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November 22, 2017

Engineering Spotlight: Ellevation Education

Ellevation Education provides web based software designed for ELL (English Language Learners) educators and the English learners they serve. Their software is used by several school districts across the country in order to fulfill this mission.

Eric Wong, Ellevation Education
Eric Wong, VP of Engineering at Ellevation Education

The company was founded in the fall of 2011 by Teddy Rice and Jordan Meranus and is venture-backed by Emerson Collective, Zuckerberg Education Ventures, and Omidyar Network.

We connected with Eric Wong, Ellevation’s VP of Engineering, to talk about the company’s engineering team. During our interview, Wong shared the details on what technology the team uses and how wide of a reach the company’s products have.

Read on about the details of Ellevation’s engineering team below.

Also, Ellevation Education is hiring! Check out their BIZZpage for all the company’s openings.


Quick Hit Details

  • Year Founded: 2011

  • Number of engineers: 17 (and growing!)

  • Industry: Education


Can you share the details on what Ellevation does?

Ellevation is a mission-based software company dedicated to improving outcomes for English Language Learners (ELLs). In service of this mission, we build online products for the educators of these students that streamline compliance, foster collaboration, and improve instruction.


How does Ellevation’s suite of tools ultimately help ELL students and educators?

At Ellevation, we are committed to enabling educators to spend more time with their ELLs -- we believe that will have the biggest impact on closing the achievement gap for what is now the fastest-growing population of students in US schools. Our products help educators save time on complex administrative tasks, empower them with easy access to rich and actionable student data, and apply best-practice, aligned guidance in enhancing in-classroom instruction -- all specific to English Language Learners.

What are some of the different technologies that the engineering team gets to work with and at what scale?

Our web-based platform is built using ASP.NET MVC, C#, Couchbase, Elasticsearch, MongoDB, RabbitMQ, SQL Server 2016, and HTML5/CSS. In addition, we have recently adopted the Aurelia Javascript framework in addition to using some AngularJS. In terms of delivering the software, we use various technologies such as Selenium, JMeter, Jenkins, Octopus Deploy, and AWS.

Educators in more than 600 school districts across 40+ states are using our product, impacting 2MM+ students.

What are some of the interesting projects that the engineering team is tackling?

One of our interesting challenges is the validation, mapping, and transformation of the many diverse sets of student data that we are privileged to be caretakers of, on behalf of our customers. Slow adoption of common data exchange standards has required us to build a rich set of internal tools and services to help streamline this process, using technologies such as Elasticsearch, MongoDB, and Python.

Although the datasets we work with are not that particularly large, they are incredibly complex and nuanced when it comes to the diversity of properties. We currently support data for 2MM+ students and expect this to grow by an order of magnitude soon.

Can you describe the type of background or experience that you generally look for when hiring for the engineering team?

We look for candidates who are 1) naturally curious, 2) open to discussion and the exchange of feedback, and 3) motivated to have a large impact on a mission-driven company. Our collaboration culture is built and fostered by team members who check their ego at the door, agree to disagree, and are driven to deliver maximum value to our customers.

As a small team, we also seek individuals who are unafraid to roll up their sleeves and take on leadership and problem-solving opportunities in a rapidly-changing, sometimes ambiguous environment. Demonstrated success using our technology stack is a plus but not a requirement. We also look for candidates that have helped with or led the crafting, evolution, and refinement of SaaS software products.

How would you best describe the culture and working environment for the engineering team at Ellevation?

Our culture is based on core principles of feedback, collaboration, and continuous improvement. We aspire to have a high feedback environment in which engineers feel comfortable sharing their ideas and observations, including constructive suggestions, to peers and in group settings. While customer service is important, “colleague service” -- unblocking a teammate, for example -- is critical to our success. We also realize that no process is perfect and that we can always improve.

Engineers have quiet space to work but are within easy proximity of colleagues to enable productive in-person collaboration. Our office provides a number of options for co-working space -- Zoom video-enabled conference rooms, an annex (with big screen TV!) dedicated for code reviews, large whitewalls, and a quiet library working area.

We are reasonable and flexible when it comes to working from home for common life events such as an appointment, bad commute, or the cable guy. Or maybe you just need a “focus” day. We certainly find it most productive when everyone is in the office but have a good set of norms and tools to ensure that those who are remote still feel that they are able to collaborate and participate as if they were in the office. All of our Engineering and Product team members are based in Boston.

What can someone expect during the interview process?

Following a phone screen, our first round of interviews consists of an in-person visit to our office. The first part of that session is a technical audition in which candidates are asked to present their solution to an practical project assignment that we give in advance. During the audition, peers will ask questions of the candidate, perhaps changing requirements or digging deeper into certain areas. While there is no 100% right or wrong answer, our goal is to see how candidates communicate, problem-solve and work with a team. We have eschewed more abstract or conceptual scenarios and instead focus on real-world technical challenges.

