Ron Lancaster is CTO at Pearson VUE, a business subsidiary of parent learning company Pearson (NYSE: PSO; LSE: PSON) based in Bloomington. The company specializes in computer-based testing for high-stakes certification and licensure exams in the healthcare, finance, information technology, academic, and admissions markets; serving over 450 clients via a network of highly secure test centers in 180 countries.
How long have you been working in tech for and what is your technical background?
I had the good fortune to start with VUE when it was a startup back in ’97 – and it’s been a rocketship ever since. I was hired into the call center, but we mutually realized I was a much better fit in technology. Since then, I’ve filled a variety of tech roles within the organization; moving in and out of management earlier in my career. Along the way, I earned a Masters in Software Engineering from the University of Minnesota.
What are you focused on right now?
I have a personal goal to ensure that everyone on my team is familiar with the current state of machine learning. The focus is less on the theory and more on practice: how can we apply commercial APIs and tooling to business problems.
For example, we’re actively exploring how to apply modern ML techniques for one of our flagship products. This includes integrating facial recognition, object detection, and behavioral analysis. There is massive potential to change the economics of this part of our business.
What are the some of the technologies within your company and IT environment?
Because we have a global customer base, we are required to continuously expand our product offering and advance our technology suite to meet their diverse needs. This presents an interesting challenge for our technology teams: to constantly evolve our tech stack in an environment with zero tolerance for failure.
From a technology perspective, we’re primarily a Java and (mostly) Angular shop. We also have Ruby, .Net, and a few other tech stacks throughout the business. We launch new applications into a Docker + Cloud strategy, and are in the middle of migrating existing apps to the same architecture.
How do you ensure that IT plans, projects and objectives are aligned with business outcomes?
It’s critical to get the people who are responsible for business outcomes to be a part of the prioritization and decision-making process. If they aren’t involved, then it leads to suspicion that the technology teams aren’t building what the customer needs.
We accomplish this across the stages of development through product processes built on Lean Startup practices and through more traditional governance structures such as stakeholder prioritization and investment review boards. It might sound odd to have such differing ideologies in place at the same time, but we’ve found that pairing the two leads to governance based on market validation. Or put more simply, making decisions based on data.
What is the size of your department (headcount) and how is it organized/managed?
We have between 400 and 450 people in my organization depending on the amount of contract work at any time. This includes our PMO, Pre-Sales Support, Product and UX, as well as our Development and Quality Assurance teams.
How does your company approach recruiting and retention for technical positions?
It’s all about the people. We’re fortunate to have more than our fair share of bright and enthusiastic contributors. And this includes our managers who care about the lives and interests of their team members.
One of the things that often surprises people is how challenging our business is. Every customer is unique in their needs; which creates often difficult and interesting problems to solve. And importantly, it’s a business with a purpose that many of us believe in: that we are helping people pursue careers and advance their lives.
How do you personally keep up with the ever changing technology landscape?
The best way I’ve found to stay current in technology is by doing. I’m always working on a personal side project that requires me to write and ship software. I’m proud of the fact that I’m a CTO of a large organization who still writes code in my spare time.
At Pearson VUE, one of the ways we try to stay in front of our evolving customer needs, is by forming small teams to investigate new technologies and to implement proof of concepts. For example, we gained a whole new perspective on Ethereum (both positive and negative) by building a small DApp. And we tried a number of experiments with the HoloLens because we wanted to better understand how Augmented Reality might affect Assessment.
What excites you about where technology is heading?
We’re living in that magical time where the science fiction stories of our childhood are becoming the reality of today. It’s astonishing to think of the ways that computers match or exceed human abilities including speaking, hearing, and seeing. Building on these capabilities will enable us to improve lives.
What concerns you about where technology is heading?
Martec’s law states: “Technology changes exponentially, but organizations change logarithmically.” The dissonance between the two is both incredibly exciting, and incredibly daunting. Personally, I’m an optimist: technology will make our lives better, not worse. But, as an industry, we shouldn’t dismiss the potential downsides and that we have a responsibility to help shelter people from those negative effects.
What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry – how could it be better?
I’d love to see the equivalent of the North Loop for Saint Paul (and we’re seeing that momentum building with Osborn370 and similar initiatives). Beyond that, it’s hard to criticize our state’s success. The Twin Cities tech industry is thriving – it’s never been a better time to be in tech here. In almost any week, the Tech.MN events calendar has between 25-35 listings: ranging across age groups, technologies, stages of investment, and more. Keep doing what you’re doing MN!
What are you into outside of technology?
In the winter it’s snowboarding and in the summer it’s cycling (gravel and mountain biking). Some might disagree, but the best way to enjoy the Minnesota winter is by getting outside. Additionally, being a mentor with Techstars Retail has been a terrific experience. And, this year, I’m excited to join the Steering Committee for Full Stack Saint Paul
Is there anything else you would like to add?