Alain: I’ve wanted to be an inventor since I was a kid. At Polycom, I get to imagine and build devices and every once in a while these devices become the solutions we sell. This June marked my 18th year with Polycom.
I got really into electronics when I was about 11. I received my first electronics kit from my nuclear physicist uncle Edwin. This was a two-transistor intercom kit. What fun that was! It was magic to be able to talk to someone in the next room by pressing the talk / listen button. Today my iPhone6 has two billion transistors! So there has been some minor advancement since I began tinkering.
My Junior High school library had a whole series of books on inventors and their lives and inventions. I read every book about Eli Whitney, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Fulton, Nikola Tesla and Alexander Graham Bell. Today, I get the taste of what it feels to be an inventor.
My mother got me to join an Explorer Boy Scouts troop, sponsored by Esso research facility in Houston (ExxonMobil today). Every Tuesday night an Esso engineer would take us to his lab to show us different physics, electronics or chemistry phenomenon. This was quite impactful in that I got to see equipment and labs that seemed magical to me as a child.
I think I must have been a nerd in my childhood. I entered science fairs at school most every year and sometimes made it to the City of Houston Science fair, winning various awards. I still have some of those old projects and weird little gadgets in the garage. I recall one project was titled “Voice Communications Over Light” where I used the guts of a chrome Eveready flashlight, a transistor radio that modulated the light and a Radio Shack solar cell to receive the modulated sound of the radio. Today we use fiber optics to send data using light.
In college, I worked at the University of Texas for the electrical engineering department building electronics circuits back-in-the-day when we had to wire-wrap SN7400 series integrated circuits together on prototype boards. I worked in the UT Visual Recognition Lab, and at that time I was just a lab assistant building circuits for graduate students and writing some very basic programs on a DEC VAX computer.
I had a couple of startup companies with two or three friends including a solar company called Wind Sun Systems where we attempted to build and market hot water solar collectors. That was during cheap oil so that didn’t work out well financially. We then designed and built an electronic differential thermostat controller kit for solar collectors, which drove a pump on and off depending on the temperature of the collector and hot water tank. This was featured in Popular Science “What’s New.” We sold about 30 kits. You can imagine the profits.
We moved on to designing a smart thermostat for houses. Like the NEST thermostat of 1979. We called it the “Compustat.” We used my Commodore Pet computer to log 16 areas of a house, from floor to walls to attic temperatures to outside temperatures. We tried to see how houses behave with temperatures outside. This thermostat had a prediction algorithm based on indoor and outdoor temperature and past behavior where your house was always comfortable when you got home and running your heating or A/C as little as possible. We found a company to build it, but after attorneys went back and forth we ran out of money and had to get regular jobs.
I went back to the University of Texas and worked for five years (1980-1985) in the Physics Department repairing all sorts of weird equipment like devices that measure pico amps to 10,000 amps. Not your regular record player.
In 1985, I got a call from a friend who started a company that eventually became known as VTEL. I was employee number eight. At VTEL I initially designed some of the hardware components for the Vision Plus desktop video system. I later became a trainer where I had to write all the training manuals, then a field service engineer and eventually moved into user experience and user interface as a designer. I used my field experience installing systems in many environments and applications. I also installed a VTEL MediaMax system at the World Trade Center in NYC. Back then we had to dress more appropriately as you can see.
I spent six years in London to help start and build their EMEA office VTEL Europe in Reading, England. I lived in London (fabulous!) and I commuted 40 miles by train each way every day (20 minutes). I had the fortunate opportunity to install and train with customers all over Europe including UK, Ireland, Denmark, Spain, Germany, France Belgium, Martinique, Portugal, Israel, etc. I also had the chance to sit in on many internal customer meetings where I could see the shortcomings of our technology.
Being the only American in an office with 15 Brits was challenging. It took me a year to learn their language. It’s not just “rubbish bin”, “bonnet” and “crisps.” In the UK, when you “table a meeting”, you stay at the table and continue the meeting. In the US, when you “table a meeting” you end the meeting and leave. Imagine the confusion in a meeting with half Brits and half Americans.
I stayed late on many evenings to communicate with the VTEL mother ship in Austin. I was using a desktop system to meet with groups there. It was very irritating to be ignored by the larger group meeting in Austin as they were meeting with themselves on long conference room tables. My video was shown on a CRT display at the end of the room, easy to ignore and an instance where frustration led to innovation.
