#LegalTechLives with Kevin Goldsmith, Chief Technology Officer at Avvo

Ava Chisling
March 16, 2018

Kevin Goldsmith is the Chief Technology Officer at Avvo in Seattle, overseeing all Development, Data, Dev Ops and IT teams. Previously he was the Vice President of Engineering, Consumer at Spotify in Stockholm, Sweden, leading the development of the product and streaming services. Kevin spent nine years at Adobe Systems. He was a Director of Engineering, where he led the Adobe Revel product group and the Adobe Image Foundation group. He also spent eight years as a developer and development lead at Microsoft in the Windows and Research teams.

Of course, we have to start with the most recent news — the purchase of Avvo by Internet Brands. What are your initial thoughts?

I am delighted for Avvo to be joining such great legal companies as Martindale-Hubbell and Nolo.com, and Lawyers.com within the Internet Brands organization. I can only see how this will be a win for both consumers looking for legal help and attorneys looking for new clients.

Can you explain what you do — and what you’ve done — in a way that is simple to understand?

I lead organizations building technically complex products that solve problems for people in non-complicated ways. In my past, this meant building a virtual worlds platform, streaming media platforms, tools for designers, filmmakers and photographers, and giving music fans immediate access to over 30 million songs. Today it means helping consumers solve their legal problems and helping attorneys find new clients.

You have one heck of a resumé so let me deal with one place at a time… Tell me about your time at Microsoft in 2002–2004. What did you learn there that is still with you today?

That was my second time at Microsoft. I had left Microsoft in 2000 to go to a streaming music startup (a theme in my career). When I came back, I joined the WindowsCE team. WindowsCE is a version of Windows that runs on embedded devices like voting machines, X-Ray machines, POS terminals, and things like that. Once in a while, I will walk through an airport, and one of their advertising displays has crashed, and I can see the desktop code I wrote 14 years ago still running!

“I completely agree that the future of law is intertwined with AI, and I think that ROSS is well positioned to solve a fundamental problem for attorneys. The stunning amount of information available to lawyers is astounding.”

You then spent a number of years at Adobe. Just about everything has changed about that industry in the past decade or so. How did your work — or your team’s work — help shape Adobe?

I worked on a few teams at Adobe. I spent most of my time there leading the Adobe Image Foundation team. We built ways for products like Photoshop, After Effects and Flash to better leverage the new computing power in multi-core desktop processors and graphics cards. At the time it was extremely arduous to do this. Adobe’s professional customers are extremely demanding when it comes to performance and quality. We enabled Adobe’s flagship products to be responsive on massive images and videos without any loss of quality.

My last team at Adobe was Adobe Revel. Revel was Adobe’s attempt to create a mobile, web, and desktop ecosystem for consumer photography. While the product is no longer around, our team accomplished some critical things for Adobe. We ported the imaging engine in Adobe’s flagship Lightroom product to mobile devices. It is still a significant part of Adobe’s mobile offerings. The synchronization engine we created is core to Adobe’s Creative Cloud. We also built our product using Lean Startup methodologies. I’m relatively sure that we were the first product to be developed in that way at the company.

Drawbridge ahead! Stockholm. Photo: ajc

In 2013, you went to Spotify and were based in Stockholm, where a bagel and a Coke at Wayne’s costs US$599. Streaming is a super competitive industry. What was the highlight of working at Spotify — and in Sweden?

Well, the price seems a lot better in Kroner and context, since a small drip coffee costs US$450 in Stockholm.

Working at Spotify was an incredible education for me. How the company organized, how it approached product development, it was just different than anything I had experienced. The scaling problems for a company growing that fast are fascinating and were challenging to solve.

Being in the cultural minority was a good lesson for me as well. It took a few months to get used to the differences, but once we did, we loved living in Sweden. It is an incredibly rational and pragmatic place. The Swedish people are lovely.

Skipping over a few posts, you are now CTO at Avvo, which gives people a new way to connect with and contact lawyers. Why were you attracted to this particular company and industry — and tell me about an interesting project you’re working on now?

When I decided to leave Spotify, I had a few requirements for my next company. I was looking for a consumer-focused company. I wanted to join a place with real values and a leadership team from whom I could learn. I was looking for an organization that was at the right stage of development where I could help them scale and grow well. Avvo fit the bill on all of these factors.

