Breaking stereotypes: How this ‘software guy’ became the cornerstone of Boston startup edX

by Justine Hofherr
March 23, 2017

Ned Batchelder is not your average developer. 

At 54, Batchelder, a soft-spoken "software guy" at Boston startup edX admits he's a little older than his twentysomething hoodie-wearing counterparts, but he brings a different perspective to the software team.

"It’s easy for people to see me with gray hair and say, ‘Oh he doesn't know anything,’ but you can’t let those feelings of inferiority creep in because you’re probably wrong," Batchelder said.

At edX, Batchelder said he feels like he’s hit his stride.

Unlike a traditional tech startup, edX is a nonprofit with the ambitious mission of educating learners around the world with its free online courses from universities across the globe.

The software team writes edX’s open source software and makes it available to hundreds of educational websites. We caught up with Batchelder to hear more about how his role and how it contributes to the overall mission and culture of edX. 

What's your job like?

I’m on the open source team at edX. Almost all of the software we write at edX is open source, so our entire learning platform is available on GitHub. We have about 100 engineers who work all day, every day on open source software that’s published on GitHub. My team is just a few people, however. Our priority is serving the open source community.

Our software powers edX.org, but also 300 other websites around the world that are providing education, so my job is to help other sites use our software. A lot of what I do is package up the software, making it easy to install, smoothing out the rough parts so other people don’t have to hit them.

Can you walk me through a typical day?

We all work on two-week sprints for the most part where there are a bunch of JIRA tickets that tell us what to work on. Most of my work is improving the installation process of the software. I do things like run conferences and local meetups to help strengthen the open source community and do a lot of consulting internally with other teams that want to know what they should be doing for the community.

I’m really trying to bridge the gap between the classic software engineering that most of the edX team is doing and the outside world, where all these other people are using our software with wide-ranging needs and skill levels.

What made you want to work at edX?

I have long been interested in teaching people. I’ve been deeply embedded in the Python community for two decades and I enjoy explaining [the programming language] to people. The process of helping people understand things appeals to me and I’ve been told that I’m good at it.

I got a call from a friend about working there. I had been playing around with a website I created to teach Python, so I understood the challenges edX was facing. It was a good fit for them to hire me and I really like the openness of a company that can put its code out there for the whole world to use.

What did you do before working at edX?

I was freelancing before edX and I joined edX as a freelancer and eventually converted as a full-time employee. Before freelancing, I was at a startup acquired by Hewlett Packard.

Freelancing was an interesting way to try out lots of things. It was like an extended interview process essentially. But I decided edX was a strong place to make a commitment. I’ve been in many different environments over the past 30 years and being in a nonprofit is a very different feel.

You don’t have public stock to worry about. No one here thinks they could become a billionaire from stock options because there aren’t any stock options. This lets people focus on the mission, which is to educate the world and I really like that.

How does your job impact edX's mission?

I’m in a really unique position in the company because I’m part of a three-person team with an unusual job. Being open source and giving away our software to let other sites educate people is a really good way to satisfy a part of our mission.

How else are you involved in the Boston tech community?

I’m the lead organizer for the Boston Python User Group. Boston Python is the largest general python user group with over 6,500 members on Meetup. I’ve been leading the group for eight years. It’s really satisfying because I meet a lot of people and get to educate them in an informal way. We run presentation nights where we can educate each other or bring in experts and it’s very gratifying to hear people say they got something out of it.

What advice would you give to job seekers who want to break into software development?

I think the biggest challenge people face getting into software is that it can be very daunting. The complexity of how software gets built, the changing ecosystem of technology and dealing with people can be a lot to manage in your mind. There’s new technology every year and sometimes you feel like if you don’t master it, your career might fall by the wayside.

Python has worked well for me because it seems to get new energy from data science every few years, which keeps Python relevant. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by feelings of inferiority, and I think the tech world suffers from that. It’s easy for people to see me with gray hair and say, ‘Oh he doesn't know anything,’ but you can’t let those feelings of inferiority creep in because you’re probably wrong.

How can recent software graduates make themselves more marketable?

I think side projects are the best part of resumes. They show what you did all by yourself without a boss or co-worker or policy guide telling you what to do. You have the freedom to do a project well or poorly or weird. It’s a great way to play around and experiment.

Some people don’t have the luxury of doing side projects on GitHub, but if you’re looking to improve your skills, joining a project that’s welcoming to newcomers is a great way to do it. One thing we do with Boston Python is hold project nights once a month, where people cluster based on their interests and whatever happens, happens. Some are just learning the basics and others are hacking away. It’s a great way to expose yourself to new things.

What is the biggest lesson you've learned in your time at edX?

I’m not sure I learned it at edX, but little things matter, especially in the code. Sometimes, you’ll be looking at a piece of code and think, ‘That’s not quite right,’ but in three years you will wish you had fixed it.

And making personal connections with people can make a huge difference in how those relationships will go in the future.

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