How Cengage is Achieving Digital Transformation for Millions of Students



Kathy Waynick: Hi, I'm Kathy Waynick, principal customer success manager for customer first, where I work and support Cengage's customer success journey. I'm excited to introduce Michael Gossett who's going to present on this session, how else Cengages' achieving digital transformation for millions of students.

Kathy Waynick: Michael Gossett is the technology product manager for Siam at Cengage where he's worked now for the past 11 years. Little bit about Michael. Prior to Cengage, Michael was an HR systems manager for Macy's for many years, and he also worked for many years in supporting the technology in the music industry where he saw firsthand where the transition of physical vinyl to MP revolution started. With this experience, he's in the perfect place to manage the book to digital transformation. And so now without any further ado, I'm going to hand it over to Michael.

Michael: Thank you, Kathy. I'm excited to share the journey we've been on here at Cengage. Our identity journey is one part of our digital transformation to focus on helping learners achieve better outcomes. So, Cengage began over a 100 years ago as a publisher of traditional school books. It's a company that was built from many years of mergers and acquisitions of publishers, learning companies and education software platforms.

Michael: In the past decade, the company has transformed to meet modern educational demands. The real center of the company now is how we deliver content to our end users and we have many pathways to delivering that content. Now we're one of the largest US-based education and technology organizations. And Cengage offers a wide range of digital learning resources. We cover segments in higher education, K-12, libraries, trades and many paths towards continuing education.

Michael: So, this is our credo and our ethos and these are what drives our business and how we share our core values. I want to point out just a couple of these that really help drive our digital transformation. So, one is we believe in the power and the joy of learning. Learning is an empowerment tool that can elevate people's lives and change their situation and their outcomes to where they end up in life. We touch the lives of millions of people globally every day. We serve a wide global population of all age ranges.

Michael: We embrace the unknown. We're willing to take risks and disrupt the normal way of doing business to better the outcomes of all of our users. And we set the bar higher. We challenge ourselves and our partners to always be improving and we're never satisfied with just good enough. So, as we begin to make the student focus digital transformation, we started by building core privacy principles. We want to be a trusted partners for educators and students. This means that their data and their PII is safe with us. It also means they can always trust their resources to be available. If we have technical issues, students can't complete their assignments or take online exams. On a Sunday night when they come to do their homework for Monday or studying for that exam, everything has to be available all the time. There's no option for off.

Michael: So, publishing is historically a strong business that struggled with digital transformation. As prices continued to rise across the industry, students tried to find alternative ways of getting their learning materials. Sometimes with used books, pirated online copies, counterfeit books, or some of them even tried to make it through their courses without using a book at all.

Michael: The Cengage leadership recognized that not only did the cost of learning materials need to get lower, but transforming into a digital learning company could create more engaging learning experiences and actually start to improve students' outcomes. So, our executive leadership is on record in many outlets like conferences, trade publications, news outlets, talking about the student finished focused directive event Cengage, including our real desire to save students money and help them be more successful in their college journey. But that stuff isn't just executive speak, it's Cengage. Myself and my whole team are brought into our vision and that's what makes us excited about our jobs, about what we do everyday. It's very personal.

Michael: I want to tell you my own college story. So, I grew up pretty poor and started to work even through high school. I was the first person in my father's family to even go to college. And when I got there I saw that some books were over $200 for the engineering classes I wanted to take. The real slap in the face was at the end of the semester when I got 10% of what I had spent when I tried to resell that book back to the bookstore at the end of the semester. I was working multiple jobs, I had a work study and the Dean of engineering's office, I had a job delivering paint to commercial construction sites and I worked at a retail store on the weekends. So, I was trying to complete my classes and sometimes I was just trying to stay awake for my classes.

Michael: I distinctly remember a Papa John's pizza across the street from my dorm where I'd buy a $5 large pizza and try make it stretch across breakfast, lunch and dinner for two or three days. I was literally exhausted. I was literally hungry and I struggled in my classwork. I performed well below where I knew I could have and where I really wanted to. So, many years later now I have the opportunity to make a difference for people who are in the same situation like I was back then. And to do our small part in enabling them to better their education, their situation in life, that's why I get excited to come to work in the morning.

