Featured Interview – Pete Atkin


Pete Atkin is vice president and general manager of Samsara Industrial in San Francisco.

Pete Atkin, Samsara

ADDEDTuesday, November 19, 2019

  • Q
    What’s the best advice you could give your younger self, just getting started?
    Find interesting problems to work on, and surround yourself with motivated, smart people. You can’t go wrong if you do that. 
  • Q
    Talk about a project that was very challenging and what you did to solve the customer’s problem.
    We’ve been working with San Jose Water Co. for a couple of years now. Initially, they were interested in using our fleet products for real-time generator tracking – looking at things like location and fuel levels from our dashboards.
    After some time, we started working with their well and pump station ops teams as well. Their SCADA system had a lot of data that was valuable to the team for maintenance and capital planning, but they didn’t want to disrupt any of its control functionality, so they started working with us to pull that data from their controllers in a parallel stream. 
    That wasn’t the hard part though. At the time they were also tracking a metric called OPE, which stands for overall pump efficiency. This is basically a math formula that they used to determine how well their pumps were doing across each of their remote sites. When we dug into the challenge here, we found out that they were collecting data manually and running this calculation manually in spreadsheets once every year or two. This was a super time-intensive process for them, so much so that they were only getting a read on this about once per year, and so they asked us if there was a way we could get a real-time value. 
    Part of the challenge here was ensuring that whatever we built would be something that would be valuable to a broader set of customers in addition to San Jose. We spent some time working with them to understand how they would use the formula and spoke with a few other customers as well throughout the process. 
    After a few iterations, we were able to create a solution that not only provides San Jose water with a real-time value for OPE, but is flexible enough to take in any number of data points and then calculate a higher level metric, whatever that may be for any other customer.
  • Q
    What makes Samsara optimistic about the future of the automation industry?
    Seeing customers eyes light up when they first try our product is always a good sign. The impact that we can have on simplifying operations, saving money and speeding up deployment time – based on feedback from SIs and customers – gives me confidence we are onto something big. 
    This last year has given us a more in-depth understanding of the landscape, and we have seen significant market interest in our initial products — we know customers are excited about the value proposition we bring to the table. But we've also created a strong roadmap of what to build over the next couple of years. The IIoT space is a $100 billion market, and we’re just at the beginning of that. 
  • Q
    Tell us about your SI Partner Program.
    SIs are critical to the successful deployment of our products. Our expertise is in building incredible industrial IIoT technology, but it's the SIs who each bring decades of experience in making new technology operational in the toughest industrial environments, from high-stakes manufacturing to remote oil and gas sites in the most desolate parts of the country. We focus our partner program on bringing both immediate- and long-term value to our SIs. We're often commended for being one of the few vendors that brings customer opportunities to our partners, rather than waiting for them to sell our stuff. 
    Our partner program has a lot of the traditional elements like offering resale or referral margin to partners and offering a technical training program, but we're really trying to bring a fresh approach to SIs based on the potential of IIoT and digital transformation to change traditional SI business models. 
    There are three key ways in which we're changing that model: 
    1. By making IIoT accessible and user-friendly, we've made digital transformation feasible for new verticals and applications where it wouldn't have worked before, so we're growing the total addressable market for SIs. 
    2. We're making remote monitoring simple to install and simple to use and finding that our SI partners see us as a platform on which to build managed services for higher profitability and recurring revenues. 
    3. Finally, both by simplifying the technology stack and by obsessing over customer service, we're accelerating the sales process so that SIs can quickly demo and deploy our technology for shorter time to revenue.
  • Q
    In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing the automation marketplace today and in the future?
    By far the biggest challenge in the automation marketplace is the complexity and challenge of connecting to a broad range of older pieces of equipment.
    This means there are lots of systems out there that don’t work well together.
    Many customers simply have trouble getting their data back to any central repository where they can use it for business purposes.  If they have operational data, it is stuck in a control system that is hard to pull it out of. 
    These are all challenges we are working to address:  easy-to-deploy hardware to connect to any device, centralized data collection, mobile-ready dashboards out of the box and open APIs to allow data portability to any system.
    There aren’t many incumbent manufacturers that work well across that hardware-software boundary that is needed to bring the benefits of modern software to the automation world.
    It’s interesting because today you see a majority of IIoT vendors on the software side of that line, and with these guys there’s an added degree of complexity when it comes to choosing and integrating hardware and managing that entire ecosystem. If that’s not done well and that complexity carries over to the customer, it’s really going to slow down the frontend integration process and sabotage a lot of projects. 
    On the flip side, there is a handful of vendors trying to make the transition from being a hardware company to software- and solutions-driven companies, but there are challenges here as well – like more-difficult-to-configure software and slower development speeds.  
  • Q
    How has Samsara grown or changed in the past year, and what do you expect for your company in the next 12 to 24 months?
    Samsara has been growing extremely quickly – both across our fleet management team and our industrial automation team.  Over the past 4 years we have grown to a nearly 1,500-person organization.  
    Customer demand for connected operations is fueling that growth, and we don’t see that going away. 
    The industrial team has launched several new products in the last year – a cloud-managed PLC for remote operations, a flexible cloud-based dashboarding and alerting feature set, and a smart camera for automated quality control in manufacturing. 
    We are investing heavily in building out these platforms, and based on customer feedback, adding features and functionality very quickly. 
    Our plan over the next year is to roughly double in size. But I can tell you one thing that won’t change is making sure we spend a lot of hands-on time with customers and partners, visiting manufacturing plants of all types across the country — food and beverage, automotive, pharmaceuticals. 
    We’ve spent a lot of time in the oil fields in West Texas and Oklahoma as well as on site with water utilities across the country, and every visit is valuable to us. We lean on our customers and partners to bring the depth of knowledge in their fields and, as technology experts, work with them to come up with new, better ways to solve problems. 
  • Q
    What kinds of trends and challenges are you seeing in industrial automation right now?
    The industrial automation market is on the cusp of major change based on significant shifts in technology now available on the market. There are three major trends that have evolved over the past decade that we see as the foundation for this change and which open significant opportunities for customers.
    First, dramatic increases in cellular coverage and a 40X decrease in cost means that many more assets can be connected, with far fewer bandwidth constraints than in the past.  
    Second, advances in compute power means that edge analytics and AI open a lot of opportunities for video deployments and other optimization technologies. 
    Finally, the cost of camera technology has dropped dramatically, making that more available for a range of applications.
    If you combine those three trends with advances in cloud management and security, you have the foundational building blocks for an entirely new, and dramatically more simple, industrial automation architecture.  
    In terms of challenges, we see a few that we are working on trying to help with:
    •	Connecting legacy devices: All the compute power in the world doesn’t help if you can’t get your operational data off your assets.  Simple, cost-effective ways of easily connecting devices is critical. 
    •	Data silos: the biggest concern customers have with IOT is ending up with a lot of different data silos.  Being able to deploy open platforms with modern APIs is critical to ensure data can be used across platforms. 
    •	Getting business relevant data from control systems: Legacy control systems were purposefully built to be locked down and inaccessible for security reasons.  Now, everyone wants operational data to make better business decisions, but the existing systems make that very hard to do.  
  • Q
    What is the biggest benefit of CSIA membership for Samsara?
    We spend a lot of time speaking with and visiting customers to understand their needs and build our products to solve those problems. We're taking the same approach with our partners, including system integrators, to develop both products and business models that are compelling to those partners. 
    Ultimately our goal is to build technology that helps integrators better serve their customers, while making a good profit at the same time. 
    CSIA is the primary hub for us to hear and understand the voice of the integrator. Not only does CSIA give us a channel to engage with high-quality system integrators individually, but it does a great job of hosting events and curating resources that capture the collective voices of integrators and help us keep a good pulse on the market. 
  • Q
    How did you land where you are today?
     I spent several years as a management consultant working with big industrial companies on topics around energy, sustainability and efficiency. I did a lot of work to help companies operate more efficiently and improve their bottom line. In consulting you quickly learn that everything starts and ends with the customer. That philosophy has stayed with me —when it comes to customers, every product must solve an acute set of pain points and always add value. 
    After that, I spent 7 years helping to build a technology organization at Cisco Meraki where we changed the industry with the first real cloud-managed networking products and scaled that up to a $2 billion business. 
    The idea of putting both of those past lives together to build IIoT solutions was compelling, and that’s what Samsara is bringing to the table – we’re finding new ways to bring cutting-edge tech to customers in the industrial world. Building systems that are not only robust and scalable, but simple to use.