Erin graduated from the University of Iowa with degrees in Economics and MIS. She began her career as a developer with a small software firm and worked her way up to project lead before founding Entrepreneurial Technologies in 2007. As CEO she is passionate about building the right environment and processes for the ET team to do its best possible work. She serves as 2018 Chairwoman of the Board of Directors for the Technology Association of Iowa.
Can you describe the path to where you are today?
I actually had no intention of becoming a technologist. I wanted to be a writer – to be a novelist. I went to school at the University of Iowa majoring in English. I took my first creative writing class and the TA was this little man who wore all black everyday. We handed in our first assignment and he came into our first class and he took all the papers and threw them across the room and said “This is crap! This is all crap! Maybe some of this is crap we can work with, but I don’t think so,” and stormed out and that was my introduction to creative writing at the University of Iowa. After that semester I was beginning to think maybe this was not what I want to do with the next six years of my life. Then I got an internship at a software company in West Des Moines that summer and got to see what they did and realized that was basically group problem-solving and I was really intrigued by what they were doing. I ended up changing my major to Management Information Systems and Economics and that led me to my first programming job.
Tell us about Entrepreneurial Technologies.
I founded Entrepreneurial Technologies 11 years ago because of a small side project I’d done for a local law firm to create their billing software. This project took their billing from a 3-day process to something that could be done in just a couple of hours, and with greater accuracy. Seeing this was incredibly rewarding for me. It’s funny, at my day job I was working on these huge government projects that had really lofty missions such as preventing terrorism, but it was somewhat disconnected because I didn’t ever see the results. With this side project, I was able to see and feel the difference it made for this firm and that inspired me to want to help other entrepreneurial ventures through custom technology.
Obviously the technology landscape has changed a lot over the past 11 years. When we first started, it was custom web and desktop software programming. Then mobile technology became an increasing part of our world and we added that to our arsenal. Really it’s been about listening to the market and the needs of our customers to guide our evolution. The market talks – you just have to know how to listen. We’ve grown organically from just me to now a team of 8 and counting. But we’ve made it a point to find people who buy into our mission to make technology friendly for all and create amazing outcomes. We’ve also focused on creating an environment where people can do their best work. That means a humane work week, building in flexibility for personal time, and a culture of positivity and encouragement, which is what leads to the greatest innovations.
What’s been your favorite project to work on or what solution are you most proud of developing for a client?
The project we launched most recently is normally my favorite. I still get engrossed in the problem solving aspect of it, so when that goes live it’s really gratifying. One thing that creates a challenge when explaining what we do is that due to the nature of the projects, many of our clients consider them a competitive advantage and we often can’t speak about them.
A cool one that I can talk about, because it’s publicly available, is HomeDitty – an app to match homeowners who want to host house concerts with touring musicians. The founder, Katie Byers, had experience hosting house concerts herself and knew it was rewarding for hosts and an important revenue stream for musicians. The trick was to create a fluid online system that made it easy for all sides. Musicians are often trying to coordinate these concerts on the road, from their phones, and hosts are often unfamiliar with the process of booking a musician. The app also offers a crowdfund model to pay the musician, where guests donate a certain amount per person (sort of an online version of passing the hat) and we had to figure out how to make all of this simple to do in just a few clicks, on any device. It’s been extremely rewarding to watch that project succeed in the wild and get traction in the marketplace. That tells us we did a good job and fulfilled our mission of helping entrepreneurial ventures.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career?
The easy answer that comes to mind is quitting my job when I was 27 to start my own business (Entrepreneurial Technologies). I didn’t realize how big of a risk it was at the time because I didn’t know the economy was about to crash and that we were heading into the worst recession ever at that time. I didn’t know it was the biggest risk, but I was confident enough in my own abilities to solve problems. I knew I didn’t know a lot about running a business, but I was confident that I was going to hustle and figure out what I didn’t know.
How has your education helped you get to where you are today?
Both of my majors were in the business school and one thing that’s nice about that is you have a set of gen-eds that are business based and you get the intro to accounting, intro to finance, all of that stuff that at the time you don’t understand how it’s going to apply to your life. Later in life, I think all of that foundational stuff comes back. The thing that I noticed when you’re running a company, you don’t have to know how to do everything. We keep talking about problem solving and being able to break things down on a logical level and solve problems. That’s what I did when I was programming and that’s really what you do in all of business.
Can you talk about what mentors have influenced your career?
I think mentors are great and my first mentors were my parents. The biggest thing I got from them was values and the importance of being honest and sticking to your word; all of that which sometimes gets lost in the business world. I’m grateful for the example of seeing someone run a business in an ethical way.
Also along the way, I think a lot of people are mentors to you in a moment. It doesn’t have to be the situation where there’s this one person that you turn to for everything. I’ve learned so much from other business people who have opened up to me about what they’re doing in business. Some of our clients have had moments where they were my mentors as they were telling us about their organization and how they do things. I think sometimes we can be so hung up on finding this one person who is going to solve all of our problems. It’s about being open to ideas and opportunities that are around you and to learn from all of the smart people surrounding you.
How do you build time into your week to be strategic and build your business?
I think the biggest part of that is recognizing that that’s a key part of my job. Anybody who’s read an entrepreneurship book knows that you need to work on your business not just in your business. On a human level, that can be really difficult especially if you’ve got your self-esteem wrapped up in “I’m a valuable person because I’m good at doing X” or “I’m a valuable person because I’m a good programmer.” It’s setting that mentality that the most important thing I can be doing is building my business right now.
