Thoughts on our ethos for FrontlineSMS' tenth birthday

3 minute read

Happy Halloween!

The 31st October isn’t just your annual opportunity to eat your weight in sweets - it’s also the official birthday of FrontlineSMS, and this year marks the tenth anniversary of its first release!

The award-winning SMS management tool was the core of SIMLab’s work for our first seven years - but the first version of the software was actually released for the first time on this day in 2005. In 2007, Ken Banks, our founder, registered what became Social Impact Lab with the US Internal Revenue Service, as the institutional home to receive the foundation funding that he had raised to build a new website and version 1 of the software. In 2014, we spun out FrontlineSMS as a new for-profit, and today they release two new tools, focussed on campaigns and emergency reporting, capping off an amazing first year as a company and celebrating their entry into double digits.

When I joined FrontlineSMS in 2010, Ken honoured me and the other staff with a dizzying amount of trust and confidence. He allowed us to embark on an ambitious redesign of the software just weeks after Sean and I started to lead our operations; gave us responsibility for raising funds and developing a new business model; and trusted us from the beginning to represent the organization and the FrontlineSMS ethos at events and with partners. He calls it his ‘Rolling Stones School of Management’, and the opportunity it afforded me changed the course of my career.

Perhaps the only non-negotiable requirement he had of us all was that we strive every day to fulfill the core values that had informed the FrontlineSMS project from the beginning:

Putting users ahead – and at the heart – of everything we do, striving for a positive interaction with anyone who comes into contact with our work, aiming to inspire others whilst respecting a diversity of views, always reaching for better, fostering a positive “anything is possible” attitude, making sure we continue to put people – and their needs – ahead of the aspirations of the tech community, managing expectations both internally and for our users, and finally – constantly reminding ourselves why we do what we do.

‘Focus on the users and all else will follow’ was one of the core mantras that I took from my time working directly with Ken. Every day until some time in 2013, I (or Florence, or Sila, or Ken himself) would log into our Ning support site, Twitter and Facebook before we checked our email, and the rule was that all support requests got a reply within 24 hours, except at weekends. FrontlineSMS is still notable for its excellent user support.

For the past year at SIMLab, it’s been very clear to me how core those values still are to our organization. Instead of being embodied in a software platform, they come through in the projects we take on, the work we put into them, our critiques and conversations; the writing and guides we share, and the commitment of our team, so evident to me every day. Indeed, those values were at the heart of the decision to spin out FrontlineSMS - we felt we could better serve both the users of the software and the partners we worked with if we divided our software development team and our growing consulting and policy practice. At the moment we’re working on a clear written set of principles that will guide our work, which we’ll share on our website along with our strategy for the next three years.

For this weekend, though, we can look back at ten years of supporting FrontlineSMS users to monitor elections, manage rural health clinics, report environmental damage, safeguard humanitarian teams, and thousands of other use cases in more than 130 countries. And we’ll be raising a glass of something pink to FrontlineSMS and its stellar team!