It has been a grueling week for my team. After being glued to computers all week and even a couple of sleepless nights, my dedicated team at IVR Technology Group launched the website for Our Time for the White House event on July 13 that was dedicated to talking about solving the unemployment crisis among the 18-34 generation in the US.

The idea? Young entrepreneurs help solve the first major economic challenge of their generation.
A day-long summit with some of the youngest entrepreneurs in America, and Chirag Desai was there representing us! Glad to be a part of such a brave movement!

Check out the CNN coverage (and the website done by my team at IVR Tech) and if you are Under 30, join and make a difference!

It feels like every soundbite that I hear recently is about our personal, state, or national debt and insolvency. Friends will quip about our indenturship to the Chinese; white-haired uncles bemoan a sea-change that’s left America a harder country to realize one’s dreams than when they first set foot some thirty years ago; and Facebook friends from back home insist that the Land of Opportunity is at least a few solid timezones away from where I am.

That got me thinking about where our government spends money, and more importantly, where I spend money. It is, after all, both personal and national expenditure that the Chinese purchase of US bonds helps. It didn’t take me long to realize that my largest expense each year is taxes - by far. And by “far”, I mean more than the price of my new car “far”.

A little bothered, I started researching where all my tax money really goes. And I found the following receipt on Ezra Klein’s blog post at The Washington Post. Topping the list are: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, and interest on national debt. We, as a nation, can’t have a legitimate deficit-reduction conversation without talking about those items. Talk of congressional wage freezes makes me quite ill-humored.

It is always mildly embarassing to visit my blog and notice that months have passed since my last post. Of course, I silently chide myself for lacking the sheer grit to persevere and write. And then I get the sinking feeling that I don’t have a single original thought! (And Lord knows what that means for my chances at life.)

Today, however, I am going to rationalize away my sporadic blogging as a virtue and not a vice. No more victimhood for me (till next month at least):

Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot. DH Lawrence

A very close friend of mine recently blogged about one’s inclination to phrase everything as absolutes in a post titled “Relative to What?”. Take “I am successful.”

It is always refreshing to be reminded about my proclivity to yield to groupthink and my myopic definition of life. I tend to think like those around me at that time. For instance, historically, my definition of success has patterned itself on my surroundings. When I lived and worked in rural upstate NY in a small town called Houghton, success was how much free time I had to go creek-walking or doing stupid human tricks on the floor of my apartment with close friends. When I moved to Buffalo and started commuting to Boston once a month, success was the next big contract.

Today, I am involved in an IVR company at a time when telephony is seeing a paradigm shift and success, suddenly, isn’t our recent CBS and WebMD contracts, but rather how successful we are in pioneering new frontiers in VoIP application delivery.

Why is it that that which was once good enough, no longer is?

My wife always tells me, “You’re never content because you shift your frame of reference all the time.” It’s hard to not scratch your competitive itch when a 30 year-old is doing cooler stuff than you or the suits you hang out with are making more money than you. You get caught up; myopia sets in; you stand patterned.

That’s when, like Akshay states in his blog, “Information exposure alone is…powerful.” Powerful in letting you see past yourself. You take stock of those who are not in the group you model yourself after. I think about my good friends living good lives that are (in their own right) patterned differently. I realize they too struggle with defining life and success. And I realize their journey of definition is alien to me as will be their destination.

What you do, what makes you happy, what gets you going - it’s all relative to your reference point. I breathe deep and remind myself to not take things in my life too seriously. What is success? You have nothing to prove to yourself because nothing, after all, can be proven. What’s more, I smirk knowing that if I encounter failure, I always have the option to redefine what my success is about on-the-fly and (by deft slight of hand) my failure is no more a failure!

Defining what you’re about is arbitrary and pegged to an arbitrary standard - both controlled by you. And only you measure yourself. So, am I successful? Don’t know - relative to what?