Michael: So, a lot of people had this thought across Cengage. We continued on this focus of our core issue, how can we make a positive impact on students' learning outcomes? It drove us to evaluate our entire business model. What if we could offer everything we have to students for the lowest price possible? This idea was the birth of Cengage unlimited. We launched the subscription textbook model that's disrupted the entire industry offering all of our eBooks, our courseware and our materials for $119 a semester or 179 a year. This even includes things like free textbook rentals, study tools and tutoring, which can further help improve students' learning outcomes.

Michael: And we have some really great information that we've gotten back so far. So, in the first three semesters since it's launched, we've already saved students over $125 million. I'm really excited to see what those numbers look like after this... We're in the middle of the fourth semester now to see how much more we're saving students because adoption continues to grow and more people continue to learn about Cengage Unlimited and then start to use it for their own courses.

Michael: The other thing this does is, allows institutions to make a choice to make the college experience more affordable for their students by using more content that falls under that single price of unlimited. So as you can see, your choice of institution can really help you with a better career outcome, better college outcome, making things more affordable along the way. And we're partnering with those institutions who have the same vision we have for improving those outcomes for students.

Michael: So, Cengage has transition to digital and the launch of Cengage Unlimited exposed some areas of challenge for us and for our users in the identity space. Students who'd use one of our many platforms were now consolidated under a single product. They didn't know they had an account under a different platform they may have used, so this caused a new strategic focus to happen and shined a light on our customer identity system and we've started solutioning for those pain points our customers were experiencing. As we put here, they have more than a dozen different sign-in paths that they got to because of our wide variety of courseware platforms. And a student may have been used to one of those then all of a sudden they're seeing different ones and they became very confused about where am I at and what am I doing and how many accounts do I have.

Michael: This is when the value of our ecosystem actually became a business driver. So, with the launch and initial success of unlimited, the value of our ecosystem itself has risen to the end users, to our commercial strategy group and to the efficiency of our entire enterprise. In addition to our privacy and trust policies and on top of our always on a 100% service agreements, we needed to support the rapid movement that was happening in our digital space. The transition to digital was central to improving our learning outcomes and helping reduce the cost of learning materials. We wanted to better that experience the very first touch into our ecosystem, which started with our user registration. We catered to a lot of 18 and 19 year olds who they're focusing on that feel and touch, that very first touch into your systems.

Michael: So, this led us to focus on what we're going to do with identity as Cengage. So, Cengage really wanted to focus it's really talented internal engineering groups on delivering great courseware on our content delivery and innovative learning solutions for instructors and students. We decided it was too time consuming and resource intensive to try to build and maintain an identity system that could perform at a really high standard and scalability that we needed while also being able to provide faster, simpler integrations to new software. We determined in a bill versus buy that it would take us five years really to rebuild what we needed. Our challenge of scale and availability are number one in our demands that we need for identity.

Michael: So when we went to the marketplace, the Okta Identity Cloud was really the only solution that could meet all of our criteria of scale, security and standards. In addition, Okta's customer identity vision aligned with the strategy we'd been formulating for learners in the Cengage ecosystem. Okta's pre-sales engineering, we're able to build proof of concept demos for us that demonstrated the vision we had showing us that Okta could facilitate the change we needed. So, we a Okta pre-sales engineer, Bishah Rahilla and he and his team built a flow that I'd wire frame just using PowerPoint and they built that using an Okta preview tenant in less than a week functioning and showing us this idea that we'd had that we had no possibility of building on our own, but Okta could deliver really quickly for us. Those are really first marker that Okta is really the company we needed to be engaging with as a partner with our identity solution.

Michael: So, Cengage engineering worked side by side with Okta professional services and their engineering teams for five months to build plan and test an identity design that can handle hundreds of thousands of logins at once. The plan was to make the shift to Okta on the back end while making no disruption to front end user paths and we needed to migrate over 20 million user accounts and have everything plumbed and working in time for the Cengage fall rush period. And that's when students arrive back to school for the fall. They begin to use our courseware and creating new accounts. In just a couple of weeks we experienced a rush of traffic unlike most other industries, which is multiple times greater than anytime we see other in the year.

