With my internship at Khan Academy over, I wanted to share some of my learnings and reflections about the organization. This more about cultural elements of the company. See my previous post for more about my specific work.
Khan Academy’s engineering team has 3 operating principles:
1) Shipping beats perfection
So critical. Khan Academy moves fast, and it gets things out the door. This does not come at the sacrifice of quality, craftsmanship, and durability as some people worry. Instead, it puts an emphasis on paring away extraneous features, prioritizing what users truly need now, and focusing on building something that gets in the hands of the people it was made to help, sooner rather than never.
Throughout the summer I witnessed a constant push by everyone, especially developers, to cut down the scope of their projects. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when it means saying no to someone who is requesting a specific feature. But a ruthless approach to defining a minimal feature set, shipping it, and then iterating on it afterwards, helps Khan Academy continually and quickly improve its offering.
2) Anybody can fix anything
In a small team setting, there’s no time for bureaucracy. If you see something wrong, whether a bug in the code or a typo on the website, it serves everyone’s time and interest for you to just come up with a creative solution and fix it yourself. If someone’s got a problem with your solution, it can be adjusted after the fact. But most of the time, people appreciate the initiative, time saved, and results of whatever you took into your own hands.
Of course, this applies in a non-technical setting, too. When I was thinking about inviting in my professor Dacher Keltner into the office, and setting up a meeting with our team members to talk about psychology and illustration, I was worried it wasn’t my role to do that. But then I remembered that if I felt that this was helpful to Khan Academy, it’s something I should just do. Anybody can fix/do/improve anything. It ended being a very productive meeting, and some interesting stuff might come out of it.
3) Be open. Share your work.
Ben Kamens is always saying it’s better to over communicate than not communicate enough. We have chat rooms, weekly developer standups, an open floor for tech talks, and blackhole email addresses (where emails you send are archived for future reference). Mis- or under-communication is deadly, and any time spared by keeping something to yourself can be lost many times over when it results in redundant or erroneous work.
This principle was one of the reasons I was encouraged to blog this summer. Khan Academy values openness not only internally but externally as well. Several employees maintain blogs. In fact, Khan Academy’s new Pamela Fox just wrote a post on this very topic.
An identity in flux
One of the challenges that comes with the company growing in size is everyone old and new being aligned upon a single focus. And when Geoffrey Moore comes to visit, and tells you to choose your beachhead, everyone begins to wonder - what is our core goal as an organization? Who are we truly trying to help?
A lot of these questions came into the spotlight this summer, as Khan Academy is in a pivotal part of its growth cycle. With organizational leadership from Sal & Shantanu and product leadership from Ben, Matt, and Jason, these priorities are being rehashed and defined, and I look forward to seeing how Khan Academy continues to evolve and shape its personality. And while shorter-term priorities may be in flux, the long-term mission of Khan continues to be to “provide a world-class education, for anyone, anywhere”.
And one other thing that has stayed constant is the mantra “Focus on the learner.” All product decisions are put under the lens of whether or not they’re making Khan Academy a better place for a student (of any age) to learn. Features that directly improve the learning experience (like the new learning dashboard) are always prioritized over auxiliary features (like grading tools for teachers). The team is strict about this, and it is a large part of Khan Academy’s DNA.
The summer also included all sorts of fun events and awesome moments. Here are some of the highlights:
- A visit from Bill Gates. I was bragging about this non-stop. We also had guest talks from a few other amazing folks, like Sebastian Thrun and Geoffrey Moore. I tried to sit near the front every time.
- The Healthy Hackathon. I thoroughly enjoyed working on my team’s project, but I was especially blown away by what everyone else did and it was clear reminder of the creativity and talent at Khan. Also, who else does a healthy hackathon? I love it.
- Weekly game nights. Every Thursday night, folks grab dinner and come to the office to play games like Resistance, Settlers of Catan, Battlestar Galactica, and recently Modern Art (which I found is not my thing). Starcraft happens too. It’s a lot of fun.
- Site visits. We checked out the classroom of Suney Park, who uses Khan Academy with her students, and I got to take a peek at the Discovery Lab where Karl and his team were doing their thing. One of the best experiences was getting to accompany the School Implementations team to a teacher workshop all the way in New Orleans. It opened me up to whole new set of challenges and a side of Khan Academy’s work that’s so critical.
- 1:1s with my mentor. The 30 minutes spent walking outside along Charleston Rd. each week with my mentor Desmond were some of the most educational and priority-shifting conversations I had.
- Company Updates with Sal. Most inspiring one-hour meetings ever.
- All kinds of fun outings, including an SF day trip (insert link), a popcorn-and-candy movie night, “KAmping” under the stars at Monte Bello, hiking to Half Dome and Point Reyes, and an end-of-summer celebration and talent show.
Education is undergoing a revolution, one that’s fascinating to watch and especially to participate in. As someone closely following this movement, being at Khan Academy was truly a special opportunity. I walked into work every day still amazed that I worked there.
I had a blast, and I made some incredible friends and mentors, who’ll be hearing plenty from me in the years ahead. :)