Conversation with Roberto Siagri
This is Ken Forster, Executive Director at Momenta. Welcome to our Digital Thread Podcast, produced by, for, and about digital industry leaders. In this series of conversations, we capture insights from the best and brightest minds in digital industry, they are executives, entrepreneurs, advisers, and other thought leaders. What they have in common is like our team at Momenta they are deep industry operators. We hope you find these podcasts informative, and as always, we welcome your comments and suggestions.
Good day and welcome to episode 143 of our Digital Thread Podcast Series. Today it’s my great pleasure to host Roberto Siagri, the founder and recent CEO of Eurotech, a global company that integrates hardware-software services and expertise to deliver building blocks for entire Internet of Things solutions. Roberto Founded Eurotech in 1992, leading the business as CEO through its public listing in 2015, which was rated the best performing IPO in Europe for that year, and just recently handed over the reins to the next generation of leadership. Prior to Eurotech Roberto already had a strong presence in ICT as CTO of HTE ASEM, now part of Rockwell.
Roberto, welcome to our Digital Thread Podcast.
Thank you. Thank you, Ken, for your introduction, and thank you for having me here.
I’m thrilled to get to you, you’ve been truly a pioneer in this space, and we’ll talk about it in a moment through the questions we’ve got. But 30 years in this space, really pioneering this idea of ubiquitous computing, so I’m looking forward to a great conversation.
I always like to start off by asking the key question: What would you consider your digital thread? In other words, the one or more thematic threads that define your digital industry leadership.
Well, I can summarise it this way, is Wirth’s law versus Moore’s law, in another way the point that the software is becoming slower, much rapidly than the hardware i is becoming faster. So, it was the thinking behind this concept, and figuring out that at the end, the real problem is how to reduce the effort in software development and putting together the right combination of hardware and software tools, to allow the industry to be much faster in developing new applications, and also giving them an easier way to maintain these things.
If you think about the early-80s, well there was not a lot of operating systems around, and the programming language as well, there was a lot of assembler coding not a lot of C coding so the personal computer at that time was to me the right way to address this increase in demand for software, and the rising in complexity of the software versus the way in which the hardware can solve this problem.
So, in some sense, full-stack, what I like to call Edgeware in the sense that software meets hardware completely at the Edge, and this idea of driving it toward… or let’s say fulfilling the promise of Moore’s Law through a combination of the software and hardware, and that clearly defines much of the digital industry space that we love so much.
So, you started this digital thread journey by joining HT ASEM as a hardware designer in 1986, and later serving as CTO. Interestingly, I saw that Rockwell Automation recently acquired the company and they claim to advance the digital Edge, which is an interesting thought. What were some of the early digital Edge projects that you did there at the time?
Well, at that time it was more of an effort in developing the PC hardware. We were in the early days of the chipset, so the glue logic that let an Intel processor become a personal computer, so the effort was more in the hardware space, and to deal with frequency. It’s funny to think about that, but at that time the effort was how to move from 10 megahertz to 12 megahertz, and it looks funny because now we are talking about gigahertz. I can tell you if you’d have told me that we were now in the gigahertz range, well I’d have told you that we were not in the radar industry. But it was more of a journey on the hardware and how to deal with the increase in the frequency of these processors, and also a little bit about miniaturization but miniaturization was not the real scope at that time, it was more to design reliable hardware for the office automation.
You co-founded Eurotech in 1992, soon serving as CEO. What problem did you set out to solve, and for whom?
Yes, that’s the interesting thing. So, during my time at ASEM, I had figured out that the personal computer was just more than the office automation tool, it can become a great tool also for the industrial sector. But if you wanted to move the personal computer out of the office space, and inside the industrial sector, then you have to start to miniaturize it, and so the glue logic in some way, the hardware technology that was put in place in order to reduce the cost of the personal computer in the office space, it was helping the miniaturization on the other side. I was returning back to my early ideas when I was in the university of this small personal computer for industrial applications.
