Interview with John Collier, Chief Technology Officer at VieMed
Ledge sits down with John Collier, Chief Technology Officer at VieMed, to talk about his technical career path across many different industries spanning speech analytics to medical, and his current work implementing his tech innovation into the healthcare industry.
Ledge: John, it’s great to have you on. Thanks for joining today.
John: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Ledge: If you don’t mind, maybe just give a little background story of yourself and your work to this point, so the audience can get to know you and where you’re coming from.
John: Sure, you bet. Again, John Collier, and I live in Lafayette, Louisiana, which is southwestern Louisiana. I have been in the technology arena for about 26, 27 years and love every bit about it.
My journey has taken me from network administration and server administration, through a DevOps career. I’ve been managing people and teams since about 1996 – somewhere in that range. Owned a few businesses, side businesses, consulting businesses.
In the last 12 years, have spent most of my time in building SaaS applications with a variety of companies. One was Affiliate Marketing for a couple of years. Then I worked with a company called Convirza, and we built a product called LogMyCalls which was speech analytics for marketing phone calls, call tracking software, that type of thing.
Most recently, worked with Circlepix as CTO and we built marketing software for realtors – virtual tours, text reminders, all kinds of tools for them. Then this last year I worked with a company called Waldo, out of Austin, Texas. That was a lot of fun, doing facial recognition software.
In the last six, seven months I started working with a company here in Lafayette called VieMed. It’s a health services but durable medical equipment company, and we’re bringing technology to this.
Ledge: A big path there from martech, to speech analytics, to medical. Wow.
Draw me some lines there. How does that even happen, to all of a sudden get into durable medical equipment? I don’t think people usually have that path.
John: It’s a stretch for some paths, but I think the connecting line there is analytics on the underside, machine learning experience. I’m not a data scientist myself but I’ve managed teams and had several data scientists work with me. I’ve just learned tons from them on what the capabilities are, where to [find 00:03:06] signal building models and that type of thing.
From speech analytics and being in that space for six years, to facial analytics with Waldo, and now what we’re looking at doing is taking the healthcare machinery that exists, that already collects data, and doing interesting things with it.
So when I heard of the opportunity I said, I haven’t done much in healthcare, but I’m very familiar with the space through friends and coworkers and whatnot. Taking technology into healthcare was very interesting to me. Number one, because it’s an amazing opportunity right now. But number two, it’s where you can make a giant difference. I’ve seen a huge need for innovation in healthcare. It’s been very slow moving over the years, so I was excited to be in the space.
Ledge: You guys work with ventilators, right? That’s some critical stuff going on there, and I imagine that the data opportunities are enormous. That there’s a real time stream of life-altering data that’s being generated. Right now, I don’t know, if it doesn’t go anywhere into analysis that can actually help people, is that the path of the innovation? To use the data?
John: It is. I think it’s a slow path and in the medical industry we have to be careful before declaring anything life-saving, of course. By getting in the critical path, it would take a lot of certification and that type of thing.
What we’re going to be working on in the first parts of this are making sure our signal is straight. Making sure what we’re finding in the data has some value.
Things along of the lines of, when we gather that data it’s already there to be gathered. Several of the manufacturers of these vents – and we don’t only do vents, we do oxygen concentrators, lymphedema pumps. We have another division that does CPAP machines for sleep apnea patients. You kind of see the thread. They have similar functions. It’s all around the lungs and breathing healthy.
The vents are, unfortunately, a terminal patient. Therefore a COPD or ALS patient. Making those last years of somebody’s life count, and being able to enjoy life a little bit more while they are still with the families, is very important to us.
So, yeah, we plan on enhancing what we do for them. While our competitors just want to sell more vents, we want to provide more value.
Ledge: You talked off-mike, I think this is a really unique circumstance, that you were able to work very closely with the company before coming on. The mandate being, hey, build a technology, human and machine infrastructure such that we can achieve this broad future mandate. So, bring technology to the fold in this business.
Maybe talk about that a little bit. That’s on the one hand super exciting. On the other hand you end up at that minute one and be like, well, okay, I got the job and it’s just me and a whiteboard. What do I do?
John: Fortunately, I’ve built a few teams over the years and probably the most relevant experience was at LogMyCalls where I started off with three guys, fired two and built a team from zero up to about 110 on my team over a six-year period. We did some pretty good numbers there and the company was doing pretty well when I left.
But, starting here that wasn’t too daunting because I had several people that I wanted to reach out to to see – after some of my non-competes and non-solicits had expired – if they’d come back and work with me. I’ve been very lucky to bring several of my path engineers with me.
I already had, just from the experience and from a lot of hands-on on the DevOps side of things, an idea of how we would build this out. Similar infrastructure from the previous two. All Amazon based.
