Interview with Margaret Burd

June 1, 2010

Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes

Margaret Burd was working at Lucent in 2000 when the tech bubble burst, and she was forced to lay off herself and her entire department. Since she and her team members were "really cookin' along" at the time, doing high-quality, innovative work, she decided she'd just start a company and hire them back.

Margaret Burd

Margaret is a recognized leader in building and growing organizations that are constantly improving, acquiring skills, and implementing new and best-in-class development practices. She was previously director of engineering at Lucent Technologies, leading mobile internet and other telecommunications applications development. Margaret has over 15 years of experience in software development at Bell Laboratories, first as a developer and project manager, followed by three years as a technical manager and three years as director. She was responsible for managing customer contracts and relationships while running an organization with an $18M annual budget, up to 100 people at multiple (including international) sites, and as many as 10 simultaneous projects. She has a master's degree in computer science from the University of Kansas and a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Southwest Missouri State University. She holds two patents.

Margaret Burd

Transcript: 

An Interview with Margaret Burd Founder, President, & CEO, Magpie, Inc.

Date: June 1, 2010 Entrepreneurial Heroes Interview with Margaret Burd [intro music]

Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of the National Center for Woman and Information Technology, or NCWIT. Larry Nelson from w3w3.com is here today. Hi, Larry.

Larry Nelson: Hi. Yes, I'm really anxious for this interview.

Lucy: Well, this is one of a series of interviews that we do with women who have started IT companies. Many of them are serial entrepreneurs in all different types of IT sectors. We ask them for their advice on being entrepreneurs and the pathways that they've taken to be successful. It's a great series. We've had a lot of interest in it. We have another great entrepreneur with us today, a good friend of ours and, I must say with great pride, a successful Colorado entrepreneur, Margaret Burd. Hi, Margaret.

Margaret Burd: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Lucy: Oh, our pleasure. Margaret is the founder and president and CEO of Magpie. They are a software company. They provide software services and development in the space of smart energy and telecommunications, which is where I know them from the very best. Lately, they've had even more exciting things going on, if you can imagine that, than smart energy. I mean, that's pretty exciting. But, also, there's a new spin-off trial called Magpie Health Care, which is doing some very cool work in giving hospital providers the kind of phone-based tools they need to locate either specialists or others very easily. And, they don't have to wait on the line. I'm sure I'm not doing it justice, but it's a new venture for Magpie. So, Margaret, tell us a bit about Magpie, either Magpie One or Magpie Two. [laughs]

Larry: Yeah.

Margaret: Well, Magpie One, Magpie Telecom as we used to call it. But, we've branched so far into other industries that we just say Magpie now. Magpie, we bought it in 2001. Which was a difficult year to start a business, with 9/11 happening two months after we started, and then telecom crashing. But, we survived all that. We have about between 50 and 60 people now doing software for a whole variety of companies. In the last year and a half, we went out and explored the whole smart energy, smart grid space. And, have found that there's a very huge market there, especially now with all the stimulus money that we could tap, with very much the same skills that we have from our telecom experience. That experience is very high-end: Bell Labs, educated people. What we learned about creating reliable, scalable and all viable networks of AT&T we can apply now to the smart grid. When you pick up the phone, you want to get dial tone. When you flip on the switch, you want your lights to come on. So, it's very similar to the ways you have to think about developing these networks. Then, as Lucy said, about two and a half years ago, we got the idea to go into health care. I started wandering around hospitals personally, and we ended up getting an idea for a product there. Lucy did a really good job explaining what that does. We help caregivers find other caregivers in really efficient ways. Because that is a product-based business, we have spun that into its own little company. And, I chair the board for that company.

Lucy: So, see? She's not idle.

Larry: No, it doesn't sound...

Margaret: [laughs] We are pretty busy here.

Lucy: Yeah.

Larry: Well, that's fantastic.

Margaret: But, that's really fun. You want your services business to be really busy.

Lucy: Absolutely.

Larry: Yeah. Well, so, you've got 60 people now. I think when I interviewed Wendy Bohling you had about 12.

Margaret: [laughs] That could be true. We probably had a few more than that when you interviewed her. But, yeah, we started out. There were 10 partners, and eight of those partners are still here in our office in Westminster. We also have a little office in Durango whether the partner has eight or so people at any one time. So, we've been on a growth spurt here with this smart grid energy space. And, really constant growth this year. We've hired seven or eight people in the last couple of months.

Larry: Well, Margaret, you're involved with so many different things. Of course, now I see the Bell Labs connection here with you and Lucy. But, how did you first get into technology. And, what technologies today do you think are really cool?

