Meet a Minnesota CTO: Keith Koch

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

Minnesota CTO Keith Koch was the first web employee at Capella Education Company and has experienced multiple stages — from startup thru hyper-growth IPO and into the publicly traded market.

What is your background in technology?

I have been working in technology for about 20 years, starting with my U of MN masters program — an integrated program studying how humans interact with virtual environments. While working on this degree I taught myself web design and development and freelanced sites for the U of MN Bio-Medical Library, Vision Models, and James Page Brewing.

I was hired at Fingerhut as a web designer and quickly moved into a management position, overseeing their youth marketing platform, atomicLiving. I built a talented team there, and we did some amazing things until the bubble burst. I usually tell the story that when the dot bomb hit in 2000, my .com career was saved by a .edu when I joined Capella Education Company as the first web employee.

I got to participate in some amazing things at Capella. Our population of enrolled learners grew from 1,000 to nearly 40,000, we won many industry awards for our online courses and campus, and we became a nationally recognized leader in competency-based education for adults. By the time I left Capella, I was the VP of Online Products and User-Experience with a team of 125 FTE’s. I had responsibility for digital product management, interactive design, and course development, and I participated at the executive-level on the new business development team.

I left Capella in 2012 when I was recruited to join a start-up, Tamber Health where I built another high-performing technology team who quickly delivered innovative solutions in the virtualized healthcare space. Unfortunately, the funding situation became constrained and we were cut-short before we had a chance to achieve scaling the business.

Since then, I’ve been working at Sophia Learning as CTO on an interim basis, helping with business development, assessment of technology products, processes, and costs, and hiring.

What are you focused on right now?

I’m helping build new technical capabilities at a smaller burn rate at Sophia rate to match their business objectives. It’s a well run shop and finding new ways to do more with less human capital is my objective here.

While helping Sophia, I’m exploring some other opportunities, looking for the next company that wants to use technology to transform a product, its business, or a whole industry. I’d prefer working in a mission-based organization such as healthcare or education, but I’m not limiting my search to those industries. I’ve been there before and I’ve also operated in retail and B2B SaaS services businesses.

What are the some of the technologies you’re experienced with?

I’ve led teams working in a variety of development environments, from .Net to Java to Ruby on Rails. I haven’t personally touched code in a while; I’m more of a technology and product leader, building high-performance teams who use any of those platforms. I find a technology framework is a little like a religion — everyone has one, it’s hard to change once you’ve chosen, and there’s little value in the effort in changing. It’s not the tools, it’s what you do with them.

How do you approach recruiting and retention for technical positions in an increasingly competitive market?

It’s not easy with all the opportunities for developers here in Minnesota. I really try to make a swiss-army-knife team of complementary talents, and I emphasize opportunities for interesting work and professional growth.

I also love to give stretch opportunities so talented team members can ‘try on’ a supervisor or team lead hat. Great programmers are not always great managers, but I find it motivating to give them a chance when opportunities arise.

It’s like playing pick-up basketball. You can’t have five point guards, players who can play multiple positions are invaluable, everyone has a role to play, and a well-balanced team that plays together with chemistry will meet any challenge you throw at them.

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

It’s very difficult to keep up on all the changes in technology by yourself… So, I’m not afraid to hire people smarter than me, and I keep connected by asking my team lots of questions. It’s important to understand the problems new technologies solve for our business and to keep connected to the details of projects using those technologies. You’d be amazed at how much you can learn by making it a point of staying part of the team, rather than becoming a general manager. Of course there’s lots to learn from other industries. Applying solutions from one context to another is a great way to keep pace, too.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

I’m excited by transformation through technology, really making an impact a big way, with solutions that can change people’s lives. Mobile is certainly something that I’m excited about, the move away from the desktop to meeting people’s needs on-the-go and at the point-of-need.

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

There’s a looming threat of big data and how that encroaches on privacy. Big data can be used for the wrong purposes, but I believe it’s far overshadowed by the benefits of using data to solve human problems.

Also, as we make technology engagement easier, I can’t help but wonder: are people disengaging from life? It’s all in a balanced moderation.

What are you into outside of technology?

I’m an avid bike commuter. Minneapolis is great for that. I play pick-up basketball on the weekends, go to Gophers basketball games, and help coach my son’s youth team.

I’m into live music and see as many shows as I can, but not as many as I’d like to, and far short of what I used to.

And of course I love to spend as much time with my family as my career allows.

What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry?

It’s underappreciated on a national level but locally well understood. Go to CoCo, read TECHdotMN and attend MinneDemo — it’s amazing to see how much is going on in the Twin Cities. And not just in one industry – we’ve got retail, healthcare, education, entertainment, sports. This is truly a multi-faceted technology community.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’m looking for my next best match to make a big impact where technology can be a strategic enabler of positive change.

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