How "Toggle" Worked Its Way Through AT&T's Innovation Pipeline And Into Cell Phones

AT&T's innovation-generating system brings smart products to market, and shares the spoils with the employees who created them.

Doug Ring was stuck in a familiar bind between boss and cell phone provider. He worked a lot but couldn’t keep secure business data on his personal phone. In order to stay in touch with both his job and his home life—he has elderly parents and penchant for checking stock prices—Ring became one of those guys with two mobile devices: a work BlackBerry on one hip, and a family iPhone in his pants pocket. The irony is that Ring’s boss actually is his cell phone provider. As the director of AT&T’s network operations in Dallas, he spends long hours and lots of overtime making sure everyone—especially the ridiculously over-gadgeted—stays connected.

In mid-2009, Ring decided that if he wanted to solve the dual-device problem, AT&T should probably help. And luckily the company is set up to do that. A few years ago, AT&T launched TIP—short for The Innovation Pipeline—an internal crowdsourcing network that acts like an idea stock exchange. Employees submit product suggestions online to be shaped, refined, and voted on by other employees. Those with the most support often move on to a fast-pitch round in front of top brass; the best of the best get funded. Like Google's 20 percent time, or the hackathons that have become de rigueur for dotcom companies, TIP gives AT&T a chance to capitalize on new ideas from within its ranks while also recapturing some of the time employees were likely spending playing Words With Friends or taking a long lunch.

Ring first drew his plans for a mobile platform that would let him host two personas on one device on a whim. It was a simple interface: flick your finger across the screen to shift from your personal to work home screen, complete with related game-playing apps or secure desktop access. Each version of the phone would be walled off from the other one, keeping company secrets safe and making sure that the higher-ups didn’t snoop on family photos. "I was just kind of doing it for fun," he says. "My dilemma was that I get called at all times of the day and night, but I also have a life. I’d like to have single device to be able to move between them."

Other employees agreed—a lot. The result is Toggle, an app that does nearly exactly what Ring envisioned for mobile phones and tablets. The latest version for Android and iOS debuted this June with Blackberry and Windows versions slated to follow. It's a no-brainer product that was conceived and developed by exactly the sort of people that large corporations tend to ignore: mid-level loyalists, who often have surprisingly bright ideas.

Since its inception, tens of thousands of ideas have floated through TIP. So far, 54 projects have been funded through the program, and eight have been launched. To monetize those brainstorms, AT&T periodically culls the top vote-getters and asks a team of internal execs to pick three for a Valley-like "speed date" investment pitch. The company won’t say how many votes projects need to make the finals, but more than 120,000 people company-wide participate. 

As Ring’s idea gained popularity online, he was able to solicit advice from that crowd, asking other managers and coders around the world just how he might build out his concept fast and cheaply. Within months, it earned a speed date in front TIPS founder and then Chief Technology Officer, John Donovan. Donavan has since been promoted to Senior Executive VP of tech and network operations, largely because of his ability make the company more nimble. He loves to spot and speed-track smart ideas.

What happened next blew Ring away. "At the end, John Donovan said, 'The time for this idea is now.' I was like, 'Oh my god, this is serious, this guy really wants to do something with this,'" Ring says. He was given $450,000 in seed money and a few months to deliver a prototype, meaning he now had two phones, two jobs, and even less off time. Finding co-collaborators with the expertise to make it all happen was easy, though. Ring simply picked his teammates from the pool on TIPs, tapping those who helped him learn the most to form his own internal development team. The crew included a project manager from Saint Louis, and two programmers, one from Atlanta, and the other from New Jersey, who were all willing to work remotely. It was a great talent pool from unlikely places. "That’s the beauty of it. The people who looked at the idea were the ones interested in doing it," Ring says.

Toggle's best Big Brother features include encryption, and allowing employers to set policies about what apps are accessible and wipe data remotely if the phone gets lost or stolen. At the same time, the personal side of the device operates much like any other smartphone, allowing users the freedom to watch movies, take pictures, or send text messages. The service is now available to AT&T's 27,000 business customers (unfortunately there are no plans for a consumer version).

Of course, the inventor himself isn’t satisfied. One of Ring’s key wants—two distinct phone lines—was sidelined due to fast production schedules. This is the new reality of internal innovation. Ring was the idea guy, not the engineer that made it happen. That means he also agreed to step out of production down the stretch, leaving the final product up to the ultra-geeks at AT&T’s Foundry, where the company’s top researchers, programmers and developers design, test, and roll out products. It’s mostly a fair trade off. "If you think about it given the short timeframe to turn something around, you have to identify the scope of what is within reality," Ring says. The company plans to add dual phone lines in a later upgrade.

Ring’s real payoff is bigger than just consolidating devices. As product originators, he and his team take home a nice share of Toggle’s profits. AT&T won’t share details, but, for now, Ring is keeping his day job. 

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