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10 Minutes With Neal Tovsen, CTO, Consultant And Tech Community Supporter

Neal Tovsen

“10 Minutes With…” is a blog series where I get to promote old friends, friends of friends, new people I have met and those who are doing cool and interesting things in Minneapolis and St Paul, Minnesota and the Midwest. The title of the series originates from me being well known notorious for asking, “Hey, do you have 10 minutes for a quick call?” It’s never 10 minutes. It’s never a short call.

This edition is with Neal Tovsen… he is a long time coder, advisor, entrepreneur and volunteer. We briefly bumped into each other at Minnedemo during Twin Cities Startup Week but didn’t get a chance to get fully caught up. I start with some background (for you) questions and then to what I was wondering about with what he is doing now, learning more about “Fractional CTO” and where he has been hanging out.

What were your early days in technology like? Were you playing games, writing code?

I’ve always been fascinated by technology. My mother was a software engineer, and she taught me how to program in BASIC on an Apple III when I was about seven years old. But though I played games on computers and consoles, I really wasn’t particularly interested in computers through high school.

I went to Hamline University for physics and engineering, and I’d been using the early tools on the Internet for various things. But when the first Web browsers came out, I was hooked. I worked with the school to develop a new major around how people use technology, weaving elements of traditional computer science with things like mass/interpersonal communications, information technology, and other relevant majors. And the rest is history.

Tell me about your career so far… where have you been and what have you worked on?

The first dozen years or so of my career were in “enterprise” software engineering. I built software for companies like 3M, GE Power, Siemens, and other large corporations, both as an employee and as a consultant. My experience spans many industries, but much of what I did revolved round either industrial machine data networks (i.e. power grids, trucking fleets, etc) or how companies buy things (payments, procurement, supply chain, expense management, etc).

In 2009, I decided I wanted to try building my own product/company, and started what became TelemetryWeb, a cloud platform for industrial machine data and the Internet of Things. We had customers and revenue, but after three years we made the tough decision to shut it down. Even though we failed, it was an amazing experience. The tech start-up community taught me a ton about how products/businesses are created, changed the way I look at the world at a fundamental level, and connected me to a network of amazing people that I love to work with.

Almost immediately after we shut down TelemetryWeb, I co-founded Apruve, a payment platform for B2B e-commerce. I stepped away from the company in 2015 to focus on my family, but this was another amazing experience. I’m very grateful that my friends still work there and the company continues to grow.

My favorite part about being a tech nerd is that my skills are applicable to almost any company in almost any industry. So while I’ve developed deep subject matter expertise in some key industries, I’ve had the opportunity to gain experience across dozens of industries.

Your day to day now… where do you work and what are you currently working on?

As I got to know more people in the start-up community, I found myself helping others navigate the challenge of producing a technology product, getting it to market, operating it, and refining it as we learn more about what the market wants. After leaving my own company, I started doing this full-time as Go-Plaid. Go-Plaid focuses primarily on start-ups and small businesses, but we also work with non-profits and larger companies.

Go-Plaid has helped companies of various sizes launch or reinvent numerous products in the last three years. Of course, there have been more IoT and fintech products, but also consumer marketplaces, renewable energy, and even products for litigating attorneys.

Tell me more about what a fractional CTO is and when a company might need someone like this.

The goal is to provide technology leadership to an organization that either doesn’t need or can’t yet find/afford a full-time person in that role. That can mean a lot of things, depending on the situation. Ultimately, we need to help the company figure out what to build (product management), how to build it (software engineering) how to operate it (operations, customer support).

But where Go-Plaid differs is in how go about this. Our goal isn’t to simply perform those tasks for our clients. Our primary mission is to help the company build the capacity to produce a technology product, themselves. We coach the founders in how to build a product development organization that makes sense for their needs, implement processes that follow industry best practices while adapting to their unique situation, and create a machine that can take an idea to market. We become an extension of the founding team, even to the point of being a sidekick in sales meetings, investor pitches,or board meetings. And we do all this while coaching them on how to manage their IP, mitigate all kinds of risks, and spend money wisely.

