Featured Interview -- John Weber

John Weber

John Weber is president and founder of Software Toolbox, Matthews, North Carolina.

John Weber, Software Toolbox Inc.

ADDEDTuesday, August 17, 2021

  • Q
    Let’s talk about the history of Software Toolbox, how it began and how it has evolved.
    Software Toolbox was born 25 years ago last month. I was working for a distributor. We had three different HMI products we were selling, and the thing about it is, when you go to sell these big systems, all our big, great partner vendors can’t do it all. There were always third-party products added on. 
    They were all great companies, great developers but there was a challenge out there. I would have a big deal depending on getting more information about a product. Remember folks, this is 1993 through 1996. Al Gore hadn’t created the Internet yet or at least given it to all the rest of us.  [Chuckles.]
    Anyway, so it was very slow to get information, get pricing. These folks often were integrators, and this software they were selling was kind of a side business. They had to focus on what paid most of the bills. So, it was really slowing things down, Then I get the products and they were great, and I realized, “You know what? Something is missing here.”
    I started losing sales of HMIs to people writing their own little applications using these new tools that were available for Microsoft with Visual Basic. And we’re also struggling with the whole thing of customers wanting to choose best-of-breed software, and the problem is the stuff didn’t talk to each other. We had to buy toolkits and a developer. It just didn’t play. 
    Around 1995 I hear about this thing called the OPC standard being created. A bunch of the big vendors were getting together and saying, “You know what? Let’s figure out a way to have standards so all our stuff can play nice together.” I went, “Wait a minute. If suddenly, a piece of software could be written and play with all these others, first that’s going to help all these folks writing it. But second, somebody must be the one to help integrators, OEMs and users find, evaluate, buy and be there to give them support because it wasn’t just about the software.” 
    But trying to share the picture of it was about the whole – it was all these other things. So, the idea of Software Toolbox, let’s go to all these third parties. Let’s get them together and understand this. Let’s put together a catalog and get a mailing list and mail out a catalog because that’s how we – all of us buy our parts for our PCs right now.
    You know, you get the PC Connection. It was one of the big ones. So, I bought everything for that and Black Box Corp. too. Those two, you get the catalog, and it was great. Then you call and talk to somebody who knows what they’re talking about. So, Software Toolbox is about bringing that idea to the industrial automation industry, and we’ve evolved. Now 25 years later, customers in, probably over the years, 130, 140 countries.
    The catalog? Yeah, we don’t do that anymore. That lasted about 2 years because the U.S. market was a little slow to get comfortable with the idea of the Internet. But by fall 1996, we were selling software on the Internet to people in other countries because they were isolated, and the Internet connected them to the rest of the world.
  • Q
    Do you specialize in any industry, product or discipline?
    We specialize in customer experience. I know everybody says that now. But we’ve been doing it since Day 1. It goes back to our founding and recognizing that it wasn’t just about the software. It was about working with somebody who had a variety of software and the knowledge of how it played together.
    We didn’t set out to target anyone in the industry because they all have the same problem. They need to have data so they can know about problems before they ruin their day, week, month, quarter or career. We help them do that.
    We’ve had a lot of success in a lot of industries. Oil and gas, mining, food and beverage, renewable energy. You know, places where people have critical data needs. But part of the fun of this is that we work with so many industries. And we get to see things go around the world. 
  • Q
    Why do your customers return to you project after project?
    I like to talk about this concept of success assurance as the positive version of risk reduction.
    You know, we’re engineers. We tend to say risk reduction. But let’s put positive energy here and look at success assurance. That includes five things: testing, trying, talking, expertise and responsiveness. 
     Does the vendor let you test the software? Can you try it out? Can you work with them? Have they tested it? Have they had an OPC product? Have they put it through the OPC testing lab? 
    Talking. Yes, human contact. I think we all learned something in the pandemic about the value of that. We don’t mind if you call and talk to us. 
    Does the vendor have expertise in the area? How much expertise do the people you’re talking to have in the software? And not everybody can know everything. That’s important here, because otherwise, this automation software world can intimidate somebody new joining this industry.
    One of the things our team is known for is, if you don’t know the answer, then get with somebody on the team who does, and get them involved.
    There are two right answers to every question. The right answer and I do not know but I will find out. 
    Then responsiveness, speed. Everybody has projects to do. We really try to pride ourselves on how quickly we respond to inquiries and helping because we know your billable time is incredibly valuable. We know the risks associated wasting it and what it takes for you to have success on a project. 
    So again, testing, trying, talking, expertise and responsiveness.
  • Q
    What kinds of trends and challenges are you seeing in industrial automation right now?
    It’s a combination of things. It’s people, because historically, we haven’t been a cool industry. 
    It’s also the convergence of IT and OT. Those worlds, I saw this happen 30 years ago because I came from the IT world having worked for a Hewlett-Packard dealer. Then I was going, “Oh look, automation hasn’t done the things we did 5 years ago in IT.”
    Those timeframes are collapsing now. They’re all getting merged. But when that happens, we have this overwhelming pace of new technology that we, as suppliers, must understand, SIs must understand, our partners must. And we don’t have enough people to do it. That’s going to be the challenge for everybody over the next 10 years.
    I don’t think it’s insurmountable, but we’re going to have to work together to help take care of it.
  • Q
    What makes you optimistic about the future of the automation industry?
    Not enough people to do the work! Our customers have the same problem – having enough people. Automation to improve capital utilization is the solution.
    We all have a bright future. As hard as it’s going to be for us to do the job, our customers need us. 
  • Q
    Why did you become a member of CSIA?
    Because I believe in integrators. During my first 6 years of my career, I worked with end users, integrators and OEMs. I saw good integrators. I saw not-so-great integrators. I got that call at 1:00 a.m. as the person with the GE Fanuc business card, and I had to drive out to a plant because my company’s name was on the hardware. Come to find out the integrator hadn’t done such a great job.
    I also came to value and appreciate good integrators. My buddy, Wright Sullivan, showed me what a good integrator does. His company and another integrator in South Carolina just showed me. They held my nose to the grindstone as a vendor, but I learned from them how important the details were and from that, I realized integrators are key. 
    When I started this company, CSIA was just getting started. An integrator friend told me about CSIA and said, “Oh, you better join that. You need to go to their conference because those people need what you’re doing in Software Toolbox.” I knew no better way to grow my business than that. 
  • Q
    From a supplier perspective, why should a prospective customer hire a CSIA integrator member or CSIA certified member?
    Well, speaking from the supplier’s perspective, we put our stuff out there, our name is on it. We try to build quality products. We all do. We want our customers to succeed.
    I don’t want that call that says your product failed and find out it’s because it’s misconfigured. So very selfishly as a supplier, you want a quality integrator. The easiest way to do that is pick somebody who’s CSIA-certified or at least a member and you can have a conversation with them about how active they are. You know, ask them. 
    I’m encouraging members to do more than just pay the fee and put the badge on their website because it lowers my risk and that also lowers our customers’ risk. 
  • Q
    What’s the best advice you could give your younger self just getting started?
    Be flexible. You’re going to get into a job, and it might not be what you think. But the universe has a plan. Don’t be afraid to take that geographically undesirable job. When you’re young, that’s time to just do stuff, go places. It’s OK to fail. 
    And when you see problems, come to your manager with ideas about how to solve them. You may be scared to do that. I certainly was. Now having been a manager for 25 years, I go, “Oh, here’s somebody energetic, interested who wants to do something about it and help grow the business.”
    Don’t be afraid to do that. Say it gently, ask it gently is a way to sum up all of that.