So, the effort was how to reduce the size but inside the standards. I discovered by myself that the industrial sector does not like proprietary things, the industrial sector required something that is standardized, and in the early-90s the PC/104 consortium was started in California, and I took this kind of opportunity as the signal to start Eurotech. So, the standard was there in terms of a form factor, the technology was at the right point, and the software tools were enough to solve a lot of industrial problems, and then with some colleagues, I started Eurotech.
You make it sound so textbook! I know there was certainly a lot of insight that went into choosing this space, insight clearly on the technology side, but also on the industrial use case side as well and getting those to meet.
In doing some research for this I see that Wikipedia describes Eurotech’s roots as pervasive and ubiquitous computing, which I got a kick out of. Today of course we like to talk about Cloud, Edge, mobile, etc. Are these simply new names, i.e., Cloud and Edge, for well-established computing patterns?
Ken, this is a great point. It’s really a great point because the answer is yes and no. What do I mean by this? If you look from the hardware perspective there’s not a big difference, just because we are talking about embedded computers or small computers. The difference: now we call them Edge because this embedded computer is always connected, and when the pervasive ubiquitous computing vision started in Xerox PARC thanks to Mark Weiser in the 90s, well the point was more again on the miniaturization and how to solve simple tasks. No one had yet the idea of the complexity of the internet and the cybersecurity threat. So, in reality, the difference between an embedded computer and an edge computer from this point of view is more around the cybersecurity side; so, the features that led this computer to be more resilient against cybersecurity attacks.
But the big difference is on the softer layer, no one has envisioned the cloud. I tell you why I was also not in a position not to envision it because in the middle of the 2000’s I was forcing the company to move inside this pervasive ubiquitous computing age, I had a notion, not of the IoT as we know now, but I had the notion of the massive data platform that is able to collect data. So, the data-collection platform that we can now call data lake, I didn’t have the idea of how we can realize this massive data collection platform. It would take years to understand that we had to get from the old scheme of how software is developed, to move to the cloud. But for me, Cloud is a new software paradigm because behind the word Cloud you have the infrastructure as a service, platform as a service, software as a service, it’s all these layers and the methodology to develop these layers that make a big difference, compared to the pervasive and ubiquitous computing vision of the early-2000’s. So, it’s the Cloud that has given this concept, the capability to become real and to be part of what we see nowadays around us as the IoT.
You guys were really an early leader in moving from pure hardware focus – I say pure hardware because it was always OS and embedded – to something that you called at the time the ESF, your service framework, which really was sitting at that infrastructure as a service. I remember in our early work on IoT platforms Eurotech would constantly come up as a player, and in some cases a leader in that space because of the early work you guys had done. So, I think you saw that vision probably earlier than you give yourself credit for.
Ah, that’s something that happened. It’s also the hype cycle from Gartner that talk about this. Sometimes you are so excited about a new idea, but from the idea to reality, yes it takes time.
Yes, clearly. But you did begin that journey earlier, certainly earlier than most of your peer companies in; I’ll call it, the hardware module space on the industrial side.
So, let’s talk about Eurotech particularly. What were some of your notable wins over your time there?
Well, returning back to what I have said about miniaturization if you look at Eurotech from ’92, ’95, ’97 in those first five years, we were the first company that was able to miniaturize in a PC 104 module, the 486 DX processor, it was not an easy task. But just in case one does not know, the PC104 form factor is more or less 10 by 10cm, and if you think about the size of a 486 DX well most of the space was just used by the processor. So, it was not easy to put together all that kind of stuff, and we were really pushing the PCB technology and also the way in which you design the PCB at the limit in order to do that.
We were also the first company that, when the Compaq PCI standard emerged in the late ‘90s, to come out with a Pentium processor in 3U form factor, the Eurocard form factor. But in general, what I can say, was how we approached the standard, the standard vs custom with the modified standard, what is now called Commercial off The Shelf compared to the Modified of The Shelf, or the MOTS product. So, our way to manage COTS vs MOTS is maybe one of the key elements for our success.