Putting it all onto paper, putting it all onto the whiteboard and you mentioned was the way of going about it. Just start presenting to the board, presenting to the exec team. Making sure that I was on the same path as where they were going with this. Selling them my ideas. Then it just became all of our ideas that we started working towards.
I also made a few key hires almost immediately. A VP of Product and Marketing, which was a rare find, with a guy that I’d worked with previously also. He and I are really good friends. He’s now Chief Marketing Officer and we co-own the whole product which is very exciting because we have a wonderful relationship. Director of Engineering who’s one of the most talented engineers I’ve ever worked with. He’s out of Portugal. The list goes on. I also took over the CIO role here as I let our CIO go, and I’m rebuilding the internal team as well. That’s been the daunting part. That’s been the tough part because it’s just a lot to tackle.
Ledge: You know, maybe people don’t always know the weird sort of gray space between CIO and CTO. As you’re talking about digital transformation, product-facing and market-facing and then internal because you have a lot of that cultural shift that needs to happen to support your roadmap, what’s that like navigating both of those areas?
John: That’s has been a bigger step by far for this company than the CTO. Here’s why.
In my CTO role, I’m building product that nobody’s expecting yet. So, nobody’s depending on this. On the internal side, we have 330 employees depending on an ERP system, our accounting system, our mail and productivity suite.
Part of our process for that ERP system is intake, and we have respiratory therapists across the nation who are dealing with doctors that have very different systems. Most of them, believe it or not, have zero access to any type of API to send any data. All patient records are being sent as 70-page faxes. We’ve still got people with one screen up with a fax and then doing data entry into this ERP. As you can imagine, it’s clunky at best and outdated for sure.
So, building up an internal team, providing business analytics. I’ve got a brand new data analytics team and we’re creating dashboards and stuff like that. Then I’ve got a new programmer analyst who I’ve just hired who will also start working on some efficiencies. Basically, interviewing each of the department managers and seeing what they can do to improve throughput.
We’ve got to scale this company – scaling it at an incredible speed. We’ve got to help scale with less employees per patient.
Ledge: You talk about the internal being more challenging than the external. Is it the nature of ‘rebuild the plane why you’re flying it’ in that case?
John: For sure, and everybody feels what you’re doing. When you’re not building a branded product, everybody feels the changes that you’re making. All 300 employees know the things that you’re working on – the payment processing, the this the that and the other. They know exactly when they’re waiting on something, the pressure to get things done is there. The executive dashboards that never existed, first time viewing. There’s a lot of stuff happening on the internal.
Ledge: There’s that mixed blessing of total transparency, I imagine, of the organization can get away with a lot of stuff that it couldn’t before. Or rather before it could get away with things. Transparency of data cuts both ways, if and when your culture is not maybe ready to be fully observed.
John: See, we have a few people, such as our CFO, who are fantastic at presenting data but it takes days and hours to bring this to light and to display it throughout.
We’re required to be transparent. We’re a publically traded company. But getting at it has been difficult, to say the least. Now I’ve got a superstar business analyst, a data analyst who’s creating great Tableau dashboards and meeting regularly with the entire management team to show them stuff, the sales team to show them opportunities and bring up opportunities for improvement.
This is the first time that this company has worked on key performance indicators, stating them and showing them. We’re getting TV sets and dashboards all throughout the facility so that people know how they’re doing. It’s going to bring giant dividends for us.
Ledge: How do you work with the operations function, because it brings up an interesting question. That CIO is always one of those roles that came out of data-driven marketing and it came out of data-driven operations. You’ve got your COO, and you’ve got CMO, and everybody looks to you to do all those things. It’s really what used to be maybe that IT function, but much more on the data and information side. Then you’ve got all your marketing dynamics coming in from new product development and roadmap and all that stuff.
Is that a place where you see filling both seats indefinitely, or is that interim?
John: It’s interim. I knew that the guy that I had was not the right fit for now and that I would have to take over, simply because I had more experience. Great guy, just wasn’t able to fulfill all of the needs that I had coming in.
I’ve done it several times before, again. It’s a lot, it’s a heavy load, but I think down the road either through internal promotions and helping the guys and gals that I’m working with to possibly fill that seat. But I think just on our current growth path, it would probably be another year where I’m covering both.
It’s definitely not indefinite. It’s too much of a load to carry indefinitely. They’re different mindsets, by the way. It’s a different hat that you have to wear when you’re going from CIO to CTO.
In certain organizations where they’re more operational in nature, you may have a CTO who reports to a CIO. In our case where we’re trying to make the transformation into a technology – a healthcare technology company – it will be a CIO reporting to me. I actually report to the COO of the company rather than the CEO because he’s more operationally sound, he has a better head for organization. Versus our CEO who’s brilliant when it comes to marketing and investor relations and vision and more of that entrepreneurial mindset as well.
