CTOs to know: Meet 4 Colorado tech leaders driving innovation in their industries

February 21, 2018

In a tech-driven business, the chief technology officer stands to make an indelible mark on the company’s product — and thus, the company itself. From building a team of innovative engineers and developers to making important strategic decisions, CTOs are responsible for being the guiding force that drives a company’s technology forward.

We talked to four local CTOs about the challenges they face in today’s fast-moving digital world, the technologies they're most excited about and how they’re leading their teams to success.
 

Vertafore Andy Dey CTOs to Know Colorado
Photo courtesy of Vertafore.

Andy Dey joined insurance software company Vertafore as chief technology officer in August. There, he focuses on his passion for researching and developing impactful software solutions.

 

What new technologies are you excited about using or eyeing for future projects?

At Vertafore, our mission is to transform the way our industry works by putting people at the heart of insurance technology. Technology plays a key role in augmenting our own abilities and enabling our customers to do more with less. The role of cloud technology is ever-expanding, and on top of that, machine learning, blockchain and natural language interfaces (voice-based interactions such as Siri and Alexa) will play a huge role in the ongoing digital transformation of our industry.

 

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

One of our key focuses is on data analytics and the insights such data provide. With the acquisition of RiskMatch in 2017, we are able to embed the market-leading solution for analytics within our existing products. This allows us to deliver actionable insights to each stakeholder along the insurance value chain and make our solutions even more powerful to our users.  
 

What are the biggest technology challenges your team has faced? How did you overcome them?

Right now, the pace of innovation is faster than it has ever been and, at the same time, the slowest it will ever be. Not only keeping up with the pace, but staying ahead of the curve, is our primary challenge in the technology field. We address this challenge through continuous educating and training. We invest significantly in bootcamps, on-the-job training, knowledge-sharing sessions and online curriculum. We deeply believe that by investing in our people, we can combat and overcome future technological challenges.
 

How would you describe your leadership style?

My role ranges from being deep in the weeds with architects and engineers to providing strategic direction for progressive modernization of our solutions. My leadership style — and what has always worked well for me — is to enable and facilitate my teams to do their best possible jobs by supporting them and proactively removing roadblocks. Because our collective intelligence is greater than any one individual’s capabilities, the best way to win together is to motivate and empower the team and instill a belief that anything is possible if we put our hearts and minds into it.

 

Sovrn Jess Demmel CTOs to Know Colorado
Photo courtesy of Sovrn. 

Jesse Demmel has served as Sovrn’s CTO since July, having previously held the role of vice president of engineering for Under Armour and MapMyFitness. Since then, Demmel has led the adtech startup through a period of tremendous growth and evolution.

 

What new technologies are you excited about using or eyeing for future projects?

AI is reaching its watershed moment in computer science. If you are working with big data (and really, who isn't?), machine learning, and soon deep learning, are critical to staying competitive.

The public fears losing entire industries of jobs, but like all things, I think it'll take much longer and be more gradual. For now, machine learning is performing the repetitive and mundane tasks that allow engineers the creative space to solve even more challenging problems. It's a really exciting time to be in this space.

 

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

We have two big initiatives this year. First is our migration to cloud. It's simplifying our architecture, increasing availability and actually saving cost. Ingesting multiple petabytes of data a month makes it a challenging project.

Second, we're breaking up our main application into a microservices architecture of sorts. Our latency requirements (low milliseconds) and high throughput (10 billion daily HTTP requests) challenge typical microservice approaches.

 

What are the biggest technology challenges your team has faced? How did you overcome them?

Early last year we struggled to keep up with the tremendous growth in scale, suffering many system outages. We had grown 10 times in 10 months from roughly one billion daily HTTP requests to 14 billion. The old architecture couldn't scale further, so the team scrambled to move to a lambda architecture. It required a herculean effort, but we pulled it off, even moving to many new technologies. As we continue to build for future growth, we're simplifying the architecture while moving to cloud.

 

How would you describe your leadership style?

As a leader, I focus on alignment and feedback loops. When the desired architecture is aligned with both the business objectives and engineering team structure, critical decisions are easy and the team is empowered to deliver amazing results. I also work to utilize tight feedback loops to constantly improve all aspects of engineering, basing it all on servant leadership. Engineers are brilliant if we set them up for success and get out of the way.

