It’s not common in the world of tech for a co-founder to still be an integral player in the day-to-day operations and vision of the very company he started 25 years earlier. But that’s exactly the story with Polycom’s co-founder and Chief Evangelist Jeff Rodman. Though a lot has changed in the 25 years since Polycom’s founding, Jeff’s vision of enabling people to better collaborate via voice, video and content sharing has remained true. Hear straight from Jeff about what inspired the creation of Polycom and what his vision is for the future. And you can even learn where to access the tracks of “Rich Inner Life,” an album this man of many talents created in his spare time.
What was your career path to Polycom?
My first paying job was as a bus boy at the Original House of Pies in San Fernando Valley. I was a summer hire at Hughes Aircraft Company for a couple of years while I was going to school, and after graduating from CSUN I took my first job with them in image processing of different sorts.
I met a woman named Adrienne in Los Angeles and we moved together to the Bay Area (she’s now my spouse). I became the head of new product development at Harris Broadcast Systems where I dealt with digital image processing for television. It gave me an interesting exposure to the application of advanced technologies to live performance and live broadcast.
From there I was recruited to be the head of hardware development with a brand new company called PictureTel. They were based on the East Coast in Boston, and I made a deal with Adrienne that if we moved to the East Coast, eventually we could come back to California and we would live anywhere she chose (that we could afford). She was good with that deal and knew exactly where she wanted to live, right down to the neighborhood: San Francisco.
At PictureTel I met Brian Hinman, and later our continued friendship resulted in the concept for what is now Polycom.
What’s kept you with Polycom all these years? I have a lot of confidence that what Polycom is doing is very important. I feel like what I’m able to do for Polycom is beneficial. It’s also a great group of people, the best I’ve had the privilege to work with in my entire career. I learn from them every day.
What are some interesting examples of your audio/sound experiences? I had several main hobbies when I was a kid. One of those was piano and writing/performing music. Others were electronics and photography. Each of these helped me have a better understanding of audio and imagery. I spent quite a bit of time with music and audio, at one point concentrating on multitrack recordings of different sorts.
In 1998, I had just finished a major project for Polycom, and took some personal time (mostly weekends and evenings) to create an album and see how professional of a job I could do. I took about a dozen songs written over the years and recorded and produced them at a local recording house in San Francisco. I turned it into a CD which was then pressed and released. I called the album, which is a mix between pop and jazz, “Rich Inner Life.” The whole process gave me a better sense of what’s needed to get the absolute best audio, and it continues to flavor some of my guidance into what Polycom is doing these days.
What is a hot/trending topic in audio/sound today, and how do you see Polycom playing a role to help facilitate change? One of the hottest topics right now is the revolution that’s happening in workspaces. We see this in our own buildings. It wasn’t long ago that everyone had a private or semi-private office, or at the very minimum a cubicle with high walls. Now there is an increasing number of open work spaces. People are doing more work out of their homes, coffee shops, libraries—wherever is convenient. It puts a whole new set of challenges around how you interface with people, attain physical connection, control background noise, manage distraction, etc. These are the kinds of areas we’re addressing with our R&D teams. We are working to educate users on how to make themselves more effective in these workspaces with whatever technology they have. At the same time, we’re also developing technology specifically to help people in these spaces work more effectively by eliminating background noise, ensuring better pick up, focusing in on the speaker, etc. We’re going to continue seeing more and more of that coming out over the next several years. One of Polycom’s specialties is preserving and presenting the human persona as clearly and accurately as possible.
How do you see audio/sound technology working in the future? (E.g., in the year 2020) I think we’ll see some significant but incremental improvements from what we’re doing today, as well as a few new technologies. If you look a bit further out, like 2030, I expect we’ll start seeing things like biological implants so we can have audio directly played into our hearing systems. Direct biological interfacing is an emerging technology that's very logical for these individual and distributed workspaces. Similarly, I think things just short of those implants would be an audio-equivalent extension of Google Glass. Glass may not be a great commercial success as is, but it's a powerful first step and is a great platform to experiment and build on.
What’s the most unique situation where you had to use Polycom technology? About 10-15 years ago, another technician and I put together a car phone by plugging it into the cigarette lighter and wiring it to a cell phone. I wanted to understand the challenges of getting something like this to work in a car environment. That was far out for the time. It’s not something we’ve marketed for that specific application, though we do have individual user speakerphones that people use in a variety of applications, including inside cars.
I’ve also seen a number of unique installations of our Group audio systems. Among our direct competitors, only Polycom has the range of audio solutions that extend from individuals up to auditoriums. I keep learning from those guys what we can do with those systems because it’s really quite amazing. It gives an enormous scale to our systems.
For example, one of these implementations was in an auditorium setting—a very large classroom—with our suspended triple-element microphones. The microphones could be enabled for just the student asking the question at the time. Since it was such a large environment they needed very good echo-cancelling. And because it was a Polycom system they could work with remote participants as easily as with people in the room. It is a great solution for distance-learning education.
What do you like to do in your free time? I like to hang out with Adrienne, play piano and write music. I do a fair amount of walking around San Francisco. I love learning new things, from new technologies to training as a machine shop technician. I also get fairly occupied as a handy man, building things and fixing things.
Could you share what your vision was 25 years ago when you first founded Polycom? The concept of Polycom is really rooted in PictureTel. By the time I left PictureTel to come back to the Bay Area, and by the time Brian and I started talking about what we were going to do next, the industry had become so enchanted by video that they lost the importance of voice and graphics. We wanted to focus Polycom on all the ways people communicate, not just video or audio - that’s why we named this new company Polycom and not Video-com or Speakerphone-com. We wanted to enable people to successfully communicate, in all the ways they want to.
What do you consider your most successful products? I guess that depends on what you consider successful. What is our most recognizable? That is without a doubt the speakerphone [SoundStation]. Not everyone in the world knows the name Polycom, but if you show them the triangular speakerphone they are likely to know who we are. That’s our biggest success in brand recognition.
The 25-year milestone of Polycom is coming up. Looking back at how the company has grown, how do you compare where the company is today, to what you were envisioning 25 years ago? I will not pretend that anytime in the 1990’s I said, “Oh yeah, we’re going to be growing upward from a billion dollar company in 25 years.” That’s not what I had in mind. I’m an Engineer. When it came to the business side, that’s where Brian Hinman was the genius. What I’ve always been focused on are the products and solutions, how people use them, and how we can make them better. And that’s something I'm still steering toward today.
In terms of the future of Polycom, what are some things you’re looking forward to? I’m looking forward to the change in how people are collaborating: where they’re working, what constitutes collaboration, and so on. It’s going to revolutionize Polycom and what we’re doing. It’s that kind of rapidly changing challenge that keeps things a lot of fun.
This is 1 of 2 blog entries we're publishing timed to the National Day of Listening (Nov. 29), which encourages people to sit down and record a meaningful conversation. To read the other 'Meet the Expert' blog entry with Peter Chu, please click here.