Meet A Minnesota Tech CTO: Ryan Morlok, ZAPinfo

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Thank you Tarmac for underwriting our Meet a Minnesota Tech CTO series, where we get up close and personal with Minnesota’s chief techies.

 
The CTO: Ryan Morlok, ZAPinfo

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

I’ve been working in technology my entire professional career. I started programming as a kid, went to college for computer science, and started working as a software developer after graduation. I’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of different software systems, such as embedded systems, desktop software, and web-based applications.
Most recently I’ve been focused on B2B SaaS applications.

What are you focused on right now?

Right now I’m the CTO of ZAPinfo. ZAPinfo is a tool for recruiters to help them quickly move data between different websites and systems they use as part of their job. I’ve been with the company for about 9 months and during that time I’ve focused on evolving our platform to better target large enterprise customers.

This has involved building out a framework for API integrations with customer relationship management (CRM) and application tracking systems (ATS), allowing us to manage our system at the account level (versus individual users), and fortifying our security and privacy controls to meet the needs of larger enterprises.

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

ZAPinfo’s primary point of customer interaction is a Chrome extension, written in Javascript. Our backend is mostly Ruby on Rails with a couple of Node-based helper services. Heroku is our primary hosting platform, with some other parts of the application leveraging AWS such as S3, CloudFront, and Lambda.

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

We approach product development iteratively, bringing MVPs to market and iterating from there. We have weekly regroup meetings with sales/customer support/etc. to make sure that the features we are building are resonating with customers and solving their problems. Doug Berg, our CEO, is also active in working with us to define what he is seeing in terms of customer needs.

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

We have six people on our engineering team. Coordination isn’t too much of a problem in a smaller team like this. Each person specializes in a few areas of the application. By not having multiple people working on the same parts of the code, we generally avoid stepping on toes.

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

At ZAPinfo, we use a combination of full-time employees, project-based contractors, and nearshore contractors. Most of our engineering team has come through existing relationships. Evan Carothers, my co-founder from Docalytics, brought me onboard. Most of our team was built from our relationships and people or groups Doug Berg has worked with at previous companies.

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

One of the advantages of having been around the block a few times is that you don’t have to learn everything fresh. When I was younger I focused on trying to know everything about a new technology. Now I try to understand how it relates to existing technologies, and what its pros and cons are. If you know that, you can predict when new technology might be useful to you, and go deep when it make sense.

To stay abreast of technology, I use twitter and RSS. When I need to learn more about a specific technology, I usually look for video-based content from someone that has deep knowledge of the tech. I’ll look for screencasts/conference presentations on YouTube, or cheap courses on sites like Udemy.

Why do you do it, what inspires you?

I enjoy learning and building things, and technology provides opportunities to do both of those at the same time.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

I was a big fan of Knight Rider as a kid. If you’re not familiar, it’s an 80’s show that starred David Hasselhoff as a crime fighter in skinny jeans, with a car for a partner that could talk and drive itself. Michael Knight (Hasselhoff) could even talk to KITT (the car) via his watch.

Today I have an Amazon Alexa and Google Home that I can talk to. I can even talk to Siri via my Apple watch. These same technology companies are testing out self-driving cars. Sure, none of these cars can drive through brick walls like KITT could, but it’s really cool to see your childhood dreams turn into reality.

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

The same things that I’m excited about in technology also have the potential for major disruptions in the job market in the medium to long term. If in 15 years we rapidly start to replace most truck drivers with self driving trucks, for example, we are going to have millions of people unemployed. Reallocating this many workers in a short period of time will be difficult, especially if most jobs at the same pay level have substantial education or training requirements.

What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry – how could it be better?

There are a lot of great companies to work for here, which is awesome. I generally prefer to work for companies whose primary business is software, so that limits the pool down a bit more. In terms of startups, I’ve really enjoyed working with the startup community in the Twin Cities. I think having a few more of these small companies breakout onto a larger stage would help all parts of the ecosystem. It would get more people interested in starting a company, more people who were involved in its success to spin off into future companies, and would attract more wealth for investment.

What are you into outside of technology?

I play hockey in an adult hockey league, and try to keep up with my two young daughters.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’d like to thank all the organizations that are working to promote technology and entrepreneurship in Minnesota. Beta.MN, Minnestar, Startup Weekend, gener8tor, Tech.MN, and the Minnesota Cup are all organizations that have served as an onramp for me to work in startups in Minnesota.

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