The second session is a conversation with other team members about the candidate’s experience, values, and vision, as well as an opportunity to find out more about the company, the Engineering team and the role.

Following that round, candidates will have another in-person opportunity to meet more of the team, including potential colleagues from other departments, ask more questions and even spend some time with our CEO or President.

What does your team do for fun outside of work? Are they involved in any local tech organizations?

In addition to attending, presenting at and hosting local technology meetups, many of our team members are involved in community efforts such as Girls Who Code, Lego Robotics, and other school groups. Our employees are also active athletes, artists, foodies, readers, and travelers.

What kind of education and/or teaching experience do any of the members of your engineering team have? Has anyone taught ESL before?

Many of our engineers have experience working in similar mission-focused industries such as healthcare. About a third of the team grew up speaking a primary language other than English.

Ellevation Thanksgiving Potluck
The engineering team at Ellevation's Thanksgiving potluck!

Are there any other random fun facts that you’d like to share?

We’re proud to have won Boston Tech in Motion’s 2017 award for Best Tech Workplace for Diversity. For example, in our headquarters, more than 50% of our employees are female, and our engineering team is 45% non-white/non-Caucasian.


Rapid Fire Q&A

What’s on tap?

La Croix seltzer -- lots and lots of La Croix seltzer. Nightshift/Trillium/Vermont craft beers. Coke and Gatorade. Not to mention coffee.

Star Wars or Star Trek?

Mostly traditional Star Wars -- we have a soundboard that blasts the Millennium Falcon hyperdrive failure noise. Plus, we have some Star Trek: The Next Generation fans.

iPhone or Android?

40% iPhone, 53% Android, 7% Blackberry (kidding!)

Coffee - hot or iced?

66% hot, 33% iced

Favorite employee perk?

Opportunity to build software with a great time that helps children. What could be better?

What TV show describes the engineering team’s culture?

Scooby Doo, Cheers, Turbo Teen, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia were nominated. A few jokesters submitted Breaking Bad and Dexter (again, kidding!)

What music is playing in your office?

Nothing audible, since engineers like quiet. However, lots of the team has headphones for their individual playlists.


Employee Testimonials

"There are almost too many reasons to get into a specific reason why I love to work at Ellevation. At first, it was the rush of joining a very early stage company where we were responsible everything and you felt the weight of every decision you had to make, watching the fruits of your labor start to build momentum.  Then we hired a bunch of really talented people, and the challenges shifted from making judicious use of limited resources to coming up with the vision of how our products, team, and engineering culture should evolve and grow. The entire experience can probably be likened to a terrified first time parent watching a child develop into a teenager with all the rights, privileges, and challenges that entails and hoping that you are making the best decisions possible to ensure that child grows into a mature and responsible adult, and feeling the pride and satisfaction of realizing they are. No two days are really ever the same, and depending on where your interest lies you can could be tackling critical performance problems, designing a slick new feature using some cool new technology, improve or just wholesale scrap and re-envision a new build/release processes, or spend a little time dabbling as a SQL Admin or Network Engineer.  There really are opportunities at every turn here, and that makes every day something new to look forward to. Plus you get to do all of this with a tremendous amount of freedom while working with fantastically talented people at a company that cares deeply that our products are the very best and serving not just the teachers, but the students themselves through those users and our technology."

Jeremy Balmos

Jeremy Balmos
Principal Software Engineer

"I really like the mission-driven focus at Ellevation. It truly is a great tool to improve educational outcomes for students. We tackle a lot of interesting and challenging problems with that mission in mind. Doing this with a team of really passionate people makes the whole process a lot more fun. I have a lot of ownership of the problems I'm solving. We are also constantly collaboration and learning from each other."

Gayathri Ramanujam
Gayathri Ramanujam

Senior Software Engineer

"I joined Ellevation because I was inspired by the most challenging technical interview I encountered throughout my job search. More than a year later, I continue to be challenged and inspired by the brilliant and creative team around me. I have had a strong support system in which to truly expand my skills as a developer while working on a product that truly helps a population that I feel passionate about."

Lisa McCusker, Ellevation
Lisa McCusker

Software Engineer

"Ellevation is a unique company where people have the freedom explore and become experts in cutting-edge technologies. In the past couple of years our engineering department has grown tremendously and yet we managed to stay a tightly knit and friendly team. Flex schedule, unlimited vacation and 'Fun Fridays' are some of the perks that define our culture and let us be productive and happy."

Nik Petkov, Ellevation Education

Nik Petkov
Principal Software Engineer


Keith Cline is the Founder of VentureFizz.  Follow him on Twitter: @kcline6.

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