Meet A Minnesota CTO: Travis Emslander, Field Nation

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Travis_headshotThank you Andcor Companies for underwriting the Meet a Minnesota CTO series, where we get up close and personal with Minnesota’s chief techies.

Travis Emslander is the CTO of Minneapolis-based Field Nation, the on-demand workforce software platform that received $30m in growth equity last October.

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

I grew up with technology. I started programming BASIC on an Apple IIe when I was 10 and was immediately hooked. The Open Source movement created a ripe environment to explore and learn within.

I started my professional career after college working in C/C++ as a software engineer at eBureau in St. Cloud. We had a custom-built programming language, database, and even networking transport layer. I gained a lot of knowledge of low-level systems engineering which has continued being beneficial even when working in higher level languages and technologies.

My passion has really been in web-based systems. I loved the quick speed of development as well as how easy it was to share my creations. I can send anyone a link to a website I built to have them see it, things get a little bit messier when you try sending compiled executables.

What are you focused on right now?

Working to grow our Product and Development teams at Field Nation.

At Field Nation we host an online marketplace for contract IT field workers to find short-term jobs. We’ve had amazing growth, basically doubling every year, and with that an ever-increasing amount of ideas to explore and problems to solve.

What I and the rest of the team have been very focused on recently is getting the people, process, and system architecture in place to continue to improve and extend our platform.

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

We’re primarily PHP, MySQL, and some Angular on the frontend where it fits. We’re currently beginning to introduce microservices to allow our teams more freedom to choose the technology best fit for the problem being solved. For example, one of our first microservices is a Node.js server using RabbitMQ and MongoDB.

Outside of the core platform development we use a ton of various technologies, both on the deployment/infrastructure side of things as well as idea exploration and prototyping. We look for people passionate about technology and try to give them an environment where they can solve problems using the best (or sometimes the most fun) technology.

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

Transparency and communication. Field Nation works hard to have a culture where everyone is approachable and the people developing the product are in close communication to our customers.

Our specific process is dual-track agile. We have a discovery track where product managers and UX designers can assemble cross-functional teams to work through idea discovery and produce prototypes. This process is new, but so far has allowed for us to keep high connectivity with other areas of the company through the planning process to make sure we’re building the right thing.

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

The headcount of the product and development group is currently 35. I work closely with our VP of Product and we’ve structured three teams focusing on different areas of our product. These teams are made up of a product manager, UX designer, technical architect, developers, and QA. The teams are split between our US office and our Bangladesh office and maintain their own backlogs. This structure allows us to stay more focused on problems and also move fast on solving them.

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

We’re very selective in our hiring, so it’s definitely been a challenge. We look for people excited by the autonomy they have to solve challenging problems. Giving them the proper environment to do that has been our biggest retention strategy.

As we’ve grown from being a small startup people begin to have more defined roles. We’ve found huge value in working with our employees to build out meaningful career paths so people understand their current role but the role they’re working towards in the future. That’s something we’re looking to get much better at with practice.

How do you personally keep up with the ever changing technology landscape?
That’s actually been the best part of my job. Hiring smart creative people has provided a flood of ideas and learnings about new technologies we could adopt. The more creative people you get together the more they feed off each other to explore technology.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

The modularization and accessibility. Anyone can sign up for an AWS account and start bringing up servers. There’s an increasingly large number of libraries and services that handle just one very specialized thing. It’s exciting to think about the fact that a kid in their basement can use this to build the next big thing just by gluing together the right pieces.

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

The potential of being chased down by one of Boston Dynamics’ robots.

Other than that, probably the downside of the exact same thing I’m most excited about. It can be frustrating the amount of layers involved with modern solutions to seemingly simple problems. It can feel like you have to learn 100 different technologies to implement something simple. That problem of complexity seems to be growing fast.

What are you into outside of technology?

I’m the father of two young boys. That’s where I spend most of my time outside of technology. It’s incredibly fun watching them have their first experiences with the world. Seeing the joy and wonder come from that itches the same scratch that caused me to get into technology.

What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry?

I love the real sense of community we have. It’s been incredibly beneficial for me to have so many people willing to offer advice and support. We also have a highly educated, smart, and creative workforce. I think those two are mixing to build an amazing tech industry.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I appreciate the opportunity to share my story as well as Field Nation’s. I’d also encourage anyone who reads this and thinks they’d fit in well at Field Nation to take a look at our careers page for open positions or to just reach out to me directly to chat.

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