Meet Our New Director of Product

By Nate Angell | 22 November, 2021

Black and white headshot of Hypothesis Director of Product Chris Shaw.

A big welcome to Chris Shaw, our new Director of Product. Chris started his career in consumer banking at Discover, doing analytics, and then quickly switched to product, an area he’s worked in ever since. Before joining Hypothesis, Chris was the Head of Product at Sidekick Education. We’re so glad that Chris made the transition to the product team at Hypothesis, where he’ll coordinate how to augment Hypothesis to move social annotation forward. Nate Angell, our Director of Marketing, sat down with Chris to get to know him in more depth, and they conversed on everything from Chris’s career arc to why he’s excited about Hypothesis to chatbots, SciBots, community building, creative writing, huskies, and more.

Nate Angell: How did you find out about Hypothesis and get interested in this job?

Chris Shaw: I first heard of Hypothesis early on at Sidekick, which was the company I was at before for this. When Sidekick started, it was a curriculum product for project-based learning. Students in high school would partner with professionals at companies, and they would work on real-world projects. The idea was that you were helping the professionals do their job, and while you’re doing so you’re learning English and learning math and all that good stuff. But also seeing how your learning applies to real projects in the workplace. A key part of our workflow was mentor feedback, where the professional would provide feedback on the actual work products that you were creating. And so we were looking at how to facilitate that, and that was actually the first time I heard of a Hypothesis, because I was looking for a way for the professionals — the mentors — to discuss people’s assignments “in the margins.”

I was looking for something, ideally, that would be open-source, because we were dealing with minors’ data at the time. And, really, as far as annotation is concerned over web documents and PDFs, Hypothesis was far and away the best. Honestly, it’s just the best. At the time, we needed to be able to comment on CAD models. And videos and all these other kinds of multimedia things that were coming out of these projects was ultimately what made us decide not to do that; in fact, we never really found a solution. We ended up dropping them into Google Drive … a kind of answer to that.

So that’s when I came across Hypothesis. At the time, I was like, “Hey, this is cool,” but I also resonated with the company — like the web ethos being open-source. Being embedded into this distributed web of conversation was super cool to me, but at the time that wasn’t important for the Sidekick product. And then, when we pivoted Sidekick into a chatbot for youth apprenticeships, we didn’t need anything like annotation anymore, but also what happened is I basically reorg’d myself out of a job. So I was kind of looking around, but just casually looking because I didn’t have any end date, and then a recruiter reached out, and I was like, “I know these people,” and I really liked the company.

Sidekick also has a mission focus, and so I was pretty picky about where I went next. I didn’t want to give up the fact that I could be doing something that was making an actual social impact while I was doing the job.

NA: Going back to your whole conversion experience, you mentioned the idea of Hypothesis fitting into a kind of “chatbot” model, I wonder if you could say more about that.

CS: I’m very passionate about the power of a community, particularly a community that is not in a position of power unless they organize. Like, there’s just nothing more powerful than a bottoms-up organization. And this came in part because when I grew up, I was in a school where the county below us was in a state of emergency for opioid abuse. Oprah had visited Shelbyville, which was a team that we’d go and play tennis with. So it was like this rural school where you were either a good kid, which I was, or you were a “druggie.” And then, if you’re a “druggie,” everyone just expected you to drop out, and no one really paid any attention to you. And it really pissed me off that that was the case, and so I think it’s actually twofold, where what I really, really care about is getting people to recognize the power that they have. And then, once they recognize that power, to contribute to the group — like, the group that needs you, basically. That’s what gets me going.

And so Sidekick connecting employers with teens who could do a lot more than they think they can was something that worked with project-based learning. And it became the whole point with the chatbot. And that’s what I think we’re talking about with social learning right now at Hypothesis. The power of those communities, especially with peers recognizing what type of contribution they’re able to make for their other peers, within the context of learning — literally teaching each other. I think the power there is conversation, and so what we want to do is enable the easiest platform to have a conversation that activates your peers.

I think chatbots are really just like this intermediary to realize where those power nudges could be. Like, send a certain message to the right group or the right person at the right time. That’s kind of where I see we could take Hypothesis, where you can almost recognize where a certain message, maybe in an entirely different reply thread or context, could actually be really useful in some other context that’s in another conversation; that’s happening somewhere else.

NA: It’s really interesting, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it thought about quite that way, so it’s refreshing. Have you had a chance to come across the work that’s been done with robotic annotation and Hypothesis, like SciBot?

CS: I think I did some reading on it, but I don’t think I quite understood it.

NA: Well, in short, in science, they use these things called research resource identifiers. So, if I’m a scientist and I publish my results, I’ll have embedded IDs in the document that say, “this is the mouse I use in this genomic sequence … these are all the resources I use in my experiment.” And SciBot comes along onto articles that have these RRIDs and decorates them with annotations that say, “I see this paper is about an experiment that used this mouse; here’s a link to all the other papers about experiments that have used that same mouse. …” It’s kind of a crude approximation of what you’re talking about, but if we see the annotation layer as this third space where connections can be made that might not have otherwise been made, then all sorts of possibilities could unfold, whether robots are doing that or whether humans are doing it. It resonates with what I think you were saying.

CS: Yeah, I do see that it’s very similar. I think there’s lots of applications for the bots themselves, but you don’t even really need the bots to be there if we can just find ways to create those connections that maybe people aren’t seeing themselves, and just kind of open that up and let them work together.

NA: That’s some really exciting thinking about a possible future. I know you’ve just started at Hypothesis, but how are you thinking right now about how the product might evolve over the next, say, year?

