Sara Brumfield: Small Business, Huge Satisfaction

“At Rice, I wrote as much as I programmed,” said CS alumnae Sara Carlstead Brumfield. “I was a double major in Computer Science and the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality (SWGS). That’s why I went to Rice, because you aren’t locked into a single category or genre. What SWSG taught me is how to think outside the box, which is applicable in any field.”

But she said majoring in CS was the second most important decision of her life, preceded only by the decision to marry her husband, CS and Linguistics double major Ben Brumfield. Her CS career has been studded with high points including several patents and an internal IBM award for technical achievement, and she took a two-year break from her corporate path in order to work as a program manager for a local startup. Now, she is a partner and software engineer in their family business.

“When I left Rice, I had an idea of what I wanted my life to be like and I knew it would be in Austin, where my family was,” she said. “IBM provided many resources I appreciated, and because I didn’t hesitate to take on the hard jobs –jobs no one else wanted– I discovered opportunities to create flexible schedules around the rest of my life.”

She also spent a lot of time talking with IBM’s customers. She said, “Some engineers find talking with customers to be a little frightening, but I was always willing to talk to customers, go to conferences, sit in sales or customer service meetings. I bring more than just engineering skills to the table because I understand the need to ‘follow the money.’ Any time someone finds a bug or calls with a problem, it costs the company money.

“I say, ‘Don’t just pass the bug, tell the story.’ Why are we having that problem? What’s the source? If you don’t talk to the customer, you aren’t aware of where the customer’s pain is. You have to learn to tell their story in a way that is compelling, to convince engineers to do things.”

Even though Brumfield had built a solid career by blending her story-telling and CS skills, she began to consider other options. Her husband successfully launched his own business, was doing something he absolutely loved, and now had more opportunities than he could accept. Brumfield began comparing the life her husband was living with the lives of senior engineers in her office and decided she did not want to pursue the next level of the corporate career path at that time.

“My parents had owned a small business and I’d always valued the independent life,” she said. “Ben and I had built a fiscally conservative lifestyle and could manage the big change if I decided to leave IBM. The question became not ‘if’ but ‘when.’ And at that point, it happened pretty fast because there was plenty of work on the table.”

The first time the Brumfields worked together was at Rice University, in Mudd Lab. She said, “Ben was working Help Desk tickets and I was a Unix student administrator. After we started dating, we took a lot of CS classes together. Although we have different work styles and don’t program well together, we think alike and approach problems similarly, both technical and business-wise.

“Since I joined the business we’ve been able to focus on our product business in addition to consulting.  In that time we’ve grown our product revenue 10 fold.”

FromThePage centers around software developed by Ben Brumfield. The original idea was to find a way to scan in historical manuscripts and make the image available to volunteers who would transcribe and index the contents.

“Libraries in particular have spent decades scanning in their historical documents, but people can’t find the information they need because it doesn’t show up in searches. From geneaology to maps to history, we can help them set up a system where their volunteers can look at the images, transcribe the contents, and index them.  Now the full content of documents is searchable.”

“This is a very ‘Rice’ sort of thing to do,” said Brumfield. “Take the love of history and software knowledge, and pair them. But there is also a really nice sweet spot for independent businesses when you are doing the bulk of the work and getting the bulk of the income. When you grow to the point where you have to begin hiring other people and supply their resources and benefits, then you may start to struggle.”

She said their business is successful in part because it appeals to people who are already passionate about telling a story. “Transcription is done by volunteers, so that is only going to draw a particular kind of customer. We do it in such a way that you get really immersed in the story, like starting to transcribe a diary and wanting to know what happens next.”

Brumfield said one of their favorite stories started with a man who entered his family name in a web search on impulse. The name turned up in references on FromThePage because his great uncle had been the mailman for a woman who had written two decades of diaries about life on a tobacco farm in a rural Virginia community. “The nephew knew a lot of the people in that area, and he ended up transcribing 80% of the documents in that particular series even though we’d never met him. He wasn’t related to the diarist, he was ‘related’ to the area.”

Stories like these add to Brumfield’s job satisfaction and reinforce the decision she made to trade corporate life for a small business partnership. Life is good for this independent businesswoman who has found her own niche in the software-as-a-service industry. As she says, “After 20 years of living as fiscal conservatives we realized we had the freedom to take the risk of running our own business, and we are having SO MUCH MORE FUN!”