The Developers of Ignition Tell Their Story

Inductive Conversations

34 minute episode Apple Podcasts  |  Spotify  |  Google Play  |  PodBean  |  TuneIn

We’re discussing how the developers of Ignition first got their start in the industrial space, what early version releases were like, and how they maintained the quality of Ignition as IA grew. Learn how they’ve built their team, relationships with the community, and Ignition. We ask them what makes the work gratifying, why they’re still here, and what the future holds.

“Seeing really smart people take our creation and build something that’s greater than the sum of its parts is really amazing… 15 years later and it still feels like we’re just getting started.” – Carl

“We’re building a product, but we’re also building the company that delivers it… the first thing we were famous for was how we interact with the customer.” – Colby

Guest Bios:

Carl Gould is co-director of software engineering at Inductive Automation. Carl has been with the company from the ground up and was part of the original team that developed Ignition. His work has been instrumental to the company's rapid growth ever since. Today, he continues to lead the development of Ignition, innovating new ways to elevate both the software and the manufacturing automation industry as a whole.

Colby Clegg has been with Inductive Automation since the company’s formation, and is one of the original designers of the Ignition software. Colby continues to use his formidable knowledge and skills to propel the advancement of the software. His technical expertise and forward thinking have been key to the success of Ignition and his work is one of the reasons for the company's bright future.


Episode Transcript:

Don: So first off I just want to welcome you Carl and welcome you Colby to today's little Inductive conversation. We appreciate your time today, so thanks for being here.

Carl: Thanks Don.

Colby: Thanks Don.

Don: Let's start with a little bit of your unique story as directors. Because you guys have been here since the very beginning. The very roots of IA are connected to both of you, you've stuck around since then. So what was it like in the very beginning with Steve when you first joined the team and the ideas were just getting started?

Colby: Well if we go to the very beginning I remember bringing my own laptop to work on a card table in a storage room. So that was a little bit different than where we're at today. But yeah, I mean Carl and I we met in college and through that circle ... that computer science circle there we met another student. A guy who was our same age who was a family friend of Steve's. And had been working at Calmetrics, this integration company in high school and what not. And so that was kind of the link and how we... He brought us out there to talk to Steve because they had been thinking of software ideas and such. And that's kind of how it started. So what it was like was it was not a software company, it was an integration company. Which I think you'll hear a few times today it's pretty crucial to who we are as a company. But it was interesting coming straight out of college in a space where we didn't know anything about industrial automation. And coming into it, it was interesting.

Carl: Yeah, I remember Colby had taken a summer job at this integration firm. He kept telling me about it and it sounded really interesting. And I was going down a different path at the time. I was heading into academia and so eventually they maybe about five, six months after Colby first started they brought me in there to discuss some ideas. And what was interesting to me about it was here was a company doing basically the polar opposite of what academia was about. So instead of a bunch of theoretical stuff, it was a bunch of very pragmatic, practical things and you could actually see the results of your efforts being used in the real world, doing real things. And that was hugely attractive to me. So I think that's really what drew me into the idea at the beginning. But yeah, we were a pretty scrappy outfit for quite some time.

Don: That's a big shift for you Carl. I mean down an academic path to academia and then boom. Because we live in the real world at Inductive Automation, so that's a big change.

Carl: Yeah, it was a big change. I think the cracks were already forming in my interests. I mean computer science pure research. So I was pretty ready to attack something a little more practical.

Don: Sure, well speaking of that, we just released Ignition eight. And I know we're going to talk about that a little bit later. But I would like you guys to give a little historical perspective. What was it like with the early releases? What do you remember about releasing the first version of Ignition, or maybe even legacy products and what that did. So I'm not saying you had a total perspective in, but where did you see ignition and Inductive Automation going at that juncture when we were just getting started with new releases.

Colby: Yeah well we could ... One important point is that we were using the software for our own integration purposes for a few years before we started trying to sell it more publicly. And so I could go all the way to the beginning and coming up with some software we thought was great. And getting everyone together in the conference room to use it, and nothing works.