Then of course as you have mentioned, we were one of the leading companies in transitioning from the operating system to a platform with the Internet of Things, understanding that the mobile phone industry was changing the rules in terms of how to develop software, and the app economy was entering inside the industrial space, in the same way, you can think about IoT as the app economy entering in the industrial space. And then we’ve taken an international approach, and the international expansion of the company, so a global company but with a local approach.
I like that quote, ‘IoT as the app economy into the industrial space,’ that’s the first time I think anybody has ever made that analogy, and I think it makes an awful lot of sense in that regard.
You mentioned your really aggressive expansion, I think that’s been a hallmark of Eurotech, going from quickly setting up a presence in the US, as we said earlier, driving the best performing IPO in Europe in 2005, and making five acquisitions along the way. What was your underlying expansion thesis?
Well, first of all, you have to follow the demand, and if you think about the demand, the largest economies at the time and still today is the US, then Japan, you can question China. Then, of course, we have also moved into the UK, France, and I just missed Germany, which is for sure now one of the most important ones, the most innovative economy nowadays on the planet. So, we were following the market, and our technology was at the leading edge, and we need a leading-edge economy in order to be able to sell. So that’s one way to look at global expansion. The other point is that technology was led by if you look at the microelectronics in the US, and if you look at the automated machine, Japan, so that’s the thesis about the acquisition, and all the other is just to take advantage of local presence with a global product offer.
Let’s say a global view, a local presence. That probably pretty well defines how you guys always expanded, even though Euro is clearly in the name. Given your nearly 30-years at the helm of Eurotech, if you could go back and change anything, what might you have done differently?
Ah a lot of things Ken, unfortunately, you cannot reverse the clock! But we can say faster and slower, so what does it mean when I say faster and slower? As you have said before, sometimes we invest too fast in some new idea too early for the market and knowing the hype upcycle not to follow the new trend too much, and maybe stay in stealth mode a little bit more with some technology. While being much faster in taking the decision about what is not working. Sometimes you postpone decisions, but maybe because it is also related to the culture, if I was an American maybe I would have been much faster, but because I’m European maybe I’m not so fast.
As a matter of fact, in doing this acquisition around the world you get to figure out the different kinds of attitude; the Japanese are slower in making decisions, but when they take the decision, they are very fast. With an American culture is much faster-taking decisions, and also the economy is much faster in terms of reaction. So, learning a little bit more from all these things.
Then the other point may be, is to have moved into the US from the beginning instead of staying here. So, not big things but some fundamental things yes, if I were to look back, I would like to change them. In terms of the technology the decisions that I have made, I think were right, maybe the timing as I told you, and timing in the investments, timing the investment in a different way. The other things are more human factors related to decisions about the organization and attitudes from one country to another. But it was a great journey in any case.
It certainly was. I like this idea of faster and slower, and in some sense, it kind of describes how industry pundits describe the industrial Internet of Things in some sense, right?
Sometimes you need to be faster to get your technology out there, but the reality is that this industry moves very slowly, so it’s that fine balance in the one hand of being very well tied into the technology, the IT technology if you will as you guys did, but on the other hand serving an industry; Defense, military, industrial, that moves at a certain pace, and certainly slower than the processor leaps that happened on the IT side, right?
So, in some sense, you probably manage that balance pretty well, and across the global audience as you’ve said as well. We joked earlier about pervasive computing, but really reflecting on today’s discussions about edge computing, industry 4.0, autonomous vehicles, on and on; it seems like we’re actually closer to this vision today than clearly, we had been. Has the timing of this progression surprised you, i.e., did you expect things to move faster? And I guess at the same point, what do you see in store for us in this digital industry space over the next five years as well?
