CTO Sessions: Dan Picker, Inseego

What type of CTO are you? “I have always felt that my first responsibility as a CTO is to envision the things that people (or businesses) don’t yet know they can’t live without, and then to realise those innovations.”

Headshot of Dan Picker, CTO at Inseego

Name: Dan Picker

Company: Inseego

Job title: Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: September 2019

Location: California, United States

Dan Picker is an industry veteran with more than 30 years of experience in developing and deploying wireless infrastructure, software, medical devices, applications, and mobile devices, including strategic planning and global platform management for companies like Nokia and PureWave Networks. Before joining Inseego, he served as an advisor and board member for many companies, guiding the wireless enablement of medical devices and other products that now benefit from 4G and 5G connectivity. Picker also holds over 20 wireless technology patents and publications.

What was your first job? My first job was as a computer programmer/analyst for a small company that developed utility billing systems for city governments and housing authorities. It began as a summer position after my first year of college, building upon work I had done on my own the previous couple of years developing a financial software suite for small businesses. This was during the transition of large organisations from mainframe to mini-computers, and even as a young pre-degree software engineer, I was given the freedom and trust to design solutions along with the customer, and then implement and deploy those solutions in the real world. I maintained that part-time job throughout my undergraduate college years, letting it go only when I transitioned to graduate school. I credit the trust that the company put in me, and the growth it allowed me to attain to the way I approach my team members, whether interns or seasoned professionals.

Did you always want to work in IT? Well, other than occasional delusions of rock stardom as a professional drummer I always saw myself in the IT industry. As personal computers started to hit homes and businesses in the late 70s, I took to programming them and quickly realised that, especially with the advent of MIDI, there was a potential intersection between my love of music and my interest in computers. Software came easy to me, hardware less so. So I decided to study hardware (electrical engineering). I’ve found that the hard path is generally more rewarding than the easy one, although it rarely feels that way while on the path.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I hold B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering, all from the University of California, with my Ph.D. emphasis in Communication Theory and Systems.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. After my college job working as a programmer/analyst, my first post-graduate school job in the wireless industry was with Nokia Mobile Phones, during the very exciting period in the early-mid 1990s when few people had cell phones. Our shared goal was to put a phone into every person’s pocket, and later to put the internet into every person’s pocket. I’ve learned to be more careful about what I wish for 😊

During my years at Nokia, I learned that it is important to have an opinion about pretty much everything, and to back that opinion up with actions. The result was that the company told me to, in effect, put my ideas into action and gave me ever-increasing amounts of responsibility to make that possible. I started as a senior programmer for software test equipment, then added the software test group itself, then the software development groups, then the hardware development groups, and finally the entire device platform. The sad part of this is that it became impossible to continue the hands-on work I loved so much as my scope and responsibilities grew. But I learned to drive a large team to execute the resolution of complex problems.

I then took this knowledge to the startups of Silicon Valley, where I first found myself in the position of CTO in what would become a small-cell base station company. From there it was a series of stints working for or with small and large companies, always in the CTO capacity. Along the way I took a detour (or rather an expansion) in that I brought medical device development into my repertoire.

Nearly a decade ago, I started a consulting company, which led to a primary focus on working with pharma companies to develop medical devices that improve the efficacy of the medications they offer, while improving the patient journey. In fact, this has been a personal journey for me and one that I still nurture, but the advent of 5G was too exciting for me to ignore and so I eventually found my way to my current position as CTO of Inseego Corp.

For diversity and a different type of challenge, I also held a part-time lecturer position for some time at the University of California, San Diego, where I taught senior-level electrical engineering courses. It is hard (and somewhat horrifying) to imagine that my career has, so far, spanned nearly 4 decades since my first job.

What type of CTO are you? I have always felt that my first responsibility as a CTO is to envision the things that people (or businesses) don’t yet know they can’t live without, and then to realise those innovations. Before everyone had a cell phone in their pocket few people yearned for one. Now we can’t live without it. In the beginning, there were only macro base stations, now a wireless operator cannot live without the flexibility and performance that only a small cell base station can provide. They could not imagine not having them in their arsenal. For me, it is always about the end-user and the end-use case. Technology may be beautiful, but I prefer to focus on its utility in solving real-world problems. This is what drives me.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? 5G is extremely exciting to me, as it is the first wireless technology that has the potential to compete with fiber on a large scale. I am also fascinated by the potential of AI/ML, especially as applied to video. The combination of 5G and AI is especially exciting and is one of my key focus areas at this point in time. I am also motivated by advances in clean energy, from solar power to electric vehicles.  I believe that we have a social and moral responsibility to future generations to actively develop clean and sustainable sources of energy, and I honestly think there are few things more important than that right now.

Are there any technologies that you think are overhyped? Why? I think that the pragmaticism of the world does a pretty good job discerning real from imaginary, and innovation comes from dreaming the impossible. So while I clearly believe certain concepts get more noise than is likely warranted at this stage, I wouldn’t dream of underestimating and thereby potentially hampering the innovation of bright minds.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Although it’s very much a work in progress, I am proud of the progress we’ve made at Inseego in transforming ourselves from an access device company to an end-to-end solution provider. Although a portion of our business has always focused on solutions, it is exciting to leverage the expertise and customer base we’ve built in that respect towards uniting those solutions with our latest 5G technology, combined with new technologies we are working on. 

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? As mentioned previously, we are driving a transformation from devices to solutions. In a broader sense, this is about unifying the various components of a network towards a shared purpose. As an example, a dumb bit pipe may allow you to transfer a lot of data from one place to another very quickly; however, a smart pipe may allow you to just as adeptly transfer only the right data at the right time. This results in operational efficiency (conservation of resources), revenue growth (recurring service revenue), and overall cost savings and performance improvements for the customer – truly a win-win-win.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Inseego is connecting the world to the internet. The internet is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity in today’s world. For underserved areas that means providing high-performance broadband where it previously did not exist. For enterprises, it means securely connecting their employees wherever they may be working, and for cities, it means connecting traffic lights, cameras, and sensors to the intranet of things. We are connecting everything. That is what we do.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? We offer a broad set of devices that together cover a wide swath of business needs, and then offer software solutions that tailor those products to specific vertical applications. The solutions and the devices they build upon have been developed iteratively, with input and feedback from our customer base, to ensure they meet the needs of the end-user.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? In an industry of wireless operators that control their distribution chain, and multi-level channels elsewhere, it can be a challenge to enable an effective input and feedback relationship with end-users. Combine this with the long development cycles of today’s cutting-edge equipment and it’s clear that tech and product strategies must be interwoven.

What makes an effective tech strategy? I believe that within a commercial product company, technology strategy cannot move too far ahead of the ability to realise the technology in products. There should be a concurrent and continuing strategy involving innovation, implementation, commercial release, feedback, and improvement. In this way, the technology strategy is simply a component of the overall product development/release cycle. Along the way, innovation must be protected for the security of the company.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? With the fast pace of today’s technological innovations, the CTO of a commercial product company cannot afford to indulge in technology simply for the sake of its beauty or elegance. CTO is a pragmatic role that needs to marry what is possible with what makes sense to the business. The successful CTO will need to lean as much into customer engagements as with technology strategy and development, while simultaneously working with the business to align available technology with product strategy.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I am proud of the products and innovations I’ve driven, from driving a team that ultimately met and exceeded seemingly impossible specs for a small cell that would have to operate from the stratosphere to the development of test equipment that reduced development testing time from days to minutes. But frankly, I am most pleased that I am able to look back across my career and feel that everything my teams and I have accomplished was done with the goal of making life better or easier for people. That is always the end goal.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I was a working software engineer in the earliest days of Silicon Valley, I sometimes mused about whether I should have foregone college altogether. However, I believe that the combination of experience and education made me who I am and I cannot regret that. From a technology standpoint, I wish I had increased my focus on green energy technology earlier in my career.  Although it’s easy to tie almost any technology to green improvements it will bring, that is rarely the focus. In the future, I hope to increase my focus on that.

What are you reading now? Far and Wide, ‘Bring that Horizon to Me!’ by Neil Peart. Talent Wins, ‘The new playbook for putting people first’ by Charan, Barton, and Carey. Daemon by Daniel Suarez (re-reading in light of today’s new AR innovations)

Most people don't know that I… am a drummer, and (at least pre-COVID) could often be found playing in local clubs or restaurants on evenings and weekends. I am also the General Partner of a real-estate partnership with a portfolio of both residential and commercial properties.

In my spare time, I like to…play drums, play piano, ski, walk, read, travel, and explore.

Ask me to do anything but… attend workshops or long meetings. I can’t sit still and my mind wanders.