Meet A Minnesota CTO: Mike Phenow, LinkUp



Mike PhenowThank you Andcor Companies or underwriting the Meet a Minnesota CTO series.

Mike Phenow is the CTO of LinkUp, an employment, media, and advertising technology firm now found in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District.

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

I received a BA in computer science from Saint John’s University a little over 10 years ago and have been working in technology ever since.

My career has taken me down several paths including working for a national laboratory and a couple local web shops. I also spent some time as a freelance web developer and working on my own start-up projects. In the fall of 2011 I started working for LinkUp as a senior developer and moved into my current role as the CTO a year later.

I consider myself fortunate to be of the generation that grew up alongside the internet and modern consumer technology (born a few years before the .com TLD was introduced) — I’m not so old that it feels like a new thing or so young that today’s tech is a given. That happy coincidence has provided an opportunity to always learn, explore, and tinker with the latest technologies. A kid in high school playing with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript was, at the time, somewhere near the state of the art for web technology, but it was relatively easy and fun. To explore out near the cutting edge today is a more significant undertaking.

What are you focused on right now?

Our big focus right now is scalability – scalability of data, operations, and development. Gone are the days of having “the database” and storing everything in it. The volume, velocity, and variety of data is forcing us to adapt and evolve. We are creating and collecting so much more and we’re trying to do so much more with it. And unfortunately, despite the hype, there is no database buzzword that just fixes it.

We’re constantly researching, adapting, integrating, and re-architecting to balance the many trade-offs. Also, as our applications become more and more complex, so do the development and operations processes. Rather than nice, well-defined, self-contained software programs, today’s web applications much more closely resemble grand ecosystems. Heterogeneous code, leveraging entire stacks of diverse technologies, run on a mix of physically-dispersed, virtual, cloud, and physical machines. Code is run in real time, on demand, on schedules, in queues, by proxy, and by trigger. It’s quite amazing what we’re able to do by standing on the shoulders of giants and marshaling all of these powerful resources, but it becomes challenging to manage the development, testing, deployment, and operation of such complex systems.

We are undergoing a process of maturation in this realm. Previously, it had been natural for developers to be responsible for the systems and the code in both dev and test environments while operations people were responsible for running the systems and code in production. We are moving towards having operations people responsible for systems in all environments and developers responsible for the application in all environments. This better aligns peoples’ strengths, establishes a cleaner contractual interface between the groups, and allows us to better manage the growing complexity of both the systems and the applications.

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

The DNA of our technology infrastructure is the trusty LAMP stack. Over time, though, it has evolved significantly — an evolution which continues today. What started as a typical web application and a collection of scripts has become a distributed, asynchronous, real-time, high-availability suite of systems supporting a host of products.

To get there, we’ve had to incorporate dozens of new technologies for various purposes: KVM and Docker for virtualization and containerization; an arsenal of data stores including MariaDB/Galera, Solr, Cassandra, Couchbase, and Aerospike; message queuing via Gearman and RabbitMQ; job management with PHP-FPM and Supervisord; as well as the best pieces and parts from front- and back-end libraries like Zend, Symfony, Silex, Angular, Sass, Twig, and more. Outside of the runtime environment itself, we are working with technologies like Salt Stack, OpenShift, Grunt, Composer, Consul, LogStash, and Tableau.

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

We are a lean, cohesive organization that works closely with our users, clients, partners, and vendors, which allows us to adapt quickly to both the changing landscape in our industry and the needs of our stakeholders. From a technology perspective, that means designing for change by attempting to maximize reusability and interoperability while striving for loose coupling and a flexible, technology-agnostic approach. Easy to say, hard to do.

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

Our technology team currently consists of 10 people who possess a range of skill-sets from systems architecture and administration, to full-stack application engineering and development, to scripting, technical support, and agile project management. We’ve grown the team steadily over the past three years and plan to continue that growth into 2016 and beyond. We work primarily out of our downtown Minneapolis office and frequently collaborate on everything from system-wide architecture to application design and coding style. Given the relatively small size of our team and the relative enormity of our ambitions, we each wear at least a couple of hats and our structure is fluid: variously organizing by responsibility, role, initiative, or project as needed.

