Bidding a fond farewell to a CRM innovator: Sarah Nunke

I know there is a fine line between personal and business blogs, and I have worked hard over the last couple of years not to cross that line.  I realize this post puts a toe over the line, but I hope you all will indulge me. A good friend, mentor and supporter of mine died yesterday, Sarah Nunke.  She had been battling pancreatic cancer for 15 months and passed away at home under hospice care.

When I was a tech support manager at JCPenney in the late 80s/early 90s, we implemented the very first knowledgebase product designed specifically for support:  Apriori from Answer Systems.  Sarah was the product manager for the company. JCPenney was this small startup’s first big-name account, and I worked with Sarah providing requirements for some additional modules they were building, around contact management and entitlement, that would become the common paradigm used today in every CRM system on the market.  Sarah saw potential in me that I didn’t even see, and I remember her saying on one of her JCPenney site visits, “We need to get you out of here.”

Two years later, Answer (with Sarah’s insistence) recruited me to Silicon Valley, first to head up their tech support group, and later, after we were acquired by Platinum Technology, I took over Sarah’s role as product manager (working for Charlie Isaacs, who most recently served as CTO and Chief Customer Officer for KANA). Platinum was on a buying binge, and Sarah’s new role was mapping the integration story across the core Platinum products and all of their new acquisitions.

One of the defining moments in my career was a lunch meeting at the California Cafe in the Great Mall of America in Minneapolis.  I was accompanying Sarah to meet another startup acquired by Platinum.  I don’t even remember now what the product was. What I do remember is how we pushed the plates aside and created an entire integration story on the white paper tablecloth. It was my first exposure to “Marketecture,” and the first time I realized that I could design logical processes and integration points across multiple technologies without having an engineering degree.  This single skill is what I have built on to be a successful analyst. I kept that rolled up paper tablecloth for years.

When Sarah left Platinum she joined Clarify, who we all remember as one of the original CRM vendors, along with Scopus, Vantive and Siebel.  CRM as a term hadn’t even been invented yet. I was doing knowledgebase implementations for Platinum at that point, and Sarah convinced me to join Clarify.  Getting in on the ground floor of the CRM industry was one of the smartest moves I’ve made, as I had a hand in creating some core CRM modules that still define how CRM works.  It was a very exciting time and place.

Sarah left Clarify after a few years and went on to work at some great Silicon Valley companies.  She did a stint at Oracle helping them build their first attempt at CRM.  She spent several years at ePeople, who created the idea of consumers bidding on tech support help from a community of experts–long before Web 2.0 was even a glimmer in the eye of Tim O’Reilly. She did consulting work for Blue Pumpkin, the best workforce management tool on the market, now part of Verint-Witness.

Sarah was a great friend, a confidant, a mentor, and she yelled at me sometimes too. She pushed me to make my mark in this space, and I discussed every career move I’ve made over the years with her before acting. She taught me to be a wine snob, as well as getting me addicted to Ridge Zinfandels. I will miss her very much.

The next time you have a glass of wine, please make a toast to Sarah Nunke. Thanks for reading.

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20 Comments on “Bidding a fond farewell to a CRM innovator: Sarah Nunke”

  1. David Kay Says:

    John –

    This is very sad news. Thanks for letting us know. I knew Sarah only briefly, mostly during her time at ePeople. As you say, she and the team there were inventing things that the market is just now starting to understand and adopt, mostly unaware of the source of the some the best ideas.

    She was generous with her ideas and with her challenging of conventional wisdom and complacency at the Consortium for Service Innovation, where she was a brief but significant contributor.

    I never knew she was a Ridge fan. The toast happens tonight.

    Sigh,
    David

  2. jragsdale Says:

    Thanks David. Yes, I recall some rants about the Consortium not moving fast enough!

  3. Brad Cleveland Says:

    I’m really sorry to hear that she passed away. I enjoyed working with and knowing her in our ePeople days.

    Brad

  4. Ritu Says:

    I’m shocked at the news. Sarah was the most positive and supportive person I ever knew. I enjoyed many happy years working with her at ePeople.

  5. Mary Sue Says:

    John: so sad to hear the news, thanks for letting our bigger community know.

  6. Olivier Gachot Says:

    I had the pleasure of working with Sarah at ePeople. She was hard working, creative and always ready to help. I was lucky to also attend a few of her and Tommie famous Christmas parties. Farewell Sarah.

  7. Lin Xia Says:

    I am very sad to hear the news. I enjoyed working with Sarah at epeople. She had been always nice to me. I will miss her.

  8. Shawn Santos Says:

    Hi John,

    My condolences, and thank you for sharing. Sarah sounds like a great person and mentor–it’s evident to me that some of those qualities rubbed off on you.

    Shawn

  9. Medha Says:

    This is a sad and shocking news. It was fun working with her at ePeople. Sarah, you will be dearly missed.

  10. Michael Israel Says:

    John, I don’t think you stepped over the line at all. Very nice tribute.

  11. Kevin Lindbloom Says:

    Very well said John! Your words have raised some similar fond memories of mine. I am sorry to hear of her passing. That’s two Answer colleagues lost to cancer😦

  12. Cindy Says:

    John,

    What a nice post. I will remember Sarah when I drink my next glass of wine.

    Kind regards,
    Cindy

  13. Dave Seman Says:

    John,

    Very nice tribute to a lady who apparently made her mark within the support and CRM industry. More importantly, your recollections remind us all of the importance and value of being a thoughtful and caring person, and of using those values as you manage and devlop your professional teams.

    Your tribute to Sarah makes me wish that I would’ve had the chance to know and work with her. Nice job.
    I don’t think you stepped over the line at all!

    Dave

  14. Bo Di Muccio Says:

    Ditto to Michael Israel’s comment. Totally apropos (not to mention very sad), post. My grandfather died of pancreatic cancer … it’s an extremely aggressive and unforgiving form of the disease. Condolences.

  15. Ellis Ishaya Says:

    Sorry to hear Sarah passed.

    I worked with her at ePeople as well and she really understood her business. She was particularly good at managing internal and external forces that influence a products direction and roadmap.

    She was able to support the sales process while ensuring engineering was not stretched too far…end result was a solid product that met market demand.

    My thoughts and prayers go out to her and her family.

  16. Dione McBride Says:

    John, this is a wonderful memory for a person who really made a difference in the lives of so many people. Sarah exuded professionalism that was extraordinary as well as a real, non-nonsense approach at times.

    I will also fondly remember a wonderful day spent with her wine testing on one of my visits. She guided me gently through some wonderful vinyards and showed me a aspect of life I am sure I would not have explored on my own.

  17. Phil Verghis Says:

    John,

    So sorry to hear this. I recall Sarah fondly from the Apriori days….

    Peace,

    Phil

  18. Todd Eisemann Says:

    Wonderful written John

    Wow, I’m shocked and saddened to hear the news. I recall being a junior engineer at Answer in those first early days and learned so much from Sarah.

    You’ve reminded me how Sarah was both a great person to work with and a great person. She will be sadly missed.

    John & Sarah, I miss seeing and learning from you both.

  19. Saurabh Says:

    So sorry to hear this. I worked for Sarah at ePeople. She hired me for my first job out of school. She put her trust in me and was a great mentor.

    Sarah, will miss you.

  20. Anthony Says:

    John this is very sad news. Sarah will always be remembered and missed.
    I really liked your piece and will always have fond memories of Sarah, she was a real talent and a very generous person


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