Meet The Disruptors: William Pigeon of Tablet Command On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
Have fun and live your life — I tend to consume myself with work. I think that some of the most successful people do. However, it’s important to make time for fun or yourself, otherwise you will burn out. Tablet Command holds this as a value for all its employees. There is work to be done, and great customer service to deliver, but family and oneself come first.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing William Pigeon.
William Pigeon (“Will”) is the CTO and one of the co-founders of Tablet Command, an incident management software designed for the fire service. Will earned a BS from SDSU in Management Information Systems, and has a deep interest in systems, technology, radio, electronics and programming. He also has over 24 years of experience in the fire service, and most recently served as Assistant Fire Chief for the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. He recently left the fire service to work full time as Tablet Command’s Chief Technology Officer, where he uses his background in IT and fire service to identify and bridge communication gaps in incident management. He lives in the Bay Area with his amazing wife, Corey, and three of the most wonderful children parents could ask for.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in the East Bay and was always drawn to technology, electronics, and computers. When I wasn’t on my Apple IIe, I was playing in the backyard, rigging vertical rescue systems using the garden hose as a rope. After high school, I went to college at San Diego State University. Early at SDSU, I became interested in the fire service. I joined the San Diego Fire Department Cadet program to gain fire department experience, and I absolutely loved it. I started pursuing my career in the fire service while at SDSU. I earned my Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification and was hired as a full-time firefighter while still going to SDSU.
While in San Diego, I worked as a firefighter, firefighter paramedic, 911 fire dispatcher, and a flight rescue medic on one of San Diego County’s Fire-Rescue Helicopters. In 2005, I reunited with a girlfriend from high school, Corey, who lived in the Bay Area. At the same time, I was in the process of being hired by the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. I started with Contra Costa at the end of 2005. Over the years, I worked various positions within the County, including Firefighter, Fire Engineer, and Fire Captain, and ultimately became Assistant Fire Chief of Communications. My division was responsible for all technology in the Fire District, including radio, IT, and the 911 center.
Early in my career at Contra Costa Fire, I met Andy Bozzo, and in 2009 we started working on Tablet Command. Since then, Tablet Command has become the premier management tool in the fire service, providing integration to 911 centers, delivering instant notifications to fire crews, and allowing incident managers to share incident management details in real time.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
In the fire service, there is a lot of tradition — “That’s the way we do it.” Making my way up through the fire service, I was very respectful of the industry and its tradition, but the “that’s the way we do it” attitude always bothered me. There are better ways to do things and newer technologies that can help you be more efficient and safer. We need to have humility in order to move forward.
To give you an example, I was in the fire station one day and I was working with an Engineer who I respected. At one point he said, “There is no reason for firefighters to have portable radios.” Back in the day, only the Fire Captain had a portable radio. Today, each crew member carries a portable radio. This provides better communication and situational awareness for all, but also provides a layer of protection to each individual in case of an emergency, or if someone gets separated from their crew.
Prior to Tablet Command, fire departments had been using legacy Windows laptops to show them the incident address, provide crude mapping, and be able status (“Engine 1 responding” or “Engine 1 on-scene”). Also, incident commanders, or battalion chiefs, were managing incidents — structure fires, rescues, wildland fires — with disparate solutions. They would use their legacy Mobile Data Terminal (MDT) to see what units were assigned to their incident; they would use a map book or paper maps to sketch the incident, and once the units arrived, they would use a tactical worksheet or a piece of paper to track the incident.
Andy and I founded Tablet Command with a vision to improve the fire service with simple, intuitive, and reliable software. Initially, people were skeptical of the software we built: “You’ll never need software in the fire service. . .” But there are a number of advantages to using Tablet Command instead of legacy fire services solutions. First, we deliver instant notifications and 911 call comments to everyone in the department before the fire stations are alerted. Crews in the stations will get notifications of a structure fire, cardiac arrest, or rescues before the fire stations are dispatched. Second, we allow the incident commander, or battalion chief, to manage the incident. They are able to see the call comments, the location of the responding units on a customized map, and they have a tactical worksheet to track everything. We timestamp everything and provide a simple interface. So, as units are dispatched to the incident, assigning on-scene duties is a simple drag-and-drop.