How does your company approach recruiting and retention for technical positions?

As everyone in the industry knows, recruiting and retaining the best technical talent is hard and only getting harder. Not surprisingly, we don’t have any magical solution. In addition to utilizing all of the usual channels for getting the word out and bringing in as many high-quality candidates as possible (including our own advertising products), we try to offer a balanced, well-rounded, and compelling value proposition to current and prospective employees.

That includes competitive compensation packages, flexibility with hours and remote work, a modern office space centrally located in the vibrant warehouse district, commuter and transit assistance, ergonomic and high-quality tools, a laid-back and fun culture, high-caliber coworkers, meaningful work, interesting projects, the ability to directly impact the company’s success, and opportunities to learn and grow.

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

Throughout the course of continuously building and improving our technology infrastructure and products, I can hardly help but stay current on the latest technologies — at least within our own corner of the broader landscape. Beyond that, our team is constantly discussing the latest news, trends, and tools. Our clients, partners, vendors, and competitors are another source of perspective on new tech.

Friends in the local tech scene provide me with insights from their own corners of the industry. I’ll spare you the list of the usual tools for keeping up with the deluge of technology news, but the trick is to find the signal in the noise. I like the advice of Scott Hanselman who recommends “finding your Robert Scoble” — rather than read a thousand tech blogs, read the blogs of a handful of people who do.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

Almost everything. We are only just beginning to realize the potential of modern technology. We stand on the shoulders of giants and continue to climb ever higher. With almost zero up-front costs, anyone can tap into a wealth of freely-available tools and technologies to quickly build things that would have been ground-breaking only ten years ago. As new languages, libraries, frameworks, devices, sensors, hardware, and networks are developed, new opportunities emerge at the convergence of these new capabilities. Most undertakings will be failures, misfires, or flops, but there will also be grand successes that move the entire endeavor forward.

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

Of course there are all of the common concerns: privacy, identity theft, fraud, financial risks, etc. Ultimately, though, these are solvable problems that can be addressed by increased awareness, better training, and savvy entrepreneurs. What concerns me more are the dangers associated with politicians and bureaucrats attempting to tax, regulate, and control various aspects of technology. Even if undertaken with the best of intentions, I believe the unintended consequences of such interventions will inevitably cost more than any marginal benefits and that such interventions tend to beget new problems. Oh, and ASI. That concerns me too.

What are you into outside of technology?

Outside of work I spend most of my time with my wife Sara and our two small children (11⁄2 and 3 months). Currently I’m perfecting my peek-a-boo skills and toddler dance moves. I’m also on the Osseo fire department serving in the role of captain and training officer. For most of my time on the department (ten years), I’ve served as our charitable gambling manager, conducting pull-tabs, bingo, meat raffles, electronic pull-tabs, and electronic bingo to raise money to help fund the fire department as well as to donate to charitable causes in the community.

What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry?

I couldn’t be more excited about it. There are great local companies — large and small, in almost every industry imaginable — doing great work. I’m rooting for all of them. It’s been fun to watch the local tech scene evolve over the last decade. I know it’s been said and it’s probably already a cliché, but I think we strike a nice balance between the energy, enthusiasm, innovation, and potential of Silicon Valley with the work ethic, pragmatism, and hospitality of our stoic Midwestern forebears.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would encourage anyone to consider learning one of the many different technology crafts. There is a vast need for technology skills in the marketplace. You may find it’s not as daunting, dull, or as unwelcoming as you might have imagined. And it’s not just the raw technology skills that are needed, but the soft skills and your unique experiences and perspectives as well.

And for those who are already working in tech, I would encourage you to seek out a broad set of interests, pursuits, and relationships outside of tech. There are so many areas that are under-served by technology. Many of the best innovations happen when seemingly unrelated disciplines are combined in new ways. There’s a lot to be excited about in technology in general and in the Minnesota tech scene specifically. I can’t wait to see what great things people are going to build next.


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