Meet a Minnesota [startup] CTO: Steve Smerz

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SteveSmerz

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

Steve Smerz is the EVP of Technology, at St. Paul HealthIT startup Novu, charged with bringing the technology to life at scale and overseeing Novu’s dynamic technology team.

Prior to Novu, Steve held technology leadership roles at leading healthcare and technology companies, including ABILITY Networks, Definity Health and Stratyc. Most recently, he served as CIO, VP of Operations at ABILITY Network. He studied aerospace engineering and computer science at the University of Minnesota.

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

I have worked in the tech industry for over 30 years now. I began my career in the R&D team with Lawson software, writing both C and Cobol systems. Since that time, I’ve had the luxury of gaining broad experience in a number of industries and technologies, including development in Smalltalk, Java and Ruby.

About 20 years back, I launched my first company, a spinout, supply-chain software development and services company from H.B. Fuller, called Stratyc. Following that, I found my true niche in the health care technology space. I have led the technology teams for Definity Health, Ability Networks, and now Novu, with the goal of bringing great technology solutions to health care problems.

What are you focused on right now?

I am fully enjoying my experience at Novu. I truly have a passion for helping people take control of their own health, and I believe there is so much opportunity in the market to apply good technology to the problem of improving the health care experience for all involved.

My mission at Novu is two-fold. The first is to continue the development of a first-rate technology team as a core competency of our organization. We have already built a team of technologists that I’m truly proud to work with every day and have achieved an agility that has differentiated our organization in the market.

The second is to realize a highly adaptable health technology platform, which maintains the very high member engagement rates that characterize our offering, and yet allows for the numerous integration points to parties such as the payers and health care providers as well as other devices.

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

Novu has embraced the Ruby on Rails framework for the delivery of our web-delivered content, and extends the interactive nature of our experience by using a JavaScript library called Backbone/JS. Our data persistence infrastructure uses MySQL.

The platform is designed responsively using Twitter Bootstrap to account for access from the numerous devices in use. Additionally, Novu delivers our member experience through native iOS and Android applications. These applications were developed in Swift/Objective-C and Java respectively, and utilize REST-based techniques to integrate with our centralized infrastructure.

Novu’s physical infrastructure is nationally distributed and achieves 99.99% uptime. We aggressively use Chef automation to achieve zero-impact, push button deployments. This deployment automation architecture allows for the Novu infrastructure to automatically, horizontally scale as scaling metrics are approached.

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

I’m a big believer in two concepts: the first is to iterate early and often. Technology teams often fall into the trap of getting too wowed by tools, keywords and jargon, and many times fail to fully engage the business team in the vision of the project. Additionally, business folks are not necessarily trained in translating a design specification into a mental vision of the final product. As such, Novu uses agile methodologies and is regularly demoing solutions to the business teams even while construction is still underway. Capturing feedback from the project sponsors as early and regularly in the process as possible has been fundamental to seeing successful outcomes.

The second concept is about personal collaboration. One area where I feel technology has had a negative impact on businesses is in the over-reliance on email, etc., to connect. At Novu, we have a strong requirement to “get up and use your feet,” which works great within our healthy culture and mission. Smaller companies have great advantages in this area, as people often times sit within very close proximities. Many projects struggle or even fail due to misaligned requirements that could have easily been resolved through a little extra effort to meet someone face-to-face.

That said, there is always a need to ensure that technology teams truly understand the desires and needs of the business, and deliver technology solutions that generate value in that regard. Technology for technology’s sake is no win for the business.

Thank you to Andcor Companies for underwriting the Meet a Minnesota CTO series. – See more at: http://tech.mn/news/category/minnesota-cto/#sthash.qvUHpmty.dpuf

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

Our tech group is currently 20 really good people, but we are always looking to add talented folks to the team when we find them.

We administratively organize the team into Development, Quality, Project Management and Systems Engineering functions. However, operationally we take a different approach. I believe in a tight-knit, multi-discipline unit that is assigned to a particular business requirement or project. The benefits achieved through having a small, highly specialized team sitting and working in close proximity on a project are amazing. Communications paths are shortened and project ownership swells. The team is responsible for the success of the effort and self-directs the tasks required to meet the goals. Forgive the analogy, but I sometimes equate the group to a Special Forces unit. Put elite folks together, give them great tools and training, point them in the right direction, give them space to work, and then watch great results occur.

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

Recruiting is always a challenge, and especially so in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market. There are so many great opportunities for technical folks these days. Novu works hard to create a truly great place to work. We do many of the things progressive companies do (i.e. employee lounge, game rooms, fully-stocked kitchen, etc.) to create a fun environment. But, from a recruiting/retention standpoint, I believe it really is about the work. Novu does well when it comes to recruiting due to the fact that we are delivering something meaningful to the market. We are delivering a solution to help people live better, happier lives—and that makes all the difference in the world.

In the end, I truly believe the best recruiting tool is our existing employees and the good word they can spread throughout the market.

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

I’m a voracious reader and spend a lot of time reading journals and blog forums in the space. These are invaluable tools to stay up-to-date on things. I can’t always get into the details due to time constraints, but grasping a concept and putting it into the mental rolodex has served me well over the years.

Additionally, while my role is one of providing strategic technical leadership to the business, I truly believe that I need to maintain at least some contact personally with the tactical details. So, I try to get my coding hands dirty periodically, and deliver a small story. Understanding the environment that is being dealt with on a day-to-day basis by the technologists is key to helping them form the best team possible.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

I am really excited and proud to be a part of the technology community, and especially the ongoing revolution occurring in the health care technology space.

Technology advancements in mobile smart devices, ubiquitous networking, and targeted content delivery are allowing an unprecedented level of access to people at the critical moments in their life. All three of the major platform ecosystems have made recent major announcements at their developer events within the first half of 2014, and these announcements go a long way to a ubiquitous computing future, merging cloud and mobile.

These changes create huge possibilities in terms of customer/employee/member engagement, and create the ability to effect substantial change when it most matters to our users.

The new generation of technologists has an amazing opportunity (and responsibility) to embrace these new challenges and bring value to markets we serve.

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

I do get a bit concerned about the rate of change in the technology world, and that these changes can begin to lose the human face of things. I believe technology can and should facilitate many of life’s challenges, but not become a surrogate for the essential human interactions that can make life complete and fulfilling.

What are you into outside of technology?

I’ve got to admit that I’m a bit of an adrenaline junky and love to create new adventures in life. I’ve been active in aviation, skydiving, martial arts and once built a race car. But, in the end, I tend to move onto the next adventure. My current fixation is a love of the ocean and diving, and I’m currently doing a marine biology self-study program.

What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry?

I think the Minnesota tech industry is alive and well. I would put many of the folks I know up and against technologists anywhere in the world. Recent larger venture capital financing within health care IT, medical device and web start-ups have shown that the markets are also recognizing the strength and talent embedded within the Minnesota technology climate.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

No.

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