Carl: Right, the very first releases were just releases to ourselves. Because we would alternate between working on the software and then acting as systems integrators and going out in the field and using it.

Colby: But one of my most fond memories I think was one of our early big public releases which was to say I think the first time we went to that ISA trade show they used to have in Houston, I think it was 2007 maybe. We finished up the changes to the software on the plane flying out there. We had a specific releases, we had a big new version, not that we had a big audience but it was big to us. And we were going to this trade show for the first time. We had this crazy booth that we were going to ... 10x10. But we were going to show it to the world. And here we are finishing it up on the airplane, we went to the hotel room, burned 300 CDs that night with these CDs just to hand out to people. And try to throw them to people as they're walking by. Trying to get by us and ignoring us, so it was a great experience-

Carl: Yeah, nobody had ever heard of us. So it was an interesting experience. It took quite a few years of going to trade shows like that before anybody really recognized us.

Colby: But yeah it stands out because I remember distinctly people would say, well why do we need another software package? Why do we need another SCADA package. And so it was ... Yeah, it was an interesting process to go from that to where we are.

Don: Sure. And you guys ... Now you built from those early beginnings, you built starting with the two of you, the development team. Which is actually quite a team now over the last few years. But if you started thinking about 2006 like you're saying, 2007, 2008 building up to the Ignition platform. What was your strategy or how has the team changed as the company's grown? A little perspective on just developing from the two of you getting experience with Steve and the field approach to a team that's grown to what it is today?

Carl: Yeah, I mean the strategy especially for hiring and how the team operates has changed quite a bit I think. In the early days it was really one person, one product. So everybody had their domain that they worked on and when you hired a new person it was because you were trying to build something new and that was in their domain. And they were the ... Everybody was the owner of their little part of the product. And that's really not true anymore, so now we have ... That works well when you're really tiny, it's very efficient to have one person who really knows everything about some part of the product. But it doesn't scale really well and it's not very good because when someone goes on vacation now-

Don: The project stops.

Carl: Yeah, the project stops and nobodies around that knows anything about it. So it's difficult to support. So it's efficient when you're really tiny but it doesn't scale well. So we don't really do that anymore.

Don: Well I have a question then. Relating to team members because I've certainly watched as the teams grown. And it started with the two of you. How do you evaluate and select team members that you think are going to fit in, be part of the culture, have the skill sets. Really be part of the evolution of the product which has a high skill set required and they all seem part of the team? So how do you build this team?

Colby: It's a big challenge, we have a few challenges that we have to confront. One from a purely competitive landscape, we're in California, we're a little bit outside the Bay area, it's just simply a competitive space for tech town. Second of all in our space ... well with our product it's so broad in what it does and the technologies that it uses, we can hire for specific knowledge but the fact is we benefit more from people who are broadly knowledgeable. And so first and foremost we have to look for people who are simply excited about technology and love to learn. Because not matter you're doing ... what you come in to do you are going to be doing more than you expected.

Don: Sure.

Colby: So that's I think my main point that I look for just enthusiasm for technology learning.

Carl: Yeah, absolutely. Like Colby said, we almost never get to hire people who already know anything about our industry. So we don't even really look for that, at least not on the software development team. We look for that for other departments. But yeah, for software development it's much more having a passion for programming yes, but also for building applications. Some people just really like to build things that other people get to use, and so we look for that. Often we'll also hire for a specific technical need, if we feel like we're weak in some particular area we'll hire specialists who bring a bunch of expertise in an area and help round our team out. But it is a challenge and it's a challenge that always changes as the hiring needs continue to evolve and shift around.

Don: Sure. When there's two of you or there's one person in charge of one project, holding quality in place maybe a little bit easier task than if there's a proliferation of team members. It grows and grows and grows and you have a broader spectrum. And I do know also that organizationally you've chosen to not outsource anything it's under one roof. Here it is, here's where it's done, you guys run the team. But how do you deal with the subject of quality and result as you continue to build Ignition? And maybe how is maintaining that quality changed as Ignition has changed and the teams changed?

