Meet a Minnesota CTO: Scott Wilken



Scott WilkenThank you to Andcor Companies for underwriting the Meet a Minnesota CTO series.

Scott Wilken is the recently appointed CTO of Multi-Tech Systems.  Headquartered in Mounds View, the company has been in the M2M communications space since 1970.

With more than 22 million devices deployed worldwide, Multi-Tech focuses on providing “The shortest path to M2M connectivity – from concept to implementation and total lifecycle management.”
How long have you been working in technology for and what is your background?

I started out 25 years ago working part-time jobs in electronics repair and IT support while completing my electrical engineering coursework at North Dakota State University and moving into professional roles from there.

My overall background is somewhat broad. In my past as a design engineer, my responsibilities included electrical engineering, software engineering, ASIC/FPGA design and systems engineering, as well as a good deal of project management. Over time, I gravitated to engineering management and thought leadership roles, which allowed me to also become directly involved with industrial design, mechanical engineering, test engineering and manufacturing engineering. My areas of expertise include wired and wireless communications, high-speed circuit board design, and signal processing.

What are you focused on right now?

As a newcomer to Multi-Tech Systems, I’m splitting time between reviewing and incrementally updating our engineering and IT processes and product strategy.

Multi-Tech has been turning out great products for more than 40 years so certainly the basic processes and organizational design are already proven. I come to Multi-Tech after 13 years in the outsourcing industry with Logic PD where I had the unique opportunity to see how many other companies approach product development and IT. There are incremental improvements that we can apply to Multi-Tech’s operations that are not too impactful to the daily cadence the team already works to, while still bringing us up another notch in efficiency.

I’ve also been working on product strategy. I’m looking at ways to engage developers earlier in the design cycle, providing easier access to our embedded products, such as our SocketModem embedded modems line. We’re considering new applications we haven’t addressed in the past for our existing finished products, as well as vetting some new ideas for additional sensor communications interfaces that I believe will have market impact.

What are the some of the technologies within your company and IT environment?

Our core IT systems are designed to support our ISO13485 quality system, which is specifically targeted toward the medical device world. It incorporates a risk management approach to product development and product realization, which benefits all of our customers. Accordingly, we have all of the enterprise systems required to support that, such as revision control and disaster recovery plans.

That aside, we have made particular investments in physical capital as well as software-based design tools to support high-quality wireless design. For instance, we use state of the art test and measurement tools, including network call boxes and sealed chambers that allow us to simulate over-the-air conditions inside our own building. This ensures that we minimize our product testing time working with the certification bodies and carriers for products that are designed to be deployed on the various mobile networks around the world.

How do you ensure that IT plans, projects and objectives are aligned with business outcomes?

Larger scale projects, which are most often the sort that visibly impact business, are typically planned and implemented over several quarters. This gives the IT team a chance to work with the stakeholders to gather requirements and then deploy candidate tools in a sandbox in order to obtain user feedback. From there we’ll take the user information and rank the candidate tools alongside their respective total cost of ownership for both deployment and ongoing maintenance. We actually just completed an evaluation process for a tool that our marketing department will be using in early 2014.

Smaller scale projects, such as planning for replacement of aging equipment, can also eventually impact business if not dealt with diligently, but implementing standard operating procedures should address issues of this sort by process.

What is the size of your department (headcount) and how is it organized/managed?

The technology organization at Multi-Tech includes the IT and product development organizations, as well as quality and product support functions. Combined, these groups have a headcount of roughly 85, including open requisitions and several resources we have on staff that are located outside of Minnesota.

Each discipline has a leader to manage daily operations, but beyond that level of administrative commonality we run the groups differently to best fit the needs of what they need to accomplish within the company as a whole. For instance, IT and product support are generally flat with all individuals reporting to a central leader who manages the work plans directly while engineering is matrixed, with individuals having responsibilities both to departmental management as well as to project management based on individual work assignments that change over time as projects end and new ones begin.

How does your company approach recruiting and retention for technical positions in an increasingly competitive market?

It sounds cliché, but both recruiting and retention come down to building a culture that makes people excited about getting up for work each day.

High-performing technical people love solving difficult problems and we tend to be working with leading wireless technologies like LTE, which provide the opportunities. In support of this approach, we have many employees with tenures exceeding 30 years. We also offer a lot of little things to make it easy for employees to disconnect when they need to refocus during the day. For instance, we have ping-pong tables in our break areas that are seeing regular use.

To actually add new employees, we tend to leverage our personal network since the wireless design community is fairly small and our staff is well-networked due to our participation in the meetings of various regulatory bodies that affect our industry.

How do you personally keep up with the ever changing technology landscape?

Certainly I do the traditional things, such as reading relevant online and print publications, attending trade shows, etc., but I also like talking to other technologists about what they are doing in their spare time. Frequently, they are making something at home to compensate for something missing from the market, albeit almost always in a niche that may not have wide appeal.

Since niche occasionally does move to mainstream, I also like to monitor what the larger maker community is doing. For instance, it has been interesting to see how 3D printing continues to develop, at least partially driven by needs first identified by makers who wanted to build physical parts without being able to justify the expense of the FDM or SLA technology available at the time. 3D printing is still not at a price point compelling enough for the average consumer, but I think the fact that MakerBot devices are now available through Amazon Prime is certainly notable.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

As a technologist I’m glad that Moore’s Law is still generally holding true, even if expected to slow in the next few years.

This has provided platforms that have enough processing power and low enough electrical power consumption to make rich user interfaces affordable enough for use in personal electronics. What that has done is cause users to realize that it is possible to make technology part of their daily lives without having to be particularly technical themselves. The market now demands that successful products are good in terms of technical feature set, as well as being intuitive to use.

The side benefit to new product development efforts is that the processing components now available to support the high MIPS per Watt ratio that personal electronics require for those rich user interfaces also allow better features, such as on-board preprocessing of analytics, even if there is no local user interface required at all.

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

Security of data is what concerns me. With sufficient efforts, it is possible to breach even high-security systems as evidenced in the news regularly with credit card numbers and such. Less obvious systems may not always have the same level of security and could conceivably be targeted without as much awareness that a breach has even occurred.

As more and more things move to the cloud and companies and users start to lose physical control of their previously on-site data, it puts more onus on IT people to become increasingly focused on choosing the right vendors and systems for their off-site data to ensure it stays protected and sometimes compatible with regulation in the case of medical records, HIPAA and the like.

What are you into outside of technology?

Not surprisingly, most of my hobbies incorporate technology. For instance, I like fishing, but I will always look to have tackle that lets me optimize my cast or GPS mapping to mark the spots in which I find fish so that I can return to that exact spot in the future.

With that in mind, when I can find the time, I like to repair things since I find the focus on one task to be relaxing. As examples, I’ve restored pinball machines, video games and wristwatches. In the process I still usually manage to learn something new.

In the summer, my family enjoys Minnesota’s lake culture; in the winter, I spend a lot of time watching hockey at our area rinks.

What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry?

In my previous role working in product development outsourcing, I’ve had the chance to work with quite a few companies in many different locations domestically and internationally. Few areas have the diversity of industry that we see here in Minnesota, and I say that realizing we have a high concentration of medical device development in our area.

To illustrate that diversity, but looking at it from a synergistic standpoint, you could build an entire remote monitoring system – ranging from the communications gateway to the sensors, and all the way through customized software and cloud-based monitoring of your data – using all Minnesota-based companies, with their headquarters being no more than 10 miles from each other. You could even work with a Minnesota company that could help you with the billing system if you wanted a recurring revenue model from your monitoring product.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thank you.