Like many children of the 1960s, my nerdish tendencies were shaped by some of the science fiction that was popular during my youth – like Star Trek and Star Wars. But my earliest interest probably came from The Jetsons, a regular part of my Saturday morning cartoon ritual.
It shouldn’t have surprised me that I’ve spent the last 30 years focused on bringing The Jetsons to life.
My first step along the path came in 1986 when I was a junior at Boston College majoring in Physics and Computer Science. My favorite class of my entire experience at BC was the Robotics class that I took in the Computer Science department, taught by Dr. Jim Gips. During the class, we wrote assembly code that controlled a Heathkit Hero robot. Programming these robots was the perfect marriage of my work in Computer Science and Physics – I loved the idea of getting software to interact with the real world. Dr. Gips had a great teaching style – he was quietly motivating and you could tell that he wanted us to learn on many levels during his class. Each year at the end of the class, there was a Robot Race that tested our programming skills developed in the class. Teams of two students worked together to write code that would allow their robot to navigate through a maze of cardboard boxes in the basement of the Computer Science building. The winning team got an amazing prize – a guaranteed A in the class. My teammate was a smart young woman from Maine named Kristen. She was also pretty cute, which is why I angled to get on her team. My strategy paid off and Kristen and I shared the honor of the 1986 Boston College Robot Race championships. We both were awarded A’s in the class, but the bragging rights that lasted 30 years were worth more than the grade.
I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided that I wanted to work in robotics after graduation. But when I looked for jobs in robotics after graduating, they had nothing to do with programming cute looking robots to navigate around our world – they were industrial robots that performed a weld or screwed in a bolt. Not exactly my vision of the Jetsons future.
Nevertheless, I checked the robotics box and achieved my first step on the way to my Jetsons Trifecta.
I joined IBM right out of college (thanks to Dr. Gips who helped me look for a job in my senior year), but clearly was yearning for something a little more leading edge. After working at IBM for a few years, I started working with one of our partners – a company called PictureTel. PictureTel was an early pioneer of videoconferencing technology based outside of Boston. I knew almost immediately that I had to work there.
When I was ready to leave IBM, I called one of the executives at PictureTel and basically told him that I was born to work there. Within about 30 days, I was employed at PictureTel as the manager of the IBM relationship.
I spent about 6 years at the company and had an incredibly rich developmental experience. I had jobs in sales, business development, channel management, product management, marketing, and new product development. The company more than tripled in size during my time and I got to see for the first time the impact that transformative technology had on people. We delivered remote education, medicine, and business meetings that could never have happened. The most exciting part was bringing people together across great distances.
One evening while I was late at work, I got an email from a senior technical advisor to Microsoft, named Bob Frankston. I didn’t know at the time that Bob was (and is) one of the most important figures in the software industry. Bob, along with his partner Dan Bricklin, created VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program. Bob was calling because he was at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond and was trying to get one of our prototype PC-based videoconferencing systems to make a call back to his home in Newton, MA. Unbelievably, he asked if I would drive to his house and try to troubleshoot the connection. I went to the address he gave me and his wife let me in and pointed me to the stairs that went to Bob’s attic office. Among a rat’s nest of cables and thousands of computer books and diskettes, I found our system that was connected to the network via an ISDN connection. After some brief troubleshooting, I was able to get it work and Bob’s face showed up on the screen. To complete my surreal experience, Bob and his wife had an emotional reunion because they could actually see each other at a distance for the first time – and Bob had been traveling for his work at Microsoft.
That one experience among many showed me the human power of “future” technology.
As the internet hype reached a fever pitch in the late 1990s, I decided to leave PictureTel. But that experience allowed me to complete my second step in the trifecta.
For the next six years, I spent time at two internet companies and one enterprise software startup, but something was still missing. In 2004, I just finished the sale of my startup where I was heading marketing and I called an old friend from PictureTel named Steve Chambers. Steve had gone on to work in the speech recognition business at a company called SpeechWorks. He had just finished selling the company to ScanSoft (now Nuance) and he was looking for someone to run marketing for the speech recognition business of ScanSoft.
It took me about a nanosecond to make the decision to join Steve. For the next twelve years, I saw the company grow from less than $200M in annual revenue to almost $2B. Along the way, we would continue to push the envelope of technology, and I started to see a similar pattern from my past. By making the future happen, we were creating experiences that were otherwise impossible.
In my tenure, we saw speech recognition in call centers eliminate wait times for consumer (and annoy them a lot in the early days.) . We saw speech recognition on a computer go mainstream with Dragon (a business that I ran for 8 years), enabling people with disabilities to communicate in the information world for the first time. Our technology was in the first version of Siri, in millions of cars – and became the primary was that over half a million doctors create patient records every day.
After reflecting on these accomplishments recently, I realized that my Jetsons Trifecta was complete.
I often joked about with friends about my Jetsons Trifecta – assuming that three examples of Jetsons technology was enough. I didn’t even think that there was a word for something beyond trifecta. Well, with a little research (very little, I Googled “what comes after a trifecta”), I discovered the word “superfecta.”
I’ve recently decided to move on from Nuance after more than 12 years. I wasn’t quite sure what to do next, and then two words jumped into my consciousness providing the answer: flying cars.
On to the superfecta.