In this episode of the IoT Product Leadership podcast, we go behind the scenes of Microsoft Azure IoT.
My guest today is Sam George, Director of Azure IoT. Sam shares his strategy for market research and his approach for understanding the needs of dissimilar users across a big horizontal space and across many verticals.
Azure IoT has become one of the leading IoT Platforms in the market, so I’m very excited to go behind the scenes and talk to Sam about his approach and experience leading the Azure IoT team.
Sam also shares his advice on how to align your organization behind your product vision and strategy. Whether you are building end-to-end products or IoT platforms, this episode will provide you with actionable insights on what it takes to create and scale great IoT products. You don’t want to miss this insightful episode!
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Episode details: Behind the Scenes of Microsoft Azure IoT
“A driving force of ours over several years now has been on simplifying IoT. Making it so that it is broadly available and consumable by our enterprise customers.” – Sam George
About Sam George:
Sam George is the Director of Microsoft Azure IoT Engineering Team on the Program Management side, delivering a broad portfolio of features and capabilities that help our customers and partners realize the full potential of the Internet of Things.
He is responsible for Microsoft IoT Central, Azure IoT Suite, Azure IoT Edge, Azure IoT Hub, Azure IoT Device Provisioning Service, our IoT Device SDK, the Microsoft Connected Vehicle Platform and more.
An accomplished industry leader, Sam’s contributions during his 18-year tenure at Microsoft include impact on a number of technologies including video, smartphone, PC and cloud services.
Topics we discuss in this episode:
- Sam shares his background and about Microsoft.
- We go behind the scenes of Microsoft Azure IoT and Sam’s philosophy to IoT solutions.
- How to research a roadmap to satisfy the needs of diverse customers in different verticals and applications.
- Keeping alignment with the overall product vision and strategy when you are responsible for a large portfolio of IoT products.
- How to ensure your roadmap and all development activities in the IoT platform space lead to differentiation in the market.
- Providing strong Developer Experiences across the end-to-end platform when your customers are developers, VARs, and system integrators.
- What to look for when hiring Product Managers for your IoT teams.
- Advice for Product Leaders who are new to developing IoT solutions.
To learn more about Sam and Microsoft Azure IoT:
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Read the Full Interview: Behind the Scenes of Microsoft Azure IoT
Sam: A driving force of ours over several years now has been on simplifying IT, making it so that it is broadly available and consumable by our enterprise customers.
Daniel: Welcome to episode number 15 of IoT Product Leadership, a podcast featuring in-depth conversations with product leaders on what it takes to build great IoT products. I’m your host, Daniel Elizalde. I have a very insightful episode for you today. My guest is Sam George, Direct of Program Management for Azure IoT at Microsoft. Azure IoT has become one of the leading IoT platforms in the market, so I’m very excited to go behind the scenes and talk to Sam about his approach and experience leading the Azure IoT team.
Daniel: In this episode, Sam shares his strategy for market research and his approach for understanding the needs of the similar users across a big, horizontal space and across many verticals. Sam also shares his advice on how to align your organization behind your product vision and strategy.
Whether you’re building end-to-end products or IoT platforms, this episode will provide you with actionable insights on what it takes to create and scale great IoT products. To learn more about Sam, about Azure IoT and to access the resources mentioned in this episode, visit iotproductleadership.com. You will find the show notes for all episodes including this one.
Daniel: Hi, Sam. Thank you so much for being in the show. I’m very excited to have this conversation with you.
Sam: Thanks for having me.
Daniel: I want to start by learning a little bit more about yourself. Could you share about your background, yourself and how you got to be where you are today?
Sam: Sounds great. My name is Sam George. I lead Azure IoT for Microsoft. I’ve been in Microsoft for about 21 years, and my background is a little bit of an interesting one. I’m self-taught, no formal degree. I’ve taught myself to code at a job very early on as a developer at Microsoft and spent about half my career doing that before I switched to program management, and so I’ve been on both sides of the engineering equation.
Then, for the last about 10 years now, I’ve been in program management leadership roles. That’s a little bit about my background, and somewhere around one-half or so years ago, came over to Azure. It was right when we were starting to look into IoT, and so my manager at the time asked me to look in and see what we should be doing from an Azure point of view.
