Jason Copeland, RingCentral’s new VP of Product Management for collaboration and artificial intelligence, has more than 15 years of experience leading product management, development, and marketing at Apple, Good Technology, Palm, and Siebel Systems. Before joining RingCentral, he was an entrepreneur and co-founder and CEO of the artificial intelligence startup DeepVision.
We spoke with Jason about his passion for AI, the inside scoop on working with Steve Jobs at Apple, and lessons learned along the way.
What motivated you to make the move to RingCentral?
For a long time, the fun and challenging jobs have been in mobile apps and web apps for consumers and consumer devices like the iPhone. I really enjoyed my six plus years at Apple because Apple has made technology products accessible and even loved by consumers.
Now, when “consumers” go to work, they want the same level of craftsmanship, attention to design, and usability. That is what RingCentral brings to business communications and collaboration.
What problem are you solving?
Knowledge workers are under siege with the sheer quantity of information that’s coming at them. Futurologist Alvin Toffler predicted this would become a problem in his book Future Shock back in the 1970s. Information overload occurs when you are trying to deal with more information than you are able to process to make sensible decisions. So you delay making decisions, or you make the wrong decisions. Corporate email is the main culprit, but there are others. Companies like Microsoft, Google, and IBM have been trying to “fix email” for years, but, with the exception of search, most solutions have done more harm than good. I think email is hopelessly broken, at least as the main mode of enterprise communications.
There is a huge opportunity to improve the way workers and teams communicate and collaborate around different kinds of conversations. Sometimes a quick message is fine. Other times we need a full video conference with document sharing. Or a quick phone call. Workers and IT need these in a single, unified app.
Mobile and social media brought us chat and texting, which help cut through the clutter. With RingCentral Glip, we’ve built a team messaging and collaboration application that allows people to have one-to-one conversations, one-to-many communications, and active group discussions with file sharing, built-in voice calling, voicemail transcription, robust video collaboration, and more. That’s the promise of unified communications.
At the same time, we have to be careful to make sure everything we add to the user experience makes it more productive and engaging. It’s really easy to overwhelm the end user.
Fundamentally, apps should be smart enough to know what you care about and who you care about. They should interrupt you less frequently with low priority messages so you can stay focused on work, while alerting you to important things in a way that helps you prioritize. This is the biggest opportunity in business communications today.
Tell us a bit more about your time at Apple
I led a small product team that helped to define the product strategy and features behind Apple’s cloud strategy, iCloud in particular. I had the pleasure of collaborating with a group of engineers, designers, and product managers, who are among the most talented people in Silicon Valley and the world.
On the heels of iPhone, Cloud Services at Apple was a blank slate, so we had a lot of freedom to experiment. For example, Find My iPhone didn’t start out as an approved project. We saw a problem, and a few engineers realized we had many of the elements already available and put together a proof of concept. We helped them polish it until we had a working prototype, which we sprang on our managers in a meeting one day. Once you saw it working, it was obviously going to be a useful app.
We shipped it without much fanfare and didn’t think it would be such a big deal, but consumers and the press really responded to it. When our boss, Eddy Cue, showed it to Steve Jobs, his reaction was something like, “Everybody who has an iPhone should just get this for free.” And so we said, “Well, maybe we should make some other cloud services free, too…” After that, we were off to the races.
We developed an overarching cloud strategy, which became iCloud. It was an amazing opportunity to work on a brand new “1.0” Apple product line and have a bit of direct exposure to Steve and his way of thinking.
Another focus of mine was: how do we make devices and applications smart? We have all these things on the iPhone like a camera, microphone, gyroscope—many sensors. Could we use them in new ways to make smart cloud services?
Around that time, I met the CEO of a little start-up called Siri. I was so impressed after meeting him over lunch that I invited him to come to the Apple campus and show the demo around. Apple jumped at the opportunity and acquired Siri, which was the beginning of Apple’s AI initiatives in the “digital assistant” space—not just natural language processing, but also computer vision and a whole spectrum of things.
