University of Pittsburgh

It's Not Cell Spying: From Concept to Start-Up

Try as she might, Julie Dobson, a semi-retired telecomm executive, couldn't understand how her teenage daughter could send more than 5,500 text messages in a single month. What sort of footprint was her daughter leaving in the mobile world?

In response, Dobson (MBA '79) created Code 9 Mobile, an application placing parental controls on kids' smartphones. It is music to the ears of protective parents who fear the worst of inappropriate cell phone behavior, everything from bad language to bullying to sexting. Code 9 Mobile offers text filtering, curfew settings, location mapping, detailed usage reports, and download blocking/controls. For example, the app can disable the phone from sending text messages or phone calls during specific times, like say after 10 p.m. on a school night.

Dobson detailed the strategy behind bringing Code 9 Mobile to market - no easy task in the crowded, rapidly changing world of cell phone apps - during a special presentation open exclusively to Pitt Business students and alumni. Dobson distinguishes Code 9 Mobile from competitors Net Nanny and My Mobile Watchdog by making its presence upfront and not secret for the kids. Code 9 was named the winner of the 2011 Mobile Star Award by readers.

"This is not for spying; the kids know it's there. We want an app that could help parents teach their children how to behave in the digital world. This is a coaching opportunity," Dobson says.

Prior to Code 9 Mobile, Dobson spent more than 30 years in the telecommunications industry - a period that saw the introduction, growth, and evolution of the cell phone. Dobson started as a sales account executive for Bell Atlantic in 1980, and ascended to several vice president positions and also served as president of Bell Atlantic Mobile's New York and New Jersey metro area. Dobson left Bell Atlantic to join TeleCorp PCS, and retired as the company's chief operating officer when the company was acquired by AT&T Wireless in 2002.

In an age where even elementary school kids have cell phones, Dobson is banking on the need for more parental supervision tools. Market research shows that 12 million teens have smartphones today - a number projected to double by 2014. Dobson says Code 9, which is available online through a subscription-based service, is aimed for adults with kids ages 8-14 years old, not older teens, whose privacy concerns are different. Code 9 is available on Androids and Blackberrys, but not yet iPhones. She is exploring partnerships with cell phone carriers and would love to have the app preloaded on phones.

"This is not for spying. It's just for knowledge. So you can see if someone is calling your kid 20 times, but your kid's not calling them. What is that about?" Dobson says.

Dobson laughed off audience questions on whether Code 9 Mobile could be used by wives to monitor their husbands, or companies to track the usage of cell phones given to employees. She also responded to audience questions about some of the difficulties facing Code 9 Mobile. Chief among them: how quickly market dominance flips among cell carriers, the trend toward free-or-reduced-price apps, and tools that can disguise phone numbers.

Jim Waite, director of alumni and constituent relations, introduced Dobson, noting how she can offer sage advice that can help any young entrepreneur.

"If everyone had the dream and ambition of Julie, it would be a wonderful world. And I know our students appreciate the opportunity to learn from such an expert," Waite says.

In addition to her work on Code 9, Dobson is chairwoman of TeleBright Corporation, a privately held telecommunications company specializing in expense management software and mobility applications. She also serves on the board of directors of RadioShack Corporation; PNM Resources Company, an energy-and-utility holding company; Safeguard Scientifics, a holding company of information systems and bio-pharmaceuticals; and The American Water Works Company, a large investor-owned water utility.