CTOs to Know: Meet AcademicWorks' Aaron Scruggs

Kelly O'Halloran
September 14, 2016

Austin startup AcademicWorks launched in 2010 with a small team of people dedicated to creating a scholarship management platform for higher education. The company spent their first year taking a deeper look at how 300 colleges and universities across the country managed their scholarship processes, and in 2011, AcademicWorks went live with the first integrated management system.

Students could apply for scholarships in one cohesive and streamlined process for the first time, and the company now provides solutions for over 500 campuses and foundations internationally.

Key to this growth was Aaron Scruggs, who joined the team six months after its inception as AcademicWork's director of engineering. More than five years and two promotions later, Scruggs now leads their tech team as CTO. His previous experience developing email solutions for OtherInbox, and software roles at FineTooth and Kajeet, has contributed to Scruggs's success in creating an inspired developers' environment. 

What technologies power your business?

We primarily use AWS, Ruby on Rails, Postgresql, Cassandra, Redis, ElasticSearch, MemcacheD and relentless pragmatism to power AcademicWorks.

What technologies are playing the biggest roles at your company this year?

We are leaning heavily into ElasticSearch this year. We initially started using it for rather naive use cases. With the performance improvements and new features in 2.x, we are able to do things that weren’t technologically possible prior.

What are the biggest tech projects your team is working on this year?

From a scaling perspective, it will be continuing to find better ways to leverage ElasticSearch. We also have one or two green field products for the team to build. Along the way, we are cautiously experimenting with Elixir.

What are the biggest technology challenges you’ve faced in the past? How did you overcome them?

Our product is five years old. Our greatest technological challenge has consistently been keeping our codebase well maintained and enjoyable to work with. We’ve accomplished this via: pull requests/peer review on all code contributions, spending 20 percent of our time refactoring, and by hiring people who want to work here long enough that they’ll care about maintainability.

What are lessons you’ve learned about working in Austin that other local entrepreneurs can learn from?

Local code school graduates can offer tremendous value to your engineering team. Before you start recruiting them, make sure you have a strong core of senior team members that can mentor them. Code school graduates do require more of an upfront time investment, but it pays off in spades over the long term.

Austin is known for having a large talent pool of thirsty, young workers. What are the top characteristics you look for in a potential hire?

Working in startups has become fashionable in recent years. This has attracted some people that are more interested in the 'scene'  and 'lifestyle.' They usually don’t last. I am looking for people that want to make a difference and are searching for the opportunity to accelerate their career.

How would your team describe working with you?

I posted this question in our Engineering Slack channel. Here are their responses:
“Who’s Aaron?”
“His ball-throwing skills are weak, but improving.”
“Communication and expectations are as clear as day. He treats us as adults, and he makes sure we have a fun environment while empowering us to do work that's meaningful and challenging.”
“I don't know whether to laugh or cry at some of his responses. This is a roast, right?"
“I would say that you raise a high bar, clearly choose people who complement each other’s skill sets, and you're approachable and funny."


Images provided by Academic Works. Some answers have been edited for clarity and length.

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