Daniel: That’s really an interesting background, a very unusual way to get into this position. Just for clarification, product management, and program management in Microsoft, I think they are the same thing, right?
Sam: Very similar, yes.
In fact, we don’t have a product manager role. We just call those program managers, but for folks outside of Microsoft, it’s very, very similar to product management.
Daniel: Yes, that’s good to know. I want to ask you a little bit more about the work that you’re doing and to learn more about Microsoft, Azure IoT and your philosophy, overall, towards IoT solutions.
Sam: The first thing that we did is, we took a step back and we said, “What’s interesting about this space for customers? Why would a customer care about the internet of things? Why would they connect devices? What do they seek from it?” We were very fortunate because very early on, there was a tremendous amount of interest. Microsoft is a large company, and so we talked to a lot of customers, and so in our first six months, as we were putting together what we were going to d, we spent the majority of the time talking to customers.
What it did was, it gave us a great grounding in terms of not only what they wanted to get out of it but what some of the challenges that they were facing were, what they saw themselves evolving into, what they aspired to do. What we wound up learning was that an IoT solution is really composed of a few things. There are things that you’re monitoring. That’s what IoT is really different with, right?
Sam: It gives you the ability to monitor products and physical assets in real-time and then knows things about them at a velocity that wasn’t possible before, to find insights from those things and then to be able to make informed actions based on those insights. The kind of things that we heard customers asking about was, “I want to know when my assets or products are operational, when they’ve gone into a location or left a location, how they’re performing when it’s time to service them, whether they’re in on optimal state.” Then, what we did is, we set about looking across all of Azure and the Microsoft cloud capabilities and finding out what was missing. Then, we set out on a journey to go about building those.
Sam: Now, in the year since, we built up a huge portfolio of some really significant services that forms as a service, edge-computing, auto-device processing but also things like solution accelerators that should make a quick, started very, very quickly. We even now have a SaaS offering for IoT.
What we found is that since we are very much an enterprise-focused cloud is that it was very important for us to be able to meet customers where they were from a technical competency point of view. What we found was that a lot of customers, while they were phenomenal at their specific lines of work, whether that was manufacturing assets or building elevators or producing cars, that they were still struggling on how they would take advantage of the solution.
Sam: A driving force of ours over several years now has been on simplifying IoT, making it so that it is broadly, broadly available and consumable by our enterprise customers. What that has translated into is very, very, very easy to use IoT products like our Azure IoT Central Offering which is a SaaS offering where it takes about 15 seconds to provision an IoT application.
It takes about a minute to connect the device, and you can actually be in production in under a day, well without writing code in the cloud. That drive and force, that drive for simplification, we found, is really, really resonated, really resonated well with our customers.
Daniel: That is really an interesting philosophy overall because the challenge that so many companies face is that they don’t want to focus on the technicality of the solution but more about the business proposition and how they can provide value. It’s really interesting for you to be able to provide that ability and make it easier for them to just adapt their current processes and just be able to deploy the devices very quickly and take advantage of these new business models. That’s a really interesting approach.
I want to ask you, as a platform, Azure IoT covers many industries including manufacturing and retail, healthcare, smart cities just to name a few. It’s a horizontal approach to enabling your enterprise customers, as you mentioned. I really liked your discussion about focusing and understanding what your users are telling you. What is your approach to understanding those users? The user research and road mapping so you can satisfy such a broad spectrum of customers in so many different verticals and different applications?
Sam: The first thing that we did, which was one of the best decisions that we made early on is, we decided that instead of trying to focus on every single IoT market segment out there, we were going to narrow it on a few. We really took a look at it from a point of view of where is Microsoft’s strengths? Where is our strength as a cloud? What are the valuable market segments that we could tap into and really help customers in?
Sam: We identified a small set of market segments, manufacturing being a big one, industrial IoT. What we did is, we were very fortunate because we’ve had a close relationship in manufacturing and many of the market segments that we initially focused on from our years of developing operating systems for those industries. Microsoft has been selling Windows and Windows embedded into manufacturing for decades, and so we had a lot of these relationships already in several of the beachheads … We call them the beachhead market segments that we started on.
