Robin Bienfait is a world-leading technologist with many stints in the C-suites & boards of AT&T, Blackberry & Samsung (to name a few) & is currently the founder of Atlanta’s first collaborative tech space – Atlanta Tech Park. Robin has been a practitioner & leader in the disruptive power of technology, so there is no better person to ask about data & tech.
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They always talk about location, location, location in real estate. In the systems world, it’s really about your data, & it doesn’t have to be good quality data – it just has to be data that you can gather insights from, take leads, just automate.
This is Tresata Talks & I’m your host, Shreya Nandi!
Our intention is to bring you perspectives – some our own, some from our group of even smarter friends & confidantes – to help inform your opinions on how data, as the nuclei of digital and tech, will reshape the world we live, breathe & play in.
Today, we have Robin Bienfait, a world-leading technologist with many stints in C-Suites and boards, and is currently the founder of Atlanta’s first collaborative tech space, Atlanta Tech Park. And there is no better person to ask about the disruptive power of technology than the person who has done exactly that in multiple roles both as a practitioner and a leader. You can find the transcript for this episode on tresata.com that’s t-r-e-s-a-t-a dot c-o-m. And let’s keep listening.
Welcome to Tresata Talks, Robin. Your career has been built on embracing disruption especially at very large companies, so this begs the question: are you scared of anything?
Oh yes, I guess I’m a perfectionist and I always, you know, when I walk out of a meeting, I go and think a few times about everything that I said in the room, and I can be so excited about a topic or excited about what we’re working on that I can overpower the conversation, because I’m so excited and passionate about it. So I have to be careful that I don’t do that, so that I bring the team along with me, as opposed to me running out into the street by myself.
It’s not a good thing – mainly when you’re trying to change internally inside of an organization. You need to win, not only the hearts but the minds of the individuals to see where you’re trying to take either the business or the interface with the customer. I’m very customer-centric.
In fact, I will start there first to understand what our story is about the customer and what data we currently have on the customer or with the customer so that, you know, we don’t have to keep asking the customer the same thing over, and over, and over again.
What drew you towards a career in technology?
Oh I grew up in Valdosta, Georgia. My father was a school teacher. My mother became a schoolteacher later on, but she was a seamstress. And there were seven of us kids, and usually, there’s never enough to go around. So we all worked. We helped our father with many things outside of the house, and he bought these little hud homes in the area to, you know, revitalize certain sections of the neighborhoods, and we were his work crew.
So each one of us had a task. I had, for some reason, all the electrical. And the nice thing is I have little hands so it’s very easy to get into spaces. I always got what I call the “finesse” side of the equation where you had to be very careful.
So how did you see that develop as you went through school, as you went into your first job, and beyond?
Well, you know, my father being a schoolteacher, I got very lucky in that I wanted to do architectural drawing classes, and he was able to get me in the class. I didn’t realize I couldn’t get in the class, but apparently a long time ago, this was a class the boys took. You know, that’s 30-something years ago, so I sound ancient. I was very fortunate and blessed that my dad thought “Okay, she wants to do that. Let’s let her go try.” And I realized very quickly that any type of design, mathematics has a big play in it.
When I think about my youth, my mother was very clever in taking things apart and remaking things. When you see that recreation is also a form of disruption (that piece of cloth used to be a jacket and now it’s a pair of shorts). You know when you think of that, you have a different lens when you go into the office space. And I didn’t realize that – you don’t realize that stuff until later.
And I go stepping into AT&T – I was in semiconductor device line manufacturing. I always got selected to be in certain meetings, and I couldn’t, until you look back on it is, because number one, I could remember where everything was, which is, you know, in the days of you not having good logistics technology, when somebody was down on the shop for I was very observant and then when I’d come back and I’d be in a meeting and somebody said where’s experiment blah blah blah.
It’s in the wash process. And I left the company, and then AT&T called me back about eight days later. They sent me down to Atlanta, and I came in to help break the Baby Bells apart.
Oh ‘Baby Bells,’ because all of the telecom companies in the 80’s were a part of Bell Telecom. How does one go about disassembling an elephant, like Bell Telecom for AT&T? That must have been, in its own way, a very out-of-the-box process?
So here, I came into a team of software developers and engineers, and they were trying to break the billing system apart. And the billing system at that time was a 16 billion dollar billing system across quite a monopoly. And, you know, I’m an engineer – I’m not what you would call a software programmer at heart, but they gave me the master files. And so I asked somebody one time. I said, “Has anybody ever seen a bill?”
I thought “Well, okay, let’s call them up and ask for one.” So, I called one of the warehouses, and I said “We’d like two bills, please.” And they said “Well what size?” And I’m thinking t-shirts, right? Give me a small and a medium, we’ll work with that. So the next day this huge tractor-trailer truck pulls up in front of the building, and they said “Robin’s bills are here.” They filled the atrium of the office. It was that much paper.
But we learned really quickly that the reason we needed to get these kinds of bills into systems and processing is just it was an inordinate amount of work for people, and then you’re going to have to break it up across all the Bell Operating Companies so that they could process it digitally. So I learned very quickly not only how to get things into a digital format and process it, but then I had to break the system into all the different operating systems because we were divesting.
Interesting enough, I had to do testing, I had two kids, and I needed to get home, and feed them, and all that type of stuff. I had somebody ask me “So what did you do?” And I said “Well I coded this system so that it would run and automate my testing, and then all I had to do was come back in the next morning and find out where it all fell out. And then I could go fix those things and then run it again.” So I got the job of running all test operations. And I made a decision to go from that role into one of our central offices.
