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February 23, 2005

Jarbarish in the News

Matt Branaugh from Boulder's Daily Camera newspaper emailed me tonight to say that his February 24th Tech Range column will reference one of my blog posts about Jarbarish.  Jarbarish is a word my wife Cindy and I coined that comes from the words "Jargon" and "Gibberish".  I get so tired of hearing people say things that have little or no meaning.  I hear jarbarish at trade shows, in sales presentations and I see it in almost every press release. 

Matt and I talked about jarbarish a couple of weeks ago, and he's tired of it too.  He gets countless press releases from entrepreneurs and marketing people hoping to get his attention.  We laughed about how almost every single company claims to be "The Leader" at something, even if they haven't sold their first dollar's worth of product.  Then they dress up what they do with words like "upside opportunity", "value-add", "touch-points" and "paradigm shifts." I suspect these press releases are written by people who love to “think out of the box” and go for the “low hanging fruit.”

Here are a couple of hints.  If your press release causes your newspaper columnist to laugh out loud at the absurdity of your claims or your choice of words, you're not going to get the best coverage of your new product.  If you load your press release down with words that only your engineering staff could understand, your newspaper columnist is just going to toss your release in the trash because they never have enough time, the deadline is always looming, and they just can't take the time to dig out what it is you really do.

If you want good press, speak plainly, return their calls quickly and give them your home phone number, your cell phone number and your email address so that it is easy for them to do any last minute fact-checking.

To read Matt's article, go to www.dailycamera.com and look for Columnists in the Business section.  The direct link is here and you may need to do a free sign-in process with the newspaper website.  If this is your first encounter with a blog, I hope you'll check out the rest of my blog and some of the blogs that I read on a regular basis.  I'm the CEO and co-founder of Gold Systems and I write this blog to help other entrepreneurs.  It is also a place where I can write informally about speech recognition and other technologies that I'm interested in.  Thanks for reading!


February 23, 2005 in Entrepreneurship | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 16, 2005

Sleep Blogging

(This is number two in a series that I'll call Why Blog?)

My friend Tim Miller coined the term Sleep Working.  Or at least I heard it first from him.  When you wake up in the morning and you realize that you've been turning over a problem in your mind in your sleep, you're sleep working.  It doesn't even have to be a problem, though it often is, as on occasion I've woke up with what turns out to be a be a good idea.  Mostly though they tend to be problems and it isn't a very good feeling.  Thankfully either I'm having less problems or I'm learning to control it.  Sleep working is one of the dangers of being an entrepreneur that nobody tells you about before you quit your real job.

Lately I've noticed a variation that I'll call Sleep Blogging.  I wake up and realize that a story has been running through my head.  Today it was about how CEO blogging can be used as another form of communications to the company.  One of my board members is Brad Feld and he's been blogging since May of 04.  Almost from the beginning he used his blog to speak not just to all entrepreneurs, but specifically to the CEOs in his portfolio.  In effect, he'd say something like "I really like how this company runs their board meetings" and if you were that company I guess you felt good and if you thought you weren't that company, you'd try to get better.  (Assuming you've made the connection between good board meetings and board members who get the information they need.) 

I've believe that blogging can be a very different and useful form of communications, because it allows a guy like Brad to put out an idea without it sounding like a command.  I get insight into how he thinks, what he cares about and then I can take it (or leave it) to make my business better.  It's very different from getting a call from him saying "Gold, you need to do a better job of running your board meetings." 

This morning while sleep blogging I realized that this can work for me too.  There are people at my company who read my blog, and I can use it as a way to float ideas and help people better understand what I hope we can accomplish together.  It is in addition to, not a substitute for direct conversations, but I think that it is just one more method of improving communications which is one of the top battles for any entrepreneur or CEO.  We can all be better at communications.

February 16, 2005 in Blogging | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 13, 2005

Mousedriver Followup

I want to do a couple of posts on the question "Why Blog?" this week.  I'll save the list of reasons why I think the whole business about blogs and RSS is important for a post later this week, but let me start with just one experience that has made it worth it for me.

Matt Blumberg and Brad Feld both mentioned the book "The MouseDriver Chronicals" and I bought it and read it.  I really enjoyed it and asked Matt how he happened upon the book - it turns out that someone at his company had met one of the authors and recommended the book to him.  Then I wrote about the book in my blog and in the process went to the MouseDriver website and signed up for the MouseDriver Newsletter. The next thing I knew I was in an email conversation with both of the authors, John Lusk and Kyle Harrison, all because I had mentioned their book on my blog.

I have tremendous respect for authors and it was a great thrill to "meet" these guys and even be invited to meet face to face next time I'm traveling through their towns.  The web has made it so much easier to connect to companies, but I think one of the important aspects of blogs is that it makes it so much easier to connect to other people.  As the web was beginning to explode people worried that society would see personal connections decline, but my experience is just the opposite as I'm connecting with people I never would have met otherwise.

