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“Distributed workforce” job completes puzzle for Curtis entrepreneur
Like many talented, creative, technically-educated people in the 1990s, Bob Willis was drawn into the tech startup boom. After completing a degree in information systems at Arizona State University, Bob took a job with a software development startup and when, after six months, the company was purchased; he took a job with another startup and moved to Boulder, Colorado. That company was also sold, he said, and, “still wanting to fulfill my dream of being a millionaire, I chose yet another startup for employment.”
This time his new company fielded some Lockheed Martin contracts and things were starting to look a little rosy. Until the events of 9/11 occurred.
“After 9/11 we lost all of our subcontracts with Lockheed Martin and the company let go half its staff, including me,” said Bob. “We were living in Denver, unemployed with two kids, and after 9/11 no one was hiring and after the technology bubble burst, no one was investing in technology start-ups either. We were all battening down the hatches and holding on.”
A simpler life
Bob’s wife Tori had grown up in Grand Island and she suggested they buy a business in a small town in Nebraska where it is possible to live a simpler and safer life. Bob searched through businesses for sale on eBay and stumbled upon a weekly newspaper for sale in Curtis, Nebraska.
“The advertisement was laden with all the buzz words that sparked my attention,” Bob said. “Words like ‘make a difference in your community’, ‘own your own business’, ‘your voice will be heard’.” They traveled to Curtis to check it out.
“We toured the town, drove by the college, and when we passed the elementary school, I noticed dozens of bicycles lying out on the grass,” Bob said. “I didn’t know places still existed in the United States where children didn’t need to lock a bike. It was exciting to see.” The Willis family decided to move to Curtis. Bob said, “It was a great choice for our family.”
The IBM connection
These days, Tori is the managing editor and does most of the work on the Frontier County Enterprise, because Bob finally found the technical job that matches his skills and the challenge he was seeking. He’s the senior member of a distributed workforce team overseeing a website analytics service for IBM.
“I am an expert in one of many products owned by IBM,” he said. “I have a suite of customers who want to know exactly what their users do on their websites. Are people connecting? How many people start to sign up and don’t? What are people looking at on the site? How do they navigate?” Bob describes the IBM platform he uses as “Google Analytics on steroids.”
“We log into the servers of huge, huge companies. My role includes from when the customer first enters the site, the key things they do on the site or conversions, and key informatics. We analyze this data and build flows along those lines of design to make the site work better, then implement them on the company’s website.”
According to Bob, IBM fully supports a distributed work force, and only one person of the team works in the corporate office in Boston; the rest live in Pennsylvania, Iowa, California, Utah, and Texas, along with two in Nebraska.
Working as a team in a distributive work environment presents unique challenges because team members can’t casually walk down the hall to ask a question. Willis said, “I am the senior guy on the team so I communicate with everyone on the team to keep us informed and up-to-date with each other’s projects. We communicate internally and we also schedule weekly conference calls. We exchange instant messages sometimes 50 or 60 times a day.”
But, of course, the distributed workforce environment is not without its rewards. Willis has a nice big office in his home with a big window and a view of two pear trees stocked with bird feeders and plenty of birds.
A small town future
Willis says he would be happy working for IBM for the next 20 years, but, he says, “I have a real entrepreneurial bent.”
In his spare time, he is in the process or resurrecting an early dream of starting a golf magazine by building a website, “Golf Courses of Nebraska.” He’s also interested in other business opportunities that may appear.
“I like the idea of a starting a coffee shop in Curtis similar to Sehnert’s in McCook to offer something for college kids to do, and maybe even open a bowling alley,” he says, noting that businesses on main streets in small towns are often prosperous.
Despite a somewhat rocky path along the way, Bob and Tori Willis got everything they were looking for: a community-oriented rural lifestyle, a safe and secure place to raise their kids, and enough career challenges to keep life interesting for both of them. What more could any of us ask?