Kate is a Partner & CEO at Far Reach — a custom software consulting and development company based in Cedar Falls. While growing her business, she has helped build a vibrant and supportive tech community in the Cedar Valley. Kate is committed to building a culture and work environment that is focused on relationships and believes empathetic leadership is the ideal method to guide teams and add value for clients.
Describe the path you took to where you are now.
I came to technology relatively late. I was in my early 30s, so I’d earned a psychology degree from the University of Northern Iowa and sort of bounced around to some jobs that were not the right fit, not the most fulfilling. I wasn’t finding a career. I went back to UNI and got an MIS degree and it was through that that I really discovered my love of technology. As soon as I started working with computers and getting into the business side of things a little bit I just knew that was what I wanted to do. I graduated with my MIS degree and got a job as a programmer, and that’s where I met my four business partners. After about eight years or so of working together as developers, we decided to jump out on our own. That’s what brought me to Far Reach, and eleven and a half years later, here I am!
What is Far Reach, and why did you and your partners start it?
Initially, Far Reach began out of a sense of frustration and a desire to make a difference. When we originally started, it was the very early days of tablet computing, and Microsoft had a tablet computer that I can’t even remember the name of anymore. A couple of my partners had kids with autism, and we wanted to create educational software for kids with special needs on that platform — but we thought to get into the industry, maybe it made sense to do something a little more mainstream.
We did some research to see what was out there and what opportunities might be available, and we decided on a student information system. There was a very old, very antiquated system that something like 60 percent of schools in Iowa were using at the time, and we thought, “we can build something way better than that!” We spent about a year building a business plan, doing a lot of analysis, interviewing teachers and school administrators, and really just trying to do our due diligence and plan before we made the leap. The one thing we didn’t do before we quit our jobs was market research. We did that afterwards, and our research came back and said it’s a pretty red ocean and it would be a whole lot of work for not a great payout.
At that point we pivoted to consulting, which we had been doing to bring cash in the door while we kept planning the product. We were a little early to that market, because now education apps are everywhere. We were maybe four or five years ahead of the curve, and by the time the tide shifted we were pretty entrenched in something else, which was the consulting side of the business building custom software.
Over the years, we’ve evolved a few times; we built our services to include more websites and marketing services, and now we’ve circled back around to our beginnings and we’re really focused on custom software consulting and development and using our strengths to help people solve their problems using custom software.
Can you tell us about any exciting projects you’re working on right now?
Right now we’ve got a lot of cool projects, but what we’re most excited about is the opportunity we see as a result of of work we’ve been doing internally. We’ve been clarifying our vision, which is that our team looks forward to coming to work every day and that at the end of the day they are fulfilled by the work they’ve done for our clients. Along with clarifying that vision and moving our team in that direction, we’ve also circled back and started focusing on custom software development, and that has helped us identify the kind of clients we can help best — and provide the most value too.
We spent a good amount of time and effort zeroing in on who those clients are and how we can best add value for them. We’re starting to see, after having devoted a full-time resource to business strategy and business development, that those efforts are paying off. We’re really connecting with people we feel are a good fit.
Over the next 12 to 18 months we’re going to see some great progress in bringing in the kind of work that our team loves to do and that they’re fulfilled by. It’s hopefully a symbiotic situation where the team can fulfill our vision and our clients are ultimately the ones who are going to benefit from that.
What made you decide to establish and grow this company in the Cedar Valley?
Maybe we were naive, but we never thought about doing it anywhere else. This is our home, and it just never occurred to us that we would need to go somewhere else to build a business. Once we started involving ourselves in the community, the support we got was tremendous. We got comfortable here, and we have proximity to enough other markets that we could easily expand our reach. We spend quite a bit of time in Des Moines and some time in Cedar Rapids; we have clients throughout the state and a few clients outside the state. Any more with the way technology works, we don’t need to be in Chicago or Minneapolis — we can do what we want to do right here. That’s been great, because we love it here. Hopefully, as we continue to grow and work with folks outside the community, they will get exposed to the Cedar Valley and all it has to offer too.
It’s no secret that the Cedar Valley entrepreneurial community is incredibly close-knit and supportive of those who have chosen to grow their companies here.
Can you tell us about your involvement in this community?
