A passionate edtech leader gets into the nitty-gritty of a purpose-drive approach.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
When Russell Long and his cofounder Gene Garcia moved from wishful conversation into actually moving to create their company, Authentica Solutions, it was clear that their minds were aligned with a focus: creating a values-driven company acting on its core purpose of ‘servant leadership’. They knew that their backgrounds, experience, relationships, passion for the K-12 education space and expertise brought them to the creation of a professional services company that delivers K-12 Enterprise Technology, says Russell, who has over 17 years in the K-12 industry, and has served 45 of the top 50 school districts, numerous departments of education and many mid-sized to smaller organizations including charter schools globally. “Our focus is actually bridging the largest gap between great enterprise software implementation and student achievement,” he says. According to Russell, there are tremendous software
Can education advance from the depths of the IT driven backroom? Yes, but we have to solve some fundamental challenges to make the backroom operations deliver in the classroom.
solutions that can serve K-12 extremely well — but require significant change in thinking and practice. However, most K-12 companies providing these solutions, diminish their ability to realize student achievements gains through purchasing educators because of their implementation practices. What’s seen as a temporary, short-term issue and often treated as such, creates the stage and environment for which each piece, each feature within the software is to be used. “Educator acceptance of these solutions is paramount if K-12 companies want to realize their vision for impacting achievement gains,” says Russell. “We took all of our experience, knowledge, partnership and relationship contributions, and developed AIM Adoption Improvement Method.”
Victor: What other goals did you have?
Russell: The second goal came from knowing the adoption and implementation paradigm extremely well. What is the greatest element holding the implementation process back. Now, stay with me. Those of us deep within the K-12 professional services space know that adoption takes years while implementations are bound by projects which by definition, have a hard beginning and must have a distinct, definitive end. Adoption doesn’t live in the boundaries of a project and will consists of many projects for your ROI goals to come to fruition. What’s the biggest contributor to the project? What consumes the most time within Enterprise Software Implementation Projects? Take a look at your project plan templates and you will see that Data Management – specifically Data Integration consumes 40-60% of the total hours. Take the next step now and look at the Actual Hours recorded post implementation, you will notice that as a K-12 company, you are probably losing profitability on data integration 75% of the time. That means that K-12 companies lose revenue and keep in mind that there is another side to this coin – the K-12 organization – whether a district or DOE. The K-12 organization experiences frustration often alienating K-12 IT departments from their curricular arms, diminished relationships between with the K-12 company, and often times unintended disappointment is rolled out to the educators in the field as a result. All of these experiences directly impact adoption. So, what can Authentica do about it? Goal number two for Authentica: Create an impossibly elegant piece of software that can:
- Reduce the integration time between K-12 Enterprise Software solutions with all other, existing software solutions within an education organization by 50% or more.
- Provide immediate value that starts reducing integration time immediately, but allows us to grow the product organically but is fused with our Professional Services model.
- Dissolves the need for companies to spend product development time on dropping every file type known to man – CSVs, XMLs, and even APIs. Value well beyond what we are paid for…
- Doesn’t require K-12 companies to love each other and actually care what the needs are of each other…I know sounds harsh but it’s the reality of the situation. Let’s take care of it with our solution.
- Has a lifetime of growth opportunities to extend beyond K-12 – maybe PK-20W, etc.
- Articulates, cultivates, and delivers increased value with each integration, interface, connector, and solution delivered. Reuse is huge for us to hit our goal of 50%+ reduction in time.
- Share it all through a social portal that embraces the life of the K-12 technologist in both education organizations and the companies serving them. A place now known as the K-12TechHub where everything around integrations will be shared, at users discretion but including sql pulls, interface design, actual interface creation, mapping documents, transformation resolutions, schemas, etc.
- Oh, and force open the door of transparency between K-12 companies so this growth can occur. This may be the most difficult issue to solve.
Victor: And all this led to…
Russell: We now call this product, DataSense™, and as impossible as it may sound, we are moving toward these goals quickly. Let’s be clear, we know this product even designed as an IPaaS, Integration Platform as a Service, will solve many challenges and reduce time, it must be combined with a best practice driven, experienced professional services team yielding powerful interface design tools with an understanding of the K-12 data. DataSense™ will grow quickly as we move more control, features, and increase the connector libraries reducing the demands on professional services teams while increasing the capabilities of our users. Thus our slogan, accelerating the flow of learning…™ should have two definitive outcomes:
- Reduce implementation timeframes so K-12 can focus on student achievement, base purpose of K-12 Enterprise Software, regardless of where it’s deployed. Yes, that means reducing project plans providing greater flexibility, relationships, and focus on customer service for K-12 company.
