November 17, 2021

Tech Leaders Hiring Well featuring Nickolay Schwarz, CTO from BenchPrep


Episode Highlights

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BenchPrep has developed some impressive tools to ease the process of learning. They have grown substantially since getting their Series C in 2019 and seems like they are just getting started.

Zac Colip had the opportunity to invite their CTO, Nickolay Schwarz on the Tech Leaders Hiring Well series to learn about his evolution as a leader and what is exciting in educational technology right now. Please enjoy! 

Episode Transcript

Thanks Nickolay Schwarz for joining me on the Tech Leaders Hiring Well series here, happy to have ya! Thank you Zac, I’m pretty excited. I’m excited to talk with you. Awesome. Awesome.

Nickolay is actually the CTO over at BenchPrep, and really, really excited to kind of pick your brain a little bit and understand what you’re seeing out there today.

What are you seeing in the tech world today that’s really exciting? There is a quite a bit, there’s quite a bit. I mean, we can look at any different aspects of it and you’ll see something exciting. Anything from just general technology from like battery lives and the focus on those from movement on AI and lots of different other buzz words.

But if you want to keep it closer to what we do, which is focusing on education technology, focusing on building platforms, integrations has been a huge push that allows folks to make things cheaper and easier to try them out without a lot of coding. The rise of the low-code, no-code platforms, the rise of ad hoc integrations, kind of like a tray IO, which is very, very important because then makes me, BenchPrep and any other companies to focus on the business components of it instead of building same systems over and over, instead of building ETS and ELTS over and over again for data integration, for example. Just let the customer come in.

Build the connector themselves drag and drop their connections, convert their data any way they want and automate the whole thing. And just those type of things are extremely exciting because that basically allows us to focus on what makes the difference. And generally, I feel like that’s what allows any market to be healthier.

That’s great. That leads me into like, just kind of understanding BenchPrep a little bit more. What does BenchPrep do? Yeah. So BenchPrep was originally born as the test prep and credentialing prep software. It was born as a B2C company. It was born on focusing on providing GRE and GMAT.

So studying for GRE and GMAT, because originally the founders were realizing they were dragging books around and it wasn’t the most effective way to study. And the options back then, which was 12 years ago, was pretty expensive Copland classes or studying on the books, which is a huge, huge gap,

right? You have your tutoring, you have your group classes and you have books. So when we started this we want it to be making that as a B2C company, but we quickly realized that we want to be a technology company. And for us to succeed, we would have had to build more relationships, go to universities and things like this.

Yet we had customers come in to say, listen, let me put my label on your software. I love your software. I love what you allowing learners to do. I love that you allow not only learn, watch videos and read comments, but play games, adapt to how much time they have, build out strengths, weaknesses and guide specific questions to them.

Let me put label on it. And we were like, no, no, no, no, let’s do this. But then once we switched to B2B, it took off. We are now hundred plus. The way I like to say we’re widely known in small circles. We have tons of big name customers. If you’re studying for anything from K-12 from SAT type of tests to GMAT, Mcat, American bankers association, architects institutes to training something from CompTIA, ISACA, technology security, you name it, most likely used our system.

That’s amazing. Yeah and I mean, obviously working in the industry that I do, in the tech world, these certifications, these things on the resume that really stand out, like that’s a core to what your business is focused on. There’s always such a leap that people have to take to kind of get into this.

So it’s so great to find out that there’s a business focused on kind of building these tools out. Well I mean they’re pretty important to you Zac. I mean, if you look at some of those aspects are what makes the difference in salary. Some of those aspects is what allows you to get into the medical school or not. I mean

some of them are pretty high stakes. Yeah, no, absolutely. What technologies have come into play at BenchPrep that you’re excited about and how have things evolved over time? Yeah. So if you think about it, so BenchPrep’s been around for originally started 12 years ago but the actual push for the BenchPrep was started 10 years ago.

That’s kind of when I joined and it started everything from, depending on when you look at it from like a more archaic servers. Back then it was Rackspace and everything to nowadays going to extreme containerization, extreme balance to back then it was Ruby on rails and lots of different other similar frameworks

and you throw some backbone and a little bit growth of the front end frameworks to the system where we are now. You have quite a lot of options. You have quite a lot of- I would say even some of it got pretty commoditized so- which is great because it reduces the barrier to entry. So now it’s a lot easier to spin up

servers. It’s a lot easier to have containers. It’s a lot easier to build service oriented, microservice, whatever your buzz word of the day is architectures and focus on solving what’s important, which is the problem you’re trying to solve. So from our perspective, we’ve pretty excited on everything from like automation tools to- data is extremely important to us.

We collect so much data for our customers as a data processor. That it’s important for us to make sure that the customers have it back immediately. Their data analysts habit, there is a data warehouse powering it. Their data science teams can come in and analyze it almost immediately. So all of those things combining working together, it’s pretty exciting.

And then in general, the industry itself there’s a quite a lot of interoperability, content interoperability. So you can move between different systems, exchange data between different systems, which is exciting for us. So you can focus on the tool that does the job well. So if we focus on us, we easily integrate in every other LXP, LMS and whatnot, and, being able to send data back and forth.

