We’re at the Ignition Community Conference talking with two integrators from Corso Systems, the Founder and President Alex Marcy and Senior Systems Engineer Jason Hamlin. They’re sharing experiences from ICC, stories about building a company, getting Ignition Certified, tackling customer needs, managing integrator/vendor relationships, and pushing the limits of new technology. They also share an upcoming oil & gas project, as well as a fun personal Ignition project.
“When you find motivated, diverse talent, give them the tools to succeed and you take away their stumbling blocks, then what they build truly is limitless.” – Jason
“I want to be on the bleeding edge of everything … it’s about learning what’s out there, seeking to know more about what exists, and what’s possible.” – Alex
Alex Marcy is the founder and president of Corso Systems and a leader of innovation. Over the past 14 years, Alex has worked on almost every size and type of project conceivable, which has allowed him to keep his finger on the pulse of the industry as a whole in a way that few others can. Alex founded Corso Systems in 2015 with the goal of using automation to do high-level business integration and improve the overall capabilities of manufacturing companies. Since then, he has been building a diverse and talented team of top engineers to accomplish that goal. If anyone can talk with about trends shaping the industry, it is someone who started a company designed to creatively redefine and push those trends, and who has been personally working on doing so for over a decade.
Jason Hamlin holds the title of Senior Systems Engineer for Corso Systems, bringing 18 years of combined multi-industry industrial experience. Acting as everything from a licensed electrician, project manager, estimator, and purchasing agent, to the SCADA manager for a wastewater utility, Jason understands the need to sell services in order to eat, while not being annoying to end users. He will always hold the water sector close to his heart, and absolutely cherishes the creative freedom given to him by Corso to partner with customers in finding solutions which propel them forward while protecting their bottom line.
Lauren: Hello and welcome to Inductive Conversations. I'm Lauren Walters subbing in for Don Pearson. We're here today at ICC 2019 and we're sitting down with Alex Marcy and Jason Hamlin from Corso Systems. So guys, thank you so much for joining us.
Alex & Jason: Thank you.
Lauren: Can you both just introduce yourselves and tell us a little about your roles at the company?
Alex: Yeah, I'm Alex Marcy. I'm the President and Founder of Corso Systems.
Jason: Jason Hamlin, I'm a Senior Systems Engineer, a senior because I happen to be the oldest employee in the company right now.
Lauren: Very nice, that's a good way to get a title. Well, thank you so much for being with us today. How has ICC been?
Alex: It’s been a blast. Last year was my first ICC and this year has surpassed that in every way.
Jason: I would say the same. Last year was my first and this year has been even better.
Lauren: Oh that’s awesome. Well we love having you guys here, so thanks for coming. So to start, Alex, can you talk a little bit about Corso and your role within Corso as well as founding the company?
Alex: Sure. So back in 2011, I was working for an integrator that I'd been with for a few years and they had gotten bought out by a public company and moved kind of from a customer-focused culture to a shareholder-focused culture because that's what they had to do. And it kind of changed how it was to work at the company. And I felt like, you know, I want to go back to being customer focused. I've always been in customer service jobs since I worked at a grocery store when I started out with my first job and you know, I really hold that dear to my heart to really work with customers and make their lives better. I was in Reno, Nevada at the time, and felt like I worked at the best integrator in town. I don't really want to go elsewhere and it felt like a step down.
I was talking to my now-wife, and she's like, “if you don't start a company now, you're never going to do it cause you're gonna wait until you know enough to feel comfortable doing it, and you're always gonna have an excuse, and you're young, and you can do it now. So try it out and worst case you can get a job somewhere else.” So I started out on my own in 2011, and went through a couple of iterations, and worked with a couple of different people to to get that off the ground and help with sales and marketing and things. Got to 2015 and incorporated what is now Corso Systems. And in 2016 hired my first employee. So it was just kind of freelancing by myself for a little while and have been growing ever since.
Lauren: Wow, that's an awesome story. And Jason, how did you come to find Corso Systems? I know that there's a bit of an Ignition connection there.
Jason: A little bit. I met these guys in person last year at ICC, actually. I was an end user coming from water/wastewater background in multi-industry construction, industrial construction prior to that. I loved what I did. I loved my role as an end user, always going to be thankful to that company. I hit some personal life changes which made sense to grow and professionally was looking for a challenge. Had a few integrators that I had spoken with and definitely some friends in the industry, and Alex had spoken to me and offered some really interesting challenges, incentives, ideas of things that we could do. And it was enticing and exciting as this is, this looks amazing and that common connection of Ignition. He actually later joked with me that he watched me present at ICC and made the decision that he would have hired me then.