One of my most favorite installations of all time was in Moscow in 1995. I had to install two video codecs between two sites near the Kremlin. I worked with a couple of very smart and extremely cordial Russians on this project. The link between the two sites was a dedicated line and I was only allowed in one of the sites. My Russian counterparts installed the second VTEL codec. When the day came and the Russian big wigs came to see the call between the two sites I was told not to say anything. The call was up and all you could see was an office cubicle in the remote building. After the event I was told by the Russians that I was the first American to see the inside of former KGB!
When I came back to the United States in 1996 I worked at VTEL for another year and then I moved over to a startup called ViaVideo. This is where the Polycom ViewStation originated. I was hired as the sole UX designer and our own Marty Sexton was the graphics department.
ViaVideo was eventually bought out by Polycom, which became the Video Division of Polycom and is one of the main reasons we do video today. The ViewStation became the number one selling video conferencing system after only one quarter on the market.
After a few years I led a team of 21 people, which included 10 Human Factors Designers and 11 Software developers. At that time the UX team and the developers worked closely every day so it was easy to fix problems quickly, but this was when we only had a small handful of products.
Q: Can you give us some interesting examples of your work experiences?
Alain: One of my favorite things about my job is that it feeds curiosity and allows us to experiment. A lot of ideas evolve from learning about real life irritations. For example, here is how the UX team came up with the first ceiling microphone.
This effort was fueled by a complaint by a Polycom salesman who was frustrated at seeing a competitor’s microphone used in classrooms that had Polycom video installations because it made it appear as though the gear in the classroom was not Polycom technology. This was very upsetting to me so we set about designing our own celling microphone prototype that we placed in a conference room. Six months later the first Polycom ceiling mic became a product. It was a large disc hung from the ceiling with a Polycom microphone. It was bringing in $1 million a year in revenue.
I am a fan of super-fast prototyping. And doing it over and over and over again. We start with cardboard, tape, string, photos and a lot of play acting. We look at a problem and we imagine solutions by acting out user actions and what we would like to see happen. We then build mockups of wood, cardboard, plumbing parts, whatever is needed to simulate the experience. In this way we can iterate on tens of prototypes in a very short time.
We sometimes show internal colleagues or customers (under strict Non-Disclosure) some of the models that we’ve built. We then build electronic mockups with equipment we have to emulate the cardboard experience with the incredible help from engineering. And we do this over and over again as we evaluate with colleagues and NDA customers. When we eventually love the experience, we then consider making it more real.
Q: In your opinion as a designer,what makes people like products and makes them come back for more?
Alain: It’s about delighting the customer. If with every use of a product you find it more enjoyable and delightful, you will eventually become an evangelist for the product. For example, if you drive a Tesla, you probably found each use a tiny bit more delightful than the previous time and after a while you may become an evangelist for Tesla, like many Tesla owners. But if each use of a product or feature irritates you ever so slightly, you will return the product, toss it in the garbage or give it to your little brother. And you will blog about it, using unkind words.
To create more evangelists for our products and our company, I encourage everyone at Polycom to do what they do, build what they build, write what they write, engage with customers as they do – to perform that task ever so slightly better than the last time you did it, and ever so slightly better than the competition.
I always say that if we at Polycom don’t like what we build there is little chance it will be successful in the market place. But, if we love what we build, there is at least a good chance customers will like it too. So make sure your colleagues love what you do, what you build, what you create.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
Alain: I started playing guitar and piano when I was 20. My first guitar cost me 25 cents but I had to glue the bridge back on. I still play guitar to relax, and some piano. And I have a nice guitar that is a bit better than the 25 cent one.
Photography is another hobby I enjoy. Earlier this year a friend and I spent 10 days traveling through Cuba photographing everything we saw and recording music and video of singers and bands as we traveled.
I love carpentry and plumbing and I have tools to make or fix most things. I also like to fly quad copters. Today, they call them drones. I fly quads for fun and for photography. I have about 15, maybe more, from tiny ones that can fit in the palm of your hand to larger ones that can stay up for over 20 minutes and fly at 25mph. This is a great way to clear your mind at the end of a day in that there is really no room to think about anything else or else the drone will crash.
I married my wife Trish, a Brit, 15 years ago and we live in a house that is 105 years old with two rescue dogs.