LaaS (Language as a Service) With Duolingo

by Joseph Mandros January 21, 2020 | 4 min read

欢迎! [Huānyíng] In Mandarin, this means “welcome,” the first Chinese phrase I ever learned as a Mandarin Language Minor in college. It took me two weeks to understand the tonal variations, one week to memorize and properly execute the written stroke pattern, and another week to hone the ability to say it with confidence to my teacher (aka 老师 [Lǎoshī]). And I’m not talking about how long it took for me to understand the first chapter or the first sentence; I am talking about this one. single. phrase.

The Foreign Service Institute ranks Mandarin as a Category IV language, the highest ranking possible in terms of comprehensive difficulty. At the rate I was progressing, it felt like I would be collecting Social Security checks before I could even read picture captions in a Chinese newspaper.

It seemed like there had to be a method available to accelerate my proficiency outside of the classroom. A platform for people to immerse themselves in the language wherever they are, where they can solve puzzles, communicate vocally, play games, and truly learn how to use a language in day-to-day life. Alas, in my college years, no such tool existed.

Fast forward to today and you’ll discover a nimble application available that does just that: Duolingo—and I definitely wish it was around when I was in college!

你好, 世界! (Hello, World!)

Duolingo is a leading language-learning platform that offers over 90 courses in 38 different languages to a global user base of over 300 million people. Founded in 2011 out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the freemium platform is one of the most downloaded education apps on iOS and Android, making it one of the most popular tools for users to pick up and learn a new language seamlessly—no matter where they are in the world.

Because of Duolingo’s global user base, a highly available and always-on service is critical to ensuring a smooth and latency-free user experience. But in order to maintain this consistent experience, engineers had to be on call around the clock in order to monitor reliability and orchestrate proactive, holistic responses when incidents do inevitably happen.

数字化转型 (Digital Transformation)

A few years ago, Duolingo made the executive decision to engage in a digital transformation across its services and application architecture. This included breaking down the monolith into over 100 microservices, distributing infrastructure capabilities across teams, and completely reconfiguring the incident management process.

Before this transformation, they were using PagerDuty at its most basic level of functionality, with minimal reporting enabled and a more siloed approach to service ownership and on-call management. From this, they saw less-than-ideal outcomes surfacing across teams, including team burnout from excessive on-call shifts, difficulty with load management due to the amount of maintenance needed, and a lack of infrastructure visibility across teams and services.

Duolingo soon realized that, in order to orchestrate their digital operations in a holistic and real-time manner, they needed to rethink the way they approached incident management using the PagerDuty platform.

积极成果 (Positive Outcomes)

Duolingo decided to take a more agile approach to incident management, and PagerDuty is now used as the central nervous system for their digital operations. Instead of a siloed approach to service ownership and assigning a single on-call team responsible for the entire suite of applications, they created specialized, custom rotations throughout the company responsible for particular services and applications across the platform. This enabled more flexibility and full visibility across their entire infrastructure, and standardized the way teams orchestrate a prescriptive, real-time response.

“PagerDuty is our first line of defense if there is a major site or application issue, and we rely on it to alert the proper teams to engage in a proper response,” explained Max Blaze, a Staff Operations Engineer at Duolingo.

学无止境 (There Is No Limit in Learning)

I see a parallel in the way Duolingo helps their users learn languages and how PagerDuty helps Duolingo teams engage in a more efficient and frictionless incident management process. While the language platform doesn’t make users fluent overnight, rethinking how users consume, understand, and engage with their content makes their users more effective learners. With PagerDuty, Duolingo is more effective when it comes to taking real-time action and creating business efficiencies across the organization in a world where seconds matter, no matter what language you speak.

谢谢! (Thank you) for reading!