…Over one-third of a nurse’s time is spent doing things other than caring for patients and these “distractions” are addressable with this new computing paradigm — patient documentation, sharing knowledge from one shift to the next, etc. We can return time to that nurse and help him or her get back to their core mission of caring for patients.
The telephone totally revolutionized the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on…What’s next? What’s just around the corner?
In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Bianculli. He serves as the Chief Technology Officer of Zebra Technologies. In this role, Mr. Bianculli is responsible for the exploration of emerging opportunities, coordinating with product teams on advanced product development and Internet of Things (IoT) initiatives. The chief technology office is comprised of engineering, business, customer research and design functions. Mr. Bianculli began his career in the tech industry at Symbol Technologies, Inc. (later acquired by Motorola) in 1994 as part of the data capture solutions business. In the following years, he held positions of increased responsibility including architectural and director of engineering roles. Mr. Bianculli has been granted over 20 U.S. patents and is a Zebra Distinguished Innovator and Science Advisory Board associate. Bianculli holds bachelor of science and master of science degrees in electrical engineering from Polytechnic University, NYU and serves on the board of directors for the School of Engineering at the New York Institute of Technology.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have always had a passion for technology and how it can be used to improve our experiences — our social experiences, our work experiences and for the betterment of society overall. I’ve been curious about that from a very young age, inspired by my father who was an inventor and computer programmer in the early days of that field. As a result, I was fortunate to have access to technology, computers and very early forms of the Internet as a kid. I can recall doing some simple programming and using “dial-up” modems when I was about 10 years old — it was early days for consumer computer connectivity but really fascinating and rapidly evolving. I studied engineering in college and had the opportunity to work with the F-14 aircraft team at Grumman Aircraft Systems over two summers. After college, I joined Symbol Technologies in the mid-1990s and worked in the data capture field — barcode and identification technology that helps track and trace goods through the supply chain, right up to the point of purchase where items are scanned at a checkout lane in a retail store. I went on to work on various engineering programs and run part of the organization’s engineering team after spending some time pursuing digital camera technology as an alternate to laser-based systems for reading barcodes. Symbol Technologies was acquired by Motorola in 2007 and at that time I went to work in the Chief Technology Office on various technologies and enterprise computing products until 2014. In 2014, Motorola Solutions’ Enterprise business was acquired by Zebra Technologies and in 2016 I was named Zebra’s Chief Technology Officer, which is my current role. I am honored to work with an amazing team that assists in our product and solutions portfolio planning, advanced technology development and advancing our vision of Enterprise Asset Intelligence, which is when every asset and worker on the edge is visible, connected and fully optimized.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
TB: One of the more interesting opportunities that came with an even more interesting set of learnings occurred when I took an assignment while at Symbol Technologies to work at Olympus Optical Company in Japan in 1998 who was a strategic partner of ours at that time. Olympus launched its first mainstream digital camera series right around that time and it had 0.3megapixels. As a point of comparison, just about everybody is carrying around 10megapixels-plus in their mobile phones today. It was interesting to witness the early days of the conversion to digital media. Looking back, it was so obvious that this was the future but it wasn’t easy to see that from a business perspective when you were in the moment and seeing the vast majority of camera sales still coming from legacy film while overpriced digital cameras were generating grainy low-resolution pictures. The first lesson during this time was to embrace the obvious and inevitable then build and race to it because once you are sure it is the future the downside to moving fast and investing early is zero. The upside is taking share in the market and gaining foundational intellectual property before others get moving.
During this time, I lived and worked in Japan, commuting by train to the office each day and working in a very open environment with a group of engineers in a pooled desk area with minimal external communication. It took some getting used to but the cultural symbiotic relationship between focus on the tasks at hand and respect in the form of quietness for those doing the same around you became almost a zen-like boost to personal productivity while at the same time being very much in a group setting. It was a key part of the Japanese corporate culture at the time and was unlike anything I experienced before. I learned quite a bit from that work experience and here’s the interesting part — I actually had reverse culture shock — which is a real thing. Coming back home and into a typical U.S. corporate environment was somewhat frustrating in the beginning and took some time to get used to. The second lesson during this time was to observe, listen and consider the culture you are in. Be open minded, adopt new ways of thinking and behaving that can help bridge behaviors and beliefs with productivity and relationships. I had not thought so overtly about cultures until this experience and it was a lesson that stuck with me and has served me well throughout my career.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
TB: Yes, it is a quote from Calvin Coolidge. “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
My parents, especially my father, was a big believer in persistence. He kept this quote in a frame on his desk and throughout my career I’ve witnessed and experienced the power of both persistence and passion. I would say more than anything else the true meaning behind those qualities has created more differentiated successes than just about any other qualities. By true meaning, I mean being persistent also comes with a healthy dose of humility and self-awareness, realizing where your strengths are and where you need to lead or collaborate with others to get to a desired outcome. Most people that really embody persistence and passion in a given field or subject have a tendency to not only succeed but they make those around them better and inspire like-minded individuals to give more than they thought they could to get to an outcome. It’s interesting how persistent and passionate teams can almost “will” their way to success often times in the face of doubt by others. As Steve Jobs said, “The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
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?
