The DTC Interview: IOTech CEO Keith Steele
Ever since the cloud became synonymous with technology and not just a weather pattern, technology pundits—like meteorologists—have predicted the oncoming storm of IoT. “The Internet of Things is Coming for Us” wrote the New York Times. Another essay from the WSJ read, “The Internet of Things is Changing the World.” Reading the news, you’d expect IOTech CEO Keith Steele—a seasoned leader in the middleware and IoT industries for decades—to match the feverous pitch. But when we asked about the hype cycle, Steele, an honest pragmatist, replied, “I’ve never really regarded what we were doing here as being a revolution, but more an evolution of what was happening. Where we’re at in IoT is due to advances in many technologies that have steadily happened over time.”
Steele’s cool tenor doesn’t reflect the excitement of his customers like Accenture, EATON, Schneider Electric, and Johnson Controls, who’ve sought out IOTech because of its leading open edge data platform that provides them the freedom of choice to connect hardware and services to their IoT stack. Nor does it reflect the potential for what industrial IoT technologies can unlock.
WHY THIS, WHY NOW
Q: Can you describe the challenge that the IOTech platform is addressing for the industrial edge?
Keith Steele (KS): We develop software products that aim to make industrial data easily accessible, actionable and manageable for delivering solutions at the edge. For, say, to automate safety actions in a manufacturing plant, to better monitor efficiency in renewable energy installations, or to create smarter performance monitoring in transportation and logistics.
The edge is a very complex, heterogeneous world that combines countless sensor types and protocols. It’s not a straightforward piece of work to do because you’re dealing with all this heterogeneity, you’re dealing with thousands and thousands of devices, massive scale performance requirements that would blow your mind — we have one application where we’re dealing with something like 21 million data points a second. That’s not the norm but you have to be prepared for requirements like that.
There’s a bunch of software that needs to be put in place to bring it all together so companies can consume, analyze, and do things with that data to produce positive outcomes. That’s what IOTech does.
You’re dealing with all this heterogeneity, you’re dealing with thousands and thousands of devices, massive scale performance requirements that would blow your mind.
Q: OK. The industrial edge sounds like a messy place to build for. Give us a real-world application of IOTech’s technology?
KS: One of IOTech’s major customers is a leader in the renewable energy sector and is building out a range of Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) solutions for the large-scale storage and release of electricity for a range of applications. Operational data points need to be acquired in real-time, processed and stored at huge scale from the underlying battery and other electrical equipment, integrated with control schedules, passed to a variety of end points, analyzed at the Edge and managed across multiple sites and customers.
The equipment to do all this is supplied by different vendors which involves significant integration costs each time the hardware changes. In addition to being able to enable real-time data acquisition at massive scale, plus support for the system’s control and data historian functions, IOTech’s open edge data platform allows the customer to abstract any underlying equipment making hardware replacement far easier, more cost effective and enables much greater vendor choice for the customer.
Q: Something you’ve underscored in the past is the importance of an open infrastructure to support this development at the edge. Why is this so important?
KS: At the edge, our customers might be dealing with lots of different devices, operating systems, and platforms to communicate with those devices. People want to have choice in vendors. For example, they want to it to run on ARM and Intel processors —because, more often than not, they’ve got a mix of those technologies—and they don’t want to be tied into a single cloud vendor. People want to plug and play different or best-of-breed options and that’s what we’re trying to make possible with our products that support open architectures at practically every level.
Q: You’ve been building IoT solutions for more than two decades. I’m sure you’ve seen the media hype cycle around IoT ebb and flow during that time. What have been the major drivers behind the hype, and how have you kept the keel even throughout these cycles?
KS: For most of my career, I’ve have been in the development of middleware technology for distributed real-time and embedded computing. That’s really the core of my skill set. I’ve never really regarded what we were doing here as being a revolution, but more an evolution of what was happening. Where we’re at in IoT is due to advances in many technologies that have steadily happened over time. The things that we can put on the edge now, the power of the machines, the power of things like AI, the power of the internet in terms of the speeds that we can achieve, and so on—are all things that enable us to do these things with industrial IoT.
…the power of the machines, the power of things like AI, the power of the internet in terms of the speeds that we can achieve, and so on—are what enable us to do these things with industrial IoT.
We’re now going through a bit of a cycle. The core technology to activate the edge is there. Now we have to make provisioning, configuring, monitoring and updating those edge devices a lot easier. One challenge is that it’s so complicated to build in this space that you really need the top 10% of all engineers but those systems need to work for everyone if you want to deploy them at scale. That’s one of our core initiatives for IOTech and why we introduced Edge Central. We support the numerous industrial protocols you see at the edge and our connectors come with easy to use graphical tools. So now it’s just simple configuration for an IT team to onboard OT devices and sensors.
With that, I think we’re on the cusp. The proof points are obviously the customers we’re bringing on board who are big Fortune 1000 companies.
Q: You’ve founded and served as CEO at several companies over the years. What’s changed most during those decades of leadership?
KS: To be honest, I don’t think things have changed that much in terms of what people want. People want exciting things to do. They want to feel a belonging to the company, to feel ownership, to feel involved in things and understand what’s going on, and they want to be well rewarded for it.
Obviously, there have been some changes we’ve seen since Covid around home working, which people are having to adapt to. But, by and large, and this might not seem obvious, even a software development company is a people business. Your employees, your customers, it’s about dealing with people and meeting their needs.
Starting a company is all-consuming. You live it a hundred percent of the time, and if you’re not prepared to do that, then I wouldn’t recommend it.
Q: As a first-time CEO, were there any assumptions you made about running a company that were completely dispelled once you got into it?
KS: Somebody once tried to prepare me for the workload and how it was going to take over your life. I don’t think I actually believed it. But starting a company is all-consuming. You live it a hundred percent of the time, and if you’re not prepared to do that, then I wouldn’t recommend it.
Q: And as a 3rd time CEO, what lessons have you pulled forward with you?
KS: It’s to hire a core group of experienced people where you can build an implicit trust. And if you’re planning to sell to the same types of companies we are – global, Fortune 1000 companies – you need some senior people who can talk at the same level as your customers. Lots of startups have teams with fantastic enthusiasm but with an awful lot to learn. But in some situations, experience can’t be replaced with enthusiasm.
OFF THE CLOCK
Q: Stemming from your point that being a founder is an all-encompassing What do you enjoy doing “off the clock?” How do you set aside time?
KS: Well, I’m fortunate to have an 11-year-old daughter who keeps me fairly well entertained and level-set from that perspective. There’s always something to do with her. I think, if I’m honest, I probably missed out on that the first time around with my first two boys. So, I’m determined that that’s not going to happen this time.