We had the pleasure of working with Sean Perkins, Founder and CEO of Mobility Labs, through our latest issue of En Root. Sean contributed a piece called, "Everyone Should Code, But Not For the Reason You Think" where he tells readers about the valuable, translatable skills that can be gained through learning the coding process.
Sean currently serves as an advocate for teachers through his work in Ed Tech, bringing innovation, passion and drive to the industry. We are honored to have gotten the chance to interview him, learning all about his experiences, his business, his exciting new directions and his advice for lifelong learners. Happy reading.
Give us your best pitch: Explain what you do in the education industry and why it matters.
I work closely with foundations, non-profits, and social impact for-profit companies to design and develop tools, visualizations, and websites using modern software practices. This means we help these organizations do more with less. A big part of this involves teaching clients how to own parts of the discovery and design process. It also involves putting end users first. In education, this is not as common because the end user is not the person deciding to purchase or use software. Educators doing the work are often not consulted at all. The more that we can help organizations put educators first, the more effective new edtech will be.
At OutGrowth, we are committed to giving access. Tell us what access means to you in, and how you achieve access in education.
Access in education means providing students the opportunity to learn. Our process starts with discovering things about our targeted stakeholders. We create personas that capture elements like digital literacy, comfort with technology, income, and marital status. This helps us build solutions that work for folks. Another way we try to achieve equitable access is by testing our assumptions with our targeted stakeholders. People creating tools always get something wrong, and we test things thoroughly to ensure the thing we get wrong isn't excluding anyone. Every screen and feature gets user tested with the audience we are building the software for. Finally, we worry about accessibility at every step. This means doing the work to make software work for those directly accessing software who may have disabilities that don't require other technology, and those using assistive technology like screen readers. The accessibility piece works better when it is not bolted in after-the-fact.
Explain a time when you were impacted by or had an impact within the education industry. Why was this experience significant?
The first education project I worked on with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation took me to a rural school in Pennsylvania to interview educators around existing software they used, and get feedback around the tool we were building. The educators were excited to have someone who was creating tools for them, actually listening to their needs. This
was an innovation in the space, despite the fact that it was considered common practice in consumer software. It really hammered home how important it is to create tools that meet the needs of educators. The Foundation really seemed to buy into the approach, and continued to use our process on the initiative we worked on.
How did this experience change the course of your life, your career or your outlook?
It changed how I viewed dysfunction in education. I realized it has everything to do with incentives and resources not being aligned. The teachers I spoke with were so passionate about the work and so thankful to have any help doing it. Teachers work harder than anyone else for less money than is reasonable. Seeing their passion firsthand is what drove me to focus on education for so long with my company.
What would you say are the top three most important steps that students and young professionals can take today in their educational journeys to build the most important career competencies?
1. Technology isn't going away and it isn't magic. Learn how it works, how its created, and how it can bring value to whatever endeavor you pursue.
2. Learn to collaborate asynchronously. Communication is no longer just happening in real time. People have to be able to collaborate with team members around the world in different time zones. Figure out how you can contribute to a team that you are not always looking at in the eyes. Figure out how to think ahead to what you need from those who will be unreachable at the time you need something.
3. Take advantage of every chance you get to lead, especially if you don't like it. Do it when it doesn't matter so you are prepared for when it does. Leadership doesn't mean being the loudest or most decisive. Having integrity, supporting team members, and inspiring people to try harder are all elements of leadership as well.
Given your current passion for education, if you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
It's probably antithetical to what this issue is about but I would have told myself not to worry about college. I thought it was so important for me to get my degree when I got out of the Army. Going to community college was definitely helpful for my transition back into civilian life, but I would have been fine stopping there. That advice won't work for everyone but I do have friends who are accomplished professionals that still worry about going back to school, and I just don't know that it is as important in all fields as it used to be. It's certainly not worth it if you have to take on an incredible amount of debt. If you have a way into an industry without a degree, maybe take it and then if you want to go back a few years later do it.
What are some words of wisdom that you would offer students exploring the possibility of an immersive experience as a component of their education?
Do it! You are going to be learning your whole life, in and out of the classroom. The best thing you can do for yourself is take advantage of experiences for growth, early and often.
What is your favorite quote?
The time is always right to do what is right. - Martin Luther King Jr.
What's next? What are your next steps toward growth in 2019?
I am working on ways to teach software project leadership to employees who are put in the hot seat by their organizations. I meet people all the time who are asked to work with a vendor or internal team to build some type of software project. They feel overwhelmed or anxious about making a mistake. I want to teach the processes we use to a new generation of social impact leaders. While I have helped a number of clients create online courses and workshops, I haven't done it for an internal project yet, so I am excited to learn more about how to do it effectively.
Sean Perkins is the Founder and CEO of Mobility Labs, where he helps education and social impact organizations develop effective, sustainable technology strategies. He founded Mobility Labs in 2011 to apply comprehensive, user-centered methods from leading industries to solve challenges for social impact organizations.
Sean has guided the company’s growth from web development for small businesses local to Washington, DC, to major projects with national organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Literacy Design Collaborative, and Laura & John Arnold Foundation. Sean values close collaboration and personalized support for each client, and ensures successful results through user-centered design and agile development.