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Q&A with Hari Subramanian, CTO of ServiceMax

Jan. 1, 2017
Hari Subramanian is Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of ServiceMax, a private company providing field service management solutions.

Hari Subramanian is Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of ServiceMax, a private company providing field service management solutions. Subramanian has more than 22 years of experience providing architectural and functional solutions in ERP, CRM, and Service Chain Management Applications for organizations across the globe.

He recently spoke with CONTRACTOR Magazine about the future of mobile technology, and how coming advancements will change not just field service but the entire world.

Q: Thanks so much for the opportunity to speak with you today. Let's get right into it. Cyber-security has become a big concern, not just for large institutions and governments, but for the average person. With more and more data being stored in the cloud, and with several high-profile "hacks" of information having taken place the last few years, tell me about the state of cyber-security at present, and how big an issue it is for your customers.

A: Very glad to to be speaking with you today. Yes, it has come up, but what used to be a significant, rather emotional concern seven or eight years ago when companies began looking at the cloud as a viable way to  run their service operations now has changed. Now, the argument I would say has long been settled. Over the last decade or so, a lot of progress has happened in terms of how information is managed, transmitted, delivered and consumed, from the cloud to various delivery mediums.

A couple of things I would want to specifically call out, one, the standards that have evolved in the last decade or so. Organizations, companies like ServiceMax that are pioneers in delivering cloud-based solutions, we absolutely have to adhere to the modern cloud standards... It has standards like staff 70 and SOC compliance. All of these are applied very very strictly to cloud platforms like Amazon, Azure and so on. So information being stored and managed in the cloud, in terms of privacy, security, encryption and all that, security is automatically  addressed by adherence to these standards. That is about being able to preserve the integrity and private security of information.

But what has become kind of interesting in the last five years is when that information needs to be transmitted to various types of mobile devices – and I will talk about the Internet of Things in a moment – but, what has happened in the last five years is that any modern business application needs to have cutting-edge mobility, especially for service application, and we are talking about field service which means technicians, engineers being able to use any type of device, being able to consume information from the cloud and transmit it back and so on. So, the ability of mobile ecosystems to be able to provide that protection, privacy and security while… being able to manage that transmission back and forth becomes critical…

So, the ability of mobile ecosystems to be able to provide that protection, privacy and security while being able to manage that transmission back and forth becomes critical.

There are two aspects of that – and it’s a giant, critical responsibility – one is the core system. Apple, for example, it is architectured from the ground-up as a mobile operating system (so is Android) for completely sandboxing [Sandbox (software development), a testing environment isolated from the production environment - Ed.] and protecting information and maintaining privacy of information within its application boundaries, if you will. So a big part of the responsibility is actually carried by them. And when it comes to specific application providers such as ServiceMax… the way we ensure security of information is by deploying two key aspects of technology.

One is industry standard authentication, so that only authenticated users can access... Second thing is privacy and encryption of data. For example, in an application like ServiceMax, on the mobile side, information is completely encrypted, cannot be accessed unless you are an authorized and authenticated user through these standards.

Having said that, there is no finish line when it comes to security. As new technologies emerge, with things like IoT, for example, there are new standards that come into play, and those standards will sometimes play catch-up, and implementation of apps need to be constantly tweaked to deal with new types of threats. So, given the state of where cloud and mobile apps are today as they are applied to field service, I feel pretty confident, as a technologist, about the state of affairs of security at this point... In a way it will become a barrier to entry… [security] will be the foundation, it will be the table-stakes, for those who want to play in [the mobile tech] arena.

Q: A big buzzword out there right now is "Wearables". We've seen things like Google Glass sort of fizzle out. The jury is still out on the Apple Watch. But the idea of a wearable mobile device sounds ideal for service technicians who always seem to have their hands full. How do you see the mobile device changing, evolving in the coming years?

A: Some questions will need to be answered over the course of time… in field service, it’s not going to be one winner takes it all, it is going to be a combination of several things that enable the right experience for the users as well as their customers. If you see the evolution of mobile computing in general over the last several years! I’m sorry, I’m really old and I’m going to quote a technology that some of you may not remember, client-server technology. That reveals my age! In those days there was a lot of stress given to thick, heavy-duty client-side computing. A little bit of support from the back-end, and it required very heavy communications between the client and server in order for computing to make sense. And then came web, and very interestingly … the computing industry kind of moved from that… to move everything to the back end...

But what has happened, as a result of the mobile/wearable technology revolution, in the last five or six years especially, with the advent of smart phones, tablets and phablets and so on, more and more sleek computing capability… technicians are walking around with a mainframe computer on their hat! The kind of computing that can happen, potentially, in the hands of these engineers is amazing. Now we’re starting to see the pendulum swing more towards the clients. So, I believe that the way they’re going to go, the learning from client-server and web is going to find the middle ground in mobile computing.