TB: Certainly my parents would be at the top of that list, leading by example, teaching me uncountable lessons and challenging me when it could have been easier to hand me the answer or solve one of my problems themselves. They were both extremely committed to our family and just so pragmatic and caring in how they managed things. The mutual interest my father and I had in computing and technology was something that afforded me an unusual advantage as I had access to many aspects of computing technology as early as I can remember. My father had no college degree and actually served in World War II as a radio operator before landing a job at RCA and then starting several of his own businesses one of which he co-founded and ended up being a pioneer in store and forward communications for financial exchanges and transportation networks. I recall accompanying him to his office at 5 Penn Plaza in Manhattan on weekends and getting exposure to how the business operated, how the technology worked and how he went about solving various challenges. It was one of those situations where you’re learning a whole bunch of stuff but don’t even realize it at the time. Looking back, that had a major impact on my interests and how I pursued those interests in college and beyond. I think the takeaway is the importance of finding a way to expose young people to different careers, opportunities and passions and then immersing them early in the ones that most interest them because their passion will take them a long way at a young age. Typically, we have this long build up through our childhood to college and then into a particular field or career but getting that exposure and finding that passion early is just a great way to start even if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing because your interest and thirst to learn will propel you forward. While it was an opportunity I certainly didn’t deserve, it is one that I’ll always be thankful to have had.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
TB: One of the most rewarding things about our work here at Zebra is the WHY behind what we do each day. We innovate not for the sake of technology but to help those on the front line of business get their job done; be the best they can be to reach their full potential; and serve their customers in the best way possible. We ultimately use technology and our innovative team to empower those at the front line whether that be retail sales associates helping their customers find the right products, delivery drivers completing their routes faster and more efficiently or helping healthcare workers ensure they administer the right medications, in the right way to the right patients. It’s pretty cool to develop and work on technologies and solutions that are in service of helping others get their job done. So, that’s one way the entire team at Zebra brings goodness to the world — and it’s fun to watch. Beyond that I’ve looked to leverage my knowledge and experience in places where it can make a difference in education and the interest young people have in pursuing their passions. I participate on the Board of the School of Engineering for New York Institute of Technology as well as the STEM Advisory Board for Saint Anthony’s High School here in Long Island. Both have been great ways to contribute to education and STEM awareness, particularly among young woman, as they consider their careers and passions. It has also helped me personally to learn from a new generation of educators and students while remaining close to the evolving educational landscape.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the cutting edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
TB: Zebra’s focus has been on enabling enterprise communication and collaboration. Of course, this includes using our Android-based mobile devices deployed in the hands of front-line workers to securely communicate using text, images, video and voice. That is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to person-to-person communications, we see the opportunity for person-to-machine and perhaps most profound machine-to-person communication being the most impactful and scalable over time. You have to consider — what if the future of computing interaction was not initiated by the user but by the computer? More than 90% of our interactions with machines is initiated by the user or the human, which provides tremendous value but is limited in so many ways. First, you have to know what it is you should even be querying for or trying to resolve. We see great opportunities in the future of enterprise communications, particularly for the front-line worker, where the machine initiates the interaction when there is enough context and collective intelligence to tee-up the information or the decision the worker needs before they even ask. The future of communication is using massive amounts of data and low-cost computing to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to learn from that data and then mobilize the right information, knowledge or decision to the right person at the right time. This allows individuals to focus on what they were hired to do — care for patients, serve customers, deliver the package — while the technology guides and assists them seamlessly along the way helping them to be their very best. That’s where communication is going and like my story above on the digital camera space — we’re embracing the obvious and racing toward it because that’s the future of not just communication but computing. The next-gen user interface for computing will be turned around; it won’t be us figuring out how best to interact with devices but how those devices will best interact with us.
How do you think this might change the world?