Lauren: Well, that's really neat. And how has it been for you guys to kind of work together coming from this shared background?
Jason: We fight like cats and dogs. So I have an end-user perspective and Alex has an integrated perspective. So there's an interesting yin and yang sometimes. It's always a balance of should we attack this way or how should we approach this? And he leans heavily on me and throws away everything I say and does what he wants because he's the owner.
Lauren: I guess that's how it goes sometimes. And Alex, how did you initially find Ignition this kind of connection between the two of you?
Alex: So I originally found Ignition in 2009 and I was working for this, the integrator I worked for before Corso and my boss said, “go to inductiveautomation.com and download this product.” I think it was version 4.1 at the time. I install it and we have a project that we're doing and figure it out. Like you've picked up some software before, just like make it happen. So I went and downloaded it and was like, ‘Oh man, it runs in trial mode. I don't have to figure out how to license this right away. That's amazing.’ And I can connect to a PLC and a database immediately. And it just like instantly clicked for me. So started working with it in 2009, did a couple of projects there with it. And then when I started out on my own and was looking for how am I going to angle myself and in my company, in the industry and who am I gonna try and partner with, it made the most sense because at the time it was still a very young upstart company and I went, you know, put my info in, joined the integrator program.
About five minutes later, Shane Miller called me and was like, ‘Hey man, how's it going?’ And we started a relationship and I went through and got the core certification. Once I got that approved, I got the gold certification and it was the first week that the MES certification had been released ever at that point. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, if I can get this done right away, I could be the first one to get it because nobody else has it yet.’ So I went through and I finished it over the weekend and I just put in a couple of like 12 hour days. And my wife was like, ‘you're insane.’ I I was like ‘I want to be first.’ So I went through and got the MES certification, submitted it, and then the next day they released the first batch. I was not first.
Lauren: Oh no, I'm sorry to hear. Well, it sounds like it was a well-deserved almost-victory, but that is a great story and it's interesting to hear you mention distinguishing yourself. Often in integration, and maybe you both can speak to how Corso kind of distinguishes itself in that plays into how you market yourself. How do you reach customers? How do you sell? What's your perspective on that?
Jason: Diversity. So we have employees with backgrounds in linguistics, physics, some still working on their degrees, industrial construction like myself. It brings a very unique blend of skills to the table. So we, we have an ability to analyze processes and customer needs from a multitude of eyes. And I think that gives us our biggest strength.
Alex: Yeah. It's really about finding a diverse group of people with different backgrounds. And it's not, ‘I went to Rose-Hulman and I have a 4.0 GPA and I went to school for mechanical engineering.’ I mean we do have somebody who went to Rose-Hulman, but it's, it's not about, ‘you look like me and you think like me and you are an exact replica of myself, come work for the company.’ It's, ‘I want you, because you're different and you're, you help Corso and you help our customers experience processes and procedures and software and culture differently because you see the world differently’. And that helps us really just build an awesome company that people want to come work for. And you know, doing things like having remote work so we can have people that, you know, don't want to necessarily move to Chicago or DC or Bakersfield, California for five months.
They can come work for the company and stay at home. We’re really great for families. You know, if you have kids or you need to have a doctor's appointment, it's not, ‘I've got gotta take a day off to schedule things.’ It's, you know, be flexible and all of that. And it's also about empowering our employees to really have the skills and tools that they need to accomplish their jobs and work with customers and, you know, really help our customers succeed. And much in the same way that we're helping manufacturing companies do what they do better. We apply that same methodology to our own company. So like we really practice what we preach and I think it works out really well.
Jason: I think it does.
Lauren: A little bit of a shot at Bakersfield, but that's okay.
Jason: It's an internal joke to somebody else who is on a podcast who I won't name, but he'll listen.
Lauren: Well, I can't wait for them to hear. No offense to our Bakersfield listeners.
Jason: No, no, not at all. I actually love Bakersfield. I'm the one out there right now and I have come to really enjoy it.
Lauren: So Jason, you've had a diverse range of experience and we touched on this earlier, coming from an end-user background and now you're in this integration position. It sounds like that's created some change in perspectives maybe for Corso as a company, which maybe you could speak to in a moment, but for you, what was that shift like and how do you approach projects?