Sam: Like I mentioned at the beginning, we benefited from the fact that there was so much interest in what is IoT, and so we had customers here at our headquarters. We went and traveled and met with customers. We flew all over the world for six months, and we talked to hundreds of customers and hundreds of partners, and I should also really talk about the partners in IoT which are very, very critical.
We deeply understood their concerns, what they were hoping to get out of IoT, what they were wrestling with, but we did it for just a few market segments and understood those. In the year since, since we’ve established beachheads and a few of those market segments, then it’s enabled us to go much, much quicker into adjacent markets or market segments. What we found is pretty fascinating.
Sam: What we found is that the horizontal or the patterns in IoT, be it predictive maintenance or providing up-time guarantees or process defect detection or product optimization or any of the number of finding track and trays and things like that. They’re really broadly applicable patterns. In a lot of ways, the same patterns that you see when you’re monitoring industrial equipment are the same patterns that you see when you’re doing smart agriculture or smart healthcare.
The patterns are the same. The solutions are just a little different, and so because we spent time in those beachhead market segments, it really prepared us for what do we need to know about the adjacent ones? Then, like I said, we did benefit from the fact that we found a lot of very common patterns that we could apply, and so for example, as we broadened our focus and focused on things like smart agriculture as an example, it’s very easy to have a conversation with agriculture company about predictive maintenance or about resource reduction because resource reduction and smart agriculture looks a lot like asset optimization in smart manufacturing.
Daniel: I think that’s a really interesting observation, and I really like the approach of narrowing down the focus of the research first to a few verticals and then building the patterns. Then, from those patterns, you can extend out again. I think those are very valuable lessons for product leaders that are figuring out their market, and they’re trying to attack too much too soon, right? I like the approach of even such a large company like Microsoft focusing. Then, once you understand a part of your market, then you can move forward.
Sam: You know, it was a great practice, but also, it kept us from getting lost in too many details. IoT is a very, very, very large domain. Most of the product managers that I hire and ramp up, it takes them months to get their head around this space. When we were still figuring out what we were going to do, where we’re going to play, how we’re going to help customers and partners, that was even more of a challenge before there were all these patterns that we knew about. I would encourage product leaders to take a beachhead focus and then expand from there.
Daniel: Yes, that’s very valuable advice. Let’s switch the conversation inwards a little bit. You mentioned a lot about the research you did outwards with customers, which is extremely valuable, but then, in a large organization, it’s also important to make sure that everybody’s aligned, and everybody understands the vision and can move forward with a particular strategy. One thing that is really interesting from your background is that at Microsoft, you’re responsible for a very large portfolio of IoT products.
My question is, how do you ensure everybody across the company remains aligned with the overall product vision and strategy? What is your personal take on that part?
Sam: I’m glad you bring this up. This isn’t a problem every product leader has to deal with, but certainly, a function of the larger the company you exist in, the more of a challenge this becomes. The way I looked at it, and especially in the early years when we were establishing ourselves within the company and in the industry was that I spent equal amounts of time internally with key product leaders, and part of it was just finding out who are the most influential folks in different parts of the company where if I can influence them and help them understand my vision, they can influence their teams.
I spent a bunch of time on internal alignment evangelism, and so did some of my leaders and a lot of paying dividends because what it did was that as we bring products to market, we were getting other Microsoft products that we’re building on up. That was making us better in a way that sometimes, customers don’t. Sometimes, customers are very demanding and rightly should be, but sometimes, they can be a little nice, right? Internal groups typically aren’t.
Daniel: For sure.
Sam: They’ll tell you exactly what they think. The other thing is that a lot of times, internal efforts will stretch you even further because you can pick a set of, and we did this early on. We picked a set of extremely aggressive projects that would drive us and stretch us within the confines of the market segments we were going after. One of those is that Microsoft manufacturing itself uses Azure IoT.
We manufacture products like Surface, and so they’ve been using our products as well to optimize manufacturing for the very devices that we build and sell. What I found was that once we reached a critical mass in terms of finding the right leaders, aligning with them, getting products built on top of us internally that, that started a little bit of a flywheel. We were fortunate because as that was happening, we were picking up momentum in the industry.
