(cross-posted from Publicyte blog)

Mark Drapeau (Washington, DC) –

Every month at Publicyte, we interview a “rising star” and highlight their work in which they’re using technology for civic good, whether in the private or public sector. This month for our issue on Connectivity, I caught up with Pooja Nath, the founder of Silicon Valley startup Piazza, which makes a real-time software platform that allows students in the same classes to easily collaborate with each other. It’s being used at Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, and hundreds of other schools. The New York Times recently reported that the average student using Piazza spends 2-3 hours on the site connecting with fellow students per day.

What’s Piazza in a nutshell? Is it only for college students?

Piazza is a question-and-answer platform that connects classmates to each other in a unique experience. When students work on their assignments, in fact, they keep Piazza open to constantly engage with other students in their class. At first, Piazza was only available at colleges, where it got up to 900+ campuses, but in January we made the platform available to everyone, and it now spans grad schools, undergrads, high schools, and so on. We’ve found instructors using it to share with each other, too. Whenever you can form a closed community around shared context, it’s a really meaningful interaction. We don’t do enterprise sales; We’re going directly to users and that’s why we’ve been able to deliver such a compelling experience.

Does Piazza help students deal with information overload?

The quality of questions on Piazza are very high-quality ones, and at the college level no one outside your class can really help you – parents can’t help, students at other schools in similar classes often can’t really help. Piazza is about how to get an answer in minutes. It cuts to the chase on niche problems. There is collective knowledge within a class. How do you tap into it, at the moment it matters to you?

How does Piazza compare its peers?

That’s a difficult question to answer, because I’m not sure if we have peers. For example, some professors use newsgroups to promote discussion for each class as part of a larger learning management system [editor's note: like, for example, Blackboard products]. And on the other side of the equation, students calling, texting, and IMing each other are to some degree “competition” to Piazza as well. Our key differentiator is that we focus on, and want to nail, solving the Q&A problem, and not on building an end-to-end solution.

Piazza means “public square” in Italian. What made you decide to use that particular phrase and language?

I was keen on any word that described people coming together, and “piazza” came out of a brainstorm with a fellow Stanford biz school student.

Tell me a little about your background and how that relates to what you’re doing now.

As you can tell, I have an American accent, but that’s very misleading. I spent my teenage years in India, and had many of my formative years at an all-girls school. At the same time I had my dad saying “don’t look at boys,” I found myself attending a top engineering school full of boys. I lacked some of the social skills to interact, and was shy to interact. I observed people learning from each other, but I was on the sidelines. I’m building Piazza because I want students to better be able to learn. Students often work in dorm rooms alone, but they might learn better if they were all in a room together; Piazza lowers the barriers to making that happen.

You used to work at two large software companies, Oracle and Facebook. What was valuable about those experiences? Would you ever go back to working at a large company?

I got different things out of working for different companies. At Oracle, there was a lot of rigorous process that went on with regard to testing code, and so forth. It was valuable to observe and experience that process. At Facebook, I joined when there were about 500 employees and I got to appreciate Mark Zuckerberg as a leader, and gained a better understanding of how to grow a company. Today, I don’t think I’d go back to working at such big companies; I really like where I am today. I started Piazza because I was passionate about solving an important problem.

If you liked this interview, check out our last one with Blake Hall, the CEO of Troopswap, and see the entire Who to Know archive here.