Modern CTO Podcast
Guest: Don Pawlowski
This episode of the Modern CTO Podcast felt like I was chatting to a long lost friend. Don Pawlowski is the CTO University Tees who are the industry leaders to providing custom t-shirts to college students. We discuss hiring the right people, our wives, machine learning and giving crypto currency financial advice.
Time Stamped Notes
0:47 Origin Story – How did you fall in love with Technology?
Don began engineering in college. He went to a University in Cleveland and picked civil engineering because he didn’t know what else to do or what major to pick and being good at math, this seemed like the perfect fit. He ended up in civil and structural engineering. Before graduating, Don knew he didn’t want to do anything in that field, however when he graduated in 2009 during the recession, jobs were scarce. At the time, he was receiving lots of job offers so decided to take a job in civil engineering and get into it as much as he could. However, things didn’t change and he continued to not like the work. He felt that designing and engineering bridges was a problem that has been solved for quite some time. Physics doesn’t change. So he began a path out of this kind of work and sought out leadership positions but found that in this particular industry, positions are hired based on length of service rather than skill. He started looking around and become a Director purchasing job for a company that sells Gas Station equipment. A friend of his, Kevin, who was around taught him to write code as Don did well in college in that class. Don began that journey where they would meet every Monday night and give him homework. Within 2-3 months, Kevin announced that he was going to move and the company he worked for were going to hire Don which ended up in Don doing more project management stuff for them. Don realised that with tech, it’s a different challenge and puzzle every day. The problem has not be solved and will not be solve. This was exciting for him as it keeps you guessing and keeps you interested.
7:12 Being CTO for University Tees
The company started a decade ago and the problem they were solving was terrible customer service with customer apparel for sorority’s and fraternity’s. The local shop’s service was terrible and they saw an opportunity and started selling their own custom designs for apparel. University Tee’s have custom orders for all their products so they have it’s very unique challenges. The business took off at Miami University and in Ohio and they started hiring their friends at other campus to source sorority’s and fraternity’s and began to outsource some of this apparel. This also lead to them starting their own print shop 6-7 years ago.
11:25 The Hiring Process
Some tips both Joel and Don discuss around the steps to Hire People are to recruit those who are smarter than you and don’t tell you what to do. Resource them. This comes up often on Don’s team, as long as he takes care of the team and they’re a good culture.
These are the three things Don looks for:
- Are they a motivated individual?
- Are they a nice person?
- Do they have the ability to learn?
If those things are nailed – the work is essentially done for free. You just need to manage the people. Life also becomes amazingly simple. Pay the rate that they need to care enough to keep motivated and they do the project. Joel feels it is an undervalued quality – the person that is intelligent and can tell you what they know but also what they don’t know. The person to be concerned about is the person that is an expert on everything.
13:42 Machine Learning Technology
Given University Tee’s have a lot of images, custom apparel, the art team turns that concept into something, there are revisions and one of the main problems as a company is that they are using their images in a way that could be more productive. The team are usually creative people who don’t want to worry about administrative tasks. Don started looking into machine technology that could help with reading the images and having them tagged for them but found that this kind of service works great for photos, not illustrations. There is a lot of opportunity to use these technologies.
19:02 Problem Solving at University Tees
Everything they have at University Tee’s is hand rolled. Don has looked at other ERP’s that could have been used. Trials have been done with Shopify and other platforms, however they don’t work with the custom nature of the business. The interaction with the customer and main person using their applications and website – campus managers and college kids. They interact with the application, upload an image, chat with the art team and they use that to get artwork nailed out. They then go to a checkout phase, which goes to the operations team to get approved and scheduled. The apparel then gets purchased from the bigger apparel manufacturers. The runway is so long and so wide – there are so many things that could be modified to get a few thousand in ROI back. Don’s internal team is 160-180 employees at any given moment. Majority of that is in the print shop.
26:15 – Dealing with Different People using Different Software
Joel talks about a situation where certain people he is looking to hire are using different software. Don advises that at some point you have to standardise for productivity sake. Don’s team use the same tooling and would be unlikely to let them use something different. Given the volume of art that goes through University Tee’s, it’s so important to have consistent tooling to generate speed.
28:03 Crypto Currency
It’s amazing what a dramatic increase in a price target will do to the world. Don and Joel discuss the concept of value – and the human value. Human’s decide the value together. You could take anything and you can artificially inflate it and when everyone decides it’s not valuable, the price drops. This is what makes the human part of the crypto scary. Eventually someone is going to take their money out and things will change.
34:51 Virtual Reality , Amaon & Elon Musk
Neither person knows anyone who spends a day in virtual reality. It hasn’t caught hold yet. It’s been one of the least predictable things. Don and Joel talk about virtual reality games like Laser Tag. They also talk about Jeff Bezos and discuss how he makes decisions and how he acquires other companies. Don talks about Elon Musk’s biography and how he is using technology to change the world.
42:20 Advice to Previous Self 10 Years Ago
The first thing that comes to mind for Don was to not break up with his wife the first time. Other things were that he hasn’t taken enough risks as he wasn’t often willing to lose anything. Don is content with his life and how things have shaped over the past ten years.
He really thinks through his decisions before making investments.