⚡️ Customer Cloudversations with Blackboard
During this special Speed Week edition of Customer Cloudversations, Joel Snook from Blackboard Learning will discuss Blackboard's experience with Cloudflare and the industry as a whole.
Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining this special Speed Week edition of Customer Cloudversations here on Cloudflare TV.
If you've never tuned into our segment before, Customer Cloudversations is a regular segment where we meet with different customers, shine the spotlight on them, and really discuss their Cloudflare use cases, best practices, and industry-related topics.
This is really our chance for us to meet our customers and have these intimate and yet casual conversations to really see what's going on out there in the world.
Today, I am joined by Joel from Blackboard and Brian from Cloudflare.
Brian, why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do at Cloudflare.
Terrific. Thank you very much, Kayla. My name is Brian Ceppi. I'm based in the Northern Virginia area.
I'm a Senior Account Executive here at Cloudflare.
I'm focused primarily on performance and security for applications and infrastructure.
It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you. Thank you, Brian. I realized I didn't introduce myself.
Just assume that you guys know who I am by now. I'm Kayla.
I'm on the Customer Advocacy team here at Cloudflare, and we sit in the marketing organization.
Like I said, we're joined by Joel from Blackboard. Joel, why don't you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do at Blackboard and what Blackboard is?
Sure. Thank you. Blackboard is an educational-focused company where we provide online schooling and those sort of things, products that all surround around the educational experience.
My role there is I'm the Senior Director of DevOps Engineering.
We spend a lot of time doing a lot of the tooling, internal tooling, but also focusing on primarily the Learn application, which is our flagship LMS.
But then also, we spend a lot of time getting into the weeds with other applications or application teams, doing things that bring the infrastructure and the application closer together, and that's where we spend a lot of our time day-to-day.
Awesome. And you know, Joel, I got to tell you, I was really excited to do this segment with you today because I've actually used Blackboard a lot in my own educational journey.
When I was in college at Texas Tech, work in tech, we used Blackboard all the time.
And I remember it being like 11.58 p.m.
and realizing I had a paper due at 11.59.59, and I had to get that thing on Blackboard.
So your website was always working, and I always got my papers in.
So thank you very much. So why don't you go ahead and expand a little bit about how Blackboard helps educational systems and where your customers are located, outside of just the great city of Lubbock, Texas.
Sure. So we're a global company, and we operate out of multiple offices around the world.
And that means we also try to touch every learner across the world.
And so our mission at Blackboard is to advance learning.
And we have kind of a driving focus within the company right now, which is to provide personalized experiences fueled by data.
And so we spend a lot of our time trying to take all of our products that we have and then pulling them all together and creating a scenario where a learner can come online and have a very personalized experience as they go between each of our products.
And that way, if a learner is in one part of our product, they go to the next part of our product, they should have a very seamless experience.
And that way, we're also trying to push forward the learning opportunities for folks.
This isn't just necessarily on the K through 12 scenario, what you might think of.
It's also higher education, but also extended learning, but also even into corporate training.
So we do run the gamut across the board, and there's a lot of different use cases for our products today.
We're gaining a lot of esteem in the government space where we are trying to really be the product of choice for the US government and those governments abroad.
And it's something, a shining moment of ours that we've really been striving for with folks in security, and then also just bring best-of-class services.
Awesome. That's really cool to hear about expanding to governments not only in the US, but all over the world.
So is that kind of a top priority for your company today?
Absolutely. Yeah. So we're pretty proud that last year we got FedRAMP moderate certification.
We spent a significant amount of time, and that's something that our company can claim that not many other education-focused companies can.
So being one of the first in that space, it's definitely afforded us a lot of opportunities, but it's also presented a lot of challenges.
It's really forced us to get better. And then also, as we look to design new features or new functionality, we have to take those things into consideration.
And so we look for companies that have similar capabilities or goals as ours in terms of just security and accreditations and those sort of things, which really bring...
When you're looking at these products, you want a cohesive experience and a trust-based scenario.
So that's a lot of time how we focus and look at how we try to work within that space.
Awesome. And for those who might be watching who aren't super familiar, can you give an overview as to what FedRAMP is?
Sure. So the federal government has multiple different levels of accreditations you can get.
And depending on which level you have been accredited to, depends on also what type of data you can host for the US government.
We do have accreditations for other governments, but we're currently focusing pretty heavily on FedRAMP, which is a US-based.