TB: At its core, this changes the world because it truly allows those pursuing their passions to focus on their craft. It removes the extraneous noise, the friction in getting a job done and allows people to spend time with people, immersing themselves in their talents as opposed to navigating obstacles out of the way. It has the potential to make every worker as good as the best worker which has a profound impact on macro productivity for the economy allowing us to get more done and ultimately serving more people. As an example, over one-third of a nurse’s time is spent doing things other than caring for patients and these “distractions” are addressable with this new computing paradigm — patient documentation, sharing knowledge from one shift to the next, etc. We can return time to that nurse and help him or her get back to their core mission of caring for patients.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
TB: In an enterprise context, many of the potential drawbacks associated with an over-reliance on automated decision making can and will be mitigated through human organizational structure. The store manager or regional or district manager can spend more time focusing on decision quality, monitoring and auditing to refine and modulate the level of automation for a given operation. With that said, the general notion that unintended biases can be “learned” by an AI/machine learning (ML) engine is an emerging area of consideration. Ethical principles in ML and AI are already an area of considerable focus. If more decisions are made by these systems then the need to understand various dimensions of them including fairness, accuracy, accountability and transparency all become important. The good news is that standards and ways of measuring these characteristics of a machine learned model are already well underway and this is a topic that will continue to advance in maturity and measurability as these systems evolve.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
TB: I’m not sure it is so much of a “tipping point” as it is considering a number of factors and what is also rapidly becoming possible. I’d think of it as more the intersection between what is valuable to the market and what is becoming increasingly possible from a technology perspective. Given supply chain challenges, the proliferation of fulfilment models, labor challenges in select segments of the economy, expectations of ‘digital natives’ in the way they get work done — those all point to a need and an imperative by businesses to streamline communications and actions. At the same time, we’re sitting on massive amounts of data that can help automate decision making and the dispatching of actions with advancements in cloud compute and analytics capabilities to cost-effectively implement such solutions. When you look at the total sum of those dynamics it becomes really clear it is not an “if” but honing the “when” a bit more precisely to intersect that vision with the market in an optimal way.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
TB: Simplicity. Simplicity in every sense, simplifying what it takes to get started, integration, deployment, end-user simplicity of use and their recognition of benefit. Widespread adoption is rarely the result of having the most capable offering or solution, so while that’s important it is not sufficient. There are many examples throughout history where arguably one provider had the far superior solution but the mass adoption of the same concept went to another provider altogether. The impact of simplicity in driving mass adoption is often underestimated and it’s not something those close to new offerings often focus on because they are so consumed with implementing functionality. To get to widespread adoption there definitely needs to be some solid functionality and capabilities but equally important is the need for it to work with very little effort on the part of the economic buyer and end-user. This is especially true with enterprise applications where end-user feedback plays a major role in promoting adoption and the complexity of deployment is directly proportional to the buyer’s or partner’s risk. If it is simple to deploy then it is easier to create a go-to-market channel and if it is easier to deploy and get to initial benefits then that buyer can get a win in their organization more quickly. If it is easy to use then employees that interact with it every day will become your greatest advocates. So, we’re really focused on investing in this simplicity, the experience and functionality because we know the adoption will follow. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive but making something easy to use or deploy is really quite complex and time-consuming from a development and skillset perspective. This is true of most things, but perhaps the mathematician Blaise Pascal said it best when he closed a letter to a colleague of his stating, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?
TB: First, I have to adjust the question — these aren’t “my” innovations, they are the collective work of a great community of people that make up our company. I’m fortunate to represent just a small sampling of that culture and innovation here. One of the profound impacts of the pandemic across industries has been the adoption of “digital touchless interactions” in grocery stores, healthcare visits and the way various services are being provided to consumers. The impact of digital touchless interactions has put quite a bit of burden on workers within these industries. In 2020, we saw curbside pickup go from being offered by about 7% of retailers to being offered by more than 50% of retailers. That means those retailers and the workers employed by them need to do a job that we as consumers would normally be doing — shopping, picking our groceries, placing them in a cart and checking out. In a buy online, pickup curbside scenario the retailer has to bear that burden which trickles down to the retail worker. While this is a retail example, it extends across most industries — more burden is being placed on the provider of the goods or services then before as the world embraces digital touchless interactions. By helping those front-line workers more effectively communicate with each other and the systems that direct the work they need to complete, we help lower the weight of that burden. If we can make picking those groceries for an order 20% more efficient that directly impacts the quality of that worker’s experience, the bottom-line profitability of their employer and the ability for our economy to support these modalities at cost points that boost convenience while promoting safe interactions. It’s really a win across the board. The other exciting thing about this is that we are digitizing the workflow. We can see when that order started to be picked, when it is anticipated to complete, when it is ready for pick-up, etc. That visibility comes for free because it is being collected as the work is being done by the mobile computer the worker is using. All of that visibility helps create an engaging conversation with the end-customer, informing them of status and when pickup is ready. This customer engagement model of “conversational commerce” is key to meeting consumers’ expectations for products and services they interact with to have a digital voice. If you can see when your Domino’s pizza went in the oven, what temperature it is being cooked at and when it’s on its way to your doorstep then that becomes a norm by which other digital interactions will be measured. If you can get that much visibility on a pizza order then why not on your groceries or even more critically a healthcare service?
Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Take Risk: Failure is an option
We’re taught from a very early age the difference between winning and losing and succeeding and failing and that gets ingrained in many of us, often resulting in an overabundance of risk aversion. I think this is especially true early in one’s career, when many times the fear of failing or taking on a risk is avoided when that is the best time to do so. The downside is very often nothing more than a solid life-learning and the upside is succeeding in the endeavor that was initially thought to be risky. The collection of these learnings and successes early in your career compound in value as you embark on your journey. Over the years, they connect and add up — like compound interest — in ways that are impossible to predict or anticipate so getting as many of these learnings and successes as early as possible is really important — even if it is outside your comfort zone. There’s another element of this that applies to advancing a new idea, product or solution. It is the concept of “front-loading risk” where you take the riskiest element of a new concept and pull it all the way forward. Figure out what can be done to mitigate or eliminate that risk as the first priority — maybe it’s customer feedback, or some simple prototype that tests feasibility. Whatever it is, pull it forward and address it and if you find you can’t resolve that risk then you’ve spent minimal time and resources to discover something new. This may sound obvious but often times a new concept is so exciting or interesting that we lose the connection to what the biggest factors are in determining its success and defer those to later in the development of the concept. At that point, you may have spent significant time and resources only to discover that the risk you could have addressed much earlier is a potential show-stopper. So, embrace the risk, pull it forward and realize failure is an option especially if you fail fast — nothing has ever been discovered or invented without some variation of failing — so get it out of the way first.
2. Always Build Relationships: They are what matter
Generally speaking, people like to help each other and no matter how much you know on any given topic, there’s someone that almost certainly knows more. The collective of that is an amazing network of support, diversity of backgrounds and perspectives and a wealth of knowledge that can bring you both value and insight. Build your network, be curious, and engage meaningfully with those you interact with. This comes much more easily to some than others. Personally, I hadn’t thought about this much early in my career. I formed great relationships but I didn’t necessarily seek them out and I didn’t stop and think about who would be the best person to consult or ask for help in a given situation even if I didn’t have a relationship with that individual. The very act of asking for help can actually be the start of a great relationship. When Steve Jobs was in high school, he picked up the phone and called Hewlett-Packard’s co-founder Bill Hewlett to ask for some electronic parts for a project he was working on. After a hearty chuckle, Bill Hewlett provided the spare parts to Steve Jobs and later offered him an internship at HP. Later in life, Jobs went on to use this as an example of how powerful it can be to simply ask for help, even asking those you may not have a relationship with can be the genesis for a lifelong engagement. In Malcolm Gladwells’s book, the “Tipping Point” he discusses three different archetypes of people: mavens, connectors and salespeople. Check it out if you haven’t already and pay special attention to the ”connector” category and you’ll see what I mean.
3. Listen: The reward is wisdom
The people that think they are the smartest in the room are the ones who often talk the most but I’ve found the ones who actually are the smartest in the room are usually those that talk the least. They are good listeners and it takes practice to be a good listener. My experience has been that good listening has many layers of depth to it. I wish I could have gained insight into some of those layers earlier in my career when I had thought to myself, I am a good listener because I’m engaged, focused on what the person or team is saying and I’m hearing everything. In fact I can recite many aspects of the conversation nearly verbatim so what better measure of being a good listener could there be? Well, I was wrong. Sure, listening requires hearing and processing what is being said but what I learned much later than I would have liked is that really good listening is not just hearing and capturing what is being said but identifying what someone or some group is “telling” you or trying to tell you. It’s uncovering the intent and challenge behind the words being spoken and responding in a way that doesn’t answer a question but creates introspection on the behalf of the person asking the question. Sometimes it’s answering someone’s question with another question that helps them navigate on their own to the answer or gives them a nugget that results in another way of thinking about a problem. It’s connecting multiple conversations over time into a collective and understanding what that collective is telling you about a person or a topic. Good listening is a journey and one that makes both the one that is doing the listening and the one doing the talking better. Mark Twain nailed it when he said, “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would rather have talked.”