Eventually, I left Apple and founded an AI-focused startup with a couple of engineers who had just completed their PhDs at Stanford. We created a computer vision middleware platform and training tools for AI algorithms to enable real-time navigation for drones and robots, and facial recognition for security cameras.
What is your approach to leading a team of engineers, given that you’re not one yourself?
Leading a cross-functional team is a little like playing in a jazz ensemble, which I did back in school. Everyone has expertise, and if it comes together the right way, you get something compelling. The trumpeter and saxophone players can do things no one else can, but they all need the drummer to keep time and drive the beat.
It takes a team of experts to build a product, and I see my role as helping them work closer together.
What leadership lesson did you have to learn the hard way?
One tough lesson for me was at Palm. In 2006-2008, I was the Director of Product Management, developing webOS on Palm Pre. We developed truly new ideas that were widely recognized in the industry as a completely original, elegant, modern experience. It wasn’t a copy of anything. We designed it pre-iPhone and pre-Android. Reviewers like Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal said he liked it better than the iPhone. In fact, both iOS and Android borrowed liberally from webOS.
As good as the product was, we launched it too late and with the wrong mobile carrier. Had a few things been handled better, we could have been 6-12 months ahead of the iPhone.
The other lesson I learned is about market power. Apple and Google have extraordinary go-to-market budgets across marketing, PR, and advertising. They are just huge machines. So while webOS and the Palm Pre were heralded as a great product, we had a difficult time getting enough traction with consumers and the channel. We couldn’t get our message through.
RingCentral is also going up against tough competitors. What have you learned that you can apply now?
It’s still early days for team collaboration and group messaging, and the dynamics of enterprise requirements make it different from social networks or search. Everyone is expecting collaboration to be a massive market in the next few years, but most companies outside of Silicon Valley still are trying to understand what it means to them.
Fortunately, RingCentral has unique assets than the other players. RingCentral’s unified communications as a service (UCaaS) technology was born in the cloud. We’re the global leader in Cloud PBX, which provides companies with voice calling, voicemail, extensions, conferencing, paging, intercom calling, and more. We’ve extended that with SMS integration, video meetings, and now team messaging. We’ve got amazing capabilities in terms of delivering really high-quality voice telephony services in the cloud.
We’re going to serve our customers in a better way, addressing both how they’re managing communications platforms and how people want to work. We’re on far better footing than our perceived competitors. Some are jumping into collaboration from adjacent markets, and others are building platforms from scratch. They are going to face different challenges.
I often hear that some of our customers suddenly discover that they already have RingCentral Glip. IT managers love that it is already part of their deployment, and many users will adopt it quickly once they know it’s available to them.
Before we wrap up, one off-the-wall question: if you could have lunch with any person, living or dead, who would it be?
Probably Walt Disney. He was sort of the Steve Jobs of his era.
Like Steve, Walt Disney was a radical visionary, highly creative, passionate, and obsessed with details. He famously said that “If you can imagine it, you can build it.” He built things that he had absolutely no business even attempting, but he usually prevailed.
For example, he decided to try to make an animated figure of Lincoln giving his best speeches, but the technology that he wanted for this literally did not exist. And Disney was no high-tech engineer. Did that stop him? Of course not! Disney collaborated with his fellow “Imagineers” and an outside engineering firm to make the first “audio-animatronic” figure. Lincoln was one of Disney’s greatest heroes, so he created a compelling experience of Abraham Lincoln delivering highlights from some of his greatest speeches. This was built in 1964! But it is still incredibly impressive and engaging.
Disney wanted to entertain, obviously, but he also sought to educate and inspire. To nudge society in the right direction. Can you see an entertainment conglomerate spending huge sums of R&D to build things like that today? Not likely. That was part of the genius of Disney. He played the long game and believed in quality, innovation, and literally changing the world for the better.