CTO Corner #5: The Power of Technology in Creating Human Connection

I’m Leo, a software engineer at Jebbit. In this week’s CTO Corner, I spoke with Christian McCarrick, the VP of Engineering at Telmate, a leader in communications technologies that connect inmates with their friends and family on the outside, ultimately reducing recidivism. We spoke about the importance of customer centricity and connecting inmates with their loved ones.

How did you get into engineering?

I have always been heavily into computers, but I am a little older so it was early Apples and Commodores. When I went to school, I was planning on going to med school. My college had received some grant money to help get more into tech, and I was doing a work-study and was working on this project when I realized the guy next to me was making more money and seemed cool. I also realized I was interested in what he was doing. I picked it up really easily. Two of my friends and I ended up starting a company that was an early ISP web hosting company (Hosting.com) and we got our feet wet and I’ve been involved in tech companies ever since.

You’ve managed dev teams of more than 100 people. What are the challenges you face scaling the teams? How have you been so successful?

It is challenging — my team now is a little over 100 people. Ultimately, it depends on how you structure your team and implement proper organizational design. People tend to view organizational design as an afterthought and they grow reactively instead of trying to put plans to grow proactively. It makes a huge difference, planning teams to your strengths is the best way that information flows. I think every team and organization is a little different, and the structure should be around how to make the most efficient flow of information in your team, across teams, and across departments.

Often companies realize too late that there’s a lot of importance on mangement of having strong engineering leads and managers. Having those strong lieutenants, leads, managers and directors that all share the philosophy I have around, not just technical influence, but also around mentoring and people management as well, is critical to running and scaling a successful organization.

How do you build features and improve the product when you don’t have a lot of contact with your end users?

We really serve a couple of different customers. We have to build a lot of tools internally to handle our systems. So one of our customers is our call center — we have to build a lot of tools for that. Another one of our customers is the facilities themselves. We have tools that we give to facilities to help monitor status, make sure there are no security or safety issues. Then we have the inmates themselves who are another part of our customer base. And the last customer is the friends and family — all the people on the outside who we want to facilitate their communication with people on the inside of the facilities. That could be close friends and families, religious organizations, public defenders, lawyers, special interest groups, or educators.

Those are all of our customers, and we have an interesting thing here that we call bootcamp for new employees. What we do is regardless of where you are, you go to this bootcamp for the week. It involves going into our call center, answering phone calls from facility support staff, friends and family, involves working with teams who build our devices, and going and touring and spending time in some of the facilities in the country. We actually go in and have each of our employees talk to the staff, and going and have them chat with the inmates. In order to hit home that we can get isolated in software engineering, it really helps to get the customer reality in everyone’s mind. It helps to hear firsthand from people who use our system what they like, what they don’t, and what their complaints are. It helps to get into the mind of the users and hear about what you might not otherwise experience.

How do you share information between product, engineering, account management, and marketing?

Marketing is less about inbound and more about outreach. We work with them on training, we have lots of videos and lots of documentation. On the account management side, we work closely with them and get information back through three channels. The inmates themselves have a direct channel to leave comments and feedback through the tablets and video stations that we have. We also have our account managers and reps as another big source of feedback on our product. The third source is our call center. We get a lot of feedback from them from the friends and family of inmates. We take that feedback and hope to improve our product and service offerings across the board.

How has Telmate stayed innovative?

We were really the first company that brought in messaging and photos into correctional facilities. We were the first company to put in video visits and video communications. It’s a little hard, because there are different viewpoints on the intended reason for having correctional facilities in the US. There are two schools of thought. One tends to be more punitive and the other is more about reform and making them educated and when they get back into the community they are a positive force and not a negative force. A lot of what we put into play is increasing the ways that people who are incarcerated can communicate with and keep in touch with people outside. There’s been study after study after study that says the more support you have on inside translates to support when you’re on the outside and it decreases recidivism. In some ways a phone call is great, but younger generations are used to more. Whether it’s Snapchat or Instagram or Whatsapp, text, videos, and pictures.

It’s hard because in the beginning facilities would never allow inmates’ friends and family to send pics, so when we made that as a product, people said they wouldn’t use it, but we got it installed. When you are used to these types of social connections and you go into a correctional facility all these things are taken away from you. So on our side, we’re about how do we enable that support network? How do we help people who made a mistake get back into society?

Our goal is to have a tablet for every person in the facility or making sure everyone has access to them. A month ago we were bringing our tech into a facility, a mother was incarcerated and her son was living with grandparents. They had to move and the son was with them and the mom didn’t know what was going on. She could talk to him on the phone, but then using our tech he could use his tablet at home and show his mom his new room and the awards he got at school. The mom was crying with tears of joy because she could see her son and the room he was living in. It gave her the sense of being in touch with her son while she was incarcerated. It’s giving them hope and keeping those connections alive and strong.

Sometimes when you have a social mission you can get pushback and it’s important to follow your mission and stay true to it. There are other companies in the space whose mission is different, but ours is about reducing recidivism and having the most number of people communicate with the most number of channels. It’s not to make the most money. We were founded, bootstrapped, never took VC money, never took out loans, and are profitable. We don’t have to answer to a board of directors that is concerned about making money, going public. We don’t have those pressures to do that instead of stay with our mission.

What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?

One is not to get so tied up in the latest and greatest tech fad out there. It’s really about staying true to the principles of good software engineering and software design and picking the right tool for the job. I think it’s important to stay up to date with what’s going on, because something new might be the best for you, but I think not trying to reinvent the wheel is something I see, too. Develop, build, be creative and innovative in areas true to your product.