But a lot of the time, it really just means you need to dot your I's and cross your T's and then be diligent about keeping up your security.
So that's a lot of what we've been focusing on, really just becoming mature as a company and keeping that, and then also making sure that anything new we do has that top of mind.
And that can create challenging solutions at times because you have to really keep in context a lot of stuff and then also know that once you deploy something, it has to be constantly maintained and improved upon.
So every time you commit to something, you're also committing to up the maintenance activities behind it.
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for sharing that and for clearing that up.
So let's talk specifically about Blackboard and Cloudflare.
How long has Blackboard been a Cloudflare customer?
Yeah. So we have been a happy customer since February of this year.
We were in talks with Cloudflare prior to that, but we actually signed a contract in February.
And so since then, we've been primarily using your CDN services and using workers along with that.
But it's been a pretty successful onboarding.
When we signed the contract, we were actually using the product within, I believe, a week or so of contracts.
Did you hear that, Brian? Oh, yeah. I was certainly involved in that process.
So, Joel, what were the thought or the considerations that brought you to that conversation initially with us?
Yeah. So it's interesting.
I mean, our company was thrust into the spotlight last year primarily with some other competitors.
But in the education space, when COVID hit, right, that changed the world a lot.
And it really forced schools to close their brick and mortar and open up online.
And that definitely had an impact on our company in a positive way.
We felt we were well-positioned for that. But at the same time, it also meant we weren't quite prepared for the level of usage we were about to get.
And so because of that, we had to start looking at the way our product worked and start dissecting it and saying, OK, in order to scale to the levels that we are being asked to scale, we really need to start looking at this differently.
So we put together a list of items as it came forward and prioritized and said, we're going to start going after these.
And we got to the point where it was time to talk to CDN providers.
And one of the first names we thought of and reached out to was Cloudflare.
And I remember it was, I hit you guys up on a Friday at like 3.30.
And I was getting a call about 4.30. And I was like, well, I didn't think you'd actually get back to me just this fast.
But I'm actually going to leave to go on vacation for the weekend.
But call me Monday. And that actually started the conversation.
But it was actually, it was a really good experience how quickly the response was.
That's awesome. I, for one, am a big fan of punctuality.
So good job to whoever got that phone call out pretty quickly. So as far as Blackboard goes, what do you think your customers like most about Blackboard and how they interact with you guys?
Our customers hold us to a high standard. And they really do want a lot.
We're a company that's been around for a while. And we're a company that's, we were a leader in the space and we've lost a little bit of that ground.
And it's been good for us because it really challenges us to think differently and do things differently.
And so I think the customers that we have and we continue to win are brought on by a couple of considerations.
Mainly, we are really heavily focused on security.
We do take that serious. And that's a very serious thing right now where people are putting that above their needs.
But also they see us trying and they see us listening and they see us looking and listening to where the issues are and then attacking it.
And I think you'll see that in several of our products.
But one that's most kind of like comes to mind is we have a product called Blackboard Collaborate.
And Blackboard Collaborate is very similar to like Zoom or Google Meet, but it's something that we have homegrown.
And our customers, when they first were using it prior to COVID, it wasn't one of our bigger products, but it exploded in use.
And in order to keep up with that and continue to keep selling the product, we really had to listen to our customers and prioritize the features that they needed.
And that's something that really led us to Cloudflare.
We wanted to make sure that when we were using these products and giving it to our, having our customers use our products, that it was really important that we had things that worked across the globe, that we didn't have to do ourselves to bring it to them.
We could rely on technologies already out there that would just drop it right into the lap of folks.
Because when you're dealing with audio and video and the surrounding services, those things do need to be performant.
And they do need to be tailored for regions and usage, because otherwise things can start to get a little wonky while you're trying to have a conversation and mouths are moving and different things are happening.
So it was something that really challenged us.
And it was really something that I think our customers have rewarded us for. That's amazing.
Actually, when the pandemic started, I too was working for an educational technology company and we were not nearly as prepared as Blackboard sounded to be so good for you guys.
And I'm glad that Cloudflare was able to help you along with this as well as you guys continue to grow.
So since it is a special speed week edition of Cloudflare TV, we're going to talk a little bit about Blackboard's experience with Cloudflare's performance solutions.
And I know that Brian has been side by side with you guys as you continue to work and build your portfolio with us.
So I'm going to pass this along to Brian and he's going to ask some questions around performance.
