This interview with Alex Serriere, Director of Research at TEECOM Design Group, which offers telecommunications, security, and audiovisual systems engineering services nationally, was conducted and condensed by Christopher Parsons.
Christopher Parsons : Was there a research role before you joined TEECOM or did you create it?
Alex Serriere: I was hired as a Junior Design Engineer into a research role that wasn’t really defined at all. The intention from the beginning was to have a research group, but at the time, no one was really sure what that meant. We created the position with the hope that something interesting would develop. I would certainly say in the last three years, something interesting has developed. However, at the time I joined TEECOM, there was definitely nothing concrete in terms of what I was to do; how I was to do it; how was I going to integrate that into our process.
CP : Was the research group created to be a differentiator or did you feel that TEECOM needed to create a research group to keep up with your competition?
AS: It was to set us apart. We continue to see a commoditization of the work that we do. We realized, in a profound way, that most of our clients are really not well versed nor interested in a discussion about bits and bytes, but rather understanding the future of technology and how to best prepare for that evolution. So, we radically shifted our focus in conversation with others to our research and strategy group, and creating a technology roadmap for organizations looking to maximize the long-term flexibility of their spaces, and get from point A (their existing state) to preparing for the future unknown state of technology.
The second reason for creating a research group came out of the recognition that technology is probably one of the fastest moving industries. The amount of new information is overwhelming for someone who is trying to be billable. It’s overwhelming for them to try and keep up with all of the minute details of the systems that they’re working with, let alone being able to look into the future to understand where those systems are going.
I started the research group with a focus on tracking technology trends. We have major focus groups in our organizations – security, AV, telecom, and so on. We started by looking at where the technology leaders in those spaces are headed. And so, that was my job initially.
CP : Were you appointed or did you volunteer?
AS: No, I was appointed.
CP : Was there a research committee before you that was trying to do this late at night or on the weekends?
AS: Yes, basically, it was David. [David Marks, CEO and founder of TEECOM Design Group.]
CP : It was David that did it?
AS: Exactly. The firm’s messaging around technology came primarily from David doing that sort of late-night “What is the future of technology?” research because that has historically been the number one question that our clients have asked us. They’re about to spend millions of dollars on systems that they worry are going to be obsolete by the time their facilities open.
CP : And by clients, are you meaning both the architects and also the building owners?
CP : OK. So, David was trying to do research on top of his day job. He’s working late nights. I would guess that when he founded the company, David played the role of Research Director. He wants to keep research going, but now he needs someone else to really be the point person. Is that how it started?
AS: Yeah, I think that sounds about right.
CP : OK. So, I’ll digress for a minute. When we’ve talked to firms that have invested in research, it’s interesting that the notion of research being in the founding DNA of the company plays out again, and again, and again. So, it’s funny that you said David was the guy doing it. It totally resonates with what we I have seen.
AS: To be completely honest, that was one of the things that attracted me to TEECOM, having met David and recognizing that he was a very forward-looking individual.
CP : Did you two have a weekly briefing at first?
AS: Exactly. And that weekly briefing continues to inform the messaging for our clients and potential clients. After a while, we realized all the information I was gathering would be completely relevant to the entire engineering staff, so I started a more formal process where I’ll have a quarterly presentation, where I’ve distilled the more interesting developments in the technology space to something that I can deliver in 20-30 minutes on a quarterly basis to our entire design staff at our quarterly all-hands design meeting.
CP : How do you break out the 30 minutes? What does that formal report look like?
AS: So, I try and do, sort of, timelines – what’s happening today, what’s happening in the next year, and what’s happening in five years. What did someone release in the last three months that we’re starting to see in the spaces that we design and how is that relevant to the systems that we design? What is an investment or an emerging product that we’re starting to see more and more of?
CP : Are you looking across building technology to infrastructure, to software, to web, to mobile, and the whole gamut of technology, or are there a couple of areas you focus more energy on than others?
AS: No, it’s pretty much the whole gamut and part of that is because the spaces we design are for a wide range of clients. It’s not like we have only corporate or healthcare clients. We have clients that run a wide range, and that means that all of these technologies are applicable in different ways to those different verticals. So, it requires that breadth.
CP : I’m assuming you report to David, then?
AS: I do, yes.
CP : To what degree is he, or other people, setting a research agenda? Does a research agenda exist? Do you have goals you want to focus on for this year, this quarter, or are you just trying to keep up?
AS: I would say it’s just keep up, and I would say that that has been the primary challenge because stuff moves so quickly, and it is a very broad industry, so it can be very difficult. I will say everyone contributes in their own way to our research efforts. A lot of the times, it will be someone in one of our disciplines. The AV team will send me a link to a new type of television. Just as an FYI, but also, they’re implicitly asking if there anything more that we need to know about this that’s going to be relevant in our designs.
