One on One with the IoT Evolution Speaking Faculty: Tj Butler


The IoT Evolution Expo is coming up next week in Fort Lauderdale, and if you haven’t registered yet, what are you waiting for?

As we get ready for the event, I had a quick chat with some of our speakers to pick their brains about the IoT industry and what they will be talking about in their sessions.

In this installment, I spoke with Tj Butler, Chief Software Architect at Mesh Systems, who will be speaking in the “Going from ‘Real Cool’ to ‘Real World’” session about taking a proof of concept that works seamlessly in a controlled lab situation and perfecting it for use in the uncontrolled real world and in the “Does the Maker Movement Make Product?” panel discussion how Makers can take their clever hacks and turn them into products. TJ has helped start and/or grow several companies during his 20 years of experience. That entrepreneurial spirit ensures his engineering approach is grounded with a solid business perspective. His entire career has focused on transforming machine data for the purpose of producing business intelligence which has been a fantastic primer for IoT.

Ken Briodagh: What are you latest announcements, and are you doing anything to highlight it at IoT Evolution Expo?

Tj Butler: Mesh Systems has been recognized for several awards recently. We received a 2015 IoT Evolution Product of the year award. We've been named for the 6th consecutive year on the Connected World 100. We were named to the Inc 500 list of fasted growing companies. We were recognized as an “Indiana Company to Watch”. It's been an amazing year for us. I understand our marketing lead is still working out the details of our presence at the event but our VP of sales and I are both attending for the whole week.

KB: IoT has become all the rage in the media. How has the hype impacted your business?
TB: We've seen tremendous attention in the transition from the term "M2M" to "IoT". On one hand, the exposure and attention from the media and analysts has been tremendously helpful. We've seen a great deal of business originating from newly formed "Innovation" teams with specific direction or backing from the C-Level to focus on IoT. I believe much of that “education process” with the C-Level has come from the wave of hype. However, we've also seen several new starts ups pop up with lots of marketing capital but very little experience. That combination is making it more difficult for Enterprise customers to evaluate and select partners. We’ve seen some recent opportunities come to us at the last minute because one company or another has failed to execute beyond a proof of concept.

KB: Are there any vertical market successes that have surprised you?
TB: We've had quite a bit of unexpected success in the "Marketing" vertical itself. Marketing divisions have been most the aggressive both in terms of capital commitment and innovative ideas. Being the first to do something in the marketing space has been a significant driver. Creating new data opportunities to access “closed-loop” marketing information is also a key driver.

KB: The retail use of IoT continues to expand with beacons adding to the interaction with consumers and their phones. Should we expect that POS is going to rely on Smartphone apps for improved customer service?
TB: I can't think of a single project we've worked on that hasn't planned the use of a smartphone in some capacity. Mobile buzz is even more prevalent in the retail space. We're hearing lots of activity around improving the POS experience but the majority of attention has been focused on convenience (time savings) at the time of purchase. However, it's challenging to sell convenience to the general public when we're still working out the kinks and adoption. The frustration generated from a single failed mobile payment transaction outweighs several successful transactions because the perception, at least for now, is a very minor incremental convenience gain while paying. I believe there is huge potential beyond the convenience factor. The smartphone provides a means a critical link between product manufacturers and brick and mortar patrons while their making purchasing decisions.

KB: We have focused on embedded systems and IoT modules with our program, does that match your experience with developers? Is there a disconnect between IoT modules and apps developers we need to impact?
TB: I can't stress enough how important basic connectivity and reliability is. Clearly, security is a core and required component but, quite frankly, even security doesn't matter if basic connectivity isn't working first. The media seemed to jump directly from Big Data analytics hype to IoT Analytics hype and is focused on predictive maintenance, real-time events and machine learning… understandably so. The potential value propositions are staggering. However, if the reliability, accuracy and quality of data isn't solid, the analytics don't matter. The foundation of good data science is, simply put, good data.

This isn’t just my opinion, we’re winning business because other companies are failing at the basics. Two of our biggest projects are the result of other companies failing to maintain reliable connections to the “things”.

