Block Inventors turn problems into solutions, and patent an idea
When Mani Jaman ran out of printer ink at home one day several years ago, it turned into a trip to the CVS down the street. He was just looking to print some photos his daughter needed for school, but came away with the first inkling of an invention he would later patent.
“Invention is always by accident. I can’t say I’m going to invent something,” said Jaman. “When I saw the photo kiosks I thought, ‘I don’t know why they do this. There’s got to be a better way to do this.’”
Jaman, who works at H&R Block as a principal architect for information technology, started thinking of a better way to allow H&R Block clients to share their tax or accounting documents with their tax pro on a USB drive without imperiling H&R Block’s systems – and without deploying kiosks across 10,000 offices throughout the country.
“We came up with a solution… The moment it [the USB] comes in, it kicks in and quarantines the USB, inspects the USB and then using a proprietary protocol we move the file we need, not all the files, to where we need to,” said Jaman.
The solution also provides an interface that displays only the files relevant to the tax preparation or accounting services the client needs.
“The tax pros won’t even see [the other files]. The tax pro moves the file to our system, and we do inspections and from that point on it is business as usual,” said Jaman.
Some clients prefer to keep their tax documents on a USB instead of uploading to MyBlock, a digital storage vault for H&R Block clients and their tax pros. But for clients with accounting needs, it’s more than preference: some of their data is held in special files that can only be opened with accounting software. Jaman’s solution allows them to bring all that data with them to their tax prep or accounting appointment.
Inspiration comes from 20-year working partnership
It wasn’t an unexpected trip to CVS that led to Cale Licklider’s and Bill Vander Lippe’s invention.
Instead, it was an unexpected problem and a 20-year working partnership. Licklider and Vander Lippe have worked together at H&R Block for the last 15 years and together at Sprint for the previous five years. Licklider learned his team and the larger team they supported would lose their access to an internal database unless he could figure out a more secure way to store credentials.
“I had the idea in that shock and awe moment to try to ensure our access didn’t go away. The idea in my head was to use some macro code and there’s no better macro coder than Bill, so I walked upstairs. He said we can not only hide the username and password but we could hide the way we’re doing it,” said Licklider.
“Cale came up with the idea and the whole concept and he got me involved to do some of the coding. As I got into that, I saw there were ways to lock this down even further and we included that. It’s really the two of us together that made this work,” said Vander Lippe.
From a solution to a patent with Block Inventors
This summer, Licklider, Vander Lippe and Jaman received patents for their solutions. Jaman’s boss had asked him to submit his solution to the new Block Inventors program, which rewards associates for their ideas, evaluates them and (if promising) moves them through the patent process.
“Just based on submitting an idea you get some money, whether or not it has legs. If it goes through you get more, and if it gets awarded you get more,” said Jaman. “It’s really good.”
For Licklider and Vander Lippe, it was that extra step of hiding the way the code hides the credentials that made the idea warrant a patent. When Vander Lippe heard about the Block Inventors program, he suggested to Licklider they submit their credential solution, thinking they could split the money, but they each got the full cash award.
For inventors, a solution is better than a patent
But more than the monetary incentives, and even more than being the first ones in the program to actually receive a patent for their ideas, the Block Inventors participants value seeing the solution in place, making life easier for clients and tax pros.
“Seeing it being used is more important than any other thing. If it’s an idea, personally I don’t get as happy. I like to see it in action otherwise it’s just an idea,” said Jaman.
“This whole thing we did was part of the job. For me, I like a challenge and it had a practical application that fixed a problem. It was fun to do,” said Vander Lippe.
Block Inventors frees up problem solvers to solve problems
There’s no shortage of ideas Jaman has turned into solutions. Jaman says he has another idea going through the process and he has other ideas and solutions that have been implemented, but he hasn’t had time to submit them to the Block Inventors program for a patent.
“The biggest thing is we don’t have the time to do it. I’ve been trying to do it, but we are so busy solving problems, the paperwork process is the challenge. Our primary job is to fix the problem not to file the patent,” said Jaman.
That’s where the Block Inventors program comes in. If an idea submitted by an associate merits a patent, the legal team running Block Inventors puts together the application, submits it to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and shepherds it through the process.
Eric Roebuck, lead product manager for H&R Block DIY products, is a Block Inventor extraordinaire with nine patents pending. He had seen similar programs at other companies where he previously worked, but nothing to the scale of Block Inventors.
“At other companies, there was a patent process but it was not as highly encouraged and it was a lot of work to do it. There’s more of a defined process and encouraged process here,” said Roebuck.
Roebuck is expecting his first patents to come through in the near future and plans to keep participating in the program.
“I think it’s a fantastic program to allow a company to encourage their employees to be creative for the betterment of the company. It’s a great idea and a great part of our culture,” said Roebuck.
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