Margaret: Well, actually, I probably come to technology in a weird way. Because my first career, I was teaching math and science and coaching lots of different sports in public schools in Missouri. I had done that for about nine years. In '83, I was still making $15,000 a year. I was pretty bored with that whole teaching thing, too. So, I started looking around for what I wanted to do next. And, it just so happened that the University of Kansas let you get into their computer science master's program if you had a math degree. I applied, and they accepted, and ended up with my master's in computer science. Right out of school, I got an offer from Bell Labs and ended up in Denver. And, that's how I got into technology.

Larry: Wow.

Margaret: It was kind of a whim. I showed a little aptitude when I got to KU. So, it all... It was an amazing turn of events in my life, I can just say that. And, probably just because. It's one of those things that just happens. In terms of cool, my guys, if they were on the phone, they would be talking about a bunch of cool technologies that they love. But, you know, to me it's more about figuring out where to go next in verticals and what technologies we can apply. So, I think less about them being cool, actually. But, every day when I pull out my iPhone, I think that's cool. I'm still thinking the iPhone is cool. So, I'm probably not the best person to talk to about cool. But, the cool part about the iPhone is that all these people all over the world can wake up in the morning. And, in their pajamas, create an application that somebody else somewhere else in the world is going to use via that device. And, then, I could go off to the other. In torrent, we use a lot of open source software. And, we contribute to open source. I think that's another one of those places where we have involved community in the creation of really cool things. So, that I think is really cool.

Lucy: Well, it is pretty fascinating. When you think back 30 years what we were doing with computer science. And, now, you think that, in fact, you can create this application and it just goes everywhere in the world. It is amazing, and I think it still deserves some awe. [laughs]

Larry: Yeah.

Margaret: Well, I am awed almost every day by something there, yeah.

Lucy: I think that, that deserves some awe.

Margaret: Yeah.

Lucy: So, Margaret, I certainly knew you when we were both at Bell Labs. Then you took off and you became an entrepreneur. Why did you do that?

Margaret: Well, that was pretty much because Luce had told me... Luce and I had ended up in a department of about 70 people. And, I had another 30 at Nice, France. And, we were really cooking along and having a great time building cool mobile Internet applications. This is in 2000 so that was well before those were cool. And doing some applications for AT&T. But we'd also--we'd spent a lot of time getting our department to really develop software in innovative ways and in different team ways, than had been used in the past. And we could actually show that we were improving our productivity all the time and actually had measures for productivity. We were really cooking along and everybody really liked each other, it was like this love fest in my department. I mean, we really cared about each other. And so, then Lucent told me that I should lay everybody off. And so I did, and fired myself. And we had always joked in my department, that if things got too bad, we would start our own company. And, well, things were pretty bad when you have to lay everybody off. So, ten of us out of that started Magpie. And so, I kind of just wandered into being an entrepreneur, as well. But it's been tremendously great. So things happen.

Larry: Wow, that's...

Margaret: You probably listen to this and think that everything just happens to me.

Lucy: Oh, no. No, no. [laughter]

Margaret: But it is kind of... When you get into certain situations, things happen and you can react to them and go forth and do great things, or you can not. So I really think the founders at Magpie chose a path that is pretty cool.

Larry: Well, Margaret, along the way, did you have a mentor, did you have other people who served maybe as role models? In fact, who influenced and supported you in your career path?

Margaret: Oh man, there's been so many. Well, one even--well, Lucy. When I look at you leaving there and starting this really great foundation and going out and raising the money you needed to do that. And to do something that is totally needed in the world, that's really inspiring to me, and it has been inspiring to me. So, I'll just say that. I learned specific things from a whole bunch of different people. I had this--which Lucy knows well--Sally Werner was my boss for some time at Lucent. And there, she really taught me about how to manage people and how to do that in a way that is just really cool. And so, I learned a ton by working for her. There was another VP there, that I learned how you celebrate success. And how you not only do that, but how you communicate with large groups of people that work for you. So it's a totally important thing, especially when you're an entrepreneur, I might add. I learned about organization development from a consultant, Susan Carabello, who's consulted with me through most of my career, actually; and learned what you have to do to create organizations that really work. And I learned about sales and marketing from another really good friend of mine, Robin Wright. And I still call her and ask her for her advice on paths that we may be taking here at Magpie, and she consults with us. And then, I think... But the most important thing to being an entrepreneur I actually learned from my mom and my grandmother. And they worked really hard and they never gave up. And I think, those are the two things, that to be a great entrepreneur, you have to get.

Larry: Wonderful.

Lucy: Absolutely. I think it leads to another question around the personal characteristics, you know, that you have as an entrepreneur. Because you have worked hard and you've never given up, and you also have looked at opportunities to really take them where they could go. You know, and that's a very observant thing for people to do, to be that thoughtful about what life puts right in front of you right where you can take it. So what other words would you use to describe yourself as an entrepreneur?

