Ramsey Solutions is a spear, cutting through America’s pervasive toxic money culture. Activity in the building has a constant rhythm to it, like a silent metronome always ticking. I’m a brand-new digital product manager, and I’m hitting the ground running. The following is a story about re-learning how to learn during my first 90 days.
I onboarded never having a formal product manager title. Previously, I was managing a product of sorts. But more importantly, I had some tangential skills, was passionate about the mission and brought with me compassion for people who need hope.
I now work in the Ramsey Education department—and if Ramsey Solutions is a spear—Education is the tip. Ramsey Ed provides Personal Finance and Entrepreneurship curriculums to half of the country’s high schools. We welcome a new set of hundreds of thousands of students every year, primarily High Schoolers, but products range from Middle-schoolers to College.
The digital product I manage is a single-page app built in React. It’s called RamseyClassroom, and it’s the application that delivers our digital curriculum content to students and teachers.
It’s August, and in Ramsey Education, it’s “Super bowl season.” Schools are getting ready for the school year. Teachers also have a zillion things going on, and they are stressed out. To the extent we can save them time and anxiety at the beginning of a school year—that crucial first impression—the more likely, we believe they are to renew. To the extent we add to their pain and suffering, the less likely they are to renew.
RamseyClassroom includes a student roster and grading functionality for teachers. These are standard features in Education applications. A few ed-tech companies, Clever and ClassLink, know teachers spend a lot of time rostering students in dozens of applications. Rostering hundreds of students, setting up their accounts, and getting them all logged in is a mountain to climb the size of Everest. So, each company has created a product that connects school information systems (SIS) and facilitates the rostering and Single Sign-on (SSO) integration functionality with many modern education applications.
We offer customers the option to leverage either of these third-party integration options. Now before you go and throw your laptop out the window at the thought of reading an article about third-party integrations, don’t fret. I promise I won’t spend too much time on the technical aspects. What I will talk about, however, is how it’s up to me to figure this out.
The app’s previous Product Manager is working on a different application, and my dedicated development team wasn’t involved in the first iteration last year. Following a particularly well-known respiratory illness, many schools wanted to leverage this rostering and SSO technology for distance learning students. The process used to set up customers manually wasn’t scalable. It’s up to me to lead the team and get this thing working.
There is a lot to learn. And not enough time. I’m hoping for a framework to approach the process confidently, and I want to know that the time I’m committing will be well-spent. But I got nothing, so I did what any studious product manager would do: Google help articles. Fortunately, I happen upon a great learning site built by the fine people at Clever, called Clever Academy. Here, I unearthed the opportunity to earn LinkedIn badges to showcase my learning and skill for the world to see, or, as my co-workers like to call it, “ammo” to use to make fun of me.
Reading help articles wasn’t cutting it. No offense to Clever; their training class is excellent. They had videos, mini-quizzes, and “practice” areas. My inability to synthesize what I was reading is more of an “it’s not you, it’s me” situation. I didn’t have answers when questions came up, and I needed some fresh ideas on what to do to learn something new.
Since I’m in Ramsey Ed, I have the privilege of being surrounded by former teachers, and they recommended I check out something called Bloom’s Taxonomy. “Bloom’s taxonomy is a set of three hierarchical models used to classify educational learning objectives into levels of complexity and specificity” (Wikipedia, 2021). “The goal of an educator’s using Bloom’s taxonomy is to encourage higher-order thought in their students by building up from lower-level cognitive skills” (UCF, 2021). Elliott’s paraphrased version: Bloom’s Taxonomy is a list of words that communicate higher-order thinking (the thinking that scientifically leads to learning) is to act.
Just Do It
Around this time, my leader, Ryan, is beginning to encourage me to listen to Art Williams’ famous “Just do it” speech on my way to work each morning. If you haven’t seen the video, do yourself a favor and check it out here. As I listen, Art delivers the encouragement and pep talk I needed in the video, and he moves me beyond reading help articles into the action space. And that’s when it hit me: reading isn’t learning.
I cannot learn by reading alone. Learning isn’t something I do; it results from the action I take in a new area. Blog buddy Jason Jeong says, “it’s impossible to understand that macro without understanding the micro.” I take this to mean that I cannot shortcut learning--it just takes a lot of doing. And when I didn’t know what to do, I did what I knew how.
To learn the integration process, I began creating flow charts. For nerds like me, using a tool like Lucid Chart can be fun, and it forces me to think about a process on a much deeper level. It drives yes/no questions, “what’s next?” questions. Asking myself these types of questions brought a lot of direction to the learning process. The obvious side benefit is that once complete, creators can share their flow charts with others. Users can reference any part of the chart and immediately know how something works because of the invested effort.
