Mar 28 • 9M

👨‍🏫💭👨‍💻Thoughts in Between Ed and Tech #3: Missionaries Over Mercenaries🏴‍☠️

#Unautomatable consistency wk 12/26

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This is where I share my thoughts on stuff related to Unautomatability in the 21st century. I'm currently reading my Unautomatablogs (https://www.unautomatable.ai/blog) in my own voice. I'm a huge fan of audiobooks, and nothing is better than hearing them from the author!
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As I hang out on this dreary Friday morning for a 40-minute lull on the train platform, I feel that the sky last night and into today has told the story of my obscured destinations this week.

I know what is actually behind the clouds, and what is likely coming over the horizon.

But that doesn’t mean that I can see it clearly now.

Clarity always comes after the fog.

Coit Tower in the Fog, on a dreary Thursday 3/24 evening in SF
Transamerica Pyramid in the fog, on a still-dreary Friday morning 3/25 in SF
Millbrae Station as the sun begins to shine through the fog, on Friday 3/25

I’ve been working all week to ensure that my ducks are in a row for tomorrow, when I have to take off my Head of Product hat, and put my instructor hat back on again.

Tomorrow, we launch 🚀.

For this one, I’m at the helm.

Four weeks after tomorrow, we launch again.

For that one, I will truly be directing.

No one can be in two places at once, after all. And no good product manager should ever be a micromanager besides.

Today, I feel like I’m on a mission.

Four weeks from today, will our team feel the same way?

Missionaries over Mercenaries

One fire that I could not let burn last week was hiring.  We had to figure out who was going to be doing what in our upcoming cohort.

A few facts are relevant to kick this discussion off.

  1. Our instructors and our students both generally have full-time jobs.

  2. We employ instructors as part-time contractors (a.k.a. consultants).

  3. Teaching is often thankless work.

So you see, our instructional staff and curriculum team are fundamentally hired hands. This makes classic ideas of “inspired” and “empowered” product teams less than straightforward to draw parallels to, much less to implement in our education service business.

However, our teachers are also, well, teachers, who are opting into this work.

Why would they do such a thing?

Are they truly mercenaries, or are they are on a mission?

As Always, It Depends

Two important lessons that I’ve continued to learn for myself by doing them on the job the last few years come to mind.

Managing products is hard. And managing humans is harder.

Moreover, managing online courses means managing both. There are literally humans everywhere.

Right now, we’re building and operating cohort-based courses with contractors. In other words, we’re delivering synchronous learning experiences with consultants.

We consider our courses as products, and I tend to think of them a little more like product-service systems, though the analogy to copy machines and aircraft engines does admittedly leave me wanting. So I like to refer to these systems as transformational learning journeys (h/t to Andrew Barry for the inspiration).

New spaces call for new buzzwords. Remember, we’re somewhere unknown between ed and tech right now.

Similarly, while we consider our instructional staff as contractors (rather than employees), I tend to think of them more as inspired educators who play an essential role in catalyzing our community.

After all, if the teacher isn’t excited, the students won’t be either.

If they haven’t fallen in love with the subject, teachers won’t be able to bring the light needed to shine through whatever fog might be obscuring the students’ view.

Hold, On … What’s the Goal, Anyway?

At the core of our business is the flywheel of continuous teaching and learning.

In every cohort, there are brilliant and experienced students - in some cases with many years of experience in their chosen field - who are interested in applying the latest and greatest ML and AI tools to their work.

Meanwhile, we hire talented instructors who have proven their technical prowess in ML and AI through years of experience building AI systems with other practitioners. Typically, these folks have emerged as the teachers of machine learning in practice within their own teams or have served as give-first members of other remote or in-person learning communities.

Teaching and learning is always two-way street in our courses. This keeps everyone in the room energized and encourages a posture of continuous learning amongst everyone in our community.

On the one hand, as we get more students taking courses and learning the necessary skills that they need to succeed in the ML business, they’re then enabled to give back to the FourthBrain community in the form of guest speaking, mentorship, hiring other grads, attending or hosting their own community and alumni events, and offering teaching assistance in the future.

The learners become teachers.

At the same time, as we make it easier for highly skilled machine learning practitioners who are interested in teaching to make respectable wages in their spare time, we also provide them with frameworks, tools, and specialized facilitation training to maximize their impact in remote-first online environments. Not to mention, our students always have more than a few things to teach them.

The teachers are always learning.

You might say the goal of the ecosystem and the community that we’re building is to create transformational teaching and learning journeys.

The Flywheel of Transformational Teaching and Learning Journeys

To activate both sides of this flywheel, we need to make it as easy as possible for instructors and students to say yes when they hear their call to adventure.

And while we might be able to hack student and instructor acquisition, there are no shortcuts to building and operating systems that create true transformational teaching and learning journeys. In other words, user retention is harder than user acquisition.

OK, so if this is the goal, do we really need missionaries?

My working hypothesis is yes, we do, especially to achieve a sustainable, high-quality teaching and learning community at scale made of people who are focused on where the puck is heading with Machine Learning and AI.

So my episode three thesis is that instructors will have to be on a mission, though they won’t necessarily have to be aligned to our mission.

As I like to joke in all of my classes, if you want to learn faster than the machines, you’d better be sure that you’re bringing it every day.

And it certainly won’t hurt to leverage all the shortcuts that humanity has to offer to keep pace.

Getting Used to Ambiguity

It was glorious to head home on Friday night from Palo Alto and to see the symbolic manifestation of clarity in my aims for the following morning.

California Ave Station all sunny and warm the evening of Friday 3/25

As the sun fell in the sky and I arrived back in the city, I knew exactly what I had to work on the rest of the night. I could see clearly now that the fog was gone.

Coit Tower, illuminated on a clear night, screaming for attention like the work that I had to do before launch on Saturday morning.

The next morning, I launched. It was exhausting but pretty great.

And once I was done with that, I took my instructor hat back off and replaced it with my director hat.

Aside from asking myself “how could we have done that even better?” and “how could we make delivering experiences like that even easier for talented instructors to come in and execute?”, I found myself thinking more about our instructional staff and what I can learn about each one of them in the coming weeks.

After all, I want them to feel the energy and morale-boosting meaning that I felt this weekend. I want us all to continue developing a better understanding of the people we deliver transformational learning journeys to. And I want us to create transformational teaching journeys for them, too.

My hypothesis at the beginning of the week was that the instructional and curriculum staff need to act more like an inspired and empowered product team. But now I think that there’s more to it than that.

In the coming weeks, as a starting point, I’ll be working to figure out more about each individual on our team, and what motivates them to come and teach for us, exactly.

Why would they do such a crazy thing as teach? Often on the weekends, outside of other work and family obligations?

What I’m most interested in is how I can make the time that they spend contributing to our mission align with their own personal missions.

So I’ll keep asking questions until I get there. As Carl Jung says, “to ask the right question is already half the solution of a problem.”

In the meantime, too, I’m going to reflect on the gratitude I feel for having my own transformational teaching and learning journey flywheel spinning, and the fortune that I’m blessed with to have the opportunity to catalyze the journeys of others.

This week, I’m still having a blast somewhere between ed and tech.