January 15, 2020 LEADERSHIP PROFILE

Today’s CTOs Focus on Entire Company, Says LASSO’s Wright

Ashley Fletcher Frampton  /  Charleston Digital News
Michael Wright, CTO for LASSOMichael Wright, CTO for LASSO
Michael Wright, CTO for LASSOMichael Wright, CTO for LASSO
Michael Wright, CTO for LASSOMichael Wright, CTO for LASSO
Michael Wright, CTO for LASSOMichael Wright, CTO for LASSO
Michael Wright, CTO for LASSOMichael Wright, CTO for LASSO

Michael Wright is chief technology officer for LASSO, which provides workforce management software for the event and entertainment industry.

This series is brought to you with support from Charleston County Economic Development.

Michael Wright remembers meeting a corporate chief technology officer about 25 years ago. He had white hair and wore a coat and tie. He had a stuffy air and his focus was solely on the technology department.

"That was it," said Wright. "It was all about just the technology department."

Wright said the role of the CTO has evolved since then. Today, instead of helping drive a technology solution, CTOs are integrated into the company.

"For me, it's not all about the engineering and the technology department," Wright said. "It's about the entire company. It's important for me to be involved with what operations is doing, what support is doing, and sales and marketing. I need to know what our customers need."

Wright has been a leader in technology departments at several Charleston firms, including startups PeopleMatter (now Snag) and Vizbii, before joining LASSO in the fall of 2019. After working with large companies like Harris Corp. and America Online earlier in his career, Wright said he's found he likes the startup space best.

"When you work for these small companies, you have to wear multiple hats. I really enjoy doing that," Wright said. "One day, you may be writing code. The next day, you're helping your team solve a problem. Another day, you may be picking up trash off the floor. You don't know."

Another attraction to startups, he said, is the spirit of teamwork and collective desire for success.

"At LASSO, everyone knows everyone. Support can reach out directly to a developer and talk to them, and vice versa. That knowledge transfer and sharing is extremely important, and I think it's made the company extremely successful."

LASSO, with 27 employees, is headquartered in Nashville. Its growing technology team is based in Charleston, with nine employees currently here.

In your own words, what does LASSO do?

LASSO is trying to simplify the complexities of the event and entertainment industry. We have software that helps our customers schedule, manage, track time, communicate with, do travel and pay their workforce. Small and large event and entertainment companies use our software because what they used to do was on sticky notes or even a spreadsheet.

The software allows them to see everything, gives them insights on everything that is happening for that event, and how they're crewing and managing their crew. We've had some clients for whom scheduling or crewing has gone from days to hours. It's saving them a lot of time, and, of course, with time you're saving money.

When you go to a college or NFL football game, you go there to see the game. You never really think about, "What did it take to actually put this together?" The people that are checking bags. The people that are working at concessions. The people that are running the video cameras, the audio and the lighting and all that kind of stuff. All of these customers of ours, that's what they're doing. They're crewing people to do those types of jobs.

I told our CEO once, "You know, if we've done our job right, you never even know about these people. Everything just goes off without a hitch."

Where did you grow up, and what was life like?

I grew up on a farm in McConnells, SC, which is in the Upstate. It's just south of Rock Hill.

It's kind of odd when I get to know people and talk to them about where I grew up. "You grew up on a farm? And now you write software?" Yeah, I do. It's a big change. But it was great growing up there. It was a lot of hard work. You got up at 5 a.m., if not earlier. You worked on the farm in the morning. You went in, you got cleaned up, ate breakfast and then you went to school. Then you'd come home and you'd do it all again.

Doing things like that at a very young age definitely taught me to take a lot of pride in the work that I do and understand what it means to work hard and build something.

How did you go from farm life to software?

I've always been fascinated with electronics. In high school, I wired houses for a guy at our church. He hired me for summer work. I was always fascinated with the engineering side of things, building stuff. I went off to college to Clemson. I was thinking about trying to marry the computer side, the electronic side, with farming. It never did click for me when I first started school, and it was really because there were no programs to do that.

I kind of got into building computers. I did a lot of microprocessor design. My degree is in computer engineering. When I got closer to getting ready to graduate, I started dabbling in software. I saw that there were lots of jobs in software development, and there were very few jobs in hardware development. At the time, not a lot of graduates were getting hired. I made that decision at that point that I really needed a job.

Writing software is like solving a puzzle. You're constantly problem solving. I really enjoyed doing that, so it was a natural fit for me. I've never looked back. I love doing this type of work.

How did you get to Charleston?

My wife's family is in Summerville. My family is in the Upstate. After graduation, I worked for Harris Corp. down in Florida. They moved me up to Northern Virginia. There, I took a few other jobs. We had two daughters, and that 11- or 12-hour car ride to the grandparents got a little tough to do. So we decided to put family ahead of everything else and we moved back down here.

