Hear How Theresa Benson -- a Strategist and Storyteller -- Earned the Nickname "Corporate Spackle" in the Latest Episode of Talking Industrial Automation

PostedWednesday, February 8, 2023 at 6:36 PM

Hear How Theresa Benson -- a Strategist and Storyteller -- Earned the Nickname

The following is a partial transcript of the full audio of Theresa Benson's appearance on Talking Industrial Automation, is a two-part episode.

In today’s episode, we’re talking industrial automation with Theresa Benson, who is a product storyteller and strategist with over 20 years of experience in high tech.

After earning her electrical engineering degree from Iowa State University, she spent her career working in semiconductor, industrial automation and AI software companies before moving into strategy development and consulting.

A former colleague once called her “corporate spackle” because she comes in and fills in the gaps quickly, diagnosing issues and moving people forward in the face of ambiguity.

Theresa understands what makes something valuable and then helps companies tell their story in the way that their market needs to hear.

She is also a published author, public speaker and even, on occasion, an educator.

Finally, full disclosure, I must point out that Theresa earned the CSIA Rising Star Award in 2020 and I nominated her.

Lisa Richter: Let’s start out just with the basics. Walk us through a little bit more about your career journey.

Theresa Benson: Like you said in the intro, I have my electrical engineering degree, which I think some of my professors probably questioned why I was getting into that because I was also at the same time taking a lot of creative writing classes. I’ve always been in these two different worlds – super high tech and then creative and people.

When I graduated from university, I went to Texas Instruments, semiconductors. I worked in the semiconductor industry for 15 years. I had the opportunity to work on the iPod before the iPod existed in the world, which was really a magical opportunity for me. I got to work in the white goods sector and understand how our washers and dryers and everything are put together in the high-tech nature that they were starting to get into.

We take for granted now sometimes the LCD panels and refrigerators or smart home – I think there was just an article out that said appliance manufacturers are bummed that people aren’t connecting their appliances to their networks, and I was fortunate enough to be working with appliance manufacturers back when all of that was just crazy ideas.

So, I did that for a while. I was with TI for 15 years. I then moved into a really small firm that was doing wireless technology. I did that, moved into industrial automation. First at Mitsubishi Electric and then at Red Lion, where we got the opportunity to meet. What I love about the industrial automation community is the people in industrial automation are the unsung heroes of society.

I mean the way that system integrators, production line engineers think about how stuff is made is so complex and, honestly, beautiful. When you go into these plants that are making things we use every day and see how just elegant the solutions are, it really is fascinating.

So to have gone from this world that was super cutting-edge, high-tech and the white goods and then in the manufacturing, it really was a unique and interesting transition and one that I’ve been thrilled to have been a part of.

Then the opportunity came for me to move into software. I had been doing a lot with hardware with semiconductors. Then I moved into the application of that hardware in industrial automation, and then I went into software, and what was interesting about that transition is I moved into decision automation.

So it was still automation, but it was the application of automation for the purpose of making all of the complex decisions businesses make every day. If you think about like a mortgage lender and all of the things -- not just your credit score, but how many homes do you own. What are your assets? What are your liabilities? Everything that goes – there are so many decisions that are being made, and to be able to automate those helps everyone, because, to a large degree, all of us want that instant answer.

What do I qualify for? And the difference that was so profound to me between what I experienced in industrial automation and in this era of knowledge automation was that in the knowledge automation arena, the focus was on keeping the subject matter experts involved in the automation.

So the company I worked for made software that made making these huge complex decisions super easy for the everyman. So if you had been the person who traditionally was in the loop making that mortgage call, Am I going to give this borrower and how much money am I going to give them and at what rate?

Now all that’s being automated, but you are actually empowered to write a code, essentially, to make those decisions, but you’re doing it in a way that isn’t code-like. Whereas in industrial automation, what I noticed is frontline knowledge was being transferred into machine code, and it went from Al who knew exactly how tight to tighten a bolt to some code that a robot is going to use. What I found so fascinating about the software automation is that Al is still in the loop.

In fact, Al probably wrote the commands to make that happen.

Then that company acquired a machine learning company and a process automation company. By process automation, I mean business process, not process automation in the industrial sense. And it just further deepens my amazement at how the software industry was empowering citizen data scientists, citizen coders.

These no-code, drag-and-drop environments that were enabling this ultra, ultra, ultra, high-tech, fast stuff to occur, but it wasn’t disenfranchising the people that it purported to replace. Instead it enabled them to do their jobs more effectively.

What’s interesting is, now that I’m in my role as a strategist and consultant, I am seeing those echoes creep into industrial automation.

Everybody is Industry 4.0, 4.0, 4.0; but there is the fifth industrial revolution. What that’s really about is bringing people back into it to collaborate with the automaton that Industry 4.0 brought.