Obviously, at some point, that typically involves writing code. And we do write a lot of code! We have decades of experience and extensive technical skills in several technical areas. If a client’s needs happen to fit our specific tech skills, that’s a great benefit we can provide. But our goal isn’t to fit a client’s needs into the tools we happen to know, or to find ways to bill more hours writing code. We regularly work with other dev shops, maintain a network of ninja-class freelancers across a huge variety of skills, and have even helped companies find offshore teams, when that is the best answer for them.

Perhaps the most clear example of how a Fractional CTO is different than a typical software dev shop or agency, is that we regularly advise clients to NOT build something. Writing code is the most expensive and risky way to test a product hypothesis. When there are too many untested assumptions about what the product needs to look like, who the users are, or how much they might be willing to pay, we help clients find fast and inexpensive ways to test their assumptions...without writing code.

How do you do work-life balance/blend/integration… how do you juggle everything?

The entire reason I started Go-Plaid was to regain some focus on our family. And it has really worked out well. My work is not always perfectly steady and predictable. But I’ve learned to take advantage of what any given week might offer. If work isn’t very intense, I spend time with the kids and get stuff done around the house. Then, when the work cranks into overdrive, my family has been very supportive and understanding.

From where you sit… how is the Minneapolis and St Paul tech scene doing? How is it different than 5-10 years ago? Strengths and weaknesses?

The Minneapolis/St Paul tech scene has come a long way in the past ten years! Organizations like Minnestar and Beta.MN have gone from events drawing a handful of people to the back room of a bar, to an inability to find venues large enough. The size and scope of Twin Cities Startup Week this year was just plain bonkers. Meanwhile, organizations like Technovation[MN] and Prime Digital Academy have opened new paths to becoming a tech nerd that don’t make the traditional assumptions about who you are or where you came from, which is infusing the community with an entirely new and valuable set of perspectives on how to do things. Lastly, the commitment and sophistication of local angel investors continues to improve, while we simultaneously attract investors who previously dismissed our region as “fly-over country.”

But one thing I’ve learned is that Minnesota does tech startups differently than Silicon Valley. There are great tech folk here, but the culture doesn’t (yet) embrace early-stage startups to the point where experienced nerds are eager to be founders and co-founders. But there are many entrepreneurs with great ideas that deserve validation. One of the philosophies that underpins Go-Plaid is helping startups be successful, despite these kinds of environmental limitations. So what we do and how we do it is a byproduct of some of these factors.

What events, meetups or user groups do you attend… where have you been hanging out?

There’s something for just about everyone in this town. But MinneDemo and the Beta.MN Showcase events are the best parties in town, so I almost never miss those. If you want to be blown away by what the future can look like, attend (or better yet, volunteer) at Technovation[MN]’s Appapalooza or a Code Savvy event.

What is a Minnesota startup, company, firm or group that you are watching, find interesting and why… who should I be paying attention to?

Too many to list! I’m pretty excited to continue to see great news from folks like Dispatch, Sezzle, and of course Apruve. Astro HQ just had a huge launch of their Luna Display, which was amazing. And I’m really proud to be working with some really innovative early-stage startups, such as Suprabook.

Outside of tech and when you have free time, what are you doing… are you still racing cars?

Aside from my family, the majority of my time away from work goes into building and driving race cars. I’ve done some traditional wheel-to-wheel racing, but my wife and I have been autocrossing together for over twenty years. Autocross is a relatively low-speed agility trial that requires a high degree of mental preparation and precision in execution. We love it because it is low cost and low risk, yet very competitive. Any curious person can show up to a local event with no prior experience and the car they drive to work every day, while more committed people can build dedicated race cars and compete against the best drivers in the country. My wife and I have have both won national championships. I also coach performance driving across the US and Canada, and host a podcast on the topic.

Where do we find you online?

Click for current blog posts and for Minnesota IT jobs I am working on.

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