AWS Startups Blog

GoGuardian’s Aza Steel on the Power of Listening and Iteration

GoGuardian Founder Aza SteelAza Steel might be a bit of a prodigy, but he never set out to be a technological savior for teachers and parents. In fact, when he first developed the Chrome browser extension that would become the seed of his company in the early aughts, he was just a UCLA sociology major trying to find a way to track his laptop’s location in case it was stolen.

Steel taught himself basic programming in his dorm room and, soon after, launched his theft-protection plug-in. He’ll be the first to admit that it was a flawed plan, as the software relied on the thieves using Chrome to show their location and browser activity.

But he was soon flooded with requests from an unexpected source: academic IT administrators. As timing would have it, Google’s Chromebook laptop, retailing around $200, became the computer of choice for school districts around the same time as Aza’s undergrad foray into crime-stopping. Educators wanted to make sure they were being used by their students for learning, and not the countless other inappropriate things middle schoolers can get up to on the internet.

“School districts started reaching out, and what I did right was hear them describe all of their problems, not just theft,” explains Steel. “We were at the forefront of the introduction of a lot of technology into the classroom, and that comes with concerns. There’s a loss of control that teachers feel when fifth graders have access to the internet. Imagine you’re a teacher and you’re looking at the back of 30 Chromebooks, and you have no idea what students are doing.”

Steel did some A+ listening and decided it was worth not only pivoting his product to meet the needs of his unexpected new client base, but to make it his full-time gig. In 2014, less than a year after graduating, he founded GoGuardian. Rapidly he added new filters and AI capabilities, allowing teachers to do things like control all the screens in their classroom from a central computer.

“The most important thing is to develop a really fast iteration cycle, because you’ll figure out the ways that you’re listening well, and the ways that you’re ignoring things,” recommends Steel. “In my case, I was building new features within 24 to 48 hours of talking to districts about it. And then I would show it to them, and say, ‘Hey, what did I get right? What did I get wrong?’”

Steel also took the Silicon Valley “move fast and break things” adage to heart: He raised $8.4 million in funding and started scaling up so fast his servers were literally melting. “[The product] started taking off in all these online forms, and I was calling AWS support services daily as both an emotional and technological crutch. For some reason I always got these guys in Australia, and that accent was just really soothing,” laughs Steel.

He’s also quick to add that, from a managerial perspective, starting from scratch isn’t always the wisest. “If I could go back and give myself advice, it would be to read a few books about leadership, because a lot of smart people have faced similar challenges. You don’t necessarily need to be innovative in every area.”

But Steel and his CEO Advait Shinde made it through the heat, landed on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2016, and now service 10,000 schools (which translates to about 5 million students and 120,000 educators). And the program isn’t all about restriction, either, as an example shared on the company’s website illustrates: “A program might be set up to flag a student’s use of the word ‘bomb’ online. But depending on the context, the use of this word can mean very different things. A search query such as ‘what kind of bombs were used in World War I?’ might indicate that the student is researching a history project, while a search for ‘how to make a bomb’ might suggest a potential threat.”

GoGuardian’s solution is to integrate intelligent AI programs, which can actually read pages in context to determine their educational value. And it’s not lost on Steel the rare insight that he and his 100+ employees now have into the expanding minds of young people at a hugely tumultuous time in their lives. “Our vision has definitely expanded from creating safe learning environments to really focusing on the humans themselves. We launched flagged activity, which looks at words on a page to figure out if a user was looking at pornography. I added the word suicide to the filter and started catching cases where kids were googling it. Because of that, we can better predict whether a kid is engaged in suicidal behavior in earnest and alert the right people.” It’s all a part of Steel’s quest to be a good digital citizen—and to help teach the next generation of digital citizens.

Michelle Kung

Michelle Kung

Michelle Kung currently works in startup content at AWS and was previously the head of content at Index Ventures. Prior to joining the corporate world, Michelle was a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, the founding Business Editor at the Huffington Post, a correspondent for The Boston Globe, a columnist for Publisher’s Weekly and a writer at Entertainment Weekly.