Interview with Sycamore Education Manager Brock Ellis

With the vast expansion of technology in today’s world, coding is quickly becoming a vital skill in almost every industry. Even, it seems, in the world of education. For example, look at Sycamore Education. From daycares, preschools and grade schools to universities and colleges, Sycamore Education provides a valuable school management system, so education specialists can manage all of their data and information.

According to their website, “From Sycamore’s inception in 1999, one of the core goals of the company was to create an exceptional online school management and student information system, with excellent support, at a price tag that was widely affordable.” Now an international company, Sycamore Education has done just that. We had the privilege of interviewing the General Manager at Sycamore Education, Brock Ellis. We sat down with Ellis for a quick interview to learn more about Sycamore Education and how coding plays a role in the field of education. Here’s what he had to say.

Q: Tell us about your company and what it does.
A: Sycamore Education is an education/technology company that provides data management systems to schools. We’re a scrappy little company born and bred in the Midwest. We have most of our employees centralized in Fremont, Nebraska—just 25 miles Northwest of Omaha—and a few other employees scattered around the United States. We put a high emphasis on culture at Sycamore. We want this job to be where you have fun and help people, not feel stressed and overworked.

Q: What is a school management system?
A: Any data that a school needs to track, we can handle it. We’re a literal one-stop shop for all of a school’s data housing needs. Grades, report cards, cafeteria orders, volunteer sign-up, emergency contacts, before/after school childcare, admissions, school finances—we do it all.

Q: How did the idea for this company come about?
A: The inception for Sycamore is a pretty neat story. When I was in 8th grade, I went to a small private school in Missouri. Glen, my father, helped network together a lot of old computers that were donated from a local bank. After the school was wired with Internet and computers, he used his web development skills to write a small application so families could log in and submit an application for enrollment. After news got around to other local area schools, it was very easy to get the first couple of customers. Eighteen years and 300 or so features later, we’re an international company with almost one thousand customers.

Q: What makes your company unique compared to competitors
A: We’re people first. We encourage our support techs to spend time on the phone with our customers and get to know them to find out what makes their school unique. We know that adopting our product is a large change for a school that affects everyone—students, parents, faculty and staff—so we put a lot in a lot of one-on-one time during the onboarding process to make sure the school is comfortable and set up for success.

Q: What is your role within the company?
A: I’m a general manager at Sycamore. I oversee our leadership team and help them cultivate their vision for their departments. Having worked at the company for eight years, I jump into any role where I am needed. I’ll help with marketing, sales, support, and I’m the sole programmer in charge of our mobile application. My three mandates as general manager are to empower employees to make good decisions, hold folks accountable for their actions and am always looking into the future.

Q: How does coding play a role in what the company does?
A: Dozens of individuals at a school will interact with our products every day. We have a team of developers who write code full-time to improve our products. A school will choose Sycamore because they recognize the value that we offer. Most of our customers are small, private schools that are very budget-conscience. In order to offer the best value—that is, most features at the lowest price—we need to be able to make big impacts in our product with minimal effort. Knowing what technologies to use and when helps us be a highly responsive team that can take customer feedback and turn it into action swiftly.

Q: Why would you recommend for someone to learn how to code?
A: Learning how to program a computer is a lesson metacognition, being aware of how you learn and your own thought process. It’s very similar to learning a new language. It can open up parts of your brain that you didn’t know you had. I am not an artistic person by any means, but I can use code to channel my creative energies into beautiful things.

Q: How can someone integrate coding into an otherwise “non-coding” job?
A: Marc Andreessen said, “Software is eating the world.” Code is literally everywhere around us—in the TVs we watch, the super-computers in our pockets, even in the stop lights when we drive. It’s everywhere. However, code isn’t magic. Code is just a highly detailed set of instructions that you’re giving a machine to follow. Knowing the logic behind giving those instructions to a machine is something that can be applied in other areas of your life.

Q: What do you look for in potential employees?
Coachability and attitude. I’ve seen high schoolers with zero coding experience turn into top-notch programmers, but I’ve also seen talented folks with lots of skill get left behind because they were not willing to work in a team. In order for you to be successful in this industry, you have to always be willing to check your ego at the door and learn. Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people much smarter than you. Ask questions. Be positive and always ask ‘why’.

For more information on Sycamore Education and what they provide, check out their website here. Contact them to learn more about how they support educational institutions through their exceptional school management system.