- Focus on the greatest advantage, Adoption of the enterprise through service, promises recognized, and student growth.
Victor: What’s integration?
Russell: Connecting disparate systems to facilitate the greater capabilities of the implementing software solution.
What this actually means depends on whom you ask but we define this need as connecting source systems (SS) to applications of need (AON). So, the most common is moving data from a SS – SIS, Student Information System to the AON, a gradebook software for instance. Now this is the easiest part of the equation. The real challenge is taking data from the AON and all AONs back into the SIS. This is where the rubber meets the road, funds our schools and DOEs, and allows us to universally track collective progress.
Victor: Why is it important to schools (outside of state reporting)?
Russell: We have so many different software solutions serving the K-12 Enterprise and we have trends driving the ebb and flow between two decision points:
Enterprise Glory – The glorious dream of one system and solution that does it all, combining the best in class of an assessment systems that yields immediate student learning, gradebooks that teachers love to use and keep updated by the second, and the most complex, direct feedback loops for serving our exceptional populations whether learning adjustments for our special education or gifted and talented students. I believe the education enterprise has realized this isn’t possible within a single product and that breakthroughs are driven by companies focusing on single aspects and solutions. The net result is the next decision point.
Best of Breed – The thinking that companies producing software that is exclusively focused on solving defined, specific needs has the greater potential to create a Best of Breed solution. I believe K-12 organizations are moving back to this thinking immediately. We tried to find a single K-12 company that could deliver the all-encompassing solution and many came close. There were acquisitions all over the place, billions spent trying to combined, facilitate, and create the Enterprise Glory solution to realize it may just not be possible. I think our largest Enterprise contributors will begin to rethink corporate structures and developing smaller enterprise within their larger umbrella to begin realizing these gains again. The only pathway to a single offering is by integrating the best software with a unified data stream. DataSense™ is the only offering that provides this depth of integration.
There are competitors new to the scene that offer an integration platform buts is not IPaaS offering solutions behind the firewall, ASP, SaaS and Cloud offerings. The greatest challenge with these competitors is they are only solving the SIS to APP challenge.
Victor: Alright! Phew! That’s some thorough thinking about these important issues. Alright then, next up: what’s something interesting specifically about its development history?
Russell: K-12 is a different world and experience is required to make it work for any organization. Whether it’s those of us that came from teaching/coaching positions right out of college or those that were thrust into the K-12 space through a company’s decision to enter the space or a move from another industry, you cannot part time commit to education regardless of your role, as a company, as a project manager, or an integration company. This industry requires dedication, an understanding that everything you deliver, build, create must be focused on student achievement to be successful. Now, there are many that have been successful focusing on the revenue opportunity and creative thinking but is that success? Our background with implementing software is the history that we bring to the table – the failed, the successful, and the suspicion of the unknown created AIM™ and DataSense™.
It’s also interesting that with the many years of combined experience our diverse team has, we have arrived at similar conclusions. And we have validated these with K-12 organizations, education technology K-12 companies, the education analyst community, the private investor community, DOEs, superintendents and chief administrative officers at all levels.
There is widespread agreement on the sources of frustration with technology adoption in K-12 organizations, but perceived widespread disagreement on the solutions. We don’t perceive that much disagreement. There are clearly some divergent interests at work in the K-12 industry, but we view these more as systemic positions that can be managed correctly by an experienced, trusted partner like Authentica Solutions employing the practices and philosophies that we bring to the table.
Victor: Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?
Russell: Serving the K-12 industry has been a family passion for years and a passion of our whole team. Over my 17 years in the K-12 industry, I’ve served 45 of the top 50 school districts, great departments of education and many mid-sized to smaller organizations including charter schools globally. Our greatest knowledge is on U.S. based education practices and we feel the global markets are growing quickly for K-12 Enterprise Solutions. But that’s just me, the truth is that the teams of engineers, developers, education analysts, project managers, leaders, companies and educators has contributed to our current direction. The good, the bad, and the “could have been better” areas of experience have driven our team to create these solutions.