It’s such a weird parallel to my experience. I was in industrial automation where it was all about getting the data and automate. Moved into automate but keep people in the loop. Now I’m seeing that holistic both sides coming together in industrial automation. That’s a long answer to a simple question, but there you go.

Lisa Richter: What is the smartest decision you’ve made recently?

Theresa Benson: In the spring of last year, I actually took a step back from what I had been doing.

The last several years, everybody would recognize there has been a huge challenge emotionally. A lot of us have experienced loss or sickness or even had challenges with being remote if that’s not to your liking. I personally love it, but it’s not everybody’s cup of tea.

My 2021 was pretty unique in that I experienced a lot of loss in my family. Five family members passed away over the course of the year. I really tried to just keep going, you know, and – because – and the company that I was at was amazing, very flexible. But in the spring of last year, I decided, you know what, I just need to take a second. I need to take a breath and really process everything that went on.

It was the first time I had ever done anything like that in my career. There’s a drumbeat for all of us to work, work, work. It was a really good decision. I miss my coworkers and I miss them – but it really helped me figure out what did I want to do; and what I love doing is helping people.

You know, connecting what people want to do with actual ways to get it done. And being out of the role I was in is giving me the opportunity to do more of that. It’s scary sometimes, but it’s great. It was a good decision.

Lisa Richter: Let’s talk a little bit about how you approach a project. What’s unique about that?

Theresa Benson: I spent the early part of my career in sales. There’s a lot of different ways that people sell. There’s the hunter salesperson who’s out looking for the opportunity and always be closing and Glengarry Glen Ross, you know, “Coffee is for closers,” that whole thing.

That was never my style. I’m more what I would call a farmer salesperson in that I have to go figure out if the soil is fertile. Like have I built the right relationships? Do I understand the landscape? Am I really looking at whatever situation is in the right way?

Then I add to it what it needs. So, if what I come into isn’t familiar with my product or service, OK, then I need to do some fertilization. I need to give it some input. Only then, once I’ve planted the seeds of the idea of working with me, can I then harvest the result and that’s just my approach.

So similarly, with projects, especially my industrial automation days. I built this water, wastewater demo that used all of the different products in my company and I went and figured out, “OK, sales team. What is it that you need most in order to make this impactful for you? Channel partners. How would this work for you when you’re demoing our products to customers?”

And then going to the water, wastewater industry and understanding there are actual challenges and instead of building something that showed every feature of every product and chest-pounding, this is magic, instead it was, “Hey, you know how you have that one problem? Here’s how these things working together fixes it.”

It’s all about that listening. It’s all about yeah, I have my agenda. I wanted to sell more stuff or I wanted to demo every feature of my product. But it was more about sitting down and figuring out what did they need and then figuring out the intersection point where both of us could win.

Lisa Richter: Let’s talk about a project that was super challenging and what you did to solve the problem.

Theresa Benson: Oh, gosh. Well, when I very first got into the industrial automation space, I went to work for CNC, a robotics manufacturer, and when I started there, I told people I didn’t know how to spell CNC. I was brought into an organization that made their money when things were broken. It was service and support. You made money either by selling a part, repairing something that a customer would send in or sending a service engineer out to fix it.

As quality improves and, if we did our job right and fixed whatever was broken, you’re not going to need us again for a while. So if the quality remains good, eventually your revenue stream starts to sort of trickle to a stop.

I was brought in, and I just so appreciate the leadership team for trusting someone completely out of the industry, to find ways to grow revenue even when everything was running. I knew I couldn’t send people out in dark clothing to break everything in our customers’ plants. That was not going to be the way to grow revenue.

And I didn’t have a sales team. I had service engineers and customer-service people who were on the phones as my sales channel. I needed to find a way to first and foremost meet the needs of our served customers whose machines are running.

They don’t want to hear from us; and meet the needs of my sales channel, who don’t want to sell anything. They wanted to help, but they didn’t want to sell.

It was incredibly challenging to find out how we were going to grow revenue. But the same thing that I just talked about as far as listening, understanding what the problems really were. That served me just as well there. I sat down with our people, figured out what were the parts that were broken in terms of our processes for selling value-added services.

You know, like hey, if we just came in and fixed some stuff, you have a 30-day warranty. You can extend that to a year in case anything goes wrong. How do you approach that in such a way that somebody wants to listen?

Or like helping our customer service team if a customer called in for part A. They’re almost certainly going to need part B and C because if A is broken, the other things probably are and how can we upsell not just because we’re going to make more money but because it’s going to be a pain in the keister for the customer when they get part A and then realize, oh crap, they need part B and C and now they’re waiting even longer and their plant is down.

So getting to the heart of why and then connecting people to that reason made all the difference. We introduced new services. We had one service that we sold eight of our first year that I was there and that was for the entire year, not like a quarter. It had been around since before I got there.

