April 13

Geoff Harcourt – CTO of Literacy Non-profit, CommonLit #48

Consultant, Developer, Education, Founder, Software Engineering, Startup



Geoff Harcourt is the CTO at CommonLit, a literacy non-profit that provides reading curriculum services in English and Spanish to students and teachers around the world. CommonLit currently serves over 15 million students between the 3rd and 12th grades.

Before joining CommonLit he was a product engineering consultant at thoughtbot, where he worked with high-growth startups to help them tackle process and scaling problems.

He previously worked as CTO of Cortex Building Intelligence, a startup whose product helps commercial real estate operators reduce their utility use. Geoff began his career working in several product-side roles and transitioned to engineering after learning how to code on nights and weekends. He majored in history in college.

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Episode Summary

I want to work with people that are relentlessly curious. They don’t have to be a total expert at Ruby or Rails or PostgreSQL or the core technologies we use at CommonLit. But if I feel 6 months from now, their skillset will be even bigger than it was before, I think they can be a really good fit working with us.

“I was a consultant sort of acting like a fill-in technical cofounder for startups that didn’t have a technical cofounder.

For me to learn a technical concept, I have to use it in a project I care about the results of.

—Geoff Harcourt

In this episode we’ll cover:

  1. What is it like working for an education nonprofit, CommonLit? Characteristics Geoff look for when building his team as CTO?
  2. Why project-based learning is so important for Geoff in acquiring new skills?
  3. How Geoff got introduced to coding by running a website for his fantasy baseball league?

Key Milestones

[1:55] – Geoff graduated from Harvard with a history degree. His first job out of college was as a consultant.
[3:30] – Geoffrey got a chance to work on a Ruby on Rails project for a client while he was a project manager. While doing this side project, he realized that programming is what he wants to do going forward.

[4:30] – Choosing to leave his job and becoming an independent programmer, Geoff had no idea whether it would work out. His first client wanted him to build a platform for a competitive karaoke league.
[5:17] – Geoff partnered with one of his clients to build a startup, Cortexintel. From here, Geoffrey left his company to work as a developer for Thoughtbot. And now he is the CTO of CommonLit, a literacy non-profit.

[6:30]- Geoff is a project-based learner. He couldn’t write code just by reading coding books, he actually had to build something that mattered to him.
[8:40] – The first working code Geoffrey wrote was for compiling statistics in his ‘overly complicated fantasy baseball league.’ This is where Geoffrey got introduced to Ruby on Rails and fell in love with the platform.

[11:40] – Geoff talks about finding clients as an independent programmer/consultant. Looking back, this was like getting a graduate degree in computer science.
[14:33] – What is the story behind Cortex? Cortex is Geoff’s startup for commercial real estate owners to save money on utilities. It is still around today although Geoffrey no longer works there.

[18:14] – Why did Geoff decide to part ways with his own startup? What are some of the ways he deals with reget?
[22:22] – Who were some important mentors for Geoff?
[24:19] – What is it like working for an education nonprofit, CommonLit? What does Geoff look for when building his team as a CTO?

[27:00] – Software engineering is a very significant part of the budget at CommonLit, a literacy non-profit. For this reason, Geoff spends the majority of his time working on code.
[30:01] – Working for a mission-driven literacy non-profit is very fulfilling. But it is challenging managing such a big platform with a small team without getting burnt out.

Additional Resources





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