The cavnessHR podcast – A talk with Kevin Goldsmith
Kevin Goldsmith is the Chief Technology Officer at Avvo in Seattle, overseeing all Development, Data, Dev Ops and IT teams. Previously he was the Vice President of Engineering, Consumer at Spotify in Stockholm, Sweden, leading the development of the product and streaming services. Kevin was at Adobe Systems for nine years, where he was a Director of Engineering leading the Adobe Revel product group and the Adobe Image Foundation group. He spent eight years at Microsoft in the Windows and Research teams. He also worked at Silicon Graphics, (Colossal) Pictures, and IBM.
Click the attachment for the PDF and Word version of the show notes to include links to the YouTube vide of the talk with Kevin Goldsmitn.
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Social Media links for Kevin below!!
Below are Kevin’s book recommendations:
‘‘Difficult Conversations” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Keene
Click on the links below to purchase the books from Amazon
Jason: 0:02 Hello, and welcome to the cavnessHR Podcast. I'm your host, Jason Cavness. Our guest today is Kevin Goldsmith. Kevin, are you ready to be great today?
Kevin: 0:10 I am, thank you for asking.
Jason: 0:13 Kevin is the Chief Technology Officer at Avvo in Seattle, overseeing all Development, Data, Dev Ops and IT teams. Previously, he was the Vice President of Engineering, Consumer at Spotify in Stockholm, Sweden, leading the development of the product and streaming services. Kevin was at Adobe Systems for nine years, where he was a Director of Engineering leading the Adobe Revel product group and the Adobe Image Foundation group. He spent eight years at Microsoft in the Windows and Research teams. He has also worked at Silicon Graphics, (Colossal) Pictures, and IBM. Kevin, you’ve had some great jobs so far, you’re doing some great things. What’s going on in the life if Kevin Goldsmith right now?
Kevin: 0:52 Well, I’ve been at Avvo now for about 18 months and just really focused on our mission and delivering our mission which is helping people get support for their legal problems through software. And, for me, focusing on just continuing to build the company and build the teams and create a good work environment for the people that are here.
Jason: 1:17 Now, I could be wrong, but didn't Avvo have like a really great recruiting event like maybe a year ago where they combined recruiting with, I think, Pokémon and it was really out-of-the-box thinking and I was like, “man, I really like this right here.”
Kevin: 1:30 Yeah, our recruiting team is absolutely awesome and they had the idea of creating a Pokémon gym a few blocks away from the office at a Whole Foods during the lunch time. And our office is right in the middle of where Amazon is and a bunch of other tech startups. So, it was it was just a genius move and it worked out really well.
Jason: 1:57 Now, before Avvo, you were at Spotify in Sweden. How did they know about you? Were you recruited by Avvo? How did that whole thing work out for you?
Kevin: 2:06 So, I was at the point at Spotify where I felt like I'd learned what I needed to learn there and I was ready to move on. We had, for family reasons, we had need to come back to the US and so we’d lived in Seattle before we moved to Sweden (my wife's family's from here) so there was a strong desire to return. I was just absolutely lucky. As I started my search, I hit Avvo just as they were at the right time in their search. So it was just kismet.
Jason: 2:41 Okay, that's great. So, when you compare people who graduate from traditional four-year college in Computer Science versus someone from a coding academy, how do they compare? Is it the same breadth of knowledge or are they different? How do you compare? What’s your opinion on that?
Kevin: 2:56 The thing about the coding academies – and we have really good relationships with the coding academies here in Seattle, code fellows and the ADA developers Academy, and we've hired several people from both those programs. I wouldn't say that they're the same. a four-year CS degree and a seven-month intensive boot camp are not going to provide you the exact same level of education. There's roles and, certainly, the Windows team at Microsoft in some of the really GPU-intensive stuff I was doing at Adobe. That requires a bit more depth than a coding Academy could provide. But for a lot of the work in the industry, you don't really need that level of depth. There's lots of people building commercial software who do not have a four-year CS degree and can do it just well, do it great. So I think there's a very wide variety of roles where coding Academy education along with somebody who's very passionate and bright can absolutely do the work and come in at an entry level and be able to continue to develop their skills and be awesome in the industry. Then there's a class of jobs, but that's actually a fairly small class relative to the industry as a whole, where you actually do need a four-year degree. So, it's both; it's neither one nor the other.
Jason: 4:31 Kevin, there's a conversation a couple months ago, it was basically a bunch of people in school, about to graduate software development at the coding academy become academies basis of that conversation was how do we get a job because we have no job experience, most of these entry positions say 2/3 years’ experience while we don’t have that. What would you advise to these candidates?
