Every business, small and large, finds itself wishing for better tools. Sometimes that stems from a desire to make processes more efficient or ensure new levels of data integrity. Other situations require new tools to support new lines of business or allow for better collaboration.
At the end of the day, every business will be faced with the choice to buy or build their ideal solution. For some businesses the answer is simple: buy the tools and shape your process to align with any deficiencies the tool might have. For many, building a new tool is far outside their expertise and even more beyond their budget.
With a dedicated R&D group, building tools is a core part of TEECOM’s work. One example came about when our contact database reached a substantial size and, like many companies, we were forced to consider (a) how to manage it; and (b) what exactly we wanted to do with the information we had.
We didn’t want a Customer Relationship Management system. Most CRMs are modeled on a “sales funnel,” treating every contact like a potential sales target. The majority of our contacts are people we already have relationships with, not “leads.” We really wanted a simple system that would enable everyone at the company to easily create and find contact information for our thousands of peers and associates, without huge information management overhead.
This simple desire proved surprisingly difficult to fulfill with a market solution. So we decided to create our own.
Building a Product from the Ground Up
TEECOMlabs, our in-house R&D group, tackled the project, which would eventually be called Callback One. It was a good opportunity for the group to test development of a software product on a live “captive audience” (TEECOMers) from the ground up.
“At the outset we were looking for the simplest possible application of a contact app,” said Alex Serriere, principal at TEECOM and leader of the R&D group. Primarily, Callback One needed to:
- Have fast, smart search;
- Easily manage consistency;
- Function across platforms — most importantly, function on mobile even when the device was offline, a feature many shared contact databases lacked at the time (and still do).
“We pushed it out to people as soon as we could so we could get feedback and iterate,” explained Tommy, who was in charge of the browser-based version. “We made changes based on feedback. For example, David [Marks, president and CEO] suggested incorporating a search history, and we added that.”
Ellen, who was in charge of developing the iOS app, worked through the thorny challenge of search, which is a vital function for any contact database. Her solution allows Callback One to produce results quickly, sorted by type of result. So, for example, if you search “Ellen,” you get a list of people named Ellen, a list of companies with Ellen in the name, and cities with Ellen in the name.
Ellen also built in a setting for the iPhone app that allows contacts from your Callback One database to show up on your caller ID, an unusual feature in a shared contact database.
Other features the development team is proud of include a team-based contact approval queue, which is important for consistency and scalability; a business card upload function using the smartphone camera; and database integration with Slack, so that anyone with access to the database can search with a Slack slash command, and share a contact in a channel.
The interface for Callback One is intentionally simple and flat, mirroring its focus on doing a few things really well. Internal adoption of Callback One at TEECOM has been successful; 100% of employees have accounts, and there are 11,515 contacts currently in the database, with close to 10,000 interactions and 4,000 searches in the past year.
Perhaps the best part? “We’re completely in charge of our own destiny,” said Alex Serriere.
Buy It or Build It?
“There’s always this question when it comes to your business process: do you buy or build?” Alex said. “Nowadays there are so many fantastic tools out there the answer is usually ‘buy,’ but sometimes you find yourself in that unique position where your needs are so particular that nothing meets them.”
Many mid-size architecture and engineering firms find themselves in the same position without development resources, which is why TEECOM has made Callback One available for enterprise subscription. Visit the Callback One product website for more information.
In the meantime, TEECOMlabs continues to develop internal software tools to help our engineers and business operations serve our clients more efficiently, with an eye toward an industry that’s increasingly driven by machine learning and AI. Stay tuned.