Interview with Lisa Frumkes, Senior Director of Language Learning Products at Rosetta Stone.
Edwige: Lisa, you’re the Senior Director of Language Learning Products at Rosetta Stone. You started in academia, but several years ago, you made the switch to the private sector, and this is something that a lot of us in the field of language technology have considered doing at one point or another. Can you tell us how this all came about? And maybe start at the beginning of your career? Where did you get your degree? What was your first job out of graduate school?
Lisa: I was a senior at Pomona College, and there was a Russian professor who I had been taking courses with since freshman year. He and I decided to apply for a Ford Foundation fellowship for the development of future faculty.
We originally planned to create a course together over the summer and then teach it in the fall. At the last minute, we decided to add a technology component. I ended up spending the entire summer creating conjugation and declension drills in Russian using HyperCard. I was hooked. This professor and I team-taught two sections of Russian, we used the software, and so when I was looking for graduate programs in Slavic Linguistics, I gravitated towards the University of Washington, which was a very technology-friendly school. I worked in the
Language Learning Center during most of my graduate study there. A lot of what I did there was working with other graduate students who were creating materials for Swedish, Persian, ESL, and so on. I became a resource for other people who were interested in CALL. I actually wrote my dissertation on electronic textbooks for teaching languages! After that I was able to go work for Nina Garrett, who was working on a Mellon Foundation grant at Connecticut College, Trinity College, and Wesleyan University. She was already my idol, so going to work with her was fabulous. After two years there, I did two years on another Mellon grant at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore College. After that, I returned to Seattle to work at Getty Images as a linguistic architect, so I was out of education for about four years while I worked on metadata and localization. I really liked working in the industry environment because I liked producing work with a clear budget and timetable and getting results–putting products out for people to use. I love the collaboration and teamwork, because when you’re putting out a big product, whether it’s a search engine for finding stock photography or a piece of software to teach world languages or music appreciation, or AP Statistics, there is always a whole team involved. I also found that I loved managing people, which was a surprise to me.
Edwige: So that was Getty, and you didn’t go back to academia? Ever?
Lisa: I didn’t go back to the university environment. I applied for some positions at academic institutions, but they were never the right thing at the right time. I ended up leaving Getty for Apex Learning in 2003 and I worked there for 10 years.
Edwige: Ten years?
Lisa: Ok, almost ten years–9 and a half years. And during that time, I developed language courses, primarily French and Spanish. But because of No Child Left Behind, Apex Learning reduced its focus on world languages, and so I ended up doing a lot of other types of projects instead. I oversaw the maintenance of all of the Advanced Placement courses we had; I created materials to prepare for high-stakes tests, like end-of-course exams for various states, and at the end of my time there I was managing the work of the English Language Arts team.
Edwige: So, you have worked in a university setting and the private sector. How does it compare? For you know the number of hours? The flexibility? The pay?
Lisa: People have a lot more power to determine what they do and what they do not do in a setting like ours than they think. It’s something that I try to make a point of as a manager. I believe very strongly that trying to put in more than 40 hours a week on a regular basis is not good for employees, their managers, or the company. People get frazzled, burnt out and just plain old less effective after they have put in more than 50 hours a week for a long time. I came to that realization years ago that putting in 60 hours a week actually didn’t help me accomplish much more than when I put in 40-45 hours a week. I have almost always been able to keep my hours to a reasonable level.
Edwige: What about flexibility? Not that working academia are usually, unless you have a faculty position, it’s not that flexible.
Lisa: In the technology industry there is a lot of flexibility, a lot of people working from home, working flexible hours. Since the team that I work with at Rosetta Stone is dispersed across the world, I am sometimes on calls at crazy times, like 9 o’clock on a Sunday night, or 5 in the morning, and sometimes half past midnight. It’s rare, but it means that nobody expects to find my butt in a seat from 9 to 5 because they know that I am sometimes up early and sometimes working very late.
Edwige: What about salary? Do you think that people make more money in the private sector?
Lisa: Yes, but how much more depends on the company, and it’s also true that those who write code make more money.
Edwige: So at some point you left Apex and you went to work for Rosetta Stone? How did that happen?