CS: It’s such a cliche, but it’s so true that no one in all of history has ever wanted a product. We use products to solve problems. I bring this up because it sort of explains both of the two things I’m going to focus on.

The first thing I’ll say is that Hypothesis has, among many others, a really wonderful problem to solve in social learning. Who wouldn’t want to build a tool that helps make something “stick?” Or that plants the seeds of those serendipitous “aha!” moments that come from the collision of diverse perspectives? It goes back to what we’d talked about before, about the power of the peer to create knowledge or, better yet, inspire action that creates new knowledge, in this sort of virtuous cycle. As an open, omnipresent, richly contextual forum, Hypothesis has the components to be the best social learning solution around.

But we still have tons of work left to do here. Over the next year, it’s about fundamentals. Expect Hypothesis to become the go-to for educational discourse over more content, in more learning environments, for more instructors’ workflows. Meanwhile, we’ll keep it super simple to use.

The next thing I’ll say is if the product is all about solving problems, I don’t own those problems. Product doesn’t own those problems. The whole organization does. Our partners do. The vast and excellent open source community surrounding the Hypothesis project does. Our users definitely do. This is a team sport. So what I’d like to see emerge over the next year are more “enabling technologies” that integrate the great contributions of the community. Sometimes that may not even be code; it could be a process for collaboration or maybe an interoperability standard. The point is, how can we make the vision of our social annotation product more social?

NA: Hey, so we went in sort of a serious direction there, but I’d also like to keep it somewhat light too. And as I’ve gotten to know you a little bit I’ve gleaned a couple of facts about you: There’s your novel writing, there’s your hats thing … but is there something that you think people don’t normally know about you that you sort of wish people knew?

CS: I hide those things on purpose, Nate.

NA: [laughs] Well for example: I make really, really, really, really good refried beans. It’s kind of a pride of mine, and so, you know, I’m not embarrassed by it, but I’m not also out there shouting from the rooftops either — until now at least.

CS: We can go into this novel series that I’ve written. For some reason that I honestly can’t remember, I just started writing a story. This is something I’ve always done — in high school, I’d use my breaks to just dabble in something. Like, one summer it was drawing, and another summer it was creating video games and things like that, so this one break it was writing a story, and that story turned into 180,000 words. I was a 15-year-old kid, and it was the most stereotypical, cliched piece of trash fantasy novel that you could possibly think of. It was like, the chosen one gets a sword that’s a magical sword to save the girl.

NA: I think you could get movie options right now.

CS: It was so bad. But again, I was like 15 or 16, and I have since then revisited it, and these characters have kind of grown up with me, and it’s a four-book series now. I’ve gone back and revised these books as my craft got better, as my understanding of how the world works got better. So now it’s way more interesting. It basically takes place on the first kind of stepping stone planet that ancient humans — ancient being about 4,000 years from now — used to try to do interstellar travel, where we manufactured a new planet, to kind of basically create these little steps through space, and in the process didn’t make it because of people that caused basically earth to implode on itself anyway. So it’s happening in the future, but it’s got a bunch of fantasy tropes. I’m pretty sure no one is ever going to read them. I had dreams when I was in college of becoming a published author. But, at this point, I actually don’t know if I want to even do that. I think I really just enjoy making things too much. And I think as much as it would be nice to have influence as a really successful author, I would like to make things that change the world … and, yeah, novels can do that too. I don’t know, maybe the jury’s still out on that one, I guess.

NA: What’s the series called?

CS: The first book is called “Second Shatter.” “Second Shatter” takes place when there’s a boy who is the foster brother of one of the main four characters, and he dies, and he has this connection to the main enemy, and it causes the start of this rolling collapse of the enemy. So that’s the second shatter, because the first one was supposed to take place, but it didn’t take place yet because the person that was supposed to do it copped out. That person happens to be the brother of the main character, who the main character then kills because he comes under this spell. … Anyway, we could keep going if we wanted to [laughs].

NA: I feel like with Dune and Foundation Trilogy both on TV right now, it sounds like it’s got legs to me.

CS: It’s funny you say that because, yeah, now all of a sudden really intricate fantasy stories are all the rage.

NA: Hey, is there a chance that you could introduce us to your dogs before you leave? Are they willing to come over?

Chris Shaw’s huskies: Ninja (left) and Dragon (right)

CS: So, Ninja’s here. Oh, Dragon’s here too. You guys want to come here? They’re huskies, so they’re just looking at me, going, “What’s in it for me?”

Ninja, come here, come here. This one has too much pride — he’s going to hate what I’m about to do. The other one’s too much of a chicken. Come here. Yes, I know. Yes, yes, yes. Can you say hi?

[Chris holds the dog up to the camera. Slightly viscous-sounding growling ensues.]

CS: They’re about 60 pounds. They’re actually mutts. And … he’s gone. Dragon, come here.

NA: It sounds like he didn’t really enjoy that.

CS: He didn’t.

NA: Were you afraid at any moment in that interaction — were you afraid for your life?

CS: No. This is Dragon. You’re a good boy. Yes, you’re good. So, Alaskan malamutes get up to like 100, 120 pounds. Siberian huskies are the smaller ones that most people know. Ours are mutts of them. But if you ever meet a malamute, that’s how they talk, they just grumble all the time. So that’s all it is.

NA: So he’s not necessarily angry.

CS: I’m sure he was quite annoyed.

NA: Maybe I’m a malamute. Huh. Thanks, Chris. We’re so happy to have you working here at Hypothesis.

CS: Thanks!

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