Interview in Tech.MN with UR Turn CTO Peter Kirwin

Peter Kirwin is the CTO of edutech startup UR Turn — the developers of software designed to help students stay on track.

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

I’ve always really enjoyed programming. I began seriously working with code in school for numerical simulation in physics and economics. I got into web application development in my first startup about 10 years ago. I was the industry person, not a programmer, but the programmers let me get involved with some of the math-intensive backend stuff, and got hooked.

What are you focused on right now?

I’m currently running technology for UR Turn, a Minneapolis-based education start up founded by a fellow educator, Angie Eilers.

We help schools identify students who are falling off track to meet their post-secondary education goals. In particular, we’re making some very exciting improvements to our algorithm for the upcoming academic year and working to tie into more software that schools already use.

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

We run a web app in ruby on rails, and we’re currently trying out some different ways of building and implementing a neural network. Our current idea for the neural network is to develop it in R, and evaluate new observations in R right out of ruby on the web server — which would be great if it works.

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

I advocate for using the five whys, and spending time defining problems before deciding on solutions. In technology, it’s easy to think that a problem can only be solved with cutting-edge tools. But by spending time getting to agreement on what the need is, and then drilling down to its root cause, we can separate the problems that genuinely require AI or autonomous drones from the ones that can be addressed with a well-structured Google spreadsheet. This allows us to apply our resources efficiently, and prevents us from obtaining flashy solutions to problems we don’t actually have.

 

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

We’re still pretty small. All told, there are four of us and we outsource some work, too. The technology/business objective alignment goes through me, but other than that we’re a very flat organization. We use some simple software to help with tracking the agile components, but beyond that it’s usually quite clear who should be doing what, and once a task lands on someone’s plate they have great autonomy how they go about addressing it. I can’t take a lot of credit for this working well; we have a small team of great people and it’s pretty easy for things to go well in that case.

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

Being as small as we are, and being a startup with a laudable mission, we’ve been able to fill our positions just by reaching out to people in our network. That plan won’t work forever, but it has served us well so far.

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

Newsletters and blogs are great, but I find that the most interesting way get details on the important things is to intently listen to talented programmers working on new initiatives whent they complain about what’s hard at their jobs. For one thing, this focuses on technology that real companies have decided to pursue and helps avoid technology that has been ‘two years from wide adoption’ the market for the past ten years. Another advantage of this practice is that you get a more complete sense of those technologies. It’s easy to read about the selling points of new technology, but talking with someone who is currently struggling with it offers a valuable picture of what adopting it myself or in my organization would be like.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

I remember seeing robots on cartoons when I was a kid and wishing that I had something like that to do my chores for me. I’ve come to realize that we already have robots; they don’t have blinking eyes or antennae on their heads, but technology that meaningfully replaces work I don’t want to do, or enables me to do something I can’t do on my own, exists and is getting more power.

What we’re doing at UR Turn is a great example of this: some students receive sufficient advice on what they need to do in order to, say, go to college, but others don’t. We can’t afford enough school counselors to address this problem, but we can enlist the robots. We use large data sets and sophisticated algorithms to show students how their current behavior affects their ability to obtain future goals so that they can make changes if necessary.

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

Technology has always been a valuable thing to own. I worry that as technology replaces humans in increasingly skilled jobs, an even smaller number of people and corporations will end up controlling even more wealth. I don’t think that our society is well equipped to deal with this, and I believe that a lot of people are going to suffer while we figure out what to do.

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

I love the tech community around here. More people should use VIM, but that may be too much to hope for.

What are you into outside of technology?

Eating, and running enough to eat the things that I want to without having to buy new pants.