Jason: It was an interesting shift. So, thankfully I had a construction background, so I was at least familiar with the idea and concepts of working with multiple customers. I was a project manager right up until I left and went to the city. But with the city I had ownership of a single entity, right? I had one customer, my boss, I had many, many projects, but they were all mine to own and manage, and my own timelines. I only had to ever answer to one person. That's a big shift when you go to managing and working with multiple customers and splitting your time up. It is a different perspective.
Integrators as a whole tend to have a bad mark because they've been shown as pushy and salesy, we do, we live on money, we live on billable hours. You have to do that. But there are still ways to add true value and not brand yourself as, as that pushy salesperson. And coming from that background, I couldn't stand when that would happen to me. So the biggest thing I think I've loved is Alex and others on the team listening when I say ‘this is a way to approach that would have worked on me.’ So at least I have a little bit of credibility in that respect.
Lauren: So it sounds like a different perspective on customer approach and all that kind of stuff.
Alex: Yeah, for me the part I always struggled with coming from a technical background and not a sales background was how do I sell myself and how do I feel comfortable? You know, people are looking to buy what we do as an integrator. How do I convey that, that it's okay and feel comfortable and not sleazy and be okay with that. And, and Jason really helps me understand. Like we can run through having a conversation you know, put your end-user hat on. I'm going to try and go through this presentation and tell me where it feels that way. And like where is it me diving too deeply into the technical details and like how do we structure things differently just so it makes sense to you.
And you know, it helps us grow and understand without looking strictly at the data. ‘Cause you know, the sales process is more emotional and interaction with people and like psychological that coming from a technical background is like, it's easy to analyze the data and figure everything out. So that really helps. And I think, you know, to allude to what you were talking about with not being really pushy, it's, you know, like the community collective. Jason was on the board for that when he worked for the water/wastewater plant. And is still now on the board. Thankfully they allowed him as an integrator to stay. And you know, I wanted to be a part of something like that. And that didn't exist until last year at ICC. So once it was there, it was like ‘I really want to be a part of this.’
Part of their thing is we don't want typical integrators trying to come here and sell a bunch of stuff. So it's, ‘how do we participate in that environment without being salesy.’ And part of the way that we found to do that is to participate in their value packages program. Travis Cox asked for some support with the website so it's ‘Hey, I'll donate my time to help out with the website.’ And you know, maybe it's paying it forward a little further ahead than we might if we were an end user. But you know, put our best foot forward and if people want to work with us through that, great. But the goal is to help the group as a whole. And like even Jason in the presentation on Tuesday was like, ‘I'm not going to tell you who I work for. We're not here to sell anything. We're just here to give away our value package and, and be a part of the group.’
Lauren: Absolutely. And that's the Ignition Cross-Industry Collective. I know Jason and a lot of other people from a variety of backgrounds are involved in that group and if anyone's interested, you can check out their website, which I believe is ignitioncic.com and it's run on Perspective.
Alex: It's a wonderful website. Travis did a great job and we've added some stuff to the backend for making it easier to manage users and then we're now going to start adding things to the front end, like a forum and things to make it more of a portal for end users to go and, and people that are members of the Collective that are not necessarily looking for tech support help like on the Inductive Automation forum, but more conversational and, and make it a place that people can really get value out of.
Jason: So I'll give a really small plug for that. It is, the division is, it's an area for end users to come together from multiple industries and collaborate. There were things that I used in water wastewater and gave away thinking nobody else would ever use this outside of water wastewater, but some other industry did and saw value and said, ‘Oh, I can adapt that to my industry.’ Hugh Roddy from Chobani gave away the change management platform, which was incredible. We as a small wastewater could have never afforded to develop that, but to have that and be able to use some of that at our level was incredible. Along those lines, there's a lot of value bringing integrators and vendors into a platform to be able to show solutions, but no end user wants that heavy level of sales. So having that filtered, that has kind of become my role on the board. To manage the integrator vendor relations because of the end-user background. Because of that understanding, we absolutely don't want to exclude them, but we don't want it to become a, ‘Oh, this is where I can draw a customer list for potential projects.’ So finding that balance. We're very committed to doing that as an industry collective.
Lauren: Yeah, it's not very salesy. And it sounds like you guys have been bringing a lot of value to the table for a variety of folks in different industries and all kinds of things. So that's a big pro of that group. And I had no idea you guys were working with them, it’s very cool.
Jason: Our intent was to show what that could look like and hope that others could join along with us.