Thanks, Kayla. I appreciate that. So Joel, thinking more about sort of what brought you initially to Cloudflare and some of those challenges, what was the impact to your business when I assume you're starting to see more customers, more traffic, what was the direct impact of that on you guys?
Yeah, there's a percentage that we threw out there into the public.
We have two kind of large ones that we like to tout because it does show the scope and how we respond to stuff.
But in our collaborate product, we saw a 3600% increase in usage.
That's not small numbers and that was over the course of a couple of weeks.
We were only able to do that for a couple of reasons. We were in a cloud provider already, which allowed us to scale at the need we needed to, at the speed we needed to.
So that was a win there, but it didn't mean that our product actually scaled along with it.
And so we had to react pretty fast, but we were able to meet the need.
But the performance around scaling, you need to be able to scale fast.
So you need to be able to do these things fast. It's not just making sure your application has low latency, but it's also when demand hits, are you able to also serve that demand?
And so that was a lot of our challenges that happened during COVID.
Understood. And thinking about, you mentioned obviously Blackboard is in the process of gaining back some market share.
And I think a lot of what's driving that is your innovation and the way you perceive sort of the next step for Blackboard.
Could you talk maybe just a little bit about how you see Cloudflare in that context, in terms of supporting you guys through that next phase?
So this was a bit of a, I wouldn't say a surprise, but we weren't sure what we were walking into.
So when we came to Cloudflare, we came to you as a CDN provider and saying, here's our needs.
And then you said, okay, well, here's how you would use our services.
And you kind of walked us through your product. It wasn't until we started really working with the workers platform that we said, oh, wow, there's a lot going on here.
And the reason why I bring that up is we know we need to continue to change as the world turns and as different needs, right?
COVID changed how people, even how we thought people should be learning online.
So we have to adapt quickly to that.
And so out of that, our company has been working on the backend to really build some new foundational pieces that will propel us into the future.
And because of that, we have to really build out and be intentional about how we build stuff.
And as we started, we've been building that for a little bit and our customers haven't really seen the fruits of that labor yet, but when it hits, we're really excited for when it will.
But we've started to see how the workers platform can really be instrumental in that.
And we weren't prepared for that, but it really made us step back and wait a second, we could be really utilizing this.
And so that's where our company is right now. While we're still utilizing the CDN service fully, we're also now looking to see how we can dig into and fully dissect how we can take our stuff and move it closer to the people using it.
And the Cloudflare platform would really allow for that. So while we're not maybe using the most advanced features of the platform, it's definitely gotten our attention and it's something that we've started to dig in a lot closer and see how we could use it as part of our next gen platform.
Perfect. And so for folks who don't know about workers, that's our computed edge service, obviously helping to move content closer to your customer's eyeballs.
When you think about workers, what does that service mean for you?
Because obviously it's a bit of a Swiss army knife and can accomplish many different things.
You don't necessarily have to talk in specific detail, but how is that improving your overall environment or your customer's experience?
Yeah, I think when you dissect technology, you come to find out technology is a bunch of things working together.
And when it works really well, you don't really notice anything, but when something breaks, you do.
And so the less components you have in something, the less things can break. And then also it also simplifies stuff.
And so the way we were building some stuff or envisioning building some stuff, there was multiple components to that because of the way we were envisioning it would work.
When we started looking at the workers platform, it was really interesting because I was like, well, wait a second, we don't need to do this.
We don't need to do this. We don't need to do this. We can just do it all right here.
And that really is difficult to wrap your head around when you've been thinking, this is how we're going to do it.
And so when we expanded and started looking at some other stuff, it really caused us to start looking at all the other technologies that Cloudflare has.
And we are very excited for what's possible because we could leapfrog some of the timelines we thought because, hey, these are much more attainable steps in a much smaller amount of time.
So on the theme of speed week, it sounds like what it did for you at least initially was to increase potentially the speed of your DevOps cycles.
Is that true? Yeah, I think we've been focusing a lot on our dev cycles.
I know everyone has maybe a different understanding of DevOps, but for us specifically, we're looking to the DevOps team is looking how to improve the developer experience.
And so we're bringing these technologies to the dev teams and saying, look, instead of you having to do all these things and build these CI CD pipelines, you can just do this and then it simplifies it.
And so at Blackboard, what's one cool thing about Blackboard is we're very, we try not to get stuck into one way and say, this is the only way you can do it.
So people are, we're trying to always make sure we're paying attention to the things that are happening around us.