Authentica Solutions is my third K-12 focused company. I have worked in and for some of the giants of the industry as well. I’ve also worked for diverse education technology providers offering solutions in the LMS, Assessment, SIS, Special Education, Staff Evaluation and Student Services areas. I’ve managed a professional services organization from small nimble teams to well over 140 team members from former educators to hard-core technologists. Another Founder at Authentica Solutions, Gene Garcia, is one of those hard-core technologists with a superb track record of delivering as promised. Gene is driven by a passion to empower teams to make technology right for the K-12 space while delivering the best solutions for the challenge. A focus on organic product management models serves our customers and company growth well.
When Gene and I started Authentica Solutions, it was with an agreement that we would be a trustworthy, honest company and that our customers, partners and employees would find us easy to work with. We wanted to bring an “authentic” approach and passion for serving the K-12 consumer, the technology provider community and each other. Our company culture is forged in this philosophy – a shared passion and easy relationships. Our core expressed values are Trust, Authenticity, Truth, and Love. The foundation of our organization is a love for the K-12 space and for what you contribute at Authentica. We are growing our team and have a solid team of contractors that share in this culture.
Our experiences—good, horrible, and okay—have created our values. We started with this enormous list of 18 core values. Right – nuts! Through careful consideration and reflection, we were able to define the core, the most essential that really delivers all the other values we started out considering.
Victor: How about your 60 second pitch? Okay to talk fast!
Russell: AIM is a successful, continuous technology planning, evaluation, selection, implementation, adoption, support and sustainability process that nobody else offers. It starts with the initial strategic planning over a longer planning horizon and emphasizes organizational and financial impact over project milestone achievement.
AIM is also modular so that it can be adopted anywhere in the cycle or applied to a specific lifecycle concern, but its primary goal is assure wide adoption, long-term planning and extended realized value on technology investments.
In a nutshell, our value comes from our K-12 experience, our K-12-specific solutions, our focus on adoption and the ease of K-12 company-agnostic data exchange we feature.
Given the current state of technology in the Interaction Economy, we have to acknowledge that specific systems and functions do not operate in a vacuum yet we often still act like they do.
Consider this common situation: A user that updates a student’s data in the Student Information/Administration System may impact the Instructional Management System, the Assessment system, the Grading System, the Electronic Messaging System (EMS), the Student Financials system, the Student Activities system, the Library Management system, Textbook/Learning Resources systems, Food Services systems, Transportation systems, GIS systems, Billing systems and so on. For online schools that have a Fulfillment system for required school supplies, this simple update can also affect their Procurement and Distribution systems. Moreover, if the student happens to be in an accelerated learning program, in a response to intervention situation or is disabled and requires accommodations, Special Education program systems and funding can be affected as well.
DOE, State, Federal and Community reporting systems will certainly be affected. Finally, many local education agencies and state education agencies use their parent government financial, budgeting, grants, procurement and HR systems and must manage interactions with them too.
Imagine DataSense™ as an airport. Terminal I (input) allows for great amounts of data from all applications including data stores or data warehouses to feed other systems. A chance to define source system ownership, unify the data approaches and structure to deliver validated, true data to any system that wants to receive it. We transport that data to the central area, the airport (if you will) where we utilize a series of awesome tools we refer to as the control tower. The control tower allows the data streams or flows to be organized and prepared for applications to receive them appropriately. Remember, every application out there is working on their own, disparate design and has specific needs including data structure, format, organization, and each requires some level of transformation. In addition, we offer cleansing and validation – airport facilities (again, if you will), that ensure the data being prepared and provided meets expectations. After a short time at the airport, the data is place on specific airplanes headed toward each receiving application. From a technical point-of-view, this is a known as a federated approach to data management specifically because we only transport the data in cache mode until it is received, confirmed and then we delete that data from DataSense™. We don’t have any plans to add hotels to our airport. We are seeking partners that focus on the centralized approach of data management and need a way to organize the disparate systems of data flow to integrate with their solutions. We are very close to a partnership with a company offering an Cloud based Data Store and we are excited about the potential of our solutions working together to solve this complex challenge.
The combination of Authentica Solutions’ Adoption Improvement Method™ and DataSense™ IPaaS ensures that a continuous technology planning, adoption and sustainability model is followed and that the interaction and exchange of data across all affected solutions is considered and occurs with as little human intervention and cost as possible.
With our AIM and DataSense solutions, we believe we can extend the useful lives of technology investments, decrease integration investments by up to 50% and significantly affect the value realized from technology investments.