Kevin: 4:54 So, I think that for folks coming in, folks who are looking to join the industry, whether you're coming from a four-year degree program or a boot camp program. The fact of the matter is companies cannot hire, in any way, shape or form, the numbers of developers that they're looking for. Everybody – not everybody, but a large number of companies – are completely unrealistic about the qualifications that they're looking for from entry-level folks. I would focus more on the smaller companies, the startups, the companies that are probably more ready to take on developer help and are not necessarily able to attract those several-year-out-of-school kind of people and get them to take a chance on you. I would also make sure that you have good visibility in the community, come to meetups, come to recruiting events, get known by the recruiters. Really good recruiters, even if they don't have a role for you at their company right now. They will either talk to a friend at another company, potentially, and you aren't right for them right now. But you might be ready for somebody else; or, if they really like you, when they have a position open, they'll give you a call. So, definitely, find ways to meet recruiters face to face. We host a ton of meetups, other companies host meetups. We do that because we're continually looking for more developers. I can tell you I've just seen amazing things come from having that bond, either with an employee at the company or a recruiter, where it may not lead to a job immediately, but it'll lead to a job eventually.
Jason: 6:58 What would you tell a kid who says, “well, I understand you’re talking about startups, but most of these jobs can’t pay a lot of money and I have all these student loans that I need to pay off; I can’t really go the startup route.” How would you advise them?
Kevin: 7:11 So, I think it’s your best option still if you haven't had much luck going to the Microsofts, the Googles, a lot of them are much more looking at four-year degree only or four-year degree from known schools. They aren't normally willing to take the time to look at somebody coming from a less well-known school or a non-traditional background unless it's through a specific program that they've set up. Your best bet is still going to be with those smaller companies. You're still going to get paid probably more than you would make not working. It may not be as much as you'd hope to make, but you're going to get some real-life job experience and that's going to make it a lot easier for you to find the second job or the third job. So, no, I wouldn't I wouldn't disregard that, immediately. If the alternative is driving Uber or something, that's not going to help you get a job in the industry either.
Jason: 8:18 Kevin, I remember reading or hearing somewhere that every year, there’s a million new tech jobs in the United States but only like 600,000 that actually get filled. So, each year that 400,000 keeps carrying and carrying over. Is that a true stat or am I just making this up?
Kevin: 8:33 That stat seems a little high to me. That might be currently there's a million open and that might be a number but that number seems quite high to me if that would be a yearly thing because that would be millions of positions open right now.
Jason: 8:52 But is there a job deficit in the tech industry world?
Kevin: 8:54 Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I talked to my peers at other companies, you've got companies like Amazon or Facebook or Google hiring in the thousands of engineers a year, I talked to other startups our size or smaller that are hiring dozens a year. We're hiring on the order of dozens a year; these people all have to come from somewhere. Everybody's growing. There certainly are companies that're shrinking, but not at that rate and we are, frankly, not graduating. So, if we were only looking for your programs, we were not graduating nearly enough people in order to satisfy the need in the industry.
Jason: 9:47 Now, there's a lot of startup founders who have really no tech background just because they’re not tech. What advice would you give these people to either find tech talent or, for that part, evaluate that tech talent?
Kevin: 10:01 I think the best thing you can do as a non-technical founder of a tech startup or a primarily tech startup I think finding a technical co-founder is going to be absolutely critical. If your business is differentiated from other businesses by the quality of your software, you need to find a technical co-founder who knows what they're doing and hopefully has some level of experience hiring and growing a team and building things. Otherwise, you're just going to be at the mercy of a lot of people. I've seen companies try and outsource stuff from the beginning. The problem is then you don't really have a true ownership over your IP and the quality investment isn't necessarily there. You need to find that co-founder.
Jason: 11:00 Yes. Kevin, let’s supposes there’s a software developer out there somewhere and they want to work for you. How do they get your attention? How does that work? What would they need to do?
Kevin: 11:10 I always say this, and I always worry that it's a dangerous thing for me to say, but I've had folks reach out to me on LinkedIn, I've had folks reach out to me on Twitter, occasionally email. I try not to have my email address too public. But if you reach out to me and you have a question or you're looking for mentoring on something, I'm almost always (unless I'm really snowed under) almost always going to be willing to engage with you and talk to you and give you advice. I love doing that, I love helping out folks who are new to the industry or looking for a role, or whatever. If you just contact me and say, “hey, I'd like a job, here's my resume,” that's probably almost never going to go over well with me. If you want to get my attention, usually the best way to do that is to engage me on something that you're interested in that I can help you with or that you have a question around or just ask a question about things. I like people who want to talk about things; I don't necessarily like people who I feel like they're just mailing their resume to a thousand people.