Sam: Internally, tech companies, internally, if a team sees that you’re doing well, they’ll just naturally be more inclined to partner with you that if you’re struggling in the market, and so we benefited from our strong market position as well where they just … I had a lot of conversations where leaders in the company would come to me and say, “I’m hearing great things about you in the industry, and I’m not sure what you’re doing, but I’d love to learn more.” Once our flywheel started externally, it helped internal as well.
Daniel: That’s very interesting insights, and I really wanted to emphasize that question because I think that for a lot of product managers and product leaders, we often hear a lot about, “Well, you have to be looking at customers all the time,” and “Nothing good happens inside the building,” as lean start-up would tell us. Things like that, which is partly true, but especially as you get into a leadership position like yourself, there’s a lot of momentum that you have to build internally. That’s part of being a leader internally within your company. That was a really interesting conversation there.
Daniel: We’ll be right back.
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Daniel: Let me switch again the topics a little bit, and let’s talk about the market in general. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that there’s been a growth of offering of IoT platforms, right? The term is vague, but in general, platforms, there are hundreds of them. It could be difficult for companies wanting to enter the IoT space to understand which one is which, or why should they go with one versus the other.
Of course, there’s always the key players like yourself that differentiate, but I want to ask your perspective on that.
From your approach, as a product leader, how do you think about ensuring that your roadmap and all your different development activities lead to a differentiation in the market?
Sam: This is a particular area where if you’re not … Strategies don’t just happen. If you’re not intentional about where are we going to differentiate, it won’t, so there are a couple of different things that we did. One is, we realized very early on, like I said, that we needed a strategy that married not only what we could build and what we could contribute to the IoT industry, but what would play to our strengths as a company and a cloud and what would also have a union with market segments where customers would find value and frankly would be valuable to us as well.
As we looked at, broadly, IoT, we decided pretty early on that while our technology, of course, because we saw these patterns where there are these repeatable things that happen in all market segments.
Sam: While our technology was going to be horizontal, we were going to be more focused on the commercial and enterprise side of IoT than on the consumer side. That’s not to say that we don’t care about consumers. We absolutely do. We have many, many customers that come to us from a consumer IoT, unbuild consumer IoT solutions or companies that build consumer IoT platforms on top of us.
Where we spend our time and focus, we really spent on the industrial IoT, commercial IoT enterprise side. First thing was just identifying that subset. Then, like I said, we pick market segments with them then. The next that we did is, we said, “For that target segments or for that part of the IoT ecosystem, what’s important? What is important to them?” Again, it’s on a customer point of view. What is it that customers in this area of IoT care about?
Sam: There were two things that really stood out. Actually, there was one thing that was invariant. You have to have a very capable IoT platform, different requirements of IoT from connecting to hundreds of millions or billions of devices sending trillions of messages, analytics, business process integration, all of it, left to right. You have to have all of that, but once you do, what we realized is that there were two things that folks tend to care about a lot in the commercial and industrial IoT side. One of those was on premises, and so we aligned our strategy on Azure Stack among many other focuses on IoT.
Sam: As an example, we’re taking our IoT platforms that we built in the cloud. We’re enabling those in Azure Stack so that they can run on premises, entirely disconnected from the cloud because there’s a lot of folks in the commercial and enterprise side that want to do that. We’re a big believer in giving customers what they want, and so that was one of our plan differentiations. So far, that’s held up very well.
Sam: The other one that we’ve placed a big focus on is, I talked about in the very beginning, is this incredible passion that we’ve got around simplifying IoT. It’s easy to get enamored with your own high-scale technical capabilities, and we’ve been fortunate to avoid that.
We look at it from a, “How quickly can we get a customer to production or partner to production for their customers? How much toil can we eliminate for them? How can we make it so that they don’t even need to know about cloud solution development?” We can offer configuration-only solutions in that cloud. That focus on solutions, I mean we really can. We have this capability already now of, “I push a button, and 15 seconds later, I have an IoT solution. I can connect to devices too within a minute.” We have these goals in getting to production in under a day.
Sam: I’d say this focus on premises and then also these rapid, rapid application enablement for IoT are two of our plan differentiations. We’ve been very clear on that with customers and press and the public. What we’re finding is that message really, really resonates in this part of IoT. It might not resonate as much in consumer IoT’s side, but it very much does in commercial and enterprise.