Victor: Would you say that you have any direct or even indirect competition?
Russell: Authentica really does not have direct competition because we focus on solving problems that nobody else solves for the K-12 industry. That’s why bringing Authentica Solutions into technology planning and implementation processes can provide long-term value to both technology consumers and providers. The combination of Authentica Solutions’ Adoption Improvement Method™ and DataSense™ IPaaS ensures that a continuous technology planning, adoption and sustainability model is followed and that the interaction and exchange of data across all affected solutions is considered and occurs with as little human intervention (and cost) as possible.
So while we all like to think nobody is like us, let’s dive into our indirect competition. There are companies that have entered the data integration space and have shared their only interest is in unifying data from SIS to APP only. We ascribe that the SIS to APP process makes up less than 20% of the total solution that Authentica delivers. Of course, each K-12 company selling software has some form of implementation and they all intend to deliver the best possible. We would love to even partner with each of these to grow their client base and ensure high adoption retention of their current customers by using the entire data solution we offer.
Victor: Any highlights about test marketing it or starting out, any interesting feedback, reaction to it?
Russell: We have been overwhelmed with the initial response. Honestly, the most common response we get is “It’s about time.” This has come from potential customers, potential investors and, surprisingly, from other education technology K-12 companies.
Industry Analysts from Gartner to Constellation Research have espoused this kind of approach in their writings about vertical-specific solutions and life in the era of Big Data (and a comparative “Little Data” approach to nurture 1:1 education experiences). The Authentica approach bridges K-12 company specific technologies propagated by vested technology K-12 companies and their partners. This is why our logo incorporates a heavy-duty bridge image.
What is really needed is NOT a K-12 company-specific approach that leads to K-12 company lock-in, but a K-12-specific, organizational discipline approach that views adoption and ubiquitous data integration as the keys to successful usage of technology in the classroom and across the organization.
What is most interesting about our initial efforts is that we have gotten interest from many education technology K-12 companies and K-12 companies that cater to the education market. Many are finding that partnering with Authentica Solutions may give them the ability to meet K-12 requirements without having to invest in a team of industry consultants.
That is also why Authentica Solutions has partnered with organizations like the Ed-Fi Alliance to bring the Common Education Data Standards (CEDS) to life and to spur adoption. We both take a K-12 company agnostic approach to data usage and exchange so that the Education industry can take back control of their functions rather than ceding them to K-12 companies. We also believe the pending data store partner we are working with presently will bring huge gains to the K-12 space when combined with our offerings.
Adopting and implementing these types of standards will enable K-12 companies to adopt and provide solutions that are more K-12-specific and adhere to K-12 practices rather than hoping K-12 organizations can adopt the commercial practices that dominate their solutions.
So imagine that we could create repeatable, open, enterprise interfaces – connectors with all the K-12 enterprise players. Within a single district or at the DOE level, we take all the inbound data and within DataSense we allow the district to create their standard. We know it’s know its not a desired universal standard, but let’s start with the middle ground – it’s still a huge step forward. Whatever enterprise solutions a district is running is THEIR standard, it is the DATA they need to create a community of instruction solutions to serve THEIR students. With DataSense, we will take all their inbound data flows from each application and create a District Standard of data, from here we can convert to a universal standard such as CEDS within DataSense. We can unify the data flows to facilitate fast, quick interfaces with any existing or new applications or EDW. With a defined standard, speed, upgrades, adjustments, new applications being launched become integration ready to test in less than a day – not weeks or months.
Victor: What else can you say about the value and benefit of Authentica Solutions?
Russell: Authentica Solutions supports K-12 organizations no matter where they are on the data exchange spectrum. Whether using a centralized or federated approach, K-12 organizations can count on Authentica Solutions to support their functional/technical needs and to deploy their preferred data exchange processes.
For instance, if a K-12 organization is using a federated approach with an Infor/Lawson ERP solution and their ION ESB with a Pearson, Skyward, Infinite Campus, Oracle/PeopleSoft or Blackboard student management system, Authentica can help drive CEDS, Ed-Fi, hybrid and/or organization-unique approaches through these solutions. We can add Assessment solutions from Scantron, ACT or AIMSWeb; electronic grading solutions from Engrade, FOCUS or GlobalScholar, and; Special Education or RTI systems from Public Consulting Group or Goalbook. We can help K-12 organizations implement Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI) projects so that managing multiple Learning Resource Management solutions from publishers like Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt (HMH), McGraw-Hill or Fishtree is simpler. All common data exchange formats are supported from text files to CSV, XML and SQL. Integration processes can be scheduled and monitored, alerts can be subscribed to and dependencies implemented. Best of all, these integrations can all be managed in one place – the DataSense Control Tower.
