Today I'm interviewing Jesse Bird, CTO and co-founder of TCN, a hosted contact center software company specializing in highly regulated industries. I must tell you that Jesse is not only one of the most well-read people I have interviewed -- but one of those rare individuals who actually remembers what he read and applies it to his current context. Watch our interview about his personal approach to innovation, or read it below.
Jesse, thanks so much for joining me today. Let's start with a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are.
That’s a good question. I'm not even sure how I got to where I am, but for all of my adult life, I've been in the contact center space. So TCN is my first real job. I don't have paper routes or Turkey farming. And, I got started doing this very, very young. So I've been in this business probably longer than anyone who's as young as I am has been. I've been doing this for about 22 years. So, contact centers, hosted contact centers, internet companies. That's basically all I know. It's all I do.
Wow. 22 years. With all of that knowledge, let's dive into the topic of "think differently", which is what this series is about, and let's talk about your company's approach to innovation versus its approach to incremental improvement. What can you tell me about that?
I thought about that question, and one of the things that I would say is I would flip it on its head. I'm not sure that there's a difference between incremental improvement and innovation because, in my opinion, all innovation is incremental improvement. The biggest difference is the time horizon that you look at. Maybe a better question would be, how do I view radical progress versus incremental progress, even though I'm not really sure that there is a lot of radical progress. I believe that almost everything is incremental.
You look at some of the big epiphanies that people talk about and while they're real and epiphanies happen and I've experienced my fair share of aha moments, I don't think I've ever had one that wasn't fronted with a certain amount of effort, work, experimentation, observation, some trials, some errors, some pain and suffering, some blood, sweat, and tears, all of the above, and then it clicks and you get it and you look back and you say, well, how did I get from A to B or how did I get from here to there?
And it feels sudden from the outside, but from the inside, when you're in the trenches, it's really not that sudden. One of my favorite quotes and I share this with my team pretty often is by a man named Elbert Hubbard:
"Genius is often only the power of making continuous effort and the line between failure and success is so fine that we scarcely know it when we pass it. Sometimes we are on the line and we don't even know it."
So I tell my team often that you can't stop because you think you failed. You just need to figure out a different way to approach the problem.
That's so interesting. I’ve noticed too that paying attention is really important. It could be that you've encountered an innovation or a change in paradigm. And if you're not paying attention, you might not realize it as an opportunity or as a different way of thinking about something.
Yeah. I'm not old yet, but I'm getting there. And every year that passes, I really find myself understanding a little bit more fundamentally Aesop's Fable. You know, the one with the tortoise and the hare? The tortoise always wins in life. Maybe not always, but that's the general rule.
Slow and steady wins the race.
Yeah. I mean, sustainability of effort, see improvement, clarity of vision -- that's typically what's going to win. And I don't mean that you should move slowly. That's what some people think when you imply tortoise. But I do mean that you should move every day. And one of my big things with my team is you should be better at your job today than you were yesterday.
The next topic is, how do you make sense of chaos? Do you have an example of that in your organization?
The thing that you need to remember is things are chaotic mostly because you don't have enough context. One of the first things that I would do if something is chaotic is to change the scope. Maybe you're viewing the problem too holistically, and by zooming in on a problem -- a specific problem -- you might find something that you can start making sense of. Or maybe you're too myopic. You're too narrowly-focused or you're too widely focused, or you're too zoomed in on the issue. And so you zoom out to the macro level and you can realize that things are connected in a way that you didn't previously understand. And that starts to provide some help for how these things are connected, right? You maybe look at roads and highways, especially down in Los Angeles, which I love driving in. And they make no sense at all. But if you view them from overhead, you say, I understand how these things are connected at least. And so if you change your focus, change your scope, you can apply some new contexts and help you understand from different angles. Another thing is to examine the why's. What's causing the chaos right now? Chaos is not really an event. Chaos is a result of something. So, is there an outage?
As you're talking it makes me think that another form of chaos we all face today is the chaos of all kinds of information coming at us constantly and the need to feel on top of it and the need to feel like you have to process it all in order to know what to do and to make the right choices. How do you and your organization think about that? How do you take in all the information?
I don't think that you can take in all the information. You can sort through it and find things that are useful. Here's a good example. This is an insight into my brain; it doesn't work very well, but you know Isaac Asimov? He's a science fiction writer. He wrote a short story called The Last Question. It's actually one of my favorite short stories. It starts with two characters who built a machine called the Multivac. The Multivac is like this artificial intelligence machine. And it's described as the self-adjusting, self-correcting machine. We talk about AI today and that's kind of what the gold standard is. It can take input data, it can correct itself. And he described it as being like, this is the only way they could build this machine because there was no way that a human could process all the information and correct it quickly enough or adequately enough in order for it to do its job.
