Paul Toomey founded Geographic Solutions in 1992. The company has seen exponential growth and provides an awesome working environment for their 300 employees.
Paul took an hour from his day to speak to us about the company, Tampa, tech as a whole, and cool upcoming projects.
Roxanne Williams: Geographic Solutions is a software development firm that specializes in web-based systems for workforce development. Can you give us the 30k foot overview of an average implementation?
Paul Toomey: In terms of the business that we do, we have a solution for workforce development and unemployment benefits systems, so these implementations are quite large and complex undertakings. They can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, and it’s not unusual for 130 people to be touching the implementation, in some form or other. We have a system with many modules – 54 different modules, in fact – so it kind of depends on the type of implementation. The highest level of complexity that we do is implementing an unemployment benefits system. That’s a system that takes claims from individuals, figures out how much they’re owed by the government, calculates the payment, and sends it out.
For example, if you look at a system we have in Tennessee, it can interface with over 60 different legacy applications in that system. The challenge for us, during an implementation, is manifold: we have an existing off-the-shelf system, but every state does business differently, and we have to customize it to their exact needs.
Matt Vaughn: Especially with legacy systems like that, which aren’t built to talk to anything else.
Paul: Right! Take the most extreme example for us: the unemployment system. The average age of an unemployment benefits system in the United States is about 30 years. You’re talking about using very old mainframes and databases that have been kind of broken up and used in a million different ways over the years to get what they need out of it.
The big challenges in a project for us are, firstly, all the customizations that will be needed. An example of that is, we’re working on a new system for Pennsylvania’s unemployment benefits, and I think there are about 750 change orders associated with that project. That doesn’t include customizing reports or forms or anything like that. So if you take all that into account, the number is probably more around 1,500. That is an effort that we have to take into account.
Secondly, the data conversion is one of the real critical paths, as we have to take the data out of sometimes 1 system, sometimes 5 or 6. In the case of California, we converted about 70 million records from 5 different systems, which had duplications throughout.
Thirdly, the interface that I mentioned to these legacy systems. We have to have a team that specializes in this. These can either be batched nightly, or they can be real-time web service interfaces to the human services system, the tax system, the various financial systems they have, and so on and so forth. Implementations are big projects that require careful management.
In terms of methodology, we use a hybrid of agile and waterfall. We use agile for design, and particularly, development. We do development in 2 week sprints. But when it comes to implementations, it’s waterfall. We’re not releasing a new product every 2 weeks. We’re releasing changes, which the client looks at, but at the end of the day, there’s a user acceptance testing period that we go through and then we go live. You can’t do it in pieces. The clients have to keep paying people their unemployment checks, so you have to keep the old system going while you develop the new one, and then cut over on a certain weekend. We have to use that kind of combined methodology, if you will.
Matt: That’s interesting, especially on the data conversion side. Your ETL/EDI people, I’m assuming, are far from bored on any given day!
Paul: For sure. Our system is very, very data-driven, so if there’s a mistake in the data, it’s going to be a mistake in the system. We started life off as a company that did labor market information systems, which we kind of pioneered that area. You could go “show me the unemployment rate in the Tampa Bay area and how much I could make.” If, for some reason, that was wrong or I couldn’t get to it, it wasn’t the end of the world to an individual. Then we went to workforce, which was a little more intense. But unemployment benefits? Very intense. If you don’t send someone that check, which they’re relying on, that’s going to be a big deal. And if you send them too little, that’s also going to be a big deal. They’re liable to call the governor’s office or their local legislator if that check is wrong – understandably so, since that’s what they’re relying on to live. It creates some intensity and a need to be very precise to make sure the business rules are correct. 30% will differ from state to state, and that’s what creates all the work.
Matt: You founded Geographic Solutions in 1992. Firstly, congratulations on the quarter-century milestone! My question is, being that you’ve been in the area for 26 years, from your perspective, how has the tech scene in Tampa changed?
Paul: Great question. I think the Tampa Bay area traditionally has been an area – and to some extent, still is – that is service-oriented. It’s a tourism area, lots of banking, heavy in healthcare. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen technology develop a lot from being dominated by larger corporations, to pure software development companies. They’re flourishing here. It’s still not Austin or San Jose, but I’m seeing more development. I can see it when we interview people. There’s more of a background that they actually worked for software vendors and development companies, as opposed to service-oriented businesses where software was only a component.
I think the Tampa Bay area is growing up. I think it’s a better area for talent than other people whom I talk to. Some people will say “well I need to be in Research Triangle or Austin because that’s where the talent is,” but I think the talent is here, you just have to dig a little deeper to find it.
