Carl works in our Product Management team. When he’s not busy engaging with customers and working with multiple departments on different projects, he’s always hitting the streets and taking his training runs very seriously. Carl’s enthusiasm and focus on his training very much interconnects with how he works on projects here at Rethink Robotics.
As a Director of Software Product Management here at Rethink, how would you describe your role?
My role is primarily a business function where I have to make sure that whatever we’re building is solving a customer problem, that it is solving it in a way that they desire for it to be solved, and that they’re willing to pay for that solution. I interact with customers a lot.
I also interact with engineering to make sure that it’s a problem that we can solve and that we have the technology to solve it. I work with UX (our user experience team) to make sure that it is a pleasure to use our product, and I work with finance to make sure that whatever we’re charging for the product is the right price. It’s a very multidisciplinary role. What’s fun about it is that I get to work with pretty much everyone in the company and I get to make products that people really enjoy using.
You’ve had extensive experience in various aspects of manufacturing across many industries. Just to name a few, you’ve been a manufacturing engineer, a product manager, and even owned your own manufacturing and consulting business (Palme Precision Machining). Do you feel like these experiences help you relate to manufacturing customers and their challenges, and if so, how?
I owned a small company where we had a lot of high-mix, low-volume type of operations where the only way to stay competitive was to try to automate as much as possible. At the time when I had my own company you could only find industrial robots and they really did not cater to our needs because they were too difficult to program, you had to have them in a fixed location and they didn’t deal well with variability. Industrial machines are so expensive and because we wanted them to run even when people were not at work, we invested a lot in automation. We hired a lot of engineers and essentially that is what inspired me to work for Rethink because one of the things that would’ve helped me tremendously was having a tool like Sawyer.
Having worked in manufacturing, I can relate to our customers and understand their problems. I think that when you talk to these customers and you don’t have the credibility then it’s more difficult to extract actionable information from them. One of the things that I love about my job is that you get to meet a lot of customers and you get to hear a lot of the problems that they want to solve. You also get to see how so many things are made, and I love that!
What was one of the most difficult problems you had to solve from a customer?
One of the most difficult things that I had happen at Rethink was very early on when we first deployed Baxter at a customer site. We had a theory for how the robot should work and then when we went to test it with customers it was not meeting their expectations. It wasn’t doing the job, it was too slow, it was very limited in its functionality. So, when I started at the company I worked a lot with support doing the first deployments. It was difficult because you’re proud of the product you’re building and you go out to the field and then people don’t like it. On the other hand, you’re meeting people who are willing to work with you to try to make it better. So, by working with them, doing the first deployments, it gave us a lot of insight into what it was that we had to focus on fixing. Essentially everything we learned from those initial deployments is what led to Intera 5 and Sawyer. So, in a way, struggling through the first product that we made enabled us to create the world transforming products we make today.
What do you think are benefits of having a cobot in a manufacturing environment?
When a cobot is used correctly, it provides you tremendous flexibility because you can have the robot do the repetitive, mundane tasks that are very boring for operators but yet are critical to the operation. So you can retain your employees for a lot longer because you’re giving them value added tasks and not the boring type of tasks. Also, at the same time, you’re getting a lot more consistency in the product that you’re building. You can also automate very quickly – as fast as one day. It gives you a lot of flexibility, as well as an ability to quote for bigger jobs, and it can also lead to better employee retention.
You’ve been a product manager for most of your career. What is one of the most important things to keep in mind when bringing a product to life?
There’s a philosophy in Product Management that I like to call NIHITO and it stands for “nothing important happens in the office.” That’s super important because, again going back to the Baxter and Intera example, we would not have learned about what was important to our customers had we stayed in the office. You really have to go visit your customers, you have to visit as many customers as you can, you have to be in their environment, and just be in constant customer contact. It’s difficult because sometimes you’ll meet customers who will love your product, but you know that you can’t just design for them. You have to find the people who will hate your product in order to improve upon it. But overall, in order to make a really good product, you always have to be in the field. Nothing beats meeting a customer face to face.
Any other gems to add?
I always ask, “what is the problem we’re trying to solve?” because I think people, especially in very innovative companies, can lose focus pretty quickly. And without understanding the problem that you’re trying to solve very well, it’s very easy to get distracted. So, I think at a small, fast-paced, innovative company, understanding the problem you’re trying to solve, and always asking that question helps focus people on working towards a right solution.
We have another runner in the house! It seems like the kitchen talk has been a lot about your training lately. What are some races on your docket for the summer and which one are you anxious or excited for most?
In September, I’ll be doing the Portland Maine Marathon. I’ve never finished a marathon before (I tried once and got injured during the race.) Training right now for the Portland Marathon is difficult because it’s hot and humid. It’s just horrible. But this whole running thing started from the Ragnar Relay Series which is a 200ish mile team relay. It’s a fun race that I encourage everyone to try (I’ve done it three years in a row). The reason I like Ragnar is because it’s really a test of your endurance. It also is a test of the friends you keep because you’re stuck in a van, you’re not sleeping, you run then get in a van, you go to the next spot then somebody else runs and then you go to the van and so on and so forth. So there’s a lot of planning involved. It’s also a spiritual experience. You’re running out in the middle of nowhere in the dark exhausted and it’s like “alright, I’m doing this and I’m not dead. This is good stuff”.