In addition to the software as a service, we’re also disrupting customer service and support. We have customers say, “Your customer service is not only the best I have experienced in the fire service, but best of any product, ever.” We just understand what is expected in the industry, and we deliver.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Entering into the app industry, we started off thinking that we could build a standalone application for a niche market. We thought that if we sold a huge number of applications, we would be profitable. Huge mistake. We needed more than an application to sell, we needed a platform. Unless your standalone app is sold to millions of people, you really don’t have a business. Things seemed bleak, but when we presented to the Fire Chiefs Technology Symposium, we got feedback that the application had to tie to the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system. After we integrated into CAD, we realized our business would be the services, integrations, support, and application to deliver this data in real time. Glad this happened, because this makes our application much more resilient because it was built as a standalone app first. Connectivity came second; and I’m glad we started that way, because we invented device-first before it was called device-first.
We do make a great application, but the company’s sweet spot of value is the service and integration offering. We’ve consolidated legacy fire service tools onto a single platform and added real-time data and communication. The interface is intuitive, and transitioning to Tablet Command is natural for fire service professionals. To make an application valuable in the fire service, you have to automate and simplify a first responder’s workflow. We’re doing this by taking five or more siloed systems/data and making them available under one pane of glass. It’s nimble, and can integrate with almost anything.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I’ve been lucky enough to have mentors throughout my life, some of whom still guide me. Dad and my Grandfather are two. My Dad was instrumental in my temperament, understanding and communication style, especially with my kids. On the business side of things, I tend to look to my father-in-law and learn from his stories. Investors, family, and co-workers have all been mentors along the way. For me, mentors seem to come and go throughout the journey of life and business. When you are new to something, you typically look for that help or guidance, and it’s great mentorship at the time because you don’t know any better. I’ve learned over time you need to assess those ideas through the lens of your experience, and make them your own.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Early in my career I heard many senior firefighters and chiefs say, “There is no place for (technology) in the fire service,” but then would spend valuable minutes studying a mapbook when we needed to respond to a call. Or they would admit that an iPhone was great for routing, but wanted to know what would happen if your iPhone wasn’t charged.
This is an example of a disruption that is both positive and negative. The tools available today allow us to be much more efficient, but we have become too dependent on technology — we’re abandoning our older tools and forgetting how to do things without our smart devices. For the current tech generation, if we don’t have our smart devices, we are out of our comfort zone — that’s the negative. Towards the end of my fire service career, when I was senior Chief in the department, I was surprised to hear junior company officers insisting that they couldn’t get to incidents without an iPad. As time passes, if we don’t maintain other, older practices, such as looking up an address in a map book, or writing an address down on a piece of paper, they will be forgotten. As firefighters, we still need to put the fire out, save the person, and put our boots on the ground, regardless of the tools that get us there.
The release of the iPhone has truly disrupted many markets and industries, including healthcare, communication, information sharing, real-time collaboration, mapping, and emergency response. However, we need to realize that it is a tool, similar to a map book.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- User input is key / The ultimate test is with real data, real users, and real situations. And that’s one of the reasons that our product is successful. We have real users that build the product to real needs. Tablet Command was founded by two firefighters and we have a number of former fire firefighters and fire chiefs that currently work for Tablet Command. The most constructive feedback comes from our own experiences and our users. In college, one of my professors, Dr. Annete Easton, said that the only way to test is with real data. I found it excessive at the time, but I find that to be true, time and time again. When I build proof of concepts, I find myself adding features or tweaking things based on my tests with real data. We are human and you cannot account for every real-world situation. When we are migrating our services that run our API and infrastructure, we find the most success when we test with real data.
