Cloud Computing Outlook

The Digital Transformation Trifecta: Cloud, IoT, and Big Data

By Joe Topinka, CIO, SnapAV

Joe Topinka, CIO, SnapAV

Staying relevant is proving difficult for many companies as the digital transformation tsunami hits the shores of most businesses. Balancing between the hype and realities of the cloud, IoT, and big data is confusing for c-suite executives. Companies are facing the emergence of new, non-traditional competitors surfacing from out of nowhere. Examples are numerous and easy to find. Consider payment offerings like Stripe and Square that threaten banks, Uber and Lift are challenging traditional taxi businesses, and Amazon and Alibaba continue to put the squeeze on small businesses everywhere.

"Our premise was simple; with our connected products, we wanted to make the lives of our dealers easier"

In the face of these competitive realities, CIOs must continue to lead digital transformation and fight for a legitimate seat at the table. These have been, and still are, the top priorities for IT leaders around the globe. As a CIO, I’m challenged daily to deal with cloud, IoT, and big data all at once. I work for a company that manufactures high-end audio-visual products for the residential and commercial market. Historically, SnapAV earned its market stripes by manufacturing products like speakers, racks and mounts, and structured wiring, and then selling them directly to installers from our digital commerce platform. We deliver industry leading customer service and technical support and are the best in our industry.

Our Digital Transformation

Then a few years ago, the company added connected products to its line-up. We added the manufacture of routers, switches, access points, amplifiers, and surveillance equipment to our line-up. We don’t just make me-too products. We decided to embed our own firmware in each of the products, giving our customers the ability to control and manage these products from a smartphone or tablet. Our industry was and still is going through a digital transformation of its own. More products, both in homes and in small businesses, are connected to the internet. Our premise was simple; with our connected products, we wanted to make the lives of our dealers easier. We knew that simplifying the set-up and management of connected products would prove a critical success factor for them.

Looking back to ten years ago, our customers (the home AV installers) were mostly focused on delivering multi-room audio and video to homes. They were truly AV installers. Fast forward to today, our customers have been thrust into the role of “IT guy” for homes and small businesses. More products are now connected to the internet than ever before. Our customers suddenly faced a significant challenge; how to support the new hyper-connected customer? We thought that if we could deliver a streamlined, easy to use solution, our dealers’ lives would be easier, thus enabling their success.

Delivering Value in the Cloud with IoT

To meet this challenge, we set out to build a cloud-based platform that enabled dealers to configure and manage connected devices all from a smartphone or tablet. The product, called OvrC (pronounced oversee) did just that. The impact was profound. Dealers told us that the platform revolutionized their businesses. It eliminated truck rolls because dealers could access their customer base and control and manage devices remotely. It also gave dealers the ability to push firmware from our cloud, which in the past had required a truck roll. With this technology, we gave dealers the ability to see each outlet on a surge protector, all the ports on a switch, see network upload and download speeds and much more. They could manage each device at a granular level, all without having to roll a truck to the customer’s location. The result of all of this is that our dealers transformed from being just an “AV guy” to the connected systems “IT guy” –a true managed services provider.

As a CIO, the challenges of delivering this capability were many. We had to learn how to recruit and retain talent that could build embedded software, deliver it in the cloud, and manage a new connected customer base with more than one million cloud-connected devices. Like our customers, we too had to move from being a traditional manufacturer and product servicer to a managed services provider. We began to see patterns based on the data in the connected products ecosystem. We used the data from the cloud-connected products to understand how our customers were leveraging our products and to understand and anticipate problems before our customers even knew they existed. Using this data from the connected devices, we implemented self-healing features to remedy many of the problems that had previously required manual intervention. This is a good example of stumbling upon a value-added capability that we didn’t anticipate in the beginning of our endeavor.

Without a doubt, it has been fun to be a part of something so game-changing and cool. On the flip side, there are always hurdles to overcome when taking the IoT, cloud, and big data plunge. Here are some of the hurdles we faced in our digital transformation journey:

1. Competitive threat – Our success brings new competitive challengers. We saw new competitors, both from inside and outside of our industry, enter the market with look-a-like products. We had to stay on our toes to keep ahead of the game. We did that by spending time with customers to ensure we understood their biggest pain points. We used this information proactively to build solutions to address them. So far, we continue to win more times than not. We are also seeing an uptick in sales of our connected products. Dealers do value the simplicity of installation and support. OvrC has been a benefit to our dealers and to our company.

2. Cloud evolution – Our product has been out for just over three years now. We leverage open source tools and libraries to manage the platform. This space is changing even faster than I could have ever imagined. It forces us to stay on top of changing trends, which we do by including strategic upgrades to key components of the cloud infrastructure and software. We are purposely including these strategic updates to keep the platform relevant and to stay ahead of the competition.

3. Smooth operations – As a managed service provider, one key aspect to our platform is a smoothly running system. Just like with traditional IT systems, our customer-facing services must run flawlessly every day. Servers, databases, and operations are the dial-tone services of this new offering. Our dealers and internal stakeholders count on the platform to run consistently without issues every day. We implemented operating processes and systems to proactively monitor and respond to any events that occur. This has been a key aspect of our success. Platform reliability builds confidence and trust, both with our dealers, and with our internal stakeholders.

4. Talent – These days it’s hard to find a ten-year IoT developer. The fact is, finding skilled resources are difficult. We decide to host a local IoT MeetUp event at our offices each month. The meeting attracts IoT enthusiasts from around the region and it has enhanced our marketplace reputation as a high-tech company. We are now positioned in these circles as a target employer for aspiring software engineers. 

5. Cyber security – Nothing derails progress more than a cyber breach. We partnered with a cyber security team to ensure we baked the right level of cyber security protocols and methods into our platform. We had a partner independently test our products and our cloud platform to double check platform resiliency. Finding the right partner for this was key—they bring a level of expertise to the table that is independent and transparent - which is essential in the IoT cloud world we live in.

Navigating the digital transformation at our company has been both challenging and exciting. There has never been a more exciting time to be a CIO. As leaders, we just need to embrace change and help our c-suite counterparts through the transition. Once you jump into the cloud, IoT, and big data, know that your journey is just beginning. Be sure you stay competitive by listening to your customers. Plan on strategic refreshes of the core platform components to keep it modern and relevant. Ensure your operations run flawlessly—not doing so will derail progress and limit your impact in your company. In terms of recruiting, find creative ways to let the market know that your company is a destination employer. Host a meetup and tell your story. And finally, bake cyber security into your solutions from the start. Your team, your company, and your customers all depend on it.

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