Okay. Wow. It sounds complex, it sounds super useful as probably a user having all of those tools at your hands there. So as far as your role at BenchPrep, really impressive growth there seeing you grow from like what a developer architect into a CTO.

Can you walk me through how, like maybe your view as a hiring manager has shifted throughout that time and maybe what you’ve learned in that time span? Absolutely and we can probably spend easily hours on that. So let’s get our drinks and I’ll have a umbrella in mine and then we’ll talk about it.

But in general, you’re trying to solve the problems that you see not only now, but you see coming up, right? You think about what does the company need? What kind of culture do you need and what do you want to build? And I always want to stress that especially the component of the culture needs to always stay there.

And because of this, you adjust your hiring. Initially in the startup phases for a lot of companies, they might not even have the business. You know, they might not have a million of revenue or 2 million in revenue. So first they need to focus on building the business and most of the time you need folks that don’t ask for permission, instead ask for forgiveness. You need high initiative, you need your wide range of potential issues that come up specialists, people that can look up, but you also still need a healthy balance because you can’t just stack up, you know, Warney full-stack developers in the room and pretend that it’s going to be something built.

So you need to make sure that you hire well for the challenges you need. As you grow, as the company matures, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to put a red tape. It just means that you need to have people specialize and focus on pieces and continue to improve them. So the folks that were full Stack and nature can do everything a little bit will necessarily be your answer when you need a enterprise architect and juggling 10 different integration systems.

As you grow, as your partners grow, as your businesses grow, folks that can design and jump something will not necessarily be the best people on the client call trying to explain them a problem in a simplified way that this is the type of solution we should put in place. Okay, very cool. Now obviously the marketplace is extremely competitive right now for developers, data engineers, and so on, data scientists.

What does BenchPrep do to kind of set themselves apart? Why should folks consider coming to work at BenchPrep? Yeah. Yeah. The way I like to think about this, there’s a multiple different things and we have won awards before for our culture and our things and having successful business is one of the big piece of it.

Well first of all, you are jumping into a stable, mature company. Yet it’s not big, too big to have processes everywhere, have a lack of what I would even call it like a velocity in progress in it. You jump into a company, of one hundred people that has business, that has a lot of money coming in, that has 7 million users

so you know you have immediate impact of what you do. And so you’re still keeping your deployment cycle very, very short. You’re still impacting folks and you still making the change.

Here you are impacting people’s lives and their education and it’s very- 1. It’s very stable because people always will learn. And 2. Every company is a learning company. There is a aspects of learning almost everywhere and making that better does feel better.

You want impacting the world, you are making that change. You’re not just, you know, “Hey, I’m going to make some money on advertising and whatnot.” You’re legitimately making a dent. You’re not changing the world but you’re definitely making that dent and trying to say, “Hey, I’m going to make this easier. I’m going to make this studying easier.

I’m going to make this learning easier. So people don’t get frustrated when they’re doing the trainings.”

Third, we’re trying to do things right by building the culture that we want to build and the culture that we enjoy. And I can’t stress enough that I have extremely mocked out with founders and investors that understand this, understand that the culture is the corner piece of everything.

And it’s not about perks, right? We got a ton of different perks from- before COVID we had food deliveries, everybody had like a budget and they can pick whatever they want from groups of restaurants and then they get the food in the- but it’s more about the opportunities and experiences shared together.

Those perks allow and help in creating those simulations and opportunities, but you should still have them. And we spent quite a lot of time and effort trying to make sure we have that culture, even in remote environments, even in different events and organizing those events. We had a variety of events for last year before Christmas

and trying to just say like, “Hey, let’s do house decorating together. Let’s do a wine tasting and lots of different things” because I want people to spend time. Yeah. Right, no, that’s great. You got to get creative in these days. And I mean, that idea of like kind of working for a company that has an inherent goodness that you’re making a difference, that’s something that in the IT market in general, we’ve been seeing a pretty big demand for. So really cool to see a Chicago option for that.

Now, as far as like positions that you’re most excited about hiring for right now, can you showcase any of them for me? Tell us a little bit about some positions that maybe we can get out there and kind of get people interested in.

Sure. Sure.

So we spending quite a lot of time on making sure that the process is correct, the onboarding is there, there’s plenty of support, especially in the remote environment.

So anything from engineering wise, from people in the beginning of their career to early in the career, which again client meetings, architectural things, solutioning elements of this to team leading, various different aspects there. From more tech ops side, we’re looking for SRE engineers. There’s always need for those.

There’s a need for the DevOps and as well as another piece that I think we’re highlighting is data. Data is extremely important. It’s important to us and important to our customers. We push data to data warehouses, BI systems, and it’s always important to have good data engineers. Okay, awesome. Look at models and understand models.

Let’s make sure we supply customers with what they want in the same time, each customer wants something different. We want to make sure we do it in a SaaS way. We’ll make sure that we do it in a scalable way. We’ll make sure that we do it in an efficient way for the customers and for us. Awesome. That sounds like some great modern tech stack type work.

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