by Brian Nordli
June 28, 2018

Before Carlos Gomez joined Ellevation Education, he had never thought about the impact of English Language Learner programs nor the challenges those teachers face.

Gomez grew up in Puerto Rico and had a support system of teachers and peers that spoke and taught in Spanish. Non-native English speakers in the U.S. don’t have that. Working with English as a second language (ESL) teachers and designing software to help them close the achievement gap between native speakers and non-native ones has changed his perspective.   

We spoke to Carlos and three other engineers about what inspires them and the advantages of working on a diverse team.

 

Ellevation Education Office
Photography By Amelia Ingraham
ELL Apple
PHotography By Amelia Ingraham

 

EMPLOYEES: 116 (70 local)

WHAT THEY DO: They design software for ESL teachers to help streamline their program management, allow for more collaboration and differentiate instruction for pupils.

WHERE THEY DO IT: Boston

GIVING BACK: Employees regularly volunteer with Boston-based nonprofits that support adults learning English.

Eric at Work

Eric Wong Portrait

 

Eric Wong, Vice President of Engineering

Eric Wong leads a team determined to improve outcomes for English Language Learners (ELL). The engineering team designs software to help educators save time and improve the lives of students through actionable data and instructional best practices.

 BEYOND WORK: He helps coach youth soccer.

 

Tell us about your background. What attracted you to Ellevation Education? 

My parents came to this country as teenagers speaking little English. However, they emphasized speaking English to my sister and me growing up, determined to see us succeed even though it was difficult for them. I've also held technical roles in a number of different industries, but the opportunity to grow and lead a team in edtech — specifically to help English Language Learners (ELL) — was too good to pass up.

 

What steps have you taken to recruit a more diverse engineering team? What inspired those efforts?

Team diversity is incredibly important to me. Over my career, I've seen cases where diverse teams are more productive and successful, while less diverse teams struggle.

We take a number of actions to encourage diversity and inclusion. Everyone participates in anti-bias training, and we introduce potential candidates to different members of the team in all phases of the interview process. We also review our recruiting content to monitor for bias and use templates for interview questions and topics to ensure we evaluate candidates based on the merits of their answers.

 

Over my career, I've seen cases where diverse teams are more productive and successful, while less diverse teams struggle.

 

What advantages does the team’s diversity provide?

Software engineers make several important decisions every day, and it is rarely as simple as a “right” or “wrong” answer. Thought diversity is vital when it comes to figuring out how we will build products and solve those technical problems. Working with a team that has a wide range of industry, life and social experience fosters outside-the-box thinking and effective sharing of different perspectives and ideas.

It encourages us to actively listen, solicit different opinions and respectfully disagree, making us all better. We strive to create an environment where teammates feel comfortable sharing opinions and giving feedback. It's important that the engineers are also able to feel empathy for our customers, and that our employees include many former educators and ELLs.

Lisa portrait

 

Lisa McCusker, Engineering Team Lead

Lisa McCusker works with the product manager to define priorities and work with engineers to carry out the work. Her team is focused on simplifying the workflows for teachers to allow them to spend more time teaching.

BEYOND WORK: She loves watching bad sci-fi.

 

What attracted you to Ellevation Education?

Ellevation’s mission attracted me. Education is something that I have always cared deeply for, and while I realized at a young age that being an educator wasn’t for me, I didn’t want to stray too far from education. 

Ellevation’s technical audition solidified my choice to join the company. It was both challenging and presented a real-life scenario — something I hadn’t seen in other interviews. The interview team was tough and questioned my decisions and assumptions. I knew that I would be working with some great engineers who I could learn from and on interesting technical challenges.

   

Describe the team’s culture. How does this company’s culture compare to previous jobs?

The diversity of our backgrounds and personalities makes our culture great. We all bring different perspectives on how to solve problems and different outlooks on life. Our culture encourages us to be our own unique selves and bring our whole selves to work, which provides an environment for us to thrive in our own ways. We also keep work light-hearted with fun names for each release like “ThunderPig” and “Project Catnip,” complete with relevant icons on our release diagram.

