IF YOU WERE ever fortunate enough to benefit from the kind guidance of a mentor, you’ll be interested in hearing the story of this month’s interviewee. Casey Kinsey, founder and CEO of Fayetteville’s Lofty, has made his philosophy of mentorship an integral part of his company’s talent development policy. We sat down with Kinsey to hear about the life experiences that sparked this non-traditional staffing approach, and how he applies it at Lofty.
Before we talk about mentoring itself, tell me a bit about how you got interested in tech, your influences, things like that.
Well, I got interested in technology somewhere around middle school. I’m right in the sweet spot of kids who grew up without access to the Internet and kids who did. Because I think we got Internet access at home when I was maybe around high school age.
Where were you?
Pearcy technically, outside of Hot Springs—the Lake Hamilton School District. And at Lake Hamilton, we had a really good program called ACE, which was their gifted and talented program, but it specifically had a technology angle to it. And we did some really early website development. This would’ve been around like 1998 or so, and I started to dabble in that. I was an academic AP scholar, went to college at UCA as an English major and I was building websites on the side as I made my way through school. Then one day I looked up and I said, “I think I’ve got this backward. I think I can do this for my career and I can read books for fun.”
I never really quite lost my interest in all of that because I worked in news media for probably three quarters of my career before I started Lofty. My first professional job, doing programming work as a web designer, was at the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Arkansas. So, I came up into software engineering through the newspaper industry, which is a very non-traditional route into it.
After the Log Cabin Democrat, I did a consulting gig with a firm out of West Virginia, but our clients were all in Ohio and Cincinnati. Then I went back to newspapers at the Arkansas Democratic-Gazette.
What did you do for the Dem-Gaz?
The online department was a function in the advertising department. They were already publishing the newspaper online, but we were doing what I’d call innovation on top of that. You may or may not know this, but the Democratic-Gazette was one of the first newspapers to put up an online paywall. They were doing it before The New York Times, and it was part of Walter Hussman’s philosophy that you couldn’t fund high-quality journalism by giving it away. It wasn’t really about making money online in the beginning. It was about defending the rack sales. You didn’t want to let rack sales slide by giving the paper away online because they were making the lion’s share of the revenue through the print advertising in those newspapers being sold at the rack, and of course, on paper subscriptions.
By the time I was there, that paywall was well established, and we were coming up with ways to transition revenue from the print product to the digital product. Through the website, we were building new advertising products, different types of interactive ads, different ways to package ads and distribute them, different ways to report metrics back to advertisers because now we had actual analytics about how their ad spend was actually performing.
A lot of people would get their first online ad and they’d say, “Oh my God, only five people clicked on it. Online advertising doesn’t work.” And our response as, “Well, how many people clicked on your ad in the newspaper?” The answer is none. “How many people took action on it? You don’t really know. So, is it that advertising doesn’t actually work, or that it just works differently than you thought it did?”
In addition to that work, we were also an internal consultancy, if you will, for the rest of the newspaper. We were under advertising, but we were helping circulation build products as well. We worked a lot with our promotions team. And so, in addition to the main publishing and advertising work for the Dem-Gaz proper, we had dozens of other stakeholders coming by the office saying, “Hey, can you do this?” And we had to learn how to be an agency and project managers as well. This is where I got my interest in consulting work, from being in the online department there.
Sounds also more stimulating, for not every day to be the same.
It is for me. It’s two totally different worlds, and the world that I’m in now is client services and we get to work on something new every day. Not everyone thrives in that environment, but I find it really exciting.
So after the Dem-Gaz, I worked in Washington, DC, with a company called Celerity, which is a consulting firm to the media industry. We were doing web and mobile product and website development, but our clients were National Geographic, Smithsonian, PBS, Discovery Channel, Discovery Network. PBS was the main client that I worked with. I worked with several large teams, working on a product called PBS Learning Media, which I think is still a product that AETN here in Arkansas subscribes to. That means that teachers here in Arkansas have access to it. Basically, we were taking the entirety of PBS’s rights catalog for video and aligning that content against state and federal education standards. Then we built a product where, if you were a ninth-grade physical science teacher in Arkansas, you could go to PBS Learning Media and they would give you the list of standards that were set for Arkansas. “Well, you have to teach this and this and this, and here’s everything that we’ve got at PBS that covers these specific topics that you have to hit.”
Sounds very cool.
It was really neat. I grew up on public television here in Arkansas, so I was a Sesame Street kid, and it was definitely a really cool thing to get to be a part of. I will say that PBS is not what you imagine it is from the outside, you know?
PBS is an organization that’s pushing money around and buying access to content and then selling that access to the content. I mean, we were definitely contributing to the mission. I don’t know what I expected, but let’s just say Big Bird wasn’t walking around the halls of PBS giving high fives.
No mentoring from Big Bird?
Well, no and yes. Here’s what I can say. At the newspaper, I was usually one of maybe two people with computer programming experience in the entire organization. No one ever came behind me and said, “Hey, you’re doing that wrong.” But when I went to Celerity and started working at PBS, I went from a team with two engineers on it to a team with 25 engineers on it. And I learned more in three months than I had learned in five years of my career leading into that.
