How did this less-than-glamorous edtech company snag one of Facebook's coveted engineering directors?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on April 7, 2014

From The News Desk

Over at edtech company Remind101, founders -- and brothers -- Brett and David Kopf are popping metaphorical champagne. They went fishing in the depressing waters of San Francisco's hyper-competitive engineering pool and managed to hook themselves a big, fat, coveted trout by the name of Josh Wiseman. 31-year-old Wiseman is one of those platinum classes of programmer that any startup would be thrilled to snag, let alone a small, under-the-radar education technology company.

Wiseman served as one of Facebook's twenty or so engineering directors for roughly five years. During that time he ran engineering for Timeline, worked on the Facebook Paper app, and helped launch the first version of Facebook chat. With so much time and experience under his belt, he began itching to tackle what he saw to be more important problems in the world than social connectivity. "I wanted to explore healthcare or education," Wiseman says. "Fields with a social good component like saving people's lives or helping them get better opportunities."

He took a year off, serving as an Engineer-in-Residence at a VC firm called The Social+Capital Partnership and spending a month embedded in the Summit charter school district to study its edtech efforts. During that time, he met the Remind101 team and eventually succumbed to the Kopf brothers' recruiting efforts.

It's a big boon for Remind101, a two year old company that helps teachers, students, and parents communicate via text message. All the phone numbers are disguised, so teachers can send out mass SMS's without compromising their personal information.

Remind101 is a graduate of the Imagine K12 accelerator, trained in the consumer approach to edtech: Offer the product free, get it into as many users hands as possible, and worry about monetizing later. CEO Brett Kopf says that over 15 percent of the teachers in the nation are using it, and they're adding 30,000-50,000 users per day. The growth took Remind101 from 5 million messages sent per month on average last year, to 75 million messages sent per month this year.

Two years in, the Kopfs have raised $18.2 million in venture to grow their user base before attempting to monetize through added features. "We view ourselves as a consumer web company in the vertical of education," CEO Brett Kopf tells me. New hire Wiseman will work on growth plans for the company, lowering barriers for new users.

Although Remind101 is one of the healthier edtech startups out there, snagging Wiseman is still a huge win for the company. Education technology is not quite as sexy as some other fields, and it doesn't offer the same payout as something like Facebook.

"It's certainly not the most lucrative area for any engineer to get into," Wiseman admits. He was attracted to the similarities between Facebook and Remind101. He sees the company as using technology to facilitate communication among teachers and students, just like Facebook facilitates communication among its billion-plus users.

It's a little strange that such a high-level engineer would choose to leave his undoubtedly lucrative, high-profile position at a behemoth like Facebook, only to tackle a problem as simple as text messaging for schools. It's not exactly a revolutionary, education-saving idea.

When pushed on that point, Wiseman laughs. "I heard that a lot when I went to Facebook in 2007," Wiseman says. "Very few people knew what was going to happen with Facebook in the next few years."

Although Remind101 is a simple messaging tool, he thinks that simplicity is an advantage for the education market. It's easier to spread it through schools if it's easy to adopt.

Furthermore, once it has enough users, the platform can expand in the future, just like Facebook started as a simple network of profiles before adding features like Timeline and Chat. Wiseman would know -- he was part of the small Facebook team that created Chat after the idea formed during an internal company hackathon.

In a Q&A while he was still at Facebook, Wiseman's driving motivations revealed themselves. "Given all the information that people are sharing online now and all the info they'll be sharing online a year from now or five years from now, we have this amazing opportunity and responsibility to make Facebook the most effective and useful tool for that sharing," Wiseman says.

The Kopf brothers tapped into that drive when recruiting Wiseman to join Remind101.

As Brett Kopf told me, "The vertical of education, which is think is the most important vertical on the planet, doesn't have access to the same communication platforms."

True, the education field may not have access to the same high level of communication technology as a company like Facebook. But now that Remind101 has an engineer with expertise in building said technology, that could all change.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]