Michael: Along the way we got to clean up some bad data, duplicate data and strange formatting and we learned about how Okta reacted to our load testing in our large horizontal footprint with all the different courseware platforms that we're authenticating off of one identity solution. We don't have a single application or point of entry. There's literally dozens of these courseware apps that request authentication or user information in a variety of different ways. So, I'm going to go through with you what our delivery plan look like for you visual learners like myself out there.

Michael: So, this is a simplified view of our overall legacy identity structure, our architecture and the starting point for the Okta integration. Our system was primarily designed for the massive throughput and scaling that require for business to function, especially in our heavy fall rush peak and our spring rush periods.

Michael: Our first step was to go to a dual right phase where we would transfer data from our legacy repository to Okta while beginning to send, write and updates to Okta as well. So, we would take a while to populate that data while users would still be using our legacy database source.

Michael: The next piece would be to use Okta as the functional read and write store for user data. The legacy database was still written too for back and BI tasks and redundancy just in case anything went wrong. We had a lot of people worried about that many millions of users moved over, especially because we were planning on doing this just before that fall rush period.

Michael: We're now in our current working phase of delivery and Okta is doing the majority of identity work for Cengage now. We still have a few legacy repositories that handle things like groups and some business logic user transformations, but now with Okta as the user data store, we've built the login registration and self-service front end applications that our users will very shortly begin using. They're built with a combination of the Okta widget and Okta SDKs and some custom code using Okta APIs. We'll begin transitioning our platforms two to three at a time to using the new user login registration application to consolidate our user experiences across the enterprise and we're starting to deliver to customers on the front end in April.

Michael: So, along the way we had a lot of milestones of this project. We missed our original plan date by two weeks to switch over to Oktane production. We got down to the wire, but with the assistance of our Okta customer success team and much of the Okta engineering chain, we were able to work out issues just in time for production launch on August 2nd last year, which was just a couple of weeks before we would see students start to return to school. When fall rush hit us in full force, we realized on Monday at 11:00 AM, I realized on Monday at 11:00 AM we already hit our anticipated peak load, which was 186,000 calls per minute. I knew based on our historical traffic, we would continue to increase throughout the week with Wednesday being our usual peak so I immediately reached out to customer success. I looked at my phone records and email records and within six minutes of my panic message to Kathy, she replied that Okta was ready to start upsizing our scale.

Michael: By 7:44 that Monday they had increased our rate to 260,000 calls per minute and over the next few days Okta was able to increase that up to 300,000 a minute, which was enough to get us through our entire fall rush period and we had no issues for customers.

Michael: Our spring rush period, which is our second highest peak time of the year in late January this year went with absolutely zero issues and no panic calls to Kathy. For the few times when we saw errors or had concerns, the customer support team at Okta have been great partners for us to work with. I wanted to show you what that looks like on a table for Cengage.

Michael: So again, spring 2020 was smooth sailing and we hit... Okta does get user end point with a peak of 241,000 requests for a minute, which is less than we do for fall rush but still significant. As you can see from the end of December, ramping up through January, we get hit really hard exponentially by students coming back into our systems. So, we've been really happy with the performance that Oktas' been able to give us, the bandwidth, the throughput all of those commitments that Oktas' made to us, they've been able to deliver on and really have been able to help us support our customers through these peak periods.

Michael: So, there are a few things we've been working with, some issues at Cengage and it's mostly about a blending our expansive customer ecosystem with the Okta identity system. With our large legacy enterprise, there are a lot of threads through lots of systems that goes deep and change is not usually fast to come. Supporting all of these systems, dozens of systems while trying not to disrupt any of the students who engage with them is a constant challenge. We'd like to move as much of our old legacy identity systems functionality over to Okta as we can. The end goal is managing configuration over engineers, creating actual code.

