Severin Hacker is the Co-Founder and CTO of Duolingo, the world’s most popular language-learning platform. Born while Hacker earned his PhD at Carnegie Mellon University, Duolingo originally set out to translate the entire web across all languages to increase accessibility. Eventually, Duolingo evolved into a personalized language learning platform with a mission to provide the best education in the world and make it universally available for free. Round spoke with Hacker to learn more about how he scaled the organization while staying true to its mission.
Duolingo’s mission, to provide accessible language education to everyone in the world, is a core operating principle for the entire business. As a company grows, balancing the mission and business needs can seem at odds, especially for publicly traded companies. Leaders always face competing priorities when pushing a business to grow, but Hacker says that you don’t have to let those outside requirements change how a leader runs the company. By focusing on the mission, Duolingo built a product that has a diverse set of use cases from Syrian Refugees learning the language of their new country to Bill Gates learning French. This long view and focus on mission alignment eventually led Duolingo to over 500M users worldwide, their excellent financial situation, and growing revenue.
While many companies talk about testing, it can be difficult to stand up a robust testing program in order to both capture and implement learnings from experiments. For Duolingo, testing and acting on the insight is a part of what makes the product so engaging. Hacker established a practice of A/B testing everything in the Duolingo app, often running hundreds of tests at a time. If someone opens the app on two different devices, they will likely see different versions because of these concurrent experiments. While the A/B process requires dedicated teams and tools for running and analyzing experiments of all different scales, it allowed Duolingo to gather more data and build a better, more personalized product that drives retention. Even if a product development process takes longer, take the time to invest in it to build a better product.
Hiring top talent is competitive, but Hacker believes it’s easier for mission-driven organizations. Mission alignment comes up naturally in the interview process with candidates who are passionate about it, even in technical interviews. People that care about a company’s mission will likely drive more impact because they are invested in more than just the economic incentives. Hiring great people is only part of what enables human capital to be an advantage. Hacker firmly believes that the best innovation comes from trusting your team and giving them autonomy. This process led to incredible advances in Duolingo’s platform, including their Bird Brain project, which is their main AI system that is used to personalize the learning experience of Duolingo.
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