And the story takes off and tells the history of like 7 trillion years from Isaac Asimov's point of view. I love the last line in the short story -- Let there be light. Start all over. But, a lot of times we find ourselves in the position of these two guys, and we should hold off. Like there may not be things you should change. A lot of chaos stems from the fact that we are trying to control the things that we cannot, and maybe that we should not. So usually what I will tell my team is you should solve the problem that's directly in front of you first, and then look for low-hanging fruit that has some high impact. Is a server down? Well, let's get the server up and then we can figure out why it was down. Barring that, find the smallest problem that you can solve. Solve that, and things start snowballing. You don't need to understand everything all of the time.
What current industry problems do you think are going to require the most innovative solutions?
I don't want to burst anyone's bubble, but I actually just think it's keeping up. Maybe I over-simplify things a bit, but legitimately I think that a lot of people's concern. Especially in agencies that are less than a hundred seats where they don't have a huge amount of resources. You just think about the number of things that they're expected to do. They're expected to apply AI. They're expected to apply big data. They're expected to tackle stir/shaken. They're expected to move their agents to home. They're expected to comply with an ever-increasing amount of government regulations and client risk profiles. They're expected to empower their agents. And then they're expected to trust their agents and they're expected to manage their costs. Then they're expected to tackle big data and produce reports.
The baseline has gotten very high.
Yeah. The table stakes are now raised. Like the big blind is no longer $5. And if you want to play in the game, you're gonna have to bring a lot more to the table. And so for some of these customers, I think that's the theme. You may not be in a research and development role full-time. I find myself doing a lot of research and a lot of development, and I don't even do it full-time and there's a lot more research than I can possibly do. That's going on all around me. And so you need to take what's being done and figure out how it applies in your life, figure out how you can utilize that to move forward. So, for a long time, that's what TCN's approach has been in technology. We need to approach the technology in a way that we can democratize it.
We need to make it available to people that it's not generally available to, to help them be successful in their business. So that firms large and small and have access to basically the same technology that allows them to run the business effectively. I think especially on the smaller companies, that's a huge concern. I've spoken personally to several dozen firms that are really concerned about stir/shaken. They just don't understand how that's going to apply. And so what we do is we say, well, you don't need to worry about it. That's something that we're going to handle and you can operate your business. And I don't know, maybe we have a little bit of a superhero complex in that regard because for a long time TCN had to punch above our weight, in terms of the types of technology solutions that we could deliver because we didn't really have the size.
So companies big and small really shouldn't be stuck in terms of technology. Small companies, especially, shouldn't need to give up anything to large companies in terms of technology, because they should be able to take advantage of the things that are out there. So, yeah, generally speaking, I think that's probably the biggest problem is how will the industry manage complexity?
The world's constantly changing and it's changing under constant acceleration. And I'm not sure we have the terminal velocity. I don't know where that terminal velocity is. You know, the thing with gravity is you accelerate until you reach that terminal velocity. I don't know if we're going to hit it. I imagine those that are really innovative and really successful in our industry, from my point of view as a software vendor, are going to be those companies that can wrangle the complexity, make it simple enough to understand, and flexible enough to solve the problems you need to solve. A big problem is cost. It needs to be inexpensive enough to be applied and forward-thinking enough not to fall behind. If you can hit all those things, you're going to look back and say, wow, not only did I keep up, I actually thrived. I was really, really innovative.
Well, there's the roadmap right there. So if you were taking notes, you've got your plan. Jesse, you are such an interesting person. We hadn't met before face-to-face and it was such a pleasure and you are incredibly well-read and have super interesting references. It was great to talk to you.
Good. I'm glad that we could have this time.
The iA Innovation Council is a collaborative working group of product, tech, strategy, and operations thought leaders at the forefront of analytics, communications, payments, and compliance technology. Group members meet in person (and lately, virtually) several times each year to engage in substantive dialogue and whiteboard sessions with the creative thinkers behind the latest innovations for the industry, the regulators who audit and establish guardrails for new technology, and educators, entrepreneurs and innovators from outside the industry who inspire different thinking.
2021 members include:
AllianceOne Receivables Management
Capital Collection Management
Collection Bureau of America
Crown Asset Management
Healthcare Revenue Recovery Group
NCB Management Services
Phillips & Cohen
Professional Finance Company
Radius Global Solutions
Spring Oaks Capital
State Collection Service
The CMI Group