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From Cisco Systems to SAP to GE Transportation, Wesley Mukai (LinkedIn) has been building, selling and integrating new products and systems for huge companies and customers for a long time. He recently left GE Transportation after more than three years with the company to take some well-earned time off, and he was kind enough to spend some time with us at IT Visionaries.
In this episode, Wesley discusses how he came up in the world of technology, what it means to find the right product at the right price at the right time, and all the challenges he overcame and innovations he helped lead as CTO of GE Transportation.
Best Advice for a first-time C-Level exec: “There doesn’t always necessarily need to be a huge investment or huge time project to make an impact. There are plenty of things you can do with a minimal budget and two people. …Don’t get frustrated if you don’t have all the budget and all the people in the world.”
The early days of creating products — (3:00)
While creating products in the early 1990s, there was a steep learning curve involved in getting people to buy new technology products. When Wesley and his team developed a phone with a touch screen that could connect you to the internet with a click, consumers really weren’t sure what to do with the technology and they were skeptical of its value. Educating the consumer was, therefore, a huge part of the product marketing strategy. The next obstacle is getting the pricing right and finding the sweet spot of meeting what technology is available with what needs and problems have to be solved. Only when you can put all those factors together are you able to successfully put a new product on the market. Everyone knew that, eventually, the tech they were working on would be pervasive in the culture, but no one knew when all the factors would come together to create the ecosystem for widespread adoption.
“You could see it was going to come together. The trends were there. You knew Moore’s law was going to make the process cheaper or faster, You knew screens were coming, right? You just needed to get production going. But okay, do you wait three, four years, and maybe you get lucky and you move on? So you do, you definitely see it. You may not be the one that’s the successful one, but it’s the next person, the next company down the road. So you feel like you’re in the right in the middle of it because the timing, you know, it’s not 10 years out, it’s three years out.”
“You don’t need to be that much of a visionary, right? You, you, you already have inklings and you’re trying to piece together these different technologies and ideas and it could be a business model that holds you back. Or it could be, you know, a lack of vision from leaders in your company or a different strategic direction that holds it back.”
On being the CTO of GE Transportation — (10:00)
The main industry GE Transportation works with is the freight rail industry, which is slow-moving, but has a huge market share because moving supply by rail is by far the cheapest option. Digital transformation in this industry is tricky, though. Wesley explains that the analytics process is about outfitting assets, AKA the locomotives, with the best possible sensors that will provide data that will help improve the productivity of the asset itself or the efficiency of the entire process. The next challenge is moving all of that data and those processes to the cloud.
As the CTO, Wesley also was in charge of finding the right partnerships, products, and methods of integration that would work for the industry. So, whether it was gamefying one aspect of a job or digitizing the visualization of another, Wesley was always looking for start-ups to partner with to create those tech tools. Or he was working within his own team to innovate solutions for customers’ problems. The choice between the two comes down to minimizing cost and maximizing impact.
“You hear the term digital transformation, and it’s across the board. Whether it’s a manufacturing process, whether it’s a logistics process, internal IT, you know it comes down to how can I leverage digital technology better?”
“We were able to do that transformation, um, over the past couple of years of how do we build our software and then how do we, how do we deploy it for our customers in this more a cloud-native way.”
Working collaboratively — (26:30)
Throughout every industry, Wesley has found that there is always a collaborative aspect to innovation. You are constantly working with the CIO of your organization and their staff, or other CIOs/CTOs and their staff, identifying where their challenges meet yours, then coming together to create solutions.
“Finding those right partners in a sort of a triangle who can help bring everything together is also an important part of helping affect these bigger transformations and changes.”
Moving on from legacy systems — (30:00)
Wesley explains that there are going to be challenges involved in moving from legacy systems to cloud-based systems, and making choices in how to do that takes time and research. But there is a way to compartmentalize the process and also ways to move things chunk-by-chunk so that you’re not causing a shock to the system.
“You don’t necessarily need six months of a consulting group in there to tell you what you kind of feel already. There are some general recipes. What’s nice is you can go on, do it, do it with your internal staff and it doesn’t have to be this huge all-encompassing decision if you go about it incrementally. And before you know it, you’re there and you’re learning the technology, and it’s not as costly as, as some of the old big migrations you need to do.”
What is the future of transportation? — (34:00)
Wesley believes that automation is eventually going to be a game-changer in transportation. He points to the trucking industry as a lead domino to make everything more efficient. Whether it is through tuning methods, developing an automated lane system on roads, or what have you, by improving the method by which shipping happens, you have a domino effect on every industry.
“It’s not that hard to visualize that, hey, if some pieces of automation could go and make that, truck lane run a lot smoother, save fuel, less drivers, right, you have solved that trucker driver challenge. And the introduction of this technology is going to make that trucking space a lot more competitive and that’s going to put a lot of pressure on the rail industry to compete, right? It’s going to push the Amazons of the world as they try to get control of the whole end-to-end experience. So you’re going to think, okay, I’m going to have these automated trucks, I can throw drones flying into the mix. I can do all these other things because the base infrastructure starts to get a lot more economical.”
Fun Fact: While working at a company called InfoGear in the early 1990s, Wesley and his team came up with a product called the iPhone. InfoGear was eventually sold to Cisco Systems and when Apple wanted to come out with the iPhone we all know today, they had to negotiate with Cisco to get the name.