Kate Matsudaira Today the Venture Spotlight is on Kate Matsudaira, Vice President of Engineering at SEOmoz, a prominent Seattle-based developer of search engine optimization (SEO) software and tools.

Kate has extensive knowledge of building large scale distributed web systems and web services, and currently manages the SEOmoz core technology team.  Prior to SEOmoz, Kate served as VP of Engineering at another startup, Delve Networks (now part of Limelight), where she helped create and monetize a large scale distributed system for online video delivery and search.  She has also worked for other leading technology companies such as Amazon.com, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.  Kate received her bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California and has completed graduate work in both business and computer science at the University of Washington.  Outside of work, she is a self-described fashion and cupcake junkie and loves spending time with her dogs.

At what point did you first think about working in tech as a career?

I don’t think I ever considered not working in a technical role.  I loved math and science since I was a child.  I used to like doing math workbooks for fun, and would routinely get in trouble for dismantling things like clocks and radios.  I went to college at Harvey Mudd, which is a “liberal arts school of math, science and engineering” – and so it was just assumed you would major and study some field in technology.  Harvey Mudd is also sort of like the college in Real Genius; we weren’t known for having tremendous social skills.  I was crazy and took lots of extra electives because I couldn’t pick which field I liked best.  I ended up picking computer science, because I loved the beauty of creating programs – it felt so magical seeing your work come to life on the screen.  I still feel so lucky that I get paid to do what I love.

What was your first tech job and how did you get it?

I can’t remember how I got my first tech job, but I am sure it was just an application (and could have had something to do with the fact I was a good student).  The job was working down in the computer lab as a system administrator (although mostly all you did was help people reset their passwords and put paper in the printer).  The funny part about that job was that I would sign up for the shifts on Friday and Saturday nights (when most other people with social lives were having fun) so I could have the lab all to myself.  I used to love just sitting in there listening to the hum of all the hardware when everything else was quiet.  I was pretty nerdy back then. J  It wasn’t my first job though – that was as a bank teller at Wells Fargo – for a whopping $4.50/hour.

Do you like the management aspect of your job?

Management kind of just happened to me – I never thought I would be in management (and sometimes I still refer to myself as the pointy hair guy in Dilbert).  I wanted to be a senior technologist and rise up the technical ladder.  In retrospect, my current role is much more suited to my strengths though (my mom will tell you I was born bossy).  There is nothing more rewarding than feeling like you made a real difference in someone else’s life.  I love motivating people, and goodness knows I have made a lot of mistakes so if I can help someone else not make some, then that is a real accomplishment.  I’m very lucky that my work has combined my passion for technology with the ability to lead and motivate people.

Any suggestions for building a strong team?

Hire people smarter than you.

Hire people that you want to be around and share your values.

Focus on people’s strengths and emphasize their talents.

And no matter what, be true to yourself.

Was your formal education important in your field?  Or did you learn more on the job?

Education is important.  It doesn’t really matter if you have a degree or you learned on the job, but taking an interest in growing yourself, having a passion for your field, and continually expanding your knowledge is key for success in any role.

What advice would you give to someone applying for their first job in tech?

There are 3 things I wish someone had told me:

1. Write a great cover letter.  Show your personality and convince them why you are awesome.  I always follow up with anyone who takes the time to do this well.

2. Study for your interviews.  Just like a test in school, take the time to do the prep work.  This includes phone interviews; we always ask candidates what they think we’re doing right and wrong during our first calls.

3. Negotiate your salary.  When I got my first two jobs I didn’t negotiate my salary – I was so thankful for those jobs and I wouldn’t have wanted to jeopardize my candidacy.  Having been on the other side of the table almost 100 times now, I will say that it never hurts to ask for more as long as you do it in a courteous and professional way.  And in some cases, not negotiating at the outset jeopardizes your ability to ask again in the future.

Is there a woman working in technology that particularly impresses you?

There are so many!  Sheryl Sandberg has done some amazing things with Facebook.

If you were not working in tech, what would you do?

I would love to be a veterinarian, or work in an animal rescue.  I love animals, especially cats and dogs.

Best advice anyone ever gave you?

I had a friend who was a pick up artist, and he taught me to reframe every situation to be positive (sort of like the saying “every cloud has a silver lining”).  Learning how to do this changed my life and made me a much happier person.

Biggest mistake you have made in your career/business?

There are lots of things I could consider mistakes, however, I really try to look at all my experience as just that – experience.  There are times I have made bad hires, trusted people that let me down, and didn’t take job offers that would have made me millions – but all of those decisions are just paths I have taken, and all of them have taught me great lessons.  I feel very fortunate to be where I am at, and so I try to look at my blunders as just another step in my journey and an opportunity to do better next time.

What is currently in heavy rotation on your iPod?

Mississippi by Train.  I love dancing to that song.