Lauren: Yeah. And finding a way as an integrator to contribute without always being so heavy on the sales. That sounds like a nice, happy medium where people can collaborate.
Alex: I think it works really well and is within the spirit of the group. And you know, there is the charter and the code of conduct that specifically says don't be salesy and pushy and this is not a place to recruit customers over talent. It's a place to come and have a safe environment to be open and communicate and be a part of a community.
Lauren: Very cool. Well now onto a slightly more self-promoting question, but I really am interested. Corso is known around the IA office as a company that's constantly pushing the limits. I mean there's projects that involve VR headsets. You guys are working in industries and are considered ahead of the curve within those industries. Where does that motivation come from and how do you guys accomplish those really ambitious hefty projects?
Jason: By empowering people. Honestly, because our people are so well-empowered.
Alex: One of the core values that I really seek when I hire people as people that are focused on growth and, and wanting to learn. The key thing is people who know how to learn and are very excited to learn are the people that I want to work with. For me, I want to be on the bleeding edge of everything because I want to learn what's new and what's exciting. And like, yeah we could go back and go to like version 7.0 and build vision clients in that. But when 7.1 comes out then eight and then we get up to 8.0 and Perspective, why would we not want to be on the forefront of that? It's kind of fun to be on LinkedIn or something and do a little post.
When we release our NCAA basketball tournament bracket on Perspective, the day after the beta came out and it was like, ‘Hey, we were the first ones here, here's our blog post on this.’ And it allows us to have a little bit of fun with things and really be at the forefront of it. And it's really just about learning what's out there and seeking to know more about what exists and what's possible.
For me, especially with Perspective, a lot of my career before that existed was doing web development because we needed mobile applications and responsive design and things that Perspective provides that Vision didn't and now we get to do that in the same platform and basically just built the app that we're used to building to begin with in Ignition with all the same back-end components and the scripting and everything we already know, but we get to do it in a more interesting way that works better for our customers and was something we were doing already, but we get to do it in a better way now.
Jason: When you find motivated, diverse talent and you give them the tools to succeed and you take away their stumbling blocks, then what they build truly is limitless.
Lauren: We like that because it's the theme for ICC 2019
Jason: I didn’t plan that at all.
Lauren: Thank you for the plug. This is kind of related to my next question. Using the Perspective Module, you where some of the first people who posted about it who were talking about some of the biggest features, some of the coolest stuff and also some of the challenge points as well, which we were really grateful for as a company. You know, we benefit a lot from that feedback loop. How has it been, what's it been like to kind of see it also evolve from a beta product to where it is now? We're on our way toward 8.1.
Alex: It's been interesting because when it came out as a beta, it definitely did what it set out to do. There were a lot of limitations up front just because you as a company had to say, ‘we're gonna be done building new stuff and we're going to release what we have now. And yes, it's not 100% of every feature you would ever want in a project like that.’ The trending components weren't there to begin with. So how do we, you know, build something for a customer that needs a trend and the trending components might be released in a couple of months, but they want to start looking at things today. You know, we figure out a way to do that. Or with Perspective that could be, we're going to build a module and import a web library that does trending and now we have that tool available to support customers until something new comes out.
Or we run into some bugs and go to the forum and it's like, ‘Oh, we're not the first person to have found that one.’ Or we are and make a post about it and get the workarounds and you know, the feedback loop of getting the nightly builds to fix things really helped. And there were things that we were developing for customers that wanted to put Perspective into production while it was still in beta and every single day, we were able to add new features that they were asking for because of the nightly builds. And even though we were like, don't put this into production, it's like probably gonna break in a weird way that we don't know yet because it's the first you're the first person doing this or you know, the first few people that we have at least heard of doing things like this. So it was good. But as it's grown, it's become a very powerful tool. And you know, I think the biggest hurdle from my perspective is the difference in the mindset between Vision and Perspective from a development mindset. Like we wrote a blog post called Perspective Tips for Ignition Developers and it's, the different things that once you see what it is, it's the exact same thing you're used to in Vision it's just called something different or it's presented in a slightly different way. And once you wrap your head around that, it's like, then the possibilities are limitless with Perspective. You just need to understand how to do it.
Lauren: That's awesome. And I'm interested, Jason, you came from a water wastewater background, so that is a much more conservative environment for building, right? What's it been like to kind of experiment with these new tools and be on more of the cutting edge?
Jason: That's a great question. Probably for somebody who isn't as crazy as me because I generally was pushing nightly builds out into my wastewater plant. I like to stay on the bleeding edge myself.