Carl: Yeah, qualities always a big effort. I mean I think a big part of the decision not to outsource is directly related to quality. I mean just as someone who now manages teams and programs who's trying to build a product, I can't even imagine the difficulty of trying to do that with a remote team. Even remote team, not to mention across the country, different cultures, language barriers et cetera, time zone changes. That sounds very, very difficult to me, and so we ... it's a big enough challenge as is, I don't want to throw any extra factors into it. And yeah, the product has grown so much in scope and ambition that maintaining quality is almost an ever increasing challenge.

Carl: But we've made some big changes in how we do quality management over the last few years that I think are paying huge dividends. So some of those changes include things like integrating the entire quality team into the development teams so that everybody's working together. And quality is part of the process from the design all the way through to the release of any particular feature, that's been incredibly helpful. Other things that have helped quality are becoming a little ... Early on when you're a really tiny team you don't really need to adhere to any formal process. Because process just slows you down if you're a really small team. But as the team grows, having formal process becomes really important, especially from a quality maintenance point of view. So having a stricter agile process has been really helpful for quality as well.

Don: Sure. Anything you wanted to add on that Colby?

Colby: Well yeah, if we look at the idea of quality more broadly than just how many bugs are in the software. If we look at the product that we're delivering to the users, how useful it is to them. What their experience with the company is like, because from the beginning we are building a product but we are also building the company that delivers it to them. Our first ... We weren't famous from the beginning for our software, I think the first thing we were famous for is how we interact with customers. And the way that we can talk to people, and they can call us and talk to us, more personable right.

Carl: Yeah, accessibility and agility have been a big part of our identity for sure.

Colby: And so, that's been a core trade of ours, a cornerstone. And so, you mentioned outsourcing which is important, but also having everybody here. And always having all of our operations out of one office where the support team is right downstairs. And when they have questions they can get to us right away. In the early days that meant literally running down the hall, now it's a little bit more advanced.

Don: You've got some stairs now.

Colby: And everything, everything's on a bigger scope now so sometimes we can't respond to people as quickly as we would like but we're always trying to improve that. But the point is, it's the cornerstone of what we want to deliver. So that's one thing I wanted to mention is that we've always taken pains to deliver a product that is as broadly applicable as possible. We've tried to not get too specialized, we try to evaluate everything that comes in that solves people's problems but not at the expense of the overall experience.

Don: Well you made a good point in terms of taking a look at the quality. It's not just of the product, it's the quality experience the relationship with Inductive Automation. And that leans us into another topic of the community, the Ignition community. We built a pretty strong community, you guys have been central in building that community. And what are some factors that you think ... and I think you mentioned a couple here. But I'd like to go into it a little bit more about that strong relationship between the company and our users. Both the integrator community and the industrial organizations that use our software. How have we built and maintained that relationship over time that is really central to the experience our customers have?

Colby: It's absolutely central, and I think the starting point has to be our background. Our origination as an integration company I think the fact that we started off building the software, using the software ourselves out there in the field. Carl and I personally experienced it and then we're taking after Steve's 20 years of experience doing that. So he knew exactly what he was trying to solve. That's the starting point, I think that's a crucial aspect of it. Because from there we were able to organically grow our community. We never just had a product that we devised and threw over the fence to some other group. It was always that personal connection when we wanted to go sell to begin with, we contacted other integration companies that were just like ours. And that personal connection yeah, it's just crucial to growing-

Don: Continue to do it, yeah. I think it does. And I think if we take a look at it ... You mentioned several things about scale when you started getting bigger. That you have to have process and stuff. So when it's intimate like you were saying Colby, and we're talking about it. We called integration firms that were just like ours and stuff, pretty easy. There's a couple thousand integrators on the integrator program right now. How do you maintain that relationship as you do get bigger?