CP : So if they get a whiff on a project or from a client, because they’re focused on projects and clients, they say, “Hey, go dig in Alex. See if there’s something more then come back and tell us what you find.”
CP : OK.
AS: Otherwise, the research agenda as a whole is set entirely by David and I.
CP : Do you get pulled into project-specific research?
AS: Yes. We’ve done visioning sessions with various clients, brainstorming sessions particularly, most recently in retail and in corporate work. “What’s the future of retail?” “What’s the future of the corporate campus and how does the technology fit into that?”
CP : You have said research group a couple of times. Is that group you and David or is there another person working to support your efforts?
AS: Everyone within the TEECOM team supports and directly contributes to the research group. While David and I largely lead the department, we certainly don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. Great ideas come from everyone, and particularly from our engineers and PMs in the field who are heavily engaged in some of the most exciting projects globally. We have a number of forums that allow the team to contribute to our knowledge base, from the use of internal video blogs, where we share best practices, lessons learned, implementations of newer technologies, to almost-daily vendor lunch and learns. Everyone at TEECOM is expected to contribute to our continuous learning and innovation. Our research has to trickle down to the field, and not remain isolated in the office, to deliver real value to our clients.
We also do have the intention of growing the research group, and that’s because of the second aspect of the research group, the most recent part, which is going from purely research to research and development. We’ve gotten into software development because as we did all this research it became clear that while many of the emerging technologies are great, no one is doing a good job of applying them in the built environment. So why couldn’t that be us?
We can show them off to clients or potentially productize them. So, with that in mind, this summer we hired an intern just to experiment, to augment my capabilities as a software developer and experiment with that process.
CP: So to summarize, the main way you interact with the practice is you’re pushing content on a quarterly basis, you’re pushing out content with David on a weekly basis, and the engineers are coming to you and when they have research needs.
CP : How about the connection between research and marketing? I know that you guys do a tech briefing for clients and prospects – architects and building owners.
CP : Is that annually?
AS: Right, exactly. I think our technology briefings have been the most beneficial of all of the stuff that I do, certainly the most visible. On an annual basis, we’ve been creating this technology briefing that David has brought to, like you said, to prospective clients, architects, etc. And that is a very distilled version of our research. Something appropriate for executives. “What’s happened in the last year and how does that apply going forward for the next five years?”
CP : What’s an example of one that was in the last briefing?
AS: Big data or the data deluge is the one that we talk about. So, today we generate X amount of data. This is only expected to grow, so we need better ways to handle this data, we need better analysis tools. What does this mean for building? Well, it means that you’ve got sensors in every point of your building that are gathering all this data and that one of the calls to action is put sensors in your building so that you can gather all of this data because we will have better tools for you to analyze the performance of your building, and how useful it is, and how much money…
CP : The analytical tools might not be there today, but if you start collecting data now, you’re going to be fine.
AS: Exactly. At a more fundamental level, design the network in your building now so that it can support these sensors in the future.
CP : So, there’s an annual briefing, and is it local, right? Does David take it around the country?
AS: Right, right. We do a big event where we invite people of interest, but then David and our business development team do schedule individual briefings at organizations around the country.
CP : Got it. So, there is a big integrated campaign that happens.
AS: Yeah, exactly.
CP : Have you had conversations about extending the life of these briefings even further as YouTube videos, or blog posts, or some other kind of micro-site? Is that something you have discussed?
AS: Yes, we have, and I think the last few years we’ve been hesitant because we do feel like our research is a differentiator. We’ve been hesitant to reveal that level of detail to potential competitors. I think more and more we’re shifting away from that view and realizing that the benefits of sharing will far outweigh any potential issues with competitors stealing our ideas. I do expect in the next six months or so we will start using social media to share our research, as we are in the process of rebranding and redoing our website.
CP : There usually seems to be a tipping point within a company where they figure out that benefits are going to outweigh the costs. Is there anything specific, a light bulb that went off that made you guys say, “You know what? X competitor can’t keep up with us anyway or, you know, we’re just not getting this in front of as many potential clients as we could. If our competitors can’t learn about our research, that also means potential clients can’t either.” Was there something that triggered your firm’s change of heart about sharing?
AS: I think so. It’s kind of funny, but I think it was a specific interaction that David had. It was that, combined with a TED video about… I can’t remember what it was about, but he had this interaction where someone pointed out that we’re far worse off if we don’t share our ideas.
It’s one of those things I think has to come from the top, because I’m personally fine with sharing what we’ve developed, but I can’t make that decision for the company.
