St.Petersburg, Russia
November 14–15, 2019


Interview with Asger Palm – SECR 2019 Key Speaker

Asger Alstrup Palm — co-founder and CTO at Area9, co-author of personalized learning platform developed to help address learning challenges in schools, colleges and industry across the globe. Area9 works with a distributed team with employees from more than 50 locations. Company has its own domain specific programming language.

At the moment Asger works as product architect, as well as continues to develop language and compilers.

In our interview he talked about the future of e-learning, working process with big distributed teams and his talk at SECR 2019.

Hello everyone, today we talk with Asger Palm who is our keynote speaker. Asger, did I pronounce your name correctly?

Yes, very good.

Thanks! Where are you right now? Is it your office?

Yes, I’m sitting in the office here in Copenhagen in Denmark.

OK, and the weather is good?

No, it is a little bit cloudy, but that’s very normal at this time of year in Denmark.

Well it’s quite normal for St.Petersburg as well, but today we have a sunny day, which is quite unusual. Have you been to Russia?

Yes, I have been to St. Petersburg a number of times.

Tell a little bit more what is your connection with St. Petersburg.

We’ve been working with the great programmers and developers from Russia for many years, and we started outsourcing a long time ago. At first we tried to work with people from India, and they were great, but we found that they very often change their jobs, so instead we started to do it with people from Russia, and it has been much better for us.

Oh, great! It’s nice to hear. And you work with St. Petersburg State University?

Oh, yes, we do, and we work with Lanit-Tercom, and we also work with a company in Ukraine, Intetics, so, we also have people in Ukraine.

You are working on educational platform, you are most famous for this platform. How did you come up with this idea to work on educational platform?

So our history goes back a long time, the first company was founded in 1997, and it worked in education but that was within a specific area of medicine. So originally it was simulations and advanced life support, and then over the years we expanded that, and then we founded Area9 in 2006, where the scope at that point had been broadened to be education much more broadly.

All right, and do you know how many people are using your platform now in the world?

Yes, if you look at the different platforms we’ve built over the years, there are millions of people using them. The first platforms, and then in the medical domain – they are used by hundreds of thousands of people, that are certified in advanced life support, and in the college space in the US we have millions and millions of students using some of our products.
One of the platforms is adaptive platform, what does it mean, what is the difference between, say, classical online platform.

Yes, so eLearning comes in many kinds. And the kind we’re building is called personalized adaptive learning. So what we’re trying to do is that we’re trying to emulate the perfect coach. We know that the best kind of instruction you can get is if you have a really good teacher working with you, sitting next to you side-by-side. That’s the best thing, most efficient way to learn something new, and that’s what we’re trying to do with these platforms. We’re trying to emulate that you have that expert teacher sitting next to you. And what happens in a one-to-one instruction situation is that you will adapt all the time. So, the teacher will ask you some questions: “Do you know this? Do you know that?” – and depending on what your response, the instruction will go in a different direction.

The same thing is done in these systems, that we will adapt, and try to uncover what are your strong areas, and what are your weak areas, so, we can adjust the instruction accordingly.

It sounds really interesting. You know, before our interview I’ve asked in our social network groups, if people are interested in something, and they asked some questions. Anastasia is interested in your view on the future of online education, and maybe forecasts on trends of learning in a virtual environment.

Yes, I think that it’s clear, that the demands on an education are increasing. So, to prepare ourselves for the future with increased automation in terms of AI, robotics and so on. Also already today you know that people will rarely have the same job their entire life, they will have to change jobs throughout their career. So being the notion of just having one education in one point in time, and then to be set for life probably isn’t valid anymore. So, we have to see in the future that we will have to re-educate ourselves continuously. So this notion of lifetime learning is going to be important. Of course the problem is that education is expensive, so, we cannot afford to send everybody to university multiple times throughout their lives. So we have to find ways to do great education in a cheaper way. And that’s what some of these platforms can do. So I think the future is – increased use of advanced personalized eLearning, that will help cover the increased need for deep education across many different disciplines.

Sounds really good, and reasonable. I agree, I think people have to learn all the time. And another person, Tanya is asking: you work with very distributed team in 50-something locations. What is the main thing you’ve learnt from this experience of working with so many different locations?

When we did the first company back in the 90s, we had our on-site developers, and then we had some most of our offshore development, and at that point of time it was clear, that we should do it differently the next time.

So, when we started Area9 in 2006 we intentionally said that we won’t have any on-site. So, everything will be off-site. And that was to make sure that all communication was set up, so, everybody in the distributed team had access to the same information. So, that’s what we really learned is that if you will need to have a successful distributed team, you cannot have too much on-the-corridor talk, if you understand what I mean, because then there will be people who don’t know the information they need to know.

So we intentionally set up the company to be distributed from the start, and made sure that all communication was done in places, where everybody could get access to it. And since then we do have some on-site development, not too much, but those people still use the same communication channels, as everybody else. So I think the key result is that distributed development is great, it works really well, and you can do it, as long as you are making sure that there is not like two different teams with different access to information.

And another question is – do you have a blog? Do you lead a blog?

No, not really. We started a blog for the flow programming platform, that we’ve implemented, but really there’s only one blog post so far, so I’m not so good at that. I will maybe do more on that later.

Could you please tell us about your talk at our conference? It is about Flow, yes?

Yes, so, Flow is a programming language and platform that we’ve been developing over many years. It’s a functional language. And in the talk I’ll be giving an introduction to Flow, the runtime, the UI library, and I’ll show you some of the benefits that this language can give. And I think that the key point I want to try to give is that even though Flow is one programming language, the way of thinking that we do in this language is generally applicable.

So I want to demonstrate how you can think about, how to structure your application using some of the principles that we use, and they can be applied in many other programming platforms as well.

Sounds great. And do you visit many conferences?

I don’t not really.

So we’re proud that you agreed to come to us then. What do you think, what is the one of the main things in the conference, or what is the criteria of success? This question is personally from me as the organiser of the conference.

I think that you have a very prestigious conference, and you can look at the speakers that has been with you for over the years, and it’s clear that that is an important one. So of course I’m privileged, it’s an honor to be invited to come to your conference.

What do you think is the main things at the conference: is it communication, or is it talks, or some insights?

Yes of course I think that it’s good to meet people from many different places in the industry. And you know when you’re working, even though we have maybe a hundred programmers on our team, so there is a lot of diversity, it’s still a small group of people. So, I think it’s great to come out and meet other people, hear their opinions, when they can see a little bit of what we’re doing, and get some feedback from a broader audience. I think that’s very valuable.

Thank you for your time, and I am really looking forward to meeting you at the conference.

Thank you, likewise.

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