Lisa: I was looking to leave Apex Learning because we had stopped all language development, and realized I missed languages a lot. I’ve got three loves: technology, language, and education. I was doing all three at the beginning of my time at Apex. After about six years of just doing the technology and education pieces, I started to say to myself, “You know what? I miss the language part.” I was starting to look at localization jobs so that I could combine language and technology again. But then Livemocha, which is in Seattle, where I live, was looking for somebody to oversee their teaching and their materials development, and so I applied for the job. That job never materialized because Livemocha was acquired by Rosetta Stone. But then Rosetta Stone hired me as director of curriculum, and that’s how I ended up here. I moved into my current position because the individual who hired me at Rosetta Stone left about a year later for another job, and I was promoted into her position. That was in May 2014.
Edwige: So what do you do at Rosetta Stone?
Lisa: I lead a team called Language Learning Products. We’re a team of about 24 employees who are spread across 12 locations and 9 time zones. We have people in France and in every time zone in the continental U.S. We also have between 12 and 50 contractors at any given time. So regular, full-time employees are managers of some kind. We are all overseeing either the work of some other employee, or we are overseeing the work of a contractor. My team has four subteams. One creates the course content, the curriculum — the teaching. One does the assessments, all the different tests, whether they are part of the curriculum or whether they are summative assessments, placement tests, proficiency tests, or pre-tests to help you figure where you need to start in any of our products. We also have a research arm–people who do real research, looking at learners in two different conditions, and seeing how different treatments affect them.
Edwige: So controlled studies?
Lisa: Yes, controlled studies, but we also work with our colleagues in marketing on white papers. The research team also does a lot of literature review, both for the education of my language learning products team and also for the education of others in the company. There’s a fourth subteam that provides technology and project management support. In terms of division of labor among those four sub-teams: if we are creating a test, we might have one person from the assessment team working on it; we might have a person from the curriculum team helping out; we would have a product manager helping them stay on schedule and budget; we would have somebody liaising with people outside of Language Learning Products, to make sure the technology and the content are actually going to marry.
Edwige: Now, let’s talk a little bit about Rosetta Stone and what Rosetta Stone does. Some people in the field of language technology have issues with Rosetta Stone and especially the pedagogies that are associated with their product. What is your take on that? What is your answer when people talk to you about that?
Lisa: Obviously, I was not always with Rosetta Stone myself. I watched the company from the outside just like many of our colleagues have. The fact was that I did not know the Rosetta Stone product line at all well before I joined the company. I thought I did! I had looked at it in 1997, looked at it in 2003, and then I didn’t look at it in 2010 — thinking oh, it’s pretty much the same thing as I saw before. The fact is — it wasn’t the same. The classic Rosetta Stone product is a product that has really evolved. For example, the speech recognition engine is different, and there is interaction on every single screen. This is not some dumb flash card program, where you just listen and then click to go on. You have to engage your brain on every screen, you have to speak on many screens — it’s a very intense experience, and I do not think a lot of people understand or appreciate that. That product is just one of the many we have. The company made some smart acquisitions in the past few years too, adding Livemocha to its offerings, which has a lot of social learning aspects to it. Rosetta Stone also acquired Tell Me More in France. All of this allows us to offer a more robust and tailored learning experience for our customers. Although I am aware that there are some people in our field who have a negative view of Rosetta Stone, a lot of people also come up to me and say, “I really love what you’re doing,” and that makes me very happy. I would like everybody to have more of a dialogue about Rosetta Stone. I feel like Rosetta Stone has for years been a very divisive 800-pound gorilla. But our team is extremely eager to interact with our colleagues outside the company, and to build products that people want to buy, use, and learn from. We want to make things that they will use.
Edwige: That makes sense. So how long have you been at Rosetta Stone?
Lisa: A little over two years now.
Edwige: What’s next for you?
Lisa: I don’t know! I really love this intersection between language, technology, and education and I am head of language learning at Rosetta Stone–I am not sure what else I could do that would beat that. But I could see myself going back into general computer-based education, I can see myself going back into localization. But I am very happy being where I am. I’ve got a great team of dedicated, smart people, a lot of people with PhDs and Masters degrees. And the collaborative teamwork is just so special.
Edwige: I know the Boulder office has been hiring a lot out of the Linguistics department at CU Boulder, so there are a lot of familiar faces in that office.
Lisa: Yes. Frankly, that is one of the things that office has going for it–it’s not hard for them to get really quality folks.
Edwige: Alright, well thank you so much.
Lisa: Thank you.
Edwige: It’s great to see you.
Lisa: You too!
Feel free to ask Lisa additional questions in the comment section below!