Carl: I don't even think we can take credit for the community really. I mean a big part of our community they built the community themselves. And we gave them a space and listened to them, which seemed to be sorely lacking. And so when we started it was almost ... We had our experience as coming from a system's integration firm, and we had our set of opinions and what not. And when we released the product and then opened up a public forum and gave people a place to be heard. It was really astonishing to watch that community just form organically. And so I think the community was always out there, they just needed a place to gather.

Carl: And lucky for us that happened to be our forum, one of the more active forums in this space in the industry. Which has been great and what was really astonishing was the degree to which our opinions seemed to match broadly. Our experiences seemed to be relatively universal in that the things we were frustrated with about the software choices of the day, were the same things that many, many other people were frustrated with.

Carl: So there was a ... I think there was a natural kinship that developed there amongst many of our community members. That mixed with our real early community members developed ... there was a mutual respect I think that developed. So we respected them because we know how hard system's integration work is, and so we know that they are smart people, and their opinions are founded in real world experience. And we earned their respect by listening to what they were saying to us and actually getting their ideas, and their feedback incorporated into the product. So it's definitely been I think a team effort for how that community has built up.

Don: Sure. One of the things that happened about, I think it's in its seventh year now for Inductive Automations, Ignition Community Conference. Which is one of those feedback loops that developed somewhere along the line. Both of you have been very involved in that conference and you have a lot of intimate relationships, and you're always doing content presentations. How does that play into the evolution of this community? That as you say Carl, we're a part of, we are not the only members of this community.

Colby: Yeah, it's a key component of the evolution of that organic growth. I mentioned about how we started and then we went to integrators like us. And then it went from there. Well, pretty soon it got to the point where at first you know what everyone is doing. Then all of a sudden you kind of hear about what people are doing. And then at some point you have no idea what they're doing. And I remember distinctly in the second year of the conference so much work to put together the first year. Somebody can definitely talk about us putting on the first one where we did not even know if anyone would show up.

Colby: But that went really well, second year we did it again, still a lot of work. We said, man this is great, but maybe we ought to back it off. We will do it every other year or something. But that was the point where that very year we got to the conference and so many customers showed us things that they were doing that we had no idea ... When I say we, Carl and I, we did not have any idea that they were doing that. We did not know that they sometimes could do that with the software. And finally it just struck us that this is a crucial event for us to stay in contact with how people are actually using the software.

Carl: Right, I think that year we realized that the conference is just as important for us to stay in communication with them and understand what customers are doing as it is for users and customers to understand what we're doing with the software. It is definitely a two way street.

Don: A two way street.

Carl: The conference has become this absolutely crucial heartbeat for the company. I do not think about the year in terms of the calendar year anymore. It's always just September to September.

Don: Conference year to conference.

Carl: Yeah, absolutely.

Don: So I want to shift the conversation a little bit and just ask you a question about you guys personally. Here's a couple of software developers that end up in this industrial organization world that was new to you as you said when you first got into it. And you're still here, and I think that's 15, 16 plus years whatever the timing is on this still. A lot of software developers they tend to move from project to project, company to company, chasing whatever some great project is. But your involvement is something that seems to be a little bit different since you're still here and you don't seem to be going anywhere. What does it mean for you to be part of Ignition? The user community, anything about company values? What drives you to be part of this process and continually pushers of the process forward?

Colby: Well I don't appreciate you calling out the 16 years because it makes me realize that we have been doing it for awhile. It definitely doesn't feel like that to me. I always tell people I don't want to get to wishy washy or sentimental on this. But I tell people that as somebody ... Okay, I was always passionate about software, I went to school for the pure science. I knew exactly who I wanted to do from the time I was 13 years old, I wanted to make software. So with that background what is your best situation? You get to show up, you get to build something that has a big impact, is really applicable and you have creative control over doing that. So it has been the best situation I think from that point of view. So I mean I think that's it, we get to come in and we get to daydream all day long about how to solve problems and make a huge impact. And then our customers show up and they show us the impact that they're making, and it reinforces us.