 

TrainingPeaks Bernardo Fanti CTOs to Know Colorado
Photo courtesy of TrainingPeaks. CTO Bernardo Fanti pictured LEft. 

CTO Bernardo Fanti has been with TrainingPeaks for nearly seven years. He’s witnessed the evolution its sports training products over the years and continues to drive changes that simplify processes for his developers and TrainingPeaks’ customers.

 

What new technologies are you excited about using or eyeing for future projects?

We are no Amazon, but we are starting to hit a web scale that requires specific attention and skills. The technologies that interest me most are those that make developers’ lives easier, streamline change management and allow us to manage huge operational loads and increasing complexity. AWS has been coming out with a plethora of tools and services that take the incidental complexity out of software development.

 

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

We’re working on a massive refactor and re-architecture of our core file ingestion pipeline. This spans the spectrum, including API endpoints that integrate with third parties sending massive amounts of data, processing data through parsers and advanced calculations, caching intermediary outputs and eventually persisting everything to Amazon S3. We’re exploring new-to-us technologies such as Docker and AWS Fargate, and we’re starting to leverage AWS Lambda more.

Our e-commerce platform is another exciting area. What may seem mundane is a fascinating exercise in dealing with legacy monolithic systems, incremental refactoring, and breaking domains up into modular elements toward an SOA/microservice vision. Doing so while moving at 80 miles per hour down the highway and delivering significant customer value along the way is difficult and is as much a technical challenge as it is a people, management, organizational structure and communication challenge.

 

What are the biggest technology challenges your team has faced? How did you overcome them?

As difficult as it is for an introvert engineer to admit this, software is built by humans. Our biggest technology challenge is human. Sure, scaling our architecture and infrastructure for traffic growth is key, but how do we do so while doubling our engineering teams, refactoring and separating existing monolithic systems, helping individuals through personal growth and organizational change, refining our processes and increasing throughput while retaining our unique culture? Those are the “technology challenges” that most intrigue me and our senior leadership.

 

How would you describe your leadership style?

I’m an avid reader and do most of my studying from books. I enjoy bringing that learning back into a collaborative setting and taking ideas through a Socratic dialogue with trusted colleagues before attempting to experiment with small changes and improvements. I am known to overwhelm my teams with change but also to be able to drive significant change with an organic approach. My leadership style reflects my collaborative approach to learning. Servant leadership is an overused buzzword, but its principles embody my still-evolving beliefs. Autonomy, mastery, purpose — as a leader I strive to create an environment where you can pursue all three of those as an individual contributor.

 

Return Path Shawn Nussbaum CTOs to Know Colorado
Photo courtesy of Return Path/

CTO Shawn Nussbaum joined the Return Path team as a software engineer in 2010. Today, he focuses on inspiring his engineers to build innovative email marketing products and feel connected to the company’s vision.

 

What new technologies are you excited about using or eyeing for future projects?

As a mature startup that’s been around for 18 years, we are in the process of reimagining our products and data platforms right now — which I’m personally excited about.

We are building modular UIs (Angular) and APIs (Golang) on top of aggregated email data and events that are created by our stream-processing systems (Kafka, Scala). We are big fans of Kubernetes and have been operating thousands of containers in our production AWS clusters for the last couple years. I’m excited about Amazon’s EKS and Fargate technologies. We are also experimenting with SageMaker for some of our machine learning pipelines.

 

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

We are doing a deep refactor of our core products to provide faster and deeper email insights to our customers; we are building a new machine learning pipeline to solve deeper customer problems with the unique email data that we have; and we are migrating the remainder of our legacy systems to AWS.

 

What are the biggest technology challenges your team has faced? How did you overcome them?

We have solved some big problems over the years, like how to process hundreds of millions of emails a day by leveraging Kafka and concurrent/distributed systems. However, the biggest challenge has been reinventing our legacy products and migrating our systems to the cloud while still operating them and supporting our customers. We are accomplishing this by leveraging cloud technologies, Martin Fowler’s strangler pattern and a lot of patience and hard work.

 

How would you describe your leadership style?

As a leader, my job is to communicate a vision and intrinsically motivate people to get excited about accomplishing it — to make people feel valuable to the business. Our people-first culture at Return Path values each employee as an individual, and we’re continually striving to ensure employees see the value in how their work is contributing to the greater whole. Having a culture that drives curiosity and engagement — and gives people space to experiment — empowers people to contribute and share ideas.

 

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