When it comes to attracting top engineering talent, Facebook (s FB), Google (s GOOG) and Twitter have name recognition on their side. But Damon Sicore, the new VP of engineering at ed tech company Edmodo, believes his new employer brings another kind of advantage to the table: a mission.
Sicore, who spent six years at Mozilla, most recently as VP of engineering, joined the San Mateo, Calif. startup earlier this month and said his big charge is turning Edmodo — which gives teachers and students a secure social network for sharing content and collaborating — into an “engineering brand.”
“My specialty is building engineering teams and producing great products and an engineering process,” he said. “I want to turn Edmodo into a nexus of engineering and attract the best talent.”
Sicore acknowledged that competition for engineering talent in the Valley is running high but said Edmodo’s social mission distinguishes from its peers.
“When I joined Mozilla, that was the thing that attracted me to it,” he said. “When I looked at the mission and the type of people who were there and the type of dedication they had to that mission, it’s the same thing I see here.”
Changing the culture from heads down to head up
Since launching in 2008, Edmodo has added users and attracted funding at an impressive clip, even as companies like Schoology offer competing social learning platforms for teachers and students. It started the school year with 10 million teachers and students and now says it reaches 17 million. The company has also raised $40 million from top investors like Union Square Ventures and New Enterprise Associates. But while Edmodo’s engineering team has worked to support that growth, it hasn’t focused on talking up its feats outside the company or working out processes to optimize their work.
“Right now, the engineering culture is very much heads down, building all the products,” Sicore said. “To create that engineering brand, I want them to look up a little and build their own brands and talk about [their] great work.”
Internally, Sicore said, he plans to create new processes to better prioritize projects and empower individual engineers, as well as promote hackathons and recruit more interns. He also said that he wants to boost Edmodo’s profile outside the company by reviving the its engineering blogs, encouraging closer relationships with developers building on Edmodo’s platform and working with the broader community in other ways (a particular skill he picked up at open source software project Mozilla).
Supporting the lowest common denominator can limit expansion
As Edmodo pushes deeper into classrooms, Sicore said the company will tackle challenges unique to K-12 ed tech companies, like accommodating schools’ older and more outdated technology. Flash, for example, is often broken on older hardware as newer versions have shipped, leaving students with deprecated or totally disabled versions, he explained. “We need to support the lowest common denominator of features in our site and applications,” he said, adding that he’s eyeing an expansion into HTML5 but the reality of school technology could limit that.
Another education-specific complication specific is figuring out how to create log-in systems and long-lasting online identities for users (students) who may not have email addresses. In the general consumer web world, the email address provides a reliable way of identifying and keeping track of a user over time. But as students graduate to the next grade or change schools, Edmodo needs other mechanisms that let them travel with their information, Sicore said.
The seasonal nature of education creates another interesting layer of complexity. Students may join Edmodo one year and then disappear the next, or they might use it differently depending on how their teachers use the site. Sicore said he believe there are interesting ways to connect students’ learning experiences year to year, but that Edmodo needs to work harder to boost engagement.
Privacy and safety is also a big concern. As the recent breaches on Facebook (s FB) and Apple (s AAPL) have shown, big tech companies are often targets for hacker. Given its focus on students, Sicore said it has a unique set of concerns and has extra checkpoints and safeguards to ensure privacy.
Simplify, simplify, simplify
Considering that 30 percent of Edmodo’s users are on smartphones and tablets (with iOS getting double the usage of Android), Sicore said, mobile will continue to get a good deal of the company’s attention. And, in addition to exploring HTML5, he said there could be interesting applications in new technologies that enable audio- and video-based instant communication online.
The new engineering chief, who is barely two weeks into the new job, emphasized that he’s still taking it all in and setting priorities, but he said one of the most interesting challenges, so far, is looking at all the data and and content shared on Edmodo to optimize for teachers’ and students’ biggest needs.
“We’re in the process of simplifying,” he said. “To me, you do the most important things and just those most important things.”