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Alistair Fulton of Semtech: “Never assume you know what your customer wants”

I think the IoT is the technology world’s way of putting its best foot forward to collectively solve some of the major issues we face as humanity. Human ingenuity has resulted in an amazing array of new ways to grow more food, produce more goods and make more energy, enabling humanity to scale to the […]

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I think the IoT is the technology world’s way of putting its best foot forward to collectively solve some of the major issues we face as humanity. Human ingenuity has resulted in an amazing array of new ways to grow more food, produce more goods and make more energy, enabling humanity to scale to the billions we see today. But it has also resulted in an equally vast array of unintended consequences that, together, threatens the very complex and highly fragile ecosystem upon which we all depend on. While human ingenuity got us here, human ingenuity alone is not enough to help us decode the complexity of the global ecosystem, understand how the myriad impacts of human activity interlink and figure out how we unwind some of what we have set in motion. For that we need more data about what’s going on at every level of human activity, and the ability to process that data to come up with answers for how we solve this situation. Luckily our ability to process data has grown exponentially and with the advent of quantum computing, has the potential to become almost infinite. What’s lacking is the data and that’s where the IoT comes in.


As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alistair Fulton.

Alistair Fulton is the Vice President and General Manager of Semtech’s Wireless and Sensing Products Group. He joined Semtech in 2018 with over 25 years of experience in the Internet of Things (IoT), connected devices, machine to machine (M2M)/embedded, and analytics spaces. Before joining Semtech, Alistair led the development of Hitachi’s Lumada Industrial IoT Platform, the leading “visionary” IIoT platform in Gartner’s 2018 magic quadrant. Prior to Hitachi, he led Microsoft’s early IoT initiatives, including the development and incubation of Microsoft’s v1.0 IoT platform (the precursor to the v3.0 Azure IoT platform).


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I ended up being focused on the IoT as a series of happy coincidences that took me first through the mobile telecoms world, before leading me to the world of solutions that are loosely bundled under the banner of “IoT.” That journey was really driven by my interest in technologies that solve interesting problems or change the way we do things. The first step on that journey was my conclusion back in the 90’s that cellular phones, which at the time were clunky things with LCD screens, were about to change the world based on the potential of early application models like WAP (remember WAP?).

That same motivation led me into the IoT space, first via the cloud platform space to build tools that make building IoT applications accessible to developers, and then to the one area of the IoT that remains unsolved: the availability of tools that make connecting mass sensor networks of billions of devices possible.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I recall early in my career when I worked in a boutique strategy consulting company. In my first few weeks, we received an RFP from a global downstream oil & gas company, asking for help to figure out how to optimize the range of products they sold in their gas station stores (which turned out to be a better source of margin than the gasoline they sold). No one in the consulting business was really interested so they gave it to the new guy and I began my work.

I came up with a novel concept for using conjoint analysis, a fairly standard statistical technique, to assess and recommend a combination of goods based on the size of the store, location, catchment area and a handful of other data. Fast forward to the final meeting when, having presented a proposal amounting to several hundred thousands of dollars in value, I walked out to the parking lot with two very seasoned partners in the firm. One (the calmer of the two) turned to me and said, “Alistair, do you actually know how to do this?” to which I said, “I’m not really sure, I will probably be able to figure it out” at which point the second (definitely not the calmer of the two) let forth a stream of language, noting that if I don’t figure it out, both him and I will likely get fired.

To short cut what was a lengthy and arduous project, the project went very well thanks to the support of a brilliant team and was awarded the top prize in the client’s internal global competition for the most impactful project undertaken that year, cementing the relationship with that client for many years to come. I learned many lessons from that experience, perhaps the best being that it’s alright not to be sure how you’re going to figure something out, but sometimes keeping that knowledge to yourself may help others cope better with uncertainty ;-).

Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

I spend most of my time these days working on a technology called LoRa. LoRa is an ultra-low power, long range networking technology that has the capability to solve the connectivity problem in the IoT by providing a low cost, simple way of connecting everything to the cloud. My focus and that of the Semtech team is on making LoRa easy to use for developers, so they can build products without having to learn any embedded development skills. We’re doing that by applying the proven model of software abstraction layers — the same approach that opened up the world of application development originally — by layering successive abstraction layers on top of the binary code that makes microcontrollers work. With LoRa we’re wrapping the hardware (in this case a radio chip instead of a microcontroller) with software that enables the developers to start building right away.

How do you think this might change the world?