4. Focus on the Experience: Even in a single sale there is more than one customer
Build amazing things — but always start with the customer and their journey. It’s certainly not a new insight to say that maniacal focus on your customer is a key success factor. What I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for is that the experience customers have is what matters most. Jef Raskin once said, “As far as the customer is concerned, the interface is the product” and I think that is very accurate. In addition, there is a whole sequence of customers to consider in the chain — from your internal customer (your own sales team), to potential partners or integrators that will help you scale then there’s the economic buyer and the end-user. Each one of these customers is having an experience with your product and brand along the way and the quality of that experience is directly proportional to how much time and promotion each will provide in making that product successful. Starting with that experience and working backward through the technology stack, implementation and development is all too often overlooked or worse yet implemented in the reverse order where the experience gets short shrift. Being very deliberate about the experience for each of those customers is key. Is it easy to sell and easy to deploy? Is it easy to measure benefits? Is it easy to use? What do I mean by easy? If you look at each of those personas has the experience been simplified to its core value propositions and built in a way that automates the flow to get at that value. It takes real development and work to get to maximum simplification where you can unlock the value to each persona as quickly and painlessly as possible.
5. Start with First Principles: Question assumptions
First principles thinking is the practice of questioning every assumption you “think” you know about a given problem and thinking through the solution to the challenge from the ground up. Often times we believe we are thinking from first principles but are really still operating on some set of assumptions. This skill is rare and becoming increasingly important as a differentiator because the rate at which the art of possible is evolving has never been faster. An example of this type of thinking that was demonstrated by some innovative team members at Zebra had to do with the need to create a novel shape, weight and durability combination for one of our products. It was determined that the desired combination of those three parameters could not be achieved. Well, why not? One of the materials being used could not be produced in the shape required using modern molding techniques. It was just not possible to mold it that way. Well, that assumed the way things are molded is a first principle, which it is not. What about the molding process was preventing it from happening and could that challenge be overcome? The team went back to first principles and discovered if the part were 3D printed then the limitation of the legacy molding process could be overcome and the problem solved. There is so much innovation and technology rapidly developing that if you’re not thinking first principles then you can easily get stuck or out-innovated in navigating toward your problem’s solution. One of the most famous examples of this thinking is Elon Musk’s SpaceX endeavor. Musk was focused on reducing the cost of getting satellites launched into space by a factor of ten but this could only be achieved if the rocket could be reusable. Taking it down to first principles, SpaceX invented the world’s first recyclable rocket — manufacturing techniques, navigation, control systems all had their assumptive baggage thrown away and each of those were reconsidered with a first principles approach around reusability. Many experts said the idea of a reusable rocket was an impossibility, but they were basing that view on learned assumptions and not first principles. This is applicable not just to technology but business models and service models as well. So, forget what you know and get down to first principles to out-innovate your competition and achieve outcomes your colleagues might at first think are impossible.
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?
TB: If you “think big” on that question it begs another question. What outcome would have the most profound impact on the most amount of people? When you look at that question on a global scale it would really be an outcome that would embrace every life being treated with equal value — equal opportunity for health, education and the skills needed to lead a fruitful life. There are entire foundations and massive resources aimed at precisely that outcome. But all of those resources are typically driven by large philanthropic foundations in a top-down type fashion. “Micro-versions” of helping each other actually are not top-down at all; they are peer-to-peer. You know someone or have a relationship with someone and help that person because of that connection or relationship and what you know about their circumstances. That help is real quality help — it’s not just monetary, it’s advice, mentorship, leading by example, sharing — things that remain long after dollars are spent. I’m curious if we can leverage our modern technology, social platforms, ubiquitous connectivity to try and tackle this problem by scaling up that “micro-version”. A movement that embraces a platform that could create a connective fabric across geographical and demographic boundaries not for the purpose of sharing the latest trendy post or what a celebrity ate for dinner last night but for the purpose of democratizing empathy and virtual versions of those micro-interactions that bring out the best in humanity to help others. If there is one common denominator among all the communication technology developed over the last few decades, it is that it has made the world a smaller place. If you take that advancement further and consider how we could make the connections across geographies as tight-knit as the ones in our local communities or even our own extended families — how would that move us toward the most amount of good to the most amount of people? I think it could be profound and would bring real and much deeper meaning to the term “social network”. What would that look like? How would we create enough emotional connection through such a platform to inspire the “bottom up” behavior that could augment or even replace the top-down foundation approach? What is the right mix of centralized philanthropic investment with crowd-sourced human connection and relationships enabled by the platform? So, I’ll end this one with more questions than answers but if I could inspire a movement or perhaps more humbly a social experiment around this concept, I think it would be a really worthy endeavor.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.