The Charleston Digital Corridor's Leadership Profile Series is focused on the individuals who are driving the Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.
Tom Wilson is executive vice president and chief technology innovation officer for New Jersey-based Tabula Rasa Health Care's JRS Innovation Center, located in Mount Pleasant. The JRS Innovation Center includes a coding school open to the Charleston community. Wilson in 2007 founded Jack Russell Software, a local custom software shop that Tabula Rasa later acquired. Locally, Tabula Rasa employs about 30 people.
Where did you grow up? What was life like?
For the most part, in the Atlanta, Ga., area. My dad was a football coach, so we moved from school to school a lot. I was very involved in sports and computers and building things. Every time we moved to a different house, I would always try to figure out how to build a tree fort. I would meet the neighborhood kids, and we would get together and build tree forts. I think I probably built five or six.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
After college, I got the opportunity to do some contract work with a company called CarePoint in Charleston. My parents had just relocated to North Charleston. So I got a place to stay and a full-time job and fell in love with the city from that point on. That was around '94 or '95.
What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?
When I was young, I did a lot of cutting the grass, working as cleanup crew on construction sites. Those may not count as real jobs, but I got money and I was happy. Then in high school, around my junior or senior year, I got a job at a place called American Fare, which was what Wal-Mart is today, sort of a consumer goods and grocery store. It was one of the first ones. I was a worker in the sporting goods department. I learned a lot about hard work and working with people. I had to talk to a lot of people and help them choose their sporting equipment.
Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on, or did you acquire it through experiences?
I would say I had a drive to create, build and lead. I really enjoyed the process of figuring out how to group the kids together, convince them that a tree fort is an awesome thing in the neighborhood and gather the materials, come up with a plan and see that built. All the time, I am pitching what an awesome thing a treehouse would be, but I really enjoyed the process of leading and building.
As soon as it was built, I was looking for something else to do. I think I was more entrepreneurial in the business sense instead of looking to bring in a lot of revenue. I was not really motivated by making a lot of money at that point in time.
In your own words, what does your company do?
We lead technology innovation through labs, programs and training focused on Tabula Rasa Health Care and the Charleston community.
What was the progression from Jack Russell Software, your original business, to where you are today?
When I left CarePoint, I became vice president of software development for a company called ExcelleRx, which focused on hospice and hospice medication management. That company saw tremendous growth from 2001 to 2005. I decided there was something to this idea of building custom software and providing valuable data to help companies that are looking to grow and rapidly move through their marketplace.
That's where I got the idea to start Jack Russell Software, a small, custom software shop that was really focused on being a development shop for companies that couldn't afford to have their own development shop, and build the software they need that could change and move as their business changes and moves. I was fortunate to work in a lot of different spaces, from education to marketing and healthcare.
One of the clients was CareKinesis, which is now Tabula Rasa Health Care. They contracted us to build a couple of custom products. One is the flagship product that we have today. Around 2010, I met with the CEO of CareKinesis, and having a healthcare background, I was a big fan of the mission and thought that it was a smart move to come together and be that development shop inside CareKinesis full time. CareKinesis was a startup in its own right, just getting started in 2010. We've been pretty successful. We've grown over 30% every year since 2010, and we did an IPO last September.
Last year, Tabula Rasa Health Care launched the JRS Innovation Center. The JRS Innovation Center, which stands for Jack Russell Software, is this office (in Mount Pleasant) where we focus on doing research and development. I am the chief technology innovation officer. We focus on technology innovation and research development. We do programs like hackathons and conferences. And we also have a coding school, which is the JRS Coding School. We launched that in September last year.
The coding school is really to help train people in the community. It's very much focused on giving people an opportunity to learn to code in a 12-week program versus the normal four-year or two-year educational programs. It's mainly for folks who are looking to change careers or people who have already graduated college and are looking to get into the software development field. The goal of the course is to help you go from knowing a little bit, like building a web page, to being able to build a full-stack application.
You helped the Charleston Digital Corridor establish its CODEcamp training programs for adults and middle schoolers, and now you run JRS Coding School. Why is that a focus for you?
The saying is, "software is eating the world." In pretty much every profession, more and more software is being introduced. We don't have enough engineers now, and it's not like we're trimming down. The new iPhone just came out and has facial recognition. There's a new technology innovation every month, it seems like. If there's anyone who's interested in learning to code and solving problems, there's going to be high demand for a long, long time.
How would you describe your organization's culture?