Carl: Yeah, I mean one of the most ... I kind of hinted about this earlier, but one of the most gratifying things for somebody who makes a piece of software is to have users of that software come back and show you things ... Colby said this a few minutes ago, that you did not even realize were possible. And that's a really gratifying feeling. Not only are the tools you make making someone else's professional life more fun, making certain projects possible that weren't possible before, that's really fun. But seeing really smart people take your creation and build something that's greater than some of the parts is pretty amazing. So where would we go? I mean we can go share cat pictures on the internet or something.

Don: Yeah, I guess if you look at it that way. You're in the right place.

Carl: Yeah, this is just more interesting.

Colby: It is, and I was thinking it brings it down to earth in the sense that we are in a world right now with so much great technology, so many things going on. And we get to be at that threshold where it meets the real world. All of the manufacturing, the production, the physical aspects, the world that now get touched by this software and technology. That's really interesting and so there is so much room to run on just optimizing, improving and applying all these developments that are happening everyday. So it is very exciting, it is just as exciting as it ever was I'd say.

Carl: It also still feels 15 years in, it's still feels like we are just getting started. Which is maybe a contradictory feeling, but it really does because you are always building some new ... not only a new feature but you're always planning for the feature after that, and the feature after that. And building new foundations to support bigger and better things, so it never gets old.

Don: With that in mind, speaking of building, let's go back to the product. So it sounds like you're here and you like what you're doing. Ignition eight, big release for IA, absolutely. But when you guys look at that, I mean the work that was put into that, what does the latest version mean for you? In terms of the progress that you made, in terms of the features that were able to be included. In terms of its utilization, and those next steps. What you're saying Carl is there's always something else to build. So this is a big step, it's not the end step but it's a big step. Talk about Ignition eight in that context.

Carl: Yeah, I mean yeah, Ignition eight represents a massive amount of work. Anytime you build a piece of software and people use it and you keep working on it and tinkering and improving it. But technology doesn't ever stay still, and so you have to continually evolve and adapt. And so the big adaption that we knew we needed to do was to have a really first class solution for building user interfaces that were compatible with mobile devices. Because our tried and true vision module that has been out forever, people love it, it's great, it only works on desktop.

Carl: So we have been talking about this for I don't know, the last five or six years. We've known this is coming for a long time, and it took about two and a half years of pretty intensive development to build. And so it is definitely very exciting to have it released and have people using it. That's always the goal, you don't want to build things and then not release them. You want to get the tools in peoples hands and let people do interesting things with them. So that's pretty exciting, it's exciting to have ... The other thing is that not only does the perspective module bring us into the world of mobile devices and obviously mobile devices are taking over much of the computing world.

The other exciting thing is that it was a really fascinating and gratifying exercise to rethink what's possible in a rapid application development environment. The vision module is much beloved by many people and it does a lot of things incredibly well. And through the process of building it we've learned many, many things about what makes a great application building environment. And so we were able to ... It's always fun when you get to start fresh on a new thing. There's all possibilities and opportunities are open in front of you. So it was really interesting to be able to design this new environment from the ground up. I think there was a lot of very exciting things that are going to save people a bunch of time, and make the product super powerful. I'm very excited to see what kind of interesting applications people build with it.

Don: Yeah, the Ignition community conference this year we're going to have some other customers coming in and saying, look what you did with this.

Carl: Right.

Don: That's pretty cool.

Carl: Yep, that will be really neat.

Don: How about your thoughts on that Colby.

Colby: Yeah this release really was like two releases in one. Because we get to introduce a brand new technology that Carl just talked about with perspective which is really incredible. I think it's going to take people ... It's brand new, we're going to keep developing it. We've got so many ideas and then it's going to take a while for the user community to understand it and really start to employ it. And so that's very exciting, at the same time we also took the opportunity to basically leverage ... We're talking about Ignition eight, Ignition seven came out in 2010. So yeah, nine years ago. And we did lots of updates along the way but we wanted to take our experience over those nine years and wrap up some fundamental platform changes that would set us up for the next stage.

The way the software’s been used has evolved over nine years. Our customers needs have evolved, when you talk about the internet of things and all of that. A lot of that is driven by changes in technology that the computing power of devices, the cost of those devices, the ability to connect those devices and get data. Those three things have changed the world basically in terms of where we operate. So that means some things for us, a lot more data, a lot more need to rapidly be able to describe model of the data, get to it and visualize it.

Colby: So we did something I think that's unusual which is that Ignition has managed to stay relevant for those nine years. It's never been outdated, it's evolved along the way, and here with eight we've managed to continue that evolution in a way that's going to set us up for the next stage of development. So yeah, that's what I'm excited about, we've delivered a lot and I'm probably more excited about what it represents internally as a way for us to create a new foundation for the next stage.

Carl: Yeah, it's really nice to be able to set yourself up for a brand new ... a bunch of new ideas from a technology point of view and at the same time maintain continuity.

Don: With the past.

Carl: Yeah, it's not like we had to say, okay, here's a brand new product. Ignition, we didn't have to build some brand new thing that wasn't Ignition. We just were able to take Ignition and retrofit a bunch of ideas that we had into it and provide nearly seamless upgrade continuity. And so that's really exciting to be able to just keep the party going.

Don: Keep it going. So let's ... as we come to the end of our conversation I want to talk just a little bit about the future and give each of you a chance to look into it. So now we got a new stage, with Ignition eight it sets the stage for the next nine years as you were describing Colby. So it opens up a tremendous vista of what we could do and where we could go. And what you see for the possibilities for both Ignition and Inductive Automation. So I think as a final question here, you're talking about being excited, as excited as you've ever been. So with that excitement both about the company and about the product, what do you think, maybe your comments first Colby and then wrap up with you Carl.

Colby: Well one thing I look at a lot is that our genesis came from the cross pollination technology. Which is to say our very beginning was leveraging standard sequel databases in the industrial world which hadn't really been done before. And so if we can go back to the future I think we've got a whole new generation technology that's right for that. And I know that a lot of people around here, Steve especially are really excited about the potential of once again leveraging some of the technology that's becoming mature now in the industrial space. So we've got a lot of things we're working on in that regard, that will change the way we think about storing data, analyzing data, and making sense out of it.

Don: That's great. Thanks. How about you Carl?

Carl: Oh let's see, I mean yeah I think I said new beginning before and it does feel like that. Because we've got this brand new product release, we're in this new building that has a bunch of room for hiring expansion. And so it does feel like we're embarking on the next chapter of both the product and the company all at once. Which is exciting, like Colby said, there's a lot of interesting opportunity for new modules, improved modules. Continuing to expand the technological possibilities of what people can build with Ignition. There's also a lot of just changes in how companies are using us in scope mostly.

So early on the product was pretty squarely aimed at install it to solve some problem. Inside of a plant and track this thing that weren't tracking before. Or generate that report that you couldn't generate before. Or gain insight into the system that was only visible by walking down onto the plant floor. And now you can get it on your desktop. It's very ... Install Ignition to solve some problem. And now what we're seeing is much broader enterprise reach within companies. And so that brings with it, its own set of challenges for the product to have better experiences when you have dozens and dozens of copies of Ignition all working together. And how do you keep them all updated and monitoring them and so on and so on. So there's all sorts of fun new challenges and fun new opportunities.

Which is great, and I think if we look at industry overall and the challenges companies are facing. To make whatever terms are applied, their own digital transformation, the role is getting bigger and bigger for what Inductive Automation and the Ignition platform can play to empower those companies to accomplish that. So I just want to say thank you, to both of you for taking the time to be part of the conversation today. We really appreciate it, I know that all of our listeners are definitely going to appreciate it. So with that, thanks for your time.

Colby: Great, thanks.

Carl: Thank you.



Posted on June 19, 2019