Common IoT Team Gaps And Solutions: IoT Immigrants And Corporate Makers

September 13, 2019

At SpinDance, we get to interact with a huge variety of businesses, from international brands like Whirlpool to startups like Dogtelligent. Every week we talk with organizations making their first leap into the world of IoT.

All of these organizations have a unique heritage of products and services and thus, unique challenges to suit. But regardless of the company or product, we see a definitive pattern in the people who are being tasked with succeeding at IoT. Broadly speaking, we can categorize engineers and product managers into two groups: Those engineers who understand traditional product development without expertise in end-to-end strategy, and those who can build a physical product but lack expertise in embedded systems.

We call these two groups “IoT Immigrants” and “Corporate Makers,” respectively. As you can imagine, each group has its own specific challenges in adopting IoT. By identifying the patterns, we’re able to better predict a project’s needs much earlier in the process, which leads to a more successful project timeline.

Let’s dig a little deeper into these two groups of people and how their wide range of expertise affects their project goals:

IoT Immigrants

IoT Immigrants are people with a background in traditional embedded systems and product development, but have little “end-to-end” IoT experience. They are engineers who know PCB design, BOM pricing models, Board Support Packages, and optimized C/assembly for 8-bit MCUs. This group has no problem making a prototype “smart” product, but they get stuck in the details.

Here are some examples of things that IoT Immigrants get wrong:

  • They place antennas in the suboptimal locations,
  • They don’t understand how to secure an over-the-air update.
  • They don’t have experience architecting the firmware for a connected product.
  • They don’t know how to divide business logic across multiple domains.
  • Blindly trust that the IoT platform is going provide everything they need to get the cloud part of IoT working. (Spoiler alert: It never works out that way.)

On the business side, IoT Immigrants know how to sell self-contained products that will never see an update, barring the dreaded product recall. But they haven’t internalized the opportunities and pitfalls that connectivity brings, so once the product is launched they rarely look back.

In other words, they are emigrating from their safe world of isolated products to the wild west of connected ones.

Corporate Makers

The second group, Corporate Makers, have little to no experience with embedded systems, let alone in managing cloud and mobile software. They have all the problems of IoT immigrants and then some. They might know how to build a great physical product, but adding embedded components and RF modules are foreign concepts. They don’t know their LTE-M from their LoRa, their REST from their GraphQL.This group often contains mechanical engineers being asked to produce a working prototype, which leads to challenges on the Electrical Engineering aspects of a project. After a bit of Googling, they discover the promising land of Arduinos, Raspberry Pis and BeagleBone Blacks. Before long they’re regulars on AVRFreaks, and have dropped more money at SparkFun and AdaFruit than they care to admit.

Corporate Makers evolve into corporate staff using maker-grade products to build that first IoT prototype. This leads to the inevitable let down that there is no good path to using those products to produce a production-ready system.

Using Partnerships Bridging the IoT Gap

Eventually, both IoT Immigrants and Corporate Makers come to a point where they’re stuck: IoT Immigrants realize the physical product is only a portion of an overall IoT solution, and Corporate Markers realize there is no path to production through maker-grade hardware. The good news is neither of these gaps need to be detrimental, if fixed sooner rather than later.

The key is bridging the gap is identifying the right set of partners to augment and mentor the internal team to success. Together, these teams can accomplish the organization’s goals faster and cheaper than attempting to go it alone.

With IoT Immigrants, the assistance comes in a few specific forms:

  • IoT System Engineering – A true IoT product spans multiple domains. IoT System Engineering considers both the distributed computing nature of the problem and the interusability of the total experience. These are usually brand new concepts to IoT Immigrants.
  • Domain-specific expertise – IoT Immigrants need help upgrading their embedded skills to handle connected use cases, and augmenting their embedded engineers with cloud, mobile and data engineering capabilities.

Corporate Makers need the same help as above, with some additional support:

Production-grade component selection – We love our Arduinos, but there is simply no good path to production for a typical 8-bit AVR, and their use after a Proof of Concept is limited. Therefore, acclimating Corporate Makers to production-grade chipsets is a common area of partnership.
Threaded and Connected Embedded Experience – Multi-threaded methodologies like RTOSs and Embedded Linux are common in connected products, are are new to Corporate Makers. Connectivity stacks, such as TCP/IP, are also new concepts to many Makers.

Typically, the partnerships to help bridge these gaps last two to five years. After that time, our experience shows us that organizations can internalize the management and engineering skills needed to succeed alone. In essence, they “graduate” to fully owning the design, development and support phases of an IoT product. Ironically, it is the program management skills that mature last, as the post-development is a huge part of an IoT product’s lifecycle. There is no substitute for experience in this area.

After this graduation, organizations still need solid partnerships. First, they often are looking for domain=specific expertise, such as around voice assistance or computer vision. Secondly, they are in need of operational support, but that application updates or cloud management.

At SpinDance, we’ve worked hard to build a team that can fit into any of the above engagements. We can do all the software for an end-to-end solution, or fill in the gaps. And with our extended network of partners, we can execute many other tasks for a project as well.

Accelerating Partnerships Using SpinDance’s IoT Project Canvas

One way to accelerate partnerships is understanding exactly what your partner(s) can offer you. At SpinDance, we’ve developed a few one-page worksheets to help you do just that:

  • End-to-End Team Worksheet – This worksheet helps you identify all the roles you’ll need to launch a successful IoT product. These roles may be internal, or maybe handled via partnerships. This document gives you the framework to both understand your internal gaps and question potential partners on their experience in each area.
  • Risk Assessment – This worksheet can help you quantify the risk you’re taking on given the experience of your internal and external teams, so that you can better identify the gaps.
  • Device Architecture – This worksheet can help both IoT Immigrants and Corporate Makers ensure they are covering their bases when developing a connected hardware product.

We encourage you to download these resources for free as part of our IoT Project Canvas. Once you’ve completed the worksheets, don’t hesitate to reach out so that we can talk about your project with you.