So if a new technology comes around, we want to be quick to adopt that.
And so what we're trying to do is socialize a lot of the things we've seen in the platform and then see how we can utilize that in some of our next-gen computing.
Certainly. And I think the flexibility inherent to that platform to the worker's edge can help achieve some of the goals that the broader goals that Blackboard has to bring that personalized experience and drive the type of integrated data and service delivery that can help improve that user experience overall and move you guys forward in the technology space.
Yeah. And just to kind of add onto that, I think one of the things we've seen, we haven't always been the most diligent in using CDN or CDN-like technologies to bring technology as close to the end user as possible.
As we started as a US-focused company and then grew globally, we had to change and reorient how we approached our technology.
And so not our complete, our full technology stack isn't fully on the edge.
And what it's really starting to realize, what are the most important parts to get to the edge?
And we've started to dissect some of that and really do put that out there.
And that's what's kind of most exciting. A lot of the stuff you'll see happen when you're starting to expand globally is there's a lot of challenges within certain countries of once your data enters that country, it's got to pass through a lot of different things, which could slow down the delivery.
And so when we start thinking about places like South Africa, where we just were opening up a new region to host services for customers, Cape Town, we also see bringing Cloudflare along with us because Cloudflare preceded us there.
But also now that we're going to open and get the data closer, that whole experience would be just so much better.
But it's nice to know that Cloudflare's already there and has multiple presences in Africa itself.
But that's just one example of technology being available and then being able to take advantage of it as we continue to expand our global footprint.
Well, I appreciate you pointing that out. We have done a lot to invest in our network and certainly continue to expand into many new marketplaces, South America being one, I think South Africa being another, APAC being potentially another area where we've put a lot of effort into improving performance.
And because this is Speed Week, have you noticed any improvement across your network with our services?
And I understand CDN is a rather commoditized product and you can't increase the speed of light, but have you seen any overall improvements in your experience?
Yeah, we have one specific scenario that we were able to shave half a second on page load times just by switching on.
That was a little bit unexpected, but we're happy to see it. I will say though, the benefit of where we have actually seen the speed or the ability to make sure we are going as fast as we were capable is the visibility.
So the way we were doing stuff before, we didn't have the ultimate visibility in a quick way.
We had to build that visibility. When we switched over to using Cloudflare, because this is where it's more specialized, some of the things that we were having to mine for were just there.
And so you could immediately start to say like, oh, this isn't what I expected, or this looks for an area for opportunity.
So we've actually iterated since we initially released on Cloudflare. And we said, hey, we can improve this.
It's amazing what you can do with just like a new version of your code and say like flip this bit or do that.
Next thing you know, you can watch your graph in real time, go up or down.
And it's a really nice way to make sure that the experience that you're having for one set of customers is also the same for on the other side of the world.
And the reason why I bring that up is because when the world kind of shut down, students basically flew home.
So they were still going to school in maybe a completely different continent.
And how do you make sure that the student that's on the other side of the world is experiencing the online experience in the same rate or speed that those who are maybe still local to the area?
And that's something that we found is really important.
And that was actually one of the things our customers really called out like, we need to make sure that just because someone had to fly home and go to the other side of the country, that they too get the same experience that others do.
And that's a part that we've really had to focus on. So you're pulling all this information directly out of our embedded analytics within the platform?
Yeah. That's been where we kind of just started, right? And then it leads you to other paths.
But it's a really great starting point to say, OK, I see this start going up or down.
Ask the question, why is that? And then the next thing you know, you're maybe starting to dig into code.
You know, there's a lot of really good examples on not only just on your website, but also within just like other online search engines will feedback you code examples.
And people will share like, hey, we've done this or that.
And so it's really nice to have something that's widely used and be able to kind of source knowledge from various parts of people who are using it.
And that was actually one of the reasons why we were able to kind of we felt on board quickly was because using common tooling that we were already using.
So that was nice.
We could we were getting good feedback from the dashboards so we could get immediate feedback of what things were looking like.
You know, as we were testing stuff out, we definitely broke some stuff in our test environment.
We said we don't want to do that.
And but we were able to react to that quickly. And that's why we were able to go into production as quickly as we were.
And quite frankly, we haven't really touched it as much that much since it's been out there.
Fundamentally, we make some small tweaks, but that's by and large the most we've done.
We've now been able to kind of focus on other stuff. And that's ultimately what we want.
We want to be able to like purchase a product and kind of set and forget about it.