- Do not price a product based on its cost, but rather on its value to the customer. A sales executive once shared with me the story of a very successful pitch. At the end of the pitch, the well funded lead asked “How much?”. The sales person replied, “Well, there is a lot behind this, setup, etc…. for you, based on the difficulty of the project it will be $200,000…” The customer didn’t blink, so the sales executive then followed up with, “per month.” Again, the customer didn’t bat a lash, so the sales rep continued, “per location,” and got the deal. Don’t be afraid to price the product on the value that it provides to the customer.
- Have fun and live your life. I tend to consume myself with work. I think that some of the most successful people do. However, it’s important to make time for fun or yourself, otherwise you will burn out. Tablet Command holds this as a value for all its employees. There is work to be done, and great customer service to deliver, but family and oneself come first.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
There are tremendous features that we are working on — things that break the conventional rules of public safety response. One of those is Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) Sharing. Traditionally, information, or vehicle locations, are siloed within each communication center. So, for example, a fire engine that may be responding to a neighboring County will be going in blind, with only an address and a radio channel to communicate with the 911 center. But an engine with the Tablet Command platform will be able to see the locations of all Tablet Command units anywhere. This increases situational awareness for mutual aid resources working together.
When we started, we dreamed up things that seemed impossible. We are doing some of those things today, but the cool thing is that we know how to accomplish the other ones tomorrow. We are bringing features and services to our application that will solve age-old problems in the fire service and revolutionize incident management. The key to this is that we understand the problem, know where to take the solution, and how to get there. We have a great team that recognizes the challenges of emergency services, and they build great things. I’m proud to be working with them every day.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
A number of years ago, I read the Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. It is a great read and has always stuck with me. It reminded me of something so simple, that we are human and not perfect. We shouldn’t think “I’ve got this,” because you don’t. Forgetting one thing, so simple, can lead to a chain of failures, including someone’s death. The fire service may think a checklist is ridiculous or unnecessary, however, the medical community and the aviation industry have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that in critical situations you have the greatest outcomes if you use a checklist. I know this to be true for the fire service, as well. It’s just taking them some time to realize it.
Another small thing that I got from the Checklist Manifesto is that the simple gesture of an introduction is so important. As a firefighter/paramedic, I always take a moment to introduce myself. When treating a patient, another paramedic crew would arrive at the scene to transport the patient. I would have to transition my care to this new paramedic team, and often I had never met the crew. I noticed that if I said something as simple as, “Hi, my name is Will,” the transition and care for the patient was much better. There is something humanizing about taking a moment to acknowledge a new person. And in my case, it led to much better patient outcomes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.”
- Albert Einstein
I do this in my everyday life, and I can’t overstate how important this is. Speak to everyone the same way, including waitstaff, your peers, your subordinates — anyone. And this is especially important with children. Many times I see parents laughing about something cute that the baby did, but the child may just see their parents laughing at them. We need to keep in mind the feelings of those around us, and what they might be perceiving. Treat everyone with equal kindness, including yourself: “Treat others as you want to be treated.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
With the turmoil in the United States and around the world, I think there is one thing we all share: the desire for respect. We need to respect one another regardless of our differences or views.
As I interact with people, I may come across something that I simply do not agree with. But I still respect that person, and I respect their opinion. It seems like there is more polarization in people’s views and an unwillingness to see things from a different perspective. In this world, and this nation especially, we are increasingly intolerant of other people’s opinions. On the one hand, we have equality for all, and on the other, we are completely disrespectful to people whose opinions we don’t agree with.
Lastly, I think that honesty and humility are the foundations of being a great person. Give credit where credit is due. In the short term, taking credit for a great idea that isn’t yours, makes you look good. But if you share that idea and give credit to the person who came up with it, you gain respect and demonstrate humility and integrity.
How can our readers follow you online?
Now that I’m working full time for Tablet Command, I plan on sharing more news and updates, which you can find at blog.tabletcommand.com. I’m not very active on social media, but you can follow me at @wpigeon on Twitter, or catch my occasional blog post at TabletCommand.com.