13 Mar Topcon’s Kris Cowles on Digital Transformation in Infrastructure
Below is a lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Topcon VP of Global Applications & IT Kris Cowles. Topcon is a Japanese company with many global divisions that works “at the intersection of infrastructure and technology.” Kris works in the Positioning Business, where the focus is on creating productivity solutions to tackle problems that the world is facing.
This interview took place in September 2018.
Bob Evans: Our guest today is Kris Cowles, who is VP of Global Applications and IT at Topcon. Topcon is an international manufacturer of high-precision equipment that’s created a compelling vision: making worksites and farms smarter and more productive. Kris, welcome to the Cloud Wars Live podcast, and thanks very much for joining us.
Kris Cowles: Thank you for having me.
BE: Topcon sounds like a fascinating company doing some really interesting, cutting-edge things now. Could you tell us a little about it? Where’s it’s been, what you’re doing, and where you see ongoing digital transformation taking the company.
KC: So, I joined Topcon about 4 and a half years ago. The company itself has a rich tradition going back more than 85 years. It’s a Japanese company with divisions allover the globe. I work in the positioning division. So, specifically, we make productivity solutions using everything from satellite to laser to machine control to UAVs to help the construction, the agriculture, the geopositioning in surveying markets. And really to tackle problems that the world faces.
One of the reasons I joined the company is that we all have to deal with the macroeconomic conditions of the growing population on the planet. You know, whether the forecast is exactly accurate, we’re looking at around nine billion people on the face of the planet within the next 20-30 years. And we have deficits in the amount of food we produce, and the infrastructure needs for roads and houses and bridges and dams for all of those people. That was a compelling argument to me to join a company that was in an inflection point in developing technology to address some of those problems.
You can stream this whole conversation on Cloud Wars Live.
Topcon VP Kris Cowles on Addressing Global Challenges
BE: Kris, the vision of the company and the sweep of what you just described is quite compelling. From your site, “Topcon seeks to meet urgent global demand for modern infrastructure and sustainable architecture by leveraging the right technologies to help scale and optimize the way it is run.” That’s an ambitious outlook.
KC: It really is. And the demand is huge. The technology penetration in some of these markets is fairly low, and the demand and the need is high. I think the 2017 Civil Engineering Society’s rating of the U.S. infrastructure was a D+ across the board.
If we can make technology that impacts a job site or a project by even ten percent, on something that is billions of dollars, that adds value. That not only means getting to work safer, but the roads and bridges and water supply that we rely upon being more sound.
Also, we have to increase the global capacity for food on the planet by somewhere between 30 to 70 percent. That requires precision agriculture and the data to cope with changing climates. If we can sense and manage and impact the yields in how we consume resources in water conservation, in minimizing pesticides – all of those have an impact on people.
BE: Kris, from what you’ve just described there… technology is not just for Topcon an enabler, but really a driving force behind your company’s growth and your evolving strategy.
KC: That’s right.
Topcon VP Kris Cowles on Scaling Through Digital Transformation
So, the question for my role and for a lot of the leaders around the company is: As we go to market and we address these problems, how do we help the company scale? How do we move fast enough that we take advantage of the inflection point that we have as an organization, and are adaptable enough that we can meet these needs?
From a purely commercial point of view, in some ways the demand is so huge it’s up to the quality of the company to execute on the market opportunity. And the value in doing that. So, there’s absolutely an obligation and a challenge to me, as an IT leader, to do what I can to help the company capitalize on those opportunities.
BE: Kris, clearly among those technologies you’re using to capitalize on those opportunities is the cloud. And it sounds like more and more you’re going to be relying on SAP’s cloud capabilities in a big way. Tell us a little bit about why is this the right time for Topcon to move aggressively into the cloud?
KC: It’s kind of a funny question. Topcon’s always been an early adopter of cloud technologies. And I would say this goes back almost ten years with some of the peripheral more introductory cloud apps at the time. We really resonate with all the activity going on in the market and the amount of energy and just constantly shifting landscape.
Having said that, we made a strategic decision specifically with SAP many years ago. That’s because we have a very diverse company with both internal growth and acquisitions. We run around 15 different ERP systems from different venders and we’re on a path to consolidation.
Some of those businesses are natural cloud businesses that we’ve acquired and others are wholly-owned, go-to-market distribution channels. So they’re running as a small company in a particular region. As a sales and marketing business, they don’t need the overhead of large enterprise. We have taken a two-tier approach. Anything that’s really highly complicated or connected to our precision manufacturing has stayed on a traditional ERP system. The agile businesses that we’re running in different markets or different parts of the world, we’ve put in the cloud.
Topcon VP Kris Cowles on Trusting the Cloud With Mission-Critical Processes
The technology has evolved so much. Before, you might only have put something that was not mission-critical in the cloud, something that you felt was sort of a conservative, safe decision. Now, more and more the environment has evolved to the level of scalability and operational excellence you need in order to be able to trust the cloud with P1 operations.
BE: Yeah, it definitely feels like, in the past 6 to 12 months there’s been a real shift in the mindset of business executives like you. Namely, that the cloud is not just for fringe concerns like tracking how much vacation time people have, but moving more into central production systems.