I came from a business where we put everything into a procedure. We had a procedure for writing procedures. It may seem ultra-boring or even antiqued. Swedish instruction manual super-power Ikea knows this. They got so fed up with procedures that they removed words from their instruction manuals altogether! But writing down what to do and how to do it, step-by-step in detail, worked for me. It built my expertise, and I cannot argue with the results.
Side note: With third-party integrations, no matter how much we refine the code, there will always be a bit of manual, human work. For example, we offer a Personal Finance curriculum, so we must review the section data shared with us to confirm its Personal Finance-related. At some point, this process will get picked up by our technical support specialist, and this written procedure will be a helpful reference tool. Like the flow charts, procedures become artifacts for sharing and reference material for others to use later. Presently my Clever process doc is eight pages and 2,500 words.
We’ve all heard “learn by teaching,” and in my experience, that’s a suitable method too. If I’m on the hook to put on a presentation about something new I’m learning, that’s motivating. I don’t need any extra help looking stupid, so this focuses me up. But let this be another vote for the idea of the written procedure. Writing is a much lower-stress method of teaching. I got to take the time to think, write, try, refine without the pressure of public speaking, and I avoid ending my co-workers via “Killing by Keynote.” Something they’ll appreciate. I heard writing a blog helps to learn things too, but I remain skeptical about that. Aren’t Blog writers so pretentious?
Some may find the notion of writing procedures boring. And for them, this next point is going to be a real thrill! I did the integration configuration process 44 times. Completing this set up a bunch of times helped me learn more about it. And I have a whole new appreciation for our technical support specialist and what it’s like to understand this process from scratch. I observed something interesting happens when I repeat a process: first, it allows me to get more fluid in a thing’s “basics” or “constants.” Second, Repetition creates opportunities for variations in the process to present themselves. When there is a variance that is material and could likely present itself regularly, I add the note to the written procedure.
At Ramsey Solutions, we have a core value, Excellence in the ordinary. In short, it means “We are faithful in the little things.” Including setting up third-party integration configurations behind the scenes.
Most people will think, “I don’t have time for this.” And they’re right; I didn’t have time for all of this either. I’m not going to say, “make time,” either. I’m not a fan of the term myself. I get what people are trying to say when they say it, but what they should be saying is “cut something out.” Plus, I tend to think I can get more done than I can. So, when this third-party integration stuff became my primary focus, I had to have a heart-to-heart with myself. Another one of our core values here at Ramsey Solutions is Marketplace Service. It says that “If we help enough people, we don’t have to worry about money.” That helps remind me that it’s my responsibility, and I owe it to my team, so I cut other significant things out to make room. Benefit: I became the in-house expert!
Words of Encouragement
My quest for knowledge relates directly to my deep desire to provide value in my role. Ultimately my job is solving customer problems. I love Marty Cagan’s Inspired. He implores readers to be experts in like 50 categories and calls it “table stakes.” He’s not wrong either, but here is some encouragement for those still on the journey like me: I realized I don’t have to know to “know everything” to solve a problem.
“Our people must learn to do good by meeting the urgent needs of others; then they will not be unproductive.” Titus 3:14 NLT
I’m convinced learning by doing is one of many ways product managers can help their teams.
It’s early in the learning process. I’m new and determined to prove to my leaders that they hired the right guy. I had never heard of Clever or ClassLink before, but I’m smart-ish; how hard could it be? Admittedly, I didn’t think the configuration was that complex. Eager to work through the backlog of requests from schools, knowing more would be coming in, I proceed solo, setting up district configurations and running data imports.
You see it coming a mile away; I make a critical error. I fail to see that ClassLink does not create unique keys for each school. ClassLink uses the source ID from the school’s information system (SIS) as the key in the roster server. Multiple school’s keys “collide,” causing mismatched data internally. It wasn’t widespread, but it was enough to mess up a handful of schools’ rostering and SSO capabilities.
One school, an early adopter, and an early starter had the worst experience of all the schools--the rostering service rostered the wrong students repeatedly, and they could rarely use SSO to sign in. I created a terrible experience for them. They experienced every step of our “iterative approach,” which is just a nice way of saying “slow phases of fixing.”
Thankfully, my superb development team bails me out. We do a data reset, and we get this school up and running. Talking to my leader, I ask if we can give this school something to make it right. We decided on a free year of site licenses for the two curriculums they had already purchased, along with standard and advanced live professional development. The school was very grateful and appreciated the gesture. I heard back from one of the teachers later; the content was changing the lives of his students and even his finances!
Let it go
I did a bit of letting go. I did my best, learned everything I could; I made some mistakes along the way, but we made it right in the end. Ideally, we consistently deliver a wonderfully fantastic product that solves all of the customer’s problems. But sometimes, Customers want to know that we care. And we accomplish that by telling them that we care about them, apologize for making a mistake, make it right, and recommit to becoming lifelong learners.
Are you interested in working in Technology at Ramsey Solutions? If so, please apply here and reference this post. We look forward to meeting you!