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24/7 executives

Versature CTO Adam Sherman volunteers about 30 hours a month with Sauvetage Bénévole Outaouais – Ottawa Volunteer Search and Rescue.Blair Gable

24/7 Executives is a series of stories on high-performing professionals who are as serious at play as they are in the conference room. See the other stories here.

Growing up in a house converted from an old railway ticket station, Adam Sherman spent hours playing in the wilderness of the Appalachian Mountains, perched on his mother's shoulders.

Cross-country skiing, hiking and snowshoeing were a regular pastime during his childhood, spent in Quebec's Eastern Townships, an hour and a half from Montreal.

It's that connection to nature formed early on in life that lures Mr. Sherman, 34, to uncharted territory every weekend in the summers, camping and exploring the wilderness of Southern Quebec with his girlfriend, where they eschew campgrounds in favour of remote areas that are unreachable by satellite signals.

It's also what drew the chief technology officer and co-founder of Versature, an Ottawa-based telecommunications company, to his long-time volunteer role with Sauvetage Bénévole Outaouais – Ottawa Volunteer Search and Rescue (SBO-OVSAR) in 2006.

As the volunteer director of operations for SBO-OVSAR, Mr. Sherman commits at least 30 hours a month to the incident management team. The group of volunteers runs a search and rescue operation from start to finish, supporting police, fire and emergency organizations and municipalities in times of crisis.

"It takes at least 30 to 40 people to search a heavily wooded area. There are a lot of boots on the ground – sometimes we need to request more assistance than that," says Mr. Sherman, who, like his 150 counterparts in the Ottawa and Gatineau, Que., area, is on call 24/7.

Basic training involves at least 80 hours on topics including first aid, wilderness navigation and how to evacuate an injured person from areas inaccessible to vehicles.

"The team has to be able to identify and thoroughly search an area – and be absolutely certain about where it is that they just searched, using tools such as a map, compass and GPS," he says.

As a leader of technology and network operations at a firm that services companies' needs for cloud-based telephone services from anywhere in the world, Mr. Sherman is aware his two worlds could not be more opposite.

"This is completely different from my day job. Technology is magic. There's no magic involved in searching for someone," says Mr. Sherman, a self-taught technology wiz who moved to Ottawa as a teenager and started his career during the dot-com boom of the mid-1990s.

"With search and rescue, you put a bunch of trained people in a room who take a systematic approach to the problem and figure out the puzzle that is a lost person. When you get out there in the field you make some educated guesses and hope you're right.

"The psychology behind lost person behaviour gives us important clues as to where they might end up. An Alzheimer's patient may not realize they are lost. They will keep going in a straight line until they are stopped by a physical barrier, and they don't follow the trails.

"A despondent, someone with suicidal tendencies, will gravitate toward a place with positive memories, such as a fishing hole or an area with a mountain view. They are very frequently found deceased."

While most rescue calls are related to mental health, Mr. Sherman led a team two years ago that rescued several lost snowshoers from freezing to death during a record-breaking snowfall. The heavy snow completely obliterated the trails in Gatineau Park and they lost track of where they were.

"They were there all night until we found them at 6 a.m.," he says. "One individual needed helicopter evacuation to get out as he was too frozen to walk, and we had the Chelsea [Que.] fire department use chainsaws to cut through the trees that had fallen across the trails, to make a clearing," he says.

"A search is particularly memorable for me when it's resolved quickly. When, hours later, they are found and in an ambulance, you know you did something right."

All the communications for the search and rescue team are provided by Versature. The rapidly growing, privately owned company has a staff of 22 and this month won the "employer of choice" award for the telecommunications industry at the Canadian Telecom Summit, an industry gathering.

This is thanks to some unique perks including the company's own sprawling backyard, which transforms into a hockey rink in the winter; Friday afternoons spent socializing with beer sourced from nearby craft breweries; and standing-only team meetings capped at eight minutes, held right before the lunch hour so they don't drag on.

The crowning glory of Versature's cubicle-free, graffiti-adorned work space, to which employees are also welcome to bring their pets, is a 1968 phone booth, discovered by chief executive officer Paul Emond from a Kijiji ad and brought in from a farmer's barn in Southern Ontario.

Refurbished with new glass panels and a 1970s phone book, employees can use it to call anywhere in the world – a poignant statement piece on the evolution of telephony.

In 2003, when Mr. Sherman met Mr. Emond, with whom he co-founded Versature the following year, voice over Internet protocol technology (or VoIP, delivery of voice communication over the Internet) was just taking off. Today, as long as there is Internet access, it doesn't matter where clients' phones or staff are located, he says.

"As long as you can plug a phone in and access our software, your extension will follow you with no outages or dropped calls. You can take that call from an island in the Caribbean or your cottage in the woods if you wish," he says.

"Our clients are companies in a state of change, who might be shrinking, expanding or moving to new markets. It's very difficult to achieve this while keeping communications cohesive. You can do all kinds of exciting stuff with technology but it's got to work. If your sales team stops getting calls for an hour, the consequences can be devastating."

Thanks to Internet access, we're now within reach of everybody, everywhere – which is why Mr. Sherman is an ardent believer in unplugging once in a while.

"It's important to realize we live in the real world with actual people and stuff in it – not the virtual world where almost all of us are making our money to some extent," he says. "Working in the virtual world is just not the same as collecting wood from the bush and getting a fire started in the rain."