Jason: So that part actually hasn't been much of a change for me. If anything, I've been tempered and slowed down some to know that you can't just do that in every industry. So when you own the system and it's yours to manage and you want to break it on a Friday night, you're hurting yourself. You cannot do that for a customer who's paying you. So I've actually taken a step back from my aggressiveness by going to Corso.
Lauren: A little more self-control maybe. And what exciting projects are you guys working on right now?
Alex: So one exciting project that we have with Ignition right now that's gonna utilize Perspective pretty much across the board is a biodiesel refinery outside of Reno, Nevada. And it's a company that we've worked with probably for the last six or seven years. And when I first started working with them, they had already bought all of the software and all the PLCs and everything before I showed up. So there was no chance to spec anything in. And we went and built a successful project for them, and they went through and changed the design of their process a couple of times.
So we updated things and now they're building a new facility, which is going to be the largest of its type in the world. And we finally were like, ‘okay, we get to spec all the software, here's all the pain points that we've experienced as a group before. Here's this software that's going to be cheaper and easier to use and you don't have to buy a license for every computer. It's called Ignition.’ And they were like, ‘will it operate the same and will it look the same?’ And I was like ‘it will operate better and it will look better and it's easier to use and here's all the benefits you get and you know you're trending and reporting is going to be easier. We can add OEE and downtime tracking. We can deal with entering your bills from material coming in, to the material that you're sending out of the plant and do it all in the same interface.’ Whereas before we had to build four or five pieces of software and they were like, ‘heck yeah, let's do it.’ Called up Shane and said, ‘Hey Shane, can I get a quote for, you know, X, Y and Z that we want to get from you?’
And I sent him the list price from the website already, which is one of the best features of Ignition and Inductive Automation to begin with because customers don't have to say, can you get me a quote for this? And then we have to wait on the distributor, it’s just a nightmare. It's go to the website, go to the pricing tab. I know what my discount is. I can give you the price based on that and I'll get a quote to confirm it. But here we go. And within like 24 hours we had a PO and ordered the software and we've been working on that and that'll get deployed to probably early next year and fingers crossed we can get it done in time for ICC 2020. We'll get a good case study going.
Lauren: Yeah, we want to see that in the Firebrand Awards next year. Well, thank you guys so much for being here today. I wanted to ask one last question to Alex. I've heard there is an Ignition etch-a-sketch.
Alex: There is. So John Gerbac from our team, you can see his Firebrand video just to plug. He and I were going to a job site and the week before we left I'd watched a YouTube video from a maker account and he did an automated etch a sketch where he drew a picture on his computer and controlled some servo motors. And I mean it was just like a fun thing to demonstrate how servo motors work. And I thought, you know, we're going to be working on an Ignition project at the customer site. We both love Ignition. I like servo motors and playing with robotics. So that's really fun. Why don't we do that ourselves? So we found a project on Thingiverse for printing the gears and things to attach to the etch a sketch. I bought some motors and some controllers. We set up an Ignition client with a drawable template canvas so we could a picture on the screen.
We used the serial module to send the data over to the controller and some of the actual G codes to move the servo motors and draw the picture on the screen. And I think it took us a few hours to get the hardware set up and tweaked and managed. And I think we had the project actually writing to the etch a sketch in like 20 minutes is painless and we drew a picture on the screen and click draw and Ignition controlled the servo motors and robotics stuff to write a picture on the etch a sketch. It was really cool.
Lauren: That's pretty incredible. Maybe we can get a guest spot for the etch a sketch at ICC next year. Maybe the etch a sketch can teach a session.
Thank you so much for being here today. Do you have any final thoughts to close this out?
Alex: I do. To tie back to last year's ICC and to yesterday's keynote with Steve. Ignition has been what allows me to build this company and build everything that we have with this group of people and like I just want to thank Steve for being back in the day and making this all possible for me. It's amazing.
Jason: I once in a case study offhandedly said Ignition was my engine of innovation, and I see the head nods. Everybody seems to remember that and thinks it's fun. Along that kind of motor theme, it really has driven my career. I wouldn't be where I am and I wouldn't be putting my daughter through college without. So I have to say thank you to Steve and Inductive Automation.
Lauren: Well, we're thankful for you guys too and all the hard work you put in with our product and really push it to the edge of where it can go. Alex and Jason, thank you so much for being on the podcast today and have a great rest of your ICC.
Alex & Jason: Thank you.