What we’re going to see is an era of distributed computing, and that means that every device that is in the hands of technicians is going to do part of the job... Diagnostics that need to be done by connecting a laptop to a medical device, a CT scanner or something, the technician does that as part of those native applications that are run on the laptop, sometimes connecting to the cloud, that requires a deep resolution that necessarily means a bigger screen for example, a bigger form factor, right? A rich, deep level of interactions with those applications…

But what happened is that the advent of smaller form factors and smaller devices, things that do not need that kind of rich interaction, which require a simple button clicks to take actions, smaller and smaller activities are going towards smaller devices… For example accepting the job. When a worker is assigned, or a job is pushed to a technician, they don’t need to boot a laptop or look at a big screen to simply accept the job, they can do that by clicking a button on a phone. Now, just as they’re settling down on the phone-form factor, here come comes Apple watch. Now they can do that on a smaller phone factor just by waving their hand, by twisting their hand they can accept it, by twisting the other way they can reject it.

They all have their place. So it’s going to be an intelligent deployment of one or more of these devices that I see the future moving towards.

Now, does that take away the value of what the user can do on the phone? Definitely not. Does that take away the value of what they can do on a tablet or a laptop screen? Definitely not. Because they all have their place. So it’s going to be an intelligent deployment of one or more of these devices that I see the future moving towards. It is not like, Google Glass come in and replaces the use of tablets, phablets and everything, there is a place I believe for a lot of these technologies.

Q: More and more devices that a service technician services -- the water heater, the furnace, for example -- are becoming intelligent devices: hooked up to the Internet, constantly supplying information on their performance, their maintenance status and so forth. What are the possibilities for using that information? And how does it all connect in the Internet of Things?

A: I was recently having a conversation with someone in the UK and they asked, what’s the big deal with IoT?... The Internet has been in existence a while, things have always existed, what is the deal with the Internet of Things? Right? And one immediate impact of hooking up things with the Internet is this tsunami of data that’s going to hit everybody, and what are you going to do with it? And I would say that service is the area that is going to be most impacted, and in a very positive way. So, I’ll take a couple of steps back. One, are we seeing a customer demand around big data? And number two, what are we doing about it? Are we mining it, are we tracking, are we going to inform service, end to end, based on the effect of this big data? And the answer to both of those is yes, and yes.

Just how cloud and mobile was kind of a new thing about seven-eight years ago, they have become the new table stakes; if you’re not on the cloud, if you don’t enable modern mobile with your application, nobody is going to talk with you. And IoT is going to become table stakes, and we’re already seeing the early signs of that. Organization both small and big are looking to modernize their service operations, they are starting to ask questions about how to harvest the impact of connecting their installed products and deploying sensors, all of them… The need is there, people are already asking those intelligent questions.

So it’s going to be a combination of multiple things. The way I see that thing are going to happen is that there are going to be four big steps in it: connect the machines, collect the data, care for the missions and choose the problems …

In terms of dealing with all this data, of being able mine and harvest, to slice and dice a lot of analytic clouds are already available. So our role is able to take that and marry it to the service experience. So there are three aspects of that experience: one is reactive service, second is preventive service, and third is predictive service. It is not necessarily an evolution. Every service organization is going to need all three of these, except that it is now all going to be informed by this data activity that is happening on the IoT side… Everybody knows the very simple use case of, a mission breaks down, sends a signal, an SOS, the event creates a job and dispatches the technician… all a very straightforward thing. This has already been realized in a limited way, even before the Internet of Things moment. The IoT moment has made this reactive service more economical, easier, more mainstream. What is interesting is  that this amount of data is also providing meaningful insights into mission behavior. Mission health, mission state… and that is informing methods…

Intelligent preventive maintenance. Preventive maintenance used to be done very blind. Here’s the contract telling the customer, give us your money then we will send a technician every three months to perform a checklist of activities. And there is a lot of high-end labor, activity, that is involved in this standardized way of doing preventative maintenance. It has all be standardized and expensive, because it was being done kind of blindly. Now, fast forward to the IoT era, you no longer need to do it blindly. You can do it in a very optimized fashion... Being able to know that is you see a certain type of behavior you can optimize towards more optimized delivery of services, you can do things that even at this point don’t seem to be needed but can prevent future issues. You can take the most optimum inventory to deliver services. That is fundamentally impacting revenue, through cost optimization. And the third one is predictive… being able to marry mission data to service history is gold for service organizations…

What the customers are actually buying from the company is not solar panels, what they are buying is energy. The outcome is what they are selling.