It’s true, we’re pretty tight-knit. Even though some of us compete for business, it’s not a real competitive environment. It’s very supportive. We know each other’s strengths, and we work together in a lot of cases, and we refer business back and forth. Everyone is so generous and really wants to help the community grow and bring attention to it. It’s been really rewarding to be involved and to continue to interact with others in the tech community here. Cedar Valley has been a great place to grow our business.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career?
I have a couple of them. Maybe the first one was going back to school in my late 20s to undertake a career that was sort of out of left field for me. Fortunately, I had the support of my husband, and it was probably the best move I could have made. Beyond that, leaving a stable, well-paying job to start a business is, no surprise, probably right up there too. Again, I was lucky that my husband supported me the whole way. I was also lucky that he was gainfully employed and I had some support to fall back on. I also had four other people I was going into business with, and they had my trust and respect and I just knew that no matter what happened, we could figure it out. It was a big risk, more so for them than me, because most of them were sole breadwinners for their families. But I think it’s a risk that each of us would take again knowing what we know now.
How has your education at UNI served you in your career?
I’ve been really fortunate to have great teachers going all the way back to high school — and elementary school, really! — people who instilled in me a sense of curiosity and determination and who helped me build confidence. In my time at UNI, I really felt like my professors left an indelible mark on me. They were so passionate about what they were doing, their careers, and their involvement with students to help them learn and grow, and it just really stuck with me. The confidence I developed at UNI allowed me to take the risks that I’ve taken. Without that experience I don’t think I would have had the guts to start a business.
Have you had any mentors along your way?
Absolutely. In addition to some of the teachers I’ve had, since we started Far Reach, I’ve had so many great people who’ve been generous with their time and advice and support. They’re always there to answer questions, to make connections for me, to give me that shot of confidence when maybe it was lacking, or just help me sort of find my way. I’d say there is a handful of people I’ve relied on over the past 11 and a half years who have been, and continue to be, an important support system for me.
What advice would you give a young person considering a tech career path?
I would say don’t ignore the development of your soft skills. It may sound trite, but things like good communication and collaboration skills, self-motivation, drive. Empathy is really critical no matter what your job is — the ability to relate to other people, to put yourself in their shoes, makes you a better contributor all around. Technical skills are great, but those soft skills are what really differentiates people who have the technical skills. Beyond that, don’t assume you know what a career in tech looks like, because there are so many opportunities that you would never have thought of in technology. You have to experience technology roles for yourself and make an effort to seek out different examples to see what’s out there. It’s not all sitting at a desk coding all day. A lot of people do that and love it, and that’s awesome, but there are other opportunities beyond that. Don’t rush to judgment.
How would you describe the culture of Far Reach? When you’re looking to grow your team, who do you look for?
The thing that stands out to me about our culture now and what we’ve evolved to be is continuous learning. People here love to learn, and they have to love to learn to work in this environment because technology is changing constantly. We can’t ever settle on what we know or what we think we’re good at. We have to get good at new things all the time. We look for people with an innate curiosity and who love to learn and who really want to make a difference. Core value No. 1 at Far Reach is, “Make a Difference!” It’s something that’s been with us since the beginning, and it’s something we still talk about a lot. “How do we best make a difference for our team, for our clients, for the community we live and work in?” I hope others see it as I do, as a generous culture and a culture of continuous learning and improvement.
Describe your leadership style.
I’d like to think it’s a human leadership style. I try really hard to put people first. I’m not a huge process person, but I’ve learned over the years that a lot of people need a certain amount of structure and guidance and leadership. I try to find that balance where I give people autonomy to do what they think is right, and to do the job in a way that best fits them, the situation, and the client, while still providing the structure and support they need to do their best work and to thrive.
What’s on the horizon for Far Reach?
I feel like we’re at a tipping point of growth right now where we’ve spent a couple of years working hard on how we work, and how we work together with clients, and who our clients are, and who we’re best suited to add value for. We’re at the point now where we can lean on the changes we’ve made and the processes we’ve in place and really start to maximize our value and grow the team to where we can serve our clients in the best way possible.
It can be hard as a small company to manage the ups and downs of a business cycle and to make sure that you have the right number of resources to get the work done in a client’s time frame. As we grow, we can meet those needs better. Being in the consulting business, it’s something we’re always going to struggle with. Everyone I talk to, no matter how big they are, has similar struggles to what we have in terms of business cycles. I’m really excited for the future of our team, because over the years as we’ve focused on our culture and on weaving that into everything, including how we hire and what we look for when we hire, the team we have right now is really committed to the culture and the vision that we’re after. The more comfortable everybody gets with it, the more collaboration happens, and the more excitement is generated. I think we’re on the verge of some fun opportunities and some growth, hopefully.
