK: The bird photographer loves to be outside, waiting to spot and photograph creatures like sandhill cranes during mating season.

 

Obviously every day is different. But generally, how does your day break up?

Lucas: It really depends on the week. We do two-week sprints, so the week of sprint planning is more meeting-heavy than non-planning weeks. Those days tend to be longer. All team leads have a one-on-one weekly meeting with the CTO to discuss strategies and upcoming tasks. While we’re always busy, we try to have fun every day.

As someone who’s dealt with digital accessibility for almost 20 years, it’s great to see RedShelf so committed to it."

If you look at what this team has achieved so far, what are you proudest of?

Lucas: I’m proudest of this team’s commitment to accessibility from the top down. I hear so many horror stories about leaders who say things like this to their accessibility people: “Go ahead and ask your annoying accessibility questions now” or “How much of this do we really have to do so we can avoid a lawsuit?” As someone who’s dealt with digital accessibility for almost 20 years, it’s great to see RedShelf so committed to it.

 

Name the qualities that make someone successful on this team.

Lucas: Being passionate and honest and having a willingness to learn and grow. Know how to have fun, work hard and be obsessed with LaCroix. Oh, and don’t let anyone talk you into ringing the giant “bell” in the office on your first day (that was my rookie mistake)!