 

Ellevation Team Cafeteria.

Ellevation Sound Booth

 

If you look at your to-do list, what’s the one thing you can say you love to do?

I’m most inspired when I get to see first hand the impact that our work has on our clients. We have the opportunity to sit in on usability testing of our the features with our actual users. The excitement and relief we hear from them combined with the useful suggestions and feedback is an excellent reminder of why we do what we do.

 

I’m most inspired when I get to see first hand the impact that our work has on our clients.

 

What values are held on this team? Tell us how your team lived out one of those values.

One of the values we hold on this team is continuous learning and improvement. An example of this is the changes we made to our sprint retrospectives. While these retrospectives are meant to foster changes and improvements, we had found them to be frustrating and unproductive. We took this as a call for improvement and took care to change the format and tone of the meetings, and now our sprint retrospectives are both productive and fun.

Carlos at work

Carlos portrait

 

Carlos Gomez, Software Engineer

Carlos Gomez builds tools that help ELL teachers spend less time on paperwork and more time teaching. His work is focused on the student list feature that allows educators to track their students and understand their student body.

BEYOND WORK: He enjoys reading about and trying productivity methods.

 

If you look at your to-do list, what’s the one thing you can say you love to do?

I love closely interacting with product managers and UX/UI designers and providing my thoughts and feedback on the feature that I'm developing. This gives me a sense of ownership over my work. Also, it’s fulfilling to know that the work I’m doing impacts ELL educators. It gives my work meaning.

 

It’s fulfilling to know that the work I’m doing impacts ELL educators.

 

How does collaboration play out on the engineering team?

The Ellevation platform has a large code base, so we depend on each other to share knowledge on unfamiliar areas. We constantly codeshare and encourage everyone to participate. This gives us feedback on our work and enables us to share our knowledge and spread best practices.

We work on small teams and sit next to each other, so it is easy to reach out to our teammates for help or to discuss our approaches to challenges. We also collaborate across engineering teams by focusing on writing reusable components and elements that are shared and used across engineering teams.

 

How has this job changed your perspective on education and English language learners?

Before joining Ellevation, I wasn't aware of ELL school programs. Now, I think about ELL educators every day. Being part of a team that develops software for teachers has helped me realize the importance of the additional responsibilities that teachers have beyond teaching.

 My primary language is Spanish. While our math and science textbooks in Puerto Rico were written in English, I didn’t struggle with learning these topics because my teachers and peers all spoke Spanish. I can imagine how difficult it would have been for me if I hadn't had a good support system. Providing a platform that improves the efficiency of ELL teachers allows them to focus on building a solid support system for their students.

Amelia Darts

Amelia Portrait

 

Amelia Mirsky, Quality Assurance Engineer

Amelia Mirsky develops and utilizes her product knowledge and works with other team members to define features and identify areas of testing. She works to prevent bugs and improve the user experience.

BEYOND WORK: Amelia loves cooking and trying out techniques and recipes.

 

Tell us about your background — what attracted you to Ellevation Education?

I taught English as a second language (ESL) before joining Ellevation and have always been passionate about education and improving student outcomes. I wanted to find a company that combined my passion for education and interest in technology. I knew I wanted to work for a mission-driven company and Ellevation felt like the perfect place.

 

How did Ellevation facilitate your transition from the help desk to a QA role?

Ellevation encourages employees to discover and develop their skills and interests so that they can be in a role that suits them best. Once I expressed interest in QA, I was met with encouragement and support from my colleagues. I was able to apply my product knowledge and the technical skills I developed on help desk as a QA.

 

We are working to close the achievement gap between ELL students and their native-speaking peers and reduce the strain on educators.

 

What problems are you solving with technology? How are you solving them?

We are working to close the achievement gap between ELL students and their native-speaking peers and reduce the strain on educators. We offer tools that simplify data, foster collaboration and improve instruction. We make sure that our software is responsive to our district’s needs and are ready to make changes and improvements as they arise.

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