Life at Newsela: Kieran Sobel, Chief Technology Officer
Kieran joined Newsela as the company’s founding developer, and has scaled the Tech team to over 25 people that support a user community of 26 million users in over 90% of schools across the U.S. As Chief Technology Officer, Kieran encourages diversity on his team by getting away from stereotypes about what expert coders look like, and focusing instead on the fundamentals of clear communication and critical reasoning. He values the deep focus on teaching and learning that comes from working at an education company, and knowledge-sharing is something he’s intentionally made a part of Newsela’s engineering culture.
What excites you most about what Newsela is building?
There's a lot of exciting work happening here. It is rewarding to know that what we build goes right into the hands of students and teachers. I have never worked at a company where our users send us so much love when we get things right.
Newsela’s engineering needs to be top-notch in all the ways you’d expect of a modern application: performant at scale, secure, beautiful. But I think what's most motivating to me are the lines of development that follow directly from working in education—that's what distinguishes Newsela from other technology companies. And the technical challenges that end up coming out of education can be surprising.
One of the most exciting areas of development we have is our content management system. It may not be obvious to many developers, but Newsela has succeeded in education by tackling some of the hardest problems in publishing head-on, sometimes in very creative ways. We often say that we're not interested in disrupting the classroom—teachers know what they're doing—but we are disrupting education publishing.
We publish new pieces of content every day, and we manage hundreds of authors and assessment-writers. So we have the challenges of a newspaper, but we also need to be highly authoritative about the pedagogical value of everything we publish, which distinguishes us from a typical media company. When we say something is written for fourth-graders, we really mean it. That assurance comes from computational analysis of text complexity and word difficulty, as well as rigorous editorial review and training of our writers, all mediated by our content management system.
Ultimately, our content needs to be extremely high quality but also published at scale, and that means creating infrastructure, analytics, and UI that put expert teachers and journalists in conversation with algorithms. It's kind of our secret sauce.
Could you tell us about some of the technologies you’re using?
Almost everything is written in Python at the service level. Our core ReST API is built using Django and other services are using Flask and Zappa. Our infrastructure is all on Amazon Web Services.
What differentiates the engineering culture at Newsela?
Our culture is distinctly informed by working in education. Our team does a good job of balancing the pace and quality-obsession of a great technology company with the supportiveness and orientation towards growth that comes from the academic world, especially K-12.
We have doubled the size of our tech team in the last few years, and have been able to maintain the supportive engineering culture that made Newsela’s first few years a success. I used to think building a large engineering team meant sacrificing much of its warmth and personality, but I'm pleased to say that has not been the case! The trick seems to be putting your values to work during both the interview process and advancement — creating accountability for culture when new people join, and not forgetting about it as they advance. It also helps that Newsela has many teachers on staff, and working with them every day makes it incredibly difficult to be cynical about the mission of the company. They're an inspiring group of people, and they bring a deep focus on teaching and learning.
We have intentionally borrowed this education focus as part of Newsela's engineering culture. Our more senior people must make teaching a part of their work, and people earlier in their careers are accountable for learning. This can be hard work, because not every engineer comes in with those meta-level skills. But it pays all kinds of dividends—such as keeping the bus count high around important systems—and more importantly, it creates a technical culture where it's OK to ask questions and express uncertainty.
What do you look for in an engineering candidate?
We're a literacy company, and I think I value literacy in engineers above anything else. “Literacy” can be a hard thing to define in an engineering context—it doesn't mean you have to be an excellent writer or have a huge vocabulary to be successful here. But it does mean you should care about things like word choice when naming variables, stylistic consistency, code comments, and the editorial process (i.e. code review). Fundamentally, you should understand your code as a document for other people to read. And just like there are many ways to be a good writer, there are many ways to be a good developer.
This attitude means we focus our interview process on the fundamentals of clear communication and critical reasoning, which allows us to avoid some of the stereotypes about what expert coders look like and what kind of educational background they should have. This widens the pool of people we interview and who can be successful here. Our team is a diverse group of engineers who are highly collaborative. We hire to avoid creating the kind of environment that rewards iconoclasm and cowboy-coding that I sometimes see in our industry.
You mentioned literacy earlier… read any good books lately?
Definitely. I am an avid reader and always in the middle of a book or three—I value my daily subway ride for that reason. There are a few books I’ve read recently that I could recommend. Scribe by Alyson Hagy somehow combines three genres I like individually: dystopian fiction, historical fiction, and magical realism. If you like any of those genres as well, then it might do something for you. The last book I finished was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I highly recommend. Everything I have read by her leaves me feeling totally wrung out but left in a good place. Probably the most impactful book I have read in a long time—and my go-to recommendation for the last year—is Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. I like reading about religion, which is what this book is about in its essence, but it does so without any of the familiar trappings of religion. It took a while for the point of the book to materialize for me, but by the time it did it had burrowed surprisingly deep into the way I see the world.
Are you working on any side projects?
Only if finally beating Dark Souls counts.