A Mystery Retrospective

When the COVID shutdowns began and my kids were forced to learn from home, I noticed that they were enamored with this app that taught them STEM concepts. Specifically, the app featured a bunch of videos and activities focused on scientific curiosities in the physical world around us, which was exactly the topics that 7-year-olds enjoy learning about as they’re starting to notice the environment around them and its invisible adherence to the laws of physics1.

The app was Mystery Science, and by sheer random luck, soon after I moved on from Affirm, I connected with a recruiting agency looking for someone to help their engineering and product teams. One chat led to an interview which led to more interviews, and I eventually took the opportunity to work with the team behind this engaging product.

It’s my first foray into the EdTech space, but one I’m happy to explore—both to better connect with my children and understand how the education systems work around them, and for them to actually understand what their dad does when he goes to work2. The company was founded in 2014, and it took a few years to iterate to a product that spoke to teachers and students across the country, particularly in the tricky K–5 education space where there just isn’t a whole lot of time—and sometimes dollars—for scientific education. Mystery Science’s success really hinges on its ability to talk to students and engage their sense of curiosity; not just purely by throwing out facts and figures, but also by acknowledging interesting questions and working through the answers together, often with accompanying hands-on activities.

On some level, education is an easy sell: who doesn’t want to improve the lives of children? The mission kind of writes itself, and the space, unsurprisingly, attracts many current and former teachers who enjoy working with kids and furthering our understanding of pedagogy. As with other [industry]-tech juxtapositions, the introduction of software and automation promises to evolve the field further; we’ve already seen how COVID has driven classes online and how big of an impact that has had on EdTech startup funding. Certainly, with the amount of apps and services that my kids’ schools have us install every school year, there’s plenty of startups even in just that small slice of the market and I expect more competition in these next few years with all the added capital flowing in.

Over the years and the various roles, I’ve become pickier in talking to and interviewing with companies, truly leaning into the idea that the exercise is about generating signals, and that I’m looking for a glimpse into team’s day-to-day motions as much as the team is figuring out whether a candidate fits what they’re looking for. To that end, my courtship with Mystery was an extremely positive one, which carried itself from the interview processes to the eventual onboarding and easement into the role proper. The company invested in its people processes early on, and put in the time and effort to create an inviting and welcoming culture, one that celebrated each others’ wins often and sweated the small details to create unexpected delights for its employees.

For instance, when I initially started, we have been quarantining and keeping away from each other for 8+ months, so while the team as gotten more used to remote onboarding, it’s still not ideal. Welcome packages are pretty standard for new hires, and as expected I got the company T-shirt, mug, plus the laptop and some accessories to make work-from-home easier. What I didn’t expect was a “Welcome to Mystery!” gift that the People team sent along—actually, multiple gifts—which included a wooden puzzle kit and a book on leadership, both of which came about because I had mentioned them in passing during some intro coffee chats. And I wasn’t getting special treatment; this was just now all Mystery employees joined the team, made to feel special and given attention, throughout my time there. Amazingly, they provided the same courtesy in the form of departing gifts3.

A culture like this cannot just rely on the goodness of peoples’ hearts; there were also explicit processes that helped define and reinforce the behavior. Within a week of me taking on managing my teams, I was given a spreadsheet of my direct reports’ birthdays and work anniversaries, and was directed to a wiki page, for managers, on our responsibilities to our reports on when and how to celebrate these occasions. As someone who really sucks at this kind of social encouragement, I very much appreciated someone laying out exactly what the expectations are and, more importantly, how to make it happen. It may seem like a small thing, but many small nudges aggregate quickly to major changes.

As to the job itself, the company was kind enough to let me try something I haven’t done previously: in lieu of working with functions adjacent to Engineering like Product and Design, my role at Mystery was to oversee those functions directly, in addition to one more function centered around Growth and Data Science. It was an opportunity to expand my own horizons and be responsible for, collectively, all the technical teams that built the product. Fortunately, my team was patient with me picking their brains and learning on the job, and I have newfound appreciation for operating across multiple functions, even if my leadership has a distinctly engineering bent.

Well, in a bit of déjà vu, I find myself taking a break from work just as the kids are starting the school year again, this time in-person with masks and social distancing4. Compared to a year ago, there is somehow even more activity in technology and companies both big and small. I’m noticing a lot more positions, even senior management ones, allowing for remote work—which actually allows me, in the Bay Area, to interview for and potentially work with companies on east coast.

But until then, I’ll be hanging out here.

  1. Then again, you’re never too old for a cool Rube Goldberg machine.

  2. Well, to a small degree anyway.

  3. 👋 to the Mystery folks who are reading this; thank you again for all your kindness!

  4. I don’t think anybody is expecting that of elementary school children.

Share this article
Shareable URL
Prev Post

Evolving the User Interface to the Software Business

Next Post

Craftsmanship in Management

Read next