Office Culture Goes Virtual

Natural Sciences5 MIN READ

Evan McGee and SignalWire make digital workday feel pre-pandemic

By Christina Nunez
October 12, 2020

Practically overnight, work life for many of us narrowed to a parade of bobbing heads on a screen. One after another, we join video calls that used to be in-person meetings and hallway chats, then wonder why we feel so drained at the end of the day.

An overload of eye contact and being tuned in to facial expressions, says Evan McGee ’03, is what makes most online meetings so exhausting. His company, SignalWire, recently debuted a platform that aims to make the digital workday feel more natural. SignalWire Work aims to create a virtual office, complete with a lobby, break room, and the ability to “knock” on someone’s door for a chat—video optional.

“It’s about being present and available, but not necessarily having to constantly be clued in and have your attention attached,” McGee said. The product started as an internal productivity tool for McGee, who is based in Santa Monica, Calif., and SignalWire colleagues around the world. The company was already planning to release the software, but the pandemic accelerated their plans.

“As this global experiment with remote work started to take hold, there was no good answer to the question of, how do you get people to have a culture online?” McGee said. “We saw that what we had was something kind of unique.”

SignalWire Work debuted in July. The response? Like a tsunami—starting slow but building “into a frenzy as companies in different verticals realize the potential.” It now powers online learning for a 400-student school in New York.

Ironically, SignalWire’s technology also powers communications for Zoom, the video conferencing company that is giving so many of us “Zoom fatigue” these days. Other clients include Netflix and the doorbell video company Ring. The company aims to offer cheaper, faster telecom enabled by the cloud—remote, networked data servers.

If a business wants to have a phone number for incoming sales calls, for example, or send customers texts to confirm appointments, it can use SignalWire’s cloud-based network and application programming interfaces, or APIs, to set that up. The APIs mean software developers don’t have to write a bunch of code from scratch—they can also use SignalWire to get data about who was on a call and what they said.

A longtime tech entrepreneur, McGee grew up in Seattle tinkering with computers. At the Lakeside School, Bill Gates’s alma mater, he helped run the school’s computer network and even built its attendance program. Right out of Colby, he became an independent IT consultant. His career trajectory, however, has been anything but clear-cut.

“As this global experiment with remote work started to take hold, there was no good answer to the question of, how do you get people to have a culture online? We saw that what we had was something kind of unique.”

Evan McGee ’03

At Colby, where he double majored in computer science and physics, he was a self-described “weirder character” with wide-ranging fascinations. He remembers doing problem sets and jousting on scooters in the hallways of the physics building until the early hours of the morning. (His advisor, William A. Rogers Professor of Physics Charles Conover, “put up with a lot from me,” he said.) He also performed improv and sang a cappella with the Megalomaniacs. During a semester abroad in Edinburgh, he loved taking classes in robotics and acoustics.

By the time he left Mayflower Hill, he thought he might follow in the footsteps of his physician father and go into medicine, perhaps something related to imaging technology. He moved to Boston and began taking classes, but soon found himself absorbed with computer consulting by day—and improv comedy by night.

Consulting, he found, gave him the flexibility to explore. “I could fall back on that to earn a living while I experimented with different parts of my personality,” he said. By his mid-20s, though, he wanted to make a change.

“I thought, well, if I really want to, I should give entertainment a try and see if I want to make that a real career,” he said. Already in the Screen Actors Guild with some commercials and movie-extra gigs, he moved to Los Angeles and began working his way from acting classes to performing improv with the Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade (famous alumni include Amy Poehler and D’Arcy Carden).

Other actors he knew couldn’t imagine doing anything else. McGee, on the other hand, had moved his consulting business to L.A. and was picking up new clients. He was also interested in screenwriting and was working with friends on an animated series. Plus, he had just gotten married, and he and his wife were thinking about having kids.

It was 2011 when a client of his, Ring Plus, got in touch about a project he’d worked on for them. What did he think, they asked, about turning that project into a wireless phone company? He joined as chief technology officer, helping to build a service that offered lower-cost calls and data plans to customers in exchange for being able to play a few seconds of music or news before a call connected. He went on to found SignalWire in 2017.

SignalWire serves as a sort of bridge between the legacy world of landline-based calls and the internet, which is still developing as a conduit for real-time communications. In general, he said, he wants to “help make technology more blended in the background, where it’s here to service people and our lives together.”

Now father to two kids, ages 4 and 6, McGee still thinks about writing an animated series—and thanks to the occasional karaoke event on SignalWire Work, he still performs sometimes, too. His background in improv, he says, has given him the ability to adapt quickly and go with the flow. Those traits, along with his tech and entrepreneurial skills, seem to have served him well in an industry, and a world, that seems to change faster every day. His advice? “If there’s something that really interests you, it is well worth your time to go and explore that,” he said, “and chase those little wacky dreams.”