Therefore, companies that just focus on apps may naturally assume the data they're receiving is just going to show up without regard to helping maintain the connection. IoT Module makers may make the assumption that the cloud services will “just work” as well. Distributed systems that support IoT applications must plan for gaps. Every link in the chain of a distributed system must expect and handle transient failures. The most important of those links is that between the physical device and the point at which the data reaches the "app”. I believe tight integration between the device (IoT Module) and the cloud (IoT App) is critical. I look forward to the day when standards help ensure that reliability. I believe it’s the IoT Developer’s responsibility to the industry to work towards that ideal. But, for now, using it still feels like having a very close relationship or understanding between Modules and Apps is working far better than a fully decoupled approach. Architecturally, they should be decoupled, but practically, they should be very aware of and respect the capabilities of each other.

KB: When it comes to IoT what “laws” matter? What are the issues with processing (Moore’s Law), connectivity (Cooper’s Law) and networking (Metcalfe’s Law)?
TB: This is a fantastic question! (Ed. Note: Thanks!) It speaks to the very core of enablement for IoT in the Enterprise. The hype of creating [pick your number] billion connected things by 2020 is a result of the predictable pace and expectation of lower costs, improved performance and ubiquitous connectivity. Quite frankly, the current success of IoT in general is a factor of timing where all three are intersecting making components readily available, sufficiently capable and at a reasonable cost. We're hearing the same sentiment from business leaders over and over; "I need it now, I need it to work, and I need it to be affordable." What are the key issues with these laws? It’s hard to separate them from each other because they somewhat enable one another. At the moment we, I would focus Metcalfe’s advice because I think it shines the light on the value of basic connectivity. It's clear that the *quality* of those connections is a critical component to that value. This, in my opinion, may be the single most critical component of the IoT industry in general. Connectivity across all components of a highly distributed IoT Enterprise system is hard.

KB: The “Maker Movement” has a lot of creativity in the area of IoT; how do they impact development in the Enterprise?
TB: I have very mixed feelings about this. For the last several months I've felt that maker projects have had a negative impact in the Enterprise. Ironically, maker tutorials have given technically capable teams a false sense of confidence because it "seems easy", not to mention, it's fun and demos really well. However, a single Raspberry PI pumping data into a cloud database is a far cry from an Enterprise IoT deployment. And while that may seem obvious, we've had several customers come to us in a panic because they've done just that... and hit a wall. At some point, connectivity, scale, manufacturing economics, distribution, workflow, product life-cycle management... the real-world… gets in the way. IoT in the enterprise is a new breed of distributed system. In short, it looks deceptively easy and it's just not. Scale changes everything.

That said, I think there's a great deal of good happening at the same time. Two quick examples:

1) The maker movement has provided low-cost tools and guidance for someone with ambition and an idea to make a reasonable proof of concept. I'm currently working on a project with world-wide deployment expectations that started with an idea vetted and sold to upper-management via a Raspberry Pi and a dev kit. It was enough to get the right people to understand the vision and back the project. The key to their success was that they focused on their core business and lined up partners to help them execute the parts that weren't their core business. In this case, the Maker’s demo enabled the conception of what became the commercialized product even though none of the engineering was actually used in the final product.

2) I've seen the light of a budding engineer/scientist turned on by sharing Maker projects. I recently showed my daughter a video of another little girl talking about a project she had completed. My daughter responded with "We could do that." A few days later, she came to me and said, "Dad... I have an idea." I can't think of anything more important than inspiration to foster innovation. And I can’t take the credit for that inspiration. It wasn't coming from me. That other little maker who took the time to do her project, make a video and share it with the community, she made a difference. The social impact is so hard to quantify. That level of collaboration and inspiration simply wasn't possible even 10 years ago but it's a great example of the "Movement" and why I see and its importance to the growth and improvement of the IoT Industry.

That’s it, folks. We’ll see you in Ft. Lauderdale for the IoT Evolution Expo (I hope), and don’t miss Tj’s session. 

Edited by Kyle Piscioniere
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