The concept of the cloud is gaining momentum - increasingly we play and work using web applications hosted “out there somewhere”. The Google cloud, for instance, hosts our email, files our documents, and helps us search. Facebook manages our social life. The cloud is also becoming a buzzword in telephony and rightly so. Until recently, phone application development had a high barrier to entry - creating IVR applications to perform business functions either meant getting your PBX to do it (good luck), purchasing an add-on from your phone system vendor (expensive), or getting an IVR custom development shop to create and host it (not bad, but you lose control and it’s still not cheap). Provisioning the bandwidth, phone numbers, and a reliable infrastructure were no small task either. With the onset of VoIP and introduction of protocols such as SIP on the one hand and open source activity on communication platforms (like Freeswitch) and PBXes (like Asterisk) on the other, it has finally become conceivable to deliver voice applications from anywhere.

At IVR Technology Group, this paradigm shift excites us and we talk of how we can deliver not just phone applications but an open telephony platform. Since we run operations out of three datacenters geographically dispersed and over a handful of major carriers, we have an infrastructure that can be described as a humble cloud (against the backdrop of cloud Goliaths like Google and Amazon!). Our recent thinking has been, “Why not empower developers of software to voice enable their applications by giving them access to our voice platform with simple APIs?”

As such, our first foray is going to be what we’re calling Telecast - an outbound calling engine that developers can integrate with to deliver calls ranging from event-driven notification calls (eg. reminder calls based on calendar events at the most basic) to high-volume voiceblasts (eg. community emergency notification systems needing to dial 20,000 people in 10 minutes for example).

Now, a non-profit community organization can quickly power a pledge drive by queuing up calls from its CRM or an indie game developer can set up her e-commerce website to call her with a victory song every time 100 game purchases are made. No T1s to provision, no carrier contracts to hassle with, no datacenter required. Sweet!

If anyone knows of any companies or developers wanting to beta Telecast when the API is released next month, give me a shout!

I have always found that clutter is bad - in personal life as well as in business. But it seems to be our nature to amass but never whittle away; our instinct to hoard but not let go. But as Henri Matisse wrote, “Instinct must be thwarted just as one prunes the branches of a tree so that it will grow better.”

This lesson of pruning is one I am retaught every few months in business. For instance, for entrepreneural ventures such as those I’m involved in, cash is king and year-on-year revenue growth is a badge of victory we wear proudly. We work hard to win clients and work hard to negotiate deals. The instinct, then, is to keep all clients all the time. We tell ourselves that we’ll fire a particularly bad client as soon as we replace that revenue. Oftentimes, we never do. That client lingers on like a bad marriage or else it’s us that we find fired! During the whole ordeal, no one is happy.

Happiness, and indeed organizational success, as measured across a broad spectrum of indicators (such as revenue, profitability, work culture, and job satisfaction) seems to come from proper pruning in anticipation of future success. In business, this means that I must be vigilant in discerning the true value of money. Not all dollars are the same; not all money is healthy.

At the most basic level, a bad client may sap employee morale or exhaust a lot of company resources. Overhead factored into profitability properly, you may be better off flipping hamburgers! Similarly, a bad client may be bringing in $20,000/month but, like golden handcuffs, limits you from perhaps launching a new product or taking time to reorganize your enterprise - the opportunity cost of which could well be above the $20,000/month mark.

Rob Bell, in his popular Nooma series, speaks of a child that walks around the beach picking up shards of once-beautiful seashells. With his hands full, he suddenly spots a large starfish on a rock. His parents notice and excitedly tell him to pick it up. Dismayed, the child looks at the starfish then looks down at his full hands. “I can’t!” he cries, “My hands are full.” Too often we give up the glorious for the mundane.

The maxim in business really is: prune everything; prune annually.

In an increasingly interactive world with ever-powerful gadgets to entertain, inform, and organize our lives, the basic telephone seems passe and very few businesses think about utilizing a phone call for anything more than connecting customers to agents or allowing customer self-service using interactive phone response. These businesses are missing out.