Roxanne: You currently have 300 employees, correct? On that talent note, do you find that the Tampa area has enough highly-qualified technology talent to satisfy the current demand, or do you have to search nationally when you hire new employees?
Paul: Have you talked to any company that is able to satisfy its hiring needs here? Haha!
Matt: It’s interesting to hear the answers to this question. We ask most of our interviewees, and some of them will say “no, our industry is 0% served as far as tech goes,” and others say it’s only once in a while that they absolutely need to expand a search nationally. What does that look like for you guys?
Paul: We do hire people from out of town. We find the majority of our talent in the Tampa Bay area, but we’re not adverse to hiring somebody and relocating them from anywhere, as long as they’re qualified. I think there’s a tendency for companies to say “I’m not finding enough talent so I need to move somewhere else” and my belief is they’ll move somewhere else and they’ll find that the situation is pretty similar. I’m fortunate in that I do business in 30 states and work with the Department of Labor and the workforce people, so I have a much better idea of what it’s like in other areas than probably most do. I think there’s always a tendency to think the grass is greener on the other side, and there are pros and cons to all of these areas. If I was sitting in Silicon Valley right now, I know there’s more computer talent out there, but the drawback is there’s more competition. I might be able to find more people that I can hire, but I’d probably be struggling more in terms of turnover as well.
Matt: We actually talked to Daniel James Scott recently, and we were talking about you and a couple of the others in the Tampa Bay Tech CEOs group. Are there any other areas that you’re active in the local tech community, other than Tampa Bay Tech?
Paul: That is probably the main area that we are active in. We’re probably not as active in the local scene as we should be, in the sense that we have no local customers. Our nearest client is in Tallahassee. We’re selling a very specialized product to government.
I enjoy the new CEO group – it’s a very valuable group, and probably more valuable than many other groups we could be part of, because these are people facing similar challenge. We also work actively with the local workforce board to help us recruit. I used to be on the board myself.
In the end, this is not our market. It’s where we’re located and where we develop, but we’re not selling anything local.
I do think Tampa Bay Tech is a great organization and it’s good for the Tampa Bay area. I’ve lived here for 33 years, and Tampa Bay, with some people, has the reputation that it’s not a good technology hub. I don’t think that’s true. I think the area has a lot to offer. We could do a better job of aligning the educational institutions here for what companies are needing, but it’s a great place to have a business, and the potential is even greater. I don’t really see why Austin, Texas should be a better place to have a company than Tampa – and I can think of a lot of reasons I’d rather be in Tampa!
Roxanne: Oh absolutely! A lot of us at Full Stack Talent are transplants. Which, speaking of, I see you’re from England! What made you move to the US?
Paul: I went to college at the University of London, and did my Masters degree in Geographic Information Systems and Remote Sensing the second year it was offered. That GIS technology was brand new at that point, and there was nothing for it in the UK. I sent my résumé to companies all across the US because it was more advanced there. It just so happened that I got a job for a company in St. Petersburg. They brought me over here, and I never left.
I was a computer programmer. Back in those days, there was no GPS for cruise missiles, so they flew by looking at a digital map. We created those maps for the cruise missiles. It was quite an interesting job that you have to be accurate on, or else the missiles run into a mountain.
Matt: Speaking of England, I came across the London2Paris ride from years ago. You might not know, but our company throws a charity Mario Kart tournament in St. Petersburg to raise funds to buy consoles and games for kids in local children’s hospitals. Your charity bicycle ride from London to Paris raising money for Treasures of Africa was a great mission. Congrats on raising over $25,000! What was that experience like, and will you be doing it again? Are there other philanthropic events Geographic Solutions is a part of?
Paul: That was a fun ride. We actually got to Paris the Saturday before the Tour de France came in, so we got to be there and we got to ride around the Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, which is like taking your life in your hands in a car on a bike… Scary as can be!
My sister-in-law runs an orphanage in Tanzania, which we sponsor, so we were able to raise some more money for that. We did a ride that was England from coast to coast a few years before that one. We climbed Kilimanjaro for the charity as well. We try, as much as we can, to raise money for that orphanage.
Matt: I read that one of the guys got into an accident and shattered something right before you were supposed to go?
Paul: Yeah, that was Dean. We were in California, out getting ready for that ride, and went down a very steep hill. He lost control of his bike. Lost consciousness, and broke his elbow. If he didn’t have a helmet on, it would have been all over. He got very lucky.