Ledge: So much of that is important, as folks are designing and building organization, to take best advantage of the skills at the table. You quickly find that the textbook models of who reports to who and where, that’s going to change organizational level per organization, and it’s critically important.
You talked about having a nearly full remote team on the technology side and I would imagine that’s not the case for the rest of the business. There might be some cultural shifts there, bringing remote work to the fray.
What’s that been like?
John: You said it. I’m the first one to have brought talent from outside of the country. This company has offices in 14 states, and a lot of that’s just brick and mortar requirements from Medicare. We’re very much centrally located.
Then our respiratory therapists generally work from their home and then they have a set of areas that they cover. But on my team, I’ve worked for the last, I don’t know, probably 11, 12 years with remote teams and have learned the tools to make that work. Mostly just daily standups, video chats over either Google Hangouts, or MeetNow or whatever the tool is Du Jour . But daily meetings face to face. When we can, get together in one of the common places and drink beer and have fun together. But that’s really extremely important. Then Slack and Jira or whatever your toolsets are for that for communication.
Communication makes it happen, so when I am recruiting I simply try and spread out to a pretty well defined network that I’ve got that I’ve built over the years. What I’m looking for is the best engineers. Period. Wherever they’re from – and that’s not always the US.
There is a tremendous amount of talent in the US, but there is a tremendous amount of talent elsewhere. I sometimes compartmentalize what kind of talent I’ll look for in different countries, but currently on this very small team that I’m still building, I’ve got about a third of the people that I’m hiring right now, but we’ve got a couple of guys in The Ukraine. We’ve got one in Portugal who’s actually from Poland. I’ve got three in Argentina. I’ve got a couple in the Philippines. Then I had engineers from many other places as well.
Ledge: You talked about having the very best engineers. It’s something that we think about all the time. How do you measure, and what’s the system for weeding out the 1%.
I always ask – yes, sure we have our system but – what, from your perspective and experience, are the heuristics for hiring and retaining the very best engineering talent? How do you know when you’re talking to them?
John: That’s a great question, since I’m not a software engineer myself. My experience comes from more on the DevOps side. I’m still quite technical and I still do most of the architecture myself, but hands-on coding, no.
I start off with probably a group of three or four of the guys that I’ve worked with in the past who are superstar engineers and who have already built stuff with me, and then we vet them out together.
To me, personality is as important as the talent is. Culture, the cliché culture fit, it’s real. Number one, as a manager, as a leader, I am definitely not a micromanager. I believe in hiring great people and giving them the freedom to do what they do best. Part of that is the culture.
Second, we test every engineer that we bring onboard. We have a verbal interviewing position. Generally, my Director of Engineers will do that. Then we’ve prepared several mini-tests that the engineers, depending on their discipline, will do. It’s a three to four-hour coding project. Some people don’t want to do that. Some people think that’s – well, are you going to pay me to do this? No, this is what you’re going to do to see if we’ll hire you. Contractor or fulltime, we do the same thing and we’re pretty insistent on it.
Somebody turns in their code, we look through their code. Does it supply unit tests? Does it have good documentation? Does it have a good README file that we know how to install it and you’re talking about your dependencies and and libraries that you used? Does it include a to-do list? Things that you got to. Things that you didn’t get to? How many questions did you ask, because a lot of times in our mini-tests we’ll throw in things that when the engineer sees it they say, why would they do it that way? Well, that was in there on purpose, to have you ask. Say, “Are you sure you want to do it that way?” No. We wanted you to question. That’s what we want. We want a very collaborative. A person who’s going to question decisions. Who’s going to challenge. Somebody who can really get in there and own it.
Ledge: That’s great. Love that, especially the to-do list part – what did you get to and what you didn’t, because it shows that there’s a longer-term disposition to every project. You just aren’t done. There is no mythical done. Going on to release new things and having new ideas, that’s a good way to suss it out.
John: One more piece of that is, we’re generally looking for… I’ve never worked with a company that’s been just a quick whammy app to build, so I’m also looking for somebody who’s stuck with a specific project for over a year. That has developed a roadmap of a specific app.
If somebody says, “I’ve built 40 or 50 iOS apps,” for example, that’s great for somebody, that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for somebody who built an app, hopefully in the healthcare space, and they’ve spent a year-and-a-half developing version after version after version. Improving its performance, improving the feature set, etc.
Ledge: You do that because it displays a certain level of the qualities that you look for in someone who would work on your team because it matches your culture. It’s using the technology approach for the whole purpose of finding those people.
Excellent. Well, John, this is a great story. Thanks for joining us and good luck with a very bold adventure.
John: Thanks, Ledge. It’s been awesome.