VP of Information Technology
Director of Market Strategy – Central Ohio
VP of IT for IGS, Alex Crabtree, discusses leveraging AI and IOT to influence and reduce energy consumption.
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SG: Hello. We are here today with Alex Crabtree, the Vice President of Information Technology at IGS. Hello Alex. How are you?
AC: I'm doing well, Steve. Thank you.
SG: Great. Great. IGS is an organization based here in Central Ohio with about a thousand employees, the bulk of them are right here in Central Ohio. I'm Steve Gruetter with Expedient. I'll be your guest moderator today. Alex, let's get started.
SG: Your organization is known for your innovation and getting into the new markets. In your opinion, what is the most exciting disruptive technologies that you are working with, that you're a part of?
AC: Yeah, exactly. OK, for us it's more than just one. It's almost like an intersection of a couple of different technologies. So, I'll give you one use case that we're really excited about it. So, in energy – which is the main market that we're in – there are a lot of devices coming online now that actually can control energy consumption. So, internet of things is a huge player in our space. Obviously, all those devices then generate data which leads into big data capture. And then lastly, all that data that's collected feeds into machine-learning algorithms, which then actually feed back to the IOT devices, which actually gives us a lot of control over energy efficiency. So, just to give you a quick example – and you would know this in the data center space – leveraging AI and actually collecting what's running, we can, in a lot of cases, reduce energy consumption up to like 30 percent. So, it's really neat to see what's possible now that these technologies are coming available.
SG: When you are monitoring this, can you affect the energy consumption in real time? Is that where the technology is going right now?
AC: You absolutely can. And it's really cool. So, let's use a simple example I think a lot of people are familiar with. So, for example, if we see the consumption is high on the grid and we want to run a demand response-type event, we can actually signal a thermostat and say, “Hey, if you can go ahead and shut off.” Now, if you're at home and let's say it's a hot day and you don't want the temperature of your house to go up, you can easily override it by tapping the thermostat and saying, “You know what? I don’t want to participate right now. I want my house to be cool because I have company over, or whatever the case. But maybe you're not even there. Maybe you're at work or whatever the case might be. And so, in that case, the air conditioner would shut off, but we can also do that with other devices. We can do that with hot water heaters. We can do that with pool pumps. And that does happen in real time. And then users can directly interact with that if they choose not to participate.
SG: Would that help my kids turn off the lights in their bedrooms?
AC: Yeah, actually it really will. So, there are products you can use to actually attach directly to your service entry that comes into your house, and then it'll measure how much electric is being consumed. But it can also disaggregate the load, which means it can then identify what's happening in the house. And it's kind of eerie how accurate it can be. So, one example that my wife doesn't like is the device that can actually tell me when the fridge door is open. Because the light comes on in the fridge, it uses a certain amount of power, it has an electrical pattern that is easy for it to pick up. So, if one of the kids leaves the door open, it can warn you and say the fridge has been open for 30 seconds or more, and then you'll know to shut it. You can also do that with pumps. So, in our house we have a well, so I can see if the water is continuing to run, which might signal that a toilet is stuck or something like that. So, it's really neat the kind of feedback you can get. So, in your case of the lights, it will tell you there are lights on. It can trigger an event that can be passed to that type tool and that can actually trigger, “Hey go shut the lights off,” after they've been on for so long.
SG: That’s outstanding technology I think all consumers will be able to take advantage of. So, as business needs change, how are you balancing the maintaining of the quality with meeting all the various challenging timelines and supporting the business and such?
AC: So, we run an agile practice and we're on a two-week delivery cycle. But part of that is, any feature that we put into place isn't considered done and won't go into production actually until it's been fully tested. So, we maintain that high level of quality with everything we do. But there's really more than just the agile practice itself, which I guess kind of folds into that with product owners, but it's really in coordination with the business, having those discussions about what they see their strategy being. Because sometimes they're testing things, right? And they want to put stuff out and just get some feedback on how it's going to work and knowing how much, not effort, but how much feature enhancements should go into something before it's really known whether or not that's something that they want to keep. So, we might deploy something, get some feedback, and then maybe it’s something we're going to remove in the next release. But I do think the business partnership is really key, and how well you develop it.
SG: Without a doubt, any of the projects that are going to be supporting the business and the business growth are going to be well funded for IT and the information technology team.
SG: So, while you're talking about quality and the timelines – you’re in energy, and energy is one of those industries that people care a little bit more about. Healthcare, financial, energy – it all ties in together because it affects the wellbeing of so many people. There's so much news about companies being hacked and critical data being stolen. How worried should we really be? How might this affect the way businesses need to respond?