CP : OK. So, we’ve taken research from your desk and translated it into polished marketing materials. They’ve gotten broken down into individual briefings. How about now taking that into business development/sales? Do your team members use your content in interviews and in winning new work as well?
AS: Yes, absolutely. And this is where the wonderful term of “thought leader” comes in because when you go and talk to an owner in an interview and they’re comparing, again, between the person who’s talking about CAT 6A cables versus the person who’s talking about outcomes and how a pervasive network is crucial to the specific thing that they want to do… we win, is what it comes down to.
CP : I like the competitive nature of the way you guys have looked at research. That’s really… that’s good. I hope to see more of it.
CP : Are there ideas that have come back from marketing, business development, or sales on other things you should research?
AS: Yes. In the past few years, we’ve started with the question of “Where is technology going?” and in answering that question, we’ve created a new question, which is “What do we do now?” because we’re going and telling people about the future of technology, and they’re blown away. They completely agree, but they don’t know…
CP : …how to buy it…
AS: Yeah, yeah. Exactly, so that has been the number one piece of feedback is, start thinking about what can you absolutely do today to impact the future viability of the systems that these clients are specifying, that they’re buying. So…
CP : … so the main feedback is, “OK, we’ve seen the vision of the future. Help us realize it”.
CP : OK, so that’s led you into going from Research to Research & Development.
CP : I’d like to understand the relationship between you and clients. Are you part of that marketing road shows or do you transfer the knowledge and distill it enough to David and the BD team that they carry the show without you?
AS: Both. I think it’s a strategic decision about who the client is, how close they are to having a new project, that sort of thing. Sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate that our BD team just talking about our research group and the stuff that we’ve thought up, and where technology is going. Sometimes they really want someone in the room who can do a deep dive when a client has a question about a specific thing that’s about their vertical, but yeah, I would say it’s a mix of both.
CP : Is there anything else about running a research group that I haven’t asked you that you think we should know about? Imagine someone that doesn’t have a research group in their practice and they’re thinking about doing it but not really sure what that looks like. Is there anything else you want to share?
AS: Yes, because I think it can be really hard for businesses to do this, and that’s why I actually feel very lucky that I work where I do, which is just enabling the research group to really go off on tangents. There have been countless occasions where I start reading something that doesn’t feel immediately applicable in any way, and then three months later I’m like, “Oh, that is so relevant. We should pay attention to that.” So, I would say the ability to go on tangents is definitely worthwhile in a research group.
CP : So, would your advice now, having led one for three years, be that if firms want to do research, it has to be dedicated resource versus being able to do it with a committee? Do you feel one way or the other?
AS: I would say I feel like a dedicated resource is the way to go. Particularly, I don’t have the pressure to be billable, and if you’re trying to segment, take a portion of a billable worker’s time and say, “OK, you’re going to devote this to research.” I feel like there’s just too much pressure to do the billable work, to be able to go off on those tangents, to be able to think outside the box, to be cliché, but I think that’s why having the dedicated research makes sense.
CP : What’s the role of academia in your research? I know that you’ve talked a lot about, kind of, different industry, or technical associations, or companies and their research groups, are you reading academic research, as well?
AS: Yes, yes. I’m a member of IEEE. David and I just went to a conference in June called the Pervasive Computing Conference, and it was all PhD thesis type stuff.
CP : Are you very lonely? Are you connected to other people doing a similar thing? Who do you talk to about your work?
AS: Yeah, I would say I’m lonely (laughs) and that goes back to… well, I would say, though, that now I have Kevin the intern sitting next to me, and he is a great addition to the research team because it’s fun to have technical discussions with him about these challenging ideas, but in general, I am in a unique position at TEECOM. Everyone else is working on billable projects, and I’m here doing something that I think is a lot of fun. I won’t say that too loud (laughs).
CP : That’s an important concept. That comes up a lot with companies who have created innovation groups. When you say “innovation group,” what does that say about what the rest of the company is working on? Is it not innovative?
Is there a difficult dynamic created by having you, alone, not billing, working on research?
AS: Yeah, I sort of wrestle with that idea, and I try to keep my head down a little bit because of that. But I don’t… I hesitate, but I wouldn’t say anyone feels like my group is, I don’t know, more relevant or more important than the work they do. I think, if anything, I think it’s the reverse because everyone sees their work as really paying the bills and that’s something I feel like I have to live up to, which is that I have to be that much better to make sure that they see that my position is relevant.
I think it’s MIT that has the saying, “Demo or die,” and then I feel like that. My research is not always a demo, but it’s something relevant, and either you show it off, and everyone understands why it’s relevant, or there’s no point in having you.