"To me, computer science is not a science; it's more of an art". Gary Handelman of Fibernetics makes that distinction when asked about what working in the tech industry means to him. It's an approach he's used since he first began exploring the mystical wonders of his high school's Apple II computer almost 30 years ago, and it's the same approach he used when he invented the very first business phone system offered by Fibernetics, better known today as the NEWT Managed PBX. To truly appreciate the groundbreaking innovation Gary has done for Fibernetics, it's important to first take a look at the journey that led him to computers, telecommunications, and ultimately Fibernetics.
Gary's first exposure to the world of computers was in 1978 while he was attending high school in Quebec, where a petition started by some older students would serve as the first step in developing Gary's love of computers. As Gary explains, "a bunch of kids in the older grades, in grades 10 and 11, petitioned the school board to get a computer, because there was nothing back then". They ended up succeeding with that petition, and the school was awarded a new Apple II computer which they placed in a storage room for the school's chemistry class. It was here among "things in buckets and pails of formaldehyde" as he describes it, that Gary independently taught himself how to program. Even though he had become quite comfortable with computers and programming by the time he graduated from high school, a skill that at the time was very unique, he followed his original path and enrolled at McGill University in Montreal in physics.
Upon graduation Gary came to a crossroad when considering what possible career to pursue. On the one hand, he could become a physicist, or he could go after what started out as just a high school hobby that had quickly grown into something much bigger: computer science. "When I went to look for jobs at the university resource center, there were tons of computer jobs out there . . . by the sheer numbers, it just made sense to pursue a career in computer science."
He took a job with a small company that was developing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software. Within just two years, he had progressed from a programming analyst to, as he puts it, "writing and maintaining everything within the company." He realized that the user interface being used at this company was inefficient, which lead him to independently redesign it from the ground up, using his own mark-up language throughout the program. It was at this job that Gary discovered he had a unique talent not only to conceive of innovative concepts and have a clear idea as to how they could work, but to turn these ideas into reality and have them implemented. This excited Gary because it was "a matter of creativity."
This discovery would serve as the basis for his decision to leave the small company and taking a full-time job working as a systems analyst for the repair and overhaul centre for Rolls Royce in Montreal. Concurrently, he started a small company with a coworker that managed material safety data sheets. Between 1990 and 2000, Gary was balancing two full-time jobs, writing code and software for both companies. How much code you ask? According to Gary, "probably over 100,000 lines of code that was in production all over the place". He was ultimately recruited by Pepsi Bottling Group in the early 2000's, but after a short 18 month stint, he decided to invest all of his time into the company that he had built. It was there that difficulty with finding a proper phone system to best suit his growing company shifted his attention to telecom.
"I started looking around, and I was appalled at the cost; even upgrading the current phone system was just astronomical," Gary said. He realized that there was massive potential for improvement in the telecommunications industry as a whole. His previous 20 years of experience working with user interfaces gave him the idea for the Private Branch Exchange, or PBX. Gary quickly started up his own company, using software he'd programmed and designed himself, and sold these systems under his company's name, Voipra.
At this time, Fibernetics co-founders Mike Brown, Jody Schnarr and John Stix were in desperate need of a solution for both the call centre they were planning to open, as well as their main office. They also needed a solution that could handle all the businesses that were part of the Fibernetics Group of Companies. Since their company was also fairly new, they were looking for a solution that would save them as much as possible on costs, since the cost of phone systems then currently on the market was prohibitive.
Mike began to search online for someone that could help solve this problem. "I found ‘Gary Handelman' all over the place and I thought ‘I have to talk to this Gary Handelman guy'." Initially they bartered services: Fibernetics provided cost-free Telco services in the Montreal area for Voipra and in return Gary designed and programmed a PBX for the call center in the Dominican Republic as well as one for the Fibernetics office at 30 Duke Street West in Kitchener, Ontario, and made sure the two were always connected. No money was exchanged between Fibernetics and Voipra in these early stages, and looking back on it, Mike is appreciative of the faith Gary had in Fibernetics: "never meeting us before, Gary took a leap of faith" Mike recalls, "for not exchanging any money; Gary was always available and always so receptive."
In May of 2006, Jody met Gary in Montreal to discuss setting up a server at the Group Telecom colocation facility in Montreal. It was over a few Guinness that Jody got the chance to explain the basis of Fibernetics business, where it was headed and the big things in store. Gary was impressed by Jody's vision, but it wasn't until two years later, in May of 2008, that Gary officially said, "I'm in," and joined Fibernetics.
Between this initial meeting and officially joining Fibernetics, Gary had an idea that was too promising to ignore. Using his prior experience creating user interfaces, he wanted to design a PBX that would reduce the level of understanding to a simpler level, while also making the PBX better than existing systems. He quickly jotted down his ideas onto a napkin and that original schematic served as the foundation of the product that would become known as the NEWT Managed PBX.
There was an initial problem Gary faced when he joined Fibernetics, since his former company Voipra was still operational. He couldn't use the same code he had written for Voipra for the Fibernetics PBX. "I took that as a positive and decided to start with a blank slate and build everything from the ground up," he explained. It was much easier this time around because of "knowing the stuff that I've learned over the last couple of years: the pitfalls, the shortcomings, and the stuff that worked." Gary went to work, writing code for what would be the first business phone system offered by Fibernetics, a day Mike remembers like it was yesterday. "Gary began to type, and then he turned the computer to me, with a wide grin on his face, and said ‘this is the start of our new PBX'."
Working with the team of in-house developers, in just three months the code for the PBX had been written and Fibernetics was already starting to install the PBX in other offices located at the 30 Duke Street West building.
Fast forward to today and the NEWT Managed PBX - Business Phone System now services almost 17,000 live extensions. It has saved over 2,000 businesses thousands of dollars on their monthly telecom costs. Gary, with his crew of coders, are constantly upgrading, revising and introducing new features to the NEWT Business Phone System.
When Gary reflects back on his journey with the PBX that began with an idea jotted down on a napkin, he can't help but feel good about what he's accomplished. "I feel very proud that the stuff I've written is being used and enjoyed by so many people, and that they're relying on it. You don't go lightly into a phone system when it's something you're leveraging your own business on".
He also recognizes the recurring theme that first began in the storage room of his high school chemistry lab: "it was all down to having a vision in your head and then turning that vision into something concrete, something that people could use, something that was really cool when it was running and something that people enjoyed using".
The NEWT Managed PBX Story is an example of innovation at Fibernetics. This innovation allows NEWT to deliver happiness and connections everyday by being awesome.
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