Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Posted By mwasowski      Category

As January 1, 2010 quickly draws near, we’re inundated with countless recaps of the first decade of the second millennium  (A.D., of course).  Apparently Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the best movie of the aughts, and I now know that, according to most pop-culture aficionados, reality TV marred the decade and has potentially ruined television as we know it.  Well, what you’re about to read has nothing to do with the large or small screens of the 2000’s, rather I’m here to share my own unique perspective on the aughts; my decade at Wimba.

As most readers of this blog know, I’m essentially a Wimba lifer, and therefore fall on the high end of the scale that measures how long employees typically stay at the same job.   I started at Wimba in June 2000 as the internet bubble had mostly deflated but hadn’t entirely burst.  Luckily for me, my previous employer went bubble-up soon enough that within three days of its demise I was able to find one of the few “dot-coms” that was in the black and that, more importantly, needed a savvy software marketer.  Thus, I landed here at Wimba.  Well, HorizonLive.

In terms of technology and/or Moore’s Law, a decade may as well be a century.  In June 2000 the idea of technology-enabled online learning had only been a handful of years old, and the dominant definition at the time mostly comprised of creating a webpage onto which an instructor of a face-to-face class could house his or her syllabus and perhaps a few study resources.  Companies like Blackboard, eCollege, and WebCT were on-par with companies like Prometheus and Mad Duck, and exhibit halls at education technology conferences were cluttered with myriad other fresh-faced start-ups all looking to secure a foothold in this potentially exhilarating market.   But HorizonLive had a different vision that then sat on the fringes.

HorizonLive knew that education thrives when interaction transpires.  Students interacting with classmates.  Classmates interacting with instructors.  Instructors interacting with administration.  Whomever does the interacting, it doesn’t much matter, as long as they’re engaged, enthusiastic, and human.  HorizonLive’s tagline was: Collaborate.  Interact.  Learn.  It was so simple yet so powerful.  After all, meaningful interaction leads to enhanced learning.  Truer words were never spoke – or tagline written.  HorizonLive knew that once a viable foundation for online instruction had been laid, that the human element would need to shine through in order for true success.  So when I first learned of this unique vision, it was love at first sight.

I spent the first half of the decade watching HorizonLive steadily grow, anxiously awaiting for schools across the globe to ready themselves for true, robust, more natural online learning.  Forward-looking early adopters such as CSU, Chico dipped their toes in the water and realized that an engaged community was a successful community.  I started the HorizonLive Desktop Lecture Series and, during the very second edition, found myself communicating with nearly 150 people from more than 40 countries, including Myanmar.  I hadn’t even heard of Myanmar!  The groundwork was clearly being laid. 

At one point in 2001, myself and a few co-workers shook nervously as one of the industry leaders, Carol Vallone, CEO of almighty WebCT, visited our offices because we were to originate a live webcast of her giving the keynote speech to her company’s Asia-Pacific users conference in Sydney.  As thunder cracked and lightning lit up the Empire State Building which was visible from the window behind her chair, we monitored the presentation, reveling in the fact that hundreds of Australians and New Zealanders were hearing and seeing Carol, just as we were, despite the fact that they were 10,000 miles away and that it was tomorrow for them.  It’s these memories that make me smile when I think of how far we’ve come.

But things weren’t always inspiring or smooth.  The most vivid memory I still have from my days here at Wimba is, like that of so many New Yorkers, my memory of September 11, 2001.  Our CEO’s balcony had a clear, unobstructed view of the World Trade Center, and on that clear, warm, late-summer day, my co-workers and I stood on that balcony and watched the second plane hit and the towers fall.  While some of my colleagues immediately headed for their homes by whatever means they could find, I remained in the office out of fear that something else could happen.  I remained holed-up for several hours until I headed outside for my eight-mile trek home to Brooklyn amid palpable fear, confusion, terror, and shock.  We closed our office the next day but returned back on Thursday the 13th to find each of us completely uncertain about our circumstances but absolutely certain about how thankful we were that many of us were physically ok.  And then, in true New York fashion, we got back to work.

Along the way for the next few years, as I occasionally distracted myself at work with crazy new things like Napster and Friendster, the ground swelled, and so did HorizonLive.   We merged with an innovative company based in the French Silicon Valley with a funny named that we liked, but since we liked our name too, we created a combined company called Horizon Wimba.  A name only a mother could love.  But apparently a growing technology company has many mothers, because so many of us indeed loved it.
As Horizon Wimba then grew by adding two additional tech firms under its umbrella, we watched more and more educators realize that collaboration is a necessary and critical element to a successful education - whether online or not.  We also watched more and more educators – along with millions of other regular folks – on a new-fangled website called YouTube and listened to the same people via ‘podcasts’ on iPods.  Ah, technology.
And we kept rolling along.  I traveled the globe pitching the good word of Horizon Wimba, along the way enduring an eight-week bout of poison ivy incurred at a conference in Georgia, and watched my toes swell to three times their size after stepping on a sea urchin while at a conference in the Virgin Islands.  The things I do for this company!

Horizon Wimba finally realized what was known all along – that its hideous name had to go.  Though at the time ‘Collaborate. Interact. Learn.’ had changed to ‘Reach Beyond the Classroom,’ we realized that technology doesn’t teach people, but rather, People Teach People.  And the rest as they say…is…well, Wimba.

Which brings me to today – 10 years later.  A once fledgling start-up, thanks to a sound vision, sounder technology, and scores of dedication, has become established.  Every day we help thousands of schools in nearly 50 countries inspire and reach their invaluable students.  Though our offices no longer have wires hanging from the ceilings, we still retain the same start-up mentality of never settling and always hustling (and we still, of course, have Annie Chechitelli around too..ha!).  We know the last decade has witnessed tremendous innovation no one thought possible in December 1999, so we’re trying as hard as we can to ensure that we’re still innovating 10 years from now.  I can’t wait to sit at my desk (or spaceship?) in December 2019 to recall my memories of the 2010’s. 

When we hire new staff, I often make a point of telling them that at Wimba they can make a meaningful contribution to people’s lives – that they’re contributing to the greater good.  I hope this makes them excited to work for Wimba and proud to tell their friends and family what they do.  It certainly does for me.  After all, learning, education, life; they’re all about relationships and making relationships work in a meaningful and productive way.  And it’s relationships (people not just teaching people, but helping, learning from, nurturing, laughing, and loving) that highlight my decade at Wimba.  While there are too many folks to call out by name – between my current and past colleagues, our thousands of customers, and the innumerable educators with whom I’ve interacted both online and face-to-face – I’ve been lucky enough to get to know so many people who care so much about advancing the lives of others.  And in turn, they’ve advanced mine in more ways that I could ever begin to describe.

Happy aughts, everyone.  Happy aughts, Wimba!