The last year I was there, we were selling on average 450 a year. And it’s because we figured out why. We figured out the story. We connected the value of the thing to a real need and yeah, it makes all the difference.

Lisa Richter: What trends and challenges are you seeing in industrial automation right now?

Theresa Benson: There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in industrial automation and, like I said earlier, this sort of confluence of human and machine. When I was deep in IA stuff, it was Industry 4.0, data, data. Get the data out. You will be able to do preventative maintenance and all this other stuff. People weren’t really talking about how you had to understand the data to understand how to implement a preventative maintenance program based on just sheafs and sheafs of data out of sensors and controllers and whatever.

For so long it was gather, gather, gather; and then good luck. Or gather, gather, gather; and get an engineer who could write a good program.

What I’m seeing now is that there’s this new wave of machine learning that’s again enabling people who aren’t necessarily data scientists to be able to use it in a practical way to improve their operations.

That’s great. The challenges still remain -- certainly skilled labor. When I say citizen data scientists, you still need to know enough to know whether or not the answers that a model is giving you are valid. You definitely still need to be skilled.

Those are still challenging, of course. But I am hopeful for the industrial automation community to adopt data science in a much more meaningful way. They’re already using it for forecasting and that sort of thing.

But AI-enabled cybersecurity, it’s not really enough anymore to just have good hardware protecting your operational networks. But having AI-enabled threat detection, being able to monitor machine behavior and communicational networks, and then having something know that the data that’s being transferred right now is not normal at this time of day or whatever and being able to do something about it in real time is incredibly powerful.

The threats are only going to increase in terms of network attacks. I read statistics, something like 80 percent of telecom, 79 percent of customer goods manufacturers are using some sort of AI-enabled cybersecurity at this point.

I’m excited to see where that goes, and industrial automation hardware providers providing more cybersecurity type technology with AI.

Lisa Richter: What makes you optimistic about the future of the automation industry?

Theresa Benson: Oh, there’s so much to be optimistic about!

Probably the biggest thing is this idea of the human in the loop. The fact that people are realizing that, by leveraging both human intuition, intelligence, experience, and the speed and accuracy of automation, by leveraging those, you can do more than you could do with either on their own.

Gives me a lot of optimism for the future that people are seeing the benefit of the co-manufacturing models, you know. There’s cobots of course, but I’m talking even bigger than that.

That is something that’s super exciting.

Synthetic data is a really fascinating area of industrial automation. It’s everywhere, but in industrial automation, in particular, imagine if you could build models of what good looks like before you’ve even run your first pilot down a new production line

You use image AI to inspect for quality control, right? And you’ve got your CAD model, which you know is what perfect looks like. But there is this whole arena of what’s called synthetic data where you can build these machine learning models that your inspection equipment can then leverage to detect defects.

It’s great for predictive maintenance applications as well, where you don’t have a lot of data on how a machine might fail at this particular plant. Augmenting the data you do have with additional data so that you can build your predictive maintenance models and do all of this.

There’s so much interesting stuff happening. Yeah, and then the whole fact that you can start to empower the people who are on your production lines to be a part of this innovation will be really good.

The – just that knowledge of when that machine makes that sound that way, I know that something bad is going to happen. Being able to codify that it’s all really valuable. I’m really excited for this, bringing the human back into the loop.

Lisa Richter: What mistake did you make and what did you learn from it?

Theresa Benson: Going back to something that I said earlier about the decision I made to leave the company that I was at; the mistake I made was trying to stare down and get through 2021.

I didn’t really notice it until I had the opportunity to live and work in Sweden for about a month in February of 2022.

We had acquired a company, and I was building bridges between the parent company and the company we had acquired.

Coming back from that experience is when it really hit me just how much loss had happened. I found myself just not giving everything like I had before. I found myself almost snapping at coworkers. I mean, I get it. All of us do that occasionally, right?

But it just felt crunchy. I don’t know how else to describe it. And the mistake for me was not raising my hand sooner and saying, “I can’t keep going. I really need to process the stuff that’s going on. I really need to figure it out and then come back.”

I get that my experience is unique, and that I’m incredibly fortunate to have been able to step back for a moment and just check in.

I know that isn’t a luxury for everyone; but I am so glad I did. But I wish I had done it sooner.

Lisa Richter: If you had to choose a completely different career, what would you choose?

Theresa Benson: You know, I knew you were going to ask me this question. I honestly think I am now on the precipice of doing it. I thoroughly enjoy helping people and educating people.

You mentioned in the opening I had somebody call me corporate spackle, that I come in and fill in the gaps and sort of smooth things out and figure out what’s what.

To be able to do that and also be able to do things like educate my community or give back in some way, while also building strategies, helping people figure out their message for their product or their brand or doing videography. It tickles my brain in so many ways.

Learn more about Theresa Benson on her website www.radiantmeatball.com.


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Lisa Richter Director of Industry Outreach and Growth Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) Chicago, IL
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