Yeah, exactly. My surprise is that’s the adoption from the industrial sector, it's slower than the adoption in the consumer space, and that’s one thing that surprised me in a negative way. Digital transformation is still in the early days if you think about digital transformation in the industrial sector, especially on the business model that digitization will bring into this space.
So, to me in the next five years, at least from my view about the future, I think we will see this adoption of IoT really taking place with the AI, but the AI idea together with the Edge concept is really interesting, especially if you think about the next step on the unsupervised AI, and federated AI that can solve a lot of privacy issues that the industrial sector may have. And again, the 5G revolution, because of the distributed capability of the 5G network. So in the next five years, I expect that what I have seen in the last five years will become a reality, and so it will be fun because what is interesting to me is, it is not more than just a matter of technology, it’s about our sustainability problem, how to solve with technology the sustainability problem that the planet has, how to get out of the industrial model in order to enter into the digital model, and in the service industry as a whole.
So, it’s the new promises of this technology, and I think the planet can enter into a new phase of sustainable growth, thanks to the digital transformation.
And, as you said, that digital transformation is still relatively early. So, whilst you’ve finished out Phase One of your professional career in terms of 30 years at Eurotech and handing over to the next generation of leadership, I’m sure everybody’s thinking the same thing; what’s next for you Roberto?
Well, I’m still working on t. I have many ideas, and during this period I will sort out which is the best for me. I’m really investigating this new frontier of quantum computing, and that’s the next edge in terms of computation. Also, as I’ve told you, this new digital transformation in terms of how we can serve the planet in a better way with the technology, and how we can help the new generations to create a more sustainable industry infrastructure. So, we will see in the next months, I will also see for myself in the next month, for sure there are many ideas.
And I like the fact that on your profile you describe it as a sabbatical. Lord knows, after 30 years you deserve at least a month or two of sabbatical!
Yes, yes, nine months up to the end of the year!
Very good. Well finally, the question I always like to ask is, where do you find your personal inspiration?
Well, I can tell you that one of the books that gave me a lot of inspiration is “The Singularity is Near”, by Ray Kurzwell, which explains all these exponential technologies. And I think all the people and all the online stuff that are discussing these exponential technologies are a good starting point. It lets you think in a different way, because we are linear in some ways as humans, and we do not understand the potential of the technologies because of how our mindset is built up. But at least looking at these kinds of books and people, you can think in a different way. Like for instance the book from Peter Diamandis, “Abundance”, it’s a great book about how to think in a different way, how digital technologies are transforming the planet.
And then if you think about the new way to build up a sustainable planet, is ”The Performance Economy”, by Walter Stahel, that is an interesting book about the service industries. So then why not some book about quantum technologies, because the quantum theory was in some ways written down early in the last century, and it’s still not yet so present inside the industrial sector. We can get a lot of benefit from the usage of quantum technologies in the industrial sector, and in the next 20-30 years, I think there will be a flourish of these things in helping the planet to continue to grow in a sustainable way.
I think your definition of balance of these books, one foot in technology, one foot in… I’ll call it social impact, in this case as you talk about the planet and such, really is a defining element I think of what you’ve done over your career. And The Singularity is Near is one of my favorite books, I consider that a real inspiration, and interestingly a lot of it has still yet to come in terms of predictions that are there. And it does give you a sense that while singularity is near, it’s still a way away! That’s the opportunity for all of us.
Roberto, thank you for spending this time with us today.
Thank you, Ken, it was a pleasure.
As well. This has been Roberto Siagri, the founder and recent CEO of Eurotech, and truly a full stack pioneer. Thank you for listening, and please join us next week for the next episode of our digital thread podcast series. Thank you and have a great day.
You’ve been listening to the Momenta Digital Thread Podcast Series. We hope you’ve enjoyed the discussion, and as always, we welcome your comments and suggestions. Please check our website at momenta.one for archive versions of podcasts, as well as resources to help with your digital industry journey. Thank you for listening.