After five years at Facebook, where she was one of three engineers who launched the company’s advertising platform, Yun-Fang Juan could write her own ticket. That might have meant joining an early-stage startup in the mold of, say, Instagram (sold to Facebook for $1 billion), or starting her own venture (ex-Facebook engineer Dave Morin has one valued at $250 million), or angling for one of Google’s legendary compensation packages.
Instead, after taking some time off for soul searching, the long-ago winner of a Yahoo “superstar” award decided to go work for a small online education non-profit known as Khan Academy, where she’d have no shot at any sort of jackpot.
“I got an offer from every single company I interviewed with,” Juan says, “but I chose the Khan Academy…. I asked myself, ‘If financial gain is the secondary concern, what kind of work do I want to do? What kind of impact do I want to have on the world? What do I need to do to be the role model for my daughter?’”
Juan is hardly alone. Khan Academy, an educational non-profit, is becoming one of the sexiest workplaces for programmers in Silicon Valley, where stock options, IPOs, and big-money acquisitions have long been considered key to luring talent. It’s attracted star coders from companies like Google and Microsoft and, as it grows, has its pick of some of the tech sector’s top engineers.
Khan’s recruiting success underlines something often forgotten as investment dollars pour in to the Valley: Money isn’t everything. At Khan, none of the staff can hope for a fast fortune. What they can realistically hope for is to shape a nascent industry and to markedly improve the lives of millions of students. It turns out that means a lot.
Craig Silverstein, employee number one at Google, left for Khan Academy this February. As he describes it, Silverstein’s decision had nothing to do with a charitable impulse to improve the world; he just wanted the satisfaction of cracking a tough problem. Silverstein says he had been unable to find any more challenges within Google that interested him.
“One of the metrics I found myself using at work was like, ‘This is okay, but it’s not as interesting as like what Khan Academy is doing,’” Silverstein says. “After awhile I was like, ‘Hmm, maybe I should listen to what I’m saying to myself.’”
Khan Academy began in 2006 as a tidy collection of math and science tutorial videos from its founder Salman Khan, a hedge-fund analyst who had posted the material to help friends and relatives. Its popularity snowballed, and in recent years Khan has beefed up the software that sits behind and around the video lessons, delivering interactive practice exercises and enabling conversation and remote teaching. From just two programmers at the beginning of 2011 and five programmers a year ago, Khan is up to 20 coders now, not counting 15 summer interns. It could use more engineers, but has deliberately slowed its hiring to preserve its laid-back workplace culture, which includes group outings for bowling, movies, and board games.
In many ways, Khan Academy resembles a software startup more than a traditional nonprofit. Workers say the pace of software development can be intense – “I am working as hard as I was at Facebook, if not harder,” says Juan – and the salary is calibrated to match that intensity.
“We compensate extremely well, especially for this area,” says Ben Kamens, who quit Fog Creek, a well-regarded New York software boutique, to join Khan as lead developer, bringing a programmer coworker along with him. “Life here is pretty good and we wouldn’t be able to hire the team we’ve hired if that wasn’t the case.”
Khan is constantly peppered with unsolicited overtures from people interested in helping to improve the academy’s code base, Kamens says, a wide spectrum of developers including the very seasoned and very young. That’s partly because Khan invites contributions to its source code, freely available on GitHub, but also because the organization is at the center of the hot, fast-emerging online education movement.
“It just sort of strikes a nerve with people when you start to get a grasp of exactly the scale of education and the quality of education that can be achieved,” Kamens says. “We’re kind of at the center of a really interesting debate right now.”
Indeed, online education ventures are fast proliferating, and Khan isn’t the only organization seeing interest from hotshot coders. Sebstian Thrun, co-founder of for-profit online education startup Udacity and a longtime Google researcher, says that because online education resonates with programmers, “We are getting A+ engineers that are spectacular even by Google standards.” Still, he concedes, Udacity’s draw is, for the moment, “not as strong as Khan.”