Internet of Things: Interview with Shankar Somasundaram

20 Dec

I had a conversation with Shankar Somasundaram, who leads the Internet of Things Product Development at Symantec.  Shankar has a strong engineering background in Telecommunications. After completing his MBA from London School of Business, he has held several roles in business development/product development. You can read more on Shankar’s LinkedIn page.

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Hemang: Can you tell me something about your engineering journey so far?

Shankar: I did my undergrad form Vivekanand Education Society’s Institute of Technology (Mumbai University) following which I worked in Bharti Telecom for a year. I worked on setting their IP network and got a good understanding how the information flows in a telecom network. Then, I did Masters from Rutgers University where I focused on wireless LAN. On graduation, I joined Qualcomm’s system performance group where I worked for almost two years. Following that, I moved to InterDigital where I did both engineering and product management. Basically InterDigital was building 3G modem from scratch. The technology that we developed was effectively licensed to Apple for the iPhone 3G. That was an end-to-end product development effort.

 

After that, I went London Business School school to do an MBA. I also continued to run a solar company. After my MBA, I started with corporate strategy, business development and then moved back to engineering. So my engineering journey affectively has been lot of hands on in the initial stages, migrating more towards product management, but having an engineering team still with me. Currently, it is both product management and engineering.

 

Hemang:  Super! So right now, what is it exactly that you do? Because you seen to have your feet on both engineering as well as sort of the business side of things.

Shankar: So currently, my job at the charter level is to grow our Internet of Things business. That’s really my focus. Internet of Things is a very broad term; I focus outside of the connected homes segment. These include automotive, industrial control systems, health care, ATM, and so on. I am asking questions like how do we really grow business in that market and especially at Symantec on the topics of security, management, analytics etc. On the engineering side of things, I guide the design, what kind of product we need to build, what algorithm should we pick, and so on.

Product management side is purely a business side, which is first of all what is the market opportunity? Which market to be focused on? What is the customer need you are looking for? What is the prioritization on that? What features to be added and so on. I have two or three engineering teams, which build different products. The product management sites have product managers orchestrating through this. I started the group at Symantec so effectively had deeper understanding on the markets on how we evolved and where we are going. This effectively helds me lead and guide both teams.

 

Hemang: Internet of Things is a buzzword that everyone is throwing around. So where do you see how things will be in the five years down the line? Is it just going to be connected homes or you think automotive is where things will be initially?

Shankar: Different people have different opinions in the industry, of course. There is a lot of buzz on connected home but the reality is that a non-connected homes market is moving faster. So things like automotive, utility, manufacturing, not so much healthcare, but retail things such as ATMs and point of sale products are moving much faster. I think devices are already lot more connected there.Customers have some real value they can generate because there are large manufacturers and partners who can influence things. Also, there are central buying centers that can actually make divisions so that allows things to move faster. Connected homes, I think, things will continue to move. There will be more standardization required and eventually it will catch up as well. Over the next five years, I think, the Internet of Things will continue as the Intranet of Things. Devices will be connected with their own domain and even not completely. It will take off from the enterprise, connected homes will continue to catch-up, and eventually there will be a convergence to the Internet of Things.

 

Hemang:   Since the focus of this interview is more towards the engineering side. With all these applications, are you mainly interested in security site of things or are you also looking at how devices can connect with each other?

Shankar: So we are looking at security and management analytics. So if you skip the security for a second when you talk about the management analytics – we are not necessarily looking at how devices connect to each other as much as how they get connected. Just a slight difference there because devices are connected in some shape or form to a central location. They can manage those devices and then you can extract information from the devices to analyze the data. At Symantec, as a group we are very interested in that area as well. There is an element how do we connect and extract information from the devices. There are companies who actually focus on wireless connectivity itself, which we are not necessarily focused on because we are not necessarily a wireless company. We are definitely looking at how you effectively ensure that you can extract the information that you need. We also want to ensure that when you connect to these devices, you can control them remotely when you need them too.

 

Hemang: So on the engineering side, if I look at the management and analytics part. I am guessing you are looking at once these devices are connected to each other. Really what are the different kinds of information we can and we should extract. You are not influencing the connection protocols, per se.

Shankar: Correct

 

Hemang: Now then lets focused towards you switch from engineering to business. I mean what prompted you to go from like what I would call as a very thriving engineering carrier to the business school. What made the switch?