KC: As the technology itself becomes ready, a new question emerges. How quickly can we adapt and deploy that capability both centrally and at the edges of the business? So that you’re not constantly trading the value that you’re delivering to some of these edge cases for the traditional ROI of something like a change from the manufacturing floor. If that’s the model that you’re in, it’s a traditional IT model, but that means all of your emerging and innovative businesses are low-ROI or unquantified. And that’s not acceptable with the way business is evolving.
So you have to be able to do both. The cloud has given IT organizations the capability to do most things for both sides; the trade-off isn’t as binary
BE: As you’ve described, Kris, with the overall acceleration of business cycles in the global economy, that capability is essential. That was great how you put it: beyond just a binary approach. That ties into something else that I saw: that Topcon’s developed this digital-first mindset and purpose. And it seems that it involves technology, but it touches every part of the company.
Could you tell us a little bit about: What is that digital-first mindset and purpose? And how does it play out, not just within the company, but, say, with your customers as well?
Topcon VP Kris Cowles on Developing a Digital-First Mindset
KC: I always love the challenge of working in IT when you’re in a technical company, because the products themselves challenge you to become smarter and better. What we make allows us to know precisely where a piece of equipment is. We know what it’s doing, because we know what machine it is. And depending on the integration, we actually can sense and know exactly what that machine is supposed to be doing—and correct it.
If we know how we’ve planted a field, or we can adjust the amount of fertilizer or nitrates or water that’s being consumed, all of those things allow this concept of how you apply internet or things and IOT to provide analytics on how to better use and consume the resources that we have.
So, if that’s the world that our product lives in, then the burden on IT is: how do we take these disparate businesses, and connect them? We’ve got a number of different initiatives around big data to pull in content from heterogenous systems. And we’re looking at elements of machine learning: process automation and in-memory compute so that your analytics from operations are almost up-to-the-minute.
Plus, we want to give the level of sort of fine-grain control that the C-suite needs in order to make market decisions. One of the most amazing things about working in a growth company is the plethora of opportunity. But, the toughest decision also becomes choosing between those opportunities. What’s a good, better, best investment for the company? That requires some insight. And not just the finger-in-the-air legacy approach based on data that might be two weeks, two months, or two years out of date.
BE: Yeah. So there, again, the impact of technology coming up to the board level. Which markets to go into. Are there acquisitions to be made? How do we allocate these resources in a growth company where these opportunities are big? But, you’ve got to move faster and more intelligently than ever before.
Topcon VP Kris Cowles on Evolving Vendor-Customer Relationships
KC: You know, it becomes interesting and, in some ways, philosophical, the decisions that you make. Because, it’s not always about the immediate technology portfolio. It’s about understanding the company vision. One of the things that I think has been most important to me is the changing nature between a vendor and a customer, when you share responsibility for a mission-critical application.
If you go back a bit, the thinking was: you bought it, you own it, you installed it, you’ve figured out all the bugs already. Right? So, if there’s a bug, you must have put it there. Here’s our support queue and knock yourself out. In many cases, it felt that the customer or client was on their own with minimal support from the vendor.
Now, the cloud companies that are offering the service have to have significant commitment to the customer, the customer experience, and the business outcomes of the customer in a way that some legacy companies didn’t. I would even argue some of the native SaaS companies went into it not understanding what mission-critical meant. And there have been some interesting traffic accidents along the way where people had to learn the lesson the hard way. What does it mean to have shared success? And what’s the alignment of company cultures on those business outcomes?
BE: At first, as you said, even the native SaaS companies felt that the key to success is getting the application up and running smoothly. But, it’s beyond that, right?
Your description of shared business goals and shared outcomes—that’s a huge shift in the mindset, right?
KC: Yeah. And I’ve taken it one step further in some of the things that I’ve advocated. Which is: Let’s say you have a number of cloud applications. Do you go for a suite from a single provider? Do you take multiple providers and stitch ‘em together? I mean, in the world of APIs, most customers can do-it-yourself with almost anything. So the pitch needs to center around: How do these things fit together natively and how does the process work across capabilities?
That gets to some interesting discussions. Both on a process integrity level, on a master data level, and then even on an operational level. What does uptime constitute? Is it that all the lights are blinking, or is it that I successfully completed my process across multiple cloud apps?
Topcon VP Kris Cowles on What Comes Next
BE: Kris, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of really exciting adventures going on there. What’s next for you and your team?
KC: Let’s see, I have four ERP cutovers in the next five months.
BE: Oh, geez. Wow. What did you do that you feel you have to punish yourself?
KC: You know, I think we’ve spread some of our chips across the roulette. We’re making some investments in our digital assets strategy. As our business evolves, and we have more subscription products and IOT offerings – we have to evolve our capability. We’re spending some time doubling down on: What’s that gonna take, given our global footprint?
And then aligning the internal big data strategy with some of our products, external big data strategy. How do we take advantage of some of these compute systems? I mean, there’s just some really exciting things going on. So, I don’t worry about being bored.
You can stream this whole conversation with Topcon VP Kris Cowles on Cloud Wars Live.
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