Ben Brumfield: CS + Anything

Ben Brumfield, entrepreneur and CS alumnus“Don’t be too worried if you find other things interesting beside pure computer science,” said CS alumnus Ben Brumfield. “It’s possible to succeed by marrying software development to any other discipline or interest. These other interests are not distractions; they are enhancements.”

Brumfield speaks from experience. When he shopped for colleges, he specifically looked for opportunities to double-major in languages and computer science. “I was unwilling to turn my back on either computer science or languages, but the combination was a very hard thing to do at most universities. I took home a course catalog from every campus tour and tried to map out four years of dual humanities and engineering degrees. Rice was the only place where I could do that.”

He said Rice helped him strengthen his skills in both areas and set him on the course that led to creating his own company. “Not everyone can speak to both sides –humanities and computer science– but I’ve been successful building software that helps the humanities world use digital tools to crowdsource manuscript transcription.”

Twelve years ago, Brumfield started a side project to solve a family problem. One of his ancestors had written diaries of life on her tobacco farm in Virginia from 1915 until 1936. Upon her death, the diaries had been distributed to grandchildren across the United States. Now, several family members wanted to reassemble, digitize, and archive the diaries.

“Editing historic documents online was the problem I was solving, and the solution turned out to be quite valuable,” said Brumfield. “Five years ago, I resigned from the successful Austin startup where I’d workedCS alumnus Ben Brumfield for 12 years, and began bootstrapping my own company, FromThePage.com.”

His clients span the United States and Europe. He said, “One day, I’ll be talking with medievalists at work on legal documents from the Crusades and the next I’ll be working with philosophers on early logic notebooks. Then there’s the non-profit group archiving their lighthouse keepers’ logs and the archaeologist who is analyzing records from plantation stores.”

The plantation storekeeper retained two sets of books, one for enslaved customers and one for free customers. The archaeologist’s team is matching the finds from their dig with the records of what people were buying and selling on a daily basis. Brumfield said, “It’s absolutely fascinating. But I find all my projects are.”

Personal satisfaction with his projects and pride in the quality of his product are two of the reasons Brumfield has not sought external investors for FromThePage. He said, “When you don’t take out loans or venture capital, it’s a very different startup model and more organic. I control the tools and methods.

“It seemed likely that anyone investing in FromThePage would start asking why I didn’t pitch it to law firms instead of archeologists. I felt I would find myself following the desires of an investor instead of my own heart, and that made it a lot easier to say ‘no’ to outside investment.”

In addition to building his side project and raising a family, Brumfield had also spent fifteen years working as a software engineer in Austin, Texas before a pivotal moment caused him to step out on his own. “I knew I could return to a ‘day job’ if I chose, and that definitely helped me make the leap,” he said.

While Brumfield continued working as a software engineer in Austin, his reputation was growing in the digital humanities world. He said, “I was writing about my project, reviewing similar projects, and becoming an expert on crowdsourced manuscript transcription. That led to invitations to speak at conferences and in webinars until I was the expert on crowdsourced manuscript transcription. Which is a tiny little niche, but it turns out to be critical.”

Brumfield said he and his wife and business partner, CS alumna Sara Carlstead Brumfield, used their developing expertise as a teaching moment with their children. “We’d joke with the girls about how you can become the world’s expert in something as long as that something is a tiny little niche.”

But that tiny little niche was both timely and relevant for a large number of people in humanities-related fields. Brumfield had just given a talk at a conference for the American Historical Association when he received an offer to work on a project involving records of baptisms, marriages and burials in pre-Victorian Britain.

“It was absolutely within my space,” he said. “It offered security and opportunity and I couldn’t say no because I thought, ‘if I don’t do this and follow my passion full time, I’m going to regret this decision on my deathbed.’ So I went home, talked with Sara, and turned in my resignation.”

That was five years ago and FromThePage now supports both Brumfields plus a subcontractor. He used to spend a lot of time pitching his product to potential clients, but now FromThePage’s reputation for superior, accessible, and easy-to-use online tools for employees and volunteers has prompted unsolicited inquiries from organizations not previously on Brumfield’s radar.

Concert-style poster advertising Brumfield presentationHis passion and expertise have also led to interesting speaking engagements, like the night he and several sword-fighters provided the evening’s entertainment for a conference in Germany. “Over spring break last year, I had been invited to give a keynote address at a night club, serving as the evening’s entertainment for a group of European scholars working on digital editions. They said I could talk about anything with respect to the broader world of digital manuscripts.

“So I made contact with a group of medieval sword fighters and after I presented a short talk* about their manuscripts, they gave an exhibition. That was a lot of fun, and they advertised it using concert posters. I’d never had my own concert poster before.”

Despite his popularity as a guest speaker, Brumfield’s entrepreneurial journey has not always been a smooth one. Fortunately, he had already discovered his own resiliency when he struggled as a CS student at Rice.

Brumfield said, “Don’t get too discouraged your first couple of years in CS. I had the experience–a pretty tough experience–of being a small-town valedictorian. Rice has a lot of small-town valedictorians, who may be smart but have terrible study skills and are not prepared [for Rice’s rigor]. I struggled really hard my first two years, but courses became more meaningful and eventually I learned how to study. I’m glad I didn’t drop CS as a major, because so much of my success has come from that major and that department despite my early academic struggles.”

*Check out Ben’s presentation talk preceding and introduction to the swordfight: