In this conversation, we’re talking about onboarding new sales engineers straight out of college with Inductive University, gaining hands-on experience, and fostering creativity. Learn about a workshop process that increases customers’ satisfaction and confidence by keeping them involved from design to implementation. Hear about some of Vertech’s national rollouts for MES solutions, building a greenfield and in-office brewery, and what it means to be a Premier Integrator.
“You know I think everyone is pretty well aware in the industry now of the different approach that Ignition takes ... This is something we can commit to and we can build a business around.”
Titus has over 25 years of experience in the industrial automation industry. He obtained a BSEE from LeTourneau University in 1993 and is a registered professional engineer in Arizona. He has designed and managed automation projects in multiple industries, including semiconductors, municipal water treatment, food and beverage, and baggage handling. As President of Vertech, Titus doesn’t get to program anymore, but does get to lead an outstanding team of the best and brightest programmers delivering world-class projects. Outside of the office, Titus is an avid scuba diver, traveler, and geek (ham radio call sign AF7MI).
Lauren: Hello, and welcome to Inductive Conversations. I'm Lauren, and I'm subbing in for Don Pierson today. We're here at ICC 2019, and we're sitting down with Titus Crabb, the President of Vertech. Titus, thank you so much for being here today.
Titus: Thanks Lauren, thanks for having me.
Lauren: You're welcome. So can you give us a little bit of an introduction to Vertech and your role as the president?
Titus: Sure. So Vertech is a control systems integration company. We're based in Phoenix, Arizona, that's where I'm officed out of, and we've been in Phoenix since 2004, so this is our 15th anniversary this year. And we have an office in Nashville, Tennessee, and one in Irvine, California. President, I'm still not sure what I do. That role has changed a lot for me since we started. I started it in my spare bedroom 15 years ago.
Titus: So I've had to reinvent myself a lot over the years, and today my role is largely strategic. And then I still jump in where needed to fill gaps.
Lauren: What was it like starting that in your basement? What's the story there?
Titus: Well, okay, long story. But the short version is I wasn't allowed to work for a competitor of a company that I had left, and so, ironically enough, that's why I wound up having to start my own company 'cause it was the only way I was able to put food on the table for my family. So it was a huge change in life, and at first it was... I would love to say that there was this grand plan in mind, that I was gonna start this great company and we were gonna go take the world by storm, but it really just started out of necessity, and then as I got great people along the way that joined me, we started to see what we could pull off. And so today, it is what it is.
Lauren: Seems like it paid off. Seems like even if there wasn't a master plan, it all kinda came together, huh? So can you tell us a little bit about when you first discovered Ignition?
Titus: Sure. So I was very skeptical, and there were lots of new products coming on the market in, I guess, the mid 2000s, started around 2010, and Vanessa from Inductive Automation kept calling me and calling me and calling me, and I just never returned her calls. And she would send me emails, and I just really didn't think that we needed another SCADA product in the market. And we were heavy users of all of the usual suspects, and we hired a guy, Chris McLaughlin, who was a big Ignition user, and he talked to us about it and gave us the sales pitch, and we got all of our programmers, senior guys, in a room and had a Travis from Inductive here do his usual introduction of the product. So he downloaded the software and created an entire working project with all the pieces that you need in a normal SCADA in 45 minutes, and we were all just completely sold after that. So it took a while to integrate it into our culture and into our skill set as a team to find projects to do with it. Vanessa actually still gives me a really hard time about that.
Lauren: I'm sure she does.
Titus: And so, now Lester is our account executive 'cause I don't think she wants to work with us. Just kidding, Vanessa.
Lauren: Oh. [laughter] So she put her husband on it, huh?
Titus: Exactly, yeah.
Lauren: That's awesome. We're also excited we're going to interview Chris as well, so I'm sure we'll get the Chris perspective on an upcoming episode.
Titus: I'm curious to hear what his side of this was.
Lauren: The Titus versus Chris Ignition debate. [chuckle] Well, that's exciting. You guys are known around our office for your leveraging of Inductive University, which is a free online learning platform. You have made it part of your onboarding program to bring all of your integrators through IU. Can you talk a little bit about that choice, what that looks like in your workflow, and how that's helped your company?
Titus: Sure. So we hire a lot of entry-level engineers, we hire mechanicals, electricals, and computer science people every year. We work with ASU, Arizona State University, both the main campus and the Polytechnic campus, and then we do... We actually have a guy right now that is at a career fair in Southern Arizona, and we go to eight different schools every year to recruit entry-level people. Part of that is what I feel is our way to give back to the industry. Someone hired me right out of school and taught me this business, and it's been a fantastic career. So I think it's something we're all obligated to do to a degree, but also the younger people, when they come in from school come in with blank slates, and they don't know what can't be done and they don't know how it's always been done, so they bring great creativity to our organization and add so much.
So Inductive University is a great tool for that to get them a quick kick-start into the industry because it's so much to learn. They don't get maybe the details about PLC programming and that side of things, but they start to learn the terminology that they're gonna need when they do start to learn that. So they'll learn what a tag is, and their brains start asking, "Where does that come from?" and that leads kind of into our next training that we do for them, which is some, frankly, fairly rudimentary at this point, but we have a curriculum that we've put together that we... Teaches them how to go online with PLC and and learn how to program. But the Inductive University also gives us a way when they first come on board and they're in that awkward, don't know anybody and this is their first job. It's something for them to do and to occupy their time, and they feel like they're doing something super valuable too, which they are, and then they get that credential at the end of it and it's their first real success in their career. So we rarely hire a senior person anymore that doesn't already know Ignition. So it's not really like everybody that comes on board goes through it, but definitely the entry-level folks.
Lauren: That's super interesting. And relating to that, the state of the university system right now, the larger educational system, that many young engineers are coming in with some experience in Python, which Ignition is run on, and all of these great technical skills, but they don't necessarily have that industry background. Has that changed over time? And how do you think we can improve that as we move forward? Since you're working with a lot of young engineers.
Titus: It has changed over time. I do think it's gotten better when I was in school, which was longer ago than... I just had my 30th anniversary so I don't... But anyway, when I was in school there was no such thing as any individual course for industrial automation. When I interviewed, I didn't know what ladder logic was, I had never heard of PLC, I didn't know HMI, nothing, I was a completely blank slate. And the school system has gotten a little better with it, ASU has a polytechnic campus that does teach some industrial automation courses. The guy who teaches that, Professor Gintz, is a former Rockwell employee, so he understands the industry, but it's still not a core. You can't get a degree in industrial automation, they still treat it from an end user perspective that might wanna figure out how to put a full manufacturing plant together. So where does a machine go? What kind of machines, sourcing the different pieces that need to go into manufacturing of a product, where from the integration side, our job is to connect all those things together and in a wide variety of industries. So it's a really different perspective and I don't know of any school that actually is teaching that side of things.
Lauren: Absolutely, and if you're hiring a lot of young engineers it sounds like you've really built out kind of a pipeline to put them through to kind of get them up to speed.
Titus: We have. In addition to Inductive University, one of our inaugural events for any new person is to take them to a waste water treatment plant, [chuckle] just to... We figure if they don't run away after going to a water treatment plant, then they'll make good Controls Engineers. We do, it's a process of both learning the technology in their first year, which can be pretty diverse as well as learning the different domains that we work in. We're expected to understand how a treatment plant works in the water world and we do a lot of work in other industries as well. And you just have to learn exactly how those things work so you can write code to control them.
Lauren: Absolutely, so a little bit of hazing, but nothing too harsh.
Titus: No, nothing too harsh.
Lauren: Speaking of that, I was looking at your website and I noticed that you call yourselves a team of evil geniuses. I also love that you use the word control freak. Can you talk a little bit about the philosophy there? What's the thought behind that?
Titus: So I have always thought that there's no reason you can't come to work and do something you're really super proud of and that stands out in industry and you get recognition for and really be the best and not still have fun along the way. So we try to foster that sort of a culture in our office. And little things like that set the tone that it is okay to crack a joke around the boss. I don't want to walk into a room of engineers and have them all of a sudden get quiet and feel like the whip's about to be cracked. And I think a lot of companies have caught on to this now, that people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and part of that is giving them the opportunity to enjoy life and not having to have work be this thing that you just hate getting up in the morning and going to do. I also think that it helps with creativity and even productivity. There's lots of studies out about that, but if you take a break every now and then and shoot your neighbor in the head with a dart gun, it will help you reset your mind a little bit and go attack a problem that maybe you've been spending your wheels on for a bit with a new perspective and solve things faster.
But certainly from a creativity standpoint too, fun is a great way... Or having play in general having fun is a great way to keep the creative juices flowing.
Lauren: And how do you guys kind of foster that within an office environment? How do you think other integration firms or other engineering firms can kind of take that culture to another level in their offices?
Titus: Thankfully I'm not so sure we're super unique in this anymore.
Lauren:: Okay, that's good to hear.
Titus: There's a lot of companies out there that are catching on to this, and maybe it's a generational shift.
Lauren: Speaking of that workplace morale, I have heard tell of a certain home brew or maybe work brew set up at the Vertech office, it might run on a certain platform that we like, what's the scoop on that?
Titus: So there's a lot of beer lovers in our office and a lot of home brewers and we remodeled our office, oh man, five years ago, or six years ago, and we really wanted to do a health and wellness program. So, I had the bright idea of putting a shower in the office, because our office backs up to the beautiful Phoenix Mountain Preserve, which is a gorgeous place to go hike, and so if you wanna go hike there at lunch, you'd need a shower. I was the only person to ever use it in four years and I only used it once. So rather than have Health and Wellness, we decided to do beer instead. And no kidding, so several of the guys volunteered to rip the shower out and re-tile everything and put in a floor drain and we put a three kettle brewing system in, one of the craft brewers in Southern California helped us with P&ID for it. And it's fully automated so you can... We have PID control for steeping grain. If I might get too geeky here, with the brewing but you can...
Lauren: Bring it on.
Titus: So you can transfer from kettle to kettle, two fermenters all automatically and the front end has ignition on it. So you can set, set points for temperature length of boil, initiate a transfer and then monitor the temperature during steeping which is important and the temperature during fermentation which is important. So we can see if we mess a batch up what went wrong.
Lauren: Oh, mixing a little work and a little fun feels very important to you guys.
Titus: Yes, and we currently have a hazy IPA and a Blue Moon Clone in our kegerator.
Lauren: A Blue Moon Clone?
Lauren: Okay, intriguing. And what other types of projects have you guys been working on lately? Anything particularly of note?
Titus: Well, about a third of our businesses is MES, and then a good chunk of the rest of it is either standalone SCADA systems or traditional automation. I can't mention names but we are doing some really neat things with national roll outs for MES. Going into each individual plant and helping them understand how to be more efficient in their own plant in their own particular situation, but also implementing national standards for these companies. And then we're also doing a full beverage facility, which is a green field plant, so a brand new plant, all MES and SCADA with Ignition on top, which is really cool. It's not very often you get to do that anymore, there are so many upgrades from other technology and so it's been fun to work with this company to see... Just dream from the beginning what could be done, which is really cool.
Lauren: Wow, from the ground all the way up.
Lauren: What does it look like to you just get to be creative from the beginning of that process?
Titus: We do, so we actually do this with upgrades as well but we have a process that involves the client throughout the whole design process and implementation process because honestly that got birthed for two reasons, what we do is so invisible and you can see a building being built, you can see the electrical getting done and everything and then they're just praying that when we show up on site at the very end of it it all magically works. So to try and take some of that stress out of the process for our clients, we implemented this workshop process that starts from the beginning, and it really has helped us too because they're involved in the creative process from the get-go so when they actually see their screens and see their code it's something they like. So we very early on do the normal thing of working through scope and making sure we're all are on the same page about what exactly we're trying to accomplish but then we'll wire frame up screens and then either...
If we're close or if it's a large project we'll fly in and sit down and talk to all of their people, so talk to the operators, do you like what we did with the buttons? And talk to the plant manager, "Do like these reports?" and so we get their feedback early on, and then we go back and do some development and actually get some live things happening on the screens but not the full blown development and we sit down with them again and say, "Did we get the ideas right? Do you like this or would you like some tweaks?" And it helps us because we have less rework on the end when we show up and they think our screens are hideous or something, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But it also helps them being involved in the process and really be proud of what they have and have a really useful system.
Lauren: Yeah, it sounds like you would get a lot of buy-in through that process too, people aren't taking for granted all of the different solutions that are being implemented.
Titus: Yeah, and it's not us forcing some solution on it because it's the best. It's an understanding that the best is something that works for all parties involved. Especially the people that are gonna have to use it for the next 15 years or so.
Lauren: Yeah, those people are important to check in with. So you are a premier integrator with Inductive Automation which is a big deal to us and what does being a premier integrator really mean to you guys into Vertech as a company?
Titus: For us I think it was an understanding that this is the direction that we need to go with technology. We still use other technologies when the client requires it but we really like when Inductive is put together in a product, we love working with the inductive people, the support, the attention that we get when we call with an issue with the software or something. There's no pretentiousness that they'll handle that 10 years down the road or something. And probably a lot of that is because it's still a small company and agile and we really like that, but we also just like what we can do with the software. And I think everyone is pretty well aware of that in industry now, of the different approach that Ignition takes. I've talked to multiple people in the hallways here at ICC about to use it as a platform and then just say yes to whoever in your organization needs something. So that's, I guess, the premier integrator to answer your original question was really us deciding, "Yeah, this is something we can commit to and we can build a business around."
Lauren: Awesome, thank you so much for joining us, Titus, any closing thoughts?
Titus: No, thank you for letting us do this and thank you for putting up with our motorcycle jackets at your conference.
Lauren: We love them, we love the energy you guys always bring in and it's so fun to be able to sit down and actually talk with you about it.
Titus: Awesome, thank you.
Lauren: Oh, thanks so much.