August marks a new year in higher education and another shot at improving system shortcomings. We snuck in five minutes with Jason Kakazu, Vice President of Technology, to discuss what he currently finds interesting in the higher ed space, approaches to successful change, and why obstacles present an opportunity for us all.
Describe your current role.
As VP of Technology I’m very fortunate in that I get to be involved in so many interesting and challenging projects - from infrastructure and systems architecture, to data analysis, to helping our Product team realize their vision. I also still get to write code! That enthusiasm might sound odd to non-programmers but trust me when I say it’s great for my mental health. One of the awesome things about my role is that I get to work with incredibly talented and smart people on a daily basis (even though some of them have a mischievous streak). At the same time I get to do work broadening access to educational content and that is very rewarding.
What keeps you up at night?
My first thought was to say “Programming and Netflix”. While those definitely do keep me up at night probably a more accurate generalization is that it’s difficult to rest when an interesting question, engaging material, or tough problem is on my plate (“Wha-? It’s morning again?”).
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned while working in the Higher Ed space?
Nailing down a single thing as being the “most-interesting” is difficult. One thing that I’ve been surprised by though is the incredible rate of change in the Higher Ed space right now. My sense is that the rate of change is probably going to accelerate. There’s been an explosion of educational content in both the Higher Ed and non Higher Ed spaces in recent years. Combine that with a changing student demographic, legal and institutional changes in Higher Ed, and technology getting applied in novel and interesting ways to learning, and you get a recipe for constant flux. It’s tough to predict how the industry will shift so having the ability to adapt and change will be key to navigating the future.
What's been your most successful approach to effecting change?
I've discovered that I'm far more effective at producing the change I want to see when I focus my efforts on a few specific things and then marshal as many sources of influence as I can. An email or hallway chat doesn't often change outcomes because it isn't supported by other activities. Impactful change, I think, starts with clear and compelling goals. Progress against those goals must then be measured (and digested) frequently. That foundation should then be bolstered by providing the right tools, motivation, and culture so that people can succeed.
For example, the technology team has made regular improvements to our coding, testing, and deployment processes. The effort is reinforced by automated reminders and quality checks, a battery of automated tests, by frequent code reviews, and by building a set of cultural norms which supports these processes. If I really want to see organizational change I'm most successful when I try to overdetermine the result.
Most valuable thing you’ve learned at Sidewalk?
Every obstacle presents an opportunity. It’s tempting to see problems as impediments to where you want to go but, in many cases, it turns out the opposite is actually true. Juggling a huge number of tasks that you’re not sure you can handle? That’s a great time to improve your ability to prioritize. It also gives you a chance to think more deeply about which of those activities will produce the most value. Have a tough message to deliver to a friend, neighbor, or vendor? That’s an occasion to ponder what outcome you’re hoping for, determine the best way to achieve that, and to polish your communication skills.