What do you foresee as the largest challenges ahead in the industry?
There are a lot of them, and there will always be a lot of them! It’s probably not a surprise to say security. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort on security this year. We do quite a bitof work in the financial services and insurance industries and ag and manufacturing, and I don’t think that particular challenge is going away. It’s only going to accelerate. Security is a huge issue. I think too for our clients just the pace of change can be overwhelming. It’s overwhelming for us sometimes. Deciding when to take on a new technology or framework and when to sit back and let things play out a little — to know where the industry and tech is going — is a lot to keep up with, and there are a lot of decisions to be made along the way.
You’ve been serving on the TAI board for a long time. What does investing in Iowa’s tech community mean to you?
I think it’s been about five years! It’s important to contribute, because we’ve received so much support from not only the Cedar Valley community but the technology community in general. It’s a two-way street — we couldn’t have done what we’ve done without that support. I feel like it’s incumbent upon us to give back and to contribute in whatever ways we can. The opportunity to serve on the TAI board has been really exciting, and I’ve met a lot of really great people and I’ve learned a lot from those people. It’s also opened up doors beyond the board, which is exciting too. Again, “Make a Difference” is engraved in our culture, so giving back in ways like serving on boards is kind of a no-brainer.
What initiatives are you most passionate about as a board member?
I believe in all four of the priorities that TAI has undertaken [Developing Talent, Connecting Leaders, Driving Public Policy, and Fostering Diversity & Inclusion]. A couple of them stand out, though, such as Connecting Leaders. There’s so much knowledge in this state, and the capacity we have collectively to effect change in Iowa is huge. I think we’ve talked about Developing Talent if not every meeting in my five years, then almost every meeting. It’s one of those problems that’s been there and is not going away anytime soon. It’s tricky, because it requires both short- and long-term solutions. It requires a lot of energy, a lot of creativity, and a lot of drive. It goes back to having those connections with leaders and really developing those relationships and bringing them to the problem-solving table. We can do more together than any one of us can do alone.
What kind of groups or activities are you active in outside of your job?
A lot of what I do outside the office is still related, whether it’s being on the TAI board or the NewBoCo board, or recently I’ve been involved with the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council for computer science education [a project called Computer Science Is Elementary]. We’re working to provide opportunities to bring computer science into the curriculum of elementary schools and high-poverty schools across the state. It’s been fascinating to get together with teachers and administrators and visit a school that’s actually doing it and see how the kids have responded to it. Beyond that, I love to read and I like to travel with my newly retired husband. Hopefully more of that in the future!
If you weren’t in tech, or if you could go back and do something differently, what would it be?
I think I’d be an archeologist. I think discovering things and the history that goes along with those discoveries would be fascinating, and you get to travel to exotic places.
What music are you into right now?
What I listen to mostly is movie soundtracks, because I’ve found that’s what I can listen to at work without getting completely distracted. If it has words I can’t concentrate. I’m too easily distracted. Other than that, my musical tastes are relatively varied. I don’t listen to country or rap, or even current pop music. I’m more of a jazz, motown, classic rock, indie rock fan.
Do you have a favorite book or current title that inspires you?
I’ve read a lot of books this year! That’s a hard one to narrow down. The one that really hit me is called “A Second Chance” by Catherine Hoke. It really makes you think about the role that luck (or lack of luck) plays in people’s lives. I found it inspiring that the message is really about forgiveness and forgiving yourself before you can forgive other people, and the impact that can have on your life. I was really struck by that book, and it left an impression on me.
Do you have a go-to food item?
I’m a sucker for pasta! I could eat pasta every day. Trader Joe’s pasta is the best!
Do you have any favorite TV shows/series or movies?
I do a fair amount of Netflix bingeing. Lately I’ve been on the intense drama kick. I like “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I get sucked into those and can’t stop! Movie wise, I’m a little more eclectic. I enjoy a good comedy. Mel Brooks is a genius — he’s probably my all-time favorite! Anything really with strong writing and strong acting.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave?
A legacy of the value of curiosity and learning. The older I’ve become, the more focused I am on continually learning. Reading and listening to podcasts and trying to learn about myself and grow as a person. Professional development is important, too; but I feel like personal growth is just as, if not more, important.