If you doubt that IT and telecommunications can help during a recession, consider Cameron E. Hurst, director of Assurant Solutions.
Hurst has three IP phones at his desk at home to do CTI (News - Alert) development, and he hasn’t spent $10 this week on gas.
“If I’m saving this kind of money, imagine what others can do,” Hurst told me during an interview, printed in full below. “Oh, and I bet a few big companies can send some folks home (to work) and let go of some real-estate. Or does that make the recession worse?”
As you might be able to tell, Hurst is a fun guy to talk to, and to listen to. He’s also extraordinarily knowledgeable, and these are a few reasons why we’re delighted to have him speak during the Internet Telephony Conference & Expo in Miami in February.
During his talk, “Driving Benefits Through Analytics,” Hurst will talk about how to leverage technology to get a better handle on a the details of a customer base – how to identify social network dynamics, for example, and tailor specific offers to network influencers.
He gave me a lot to think about during our wide-ranging interview – and answered one question that I’ve asked others in a way no one else has.
In response to my question about what people would like to see from President-elect Barack Obama, I get a lot of feedback about financial planning and improvements to network infrastructure.
Hurst told me that we should make our high school and university standards much higher – like what kids have to go through in India and China – because U.S. programs cannot compete with the intensity of the Asian universities.
He’s an interesting guy.
Our full exchange follows.
Rich Tehrani (News - Alert): Who has influenced you most in your career and why?
Cameron E. Hurst
(pictured left): Don Carter – he was a GS-12 Civil Servant at the Pentagon. Built cables, configured multiplexers and showed me how to use a Breakout box and BERT. Old, salty, and cranky guy who believed an ounce of enthusiasm was worth more than a pound of knowledge. I was a brand new 2nd Lt. assigned to work with him at the Pentagon (people predicted I’d be crying before the 1st week was over). I had plenty of enthusiasm – but no knowledge, so Don’s philosophy was just fine with me. Over five years, I learned more from him than everyone else since. But, the most important lesson was that “an ounce of enthusiasm is worth more than a pound of knowledge”.
RT: What excites you most about our industry?
Innovation never stops. You cannot get stale if you have the initiative to keep learning. And yet, everything is cumulative. What you learned 20 years ago still is important to what you do today. Communications is ubiquitous. When I was 22 (in the ‘80’s) and dating a girl that was studying in Taiwan, it cost me over $2 per minute to phone her (we didn’t do that very often!). Now, it’s less than 10 cents per minute! Innovation, evolution.
RT: What areas do you wish you could devote more energy/attention/resources?
My XBox, of course.
RT: What pain does your company take away for customers?
We’re an insurance company so to a certain extent, we offer peace of mind. But we also make our customers money and provide retention tools that keep our customers’ customers, customers. Makes sense, right?
RT: How did your company get to where it is and where is it headed?
Evolution. We started in niche markets, did a superb job at providing valuable products and services, continued to innovate and ultimately, we became the industry leader in our space.
RT: What does your dream mobile device look like?
Voice and pen based input methods that actually work. A device that’s responsive (i.e. doesn’t take 15 seconds to respond to my input) and programmable. I can text, e-mail, play games, MP3’s, and make phone calls. Sounds like something we ought to be able to cobble together with our modern technology, eh? But we are so far away from this reality!
RT: If you were forced to head Nokia (News - Alert), Google (News - Alert), Yahoo, Microsoft, GM, Cisco (News - Alert), Nortel or the US… Which would you pick and why?
Microsoft – I bought 800 shares of Yahoo at $28 (the MSFT/Yahoo deal was supposed to happen, right?). Then I’d get Bernie Madoff to sell the shares for me. We’d do prison time together and I’d ghost write his memoirs. OK, seriously, Cisco (News - Alert). They are in the best position to own the telecommunications business, especially call centers, but need a major injection of innovation in their software products. With a killer suite of call center applications, the anti-trust unit of the Department of Justice will have to break them up because of their dominance.
RT: Poof – you become President Obama’s top advisor on tech. What should he do to foster more technology use in the United States and abroad?
Make high school and university standards much higher – like what kids have to go through in India, China. Our programs cannot compete with the intensity of the Asian universities (especially the IITs). I lived in India and witnessed first-hand how serious parents and kids are about (mostly technical) education. Better educated and qualified entry level workers become better educated and qualified managers, then executives. It’s a process, not a poof.
RT: How has open-source changed our space and what more can it do for us?
It’s definitely polarized us (Microsoft (News - Alert) versus anti-Microsoft) – which is OK. But, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with charging for innovation and work products. We don’t expect free cars do we? I’m not a big advocate of Open Source. The “30-60 day evaluation downloaded from the Internet” model is the right approach to encourage people to use your stuff. Try before you buy beats Open Source, in my opinion.
RT: When does Microsoft become a major force in communications?
When they buy someone that is a major force. Speech Server just won’t cut it. The living room isn’t the place to make your play ...
RT: What surprised you most about 2008?
How tightly the world’s financial markets are linked to the U.S. markets. We go up, they go up. We go down, they go down. More relevant to technology ... it’s surprising to see so many, high performing companies market cap tank because a bunch of people made irresponsible mortgage decisions (I’m talking about the guys that issued the credit default swaps, but let’s not forget John Q. Homeowner that did know better, even though they want to believe it’s not their fault).
RT: Assuming we need it (and who couldn’t use some extra cash), what do we tell Congress to get a multibillion dollar US government communications bailout?
Sorry, I can’t assume we need it.
RT: Is the green movement dead now that oil is plummeting in cost?
Nope - it’s not. The same guy that predicted $100+/barrel oil predicted $50/barrel. He’s now saying this is a temporary condition and that it will go back up. I believe him.
RT: How does IP communications help in a recession?
I have three IP/VPN phones on my desk at home to do CTI development with. It’s marvelous technology that enables us to do practically anything, anywhere (from a telephony perspective, anyway). I haven’t spent $10 this week on gas. I eat at home most of the time because I am at home. If I’m saving this kind of money, imagine what others can do. Oh, and I bet a few big companies can send some folks home (to work) and let go of some real-estate. Or does that make the recession worse?
RT: You are speaking at ITEXPO which takes place Feb 2-4 2009 in Miami. Why do people need to hear what you say, live and in person?
At Assurant we have discovered data and invented models that enable us to increase our fee revenue over 35% beyond baseline - and it’s not with Workforce Management, Skills Based Routing, Offer Engines or any of the traditional stuff. We already had all that. We’ve found novel, unique approaches to looking at data that we think almost anyone can benefit from. We’re not a software company that needs to keep this a big secret. We’re an insurance company - an end user - that wants to share what we’ve learned.
RT: Make some wild predictions about 2009/10.
The housing market will recover. Too wild?
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Rich Tehrani is President and Group Editor-in-Chief of TMC. In addition, he is the Chairman of the world’s best-attended communications conference, INTERNET TELEPHONY Conference & EXPO (ITEXPO (News - Alert)). He is also the author of his own communications and technology blog.
Edited by Michael Dinan