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Engineering & Product

Jordan Thoms, Co-Founder & CTO at kami

Dealing with exponential growth sounds like a great problem to have. We caught up with Jordan Thoms, Co-Founder and CTO at Kami ahead of Fast Forward Auckland, to learn more about his career journey and some of the big engineering challenges he and the team have had to tackle over the past year.

If you would like to talk with Jordan and some of the rest of the Kami team, be sure to register for Fast Forward.

“I've got about a year of work experience before actually running our own company.”

How did you get involved in Kami?

We actually started Kami whilst we were at university. I did go overseas and I worked at a company in San Francisco, called Ancestry for about a year, while I was also working in the evenings on the pilot that became Kami. 

Then I came back to New Zealand and we went full time, so, yeah, I've got about a year of work experience before actually running our own company.

“We had a six month period last year where we saw over 25 X increase in usage..”

What have been some of the biggest engineering challenges you have had to tackle?

I think it's gone through different phases. Certainly, one of the biggest ones over the last year or so with COVID has been actually just handling the level of growth we've seen. We had a six month period last year where we saw over 25 X increase in usage, and that wasn't from one user at the start to 25!

We had a lot of users at the start of that period. So that was just a huge engineering challenge to keep up with that growth. There was a lot of impact there, because we knew that these teachers were actually relying on our service and this was a major part of how they were able to keep on providing education to students who had to be taught from home.

That was a huge challenge. We had to re-architect a lot of things that we weren't planning to re-architect, so that was really, really exciting.

“We can't afford to be a product where somebody tells you to use this thing, and you just use it because it's been bought by your boss..”

What have been the potential impacts of handling that growth on your customers and the business?

This is a story about product-led growth. We get growth and we get users because teachers who use our product love it, which means we can't afford to have a bad user experience. We can't afford to be a product where somebody tells you to use this thing, and you just use it because it's been bought by your boss and you have to use it.

So that means we have to hit a really high standard in terms of user experience and how easy it is for new users to come in and to understand and use the product. We have to provide a really high value in terms of saving a lot of time.

The biggest challenge on the product side really, is just maintaining that incredibly high standard user experience so that we can keep on growing.

“..we were constantly trying to find enough optimisations this week, or even this day, that would give us enough capacity to handle..”

Were there any points over the last year that kept you up at night?

I think there were a few different points. We were seeing such fast, weekly growth that we were constantly trying to find enough optimisations this week, or even this day, that would give us enough capacity to handle what we were anticipating to see come in the next day or the day after that.

We had to work in two streams. One stream to try to optimise the current system as much as we can to squeeze as much life out of it, whilst we were also working on some major upgrades on the database side.

“..ultimately you just try to learn as much as you can about whatever the problem you're facing, the technology you're gonna use to try and solve it and then make some choices and go for it.”

Where do you turn to for help when facing these big challenges?

I think a lot of it is learnt on the fly. The right choice in these situations is always incredibly based on the exact situation that you're in. So it's not necessarily something where somebody else can tell you what the right choice to make is.

There's certainly an enormous amount of information out there. I read a lot of blog posts from other companies in terms of what, how they've architected their systems and how they've solved certain problems. um, and, you Always the most useful thing to read is their post mortem on outages, that's always where you get the most information. That's where they'll dig into how the choices they made went wrong.

So that's incredibly useful, but yeah, ultimately you just try to learn as much as you can about whatever the problem you're facing, the technology you're gonna use to try and solve it and then make some choices and go for it.

What do the future growth plans look like?

We've reached a point now where we have this huge user base and we have this huge opportunity on this platform to do a lot of exciting things. So there's a bunch of things we're looking at. One of them is around content and curriculum in schools.

There's a lot of huge inefficiencies around the way that schools buy curriculum from publishers and it is often very low quality and it is not even used by the teachers. So we want to change the way that curriculum is shared inside schools, so that teachers can create their own curriculum and share it with other teachers inside their districts or with other districts.

“We want to have people actually be able to talk directly to the customers, find out what they're using, and then see the impact of that”

Why would an engineer get excited about joining Kami?

Usually we talk about the scale we're at, and the impact that you can have at that scale, because we're a very small engineering team with a very large user base. So, there's an opportunity to have a very large impact and have that impact be on a very large number of people.

I think also, we are quite unique in terms of the level of engagement our engineers have with our customers. We've always found that actually engineers are really good at solving product problems. And engineers are really good at understanding the requirements of users.

So, we don't want to put a lot of barriers in there. We want to have people actually be able to talk directly to the customers, find out what they're using, and then see the impact of that, when they have released that improvement. They can see how much time it's saving our customers.

In a broader sense, why is now such an exciting time to join the business?

We're at such an inflection point in the market. It's such an inflection point in the business. I think this is where we can really start to see how education is going to be done over the longer term, and this is a really exciting time to do that and have an impact on that.

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