Meet Laurie LeDuc, Head of Community Support at Khan Academy

How did your career lead you to Khan Academy? 

When I was in college, I answered an ad on Craigslist that led to me managing the community for the world’s largest social network for cats: Catster. It was 2007 and Catster was a lot of people’s first real foray into a social internet. Some people would make a pretty straightforward profile for their cat, but others would get very into it and role play as their pet, writing everything in the first person. There was a forum on the site called “Virtual Hangs and Playdates” and sometimes things would escalate and cats would end up getting into virtual relationships with each other. A popular trend was to photoshop your cat’s head onto relationship photos of humans. Occasionally magic would happen and there would even be virtual cat weddings. 

a real Catster wedding (image provided by Laurie)

This was my first office job and I thought it was so fascinating and delightful that I ended up specializing my degree at UC Berkeley in virtual communities, and I’ve been in the online community and support space ever since. After college I worked in games for many years but eventually decided to look for a place where I felt like I was having more of a positive impact on people's lives. As a nonprofit offering amazing educational services for free, Khan Academy has been a great space for that - every day we receive testimonials from people telling us how our product and service has changed their lives, and the Community Support team regularly hears this directly after a support conversation.

What is your CX philosophy?

I’m passionate about integrating support and community insights into product teams. I used to work as a Product Manager and one of the things that was so eye opening to me was how big the gap can be between support and product’s understanding of their users. Often product teams will make changes and be surprised at the user response, but the support team’s reaction is often, “of course they reacted that way, here’s why” because they spend all day talking with these people directly. I try to proactively avoid this kind of gap in the places I work at by the way I structure my teams.

As a former PM, I find product liaising to be one of the more exciting areas of my work. If done effectively, you have real and frequent opportunities to impact the roadmap and the end user experience. I structured Khan Academy’s Community Support team to be able to do this seamlessly. PartnerHero associates handle nearly all the frontline support and community management tasks, and internal Community Support folks are embedded directly on the product team. This allows for a strong, two-way bridge between Community Support and the product team. 

In the product liaison function, our role is to keep product informed about how users will react to the changes they are considering by being the voice of the user in team meetings, including advocating for certain decisions and priorities. They then bring important information back to our PartnerHero support team about product updates and needs that our team needs to prepare for. Whenever there’s an update coming up our team is prepared with documentation, strategic context, and the opportunity to test features before they go live. The goal is to be completely prepared when the switch gets turned on, and anticipate users’ questions and needs. 

What are some of the projects you’ve worked on at Khan that you are most proud of?

Localizing our entire Help Center and launching fully localized support in three languages (Spanish, Portuguese and English) was a huge project - we have over 500 support articles that needed to be localized and then kept up-to-date. I created workflows so that when someone writes to us in a language other than English they can speak with a native speaker of that language. That has been a wonderful benefit of working with PartnerHero - we already had amazing bilingual agents and now they’re able to support users across those languages. I love that our teammates in Latin America are able to directly help teachers, parents, and students reach their education goals in their local regions.

Another project that was really challenging but rewarding was integrating our support team with the support team of another non-profit, NWEA. Khan Academy partnered with NWEA to build a new product for districts and as part of that we split support responsibilities between our two teams. In order to do this we had to create a ton of new processes to bridge our very different organizations and systems. It was a long process but now our support partnership is extremely strong, and the service we’re providing on both sides is excellent. 

Tell us about your biggest CX “Oh Shit” Moment and how it got handled?

During COVID school closures we saw a 750% increase in questions from teachers and a 1,200% increase in questions from parents contacts almost overnight. To get a handle on the situation we tried a lot of different things: it was a “throw every idea against the wall and see if it works” situation. Luckily, a lot of it did work and our team was supported by so many who saw the importance of our service in this time, both inside and outside of Khan Academy. PartnerHero was extremely supportive and helped us find temporary hires to staff up quickly. We also adopted some experimental Zendesk flows that worked out extremely well. 

We also got a lot of support from our users. We were always transparent about what was going on behind the scenes and they were understanding about any delays and changes in our processes. The Khan Academy community truly is one of the kindest, most supportive places on the internet, and we really felt it during this intense time.

What role do you see CX playing at Khan in the next 1-3 years?

We’ve recently developed a paid product for school districts, which is a first for us - before this everything on our site was completely free. Ultimately to have the biggest impact on students’ learning it’s important to work with school districts and get into classrooms where we can reach the most learners directly. This new product allows for more integrated rostering processes and provides district-level insights. On the support team, we’re developing new flows and expectations for how to support this new type of customer - instead of emailing with learners and teachers using the site for free, we are often talking to administrators who have paid for a feature and are responsible for the education of tens of thousands of students. Our goal over the coming years is to learn how to best support this new customer effectively and efficiently so that both they and Khan can reach their impact goals. 

Tell us about the evolution of the Khan <> PartnerHero relationship

PartnerHero is the second outsourcing company I worked with at Khan, and I’ve been working with them for over 4 years now. I really liked the fact that they were eager to work with us even though we were a smaller team. I could tell from the start that they really valued the relationship and there was a lot of flexibility with how I could set the team up. It's really important to me for any outsourced team to be deeply integrated into the internal team, and we’ve been able to do on a huge scale with PartnerHero. Many Khan staff members have developed personal relationships with PartnerHero associates over multiple projects and the team is extremely appreciated and respected throughout the organization. 

Our first year working together was challenging, but we learned a lot around aligning expectations, over communicating, and providing as much transparency as possible. I would love to shout out Bee Quesada, our PartnerHero Program Manager, by name. Bee joined our team in year two of our partnership and immediately set a high bar for our team and partnership. It was also her first time managing a team and together we’ve learned a lot from each other, and have pushed each other to level up our systems and processes. For the last few years, we’ve had amazing retention and have consistently brought on people who deeply care about our mission and impact. The team constantly challenges each other to improve, both on an individual and team level. As a result we’re frequently giving them new projects, new opportunities to develop professionally and contribute across many areas of Khan Academy - things like testing new features, writing articles for the knowledge base, researching community insights, or community management projects. 

In fact, the PartnerHero relationship has been so successful that we’ve been hiring PartnerHero associates to help out in other areas outside of support. For example, we have a localization platform where people volunteer to localize content into their language - currently Khan Academy is available in over 60 languages. People sometimes set up separate non-profits and get funding specifically to localize Khan content, and then work with their governments and schools to get it implemented. We just hired someone from PartnerHero to help with that program and set the volunteers up with the resources that they need. PartnerHero has also helped our Philanthropy Team, Khan Kids, and with our Rostering Operations. Everyone has seen how amazing the partnership has been and what a strong team we’ve developed. PartnerHero is always top of mind whenever we have a new business need.

What are you passionate about outside of work?

I’m a huge traveler, so much so that I don’t have a permanent base and am usually switching cities or countries every month or two. 2020 was definitely a challenging year for that, but I did end up spending it in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Each place approached the pandemic differently and it was perspective-building to experience each of them. Although in April 2021 I moved back to San Francisco, where I’ve spent most of my adult life - I love traveling but there’s nothing like the LGBTQ community I have here. 

At the end of the day, meeting new people, hearing their stories, and getting good stories of my own is a huge driver for everything I do. In a way it all ties back to that first community role I had with Catster and the wealth of stories it provided. Communities are endlessly fascinating and I want to keep learning from them - I still feel lucky that this is an actual job I get to do.