Meet A Minnesota CTO: Rich Baker, Proto Labs

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Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 12.23.09 PMThank you Andcor Companies for underwriting our Meet a Minnesota CTO series, where we get up close and personal with Minnesota’s chief techies.

Rich Baker is the newly named CTO of Proto Labs, a software driven rapid manufacturer of low-volume CNC-machined and injection-molded custom parts for prototyping and short-run production.

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

I started working in engineering and technology when I was finishing my graduate and Ph.D. work at Cornell University in the mid-1990s. At that point, nanomaterials and semiconductors were strong interests of mine. Over the course of my career, I have touched several different STEM fields, including testing equipment, automation and most recently software.

Since I had traditionally worked with hardware and less with software, the confluence of the two fascinated me, and I have continued to work in software-focused roles over the past several years. There’s great value in making hardware and software work together, as well as making software that’s actually usable by everyday people.

What are you focused on right now?

My role at Proto Labs will continue to focus heavily on software – both business process software and also manufacturing software solutions that touch our customers, like online quoting or order analysis.

Proto Labs is such an exciting, dynamic company, and one that is growing at a tremendous rate. My first objective is to immerse myself in the company’s process and technologies, so I can lead the efforts to improve, update and scale our systems. With double-digit growth and the goal to become a billion-dollar company, scalability of our software and tech infrastructure is going to be a huge driver of that growth.

At our core, we’re a software and e-commerce company in the business of manufacturing. Technology and software must cover every part of our process.

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

Software is the foundation of everything Proto Labs does. And our strategic advantage with our software is in speed – it helps us serve thousands of customers and process hundreds of orders each day. Our custom-made software draws a “digital thread” throughout the customer experience – starting with an intuitive online ordering and quick-turn quoting platform, to trafficking advanced 3D files to hundreds of machines around the world, to shipping those orders within hours or days. And it’s all on-demand.

From a technical standpoint, we have several large-scale computer clusters to handle the high volume of proprietary part orders coming through our system. This cluster also manages the tool path generation – the instruction our machines need to make very intricate and detailed parts.

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

The greatest value we bring to customers is speed. We cannot afford to have technology slowing us down, so we must iterate and constantly improve our offerings to help customers do the same thing. The team I lead is very agile and talented. We work to manage our project funnel and to ensure we’re getting the business outcome we’d expect from technology initiatives. And we try to work as fast as possible without sacrificing quality. It’s empowering to have my team’s value proposition match Proto Labs’.

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

More than I am able to meet within my first few weeks! Our development team alone has about 100 people – most of whom work in our newly renovated space in our Maple Plain headquarters. It’s the open, airy space you’d expect at a software company – not necessarily a manufacturing company – which I think is a testament to Proto Labs’ commitment to and investment in technology. Aside from a robust development staff, we have capability teams for other core parts of the business: e-commerce, manufacturing, analytics and IT operations.

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

Proto Labs is an awesome place to work, and I’m so excited to also be a new member of this team. So many of the perks we offer in recruiting are what also attracted me to the company. It’s a fast-paced, fast-growth company with opportunities for advancement. It’s a casual environment, but we take our work seriously. Most importantly is that technology workers here get to see the impact of their work on our business. Their output shows up on the web or in the parts we produce for thousands of customers each day.

The company is also a great “playground” for tech workers because we have so many different areas to grow: front-end internet technologies, databases and BI needs, CAD software, design software and more.

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

My career so far has been diverse and dynamic, and I have had great opportunities to work with R&D leaders in many different industries. It is inspiring to see so many different layers of pure innovation and to see the significant impact of what technology can do. Because of that, I have been able to stay plugged into the tech community by forging solid relationships with peers around the country. I also think that education is a critical component to growing the next generation of tech leaders, so I stay connected with the University of Minnesota and other industry organizations.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

Technology is ubiquitous. It impacts our daily lives and continues to change the way we live and work. We’re solving big problems with technology – food, water and energy problems – which is why innovation and creativity are crucially important. So, too, is speed and efficiency. To improve our lives through technology, we need a new way of thinking, and we need creative minds to solve the smallest and the largest problems. As someone who lives inside technology each and every day, it’s exciting to see this progression and to see how our lives continue to evolve.

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

Unfortunately, some of the most brilliant minds in technology are using their skills to be nefarious and to do more harm than good. Illegal activity and cybercrime are huge issues that need to be taken seriously. As an online business, we need to employ reliable, preventable measures. I’m proud to see such strong resources dedicated to cybersecurity and safety, but it’s also sad to work so hard to protect yourself against these threats.

What are you into outside of technology?

I am originally from Vermont, but have spent the past decade in Minnesota enjoying the lakes and the outdoors – especially in the warmer months. I try to stay active and to sail on Lake Minnetonka whenever possible.

What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry?

The tech community here is an interesting one, and one that is getting stronger every day. Between “Medical Alley Association,” the reach of the University of Minnesota, and advocacy groups like MHTA or TECHdotMN, our spot on the map continues to get a little larger. But I see the tech community here almost as a donut. In other words, the middle is missing. We have some very well-established, large companies in a few industries, and a successful start-up scene in those similar industries. But the large companies are acquiring the small ones. Midsized companies like Proto Labs – growing and independent – aren’t as commonplace as you’d expect in a community like ours.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

No, thank you.

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