Get an inside look at the state of the IoT industry, as reflected in the IoT World conference and expo last week. Through talks and discussions with expo exhibitors, I noticed four key challenges the industry faces today: focusing on technology over value, analysis-paralysis in both platforms and security vendors, and the challenge of educating the IoT workforce.
The Internet of Things World conference and expo took place last week in Santa Clara, California. It’s known as the biggest IoT expo in the world. And with over 14,000 attendees and hundreds of companies demoing their products, it really lives up to its name.
In addition to participating as a speaker, I scoured the talks and expo halls for evidence of the state of the industry. How has the conversation evolved since last year? What are the overall themes of this year’s talks? What are the biggest challenges companies face today?
Here are my top 4 takeaways from the conference.
Technology still precedes value
The IoT industry as a whole has made progress in driving value for customers, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. The majority of companies, particularly startups, are still focusing on a technology solution and then trying to find out what problem it can be applied to, instead of focusing on the customer problem first, and using IoT as a tool to solve it.
This was very apparent in the conference sessions, where many of the talks focused on the technological aspects of IoT and not a lot on the value customers can derive from it. This mentality was reinforced with many conversations I had with companies on the expo floor, many of whom had a hard time articulating what problem they are solving or who their target customer is.
But although there was a lot of technology talk (the conference took place in Silicon Valley after all), this year’s conference did feature more value-based talks than previous years. For example, my favorite keynote was a panel with C-level executives from industrial companies including GE, Schneider, HCL, Avnet, and Silver Spring Networks. Most of their conversation focused on their companies’ efforts to understand their customers and ensure they are meeting their needs.
Platforms, platforms, platforms
As of last year, there were over 400 IoT platforms to choose from, and the number seems to keep growing. On the one hand, this reflects a positive trend: greater interest in IoT and more options for customers.
On the other hand, companies looking to adopt IoT are often paralyzed by so many options. In fact, one of the top questions I get from companies I train and coach is, “What platform should I use?” I’m a big proponent on using a platform instead of building your own, but that’s a tough question to answer.
IoT World showcased the explosion of IoT platform vendors. It seemed to me that every other booth was an IoT platform. Some of the big players were there like Google, HP, and Samsung, but there were also many companies I’ve never seen before.
From a customer perspective, it’s almost impossible to understand the difference between all of these platforms. They all seem to pitch that “we make it easy to connect devices to the Cloud”, but past that, it’s hard to tell who is who or why somebody would choose one over the other.
An additional challenge I noticed with platform providers is that there is very little focus on a specific market. All platforms can do everything for everybody. Every vendor I talked to was quick to say they cover industrial as well as consumer applications. All verticals, all types of data, etc. You get the picture.
And although I understand how their technology can cover a broad set of use cases, I think customers would benefit from some sense of specialization.
GE, with their Predix platform, is a good example of specialization. They focus on industrial applications, with a specific focus on the verticals they do business in: healthcare, transportation, and power. It’s a very clear message.
Security is top of mind, but it’s too confusing
The recent cyber attacks are a reminder of the importance of designing security into your product from the very beginning. And this importance was clearly highlighted at the IoT World expo. If every other booth was an IoT platform, then the remaining booths seemed to be security vendors. Overall, I think that’s good news for the industry; the challenge is that it is very confusing for people building IoT products to know where to start.
For each layer of the IoT technology stack (from edge devices to communications to cloud and more), there were many vendors in the expo hall promising to protect that individual piece. The problem is that it’s up to the customer to understand which pieces they need, and how everything fits together. Add to the confusion that every IoT platform claims to have security already covered, and you can see why customers are so confused.
I am a big proponent of focusing on security. In fact, that is one of the modules I teach in The IoT Product Manager online course. But my point here is that once companies are ready to build their products and implement security, they are left with the daunting task of understanding what they need for their specific product, in addition to finding the right partners and vendors to help them.
Educating the professional workforce is a challenge
One of the biggest challenges today is educating and training the workforce to be successful in IoT jobs. Companies are hiring more and more IoT-related roles, but they are struggling to find qualified candidates. And this is true across all disciplines, including Engineering, Marketing, IT, Sales and of course, Product Management.
This was a topic of several presentations at the conference, but I particularly liked the discussions on a panel about “Executive Leadership for the IoT Workforce”, featuring Bill McCabe (Executive Recruiter), Brennan Grignon (Department of Defense), and Peter Hirst (Associate Dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management). This panel presented views coming from the private sector, public sector, and academia.
The consensus was that it is very hard to find qualified talent to work on IoT projects because the skill set needed is very broad. For technical and product positions, it requires an understanding of software engineering, mechanical engineering, networking, etc. And on the business side, it requires an understanding of supply chain and new business models (like the as-a-service model).
All the panelists made the point that these skills are not taught in a unified program yet. Basically, nobody goes to school for IoT. Professionals have to figure out how to get the knowledge they need, and companies are having to invest in new training programs to keep employees up to date with the fast pace of IoT.
My perspective is that in 5-10 years, most products will be connected products. That means that we need to focus on educating our professional workforce to make sure we are ready for this challenge.
Specifically for Product Managers, we are seeing an uptick in IoT PM job openings, and people skilled in this area definitely have an advantage. But at the speed IoT is evolving, not having this knowledge will very quickly become a crutch that prevents PMs from advancing within their companies or moving into new positions.
Side note: If you’re interested in training for IoT Product Managers, see my course page.
The Bottom Line
IoT is still in its infancy, and the challenges above reflect that. But the industry is evolving rapidly. Adoption is growing, success stories are increasing, and overall, IoT doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.