I have had the joy of living and breathing interactive voice response (IVR) for 45 days at my new venture - IVR Technology Group. And I am amazed at how much life there is (still) in a telephone call. Forget your morbid thoughts of touch-tone hell and not being able to speak to a live person for a second. Think creatively, instead. Here is an example:

With new FTC/FCC rules in place starting September 1, 2009 that makes outbound telemarketing even harder to do, companies are scrambling to find ways to get prospects to give them actionable phone information. But what better way to get an actionable lead than by taking a captive audience and offering them a few minutes of entertainment in exchange for their phone number? Imagine a large digital display on an empty airport wall where bored people are sitting waiting for their plane. The digital display gives out a toll-free phone number that people can call in using their cellphones. When they call in, they are automatically enrolled into a car racing game. Each caller gets a car and the race begins. A caller can press 4 to speed up, 6 to slow down, 1 or 8 to turn etc. The keypresses on their cell phones are captured by an IVR application and communicated to the game server via web services. Loads of fun for a bored caller and an actionable contact for some company.

Imagine also the ability to instantly communicate time-sensitive information across multiple devices using only a telephone. You are a payroll processing company and your client web portal goes down. You call into an IVR application, record a message saying your site is down, and hang up. The IVR application then, in a matter of seconds, pulls up your contact lists, sends an automated call to some and plays your message, and for those who prefer email and text messaging communications, it converts your message into text and sends it out.

It’s pretty amazing what can still be accomplished with a phone and a dialtone! And the cost is not prohibitive to boot. With advances in technology, companies like IVR Technology Group can create and host IVR applications for businesses in the “cloud”. This means no technology to install, no changes to your PBX that you can barely administer extensions on, and a rapid launch.

It’s striking how value-defining pearls of wisdom come to you from the darndest places. I have the TV comedy show “My Name is Earl” to thank for the impetus to think about my environmental and financial stewardship. The show is about Earl - a ne’er-do-well, petty crook who wins a $100,000 lottery and gets immediately hit by a passing car and ends up in the hospital with no winning ticket. While incapacitated, he finds karma through the Carson Daly show. With a new sense of purpose, he creates a list of bad things he’s done and proceeds to fix each one.

On one such quest (”Robbed a Stoner Blind”), he finds himself forced to live in a dung hut with hippies and learns about global warming. Appalled, he goes back and zealously works to “fix global warming”. While picking up trash off the street, he notices that his actions are cancelled by his ex-wife. Ever-observant, he quickly finds out it’s not just his ex cancelling out his efforts, it’s the whole town! Earl resorts to flattening tires and breaking electrical boxes to stop people from destroying the planet. Alas, a panic-stricken Earl, then hears on the news that China is scheduled to be the biggest polluter in the world. He was being cancelled by the whole world!

It is this same incomprehensible vastness of a problem that overwhelms us to inaction, lulls us to inattention. After all, where do we even begin to fix a colossal problem like global environmental degradation? How do we stop China and India from exponentally expanding their pollution footprint? For that matter, how do we convince the developed world to take aggressive steps to curb their own emissions? How do we solve absolute poverty in the world? How could we possibly show first-world consumers that their $17 billion / year spend on pet food contrasts with the almost-equivalent $19 billion / year to eliminate hunger and malnutrition across the world (WorldWatch)? We can’t though we whip ourselves into a frenzy.

The answer, as Earl finally realized, was to do what little you could. He decided to be Earth-friendly for five minutes a day. Perhaps that’s the best way to affect change - to have the peace and discipline to control what is in your power to change and to not get all knotted up by the rest. That’s what Gandhi concentrated on. That’s what Mother Theresa concentrated on.

So what am I going to do personally? Take my ten minutes a day:

  1. One minute to put plastics, cans, and glass in separate recyclable bins. (Added benefit: wife loves you)
  2. One minute to turn off lights in rooms I don’t use
  3. Three minutes to stifle the agony of not going to Starbucks for a $4 latte, but instead make coffee at home (five minutes) which I can carry in a washable mug. (Added benefit: take the $4/day I save and put it towards a monthly contribution to clean water or food supply for people in a third-world country. My $4/day would pull two people from hunger and malnutrition in a world where 1.1 billion people in the world live on less than $1/day and where mothers bake clay chips for their children to eat so it keeps their hunger at bay.)