Daniel: Yes, I would agree. That’s what I’ve seen as well that most industrial companies, they don’t want to mess around with the technology. They have other things to worry about, so that ease of deployment becomes very, very important to them.
I want to piggyback on that question because I really like your approach of understanding how your main target audience has this particular requirement about, so-to-speak, an obstruction from the technology layers, right? They don’t care about that part. Microsoft takes care of it. On the other hand though, as a platform, Microsoft has this great history of providing great experiences for developers, because you mentioned at the beginning the partner ecosystem is very important, and a lot of your partners are going to be either developers or value-added resellers or system integrators. You have to focus also on providing the open kimono for them, right?
What is your philosophy for providing a strong developer experience across your platform? How does that balance with the other points that you mentioned?
Sam: Fortunately, this is another one that really played to our strengths. I mean we have a lot of strengths in developers and developer tools, and so while we focused on rapid application development for enterprises, we also have a focus on, as I mentioned, all of these hyper-scale services that we’ve built and on great developer experiences for those. What we found is that developers don’t want to just spend their day welding Azure services together either.
Daniel: Yes, right.
Sam: Yes, right! They want to build something. They want to build their idea, their passion and then sell it, and so even for them, we have solution accelerators where with the push of a button, you provision the different Azure services that put together the beginnings of a custom IoT solution that is very targeted more towards technically competent folks like developers and allows them to get started quickly. It eliminates a lot of the toil.
Then, of course, we have some pretty, pretty amazing tooling with Visual Studio and Visual Studio code on the works with all of our IoT offerings. Then, we also have developer process tools like Visual Studio team services for continuous integration, continuous deployment. We’ve made that work with both the cloud part of an IoT solution, as well as the device and edge computing part of IoT solutions. That’s a lot of what we focused on developers. We see developers showing up from partner companies, from ISPs and also from startups.
Sam: It’s a very important segment for us, but what we find is that by generating the demand in these market segments in the parts of the IoT market that we have with these customers, we’re creating demand for partners who create demand for developers, and so we’ve been able to build the flywheel that way. IoT can be tricky for a startup because if you’re a startup putting together a platform, for example, what we find that startups wind up realizing is that a lot of the value in IoT is over on the commercial side.
Sam: A commercial company is going to look at someone like Microsoft as a trusted partner because we’ve been around for a long time. They know we’re going to be around for a long time. When you start connecting hundreds and millions and billions of devices, you want to be sure that the cloud that you’re connecting to is still going to be there. That’s where we’ve also focused on helping startups on Azure and then making the introductions with these startups to our enterprise customers. Our sales field is very good at this and in helping all of these new partners be successful, as well as our established partners.
Daniel: Yes, that’s a really interesting ecosystem that you have to build between your partners and the developers and your customers and your internal folks, so it’s a huge scope. I think the part that I really appreciate from your comments there is that you’ve been playing to Microsoft’s strengths all along because you’ve had a strong developer experience throughout with your development tools through the Visual Studio and tool sets. It’s just a matter of building on top of those, right?
Sam: Yes, exactly, protecting those. Then, the other thing that’s very important for us is partners. If you look at an IoT solution, there’s always a pretty high degree of customization. Fleet management for one company doesn’t look like fleet management for another company.
It might even be the identical vehicles of those that you’re monitoring within those fleets. However, the business process integration will be different between the two. The workflows will be different between the two. We’re very much a platform and partner company, and so we’ve, again, used that strength of all the partners that we’ve got. Global system integrators, system integrators, ISVs projected that into IoT as well by offering a lot of incentives to our partner network.
Sam: As an example, we co-sell with our partners’ solutions. We found the best way, so Azure and Azure IoT is our partner solution, so as partners come and certify their solutions with us, our field will actually come and sell those solutions, those partner solutions for them. We help co-sell, provide adevice on selling those partner solutions, and so we have a really nice partner program going as well, which is super important in IoT because partners really provide all the vertical specialization.
Daniel: Yes, that’s a really good separation between the platform and the last mile, so-to-speak, right, that the partners drive, which in reality is more than a mile, but it’s just an expression, right?
Sam: That’s right.