February 13, 2005 in Entrepreneurship | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 09, 2005

VoIP, VoiceXML/SALT, NLSR converging to make better voice applications

I missed this the first time around, but Jason Groshart, an engineer at Gold Systems wrote a good post on VoIP, VoiceXML/SALT, NLSR converging to make better voice applications.

We first started experimenting with VoIP (Voice over IP) in 1997, and even got a letter of intent from AT&T for $1,000,000 to invest in the spin-off company that we called Click-n-Call.  It never happened of course, but that's another post.  We did get our product working though and got a couple of Fortune 500 companies to trial it.  I just noticed that the Internet Archive has record of our first ugly Click-n-Call webpage!  Don't bother trying to make a call - the gateways have been gone for years.

Anyway, VoIP is real now and here to stay.  In a future post I'll write about the lessons learned from dealing with a bleeding edge technology and a gigantic company like AT&T.

February 9, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 08, 2005

Speech Recognition's Holy Grail

A reader named Ravi posted a comment to my post about speech recognition asking:

What are your thoughts on using VOIP to do dictation (as opposed to speaker independent, command based) recognition on the server side for an intranet deployed application? Has this been done with any success? Also, any idea on vendors with Java based server side solutions for this?

I think he's asking a question that's been on a lot of people's mind, with VoIP thrown into the equation.  In our world there is a technology called "Text to Speech".  It's the technology that you would use to get your computer to read your screen so you could listen to what I'm writing via a computer synthesized voice.  In self service telephone applications we use text to speech (TTS) to deal with situations where we can't use a prerecorded voice.  For instance, it isn't practical to record all the possible street addresses that might be needed in an account inquiry application.

TTS has evolved from the early days when the voice sounded like a drunken Swede to today where the quality is so good that many people can not distinguish TTS from a real human voice.  I predict that in the future, we'll only use TTS but that is still a few years off.

Here's where I answer Ravi's question.  People often turn TTS around and come up with Speech to Text.  If only it were as easy as rearranging the words.  Speaker dependant speech to text has been around for years.  Most people have heard of the Dragon product or IBM's ViaVoice, both of which are now available from our partner ScanSoft.  Both are very good products, but both assume that the user will spend time training the recognition engine.  Microsoft has incorporated a simpler product into Windows XP, but I don't think they expect people to use it for heavy dictation like the ScanSoft products.

The Holy Grail though is speaker independent speech to text.  In other words, a speech recognition engine that can understand whatever you say without any prior training by the user.  After all, this works in Star Trek, it should work in real life. 

Speaker independent recognition works today on a limited basis - it's the technology that we use to build telephone self service applications.  We just finished an application for a large Midwestern insurance company and bank.  Their customers can call up and say things like "what's my checking account balance?" or "I want to transfer $300 from savings to checking tomorrow."  No more ugly and complicated touch-tone menus.  However, if the caller for some reason decides to say "By the way, how's the weather where you are?" our application will have no idea how to respond.  We're working with a very narrow domain of possible responses to our questions, and done correctly, we get a high recognition rate.

I believe that we might see decent speaker independent recognition engines with large vocabularies and high accuracy in the next five to ten years, but it isn't practical today.  By then VoIP will be everywhere and it will be practical to distribute speech recognition throughout the network.

Next time you hear the recording "This call may be monitored for quality purposes", you just might be speaking to one of our human factors experts.  While tuning this same banking application we discovered that some people didn't realize that they weren't talking to a live human.  They went all the way through the call flow but would fail when they tried to make small talk with the computer.  We had to change the opening prompts to make it just a little more clear that they are in fact talking to a computer with very little information about the weather in Illinois!

February 8, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 03, 2005

It's a great day to be an entrepreneur

(Except that I just lost my post by hitting the back button on my mouse) It was a great day to be an entrepreneur!  Every Thursday I have an operations meeting with my team where we look at lead generation, sales and projected revenue.  We also discuss any tactical issues that we need to work on together.  Today was an almost perfect meeting!  We learned that we were more profitable than we expected last year, that we had a good January and that the quarter is looking just fine.  We can always improve and there's still work to do, but it was a good meeting.

Next I had lunch with an entrepreneur friend of mine, Mike Gellman, who founded Spiremedia.  Mike and a friend founded the company during the dot com boom to do web design.  Like about a million other guys.  And like all the others, when the bottom fell out, his business got hurt.  That's probably an understatement.  I watched Mike stare into the abyss.  He was such an optimist that myself and others who were close to him worried that he had completely lost touch with reality.  (Pretty common in entrepreneurs) He had a great product and Spire was really more than a web designer, but man, that world was collapsing all around him. 

Even though he was struggling to keep his own business together, he drove up to Boulder one day about a year and a half ago to have lunch with me.  The bust was hurting us too and I was having a dark day.  You can't be around Mike without having some of his energy rub of on you, and he's one of the people who helped me keep going through a tough time.  I really appreciate it.  His business is doing great today and I have great respect for his ability to keep going, to learn from his mistakes.  He's now a year older than I was when Jim and I started Gold Systems 14 years ago - he's going to do great things.