For example, one of our customers is a solar panel company… but what the customers are actually buying from the company is not solar panels, what they are buying is energy. The outcome is what they are selling. They are not selling a specific product and if something breaks they will come out and fix it, no, they actually guarantee certain outcomes. They say, this is the level of power that we guarantee you will get… they are not selling specific service contracts, they are essentially selling an outcome contract, and for them to be able to deliver optimum service they need to be able to know if they are actually delivering that… their systems need to be fully hooked and connected, they need to be able to monitor what is going on out in the field… and they are able to marry information from various solar panels on various rooftops and actually apply predictive analytics on top of that, and be able to foresee what is likely to happen, and actually dispatch a technician to a rooftop without the customer even knowing about it. And that is where the entire industry is headed…

Q: So, in light of all this, what is new at ServiceMax? How is the company positioning itself given all the developments, the new advances that are taking place?

A: I’ll talk to three of our ideas. One that has me super excited – get me talking about technology and I’m like a kid espousing the virtues of candy – we are all excited here at ServiceMax with what is going to happen as a result of IoT. And that is going to fundamentally define where there world is going to head in the next 15-20-25 years, and we believe that we are in a unique position as a leading provider of modern service solutions we are in the right place at the right time…

This IoT is probably bigger than the internet itself in terms of the impact it is going to have… It is going to impact all of mankind in a very fundamental way. For decades to come. And service, I would say, is the “killer ap” for that, for realizing the potential of IoT. … Field service is the most technologically-intensive domain that you could ever come across. You can look at any technology that you can think of, and without even having to stretch your imagination too far, you can find a very tangible use here in field service. …

First and foremost thing is that IoT, in it’s most basic form, allow the collection and cataloging of meaningful installed product data. You may think, what is the big deal with that? We talk with customers of all sizes and different verticals, different industries… And just by knowing, even without a lot of predictive intelligence, just by knowing the state of the product, they know [a lot] …

The state of affairs around the quality of installed product data is a pretty sorry state. And we are addressing this problem head-on. In fact we are rolling out a product called Product IQ, a mobile app that allows our customers to gather, collect and catalog installed product information and provide visibility to that information to various entities within that organization.

Of course the biggest beneficiaries of the most up-to-date info are the technicians themselves. When a technician goes in, how useful it will be to know exactly what condition was changed by who, when, why was it done and so on, to be able to read the full, rich technical history of a product. That essentially has an impact on bottom-line, first time fixed rates, mean time to repair, all sorts of key metrics… The technician has the ability to very quickly, easily catalog what is going on with a product, including its technical specs. Imagine how much that can impact product design!...

The Internet of Things is going to fundamentally define where there world is going to head in the next 15-20-25 years

[This last aspect] has actually a very direct revenue impact. So, service contracts, warranties, they are all based on assumed behavior of the machines, how they are going to function, how they are going to perform. Once there is visibility to actual mission information, organizations are going to be able to offer more optimized contracts, better warranties. This is a big chunk of the problem that service organizations are looking to us to solve. And that is exactly what we are doing... We are actually at the very early stage of evaluating several analytics platforms – our object is not to simply do analytics… we want to bring analytics to life, being able to inform technicians while they are out in the field…

And the [last] one is collaboration. With connectivity, with the speed that is available, with data networks that are much more sophisticated than they were five years ago… there is a lot of vital knowledge that is in field service, and it’s going through an interesting generational shift. A lot of people are actually retiring, people with a lot of knowledge about the products and so on. And the products are evolving. And the millennial generation is coming into the workforce. Some of the traits of this generation, they are the on-demand generation. They are the Uber generation. They’re not going to call and book a taxi, they’re going to press a button to get what they want.

Given that, this shift, and combine it with that vital knowledge that is the hallmark of field service, being able to deliver knowledge using modern technologies, and deliver collaborative work. Collaborative work… is going to be the next big offering from field service. … We are developing the next-gen collaboration experience on mobile apps that is going to come out, probably sometime next year. … Not just about enabling video chat… that can be done using Facetime today. It is about when two technicians talk, I call it the "tech-lish," their own language. When they speak, a lot of knowledge is being exchanged. Who is harnessing that? There has to be an intelligent system that harvests that data and makes it available to the entire service platform, to other technicians, to other problems that are being solved at the same time. So it requires a lot more sophisticated collaboration/knowledge based experience that is very unique to field service. So I would say, enabling IoT product cataloging is one element, analytics is the second, and collaboration is the third. Those are the next big things that we looking forward to.

Q: Thanks so much for your time, it was great talking to you today.

A: And to you as well.

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