Daniel: Let me ask you this question. I mean with all the different moving parts that you’re seeing, managing such a big scope and all the different areas that we talked about, as you’re building a team, what do you look for when hiring product managers, understanding all this complexity and that people might not be well-versed in all of it. Maybe just parts of it, so what do you look for in hiring PMs?
Sam: There are a couple things that we all look for and insist upon. One is examples of where they really exhibit a true customer passion, right, where they’re not off on a technology adventure. They’re off on a customer adventure. They want to delight as many customers as possible with what we do, so that’s one thing. We listen to their history. We tease that apart, examples of where you demonstrated this.
There are also some interesting questions you can ask too like, “Give me examples of places where you thought something was going to be interesting to a customer but it wasn’t and what you learned and what surprised you about that, and what you did in response? Then, how more customers responded based on what you did.” There are ways of teasing that out. That’s one thing that I look for.
Sam: The next is aptitude. I will take aptitude over experience any day. Someone who is committed, passionate, works well in teams, friendly, collaborative and with a high aptitude is very valuable to our team because in an area like IoT, there are no experts from 10 years ago. There are no graveyards in IoT. We are discovering IoT every day, and there’s still a ton of innovation to do, and so we very much look for that aptitude over experience.
Sam: Then, the other thing that I look for is how well they can … Whether they’re willing to make the hard trade-offs, whether they’re willing to focus and establish that. Every time we build a feature, we always look at what is the crawl walk-around here? What is the crawl that absolutely delights a customer for a narrow set of scenarios with a plan towards what we can build in the walk and then what we can build later in the run. Then, how to cruise to the broader strategy and all that. Those are a few of the things that we look for.
Daniel: Excellent things to look for. It definitely gives a good idea of how that represents also your brand and your overall approach to product management or program management in your care. Thank you for that.
Before we go, Sam, I want to ask you this question that I ask all of my guests. That is, what advice would you give product leaders who are new at developing IoT solutions?
Sam: The thing I would … I mean we’ve touched on many of the pieces of advice as part of this discussion, and so I don’t want to repeat those, but there is a few that I would also recommend. It’s that recognize that many of the customers who you’re developing this for are going through some pretty significant transformations while adopting it. There’s something very interesting.
There’s a term that everyone talks about digital transformation, and it sounds like a “markety buzzword”, but it’s really not. It’s a very real phenomenon. When you take a customer that’s used to building a thing, and then they start connecting that thing and offering it as a service but doing a subscription on it, that is a really big deal for a lot of these customers. Be sympathetic or empathetic. Understand the huge transformation that, that’s going to cause or that is causing and help them through it. Help your customers through that. That’s a big part of it.
Sam: One of the challenges with IoT is that there are so many things to be good at before you can start your flywheel, but one of those, and we’ve talked a lot about the designing for customers and building things that are great for them, but it’s also understanding where a customer is coming from. Sometimes, those challenges, as we saw customer adoption in the early phases, we would see that they would always struggle with the digital transformation aspects of it, right? I’ll take a simple example.
Sam: A customer used to deliver an asset, say a vending machine, and they were going to move towards delivering that as a service and doing predictive maintenance on it. There’s someone whose job, it used to be to figure out when the right time to service thing once. You have to be aware that, that organization that was doing that is going to undergo a transformation when a cloud solution starts predicting the maintenance needs.
They still have their job. They’re just going to be assisted by the cloud now, but it is a very real phenomenon. The human interaction or the human aspect of digital transformation, so I’d say keep an eye on that because that’s a very real phenomenon.
Daniel: I think that’s excellent advice, focusing on the human aspect of technology. I think, sometimes, we overlook that as technologists, so thank you for bringing that up. Sam, I want to thank you so much for participating in the episode. I hope to talk to you soon again.
Sam: Hey, thanks a lot for your time. I appreciate it, and thanks for all your listeners.
Daniel: Thank you.
Daniel: Thank you for listening to this episode of IoT Product Leadership. To make sure you don’t miss out on any of my conversations with IoT product leaders, make sure you subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Also, don’t forget to check out my online courses designed specifically for product managers in the IoT space. To learn more, visit iotproductleadership.com/courses. I am Daniel Elizalde, and I’ll see you next time.