I've always wanted to live in Charleston. I was looking at South Carolina, and I still wanted to stay in technology. Charleston had a few companies here at the time. This was 12 years ago. I ended up getting a job with Blackbaud as a software architect. Since then, the tech community has just exploded here. It's wonderful to see what has happened.

What's been the most pivotal position that you've had in your career so far, and why?

Being the vice president of technology at PeopleMatter. I would say PeopleMatter was really the first startup or small company that I worked with. I think I was No. 15 or something in the door. It was very early on. We didn't have a product when I started; we hadn't launched anything.

Working with a small company like that, going through rounds of fundraising, it allowed me not to just focus in on the technology, which I enjoy, but also to learn marketing and sales, support, operations. It really exposed me to the entire organization. That really started making me think differently about how to solve problems, how to communicate with people. It was a hard job, but I learned so much while I was there.

What changes or trends do you see in programming that most affect your company or the tech community?

Technology is changing daily. Every time you get up, you read another article about a new service at AWS or Google or Microsoft, or there's a new framework that you can use. It can get kind of tough to keep up with all these. I'm trying to read through a lot of these and see what can benefit LASSO and what doesn't.

You kind of have to look at the community behind a lot of these frameworks and the new things. If you get a large community behind it, you can feel a little bit safer because, even though it's new technology, it gives you some place to go and ask questions and share what you've learned, or even put suggestions out there. The larger that community is around that technology, the better off you are.

So as new technologies emerge, you step back and wait to see how that community develops?

A lot of times, you do have to do that. You also have to balance that the company can't stop what it's doing. We can't press the pause button and say, "OK, we're going to rewrite everything because this new whizbang framework or language is out there." That's not possible.

We have to look at how this impacts our current roadmap and how it impacts our technology. Does it provide us more speed or a better solution for our clients? And then we have to look at the cost to put it in there. There are a lot of moving parts that you have to look at. In the phase that we're in at LASSO, you just can't stop and throw something new in. Think about changing the tires on a moving car. It's not easy.

What's the best piece of advice you've received regarding work, career or management?

I've gotten a lot of advice, from the technology side all the way to management. I didn't start off in management. I started off as a technology person. A lot of that advice there was around how to write clean, manageable code. I remember the first lead developer I worked with saying, "Remember, nine out of 10 times, you're not going to be the person that's having to maintain this code. So you have to write code that other people can come in and read and be able to maintain when you're long gone."

From the management side and the leadership side, I'm a big believer in putting my team and the organization before myself. Time is very valuable to everyone. We have a lot of stuff to do. If my team needs something, I'll drop what I am doing and go help them, trying to remove those barriers for them. It's about respecting your team. That's really the best advice that I've been given.

What advice would you give to young programmers?

Surround yourself with really smart people that are willing to teach you and also to listen to you. In almost every single case I've ever been in where you've had a meeting to solve a problem, it's never been one person that solves the problem. There have been multiple ideas put out on the table or put on the whiteboard, and it's a combination of multiple solutions that have solved the problem.

I've seen a lot of college students come into jobs and just kind of say, "OK, you tell me what you want me to do, and I'll sit here and I'll write code." You need to communicate. You need to put your ideas out there.

We hear that it can be hard to find talent in Charleston for tech jobs. Where do you recruit, and what are your strategies for attracting talent?

I've heard so many people say, "It's so hard to hire people in Charleston." In my opinion, to hire the right person for your team and for your organization, it's just hard. It doesn't matter where you are – Charleston, Silicon Valley, wherever, it's hard.

But there are multiple companies here in Charleston that have proven time and time again that you can do it. You can hire people that are from this area. You can hire people from Atlanta and outside of the state of South Carolina, and you can get them to move here.

When you look at Charleston, it's like every month there's some new article talking about tech jobs are leading the pay rate scale. An article just came out saying we were Top 10 in innovation jobs. You're reading about companies getting funding here. It just goes on and on and on with all these articles about the tech community here in Charleston. So it is possible to get people to come here. It is possible to hire great talent. Is it easy? No, but I think that's the case anywhere.

What's a book you always recommend?

"Leaders Eat Last." I've always enjoyed that book because it talks a lot about putting your organization's and your team's needs above your own.

Outside of work, what keeps you busy?

Work. People consider me a workaholic, and I agree with them. I love what I do.

My wife and I are recently empty nesters. One of our daughters has graduated from college and now is doing a fellowship in Africa for a year. Our other daughter is getting her degree in nursing and doing really well at it. My wife is starting her career back up, so we actually spend a lot of time working, with me having a new job and her really restarting her career. We spend a lot of time focused on that right now because we don't have any kids at home.