Always Moving Forward: An Interview with Larry Lewis
Larry Lewis clearly remembers the thrill of first putting his hands on information delivered by refreshable braille. He was an eighth grader visiting his resource classroom for blind children when his teacher showed him a tape-based VersaBraille. "You could read the whole World Book Encyclopedia or King James Bible on that little display," he recalls, "and it was truly amazing."
Little did he know at that time what an important role he would come to play in the delivery of information through refreshable braille to countless blind people, but two things would remain the same: He would continue to be amazed by the power of technology and continue to look at its power from the customer's point of view.
At 32, Lewis has recently moved into an international role as product marketing manager of the BrailleNote Family, with the New Zealand-based Pulse Data International (PDI). He is the first (and only) blind person to join the New Zealand PDI staff and says that he feels honored to have been given the opportunity. For those who have followed the progress of the BrailleNote personal data assistant since its launch in the United States by HumanWare in March 2000, Lewis's new responsibilities spell good news for the future of the product.
Lewis's childhood and early schooling were by no means aimed at a career in technology. While Lewis maintained an interest in the personal use of technology in college, he earned first a bachelor's and then a master's degree in English literature. When he was offered a spot in a master's degree program in Northern Illinois University's blindness rehabilitation program, it would mark the beginning of his immersion in the field of blindness. From that program, Lewis proceeded to an internship at the Upshaw Institute in Detroit and later took a job teaching at the Cleveland Sight Center. Initially, his role in Cleveland was to teach communications to blind people, but it wasn't long before he'd moved into Cleveland's Storer Center, evaluating and training with technology.
In 1999, Lewis joined the HumanWare team. As blindness products manager, he was a key player in driving the development of the BrailleNote. "I had always used note takers, and have tremendous respect for Deane Blazie, who brought portable note takers to this industry," he says, "but it did seem strange to me that HumanWare, at that point, didn't have a note-taker product with braille output."
From his own love of braille and use of portable devices, he knew what he wanted the BrailleNote to do and pushed PDI with tenacity to get as many features in place as possible before the product was introduced at the CSUN conference in Los Angeles in March 2000. "Jim Halliday and I were a good team," he laughs. "Jim was the grounded one, and I was the one pushing. He tempered my fire with diplomacy." The result of that combination, in part, was that the BrailleNote's features included e-mail capabilities and the capacity to act as a portable braille terminal.
"I've never seen a product so wildly embraced as the BrailleNote at that conference," he recalls. "Our staff was literally exhausted. We were running and showing—there was so much enthusiasm—and, at the end, we crashed and burned." The HumanWare staff was exhausted, but the new product was clearly a spectacular success. They kept driving hard, however, to meet the first shipment deadline in June.
Not every day of the job with HumanWare has been such smooth sailing. In addition to distributing the BrailleNote and other products for PDI, HumanWare was owned by and served as U.S. distributor for Tieman, a Netherlands-based manufacturer of blindness and low vision products. While Lewis and other HumanWare staff were reveling in the enthusiastic reception of PDI's BrailleNote, HumanWare was increasingly at odds with Tieman. In March 2001, Tieman abruptly removed Jim Halliday from his post as president of HumanWare, a company he had founded, and shock rippled throughout the company. In an impressive affirmation of solidarity, Lewis (and several other HumanWare staff) resigned the next day. Lewis was on the phone with New Zealand, assuring PDI that he would not abandon his efforts with regard to BrailleNote, but that the current situation under Tieman was not acceptable. Within weeks, PDI purchased HumanWare, put Jim Halliday back at the helm, and Lewis and other staff members returned to business as usual.
The invitation to work directly with PDI, marketing blindness products with an international focus, came, Lewis says, as a great honor. By November 2001, PDI and HumanWare had merged as one entity, PDI/HumanWare, and the company decided to direct more attention toward sales in other than U.S. markets. In his new role, Lewis will still devote 60% to 70% of his energy to HumanWare, but will also work with the New Zealand PDI headquarters in Christchurch, New Zealand, to increase the sales of BrailleNote and other products in its subsidiary areas of Australia and Europe. His new responsibilities will include at least quarterly visits to these three other offices and surrounding areas.
Although his growing-up years did not necessarily prepare him for a career in blindness and/or technology, his family did indeed prepare him for frequent travel. "We were a family who moved a lot," he says, pointing out that from kindergarten to college his family lived in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, and California, living in as many as six houses in one city! "Packing up and going is something I'm used to doing," he says. All this merging and reshuffling of company names and personnel has at its core, Lewis believes, the goal of serving the individual customer in a more timely and efficient manner. He is proud of having played a significant role in driving the BrailleNote's features to date and relishes the opportunity to continue shaping that product and others. "It's important to me that people know I'm a customer," he says. As one who uses the BrailleNote, for example, on a daily basis, he is thrilled to be in a position to affect its future direction.
And new features that will be welcomed by BrailleNote customers everywhere are already scheduled. By the end of June, PDI/HumanWare plans to release not only an upgrade of its e-mail program, but three entirely new features as well. First, the company is ready to launch the most requested feature in a braille personal data assistant—a web browser. Second, French and German languages are being added to the English-only product. "The French and German versions do not allow you to toggle back to English but are true separate versions of software," Lewis says. "We are releasing a multilingual version of software for the BrailleNote that uses English as a base language and enables the user to toggle to French, German, Spanish, and Italian within KeySoft's word processor, planner, address list, and e-mail client." Finally, global positioning software (providing the ability to map specific routes and literally tell the user where he or she is currently located) will be ready for use in the BrailleNote and VoiceNote products.
"How is this changing lives while at the same time benefiting the company?" Lewis says this is his ongoing question to his colleagues and to himself. "Revenues are important, but none of that matters if the customer isn't satisfied. If we keep the customer at the heart of what we do, everything else will fall into place."
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