Michael: And there are some places where the legacy nature of Cengage present a real challenge to that effort, especially with our old hierarchical eldap structure that's used throughout our ecosystem. And then a user ID that ties not only to our digital products in their experience, but it also ties to students' grades and answers to questions.

Michael: Our partners at Okta customer success are helping to be our voice in the Okta customer roadmap and help us gain visibility to the areas where we see these challenges and engage with the Okta engineering team to help them see those challenges and be able to partner with us to help solve those.

Michael: So, a few lessons we've learned along the way. One is the user identifier, the good. The Okta ID versus our legacy Cengage ID. Since our legacy Cengage ID isn't a first class citizen like the Okta ID, it limits some of our search capabilities and cause some race conditions we had to deal with it first. If you're a startup or you're a single application, this will never be an issue with you. If you're old, large enterprise like Cengage is with a deep rooted identifier throughout your system, it's been a challenge to solve, but the architects at Cengage that we partner with as well as Kathy's team facilitating that even very recently has given us some designs that we're going to be working on to help solve this space.

Michael: Another piece that we learned that we really had to deal with was with data governance. So, we realized that our old systems had very little governance over data, user data and our system, so much the fact that for any of you Star Wars fans like myself, we actually had a username that was the entire Darth Plagueis story from the Prequels, extremely long and unformatted because we just weren't watching over things.

Michael: When we moved over to Okta, some of those constraints really helped us put governance models into place that we always wanted to do and we didn't know how to do. Large scales limited, some of the feature options we wanted to use. It also means we've had to do things in other ways than our original plan, but so far we haven't been blocked from doing anything we've wanted to do with Okta.

Michael: We did come up with a really neat analytics solution that our Cengage engineering team worked with Okta to leverage their logging features to build a new BI analytics source just for user data.

Michael: So, what's next for Cengage in our digital transformation journey for students? The big thing on our horizon right now is Cengage Unlimited e-Textbook. We were getting feedback from students that things are still too expensive for them, even with the launch of Cengage Unlimited. So, for those who have traditionally used only paper textbooks and they're not using digital courseware yet, we're launching unlimited e-Text books as the very lowest price point way of accessing all of their Cengage textbooks.

Michael: For 60.99 master, which would typically be less than a single textbook, they'll be able to have access to all of our e-Textbooks with study tools and more attached to that per semester. So, it'll allow them to access all that information in just the cheapest way we can possibly get it to them.

Michael: The next thing up for us is progressive profile. That's going to allow us to give personalized learning solutions and assistance based on the user's school, study path and intended year of graduation. We've been looking at the Okta identity engine for this and once that's ready for us in production and in our scale, we plan on putting that in our roadmap and switching over to using the Okta identity engine. We still want to give students the least expensive purchasing options for their entire course load based on what's required for their journey in their courses.

Michael: So the last thing is, bring your own identity. We want to offer our students the least resistance into the Cengage ecosystem. We're asking our Okta partners to help us solve this pain point by leveraging the income and federation and that allows students to log in with their existing university username and password. Let the institution itself apply its security and governance policies rather than just creating another account which they have to remember the username and password to and the password policy. And if they had to use one upper case or a special character or which email they happen to use, all of these pain points we see for users. Just allowing them to use their university login that they use for everything else in their school is going to make that experience much better for them.

Michael: So again, let me thank you all for letting me bring you the story of our digital transformation here at Cengage. I hope that you all stay safe and well, and we wish you good luck on your own identity journeys. And Kathy, back over to you.

Kathy Waynick: Thanks so much, Mike. That was really great. I really appreciate that. What we'd like to do is to ask you our audience with any questions. We have probably about 10 to 15 minutes, we'll take those live. And again, just really appreciate you listening to the story as you think about your journey together with Okta. Please let us know and we'll stop right now and take your questions. Thank you.

After Cengage launched an industry first subscription service for Higher Education digital software, they needed a solution provider who could not only support the transition during peak capacity, but who also shared a their vision for Customer Identity and Access Management. Michael Gossett, Technology Product Manager of CIAM at Cengage, explains why he chose Okta and explains how his company successfully deployed Okta Customer Identity to over 2.5 million students in just a short amount of time.