Margaret: I'm very optimistic. And, you know, as I've talked to a lot of other entrepreneurs, I think often they are really an optimistic person. So I don't think I'm rare in that regard, at all, and I think you have to be. And that helps you see those things also. And it also can be a real detriment. You know, you have your rosy glasses on all the time and don't know how to actually look at a new idea or look at a new plan, or whatever. So I'm not saying... But you have to kind of think you can do things. You know what I mean? And that's that optimism. I think for me, especially in the services business, but probably true for lots of small businesses, it seems to be a good entrepreneur, you really have to like people. And you have to like helping people and you have to enjoy going out and meeting people. And just walking up and introducing yourself to someone. There's something about just enjoying being around new people and talking to them about what they've got going on, and I really like that. Probably most important in this business too, though, has been you have to... I think I'm good and I'm pretty creative in my problem solving abilities. I don't mind solving problems. A problem is a problem, it's just a thing to be solved today. And I think I'm creative in how I can do that. Not that other people aren't just as creative, but I think it adds a skill for being... When you are an entrepreneur, you're going to be hit with all these issues, all the time. And so, figuring out how to do them in a way that you can afford, in a way that's maybe going to work and, you know, so forth, is pretty important. And then, I think lastly, I really like to start things. That initial forming of the idea and storming through understanding what you're going to do. I really like that part of the whole process. So...

Larry: Well, you know, one of the things we have to ask is that, if you were sitting down right now at a table with a person who was going to become an entrepreneur, what advice would you give them? Margaret: Well, first of all, I'd say it's really hard so you really have to want it. It's really risky and most small businesses fail, so you really have to want it. [laughter] And it's going to take a lot of work. But if you really want it, it's so worth doing. And I'd tell them to go find a mentor, someone that they can sit with. And sometimes you have to pay for that and sometimes you can get that for free. So, early on, I always got that for free. But there's also groups out there, CEO groups, that can really be helpful. And I've been a member of Renaissance Executive Forums, one of those groups, for a long time now. And, totally helpful, because you get to bounce your ideas and problems and everything else off a bunch of people that all have those same problems. So, I think you need that. And then, I think really think about how you're going to interface with your partners, if you're going to have partners in your business. And know that that relationship all changes as you go through the different stages of your company and have that legally set up so that you can make changes that make sense in easy ways, that just recognize that people change.

Larry: That's a great list.

Lucy: It certainly is a great list. And I have to say that Margaret was being modest when she was talking about her personal characteristics. I mean, Margaret is really a great leader of technologists. We rarely talk about that on this interview series. But because your tech companies, obviously... Our founders and CEO's are leading engineers, a lot of them, and that's a special skill set.

Margaret: Well, thank you for saying that. I think--well, I love engineers, first of all. But they are an interesting sort that--you know--that you have to figure out how to lead along. So, thank you for saying that.

Lucy: Yeah, it's always been an interesting thing. Larry writes books and maybe one day he can write a book about leading engineers. Larry: Oh.

Margaret: That would be a great idea.

Lucy: I think that would be a great book, wouldn't it?

Margaret: Yeah, I think there's several million people that could use one.

Lucy: So, you've given us probably one story about a tough part in your career that ended up where you fired yourself and started Magpie. What's another tough thing you've had to do in your career?

Margaret: It's been all kinds of places at Magpie, where you get to spots where all your management team, in my case at the time they were partners, and were in these difficult situations where you have to really--maybe an example would be you have to spend a bunch of money. And it's really hard at the time, because you don't have the money to spend. But if you're going to move to the next step, you have to like go get that money, somewhere. And in our case, we were bootstrapping everything. I was taking the profits of their business to go off and do these new things, like the energy practice. That was--you know, people think, "Oh, you go start a new energy practice." But we spent a whole person's time, for over a year, figuring out how to approach that market and what software was required in that market, and actually having conversations with companies in that market. So, you know, it's a big investment for a small company to do things like that. And I think that the hard times had been in convincing your partners, for example, that that's a great thing to do. So, they've been mostly around that. Other hard times, I have trouble even really thinking about them, Lucy. Because they're not... I don't think about them as hard times. I think about--oh, yeah, that was a problem time. Last year, for example: 2009 was... I'm so glad we're through it.

Lucy: Yeah, I know.

Margaret: Everything was hard. Everything we were bidding on was--there were, you know, five companies bidding against us. And there wasn't very much to bid on and it was really hard. And we ended up having a flat year which was not very--that was great. In fact, I say that last year was the new great. But it's so much different now, this year. So, I mean, that was really a hard year, but it's just another problem in business that you kind of work through. I don't have lots of examples where I think, "Oh, that was something I really figured out how to work through and I should tell people."

Lucy: Yeah.

Margaret: There all kind of just--it's day to day problems. You know what I mean?

Larry: Yeah.

Lucy: Yeah, absolutely.

Margaret: So I don't have great examples there.

Larry: Well, that's--you know, starting a company in 2001, "Hi-Tech", and then, living through 2009, you're doing fantastic.

Lucy: 2009 was just an angry year. Larry: Yeah, really.

Lucy: I mean, it was just an angry year. It was just one of those years, that it was time to be over.

Larry: Yeah.

Margaret: Oh, it was just icky the whole time.

Lucy: Yeah, I know. Margaret: And '02, that was really a difficult year. But, you know, when you're starting a business, I mean, you have expectations about when you're going to finally get some customers. But, beyond that, you know it's going to be hard. And so, what we learned out of that--and we always learn something out of our hard times, by the way--we learned how to do cash-flow management in great detail. And last year, I think we learned that in times like that, you have to hone your sales processes to really go after the small set of customers that are out there. And we did that. And now, in this year, we are cooking along with really great new processes and with new sales people, that really understand how to do that and with sales, there's lots of really good things that happen out of those hard times, if you make it through them.

Lucy: Absolutely.

Larry: Wow. You know, with all the things that you're doing, and you're expanding into new silos, and everything that you're doing in your career, how do you bring balance into your personal and your professional lives?

Margaret: Balance is an interesting word. Well, I have a wonderful life partner that I love to vacation and see the world with and enjoy theater with, and exercise with, and so forth. So, I make time for those things. And I really like to go to the beach, so I go. And this may sound counter-intuitive, but I do a lot of non-profit work. So I'm on several non-profit boards and I raise a lot of money for those causes. And that is a lot of extra work, but then it also brings balance, because you're out actually giving back to people that really need your help. So that always feels really good, even though it makes me stay up way too late.

Lucy: Yeah.

Margaret: And then, I really like to ride my bicycle. And so, I make time, at least on the weekends, to do some longer rides. And I put my iTunes in my ears, and I've pretty much got balance then I would say.

Larry: Well, just so you don't swim and bike.

Lucy: Especially on your bike.

Larry: Yeah, right.

Lucy: You'd better have balance on your bike.

Larry: Yeah, yeah.

Margaret: Yeah, yeah. Oh, good point!

Lucy: Yeah. If no other time, you need to balance on your bike.

Margaret: That's right.

Lucy: So Margaret, tell us what's next for you. You've done a lot, you've accomplished a lot, you've got some exciting new applications that you're working on and at least two companies. What's next?

Margaret: Well, obviously, or maybe it's not obvious, but I really want to see where I can take those Magpie companies in the next probably two, three, four years. And I think in the health care business, we are on the edge of real greatness in terms of the application we're providing and what it's looking like in the markets. So I really want to stay around, at least as chair of that board, and see where we can take that. And then, in the services business, this energy thing is really important to the whole world, so it feels like I want to stay around and do that for a while, too. And then, after that though, I think--I've got this vision of doing a lot of work for non-profits, but also being able at that time to fund them, in ways that are greater than what I can do now. So I want to do that. And then, there's a whole bunch of South Pacific islands and beaches that I haven't...

Lucy: Yeah, no. They sure beat the...

Margaret: ...hung around. So I want to do that, too.

Lucy: They sure beat the beach in Colorado, don't they?

Larry: Yeah, yeah.

Margaret: Yeah, yeah. Colorado's a great place. But without the beach, I have to...

Lucy: There's no...

Margaret: ...vacation other places.

Lucy: There's no beach.

Margaret: Yeah.

Lucy: Yeah.

Larry: Yeah, just don't ride your bike while you're swimming. OK?

Margaret: [laughs] Well, you know, on all those islands a bike is pretty good transportation. Really.

Larry: Yeah.

Margaret: Yeah. But that's what I've got in mind, pretty much to follow on with some more and greater non-profit work.

Lucy: Well, you know, that's very--you are very philanthropic and a very giving person and just a wonderful member of our community here in Colorado. So, we really want to thank you for talking to us. We've enjoyed chatting with you. And I want to remind listeners where they can find this podcast: you can find it at w3w3.com, Internet radio.

Larry: You betcha!

Lucy: And also, ncwit.org. Thank you, Margaret!

Margaret: Oh, I appreciate the time and really enjoyed chatting with you guys.

Larry: Alright.

Lucy: Thank you.

Larry: Same here, we'll see you soon!

Lucy: See you soon!

Margaret: See you!