So there it is. I am a little ashamed to say I have a lot more Earl in me than Gandhi. But at least I won’t be a total sloth!

When it comes to environmental stewardship, I have always felt a vague satisfied smugness when I compare the software industry that I work in to a host of other industries. After all, unlike a car dealership selling gas guzzlers, my industry comes up with tools to keep people from travelling like video conferencing and cheap phone calls. And I have to admit - my company’s footprint is pretty darn small. We e-fax, we web conference, we generate electronic contracts, we email invoices. And no one could possibly begrudge me a little self-congratulation for whipping up notepad or excel on my computer when brainstorming instead of a pen and paper.

But some of that smugness evaporated when I read a recent Gartner study stating that the information and communications technology (ICT) industry accounts for 2% of global CO2 emissions - on par with the aviation industry! Within the ICT industry, 40% of emissions are from PCs and monitors and a solid 23% from data centers. So what does this mean for web software developers like us at Lance Technologies? I jotted down (in notepad, of course) the obvious countermeasures:

1. Strategic server provisioning. We have paid little attention to server sprawl. Only a couple months ago, we fired up five servers - one per application! The solution: more strategic thinking - for instance, is virtual private server technology better suited to host multiple applications on one server?

2. Evalutate new technology such as virtualization. We need to be better at evaluating processing loads and using virtualization technology to consolidate servers.

3. Do we really have to keep workstations on all night? No, so we won’t.

After the obvious items, I began wondering about the value of frugal application design. I recall developing web apps a few years ago when 56k modems were still a big part of the landscape. I remember serious attention being paid to web optimization. Then broadband came - speed at work, speed at home, speed with an aircard in the middle of a field - and we became lax in design. It’s not uncommon to see web applications using PNGs instead of optimized JPGs or GIFs. Similarly, often only cursory evaluation of the efficiency of presentation layer code is done. (”Might CSS have been better than using excessive nested tables?”). The same analysis holds true of backend code. If you can do something in five lines, don’t be a slob (mentally and environmentally) and use fifteen! Lastly, “frugal design” also means desiging applications that are not gold-plated with excessive, rarely-used features. The more “stuff”, the more processing, the greater the CO2 footprint, and all for naught!

4. Frugal Design as a Mantra. At Lance Technologies, we have still kept up with the “frugal design” ideology - vaguely. But it needs to be articulated and made tangible.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only person to have this thought. Steve Souders performed an intriguing thought experiment that suggests that if Wikipedia web optimized its home page (expires header for better caching), it could save 500-1,000 pounds of CO2 annually. As Steve so aptly put it, “Make your pages faster. It’s good for your users, good for you, and good for Mother Earth. (High Performance Web Sites Blog)”

And that brings me to Part II of this Environmental Stewardship miniseries: Technology, Poverty, Stewardship: Life Lesson from “My Name is Earl”

It has been a very busy 2008 indeed at MDCall - a healthcare communication technology company I own. In addition to our flagship physician contact management system (fancy for automated medical answering service), we just launched MDNotify - a web and phone-based notification system that integrates with a practice management system and automatically sends out notification calls. The types of outbound calls come in various forms. Most practices tend to need it for appointment reminder calls. Other uses include lab results notification, pre-operative information collection, medication reminders, and other types of courtesy calling.

So far however, appointment reminder calls have tended to be the winner sales pitch. It makes sense. With practices averaging 7% no-show rates from what we’ve seen, $70/visit revenue at the lower end, and 30 appointments per doctor per day, even a percentage drop in no-shows for a three-doctor practice means a revenue recapture of $15,000 a year. MDNotify’s service-based model which requires no upfront capital expenditure, no technology to manage, free integration with an in-house practice management system, and low per-appointment delivery fees means that a strong return on investment proposition is evident from the very first month.

I look forward to tracking the success of the software on this blog in the future! In the meantime, however, the work has been excruciating but thrilling - purchasing servers, designing a stable and redundant infrastructure, negotiating service contracts with telecom service providers, and signing up clients. What fun!

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