Shameless plug:  Visit SpireMedia.com if you want more than just another web designer.  He's now got a client list that looks like a Who's Who list and his team produced the first web page using flash that I thought was worth the bits to look at.  If nothing else, you've got to check out his Ant Farm.  I've been listening to the music track while writing this and that alone is worth taking a look.  Click on some of the little people to see who helped get SpireMedia through the bust as a survivor of the dot com era.  Disclaimer: I was once on Mike's advisory board, but except for him buying lunch today, I was never compensated and my only interest is to see a great bunch of people make it big.

At the end of my day today, I saw some people in my company "do the right thing."  We had an employee who's since left the business who is having a tough time.  These people cut him some slack and today I saw a very nice, and very classy thank you note from him.  There have been many days this past few years where I would have much rather been anything but an entrepreneur, but today was a very good day to be an entrepreneur.

February 3, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 02, 2005

Speech Recognition - who gets it?

I'm working on a white paper about speech recognition and I'd like to try out a few ideas.  The tagline for this blog is Entrepreneurship, Speech Recognition, VoIP, Wireless and . . . and so far I've been pretty much stuck on entrepreneurship.

Actually when Jim and I started Gold Systems, speech recognition was something that you only saw working on an episode of Star Trek.  We build telephone self service applications for large enterprises and most of them are speech recognition enabled now.  Our very first paying customer in 1991 was a bank in Fargo North Dakota and we built an automated banking system for them.  Yes - one of those touch-tone systems that you use when you can't talk to a real person.  Or at least that is how a lot of people view telephone self service, whether it is touch-tone or one of the newer ones that use speech recognition (we did our first speech rec application in 1995).  And yet I remember this bank being pleasantly surprised that customer satisfaction actually rose after the system went into service.  In fact the job satisfaction for the real people answering the phone also rose.

How can that be?  This was a bank whose President had declared that they would never have voice mail.  First of all this was a small regional bank when we started working with them.  They didn't have a 24 hour follow-the-sun call center.  When the agents went home, the callers got a message telling them to call again tomorrow.  It was a big improvement just to allow customers to get their account information 24 hours a day.  But a strange thing happened - people who had been talking to the agents for years started using the automated system even during business hours.  For one thing they never had to wait for the automated system, but also a lot of people apparently didn't want to discuss their finances with a real person.

If you aren't in the business you may not realize that an awful lot of people manage their finances by calling to check their account balance every day.  You might also be surprised at how many people still use the phone as their primary communications device.  If you are reading this - you are not like most people - and you may wonder why they don't just check their balance on the web.  Back then the web didn't exist, but still MOST people - not necessarily those that read and write blogs - but most people still find their telephone to be a great way to get information.  For the people who really did need to talk to a real human being, they weren’t stuck in queue behind a bunch of people who were just checking their checking account balance for the third time in one day.

Everybody loves to hate touch-tone systems that make it difficult to get the information they need while making it impossible to speak to a real person.  Guess what – I hate them too, because they don’t have to be that way.  Today most of our business is in developing speech recognition applications, but some companies are still deploying touch-tone applications.  What really maters is whether the application is designed so that normal people, who are eating a burrito, driving their car and they

JUST WANT TO GET THEIR BANK BALANCE – whether they can get it easily and quickly and get back to eating that burrito.  I was actually driving back from a meeting today, eating a burrito and even I wouldn’t try to log onto the web with my PocketPC while driving and eating.  (One or the other, but not both)

From the very beginning Jim and I stressed to the developers that a great application, one that people will love to use, is first and foremost designed to get the job done and get out of the way.  Developers, and I was one, love to think up new features.  Do you know why some bad touch-tone applications have ten options on the main menu?  Because there aren’t more buttons on the telephone.  Some developers would put twenty options on the menu if they could get away with it.  The first key to a great application whether it is touch-tone, speech recognition or web is to do a great job on the human factors design.  It may be massively complex behind the interface but the part of the application that the user deals with must be simple, natural and easy to use.  And if the caller DOES want to talk to a real human, LET THEM!  Who doesn’t know how to ultimately get to a human – the only question is how mad the caller is going to be by the time they get there, so our philosophy is to make the caller want to use the self service option, but let them opt out if that is what they want.

With the coming-of-age of speech recognition we're being handed a double edge sword.  Now the human factors work that we’ve always done with touch-tone is even more important.  One of the keys to getting good recognition performance is to ask questions that generate consistent responses.  If you confuse the caller with a complex question – and remember they are driving or whatever and not always paying close attention – they will answer something like “ah, uh oh let’s see, I think uh, yes my account number is uh CLICK.”  It is going to be a long time before speech recognition engines can get much out of that sort of response.

I’ll close this post with this thought.  If it were easy there wouldn’t be so many bad systems in the world, so please don’t try this at home just because it sounds fun to make a computer talk and you have a few spare developers walking around.  Leave it to the professionals and put your efforts into filling all the orders that your happy customers will give you when they discover that you’ve made it easier than ever to do business with your company over the phone.

February 2, 2005 in Speech Recognition | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack