Justin Herman, Global Head of Public Sector for Twilio, discusses the critical role emerging technologies play in making the workplace inclusive and accessible.


Intro: [00:00:01.02] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:23.00] Universal design is the process of creating products that are accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities and other characteristics. Universally designed products accommodate individual preferences and abilities. They communicate necessary information effectively and can be approached, reached, manipulated and used regardless of the individual’s body size, posture or mobility. With universal design, products are designed according to principles of universal design, and they are designed to be usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible and without the need for adaption or specialization of that design. What does workplace communication using technology have to do with universal design? Well, that’s what we’re going to be talking about today in this episode of the Workology podcast. This is part of our Future Work series powered by PEAT. They’re the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year, we’re investigating what the next 30 years will look like for people with disabilities at work and the potential of emerging technologies that make workplaces more inclusive and accessible. Today, I’m joined by Justin Herman. Justin Herman is the Global Head of Public Sector for Twilio, a cloud communications company that powers many of the most innovative businesses and public services. Previously, Justin launched the U.S. General Services Administration’s Government Wide Emerging Technologies program to support and coordinate citizen services initiatives in artificial intelligence, social media, robotic process automation and others across more than 300 federal, state and local agencies. He also served on the White House National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee on Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence for two administrations. Justin, welcome to the Workology podcast.

Justin Herman: [00:02:34.00] Thank you so much for having me today.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:37.00] Your background is very interesting. I want to know more. Tell us maybe a little bit more and share with us how does one get on the White House National Science and Technology Council subcommittee.

Justin Herman: [00:02:51.00] So it goes a bit far back. I guess you could say that I’ve always been very passionate about the intersection of technology and communications. I went to a tiny school that was kindergarten through 12th grade in New Hampshire. And I remember when the Internet first came, I was in high school, on one computer. And so, I started, as a project on the side, our high school’s first website. When I went on to college, I was the first online editor of the newspaper. There was a vein that went throughout my career that was just looking at how communications, how people work together, live together, learn together, can be improved and enhanced through technology. And of course, also looking at the barriers that can be created through it. So, I think ever since I was a kid, I’ve been contributing and really following these trends in this space, which eventually leads me, of course, to where I am today. So, I guess when you say how, how does the end result occur? It starts with being a zealot from a very young age about this field, probably a little bit before the field was created. So eventually when I was recruited about eight years ago by the US General Services Administration, this is when social technologies and social media was very new for government.

Justin Herman: [00:04:11.00] And I was brought in to create and lead the first government-wide social media program because people had the idea, of course, that while a lot of people were using these platforms for putting up family photos and, you know, having advertisements, that we could repurpose them or just improve the purpose in general, to be able to make it so our workplaces, for the way that we engage, where people are able to access their public services, to be able to contribute to civic dialogue, could be better achieved through these collaborative and social technologies. And so that, of course, once you’re in that space for a while and it diversified, that’s when I found myself, by necessity really, needing to branch off into machine learning, robotic process automation. There was actually one particular event that really escalated it, where there was an emergency. There was flooding in a state down south and panic because what they found was, even though they had these platforms for people to be able to fill out forms and request help. And by the way, this was a flooding emergency. People, when it was in action, they were sharing photos of themselves from their rooftops on Instagram asking for help because the floodwaters were rising and finding every other means at their disposal.

Justin Herman: [00:05:39.00] And it really clicked for me then that A) we couldn’t let this happen again, not when we have the access to these kind of communications technologies where we shouldn’t have to have people, when it matters most, to force feed into just limited channels that they are able to have access to, that they should be able to use their mobile devices, use whatever device that they have and ask for help, request services, get trusted information. And no matter where it comes from, whether it’s through email, whether through SMS, whether through voice, whether going through social media, that it is all made actionable and digestible in the same way for operations. In essence, that there is no wrong door when you’re requesting engagement with government or companies, that every channel is the right channel. And that’s when we started launching the Emerging Technologies program so we could really get a view on this and to be able to harness the full scope of what that could mean. And that eventually, of course, brought me to where I am today, at Twilio.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:46.00] I’ve been a fan of Twilio for a while and I’ve known that they have an awesome back end in terms of customer service and communication for companies like Airbnb. For those that might not be aware, talk to me about what Twilio does.

Justin Herman: [00:07:01.00] So when we talk about what Twilio does, you see it right up front, we’re building the future of communications. But everything that we’ve just discussed, this can’t be just the future of communications. People need and deserve these capabilities in their daily lives today and now. And one of the reasons that I picked, like I wanted to come to Twilio and luckily, they decided to have me, is that how many times have you either heard or. I certainly did, that if only public services could be as easy to use as hailing a, using a rideshare app or using a video streaming app or the customer service in a banking app or a healthcare app. And I would always say that government is five, ten years behind on delivering these kinds of experiences. And so, I found out, like, what’s the common denominator on all of this? What is this capability that is used and relied upon by the most innovative companies in the world that we use every day? And that’s it. And it was Twilio. And Twilio was the secret sauce. It is the secret sauce. But we got a responsibility. It can’t just be the secret sauce. We need to make sure that people know because we need to make sure that these online communications, API based that make it so much easier to build with, so much quicker to be able to deploy, that these capabilities that are used by the most innovative companies are available and accessible to the most critical public services. Because also people who rely on these public services, they’re the ones who might not always have the greatest access to Internet. They need to be able to choose how they communicate that works best for them. And to bring that into public services as an equalizer is something that is incredibly powerful. And it’s not just powerful. It’s necessary today, not in the future. So that’s what we do. And when you look down to, we have everything from, can work in, from, you know, obviously voice, SMS. I’m very excited about our IOT division, the Internet of things, because when we look at smart cities and how people are designing the fabric of our communities themselves, omnichannel communications are the backbone of that. And so, it’s limitless really what, how this can be applied when you can easily develop and build in any communications channel. But obviously what we focus on because we’re meeting the needs of public services, at least I am, is that workforce modernization, making sure that our offices and people are able to contribute, they’re empowered to work smoothly, citizen and constituent engagement, not just giving people better access to public services, but giving them a voice in it, making that sure that their input, their data is actionable and digestible to not just deliver better services, but design better services themselves. And of course, it’s like right now, a lot of what we’re focusing on now and helping people is contact center modernization. And I don’t know about you. I never want to wait in line at the DMV again. I never want to wait on hold hours waiting for a phone bank to get to me, because especially when people need these services, it’s never something that they’re choosing to do. It’s usually because there is a great need that probably affects standard of living. That’s why there is the utmost importance that government is not five or 10 years behind but can take a leading role in ensuring the development of omnichannel services.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:56.00] So you’ve mentioned omnichannel a few times. For those that might not be aware, what is omni channel?

Justin Herman: [00:11:01.00] All right, so omnichannel is not just having access to a couple of different means of communication, like, let’s say we can build into our system, you can make a phone call, you can call into the bank or you can use a chat box, you know that’s multi-channel communication. And oftentimes that’s what public services do, is they will have to have, let’s say, an in-person phone bank in order to do a call center and then maybe if they get some innovation budget or thinking about it they’re like, OK, let’s test out what it is to have a chat box and that could be built into their website. That could be an IVR onto the voice. The idea of omnichannel is not just that people have access to all the different means of communication. They can choose it. And that’s the most important thing. It’s not making it, so people have to force their way of communicating or what works best for them into whatever fractured and very limited experience is made available to them. But that you are truly opening it up where if somebody needs to receive things by SMS or they want to call them, or they want to access a Web chat bot, that no matter where they go and it ties back, Jessica, to that entire model of public service is the no wrong door approach, where no matter how you’re choosing to communicate, I mean, I know our APIs also includes faxes. So, when faxes come around in the, you know, everything that’s old is new again. So maybe in the future that will become innovative. But joking aside, it’s the idea that through an API, through one platform, any means of communication through the Internet can be centrally managed. And that’s something that doesn’t just make it easier for the services of the workplace. It’s something that makes things seamless for the user themselves. And again, it’s not just creating better access. It’s better contribution and empowerment and has an affect that reverberates not just through effectiveness and efficiencies and cost savings, but to culture itself in the organization. And that can’t be overlooked.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:11.00] Loving what you’re saying, because you talked about before, about government and agencies, about their communications infrastructure being not up to par or to date with the consumer technologies and tools. And I think that most HR leaders are shaking their heads right now in agreement with me, saying our communications tools and technology in our workplaces is like the government in that way. So, I want us to think about how we can help create omnichannel communication, leveraging this technology that is accessible to everyone?

Justin Herman: [00:14:10.00] Yeah, I think one of the interesting things that always comes up and obviously, you know, here at Twilio, we have helped hundreds, especially since Covid, hundreds of public service programs to be able to quickly, rapidly deploy this. One example that actually people can look up is the absolutely amazing team at the City of Pittsburgh. And they had a dual problem when Covid struck. One, they had a historic volume of people requesting services from the city and requesting updates on Covid in a way that just obviously the volume was crushing. And two, they had the dual problem of needing to quickly have a remote workforce because the people that needed to respond to this stuff used to be call center. And so that was a double challenge. And so we asked people, you know, like how long do you think it took for a citywide government to create and deploy an entirely new contact center that not only handled and scaled out to the volume, but B, made their entire workforce in it virtual and usually shocks people because the answer is five days. In five days that got built, which is unheard of for a government deployment. And that’s really like when people ask you know, what made the difference? Well, the first thing that made the difference is the incredible foresight and dedication of the teams in the city of Pittsburgh who really dared to ask the hard questions and to push forward. But also, I mean, at the end of the day, this is why when people talk about what’s the benefits of going into the cloud, what are the real benefits of working with APIs? It is the speed and accuracy to which this could be developed and deployed in systems that are notoriously difficult to get anything done in. Forget about when there’s urgency involved. It’s really, our CEO, Jeff Lawson says this. We were made for this moment. But it’s not just the services that we provide. It’s across the board that when we talk about omnichannel, when we talk about cloud and APIs and these kinds of capabilities, these aren’t just the secret sauce for some organizations. This is something that anybody can look at and anyone can deploy. Because let’s be honest, whether it’s, whether you’re an HR manager or you’re running an office or you’re a government agency or anywhere else that there’s regulations involved and there’s, not everyone has the flexibility of a startup to be able to just whip something out, iteratively develop. You’re still able to have those results in a speed that’s unheard of and your teams can just focus on the regular problems that are associated and challenges, like data management and everything else. So that’s something that, again, is, it really, not that even before I wasn’t waking up excited every day, but it’s really a passion that drives us, to be able to see that difference being made. If I could ask anything is for people to, if you have a preconceived notion of what kind of capabilities and what kind of limitations you have in your workplace environment, I bet you things have changed a little bit and you might have access to things and to be able to deploy things that you might not have thought possible a couple of years ago. And so, I just ask you to dig in, look it up, and if you’d like to talk to us, we’re, of course, here for it. But there’s a whole community of innovative companies out there that are just eager to contribute and support for the future of the workplace, the virtual work environment in even the most highly regulated environments.

Break: [00:18:14.00] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you are listening to the Workology Podcast powered by Workology. Today we are talking with Justin Herman about making digital communication more accessible. This podcast is part of our Future of Work series in partnership with PEAT. They’re the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology.

Break: The Workology podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’S initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at Peatworks.org. That’s Peatworks.org.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:06.00] I wanted to back up a minute. You mentioned social media. I am curious because you talked about social media accessibility. Can you maybe give us an example of maybe a social media tool or technology that has accessible features that maybe people don’t take advantage of?

Justin Herman: [00:19:25.00] It’s not so much to say, because I always like to think that technology isn’t the solution to everything, but it certainly is an enabler, that when it’s good and it works seamlessly and quickly, you can focus on some of the real challenges that require a much deeper, deeper look. The technology should be the easier part of the solution in place. And something that I knew from the time in social media was something that anybody can do. And you don’t have to be a specialist. It’s as simple as alternative text. And because when people are putting out content, a lot of these platforms, though, they weren’t built in their inception accessibly. And one of the ways, and so it’s on us. It’s on the user in order to take on the responsibility for us to create the content and to do things and go the extra yard to make sure that all people have access to it. And so I would just suggest if you are posting things and you’re using these platforms in social media, to find out and look at where those self-serve accessibility options, like to be able to tag in alternative text into images, because those are often overlooked.

Justin Herman: [00:20:40.00] And those, the simple things like that can also be the most powerful when it counts. But also, I’d like to not shame social media itself, but I’ll tell you, this is something that, that I think about a lot and a lot of us do is what’s that evolution of the conversation and the engagement itself in the workplace, in the public space anywhere, is that first, you know, people when, you know, websites and very one way, obviously, it’s just you’re putting out static information. Then all of a sudden, we get to the social media age. And I was very passionate about it. As you know, I worked in it. And, but I think some of my previous discussions that we’ve had on this kind of hinted around the idea that we had to repurpose or bend the platforms to get them to do the right things that we needed them to do, because let’s be honest, a lot of them are designed systematically to be able to sell advertisements, not always provide just direct, verified information from the source. And we tried very hard over the years to be able to do that, to find different ways for verification, to do whatever we can to bend those platforms, to support having a more authentic conversation between whether it’s businesses, workplace, government agencies. And that’s still a challenge to this day. And so actually, that is something that really excites me about the omnichannel experience in general, is that whether it’s your workplace, whether it’s a government agency, whether it’s a company, people, it’s not just you blasting out information.

Justin Herman: [00:22:38.00] And then all of a sudden, you’re amongst an entire fog of organizations that have equal access on the homepage and also blasted sometimes misinformation, sometimes inaccurate information. I know it’s like very frustrating in social media when sites would open up pretending to be the Department of Education or to pretending to be Veterans Affairs, and they would get in between the source of the information to either charge people for services that they should already have for free or to steal their information or provide misinformation.

Justin Herman: [00:20:40.00] It is a flawed, limited use. This is where omnichannel comes in. When you sign up for an SMS, when, by the way, notice I said when you elect to receive it because it’s about having that choice. OK, if I trust, I don’t really want my, to get an email that my inbox is haywire, but I know I can trust when I get something over SMS directly from the source to me. You can do that. Or you know what, maybe it’s swapped on its way. You don’t want another text message, but you prefer email, or you prefer being able to go and to be able to interact on the phone with somebody. Or as we’re increasingly seeing, it’s like the tele health model using video where people now, because you can’t just walk into offices and talk, that you could have individual consultations through video. It’s that type of thing, that that is the ultimate expression, that is the ultimate good in my mind of where this experience needs to be, and it’s not fitting it through one platform or another. It’s giving people that choice. It’s having true conversations. And again, it ties back to something that really inspired me about what, when I was actually looking at Twilio at first, I heard a podcast that our CEO, Jeff Austin did, and he talked about that direct engagement and direct experience. And that so much resonated with me. And so, I think that perspective on the evolution of the conversation to here we are today is why all of a sudden we’re not force fitting dialogues and engagement and workflows into broken systems. I don’t know about you, but when I think of my definition of hell, I look back sometimes to some of the Internets that we had to use in offices. It was always very difficult because they’ll sit in your office, come out and like, oh, we’ve got a new collaboration platform or something. And it would be the most rigid, the most unresponsive. It would kill innovation. Platforms that were designed in order to get you to share documents and collaborate between workplaces kills that, and it was in name only sometimes. And that’s why it’s important to have flexible, responsive self-choice. So, it’s not just making it, you know, the past. It was difficult to just accomplish the day to day. But today what we could finally do is unlock, not just doing your task that’s ahead of you, but to bring innovation, collaboration and insights into work. And it’s not a struggle. It feels like the most natural thing. And this progress and this evolution is undeniable because Jessica, at work, when we think about the difference between having a job and having a career, we’re talking about having a workplace where you’re able to thrive, you’re able to contribute to the culture. You’re not just doing like what’s assigned to you. You’re able to engage. You’re able to have equal ability to access and excel and rise up and be promoted and feel like you’re on the team and lead the team. In order to get that and to reach that, this is the omni channel experience that needs to be built into there, because then it takes all of the cuffs off and it allows people to really address the challenges and opportunities that they have rather than force fitting into some archaic system.

Jessica Miller-Merrill: I love this because you’re’ talking about giving the individual choice and options to customize the experience uniquely to them. This is awesome. With whatever piece of technology or tool, whether SMS, calls, talk to a chatbot, whatever works for you, you pick the experience and how you want the resources and information delivered. I love that. That way it doesn’t feel like it’s a requirement, but you’re involved in that decision-making process which is going to increase buy-in and engagement for all those reasons.

Justin Herman: [00:26:54.00] And yes, and it’s not just one side. It’s not just that you’re providing these channels of communication and self-selection into the workplace. It is that it is made actionable and digestible for your operations equally too because, again, your people are not widgets. Your people have a job in front of them, but they have so much more to contribute. It’s so much more to give across the spectrum. And if you just open and you open up another channel and it’s kind of monitored, but really there’s a preferred channel, that’s not meeting the goal. And it’s not meeting the capabilities of where it is today. And in fact, I would put a challenge out that any time somebody is building in a system, whether it’s a contact center, whether it’s an engagement platform, whether it’s a collaboration platform, don’t just start with one channel of communication. Start with a suite. Better yet, start with access to them all, because that’s where we are today. And that’s what you can do and that’s what your workforce deserves and needs. And there’s more than enough challenges going on in the world right now with Covid and everything else. Your technology should not be the limiting factor.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:50.00] The pandemic has moved so much of our everyday working life online. Do you think this will help move the needle forward for digital accessibility?

Justin Herman: [00:29:02.00] Yes, emphatically, yes. This is moving the needle forward, not just for accessibility, but for modernization itself. We’ve done a recent study that shows that actually the accelerated timeline of modernization efforts for contact center modernization, has been moved up six years because of this. And I see this firsthand, of course, working with government agencies as close as we do in supporting them in public services is, out of necessity, they’re having to look for better options and see new approaches that are out there and things that they might have focused on other priorities than. There’s always some programs that always get limelight and they always get lauded for having really good customer service perspective. And then the rest of government, they’re like, oh, it’s behind six to ten years. Nobody has the luxury of that anymore of holding back. It is an absolute necessity, the modernization to occur. And there’s been a lot of legislation, whether the IDEA Act, the CARES Act, different things that have come through Congress and memos often come out from the White House saying that agencies need to look at and prioritize improving customer service, improving the citizen experience. But as you can imagine, there’s always competing priorities. Now, however, because of the pandemic, all eyes have turned to this and all eyes need to turn and focus on this. And luckily, all of the bedrocks are in place, whether it’s the legislation, now funding coming to table, improvements, regulation, the eyes and ears of the people that need to facilitate this. All eyes and ears are on this now. And so, it’s really the time. And this is not something that’s just going to go away when the pandemic does, because people aren’t going to suddenly experience an omnichannel contact center during this time and then suddenly a year from now be like, oh, actually, I’m going to go back to waiting for three hours in line at the DMV. That sounds fantastic. No, there is no going back on this because now that people know that these capabilities exist and it’s not just some special sauce, but it’s something that they could, they should expect, they should anticipate, the needle has moved. And the question then becomes again is now that people know that these capabilities are there, the real questions of how is it managed? What is really that difference and interoperability that the API provides? Those are the really exciting questions. And I say exciting, not because it’s exciting to have the hard conversations and help at this time, but exciting because this is a challenge that people want to contribute to and people want to reach head on and hit head on, and the ability to be able to support, to be able to help was needed and provide those services is something that I think a lot of people are very passionate about and very eager to be able to roll up their sleeves and chip in.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:32:34.00] As we look to the next 30 years of work, what emerging workplace trends or technologies do you think are going to have the biggest impact on people with disabilities?

Justin Herman: [00:32:43.00] Jessica, I think that when we’re looking at the next 30 years of work and we’re seeing this trend in the same way that we discussed the trends in communications going from websites to all of a sudden, you know, then we have social media and different platforms and now, just now, people are able to implement omnichannel experiences that remove the burden and all of the walls and barriers and silos that are built up with the way we communicate are now being taken down. This is what we’re going to continue to see is a more seamless experience. And it’s not just going to be, let’s say, voice or site bound. But when we’re talking about the advancements of the Internet of things, virtual and augmented reality, voice AI, is that it’s something that we’re not even going to have to think about. You’re not going to know. You’re not going to get on contact centers if they even look the same, which, in 30 years, I can almost guarantee they won’t. But it becomes something that’s just part of what you do, and you don’t have to think about it. Organizations, workplaces, public services have enough challenges that they go through every day and must overcome. The technology, eventually, should be something you almost don’t even have to think about, that you’re just free to do as you need to do to participate, as you need to participate, to communicate and contribute, as you need to participate and contribute.

Justin Herman: [00:34:23.00] And you can do it without thinking about it. Same as when we looked at that disaster that happened with the flooding, and people had to find new ways and create new ways because the structure that was in place did not work for them and they could not force themselves to fit into that communications model. What we’re only going to see going forward is greater freedom. And true freedom is empowerment, and so it’s exciting to think about what’s coming next because people are just becoming more interconnected, but in good ways. They’re becoming more active, more able to contribute, more able to access verified information, which is important to know. And once you’re armed with these things, there’s no limit to what we’re going to be able to accomplish together on it.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:35:16.00] Awesome. Well, Justin, thank you so much for joining us today here on the Workology podcast. I wanted to ask you, where can people go to learn more about you and what you do?

Justin Herman: [00:34:23.00] The first place to start is twilio.com, and there’s a lot up there, there’s resources, there’s use cases, there’s actually a video game tutorial that we have, Twilio Quest, if you’re interested in learning how APIs and stuff work. We also have tons of recipes and documentation to kind of see like how these programs that we talked about shape up. And of course, if you want to get in touch with me directly, just go to publicsector@twilio.com, an email address, and I will be able to get it there. And I love having virtual coffees.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:36:04.00] One of the funniest people that I have had on my podcast a long time in our prep call. So, I really enjoyed talking with you.

Justin Herman: [00:36:10.00] It’s been such a pleasure. And thank you so much for everything that you do.

Closing: [00:29:10.00] Justin’s enthusiasm and passion really comes through in this interview. I loved when he reminded us that people are not widgets. They are able to do so much more. By providing them with access to resources, information, systems and creating a culture that embraces these things, we can do, achieve and be more. The opportunities for us are limitless and for our employees, team members, just humankind in general. Thank you, Justin, for such a great interview.

Closing: [00:36:14.00] The Future of Work series in partnership with PEAT is one of my favorites. Thank you to PEAT as well as our podcast sponsor, Workology.