That’s really hard for people just starting out in their careers – learning what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to. How do you make those determinations on opportunities that come your way or different groups you get invited to be a part of?
I think the most important step a person can take is figuring out what their purpose is. Once you know what your purpose is in business or your purpose in life, those decisions become a lot clearer. There are a million wonderful causes out there, but not all of them are things that I can contribute to in a meaningful way and not all of them are things that serve my purpose in a meaningful way. We all have limited time and just want to look at where can you have the greatest impact. TAI is an example of a place where I feel like I have something to contribute that’s meaningful, but that doesn’t mean that other causes aren’t valuable – it’s just not the place where like I can offer the most.
If you could be anything else besides what you are now, what would you be?
I think I would be a counselor. I would focus on business or executive type counseling.
What gets you pumped to get out of bed and come into work each day?
I would say the people that I work with and of course Lucy. She gets me out of bed every morning at 5:30 so I know it’s time to feed her. (laughter)
How does creativity and problem solving integrate into your current role?
For me, creativity is more about trying to provide a framework for other people where they can solve problems in their most creative way. It’s about creating the best environment and empowering people which is a different type of problem solving than I was used to doing when I was more heavily involved in coding. It’s super important for me to step back and let other people shine.
What do you see as the biggest challenge or opportunity for the tech industry today?
We’re reaching a place in the industry where tech isn’t one industry, tech is a vital component of every industry. Our mission is becoming bigger than it ever was before. Our mission now is the mission of every organization that we’re a part of. That’s a big thing and that’s a big mental shift for everyone involved which creates a lot of logistical issues. The number of people that are going to need to be involved in 10 years is so many more than have ever been involved in tech before.
There are issues to be figured out regarding workforce and educating people. There’s a shift happening where tech is becoming an agent of social and cultural change and that’s happening whether we’re aware of it or not. We need to become aware of it so we make conscious choices about the culture we’re creating.
You’re passionate about technology education specifically in your role as TAI Board Chair. How do we begin to address the talent shortage or the need for workforce?
The good news is the educational requirements for someone to be in technology are not insurmountable by any means – it’s not like we’re looking for a bunch of people who need to have PhDs to do this work. People at all educational levels can do this work. I think our primary mission is to change the way we talk to people about technology so they understand the impact they will have with a career in technology and attract more people and a broader swath of people than we have reached in the past.
What kind of advice would you give or how would you encourage a young person to consider pursuing a career in tech?
The best thing to do is to get some exposure to the career you think you might be interested in. If it’s coding, get some exposure to coding. If it’s networks or whatever your area of interest is, get some exposure to see what you think of the real life environment. Also talk to some employers in that area and find out what kind of education or certificate they’re looking for or if they care more about internships. In today’s job market, a lot of employers are becoming very flexible about what they’re looking for in terms of qualifications, especially if someone has demonstrated some aptitude. That might be in the form of side projects you’ve done or online courses, but with the workforce shortage were facing, a lot of employers are getting more creative with the types of resumes that catch their eye. The best advice I could give someone interested in technology, would be to be passionate, be committed to your goal and be flexible about the way you get there.
You talk about technology and every expression of that as problem solving and you’ve made that a theme for 2018. Can you talk about how you see that expressing itself in 2018 at TAI?
What you really have is a group of people who are excited about solving problems and really want to sink their teeth into the big problems in the industry and that our state is facing. We have an opportunity that both our economy and our social structures are in a state of change right now. The choices we make today will be influencing what happens tomorrow. It’s really exciting for all of us to have the opportunity and the responsibility to take that seriously.
Describe the strengths of the tech industry in Iowa today.
Iowans have this general “can do” attitude – this sort of humble confidence about being able to get things done and solve problems and that’s exactly what it takes to innovate and be successful in technology.
What are you most excited about as the 2018 Board Chair of TAI?
This is a really special time to be in the technology industry with all of the developments that are happening and we have great opportunities. I’m really excited to see our membership come together behind the initiatives TAI is putting forth and make big strides this year.
What music are you into right now?
I watched the Grammys with one of my friends and I was amazed by how much I liked and how much I’d never heard before. I think I might be a little out of the loop with the popular music right now. One of our clients I mentioned earlier, HomeDitty, is an app for traveling musicians to find shows on the road and that’s exposed me to a lot of different genres and acoustic music that I wouldn’t have heard before which is really exciting. I pretty much love any live music – anytime I can go to a show is usually time well spent.
Are you planning to leverage HomeDitty and host a show at your home?
Yes, I would love to! I have a profile and I’m working on getting some pictures up of the space.
Do you have any favorite books or what have you read recently that you loved?
I love Brené Brown’s work and Rising Strong is the most recent book of hers that I read. I thought it was phenomenal and surprisingly applicable to day to day life. It talks about rising up after some sort of setback or disappointment. I’s amazing even if you’re not facing some sort of setback – it’s a really good book for dealing with life. Another book that I’ve read recently that was extremely interesting and should probably be required reading for human beings is Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me. It talks about the gyrations that our brains go through to make it so that things that happened were not our fault. It’s an interesting way of looking at things and being aware of our own role in our choices.
What kind of impact do work to leave on the tech industry?
The tech industry is coming to a place where we need to see ourselves as agents of human change. We need to be conscious of the impact that we are leaving on this world. If I can draw people’s attention to that in some small way I think that would be a really amazing legacy to leave.