Matt Kowalczyk grew up about an hour outside of Pittsburgh in Youngstown, where residents “basically did one of four things: Work in the mill, work for GM, work for the mob, or play football.”
Kowalczyk chose football, not knowing at the time that it would set him on a journey toward a career in tech. Carnegie Mellon University recruited him to play for the college team, which was fortuitous because Kowalczyk was also an admitted “computer nerd.” When he wasn’t playing ball, he worked as an Apple service technician.
“Understand that football was (is) a religion in that region, and everyone organizes their life schedule around football season,” Kowalczyk said.
At CMU, Kowalczyk played football and studied information and decision systems. The later caught the attention of Microsoft. The Redmond, Wash. company recruited Kowalczyk straight out of college, relocating him to the Seattle region where he has been ever since.
After Microsoft, Kowalczyk led a series of startups, some more successful than others. Today he’s president of MediaFolio Technologies, a company that offers a training platform for the hospitality industry.
GeekWire interviewed Kowalczyk for this Pittsburgh Profile, a series of Q&As with some of the most influential people and interesting characters we meet during our month-long “HQ2” project.
Continue reading for Kowalczyk’s answers to our questions, and check out all of our Pittsburgh coverage here.
What do you love about Pittsburgh and what would you change?
Kowalczyk: I absolutely love the passion around sports. It’s such a great sports town. The inability to buy alcohol or even beer at a grocery store is so backwards.
Favorite Pittsburgh spot.
Kowalczyk: I could list 20 places. If I had to pick one place, I’d pick Point State Park. When I was at CMU, I often would ride my bike down to the park and just watch the city. It’s such a beautiful place.
Favorite Pittsburgh celebrity.
Kowalczyk: Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) or Andy Warhol
Best food in Pittsburgh.
Best insider tip for transplants.
Kowalczyk: Invest in a lawn chair. Not for sitting, but for saving your parking spot during the winter months. Typically you spend hours digging out your car from a city street, and you don’t want to just give your parking spot. So everyone puts a lawn chair in their newly excavated parking spot for use later.
Favorite Pittsburgh word or phrase.
Kowalczyk: Everyone you interview will probably say “yinzer” or “yinz” – so I’ll provide a more fun word – “Slippy” instead of “slippery”. Educate yourself here.
Pittsburgh’s most important innovation or invention.
Kowalczyk: Driverless cars. I used to work at the Robotics Institute at CMU developing software for NeXTSTEP in 1992 and even back then I would often see a driverless van or truck being tested in the parking lot. The Institute had a grant from DARPA to research them.
How would you describe the tech, innovation and startup activity taking place in Pittsburgh to an outsider who hasn’t experienced it?
Kowalczyk: Civil engineering startups had been all the rage for years, and you will still see a lot of startups in that space. Only recently with the arrival of Uber and Google has the startup community expanded to other types of industries (consumer, enterprise, etc)
What do you think are the chances of Amazon HQ2 ending up in Pittsburgh?
Kowalczyk: About as likely as Mike Tomlin being fired as head coach of the Steelers. Both are being seriously considered at the moment.
Can you tell us about any memorable experiences you had in Pittsburgh that illustrate the character and nature of the city and its tech/startup/engineering community?
Kowalczyk: The community is more open than even the Seattle tech community. Everyone is working together to help Pittsburgh succeed. Last year, the Chief Product Officer of Ansys (an ex MS exec – Walid Abu-Habda) offered to hang out with me at a Dunkin Doughnuts in Mt. Lebanon and just talk Pittsburgh tech for an hour. He was extremely generous with his time and offered to help me in any way if I wanted to move back to Pittsburgh.
If you were parachuting into Pittsburgh as a tech/business reporter, what’s the first story you’d want to cover? Who is the first person you’d want to sit down with?
Kowalczyk: Probably the growth of East Liberty and Lawrenceville as upcoming tech hubs. Also, go spend a couple days at the Robotics Institute to see what amazing projects they have going on. Or spend time with CERT and become scared at the very real threat of cyber warfare.
Any other advice for us as we prepare for GeekWire HQ2 in Pittsburgh?
Learn about Randy Pausch. Bring warm clothes. Make sure you attend a Pens game.
LinkedIn: Matt Kowalczyk