May 24, 2012

Hot Spotlight: Catching Up with Kathy Simpson

Matt Shearon's picture
Matt Shearon
Content Strategist & Writer

As a girl, Kathy Simpson’s favorite Halloween costume was Indiana Jones. Doctor Jones was into the detailed history and recovery of lost artifacts. “I ended up getting a minor in Physical Anthropology,” Kathy explains. “I’ve always had this technical disposition.”

When she was in elementary school, Kathy joined the Women in Sciences & Technology club and hasn’t looked back. She was introduced to technology at a very young age by her dad, who thought understanding how technology worked was just as important as learning to read. As the Director of Information Systems at the Anchorage Daily News, he also taught his children that a career and a passion could be one and the same.

After a stint at Google, Kathy joined Hot Studio’s technology team in 2007. She’s still running strong, learning new techniques, coding languages or work methods. It takes endurance and discipline. It helps that she’s, well, an avid distance runner and very involved in an online running community, dailymile.

You’ve grown up around technology, but what do you consider your first big project?

I was in the college library uploading photos to a file server and sharing them with my family, I think. Turned out the science librarian was looking over my shoulder. She thought I was doing something crazy-innovative. She offered me a job to work on the library's website. I ended up working at the university library on various technical projects for two years.

Right after school I got a lot of hands-on experience working at a car dealership in Tennessee. I was the network technician. It was a small town and a funny place to be, but I learned a lot. The owner ran a few other seemingly unrelated businesses—like a replacement kitchen parts business, a farming operation, and a computer repair shop. I ended up helping people with their computers on top of my day job.

Did you start working in the computer shop more?

Not exactly. My boss figured out that I knew something about the Internet, so he asked me to sell cars online. [Laughs] I learned heaps about SEO and Photoshop, in addition to all the technical work I was doing. I would build ads—incredibly ugly and loud banners ads—but they worked. I started building other websites in the area before moving on.

Where was the next move?

It was a big move. I came to San Francisco and got a job at Google. The culture was great; it’s an amazing place to work. Yet, surprisingly, after a while I felt I wasn't learning new things in my role.

I sought out a senior colleague at Google for advice. She was a mentor to me. We both agreed I could advance at Google, but probably not learn what I wanted. She introduced me to David Paige, a Producer at Hot Studio. The company was looking to build a technology team. (I think Hot might've been less than 20 people then.)

I signed on. It was one other engineer and myself. It turned out the other engineer was a terrific leader and teacher. I would code all day, then read Harry Potter on my way home at night. It was an overwhelming but incredibly valuable time. I learned a lot in a short period, and found Hot to be an energetic environment, conducive to long-term learning.

What is it like developing and building at a design company?

Well, I would say we’re coders. We've been toying around with the word “design engineers” but I think this term has a different meaning at Hot than it does at other places in the industry.

At Hot, our design process is focused on helping people achieve their goals. I think this bleeds into engineering. We take pride in creating well-designed code.

As design engineers, we get involved in a lot of interaction and animation design too. We'll usually pair with a designer and create a prototype. The designer-engineer pair observes how the other works, and informs each other's process in real time. It's been really beneficial for all of us because both groups gain a deeper understanding of how applications are built and used.

Another thing I think is special, is that we continually re-factor our code. A lot of times we hand off pieces that will need to work in another system for our clients, so our team really pushes hard to write code that works not only for the end user, but for the client and its developers too. 

Does this change the way the Hot Technology team works?

We take process very seriously at Hot. We're not going to sign on to a process that might hurt us later or disrupt the quality of the work. We don't want to be locked into daily stand-ups if they're not beneficial. Maintaining that flexibility in our process is core to how our team works.

We can work in Agile, Kanban, and traditional Waterfall. Our process depends on what the client needs.

On one project we’re using elements of each of these processes because we’re managing the project from end-to-end. We’re over-communicating with each other, so we’re comfortable with the rapid and open feedback cycles. This has led to an incredible amount of transparency between us and the client. And we’ve managed the entire process well so it’s not too messy. When things get a little bit messy, we’re comfortable with that. It means we are managing risks appropriately.

On another project, we’re using a very strict Waterfall approach. It entails working with the client and another developer in a highly planned and methodical way. 

The needs for each project are similar, but different processes work for different clients. Because of our technology team’s flexibility, we can meet the needs of both. 

Do you ever find these processes carrying over into your life outside of work?

Actually, out of the office, I’ve gotten pretty involved with community management and writing!

I love to run and a couple of years ago I signed up for dailymile, an online running application and community. I met a lot of runners through the network, including my running coach and the site’s founders. I started blogging for them. I now edit the blog and work with a group writers to create dailymile’s content and manage the company’s social media strategy. I’ve learned quite bit about maintaining an audience and sustaining a product over a long period of time.

Running also connected me to Ryan Hall, one of the top runners in the world. He and his wife, also an accomplished runner, sought me out to help with their foundation’s website. First, I was totally humbled. After I recovered from that, I realized their cause was close to my heart. The working group was fantastic. In a really short period of time, myself and some other volunteers built and launched a brand new site for The Hall STEPS Foundation. It was rewarding to take what I do at Hot and apply my work to such an impactful organization.

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We're bringing back the Hot Spotlight series! Get to know these other Hotties, all with very interesting stories to tell:

Hot Spotlight: What NASA Taught Holly Hagen About Company Culture
Hot Spotlight: Getting to Know Robert Kanes
Hot Spotlight: Dan Harrelson Blends Technology with Design
Hot Spotlight: Design and Music with Dave Eresian

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