Right. That's ultimately what we've left in Fabler saying, please take care of this while we go do something else.
And that's been really great.
That's awesome. And, you know, you did mention that you did see just like by switching on, you did see a half a second improvement.
And that doesn't sound like a lot of time, but it actually does end up having a lot of impact on the other side.
So I'm glad I'm glad to have heard that as well. We only have a few minutes left.
So I definitely want to ask him like industry related questions.
So and questions about Blackboard specifically, how is Blackboard going to continue to evolve as more and more schooling becomes probably permanently online?
Yeah, well, I'll take a page of our management's book, but I mean, our management really believes that a personalized experience fueled by data really is the future.
I mean, there's there's tons of articles about how AI and ML is going to just transform the world.
And you need a lot of data to do that. And so we believe we're well positioned to do that.
And so by bringing all of our products together, which have traditionally been siloed, but having them to start building the plumbing for them to talk to each other, we believe in a not too short period of time that we'll be able to start servicing up very experienced, very personalized experiences within our products that may or may not even transcend to other connected products.
But like we're not thinking just for Blackboard, right?
There's a lot of companies that we have to interact with that we could, you know, take signals or whatever it might be to then direct behavioral or learn specific use cases that would really, quite frankly, advance someone's learning.
And I think we have to start thinking a lot differently about some of the stuff and leveraging the power of computers to do this.
So it's definitely something that we were very focused on.
And it's been driven into our heads that this is and I'm a big believer that this really will change and transcend how our company even just approaches, you know, our next product offering.
Yeah. And, you know, as you guys continue to change and, you know, Cloudflare is constantly changing as well.
I can tell that both companies are, I mean, obviously Cloudflare is a big fan of innovation, but I can tell that Blackboard is as well.
What kind of future plans do you have as you continue your partnership with Cloudflare and how do you seem to work together as you grow in the future?
Yeah. When we first reached out, we always kind of ask a set of questions.
And one of those questions that we now have added to our repertoire is, are you FedRAMP accredited?
And that's a very important question because it means, can we offer the same solution to those that we are offering a FedRAMP certified solution?
And so at the time we were told no, but that security was top of mind for Cloudflare.
Recently we were notified by Brian that you guys have hit the webpage that you guys are in progress for your FedRAMP moderate certification.
And that's a very big thing for us because we want to use best in breed.
And we believe that the product you guys are offering and the way you're offering it is well suited for our GovCloud.
So that just allows us to not only take what we make available to our commercial customers, but also to our government.
And it simplifies our solution too.
So that's actually our next biggest step that we're looking to really pull things together and see how we can make sure that we watch what you guys are doing and see how we can pull that into what we're doing and then offer that to our customers from what we understand would be a consistent experience from how government is currently using Cloudflare today.
Yeah. Brian, do you want to give any insight onto how you plan to help Blackboard achieve their future plans with Cloudflare?
Well, I think Joel has encapsulated the next strategic step pretty well.
And I think I'm seeing this in many commercial sector accounts that serve the government markets.
FedRAMP, as Joel noted, is an important validation of not only the commitment that Cloudflare has to our security, but to our customers' success and their compliance with these regulations.
So I think it demonstrates a long-term commitment for Cloudflare, not only in supporting public services, but also supporting our commercial customers.
So it shouldn't be necessarily considered just something that's important to Gov.
And I think based on some of the conversations we're having with Joel, the broader security of their platform and availability of that platform through their customers is obviously paramount.
So that's another area that ultimately we hope to explore with Blackboard as well.
And we have about one minute left. So Joel, the last question I want to make sure that I ask is, what other advice do you have for e-learning is becoming such a big thing?
And what advice do you have for other companies in similar situations who might be struggling with performance or dealing with this new onslaught of traffic?
Yeah. I think we had made commitments to really focus in and reduce our vendor list.
And it took a little bit of attention to say, hey, let's look beyond what's currently out there.
And so I would just encourage, make sure you're keeping abreast of all the other technologies out there because you might be missing something that could be really good for you.
And I think that's what we found here.
I can't find it. We knew about Cloudflare, but we didn't know what it could do for us.
And that's the biggest takeaway for us. Awesome. Well, thank you guys both so much for joining me today.
It was really great to have Blackboard on this Speed Week segment of Cloudversations.
And so Joel, thank you for joining.
And Brian, thank you for joining. And everyone else, thank you for watching.
And I hope you guys have a great rest of your week.