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Khan Academy’s Marcia Lee Builds Tools for Online Education

Marcia Lee shapes the Khan Academy’s tools for Web-based instruction

3 min read
Marcia Lee

Despite being photographed outdoors in full sunlight, a 160-mm-diagonal, color cholesteric liquid-crystal display, built with off-the-shelf electronics for demonstration purposes by Kent Displays Inc., shows a bright image. The image is produced by reflected light, not backlighting, and no power is needed to hold the image on the screen.

Photo: Gabriela Hasbun; Stylist: Tietjen Fischer

In late August 2010, Marcia Lee, newly graduated from Stanford with a master's degree in computer science, packed her car and drove north from Silicon Valley for what she thought would be a fantastic job at Microsoft and an awesome apartment in Seattle. She turned out to be right about the digs but wrong about the work.

So after just five months, Lee quit Microsoft and headed back to Silicon Valley. The apartment she settled into there was nothing special, but the new job she found, at the Khan Academy, sang to her heart.

The Khan Academy educates millions of people online, and for free, thanks in no small measure to Lee's software. That code allows both students and teachers (or coaches, as the Khan Academy calls them) to navigate and interact with the site. Lee loves using her technical skills to help people. But she had to spend time at Microsoft before she grasped how much the human part meant to her.

Before going to Microsoft, Lee had spent a few months volunteering as a software engineer at Samasource, something she had also done briefly during school. The nonprofit organization provides people living in poverty in developing countries with work they can do over the Internet, using just basic English skills. She no longer had time for Samasource after she signed on with Microsoft as a program manager. But that was fine with her; she envisioned a long and busy career moving from one interesting assignment to another.

At Microsoft, she was placed on the team responsible for the company's Messenger server, the system behind Windows Live Messenger. Messenger server technology works in the background to make sure that all Microsoft's messenger apps play well together. Lee, whose master's specialization was in the field of human-computer interaction, found that the human element that mattered so much to her was missing. “I was just a little bit too far removed from the user-facing side of things," she says.

She also found the pace of software development at Microsoft frustratingly sluggish. A Silicon Valley native who had grown up on Internet time, Lee likes to see whatever she's working on mature quickly. But her project at Microsoft had timelines measured in years, not months.

Lee soon figured out that Microsoft was just not for her. She had a heart-to-heart talk with her manager in January 2011, and a couple of weeks later she walked out the door looking for greener pastures.

Her parents, both Chinese immigrants, weren't happy. They felt that a secure job at a big company was not something to be thrown away lightly. “In hindsight, I was a little bit bold," says the typically soft-spoken Lee. “I had no idea where I was going."

She settled temporarily into her parents' Silicon Valley house. And she started, once again, looking for a job.

This time, she had a good idea of what she wanted: to be part of a group that had a purpose beyond making money, perhaps something like Samasource, but with a mission she could more easily relate to. So she worked her Stanford network for leads, and eventually a friend of a friend forwarded her an e-mail message about a job opening at the Khan Academy.

Today, the Khan Academy is well known, at least in education circles. In early 2011, however, it was only four people working above a tea shop in downtown Mountain View, Calif. Its founder, Sal Khan, had yet to give the TED conference talk that brought him into the spotlight and prompted the TV news magazine “60 Minutes" to do the profile that brought his fledgling online academy to the attention of tens of millions of people.

Lee explored Khan's website before applying. The mission—“provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere"—appealed to her. And the job posting described projects that would directly affect end users. She e-mailed her application, was interviewed via Skype, and met her coworkers for the first time on the day she started. She had wanted fast and nimble, and she had found it.

Her first assignment was to develop math exercises. She worked with middle school teachers to formulate the kinds of challenges to present, then helped build software to generate new problems and offer hints on demand. Lee had to ensure that this software functioned well and made sense to the audience. “I don't have experience teaching sixth-grade math," she notes. But she did have youth: “Of anyone on the team, I was the closest to sixth grade."

Recently, she worked on the way users ask and answer questions on the site, developing a system to award badges to users whose answers others rate highly. These days, she's working on tools for the Khan Academy's faculty—the small group of people who create the videos—so they can more easily upload, edit, and categorize lessons and other material.

Lee professes not to envy one bit the lavish perks doled out at nearby Google and Facebook. Free gourmet meals and haircuts are nice, but not as satisfying to her as the knowledge that she's helping millions to lift themselves out of ignorance and, perhaps, poverty. “There are bigger problems in this world than not having a catered lunch," she says.

This article originally appeared in print as “Online Educator."

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