Within that team at PBS, I wouldn’t even say there was a big emphasis on mentorship. It was just that I had access to more people who knew so much more and had so much more experience. If I had to quantify it, I think that’s where I really started to understand the value of mentorship. And that’s even before I started to understand the impact that came from deliberate, intentional mentorship. This was just accidental, immersive mentorship.
When did you begin thinking about launching Lofty?
After doing the PBS work for Celerity, I spent about six months in New York working as the CTO for a startup company. We’ve all had bad job experiences, and that was a bad one for me. I was living in Fayetteville by then but was in New York probably 50 percent of my time during that job. It was a very, very intense schedule we were trying to do, and the CEO and I didn’t get along or see eye to eye on many things.
I hate to pick on that guy because he was such a small part of my career, and maybe he’s not all that bad. But the one thing I can give him credit for is, I hated that job so much that I said, “I don’t ever want to work for another human being ever again.”
That’s a different definition of mentoring, I guess.
It is. Part of mentorship is learning what not to do.
I had taken that low-paying equity CTO job because I wanted to be closer to building an organization, and I knew I was going to get experience doing that. So when I left that job, my CEO said, “I thought you wanted to be involved in business.” I said, “I do, but I don’t think it’s like this, with the venture-capital-funding rat race. I think I’m looking for something a little closer to small business.”
So, what was your plan for Lofty, and how does mentoring work into that?
I incorporated Lofty Labs in 2014, but at the time, I was just generally freelancing. I didn’t like working from home, so I rented a little 10 by 10 office space on Center Street in Fayetteville. My brother and I split the office. He’s also a software engineer. He worked remote for a company in California at the time, and he works at Lofty now.
After a few periods of feast and famine, I started being a lot more aggressive about chasing down work. There’s a lot of work in software engineering as a contractor, where you can get contract jobs that are a year-long, full-time employment. You’re just 1099. And I had one of those, and it was coming toward an end. So I went out to line up some additional contract work, and I got a new project with another company—and then the project that I was still on called me and said, “Wait, we want to renew for another year.” So suddenly I had myself booked with 80 hours of work a week to do.
So I called up one of the two clients, I can’t remember which, and said, “Hey, is it all right if I subcontract some of this, if I manage it?” And they said, “Yeah, that’s fine. We don’t care. We trust you. If you sign off on it, we’ll take the work.”
I had some friends here in Northwest Arkansas who were doing similar work, and sure enough they wanted some freelance work. So I brought on a couple of freelancers, and that just kept going. It was very, very organic. Then one day I walked across the hall to the accountant who had incorporated us. “We’re a company, right?” I said. “We can hire people if we need to?” And she said, “Yeah, I’ll set you up with payroll and you can make a hire.” It might have been a full year of running Lofty as a “company” before I finally worked up the courage to make my first actual hire. That was probably in mid-2015. Today we have 35 employees.
Wow, that’s impressive. So, how do you use mentoring in your business?
Right before COVID, I think, we were interested in working with the Arkansas Coding Academy to build up a mentorship program. That’s where I talked with Dr. Don Walker, who was then heading it up. We had talked with his predecessor, too. We wanted to start bringing people through, lots of non-traditional folks.
The genesis of that for me is my own education. I’m non-traditional. I don’t have a computer science degree. In fact, I dropped out of college—I don’t have a bachelor’s degree at all. For that reason, I’ve never really given a whole lot of concern to educational requirements when we hire. As a result, we have quite a few people with non-traditional backgrounds in engineering roles at Lofty, and they’ve done really, really well. They bring other types of problem-solving to the table. It isn’t necessarily textbook computer science, but it has other, real-world implications.
Software application development isn’t just math—it’s the intersection of math and creative. We’re designing user experiences. We’re designing workflows. Not just visual design—how it looks—but conceptual design of how it works. I don’t know if I can give a more specific example than that.
I mean, our director of engineering for a number of years—he just moved to J.B. Hunt a couple of months ago—was also an English major. I can’t say categorically that non-traditional folks have done better at Lofty, but what I can say for sure is that the presence of a formal engineering degree isn’t necessarily a strong indicator of success.
We’ve got a lot of career changers at Lofty. I love career changers, particularly people who have industry experience in our practice areas. So if we’ve got someone coming out of a traditional civil engineering background who wants to go into software engineering, we love those people because they have domain knowledge. But they need mentorship because they’re coming out of a world where they may not have a formal computer science education. They’ve got some aptitude and interest and some programming skills, but they just have to get leveled up really quickly on the job.
It’s really, really expensive to build senior engineering talent, and that’s even more of a concern for us because of our business model. We’re an outsource option, so to some extent we’re competing with offshore development. That puts some price pressure on us. But we’re different from a product company where your development labor is disconnected from your cost of goods sold. For us, development labor is our inventory, is our cost of goods sold. So we have to level people up fast, and we can’t afford to just buy it all.
That’s really why mentorship is important to us. If we can provide pathways for people to come out of our target industries and convert them over into performing software engineering talent, and if we can maximize the speed of taking someone on at the intro level and getting them closer to senior level—well, that’s all very good for us from a business strategy perspective.
This is a high turnover industry. People move jobs very, very frequently in this world. If we can have this pipeline that we’ve got a lot of influence over, that’s really the engine at Lofty that makes us feel like we’re unstoppable.