Home Lessons in Cloud Telephony: A Startup Case Study

Lessons in Cloud Telephony: A Startup Case Study

While a lot has been written about the cost-benefit analysis and economic wisdom of the cloud, little has been said about the teams that build them. This is a blog post about one such team, and one journeyman’s lessons from being a part of it.

There are many reasons for focusing on the human factor when talking about cloud telephony. Not only are we dealing with a legacy medium (think about it: the telephone has been around for more than 100 years), but also a highly regulated one, which means any cloud telephony provider is in effect an integration company.

Guest author TJ Thinakaran is CallFire’s COO. CallFire is a cloud telephony startup that was recently ranked 285 overall in INC500’s 5000 fastest growing companies and 15th in telecommunications. This post is an abridged version of his musings on his personal blog.

A cloud telephony solution is the conduit between several phone companies and the user, masking the complexity of telephony and creating the illusion of simplicity. If you think this seamless integration is an easy task, try to port your phone number to Google Voice. Chances are, unless you’re Michael Arrington, you’re going to have a tough time.

The Cloud Mindset

Because cloud telephony is an integration play, the team that creates such solutions needs to have to have not only a very broad skill set but also a very specialized mindset. So while fine-tuning Linux kernels, deploying on-demand solutions, launching complex features and tracing any of the millions of calls that go through our systems are all critical skills, what’s more important is the team’s propensity for lateral thinking and the ability to skirt boundaries. Simply put, it’s the ability to dabble in many different topics and fields and stitch together a non-linear solution to an ill-defined problem.

Arrogance on the other hand, is confidence in spite of training. It is confidence on crack. It is the belief that you can meet the problem head-on and solve it, regardless of the depth of your intellectual and financial arsenal.

Nevertheless, these skillsets and mindsets are hardly unique. In fact, in an often-cited classic MIT study, it was proven that high-performing engineers are the ones who are most likely to consult with experts outside their own discipline. They are aware of the complexity of their problem domain, and the need for a multi-disciplinary framework to solve said problem.

This is especially important when dealing with telecom carriers who are known for being wary of change. As a former IBMer, I’ve had the privilege to work with many high-performing individuals who fit the mold; however, when transitioning from Big Blue to CallFire, I have learned that the cloud telephony startup requires a somewhat different personality type.

Lesson 1: Ignorance

This maybe a shocker, but CallFire didn’t start with a specific business plan or feature in mind. While we had plenty of technology experience, we knew little about telcos. CallFire was born out of customer need, and the focus was on delivering features that were relevant to our customers. All action came from that single focus. It was very short-term, very fast-paced, and with little time for long-term vision and mission statements.

Learning to accept the feeling of “not knowing” is difficult, especially since all your adult life you’re programmed to try to be the expert. You get your first job, build your career by showcasing what you do know not what you don’t. Yet, entrepreneurship is the perennial discovery of your own ignorance. What keeps you going is a focus on problem solving, and passion for your product.

So while we may not have had a business plan, we never lacked business focus. Many of the solutions and approaches were not pretty, but as the rodeo credo goes, sometimes you have to “f**k the form and grab the horn.”

Lesson 2: Arrogance

Another personality trait I’ve learned is that you have to possess a certain degree of arrogance to let people know you mean business. There’s a fine line when confidence turns into arrogance and startups toe that line a lot. Confidence is a fundamental belief that you know what needs to get done because you have the right tools and training to do so. Arrogance on the other hand, is confidence in spite of training. It is confidence on crack. It is the belief that you can meet the problem head-on and solve it, regardless of the depth of your intellectual and financial arsenal.

Arrogance is also a good way to compensate for size. When at IBM, you had to be humble because you were compensating for being a 800-pound gorilla with an huge arsenal of resources, which meant even the slightest hint of arrogance would alienate your customers. However as a startup, you don’t have the same brand recognition, and hence the person on the other side of the table can easily mistake your humility for a lack of capability. This is both contagious and deadly and must be avoided at all costs.

Keep in mind, that I’m not writing a blank check to arrogance. The willingness to learn from our mistakes and listen to our customers requires a high degree of humility, and is just as vital to a company’s survival. However, when you’re in a startup you deal with so much C.R.A.P that just being confident doesn’t cut it. You have to be thick-skinned enough to shrug it all off and continue to forge ahead.

Lesson 3: Passion

I’ve had the good fortune to work with hard working and passionate people, but I’ll say this: In a startup, passion is not an optional ingredient. It is essential to survival. At IBM, I probably put in just as many late nights and weekends, but somewhere deep down I knew that if I didn’t work one weekend, or went home at 5 p.m. one day, the stock wasn’t going to tank. Working at CallFire on the other hand, requires hard work at a level of consistency that is impossible to sustain without passion. Startups are run during the week, but are built over weekends. Every weekend not spent building shows up in lost opportunities the following week. Such sustained efforts are impossible without passion.

Passion gives you hope, makes work its own reward, and provides needed focus. This is especially true when building a company, since so many things will grind you down and beat you up that hard work by itself won’t have a chance. A startup will dispense with cold efficiency any effort that is abundant in hard work but lacking in passion.

Software is Tough Business

The fact of the matter is building quality software has and will always be tough stuff. The secret – if there was any – of cloud telephony is creating what Grady Booch calls the illusion of simplicity. It is an illusion because building quality software is essentially complex, but abstracting this complexity is the challenge that cloud startups like CallFire meet.

While we’d like to think we’re special, we’re hardly unique. There are many smart people working on solutions for some very real cloud telephony problems. Still, whether you’re looking to hire one or join one, take a good look at the team, for anyone will tell you: You can go to hell and back with a good team with you in the trenches.

Photo by vierdrie

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