Avvo was an additionally attractive company to join because its core products and services are very different from ones I’ve worked on before. It has provided a new challenge, and the company’s mission to help people get the quality legal help they deserve resonates with me. If we do our jobs well, we can help people — people that may be going through some difficult times. We can help them find an attorney who can guide them through their challenges and come out on the other side.

I also have a family background with legal. Both my step-brother and step-father are lawyers. I have fond memories of helping them out and earning money with my sister stuffing envelopes with the law firms’ holiday cards.

One of the things that I’ve brought to Avvo is an understanding of how Machine Learning can improve product experience. We’ve been incorporating that a lot into our work this past year, and although it is only showing up in the product in subtle ways today, it has had a lot of impact on our product metrics. We’re excited to continue working on that as we undertake some new projects in 2018.

Kevin Goldsmit the Chief technology office of Avvo

Of course, you have worked for some very influential, innovative companies. Where does legal tech fit in, in terms of innovation, progress, etc.?

What excites me about legal tech is that there is so much opportunity. It’s nearly a green field. We are still in the early stages. Yes, there are established companies, but there aren’t yet any dominant ones. The legal profession itself is still adapting to technology and trying to understand where it can augment, support, and/or improve the industry overall. Over the next few years, I expect the pace of innovation to grow exponentially.

And in a related question, ROSS obviously believes that the present (and future) of law is intertwined with AI. What do you think of AI in the legal tech space?

I completely agree that the future of law is intertwined with AI, and I think that ROSS is well positioned to solve a fundamental problem for attorneys. The stunning amount of information available to lawyers is astounding. Having better access to that information can make or break their chances of success.

AI can transform access to justice. It can give consumers better tools to understand their situations, help attorneys be more efficient so that they can handle more cases and do it less expensively. It can help firms strategize. In Avvo’s case, it can help consumers find the right attorneys for their legal situations.

When you work in technology within a company, is it hard to bring new ideas to the table? What’s your best strategy for making things happen?

In a good company, people understand that a good idea can come from anywhere in the organization. As a technologist, I have found that the best strategy is to build a quick prototype to make the concept more tangible. That makes it easier for others to understand and support.

What is your best advice for start-up CTOs today?

Understand your business. Don’t just be the “tech person.” Make sure you can bring the tech perspective, but marry it with the business needs. Business knowledge helps you make sure that your technology team focuses on the right things, and in turn, bringing that technical knowledge to broader company strategy discussions can help the business overall.

I know you are a photo enthusiast, so tell me about the one photo that has meant the most to you.

There is a photo I took of my daughter playing in her room. She must have been four years old. She had a bunch of small multi-colored bits of fabric. I got a picture of her, in the middle of her room, as she threw them all into the air. The expression of ecstatic joy on her face is something that I treasure.

I interviewed [Avvo Director of IR] Dan Lear last year and I asked him about his relationship to coffee, 1990s grunge and the Space Needle — all Seattle icons. He said he was a miss on all three. How about you?

After reading this question, I had to verify with Dan that he doesn’t drink coffee. I think that may be grounds for being kicked out of Seattle. I drink A LOT of coffee. So I’m a hit on that one.

Grounds… coffee…. Ha!

I moved to Seattle in the fall of 1994, right after the heyday of grunge. In my earlier days, I played in bands locally, but the bands I played in were post-grunge. I’ve been on the Space Needle a few times in the last 20 years, so I guess that is also a hit for me. Of all three though, coffee has unquestionably touched my life the most.

And finally, the question we ask everyone: What is the one non-work related thing not yet invented you’d like right now? Dan wanted the gadget Hermione used in Harry Potter to move through time.

Dan was thinking too small. I want the TARDIS from Dr. Who.

Anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up?

I’d give $100 to charity to see [ROSS CEO/Cofounder) Andrew in a suit and tie.

I am pretty sure we can make that happen! I mean, it’s for charity!

Ava Chisling

Ava is an award-winning lawyer and editor who counsels creative types, writes about pop culture/tech+law and sometimes creates ad campaigns. She is Quebec counsel for Momentum Law.