Jason: 12:28 Yes. So, Kevin, for your current job, can you break down what percent you spend on recruiting and hiring, what percent you spend on mentoring people, what percent you spend on technical stuff?
Kevin: 12:39 So, these days, because we're in a bit a hiring push right now and really trying to hire up, I'm probably spending about a third of my time just recruiting, either for direct reports for me or direct reports for one of my peers. Normally, that would be maybe a little bit smaller I might step in for a candidate in that somebody a manager that works for me is hiring. But not right now; it's a lot heavier on recruiting. So, I'm spending maybe about a third of my time recruiting, a third of my time developing and mentoring and maybe about a third focusing on technology. Normal, steady-state, it'd probably be a bit closer to maybe 60/70 percent mentoring and developing and maybe about 30 percent technology.
Jason: 13:39 Yes. Do you still actually get to go in there and code as much as you want to or is it more oversight for you right now?
Kevin: 13:46 So, at the size of a company we are, if I'm coding, I'm probably not doing the right thing, to be honest. So we're a fairly established company or a midsize company, a CTO in my role, my primary team is the senior leadership team; I'm focused on tech strategy, I'm focused on executing, I've got a large organization to support and develop. so if I'm coding, it's going to be usually in the evenings for fun; if I'm coding on the product, I am absolutely putting my time in the wrong place.
Jason: 14:27 Yes. Kevin, next, can you talk about a time you were successful in the past, what you learned from this success, and what we can learn from this success you had in the past?
Kevin: 14:36 Yeah. I think, when I took over the Adobe Revel product team, when I joined that team it was a prototype. It was something that was being worked on by a small group of really talented, really enthusiastic developers. They'd made something that had a lot of potential, the company was thinking this might be something we might want to turn into a real product. I had been running another team in other organization, was ready to do something new, this seemed like a good change for me within the company. I think that was easily one of my biggest successes; one of the things we did was we said, “no, we're really going to take this product to market,” we embraced a lean startup-type methodology. I put in a six-month timeline from where we were to shipping, laid claim to a launch opportunity and we just worked through. We did it in a really good way, we focused on how we can bring value to consumers, we cut down to an MVP.
Kevin: It was an incredibly aggressive timeline, we were adding people to the team while the whole process. We did it without working late nights, a weekend, until, literally, like the last week, we worked one weekend in the entire six-month period. But we were able to release a product we were very proud of into the market and were able to then iterate in the market with customers, grow it quickly. That's certainly something I was really proud of and that taught me a lot. One, as you said, I've been at Microsoft. At Microsoft, we would take really aggressive deadlines. But we did it in a way that, certainly when I worked there, was not really great from a work-life balance perspective. One of the products I worked on was Windows Media and (what we used to call “death march”) we death marched on that product for six months to ship that out. That was incredibly disruptive and damaging to people's lives. So, then to take an entire brand new product and ship it in six months and do it without doing that to the employees, doing in a great work-life balance way, I was just incredibly proud.
Jason: 17:39 That’s a great story. From an HR perspective, I want to go back in time like research, based on how many people stayed versus how many left, Adobe takes care of their people better.
Kevin: 17:50 Yeah. I think, for me, I think Microsoft, especially (and it's been a long timesince I’ve worked at Microsoft so I've heard that it isn't this way anymore). But certainly in the 90s, Microsoft very much liked to hire people straight out of college – people who weren’t used to working, didn't know what it was, didn't have any expectations about work-life balance – and then just train them that this is what you do. I had worked at other places before I came to Microsoft and so I had different Expectations. So, for me, that was probably the end of my time at Microsoft; just having to work that hard and feeling that it wasn't really appreciated, it was just expected and thinking that, “oh, well, if I just keep doing this, I'm just going to have this will just be what it is; I will just be doing this all the time.” I just didn't want that from my life, I guess, which is why I left. There's a lot of people who just embrace that lifestyle; it was just not for me.
Jason: 19:02 Kevin, next, talk about a time you failed in the past, what you learned and what we can learn from this time in your past.
Kevin: 19:08 So, at Spotify, I have a talk I give about failure and one of the examples I give was a project I worked on at Spotify (it's been a little while now that I've been gone). But it was essentially a big feature push that Spotify had around trying to find the right music for every moment of your day. So, it included a whole bunch of features, basically, to make Spotify something that you would always want to go to whether it's a lunch break, or whatever and it included features that are in the product now like video, podcasts, this thing called Spotify Now. Which was a UI that would kind of emulate a radio and give you things. This was something that we did not in the way we liked to do product development; Spotify was exceptionally good at doing things with customers, not taking these big bets in isolation. But actually working with customers, seeing their reaction to features and iterating in the market.