AC: I'd almost be interested in your input here because I know you work a lot in this space. But to me it's a reality that we all really need to think hard about. I mean, the folks that are doing this mischievous type work have access to the same technology we have access to, right? So, you'll find bots, you'll find AI algorithms that use scanning tools. I mean it's quite sophisticated. It's not just somebody sitting in their basement, you know, kind of just trying to guess how they're going to hack into something like we kind of saw back in the ‘80s. So, I think it's a very real thing that businesses need to plan for and not just defend. It’s not easy, per se, but I think a lot of people just stop at “We're going to put firewalls in place” or “We're going to do these things to prevent hackers from getting in.” I think the reality is, every company needs to think about what's going to happen if somebody does break in, and then how would we know somebody broke in, right? There's been a ton of break-ins in the past where companies don't even realize that they've been owned for 18 months or more.
SG: Right. And the bad guys continued to get the data until the final call.
AC: Right. And I can't remember the stat, but I know it's really high, where a lot of companies find out they've been hacked when they get a call from a government authority saying, “Hey, your systems have been compromised,” which isn't the way you want to find out, right? You want to be the first one that finds out, not a customer who finds out or the government finds out. So, make sure you have tools that actually scan logs or can alert you, basically, that you get notified, when a break in happens.
SG: I'll go on your point that in the data center space, there are some things that are done to mitigate those types of situations. And it certainly won't be anything specific to our organization. It's really table stakes now for anybody in the industry that is serious about having a data center. Our organization – all the big data centers -- utilize tools to mitigate DDoS attacks. Again, it's table stakes, so it's not one organization is better than others. All the organizations are utilizing it and it's a good thing to utilize where we can be proactive, and when we can identify and attack what is brewing in the very initial start, we can go ahead and take the steps to mitigate that so that company doesn't get cut off, doesn't lose revenue, etc. It's one of a myriad of tools that are out there that you have to take advantage of at this point in time because the stakes are too high.
AC: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, when I talk to folks that really aren't technical in nature, a great way, I think, to explain it is to compare it to a bank. So, the defend capability is your vault, right? But every vault is penetrable in some shape or form. So, what do they do? They monitor the vault, right? So, make sure you have monitoring tools that are making sure that your vault is safe. And then, in case somebody does attack it, how do you respond? I think this is a critical thing companies don't think about until after it happens. I mean, when you look at some of the huge breaches that have happened, just the way the companies have responded to the public have been almost as disastrous, if not maybe even more, than the event itself. So, making sure you know what you would say, what you would do, who you would contact – have a procedure in place. Hopefully it never happens to you, but if it does, you know how you would respond to it.
SG: So many organizations don't take that step because it's difficult to do, it's difficult to think about and it's not making revenue at that point in time. But it's very, very, very important because perception becomes reality.
AC: Oh, absolutely.
SG: So, we're going to shift gears a little bit and talk about Alex. Professionally, what makes you happiest?
AC: So, I personally love to build and that that's not just limited to software. Part of my career I actually owned a construction company that built homes. So, I just love that feeling of watching something go from basically just a piece of paper, an idea, up to when it’s actually something tangible that you can see and touch. And as I've grown in my career, actually watching that through helping other people grow their careers, helping them map out where they want to go and then, you know, over the years watching it happen, I get a lot of satisfaction out of that. It’s very exciting to watch it happen.
SG: Well, I do know that IGS is very committed to building the community around them as well as building their own internal team. I know that several people who work at IGS are involved in a local leadership development program called IT Leaders, and I do know that there is an outstanding organization in town called i.c. stars that IGS supports. Could you give us a little bit of information on that?
AC: Yeah, i.c. stars is a great program. Adam Luck is a guy at IGS that spends a lot of time working with that group to kind of help grow folks there. But specifically, they look to help people that are in need to some degree, train them on technology and then help them find jobs in the area that they would be good at. And we've had a few classes come through that we help train, give direct career advice, things of that nature. But then we actually have a couple of people that have graduated out of the class that we've hired directly.
SG: The organization when Adam introduced them to me is where you’re taking disadvantaged youth in our community who are making $8, $9 an hour at fast food, they get involved in the i.c. stars program – a crash course on programming – and they're doing the right things and they're taking the right steps and they're empowering themselves. And at the end of the program they're making $16, $17, $18 an hour. That's life changing. And that's great for their families. That's great for the community. It really is a tremendous program. Well, Alex, thank you very much for your time. Very much appreciated. This is Steve Gruetter and Alex Crabtree of IGS. For more information, please visit comspark.tech. Goodbye, until next time.
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