Meet a Minnesota CTO: Jamie Thingelstad



Jamie ThingelstadThank you to Andcor Companies for underwriting the Meet a Minnesota CTO series.

Q&A with Jamie Thingelstad, the recently appointed CTO of Minnesota’s most financially prosperous software company, SPS Commerce.

How long have you been working in technology for and what is your technical background?

I went to the U of M for Computer Science, although I never finished my degree. I’ve been coding since the age of 8 with a TI-99/4A that my mother got me on clearance for $99 at JC Penney. I’ve always known (since I was old enough to know) that I wanted to work with computers.

I’ve been an Internet CTO since around 1996 when I was CTO of BigCharts (acquired in 1999 by MarketWatch). I’ve gone from a startup CTO to CTO at Dow Jones, running a global team of 180 people and budgets of 10′s of millions of dollars.

After DJ I took some time off, had a little fun, was honored to be an EIR at Split Rock Partners where I worked with Michael Gorman and Jim Simons on a number of projects.  Ultimately I joined another startup, then called Alvenda, now 8thBridge, where I spent three years building a new venture in the social commerce space. I recently left that to pursue the CTO opportunity with SPS Commerce.

Overall, I’ve been in this space about 15 years now. I still keep my hands on the keys with some side projects to stay up-to-date on languages and tools, I’m comfortable running my own Linux serves, but I don’t do any of that at the office anymore! That would just be a mess.

What are you focused on right now?

SPS has grown an amazing business. $100MM in revenue, publicly traded and one of the most highly valued SaaS stocks on the market. In the decades SPS has been around, it has built a retail supply chain network that is unparallelled in the industry. We are the 800lb Gorilla and we operate a platform that retailers around the world depend on every day.

The focus for me is figuring out how we scale the business even further to realize an even larger market opportunity. To realize this we have to introduce entirely new capabilities into our platform and allow it to scale in new ways. As technologists, people think about scaling in terms of web request and server demand, but we’ve definitely entered into the phase of scaling by allowing 3rd parties to develop on our platform and enabling customers to manage our platform directly.

I believe that we have the potential to scale to a $1B organization and that’s our goal.

What are the some of the technologies within your company and IT environment?

With a technology team of 180, we have a wide diversity. We currently run our own data centers using virtualization with VMware. We do a lot of automation using tools like Puppet. We use services like LogicMonitor to do much of our infrastructure monitoring and we’re starting to deploy initial services into Amazon Web Services, to start a gradual shift of much of our capability into the cloud.

Over the coming months and years we will push much of our current offering into a dynamically scaling cloud model.

For programming environments, we have things in Java, C# and we’re looking to expand our depth in Python, Javascript and numerous other languages and frameworks.

How do you ensure that IT plans, projects and objectives are aligned with business outcomes?

Well that’s my number one responsibility, making sure that we’re doing the right projects and heading in the right direction. I need to have a very clear understanding of where our business needs to go so that I have a good sense first-hand of whether our projects are well-aligned.

For example, projects that get us 20% more efficiency are interesting, but the don’t meet the criteria of how we double, triple or quadruple our scale. We’ll take it, but we need more.

You also have to have a wonderful relationship with your product management team. SPS Commerce has a VP of Product and Marketing, Pete Zaballos. He and I really look at this as two sides of one coin. He understands the state of the market, I understand what the platform needs to do. Together we combine that to drive our strategy.

What is the size of your department (headcount) and how is it organized/managed?

180. We have three discreet functions: Tech operations, Software development and Corporate IT.

How does your company approach recruiting and retention for technical positions in an increasingly competitive market?

SPS has historically been a bit behind in this. We have a team of 700 here in Minneapolis, and not enough people in technology know the great work we are doing here. As I started to explore SPS more, it just blew me away with the potential that existed.

As a CTO, I felt that it was a rocket and a journey I wanted to be part of.
To recruit and maintain talented people, we need be known in the community and those people need to know of the great work we’re doing here. To that end, you’ll see SPS Commerce more active in the community here as well as other locations where we have technology centers, which include New Jersey and Ukraine.

The other part of it is to make sure that we have strong connection between the technology and the product to lead and evangelize the path forward.
Lastly, we’re looking at all aspects of our platform. Bringing in new technologies because we think that they are good solutions, but also because we know that good engineers will want to expand their talents.

How do you personally keep up with the ever changing technology landscape?

Honestly, it’s a hard question to answer, because I don’t know how I wouldn’t. I’m hardwired for it. Technology isn’t something that I do because it’s a job, but because I am me. To draw an analogy, there are a lot of people who couldn’t imagine not knowing what’s happening with various football teams, for me I couldn’t imagine not knowing what’s happening in the technology ecosystem.

I’m a large consumer of RSS feeds and have my own tools to keep up-to-date. I also explore technologies firsthand via some side projects and exploration. Also, going to conferences and events as well as networking with other CTO’s is part of it as well.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

What doesn’t? I was marveling at the new iPad Air and how browsing the web on it is as fast as a MacBook Air was just a couple of years ago. The innovation in cloud services, what I can do without needing to worry about how many amps of power or tons of cooling I have available is crazy.

The capabilities of open source software are truly miraculous. Developers with the right tools can be incredibly productive creating things with relative ease and low costs. It’s an amazing time to be in technology. At some point you think that we would hit some plateau, but it just doesn’t happen.

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

The flip side of everything I just said is that sometimes you can get ahead of yourself. Deploying systems into production is still hard, going through that process of running something at scale 24/7. I think as a software team, you’ve either run things in production environment or you haven’t and there are hard lessons that everyone has to learn in that process.

Additionally I think as technology practitioners we need to make sure that we start thinking beyond the code and how we impact society. There are so many issues around security and privacy that technologists need to start having opinions about. We are creating the environment that much of our world will operate on going forward, and we will influence if that is a monitored, tracked environment or one with public and private, secure and open places.

What are you into outside of technology?

I do a lot of photography, the technical part is easy, but connecting with the subject and understanding the creative process of photography pushes me to places I don’t normally go.  I love spending time with my kids and family, and I’ve been known to play a strategic lawn game Kubb.

What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry?

I think we have some great stuff going here. I’m on the board of Minne* and I put a lot of effort forth to help that organization continue to grow. The fact that 1,200 people will gather here for an all day event to talk all things tech speaks for itself. Our region is evolving and as I look at what some of our peer technology companies are doing and how they are shaping a new profile for the Minnesota tech scene it is exciting.

Some people are impatient that we’re not spawning numerous startups a week, but all you have to do is spend and afternoon at CoCo and you realize that there is a tremendous amount happening here. I could move to either coast, but I chose to stay here because I think we’re going the right way and I love calling Minneapolis home.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Just like everyone else, we are recruiting!


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