Kevin: Because we were trying to do this as a big kind of release with a lot of features, simultaneously, that we wanted a big press event around. We didn't do that this time; we sort of went against our own nature. I was the head of technology, I was the head of the engineering effort. So, this was a massive project, hundreds of developers getting around, I think, around a six-month timeline to ship. We released it and it did not do well. We'd hoped that we were going to have a significant increase in user retention and, in fact actually, when we finally released it. We had a decrease in user retention and Spotify would only roll things out to a small number of consumers to test it when it was launched. So, luckily, we didn't unleash this on our entire user base because it actually would have really hurt the company. But then we had to spend because we'd done something in a way that was so antithetical to the way we worked; we had a big failure.
Kevin: We liked having small failures; instead, we had a big failure and we had to research what happened and how this had happened and how to fix it. That took many months because we weren't used to failing big, we were used to failing small. So, in the end, we were able to figure it out; all those features are in the products – stuff like Spotify Running, Spotify Party – those are all in the product, those are all successful now. One of the big features, like Spotify Now, is gone – that was a big part of it. But, from that, what I'd learned was just about this idea where we'd gone wrong, was trying to do something too big. I love the idea of having lots of small failures and being able to learn discrete lessons from each and not having any of them be so big that they're really going to hurt your company. Spotify was exceptionally good at that, and where we'd gone wrong is we tried to not do that, we tried to be somebody who we weren't. From there, though, that's carried, certainly, into what we're doing at Avvo where we're much more iterative. We try things out with our users, we learn from our mistakes and we don't make the mistake of betting the company on something without actually having good data to accompany it.
Jason: 23:17 Kevin, can you talk about someone who’s helped you in the past and how they helped you?
Kevin: 23:22 Yeah. I've been really lucky to have, just over my career, just either great managers that I've learned from or great peers who've taught me a lot. Some of the advice I quote to other people when I'm mentoring them came from my boss at Adobe – Frits Habermann. https://www.linkedin.com/in/fritshabermann/ What I remember is I was running this team. This Adobe Image Foundation team and I had been a developer and moved into management and now the team is getting bigger and bigger. But I didn't want to let go, that coding was such a huge part of my identity and that connection to the product was so important to me, that I just did not want to give up doing that. At a certain point, it wasn't my job anymore. I just didn't want to give it up because it was so close to who I thought I was. Adobe has this thing where they have an end-of-year shut down. They just shut down the company between Christmas and New Year's so that everybody takes vacation that week.
Kevin: If you had to work that week, you needed VP approval to work. I had to get VP approval because I owned features in the product and they were all late and so I had to work that week and I had to get permission. Frits said to me, “well, who is the worst developer on your team?” I started thinking about it, I'm like, “I'm not really sure,” and he said, “no, it's you, you're the worst developer on your team. Because you're always late, you're always missing deadlines because it's not your job anymore.” That was super important for me because I think, at that point, my identity was still so tied into being a developer and being the most senior technical person on the team. Right there is where I realized that's not my job anymore and it's what's better for my team is for me to actually focus on being a better manager and being a better people leader and the team will get much more benefit from that than from me just coding a feature in every release. Certainly, that's guided a lot of my development since.
Jason: 26:00 Yes. Kevin, do you have a book that you can recommend to our listeners?
Kevin: 26:03 Yeah. So, here at Avvo, I started a training program for our managers, and part of that, we have a book club where we read a book every month. The last book we read, it was quite good, it's called Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Keene. And I'd read that book in the past and I liked it but I was actually surprised how useful that book has been for the managers of my organization. I've been in meetings where you can see them using some of the tools from that book. It's been really beneficial for us.
Jason: 26:48 That’s great that you're actually taking the time to mentor your people. I know a lot of companies don't do that. That's really good, I really like that. Kevin, we've come to the end of our talk. Can you provide any last advice to either people trying to get a tech or startup founders or people who want to be in your position?
Kevin: 27:04 So, there's a piece of advice I always give and it's something that, when I came to this realization, myself. Changed everything for me which was, for a long time, I would just kind of skate by on gut-feel or instincts and at a certain point I realized. (and maybe it was just a sign of getting older and having more maturity) But how critical it was for me to be much more intentional about what I do, both around my own development, how I do my job; moving from being reactive to being proactive, to being strategic. Not only in the things I do is part of my role. But just how I approach my role and that's been something that's really guided my own development and has been incredibly useful for me. So, that would be my piece of advice is understand why you're doing things you're doing. Understand why you're making the decisions you're making and that will be incredibly valuable to you as you move forward in your career.
Jason: 28:14 Thank you for that advice. Thank you for being our guest, you gave us a lot of advice and great wisdom. I know it’s going to impact a lot of people in a positive way, you gave a lot of career advice. To our listeners, thank for your time, as well. And remember to be great every day.