Tuesday , September 29 2020

Panopto's CEO sees the shift in the video platform from useful technology to an indispensable tool for distance learning

Eric Burns, CEO and co-founder of Panopto, at Vounteer Park in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of Eric Burns)

In 1998, Eric Burns was a student with a summer job who worked for the Dean of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. An e-commerce teacher wanted to make video recordings of his lectures, which also included his slides. They asked Burns to take on the project.

"I cobbled this thing together," said Burns. "CMU is a very run down place, so there are no big budgets. You just have to be smart and resourceful."

His tool worked. Burns was then used to help a project that scanned millions of university books to build a digital library. From there he teamed up with Bill Scherlis, then head of Carnegie Mellon's software engineering department, to integrate the two projects into a program that created video lectures and managed as a virtual library. The program continued to build interest and momentum. Bill Guttman, another CMU professor, joined the effort.

After leaving CMU for a job at Microsoft, Burns reunited with "the Bills" and the three transferred the technology to a startup and launched the video platform Panopto The Seattle-based company has grown steadily over the years, building a customer base that includes more than 1,000 large corporations and universities, including many of the largest public universities in the United States.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic and the widespread switch to distance learning and work from home this winter and spring, Panopto is growing tremendously. Burns, who has been CEO since 2015, is pleased to provide an important tool for connecting educators with students and employees with colleagues and customers.

"This is the best confirmation you can hope for," he said. "People use what you did and it not only has value, it has value when it counts."

Panopto has doubled the number of active users on the platform in the last year and uses it four times as often to record and view videos.

The platform recently launched a free product called Panopto Express. Burns said they are considering how to support educators when deciding what to do in the fall class. Many schools are considering a mix of personal and virtual classrooms.

"All administrators are trying to figure out how we can reconcile pedagogy and security with the type of classes we give so that students feel like they are getting great education," said Burns. The answer, he said, was "a whole range of technological answers".

Burns and his wife at Stevens Pass before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Eric Burns)

We caught up with Burns for this edition of Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Read on for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: I have spent the past few months in my home on northern Capitol Hill in Seattle. I spend most of my working day in the dining room right now, which is very nice as it's near a small garden on the terrace.

Computer types: I used a Razer Blade 15 as the main workstation. It is a monster of a gaming laptop that is great for demonstrating our video recording software, especially for the AI-based presenter tracking function that needs a fast GPU. I set up an older Lenovo P51 for development so I can still code occasionally when I feel inspired. I use a Surface Book when I want to move around the house or go outside, and I have a Macbook Pro that I use to make zoom calls on the TV in the living room.

Mobile devices: I am still using my trusted iPhone 6S. I just can't stand losing the AUX jack and it has a fantastic hand feel. The new devices are amazing, especially the cameras and OLED screens, but a button with a nice click and wired audio connection has something to offer.

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: We are a G Suite shop, so I spend a lot of time with GMail and Google Docs. I couldn't live without GMail's search. Google’s shared documents and spreadsheets are great for collaboration. We use Zoom for our meetings, which we record directly in Panopto and look for like GMail.

It may sound cheesy, but I really use Panopto a lot for work, especially now. I keep track of meetings I miss, I record video messages to the company and our investors, and I can watch videos that other company employees share from home. One of our technical managers creates a weekly Panopto video with Tableau to record how our customers' streaming and recording patterns have changed over the course of COVID. It's fascinating to see how peaks in Panopto's usage charts track the progress of school closings and guidelines for working from home.

We also use Slack, without which I can't remember but somehow can't live without it. As a retired IRC junkie (Internet Relay Chat), I'm a bit ambivalent about this. However, it's great to be back in the world of shortcut / (command) with everything from zoom to panopto to the perfect GIF just a command away.

When I'm not working, I read a lot of news in the New York Times and The Economist apps and often listen to SoundCloud. I think SoundCloud is a treasure of the modern internet. YouTube is an amazing feat of video technology, but all the advertising and recommendations make it a bit noisy for my taste.

Burns created a work-from-home facility with a creative assortment of technology from his basement and items that were retrieved or borrowed from work. (Photo courtesy of Eric Burns)

Describe your work area. Why does it work for you? I had just managed to downsize my home workstation to a single laptop at the beginning of the lockdown, so I really wasn't prepared to be productive at home. When it started, I got a few laptops and equipment from the office to set up a seated workstation at the end of my dining table and a standing workstation right next to it. I also pulled an old TV out of the basement and placed it across from a couch in the living room.

Panopto tests and certifies devices from many high-end camera manufacturers. That's why I freed an auditorium camera from our laboratory and mounted it over the TV. Webcams and monitors make people look like zombies when zoomed in. Instead, I wanted to be able to sit and zoom far from the display to record a tight, well-lit news program. I can move between these rooms all day to break things up, and I go to my balcony with a laptop whenever I can.

