Meet A Minnesota [Startup] CTO: Brent Kastner



Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 10.36.31 AMThank you Andcor Companies for underwriting our Meet a Minnesota CTO series, where we get up close and personal with Minnesota’s chief techies.

Brent Kastner is a startup CTO currently with URTURN & Tarmac.

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

I’ve been serious about technology since middle school where I ran a BBS with some friends. I worked hard to earn enough money in my early highschool years to buy a 486 that could run DOOM.

Those early years helped me understand the hardware side and I eventually got my professional start working with hardware (servers and networks) in 1996. I transitioned into software development in 2000 as I was working at BestBuy on their first ecommerce website.

On that project I met the founder (Peng Ong) and CTO (Russell Nakano) of a startup called Interwoven. They convinced me to join their company. Easily one of the best decisions in my career; I traveled the world and worked with every type of business you can imagine. Interwoven opened many doors for me and prepared me for my second major opportunity; scaling GovDelivery.

What are you focused on right now?

As the co-founder & CTO of URTURN and the CTO of Tarmac I am currently working on and am passionate about: DevOps, Machine Learning, and Augmented Reality (Mobile).

DevOps: I’m working with the talented team at to establish a DevOps product. Overall I think DevOps is a powerful concept but it literally means something different to every company I talk to. Our goal is to bring convention to the DevOps world in much the same way that Rails/Grails/Spring Boot brings convention to the app dev world. Do you need HIPAA with that?

Machine Learning: I’ve been working with TensorFlow and Octave to study educational performance in grades 6 through 12 and technical debt in code commits on GitHub. Two very separate projects but seriously interesting technology.

AR: I was fortunate to work with Aaron Kardell at HomeSpotter who was doing AR before Pokemon. I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of a thin digital overlay on the real world around us. My personal weekend project focuses on this.

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

We’re actively working with Amazon CloudFormation to automate and version control our infrastructure. CloudFormation touches on Amazon RDS, S3, ELB, EC2, VPCs, Security Groups, and even deployment.

For development its Rails or Grails, React.js or Angular, and Obj-C/Swift/Java for Mobile.

As I mentioned in a previous question we’re doing more and more with TensorFlow and Octave to study and learn from data.

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

I think the direct answer here is to never let that alignment get messed up in the first place. Super easy to say. But growing a technical organization from a few technology resources to 30/40/50 is quite literally the most challenging thing I’ve done. I’ve made a ton of mistakes, but also learned a tremendous amount. Learn and apply!

For me it all comes down to transparency and connectedness. As the team grows your job as a leader becomes less about day to day hands on and more about communication, spotting issues early, and taking decisive action when warranted.

Finally, I patently reject the notion that there is a business and a tech team. Companies that work recognize that everyone on the team is in “the business”. Keep the people that do the work as close to the customers as you can and you’ll never lack understanding.

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

I have my hands in a couple of different things at the moment so my teams range anywhere from a small handful (2 to 5) to around 30. The concept of small teams seem to work well for me. So even a larger organization is comprised of a smaller group of motivated people. We self-organize and work with modern tools like Pivotal Tracker, GitHub, CircleCI, GreenHouseCI, and HockeyApp to name a few.

Very much in that DevOps spirit, developers are responsible for quality and we focus heavily on testing and automation at all levels.

How does your company approach recruiting and retention for technical positions in an increasingly competitive market?
It’s all about the network! The types of individuals I want to work with tend to be attracted by interesting businesses, interesting technology, and interesting scale. If you can offer those things above and beyond salary and you have a decent network of people to draw from you can typically hire. I’m also a firm believer that any developer worth their salt can learn new languages and tools; hire for personality and team fit instead of looking in the same well-worn buckets for your talent pipeline.

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

I don’t have a consistent plan, but there are some things that help. I live in the northern suburbs so I spend a lot of time in the car. Instead of music I listen to podcasts like crazy! A16Z is my current favorite.

Outside of that, I read a ton. Flipboard is an excellent tool that I use daily, and I play A LOT! If I hear about something interesting I will make the time to read more, download an example, or run a quick project on something in my spare time. Additionally, I work with really smart people every day and learn most from the team around me. At the end of the day though this is my profession, and I love what I do, it’s never hard for me to find the motivation it takes to keep up.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

So much! Everything!

In just the span of my career we’ve seen computing go from large, expensive, and slow to nano-scale, cheap, and fast. The vast majority of us are walking around with more technology in our pocket than the entire lunar CSM and LM from Apollo 11. This has been said before and is a bit cliche, but it’s true! When I think of what the world could be like in another 20 years it blows my mind.

More tangibly, I love that it continues to get cheaper for technologists to consider starting their own business. The idea that you can run experiments for a couple grand instead of hundreds to prove your idea is empowering to me. What was once a weird “left-coast” approach is rapidly becoming the new norm; and it is fun!

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

I don’t have many fears about technology really, but I do like to think about technology’s impact on our society; both present and future.

Specifically, as more and more jobs are lost to automation and eventually AI what will our plan be to address the many, many people who will suddenly lack marketable skills. As software continues to eat the world, will there be a point in time when everyone is a software developer? What happens when software starts writing itself?

What are you into outside of technology?

My wife of 16 years, Lauren, and I have two kids ages 14 and 13. We enjoy boating, skiing and tubing, and family game night. My wife is currently studying History at the U of M (go gophers), which takes up a lot of her time. As for me I am a bit of a hobby collector, if you can think of a hobby chances are I’ve tried it at some point. Right now though, my go-to hobby is flying. I belong to a club at buffalo airport and fly as often as I can fit into my schedule.

What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry?

I love it here! Minneapolis and St. Paul have produced many amazing businesses (and not just tech) over the last 100 years and I don’t see that slowing any time soon. Our tech scene is thriving and hardly a week goes by where I don’t hear about some new idea or technology someone is exploring. I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from many of the amazing founders around town. You know who you are Scott Burns, Aaron Kardell, Zach Stabenow, Mike Bollinger, Anthony Schmidt, and Angie Eilers. Just the fact that these folks, and many others that I haven’t mentioned, are so approachable and willing to contribute and share sets us apart from many other scenes around the country.

Also, Minnedemo had over 1000 attendees! Overall, I think this is a fine place to start a business (assuming you don’t need seed capital ;) ) and raise a family.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’m a huge fan of TECH{dot}MN! It’s an honor to be listed amongst all of these amazing CTOs and I’d like to thank anyone that read to this point :)


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  • Ashley Blank-Martin

    A great read! Congrats Brent on your success!!