Brian Kirkendall Of Digi International On The Future of The Internet of Things (IoT), And How It May Improve Our Health & Our Lives

An Interview With David Leichner

David Leichner, CMO at Cybellum
Authority Magazine

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You have to be humble because things change quickly. If you think you know everything, in two years, you’ll be left in the dust.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is beginning to become more mainstream. Millions of people use Fitbit health trackers, Nest smart thermostats, and Ring doorbell cameras, which are early examples of IoT. These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential commercial applications of IoT. IoT has the potential to change the way cities are run, the way our healthcare is managed, the way our cars communicate, and the way our supply chains and manufacturing are utilized. But how exactly will IoT improve our lives? How can it improve our health? What are the new IoT technologies that we should expect to see around the corner? How does one create a successful career in the IoT industry? In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders who are incorporating IoT into their business or who are developing IoT applications, who can share stories and perspectives about the future of IoT. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Kirkendall, GM of Infrastructure Management for Digi International.

Brian Kirkendall joined Digi in 2019 as Vice President of Product Management. In October 2020, he became General Manager, Infrastructure Management. Brian is a collaborative and innovative global product management and product development leader with expertise in corporate strategy, marketing and business transformation. Prior to joining Digi International in 2019, his roles included Vice President of Global Product Development and Technology at Nilfisk, and executive leadership in product management, product development and marketing for Polaris, Hoover, Little Tikes and Step2. He brings a customer focus and a dedication to people, process improvement and achieving results in sales and profits to his role at Digi. Brian has a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has completed graduate courses at The University of Pittsburgh Katz School of Business.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started in the IoT industry?

I was running global engineering at Nilfisk and we were working on a project to automate commercial and industrial floor scrubber machines. This entailed working with robotics companies and a number of different sensor manufacturers, among other organizations. The project included a plan for autonomously cleaning floors in commercial and industrial environments. One of the challenges in that area is labor and the expectation of clean. How does the system run every day? Is the floor kept at an appropriate level for safety? Things like that.

That project was my first entree into IoT and the challenges of getting data from a machine in one location to a location where someone can actually see that data, interpret it and make adjustments based on the information. It was fascinating because we were doing this on the fly from scratch. That opportunity and many more since eventually led me to Digi.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There’ve been so many. I don’t think I can narrow it down to just one. What’s really been rewarding is showing someone an IoT solution that helps them overcome whatever challenge they’re facing. They’ll say things like, “I want to do this remotely or pull information out of this area” and when you show them what’s possible and what the solution looks like, people get really excited. And then, they want to know what else is possible?! I’m talking about leaders at major Fortune 100 companies who maybe have read articles on IoT and played around with it but hadn’t really dug in. You show them how to get real results and they’re like, “Wow! We can do that?!” This, of course, applies to smaller companies too.

It’s all about trying to find a way to grow and, to me, the most interesting part is everybody has ambition in this space, but they often don’t know how to get started. Once you engage that discussion, it’s really cool to see where it goes.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell our readers about the most interesting IoT projects you are working on now?

We’re working with a few different entities right now on water management and it’s fascinating how the flow of water in and out of different spaces can affect things from crops to roads to how much labor, time and money are spent trying to optimize that flow — whether that’s removing water from flooded areas because of a hurricane or getting water into a desert area. I had no idea how intricate the process was.

How do you think this might change the world?

It can change the world by making the labor force more efficient. People are implementing solutions to make things better instead of just trying to get the basics done. For example, we were on site at a location last week with a major multinational firm. They really needed this gate to go up and down on its own to save considerable time and effort and we were able to solve the issue within an hour. To us, it was a simple application but they had no idea how to even get started. In the end, solutions like this allow maintenance teams to focus more on safety initiatives instead of manual tasks. So, that was pretty interesting.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks of this technology that people should think more deeply about?

I don’t know about any drawbacks per se but what I would say is this: the human element is always essential when it comes to any emerging technology. People are still needed to make decisions and make everything work. Technology is an enhancement, not a replacement for critical thinking and problem solving.

What are the three things that most excite you about the IoT industry? Why?

  1. I like the breadth of problems we are asked to help solve. It’s fun.
  2. The puzzle is constantly changing as new technologies emerge and we have to figure out how to integrate that. For example, what do we do about the new USB 4 protocol when it comes out?
  3. We deal with some of the largest companies in the world and we’re really just scratching the surface of what we can accomplish together. As we advance with these companies, there’s a high level of engagement and that’s more meaningful than just selling something and moving on to the next thing. More thoughts, ideas and options come up and that’s fun to see — and it doesn’t matter where they come from. It can be a field worker in a large agricultural space or a doctor of physics with a theory on how water can flow more efficiently. You’re part of all of that and it’s really cool.

What are the three things that concern you about the IoT industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

There are mainly two concerns that come to mind.