I think the IoT is the technology world’s way of putting its best foot forward to collectively solve some of the major issues we face as humanity. Human ingenuity has resulted in an amazing array of new ways to grow more food, produce more goods and make more energy, enabling humanity to scale to the billions we see today. But it has also resulted in an equally vast array of unintended consequences that, together, threatens the very complex and highly fragile ecosystem upon which we all depend on. While human ingenuity got us here, human ingenuity alone is not enough to help us decode the complexity of the global ecosystem, understand how the myriad impacts of human activity interlink and figure out how we unwind some of what we have set in motion. For that we need more data about what’s going on at every level of human activity, and the ability to process that data to come up with answers for how we solve this situation. Luckily our ability to process data has grown exponentially and with the advent of quantum computing, has the potential to become almost infinite. What’s lacking is the data and that’s where the IoT comes in.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

I think the most obvious thing to think about is the advent of truly sentient artificial intelligence which will be enabled by the commercialization of quantum computing. The IoT will provide much of the data that enables this development and up until now, at least in some examples, there hasn’t been that much difference between artificial intelligence and genuine foolhardiness. Quantum computing changes that and will require careful thought as to the legal and social implications of AI enabled by nearly limitless computing power.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

I’ve been adjacent to some of the work that has gone in to making quantum computing a reality at prior companies. Quantum computing is a real game changer in terms of computing overall and real commercialization is tantalizingly close. Quantum computing combined with advances in AI creates some interesting philosophical questions, including regarding the very nature of being. For example, if you cannot tell the difference between a sentient AI and a real person, does the AI have rights?

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

IoT will be driven to widespread adoption by the availability of cost-effective, easy ways of connecting sensors to everything. The platform tools necessary to process the data generated already exist and are developing exponentially. What’s lacking is effective access to the data required for these tools to show their true potential.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

Mostly we are following the tried and tested approach of telling the IoT community what Semtech is doing to make developing and connecting billions of sensors to the cloud easy, and then following through and doing it. Our most recent product, the LoRa Edge device-to-cloud platform, was created to offer more simplicity and flexibility into the development process.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m most grateful to a prior boss of mine, Bill Gorjance, who much earlier in my career convinced me that I had what it took to build businesses and lead teams. Bill is very much a Zen guru and has a particular talent for pushing you to ask deeper and better questions of yourself. I can’t remember an instance where he told me what the answer was to anything, rather he drove me to search harder in my own mind and not to be satisfied with anything but the best answer I could provide.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

At Semtech we see our role as developing technologies which can improve life for everyone across a variety of spaces. This mission is central to everything that we do. Each time I talk to a developer who has built something incredible using LoRa, I am reminded of that mission.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Never assume you know what your customer wants. Learn how to ask the right questions and how to listen properly to the answer, and then learn how to act with that knowledge. Pretty obvious I know, but when I look back to some of the things I worked on early in my career I’m struck with the feeling of “what made me think that was a good idea?” I wish someone had told me to talk less and listen more a bit sooner.
  2. Good product design is more about what you leave out than what you include. Of course there are a catalog of quotes from the brilliant Steve Jobs and others which boil down, more or less, to the above, but sometimes it’s hard for a technologist at heart like me to accept that ultimately, the technology doesn’t matter — it’s what it does that counts. And the simpler and clearer the way it does it, the better.
  3. If you’re lucky enough to lead people, remember that they don’t work for you, you work for them and it’s your job to help them deal with uncertainty better so they can succeed. My first leadership position was characterized by me seeing things only from my point of view and transferring all the pressure I was under directly to those who worked as part of the team (without filter), instead of spending time finding out what people wanted to achieve in their careers and how to enable them. It took a few more years before I was really ready to take on the responsibility of leadership and, more importantly, to focus on the needs of those I was fortunate enough to work for.
  4. Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out. Earlier in my career, I felt that any problem could be solved rapidly by simply applying brute intellectual force and I really struggled with things that didn’t follow that seemingly simple rule. I wish someone had told me to relax a bit and have confidence in my ability to figure stuff out. I actually learned this through an experience working with an incredibly talented junior consultant on a very challenging project in Sweden who came to me in a panic one night facing a true time crunch. Knowing just how smart he was I knew he’d tried everything possible, but I told him to relax, to take some time and think through the problem and that he would be able to solve it. It seemed an obvious thing to say though it was only quite recently that he told me that the experience was a defining moment for him and one he often thought of when facing a difficult challenge. It was very humbling to realize that someone I hold in such high regard took such meaning from what I said to him once.
  5. Never lose focus on what is really important in life. Saving the most important lesson for last — this is something I dearly wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career. Had they done so I would not have agreed to postpone my first honeymoon for work-related reasons. It was only in hindsight I realized this after the sudden death of my first wife from a catastrophic asthma attack in 2004. As I tell my two children (from my second marriage), never lose focus on what matters in life — money may buy you things that you want, but it can never buy you what you need in life, like more time with the ones you love. It was a hard lesson.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Rather than necessarily inspiring a new movement, I choose to throw any weight I have to support the global movement in addressing the systemic inequality that exists in our world for people of color. Racism and discrimination is a blight to humanity, and holds us back from being everything we can be as one human race. It’s all of our responsibilities to do anything in our power that we can to address those issues.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Never assume that you are right about something, no matter how carefully crafted your plan or seemingly brilliant your idea. Always look for ways and explore insights to understand how you might be wrong and, most importantly, how to do something about it quickly.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

If I could capture the attention of some of your VC’s for a moment I would encourage them to look at some of the amazing work people are doing with LoRa and the LoRaWAN protocol. There are some potential future billion dollar businesses out there waiting to be discovered.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/alistairfulton and on Twitter (@alistairfulton)

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