Shankar: I think this was a very hard decision. First off, from what I have seen in the tech industry you don’t need have a business degree to do what I am doing. I just felt that I would be helped by business degree to kind of look at the business side of technology as well. So for example in my current role being able to figure out which market opportunities do we go after, what product should be built, how do we build it and so on. I think even though you can do it without a business degree. Although, there is a perception that a business degree from a top school gives you some kind of credibility to do what I am saying. That’s what really prompted me to have a holistic view of a business. I really wanted to be able to grow a business and have a hand in growing in business. Even though business degree is not a must it definitely helps both from a knowledge perspective and from a perception perspective. So, I decided to do it.

 

Hemang: What was your business major?

Shankar: At London Business School, I did finance and strategy but it really doesn’t matter because when most people come out of business school they have done courses in almost everything. When they say they majored in finance and strategy, it just means they probably took a couple of extra courses in that. It really doesn’t mean that much, but short answer is finance and strategy.

 

Hemang: You mentioned that you know you already had a good engineering background and then you got the business and strategy background. Which helps you in know your current role? Do you think if you got after into the business school straight after your Masters or Undergrad, could you have been as effective? I see lot of people doing that.

Shankar: I am sure it’s effective in many ways, but not for what I am doing.  If you want to be in the tech world, I really think you have to do engineering. I will give you a simple example. One of the things we are building like a team for design analytics from scratch. As a small team, you are working with each and every person that joins the team.

I am hiring PhDs at this point. The first few PhDs have a math background and you work with them to solve the problem. You can’t really work with them to solve anything if you don’t understand engineering. You have to get the momentum going by being hands on working on the algorithms and asking questions. Those things you cannot do without an engineering degree and without an engineering background. I would say if you want to be in the tech world, arguably for business development work also, you need engineering experience.

 

Hemang: Now coming back to the Internet of Things. I think it’s the strong industry which will there for the next few years to come. If a current student is interested in working in this area on the engineering side what kind of courses or training you recommend them to go through.

Shankar: My recommendation is to move into data science. I think that’s going to be a big area. First of all, have a very strong base in Mathematics and statistics.

  1. If you doing your engineering, focus on courses which have maths and statistics.
  2. Try and understand how you can apply these practically.

Just don’t learn them for the sake of learning. Understand why, how these algorithms, how these equations can be applied in the real world. And then you should apply what. That’s really the fundamental difference of why one engineer is better than the other. Finally, go after it. I mean don’t just do a haphazard job of learning maths and statistics, and then hedge your bets doing something else. If you like it to go after it and really master it. I think the next ten years because of the Internet of Things, data will be more important than anything else. Data scientists, who are already in great demand, will be in even more demand in the next ten years. That’s the big engineering growth in my opinion. If I was an engineer today that’s the kind of course and that’s the kind of work I would focus on.

 

Hemang: So it does sound like that a data science requires good programming skill as well.  Its just not understanding statistics, it’s being familiar with various programming languages and how to access data from these numerous data bases wherever they are stored.

Shankar: That is true. But the only reason why I mentioned the other stuff is the programming skill and how to access the data can be leant more easily. The math statistics, the mastery of that is far more difficult problem. You can’t just take a course from a course academy in six months to becoming an expert in statistics. People spend a lot of years to understand why something is the way it is, when and what do you use from a data science perspective. So those things take a while to understand and grasp. But you are right programming and accessing data will also important.

 

Hemang: Any books that you are currently reading that helps you in understanding where the industry moving?

Shankar: Honestly I don’t think there is any good book yet. I mostly gain my information from taking to customers, partners, analysts, top industrialists. From engineering perspective I would say just read all the blogs that are coming out. Figure out a common pattern in the articles and that will lead you to what you need to do. Follow the news, follow all the start ups. Go to techcrunch, go to venturebeat. Follow the companies that are coming out and you have a lot of information.

 

Hemang: That brings us to my last question to you. What you think about the future prospects? You know especially in the field for internet of the things.

Shankar: So, I think where mobile was maybe eight years ago, that’s where Internet of Things is. I think a lot of jobs will get created in this area. Also, Internet of Things is at its hype peak cycle according to Gartner. Still there be lots of opportunities to create. So this is an industry which is expected to grow, more demand will created, more software engineers, more data scientists, more product managers will be required. So, having an understanding, being aware will definitely be useful.

 

Hemang: Cool excellent Shankar. Thanks a lot for your time.

Shankar: Thanks Hemang.

 

 

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  1. Internet of Things Security: Most Early-entry IoT Devices have Weak Security at Best | Formtek Blog - November 6, 2015

    […] Shankar Somasundaram, senior director of Internet of Things Security at Symantec, said that “as IoT innovation and adoption continues to grow, so has the opportunity for new cybersecurity risks. This is the next frontier. In the automotive industry, hackers can literally steer the car and ‘hit the brakes’ from their keyboards.” […]

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