Your best advice for managing work and life? I feel very happy to have landed in an area that I love and to work with people I admire and respect, and it is a long way. It's much easier to focus on my work and deal with stress if I have a passion for what I do.

I try to balance my passion for working with hobbies and projects that I can delve into. I like to tinker and repair things, improve the house and work on motorcycles, bicycles and cars. When I feel creative, I try my hand at producing electronic music. I'm not particularly good at it, but it's always fun to challenge yourself to be artistic. I think creative outlets outside of work are essential.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business / professional purposes? I try to avoid social networks. I don't use Facebook or any of the newer networks, but sometimes I lurk a little on Twitter. There is no evasion of LinkedIn, but I mostly use it to look up the public profiles of people I meet. I generally don't post or send messages.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? It must be at least 30,000. I've had the same account for 13 years and GMail won't even tell me the actual number.

Number of appointments / meetings on your calendar this week? 48. I wish I hadn't counted.

How do you hold meetings? I try to create a clear goal and a common context as soon as possible. I take part in many meetings where I have to quickly familiarize myself with a plan or project. In these cases, I try to move quickly through topics to find the things I don't understand and learn more so that I can give useful feedback.

When planning meetings, I try to anchor things in high-level discussion patterns – dependencies, compromises, estimates, priorities – so as not to go into too much detail.

Brainstorming and design meetings are a lot more fun and much easier to "run" – there is nothing better than getting into a good groove with people who are starting to play each other and jump on the whiteboard for an idea to develop, but that needs a certain spark that is not always easy to find. Finding this fun groove with colleagues is one of the things I miss most in the office life before COVID, and it was one of the hardest things to do online.

Everyday work uniform? At home, it's all about convenience and utility. I have a couple of different loungewear technical pants I've driven through, paired with the shirt that the next meeting requires. This is usually a t-shirt these days, but I have a couple of button downs ready. When I feel particularly cheeky, I wear one of the two models of Panopto tracksuits that we have manufactured over the years.

Screenshot of the Panopto tool, as demonstrated for a GeekWire interview with Eric Burns and a partial photo bomb from Mimi the cat.

How do you take time for the family? You just have to walk away from the computer or phone and make it happen. I am lucky that my immediate family is all here in Seattle and I have a young niece and nephew who are always a good excuse for us to get together. My wife and I do a lot of hiking, biking, camping, motorcycling, skiing and other outdoor activities, and we try to get out most weekends to have some fun together.

Best stress relief? How do you pull out the plug? I know it's cheesy, but nothing beats gardening. Maintaining a garden, even a small container garden, is incredibly relaxing, and you can do everything from romping and staking plants to creating a large project for yourself. But sports and video games are also always a good opportunity.

What are you listening to right now? Like many nerds, I had a lifelong love of electronic music. I've been listening to the new Caribou and Four Tet albums lately and I've had a big township rebellion kick on SoundCloud, but there is just so much great stuff to choose from. I like KEXP, especially positive vibrations on Saturday mornings and expansions on Sunday evenings.

Reads every day? Favorite sites and newsletters? Daily in the New York Times just to get the latest news, and I love The Week for how well it oversees the press landscape. The Atlantic and the Economist are great too.

Do you book on your bedside table (or e-reader)? On my bedside table, I was slowly reading an older science fiction book called "Cyteen" C. J. Cherryh. Like many great science fiction games, it's really a study of human nature.

Tech gives way to a green thumb when Panopto's Eric Burns needs a break. (Photo courtesy of Eric Burns)

Night owl or early bird? Definitely a night owl. In the evening, when things calm down, I take my productive step. Panopto's earliest days were full of coding revelers. I've learned to love coffee, but I don't think I'll ever be a morning person.

Where do you get your best ideas from? Free association. Most of my breakthroughs come from daydreaming, from distance, only from hiking. I think a lot of it has to do with making connections and seeing patterns, and I find it impossible to force it by focusing too much. My "a-ha" moments mostly come from the thought of free-running and not from the view of an empty page. I also do a lot of my best work under pressure, which isn't necessarily the healthiest approach – but it's very exciting.

Whose style of work would you like to get to know or imitate? I am fascinated by venture capitalist John Doerr and the management idea “Measure What Matters”. I think it takes incredible determination and discipline to set up complex systems of people and goals and then step back and let things unfold, trusting the company's ability to adapt to itself.

The businessman and engineer Andy Grove also has a brilliant attitude to management: a leader should define the culture and values ​​of a company and then create conditions under which the teams can develop a well-considered consensus that the leader can ratify.

I imagine these guys waking up at 6 a.m., running 5 km, eating a perfect breakfast and cutting through their days like a scalpel. I would like to see how they deal with tie-up.

About Corrie Donnelly

Corrie Donnelly is a computer engineer originally born in Germany. He was writing articles about technology and computer games for websites.

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