As we begin 2023, I’m turning the Community Spotlight to shine on a hero of mine, an innovator, capture pioneer and stalwart of the Business Automation Community,
, who departed this earthly domain in December.
There are many among this Community that are working at difficult challenges and creating new solutions. It is one of the values that unites us as a Community. Tom was one of the best at it and his contributions to the Capture industry and to the success of Datacap over the years must be acknowledged.
I joined Datacap in 1998 where Tom was Director of Solutions, responsible for designing capture applications and training users in how to use Datacap software. While he had built a career as a software architect by that time, he’d also taught a Computer Information Systems class at the college level, where he discovered a unique skill of communicating complex technical knowledge in simple ways that were easy to understand.
Born and raised in Missouri, he brought to his classes a refreshing Midwestern sense of humor and a gift for storytelling. His mastery and enthusiasm for the technology was infectious on its own, but when mixed with his clever allegories and shaggy dog stories, he made learning fun.
My job at Datacap involved producing and attending events, where I knew if I could get Tom a speaking slot, we’d have a winning session every time. He developed a simple way to explain how Optical Character Recognition (OCR) worked (back when it needed explaining) that he called “Man Vs. Machine.” He had succinct sayings, like “Carpe Datum!” (Seize The Data) and later, he began to call himself a “Capture Alchemist,” which is, in fact, what he was.
However, communication skills were only part of the job. His real mission as the Capture Alchemist was to solve the most challenging problems of document capture and data processing. In the early 2000s, that problem was invoices. Every organization in the world pays bills and it represented a tantalizing market opportunity, if only we could resolve the big obstacles. The biggest challenge was that invoices are “unstructured” - each vendor that submitted a bill used a different layout with a different header and footer and data could be anywhere on the page – or on multiple pages. Finding and extracting the data needed to pay a bill was impossible using the traditional template method, which worked fine with tax returns, for example, which all have a uniform layout.
Tom and his team of developers took on the challenge and developed Datacap APT, a solution using location rules and document “fingerprints” – not a template, but a way of remembering the layout of an invoice (each document layout is unique, like a fingerprint). When a new vendor submitted their first invoice, Datacap location rules found some of the data, like invoice number, date, and total, then a human operator would check it, fill in any missing pieces by clicking on the image (we called it “Click n Key”), and then create a “fingerprint” in the database that would “remember” the next time that layout was submitted again.
It worked. In fact, it was one of the first AP Automation solutions that offered straight through processing of invoices and it began a journey that led to IBM and beyond for Tom. IBM acquired Datacap in 2010 and suddenly, IBM customers and Business Partners all over the world had to learn Datacap. Who got the call? The Capture Alchemist.
Tom traveled the world, teaching the essentials of Datacap and spreading the word. And to his great pride, Datacap APT is used by public and private organizations all over the world to automate the processing of invoices. It’s fair to say, that in his travels, he inspired many capture specialists who continue to ply their craft today. Perhaps you attended one of Tom’s classes or sat in on his standing-room-only sessions at Think or worked with him as a Business Partner or customer. I’d love to hear your memories of Tom below.
If you knew Tom Stuart, you knew that he almost always wore a Superman logo, usually on his T shirt, but it could be on his socks or his hat. If you asked him why, he’d say that it was because “I fly in to save the day.” But actually, he was Superman, because of his big heart, his generous spirit, and his boundless enthusiasm. In recent years, he had retired from IBM, worked on capture projects with the team at MagicLamp Software, and moved to Birmingham, Alabama with his wife Becca, where he perfected his technique as master of the barbecue grill. He will always remain Superman in my memory.