Blackboard CEO Bill Ballhaus Reflects on His First Weeks at the Helm
Ballhaus likes what he sees at the company he now leads, especially the breadth of its offerings and its capabilities.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
Blackboard CEO Bill Ballhaus
When William (Bill) Ballhaus was named head of Blackboard in early January, ushering the end of Jay Bhatt's leadership at the education technology company, industry observers were quick to come out with their opinions on what the new chairman, CEO and president should do.
"Ballhaus inherits a company with a number of problems," wrote consultant Michael Feldstein in his prompt commentary. "Their customers are increasingly unhappy with the support they are getting on the current platform, unclear about how they will be affected by future development plans, and unconvinced that Blackboard will deliver a next-generation product in the near future that will be a compelling alternative to the competitors in the market." Among Feldstein's recommendations: prove to the market that Ultra is "real," lay out the future of 9.x and managed hosting and improve its support.
Joshua Kim at Inside Higher Ed was more succinct. He advised Ballhaus to "bet the company on analytics."
Mark HuYoung, managing partner at NorthWind Partners, considered the selection of Ballhaus "exciting." As HuYoung noted, "He's in rarified air being relatively young and having already had two successful turns in [private equity]. Bill is in a position to swing at the pitches he wants and has chosen to swing at a Providence [Equity Partners] investment that requires some attention." Those two "turns," of course, were DynCorp and SRA, both of which he led to acquisition.
Recently, we had the opportunity to talk with Ballhaus by phone to better understand what his plans for Blackboard are, where he sees the opportunities and challenges, and what gets him out of bed in the morning.
THE: A Washington Business Journal article reported that you planned to spend your early days talking and listening to company executives and employees about where to best put the company's resources. What are some messages you've heard so far?
Bill Ballhaus: As a starting point, the thing I see and I'm super excited about is the unique positioning of the company with respect to the breadth of the offerings that we have and the breadth of our capabilities, the flexibility by which we deliver those to our clients, and our market breadth, spanning K-12, higher and corporate and government education.
It's at the essence of our differentiation in the market — and I think it's at the essence of the opportunity in front of us, which is to maximize the impact that we have on our customers and on the education community.
Associated with that opportunity, my focus is to make sure that everything we do is centered on two things. The first is to maximize the customer experience and ensure that we're serving them and supporting them as evaluated through their lens. And the second is around our role in innovating and developing products and getting those products and the benefits of our technology into the hands of our customers and the end users.
THE: What about customers? Have you visited any schools yet? What are they telling you?
Ballhaus: I have had the chance to speak with a few customers, and both the feedback and their comments tend to range. What I'm seeing is that our clients are really looking to us to help partner with them, to support their mission and their endeavors and what they're trying to do and the impact that they're trying to have on students.
You have to realize that I'm at the end of my third week. Most of my time has been spent with our employees [and] our leadership team listening, trying to get up to speed, understanding the various perspectives in the company, the opportunities that we have.
THE: When you're talking with the staff and executives within Blackboard, is there some unmet need that they're sharing with you? Or are they pretty upbeat and positive about the direction the company is going?
Ballhaus: What has come out of the conversations that I've had with both the leadership and employees across the company reflect the journey the company has been on and that it continues to be on. Specifically, what it looks like to me is a company that over time has acquired and developed a tremendous array of capabilities and a footprint in the market that's extremely broad and unique. No other company has acquired and developed the breadth of capabilities we have — teaching and learning, community engagement, commerce and security, mobile applications, right on the cusp of leveraging our broad footprint to create new services like data analytics that are focused on achieving specific outcomes — that breadth of capabilities is really unique. So the journey that we've been on has been acquiring and developing those capabilities.
Now we're trying to optimize how we continue to integrate and enhance those capabilities so we can have the maximum impact possible in improving the learning experience for students and supporting educators.
THE: You come out of a role that was focused on serving government. Are you detecting that there are differences in serving a primarily education market?
Ballhaus: Throughout my career, I've served a variety of customers and different missions, from my early days as an aerospace engineer bringing satellite communication technology to international commercial customers as well as U.S. government customers, to developing and building large-scale information systems, leading a global logistics provider with tens of thousands of employees, to most recently leading a company that brought very high-end information technology and professional services to hundreds of different federal agencies to help them be more effective and more efficient.
But the one theme that has been constant throughout my career is a focus on my customers' missions. That one theme is what has gotten me excited and passionate throughout my career and what has gotten me out of bed every day. I'm not motivated by order, sales, profit and cash. I've always been motivated throughout my career to do the best job possible in getting the benefits of innovation and technology into the hands of users and excited about the impact and difference that makes. I see at Blackboard the opportunity from a personal standpoint to continue that theme.
Now, having said all of that, my experience has been that every market and mission I've served has been unique. And I think it's really important — especially as a person who's new to the industry coming in — to appreciate the fact that there are tremendous nuances in every market, and as a result [I have] to do a lot of listening and paying attention to our employees and our customers to pick up on those nuances.