However, our team has also worked with centralized approaches where an Enterprise Data Warehouse and/or Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) is the primary data hub where operational and administrative systems exchange standard/enriched/transformed data. All of the same benefits of DataSense as noted for the federated approach still apply even though the direction of the information flows may be different.
Victor: Anything else in the works? Additional products?
Russell: Probably the most important addition we have coming soon is in our DataSense solution. See if this situation sounds familiar: You’ve just done an important application update only to find out that the integration of data between that application and another application has stopped working because of an undocumented change in the underlying data model or data exchange model. Sound familiar?
Soon with DataSense, if an important system update is performed to a source/target application and the underlying data exchange model is changed, the K-12 technical team can easily research and apply updates to the supporting integration processes through DataSense in conjunction with the source/target system update – eliminating those integration surprises we all hate when doing application updates.
We looking to provide MDM, Quality Management, Transformational Security, Enterprise Adaptation, Automated Data Flow Resolution and we will be moving features today only found in desktop applications for data management into DataSense™ as we rollout the product. We think we have a firm grasp on the needs of those that will use DataSense™, and as we rollout it out and as our culture dictates, we will adjust to accommodate.
Victor: Your thoughts on education in general these days?
Russell: Wow, what change we have accomplished and what insane opportunities K-12 has in front of us. As mentioned earlier, from an enterprise perspective I surmise we will see:
- Best of Breed in product selection will takeover (AGAIN) the RFP and RFI would from K-12 organizations as long as viable integration technology arises. Ok, namely us.
- I think the junior and senior levels of high school will continue to accelerate and become blurred with freshmen and sophomore college years. As MOOCs and online learning continues to accelerate, these worlds become options not pathways.
- The EdTech space will explode with startups both for-profit and nonprofits alike, to solve huge issues with student achievement. New definitions will arise for what adaptive should really mean and technology is the only universal means to achieve personalized, continuous learning.
- Governance, while important as a guide and sometimes a driver, has the potential to stall growth and create widespread fear as seen in recently PR challenges for some startups. Governance will need to be specific and focused, not general and vague leading to restrictive data management practices including many that get in the way of student achievement.
- Data Analytics will continue to grow, however, define data allowances will need to drive how data is interpreted within K-12. Today, within districts and DOEs, an individual or small team has control over what data they want to see, thus defining what they data actually means. We need more definitive, agreed standardization of interpretation of specifically defined data elements to make analytics more viable.
- Adaptive Teaching models will grow and technology will provide methods for accelerating how and what adaptive teaching looks like. We are seeing the early thinking around such a concept in blended, variable learning models today.
Okay, so I read a little and have many opinions. So I have many more.
Victor: Fair enough! Any general guidance or advice to educators these days? Russell: For educators focused on deploying software, take the time and cash to focus on adoption. Of course, we can help but beyond us or anyone else – don’t just launch applications in hope that they will change education, fix an issue or save your children. It won’t happen. For educators interpreting data, look at the raw information before making assumptions and noticing trends. We often find exactly what we are looking for instead of what’s really there.
The most important advice I could offer our teachers and administrators is to be open. Regard the mayor style of classroom management as incomplete, wrong. If you protect your classroom, guard against change, and leave out technology just because you have not mastered it yet – the biggest punch in the gut is to your kids in those seats. Embrace stepping back and dropping a few ideas and technology into your kid’s hands, then grab your notebook! If you look at the infusion potential of “Majority Report (Movie)” style devices and information usage going on in the classroom, yes Promethean is driving this forward, teachers will have to reconsider what pedagogy really means. This is something I am calling Agile Pedagogical Practice. Okay—I just made that up, but—the reality is that the Agile method of thinking produces and it can in the classroom as well.
Victor: Anything else?
Russell: Can education advance from the depths of the IT driven backroom? Yes, but we have to solve some fundamental challenges to make the backroom operations deliver in the classroom. We believe AIM™ and DataSense™ are ways to make this happen and start happening today.
Victor: Thank you for an insightful interview, Russell! I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and I hope our readers may benefit because of it.
Russell: Thank you, Victor!
Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org