Against doctor’s orders, he flew out and met us in Paris, in a sling, but obviously couldn’t participate.
Matt: Is there anything else coming down the philanthropic pipeline coming soon?
Paul: We’re always doing various charitable things in terms of local charities and so on, but as far as the orphanage, we’re trying to figure out what we’re gonna do for next year. I had a pretty rough time, healthwise. I got pancreatitis the last few months, so I was out with that. But we’re trying to figure that out now.
We’ve been sending a couple employees out there every summer for a month to relieve some of the staff there and to help out at the orphanage. We’ll be doing that again this summer.
Roxanne: Wow! That’s incredible. Since we’re touching on employees now, I looked at your benefits page, and you guys offer quite a lot to your employees. How is the culture in the office?
Paul: I sit in an ivory tower, obviously! Haha. I think as a company, we’ve realized that our employees are everything in terms of what we provide. They create our product. So we try and do what we can in terms of benefits to be as attractive as possible. One of the things we do offer that is quite unusual these days is a health plan which is 100% covered by the company. We’ve done that since we started. It becomes more and more challenging as the years go by of course, due to increasing costs, but it’s important for us to do that. We have employees that have been here for over 20 years, and generally, people are shocked when I tell them the average age of our employee base is 44.
Matt: That’s so out of the norm for the Bay area as far as technology.
Paul: We tend to go higher. We’ve been around for a while and we like to go for programmers with a lot of experience – that includes both life experience and development experience. We’ve found that they tend to value what we bring in terms of a culture: a smaller, more agile kind of environment where they get more say and responsibility.
Matt: What do you hope to see in the next few years in Tampa Bay when it comes to technology?
Paul: With the assumption that the economy will stay how it is in the Tampa Bay area, creating an effective talent pool is key for businesses to thrive here – especially for businesses like mine. What drives us is the ability to find talented people, so I think the important thing is for employers and the educational system to work hand in hand in terms of what we should be training people on. The community colleges can help with that, and so can the workforce. They all need to work together.
I’d also like to see more of a regional approach to everything. We’re the Tampa Bay area, we’re not just St. Pete and Tampa and we shouldn’t compete against each other. Working together, to me, would be helpful and it needs to be facilitated.
Roxanne: I don’t know if you’ll be able to answer this question since you work with a lot of government stuff, but can you think of a particular implementation in your career that went completely wrong, and what you learned from it?
Paul: HAHA! In our industry, we have a reputation of delivering the system in one way or another.
For us, usually, the bigger the state, the more complicated the implementation. Our implementation in California from a few years ago was quite an achievement for us, for a variety of reasons: big state, big data, old legacy systems, large bureaucracy. California probably has 10 people for each person that works in Florida so that had some real challenges. We overcame them, but that was a difficult project to see home.
Matt: Any further thoughts or insights you’d like to share? Anything exciting coming down the pipeline for Geographic Solutions or for yourself?
Paul: We have some exciting stuff that we’re working on! We’ve developed this concept that is – but shouldn’t be – revolutionary. We’ve taken the workforce system and the unemployment system and made it the same system. We’re doing that now in Tennessee and Louisiana. For example, if you have the misfortune to be on unemployment or simply be unemployed, you come into our system and file your claim. What we do from there, which is pretty cool, is we take all the information you provided – because you had to tell us where you live, what your employment history was, etc – and immediately use it by putting you in front of a list of local jobs that really meet your background and qualifications. Every week when you come back to recertify that you’re still unemployed, we create you a dynamic reemployment strategy where we look at the job market and show you where you could go, where you could get trained (even online training, free of charge!), how you could use your skills.
We do that in Nebraska, and the Governor, in a state speech, credited us with saving the state $17 million in one year by getting people back to work quicker. That’s just direct cost, I’m sure with indirect costs it’s even more!
About Geographic Solutions:
Geographic Solutions is a privately-held S-corporation headquartered in Palm Harbor, Florida with a west coast office in Salinas, California. Founded in 1992, Geographic Solutions has extensive experience designing, developing, and maintaining web-based systems for the workforce development and unemployment insurance industries.
They have developed over 80 workforce systems for state and local agencies across the country and outlying U.S. territories. Their clients range from heavily-populated states and metropolitan areas to remote, sparsely-populated regions. They have delivered more than 25 large workforce development systems in the past five years alone. The systems collectively serve a population of more than 118 million individuals and consistently receive heavy user traffic and national recognition. Their software is currently accessible to over 75% of the job seekers and employers in the country.
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