  1. Misguided expectations on projects that give people who aren’t familiar with IoT a negative impression out of the gate. Sometimes, they’ve had a bad experience because either the technology wasn’t there to provide the solution they needed or the technology didn’t do what they thought it would. Sadly, that stunts the growth of the industry and when people feel that way it’s hard to reengage them.
  2. Global supply chain has also been a concern for many companies. While Digi has seen some improvement in this area, recently, it has been an issue for us. If you’re doing a really large installation, you don’t want to have to redesign it every few years because a component or part becomes obsolete. The supply chain challenges of the last 12 months have really put a focus on that. The issue forced teams to spend time redesigning and retro connecting things because of a major event outside anyone’s control. I don’t think any of us expected that. It’s something we wouldn’t have discussed three years ago.

Can you share with our readers a few of the exciting future applications of IoT that you have seen?

We’ve been talking with a number of larger companies about their particular climate or green initiatives. For example, how to reduce diesel fuel emissions from their fleets. We help them accomplish that by following what their fleet does for a while — analyzing movement to provide actionable data.

When you think about what we’re doing in totality within green energy, it’s really cool. Another example: remotely monitoring windmills and providing actionable data so they run more efficiently. What if a windmill gets hit by a flock of birds and goes down or is damaged? Now, you know about it in real time instead of finding out days later when it’s inspected on site. It sounds simplistic but that kind of efficiency matters.

Can you help articulate to our readers a few of the ways that IoT can improve our health and improve our lives?

While Digi does not participate in individual consumer markets, as connectivity becomes easier and more seamless, the ability to monitor our own health for our healthcare providers increases — providing insight that helps us stay ahead of the curve instead of behind it. You can have a more productive view of your health and a more productive discussion with your doctor. You can say, “Hey, this is kind of what’s been going on and here’s how my graph looks.” I recently showed my doctor months of graphs that showed my sleep was down and my heart rate was up. He determined I had an allergy that was acting up and I had no idea.

My expertise is in product security, so I’m particularly passionate about this question. In today’s environment, hackers break into the software running IoT devices, for ransomware, to damage brands, or for other malicious purposes. Based on your experience, what should IoT manufacturing companies do to uncover vulnerabilities in the development process to safeguard their IoT products?

Obviously, we are focused on creating secure products. That being said, customers also want flexibility to configure devices for their own needs and we cannot force them into any particular configuration. So, they of course could, for instance, set configurations that are less than ideal (for instance, setting passwords that are not a best practice). In addition, the number of potential points going in and out of a device and how those points of contact may be vulnerable are beyond our control. We’re talking about thousands of different potential scenarios across a breadth of customers who span many industries. What we focus on is creating devices with high security standards often with versions that offer the capacity to update software remotely. So, if enhancements are appropriate, they can be made easily. Beyond this, we will work with customers who might experience a breach in an effort to understand how our product interacts with their operating environment and could be changed in a way that would enhance security overall.

What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The IoT Industry?

  1. You must be able to build trust.
  2. You have to be curious — willing to ask a lot of questions.
  3. You have to be humble because things change quickly. If you think you know everything, in two years, you’ll be left in the dust.
  4. You have to be okay with the fact that someone may know something you don’t because they’ve seen something you haven’t.
  5. You can’t be afraid. The IoT industry is still relatively new. So, you’ll often be doing things for the first time.

These five traits were crucial for our team when we helped the staff of a large metropolis implement a city-wide traffic system communications upgrade — improving efficiency and making life easier for motorists and pedestrians.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I call it “Beyond Today”. We get so wrapped up in today, whether it’s work or personal stuff. We get so focused on what’s in front of us we forget all the change we can make in the future. I see it in business all the time. Decisions are made for today (this week, this quarter) instead of being made based on what can be done down the line. Things aren’t thought through. You have to think what positive or negative effect something will have a year from now and so on. Thinking beyond today is crucial. I talk about it all the time.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Our website: Digi.com

Twitter

Facebook

LinkedIn

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

Thank you as well. It was a pleasure to share the thoughts about our future.

About The Interviewer: David Leichner is a veteran of the Israeli high-tech industry with significant experience in the areas of cyber and security, enterprise software and communications. At Cybellum, a leading provider of Product Security Lifecycle Management, David is responsible for creating and executing the marketing strategy and managing the global marketing team that forms the foundation for Cybellum’s product and market penetration. Prior to Cybellum, David was CMO at SQream and VP Sales and Marketing at endpoint protection vendor, Cynet. David is the Chairman of the Friends of Israel and Member of the Board of Trustees of the Jerusalem Technology College. He holds a BA in Information Systems Management and an MBA in International Business from the City University of New York.

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David Leichner, CMO at Cybellum
Authority Magazine

David Leichner is a veteran of the high-tech industry with significant experience in the areas of cyber and security, enterprise software and communications