I got this phone call that said “Robin, you know, Bob is sick, and we’ve got this team from Bell Labs that’s here. Can you give him a tour of the central office?” I thought “Okay.” So I’m walking around, explaining to them how all the big switches work, and how they’re all connected, and how our software runs against it, and just went all the way. So about a week later, I get a phone call from the head of that Bell Labs team that came down, and he said “I want you to come work for me.”
They were up in Alpharetta, and we were automating with ultrasound. So I was just in what I call heaven – think of it on earth. Here you are – you’re somebody who loves and embraces technology, and enjoys, and is curious. You’ve got all the toys and all these smart scientists and engineers to work with and just super super intelligent.
And, you know, I’d be in there and they’d be working. Later on we were working on some algorithms for some machine learning that I was building- and I was like exhausted, there’s eight of us in the room, and the algorithm’s up on the board. And I’m like “Okay, my brain’s hurting.” I said “Guys, I’m gonna lay down.” So I lay down under the table and took a little nap. And I get up, and I’m looking at the algorithm again. We’re all looking, I said “So guys where’s the timer in this thing?
How do we know it’s going to stop, and, you know, when is it going to start?” And you just had a fresh set of eyes. So sometimes we don’t take the opportunity to, when somebody new comes in, really say “Okay. From fresh eyes, what does that look like to you?” or “What does it sound like to you?” or “When you engage in it, how does it feel?”
Exactly. And you’ve had a huge hand in, as you’re saying, splitting the billing system for AT&T and digitizing all that paper. You then went to Bell Labs and continued to digitize processes. So as the world does continue to shrink because of digital trends, what do you think is the role that data plays in this whole digital revolution?
So my little role in the billing system was just the start of my career. Later on as I moved back and forth between Bell Laboratories and the field, I had a lot of the call centers and network along with the call centers. So I had, since I had so many friends in Bell Labs, we were able to break into the Blackberry at the time, long time ago, and write an application for field services and that’s how I got to know the Blackberry team.
And so I decided you know we needed to have our trouble tickets and connection to the people out in the field. So I have a patent, it’s called ‘RUBY, Rules You Build Yourself’ and allows the agent at the table to actually build the rules that they want to automate that piece of their job so that they can do 10 times more what they were doing before and only handle the exceptions. So I automated AT&T’s global network.
We saved about a billion dollars and really you have to step back and say “Am I impacting the company?” understand are you impacting the company for good or for bad and really you have to step back and say um am i impacting the company am i impacting my customers in a positive way You know, sometimes you don’t do everything the customer wants, but you have to look forward to think “What might they need?”, “What would I want?”, and “What data do we need to understand that perspective?”
When I was at Blackberry I got stuck on an aircraft because of the snow, and this is a hotel chain, so I won’t mention their name. And the CIO there said, “So Robin, what do you think of us?” I said, “I think of this as you guys should know me better. And he says, “What do you mean by that?” and I said, “Well you’re my favorite hotel chain.” Of course I’m buttering up. And I said “And I visit you every week in New Jersey. Same hotel.
Same location, almost the same time. I said you guys know I’m coming, but when I show up I feel like you weren’t expecting me, and I have to go stand in line to get my room key. When I get the room, you put me in the room that I don’t like, and I always have to come back down to tell you, “Hey this is the one that faces the sign that blinks at two in the morning.” It’s like you don’t know me as a customer. And yet you had all the data points that you could have ever wanted.
You even knew when my plane landed and which car rental company I’m using, because you’re giving me points back on my frequent flyer for all of this. So believe it or not, it’s taken that chain about 10 years to put all this in place.
Wow, 10 years…and that’s the case across most industries. Now Robin, given your hit rate on successfully predicting trends, we want you to take what we’re calling a ‘One Mic Stand.’ So my last question to you is – in your views, what is the one trend in data or digital that the world hasn’t paid attention to yet?
Most corporations only use five to ten percent of their data and a lot less of the technology that they’ve deployed. All the things I shared with you, building that system, were technologies we already had in-house. We just had not really turned them on the full way, or leveraged them in a way to be used. I didn’t have to go buy something new – we just had to use some of the things we had already purchased and get rid of some things that we weren’t using.
And so interesting enough, we have a wealth of data around us that can help lift our jobs, really give the customer a better experience. And there’s a lot of data outside of us, outside of the corporation that lends itself to our customers that we’re not leveraging either. They always talk about location, location, location in real estate. In the systems world, it’s really about your data.
And it doesn’t have to be good quality data. It just has to be data that you can, you know, gather insights from, take leads, just automate. There’s all kinds of new tools and technologies that allows you to work with disparate data – data that comes from all different sources. So it’s just how we embrace that on behalf of our customer and let it give us the insights of how to turn the corner.
The corner is not going to be obvious for a lot of people. And sometimes it’s not for me either, because a lot of this is – you just kind of fell into it. It was just being curious enough to say “What does a bill look like?”
You’ve really laid down the groundwork in what is commonplace in tech now, like automating scripts, machine learning, and digitizing processes (that goes without saying). And you’ve done this by naturally leaning into your curiosity, and that, by itself, is how you’ve been a disrupter. So thank you so much for your time Robin.
If you’re left wondering about the power of digital, give our last episode ‘Digital Silk Roads’ a listen to learn about the biggest business opportunity for the payments industry. And if you’re left curious about anything else, email us at curious tresata.com. That’s c-u-r-i-o-u-s tresata.com. To show your support, give us a follow on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram. And, we’ll talk data to you soon.