As a result I'm not approaching my role as the CEO of Blackboard with any preconceived notion around answers that are right for our clients or things that I've seen work in my past that I think will work here. Instead I'm asking a lot of questions and doing a lot of listening to make sure I really appreciate the nuances through our customers' eyes.
THE: With the new software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings, is the company telling customers that they should consider transitioning to SaaS with Learn and then enable the Ultra experience from there?
Ballhaus: We have made aspects of our Ultra offering available in pilots, to include navigation and the user interface. But I think something that is really important for our customers to hear from us is that while we have been focused on developing and innovating a product that will be a SaaS offering, we're also continuing to develop and innovate for our existing customers for Learn 9.1 and making sure that we're continuing to invest in that product. We'll be incorporating some of the innovations that we've developed through our Ultra investment back into our existing client base and making them available — things like theming and navigation and innovations around the user interface.
THE: Will those customers have to be on the SaaS edition to take advantage of those?
Ballhaus: Not at all. One of the things that truly differentiates us in the marketplace is [that] we offer our products in an array of delivery methods, whether it's on-site hosting, managed hosting or SaaS. I think that's a real benefit that we bring to our clients. So our clients that are doing self-hosting or where we're doing managed hosting will see the benefits of the Ultra experience incorporated into those products.
THE: International activity has been a bright spot for the company. Is that on the Learn side or on the Moodle side?
Ballhaus: It has included both our Learn products and our MoodleRooms products, but it has been broader — to include our transaction, our commerce and our security products and others. The international market has been an exciting market for us, where we've seen tremendous growth. It's now roughly 22 percent of our business, and I expect that to grow.
We talk about the international market, but the reality is it's not one market. It's a broad set of opportunities, and it really is country by country and client by client.
THE: Are there specific regions or countries where you see real great potential or momentum?
Ballhaus: We signed up some really large Latin America deals, and I think there is a tremendous opportunity across Spanish-speaking countries. But really the opportunity across international markets for us covers mature markets as well as emerging markets. And I would expect to continue to see us grow in each of those types of markets.
As big as the opportunity is, for us to maximize the impact that we're having on clients, we do have to prioritize the markets that we're focused on because each really is unique and requires different features in our products based on their educational systems. Obviously, there are different languages that need to be addressed, and other specific features, and we can't do everything at once.
THE: Blackboard acquired a couple of analytics companies late last year. How might we see these acquisitions subsumed or surfaced or evolved in the product line?
Ballhaus: They'll be integrated into our overall product development efforts. Analytics is an exciting new space for us and for our clients. When we think about what our clients are really trying to accomplish, it's outcomes — and the ability to use analytics to help them improve those outcomes. For instance, I just met with one of our customers, which is one of the largest universities in the world in terms of student count. A big challenge is that they have hundreds of thousands of passive students. So getting through the heart of understanding why they're passive, what has happened, some of the trends that led them from being active to being passive and things they can do to bring those passive learners back into the active educational community to improve outcomes, is a great example of the role that analytics can play in improving our client's ability to achieve better outcomes.
It's an area that we'll continue to invest in and continue to develop. I think it's also an example of an area where, because of the breadth of our offerings and our focus on integrating these offerings, we're uniquely positioned to be able to tie data together in the form of analytics to give our clients insight that they've never had before.
It's part of our strategy around the development of our integrated platform, which we call the "New Learning Experience," which is an umbrella and a framework about how we think about all of our products and integrating those products over time and enhancing the learner experience. The concept of using analytics in an attempt to improve outcomes, I believe, will be a fundamental part of our thinking as we innovate and develop new products going forward.
THE: What do you view as the top challenges for Blackboard right now?
Ballhaus: It gets back to the opportunity that we have, which is to uniquely impact our clients in the education community based on the breadth of capabilities that we have, our market breadth, and to think about and to prioritize where we put our resources in order to innovate and develop in a way that will have the greatest impact, and how we get better every day in serving and supporting our clients.
THE: Is there anything you're going to try to avoid doing in this first year?
Ballhaus: I said it already: The one thing that I won't do is bring any pre-conceived notions from my prior experiences to the education community. I think it's a unique market with nuances that are super important for me to understand. And I will not make the mistake of bringing preconceived notions into my decision-making and leadership of Blackboard.
THE: Last question. How would you characterize your leadership style?
Ballhaus: The two words that I would use to describe it are "transparent" and "accountable." And that is both within the company and in how I interact with employees and external to the company in how we interface with and support our clients.
I believe in the concept of holding the bar higher to myself and to the organization than any one of our stakeholders is going to hold that bar. And I believe in being accountable to doing everything possible to achieving the highest level of performance, whether that's serving and supporting our clients or innovating and developing new products on their behalf and being solely accountable to delivering and meeting our commitments and being totally transparent around where we sit relative to those commitments.