Passionate, self-driven and constantly pursuing mastery of skills. We're very passionate about the purpose that we are trying to solve as a business. We've very much self-driven, so we don't need people to tell us what to do. And we want to be the best at our career. We really pour a lot into education and training because this field is constantly moving, and it's constantly getting better. In order to stay current as a software developer, you have to commit to learn all the time.
What is your management style? Why is that your approach? Has it changed over time?
The most success I've had with a management style is focusing on communicating vision, mission and purpose, and empowering the team members to focus on the intention or the action, and really getting out of their way and letting them do the great job that they know how to do.
What lessons have you learned from good bosses? Bad bosses?
Lessons from good bosses would be leading by example, communicating vision and empowering your team. Lessons from the bad would be to speak straight, be transparent. Let people know what the intent is, what the vision is, where you are going, and give them an opportunity to provide value and provide feedback. And never point the finger at anybody. There's not a lot of good that can happen.
Realize that every challenge is an opportunity for everyone to learn and do better, and if you go at this hard problem that we're trying to solve and go through our day-to-day with that attitude, then great things will come out. There's no need to do the reverse of that.
What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?
I'm still learning, but I would say the hardest lesson that I'm still learning is to underpromise and overdeliver. It's easy to get super excited about solutions that you're coming out with, or technology or science, and say, "Oh, this is amazing. This is going to do all these things." Then you get to the customer or consumer and they are disappointed because it doesn't do everything that you said it did.
What's the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?
If you look at it from the outside, you might say, "Oh, they're an entrepreneur, they're in control of their own company, their own team and their own day-to-day work." I think that's not true. If anything, getting out there and starting a business or starting a service, you realize quickly how little control you have. It's not about being in control. It's about coming up with an idea and getting a group of people to work together to provide solutions that create opportunity to distribute that idea.
What obstacles have you faced building your business? How have you overcome them?
Every day there are barriers, obstacles – or you could say challenges and opportunities. There have been several throughout my career. One of the things about overcoming any challenge is to get clarity of mission and stay to that mission.
It's OK to change how you get there, but it's very important to understand your vision and mission and stick with it, and have faith and confidence that you will clear those obstacles and barriers.
What do you look for in the people you hire?
Passionate, purpose-driven team players with a deep desire to learn and get better. Learning to code – and learning anything – is really, really hard. I read a statistic a few years ago about guitar: A lot of people try to learn the guitar, and they get to a point to where it gets really hard, and a lot of people give up. What we look for are the people that push past that point, that are willing to learn and then fight to get over that hill, even though they know they are going to get to another hill.
What is your biggest pet peeve in business or amongst colleagues?
The lack of a team-based mindset or approach.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
I would recommend that you understand a business domain really, really well before you jump in to start a company in that domain. Because if you don't fully understand it on the outside, your great idea may look great, but it may be hard to get adoption.
What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?
Trying to find that first job is really, really hard. Even knowing how to code, knowing how to do the job, you have to keep coding every day to keep up your skillset. Don't give up. Continue to publish any work that you do and talk about it. Get out into the community, go to events, talk to as many technologists as you can, introduce yourself and really seek opportunistic meetings. Even though it's a large industry, it's still very much a word-of-mouth process.
The last thing is to do some pro bono work or do some work for nonprofits while looking to get a job. It can't hurt to add value to folks that may not be capable of affording software development work but need it. Look for opportunities to give, and then other opportunities will come your way.
What one person has been the biggest influence on your business life? And why?
My dad is the biggest influence on my life. He's a great leader, a football and golf coach. He really helped a lot of high school kids find their way into the world. He taught for over 50 years. Truly, he's my hero, and I've learned a lot about life in general from him.
Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?
Three times a week I get up at 5:30 in the morning and I go to a fit body boot camp and do that for 30 minutes. I absolutely love it, and I absolutely hate it. But it's a great routine that I've been doing for a year now. If I don't do it first thing in the morning, it's never going to get done. It helps center me and set my day.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
What is your usual Starbucks order?
Diet Coke. I think if I just had an IV of Diet Coke...but if I'm at Starbucks, I get the iced vanilla latte, because I can say that without making a fool of myself.
Outside of work what keeps you busy?
I have two kids, 9 and 2. Pretty much whatever they're into is what I'm doing outside of work.
What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?
I have been trying to help grow the community ever since, and also trying to convince other developers that it's worth growing this community, that there is value here. I don't think, with the growth that we've seen, that that's a needed message anymore. There are meetups every week. I am pretty excited about how we continue to grow, and I'd love to see for our community to double every two years. I think we have a long runway ahead.