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July 17, 2019 · 9 min read

Investing in a smart home that won’t soon be obsolete with Ben Williams of SAV Digital Environments

Despite the hype surrounding virtual assistants like Alexa or Google Home, a fully digital home isn’t a reality quite yet. But can we prepare our homes for the future, to avoid tearing down walls later? How can we invest in home technology without worrying it will be obsolete in two years?

Ben Wiliams, Technical Director at SAV Digital Environments sat with Ledge to chat about the challenges of building future-resistant control systems and keeping them up and running under any circumstances.

Ben also talks about the next big thing in the software side of custom integration and smart buildings, as well as lessons learned from managing hardware engineering teams.

Ben Williams

Technical Director at SAV Digital Environments
Read transcript

Ledge: Hey, Ben. Good to have you on.

Ben: Hey. Thanks for having me.

Ledge: Awesome. So, maybe give your two, three minute background story of you and your work and then we’ll jump into some chats about tech.

Ben: Sure. My background is originally in mechanical engineering and commercial fishing.

I moved out to Bozeman four years ago and got into the CI industry. Thought it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I did everything I could to get my foot in the door. Started working as a design engineer for a company out here, and it was a huge learning experience learning the technical details of CI and also the details of organization and keeping that on.

I run the design department for an AV company in Bozeman, and my primary focus has been on polishing the final product of what we do. It’s one of the biggest challenges of working in custom integration. With so much growth, so much no change all the time, is making sure that your team can put together something that, when someone walks in to use, works every single time without question.

Ledge: So, talk about custom integration. What’s that look like? For people not familiar with the space, what are the core tenets or what kind of work do you guys do?

Ben: It mostly consists of audio, video, lighting control, motorized shade, security surveillance. Basically, anything that would go into a house or building with low voltage wire that wouldn’t be handled by another trade.

We have our specialties of those core groups. We also have an unofficial expectation that we are the people who can figure out a weird question. When somebody comes to the builder, to the general contractor, or anyone and they’re trying to accomplish something that hasn’t been really done before or that no one else knows how to do, we figure out how to do it and we make it happen.

Ledge: There’s so much chatter in the news. It’s Christmas time, right? People are buying Google Homes and Alexas and all these things.

How does this bump up against what you would hear in the news as, ‘smart home’? Where does is the fit-in with all that? On our side there’s a lot of software that goes into that, and app development and all these things. People want to control their house from their iPhone.

How does this all fit together in your world?

Ben: I think it’s really interesting to compare and contrast what you think of when you see in the news, talking about a smart home versus the reality of what it takes to go in and what’s actually going in. We’re doing voice control a lot. We’re doing heavy controls systems.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that we’re on the very cutting edge of technology. The reason that we’re not is because we’re designing and building things that go on to become part of a house or the part of the building. The most important thing, again, again as I brought it forward, is that it works every single time.

So, where we are is on the line of the cutting edge of what works every single time. What we can test and verify goes in all the time.

Voice control, for example, is super cool, I’m really excited about it. We’re watching it heavily and we’re testing with all the manufacturers and people who are developing it, but we haven’t seen it go in in professional installs very much because it’s just not quite there. It’s not quite intuitive.

Ledge: Right. You want to have the things like, “Hey Google, turn my lights on,” or whatever. Ultimately you want it to work, but right now it’s not a stable solution that you literally build into structure. You don’t make that your Google Home AI yet. You hope that the interface is exposed later so that you can do that without tearing your house down, I guess. Does that come up a lot?

Ben: Absolutely. We have a primarily responsibility to design these things as much as possible to be, if not future proof, future resistant.

Even when voice control comes along, the most effective way we’ll be able to implement it is layering it on top of other control systems. It’s extremely powerful on its own. You can use it to control lights right now. You can use it to control music. But to do the more interesting stuff – opening doors, knowing what you’re doing – all of that, you’ll want to have that strong background of a control system and a system that’s designed to work independently of it as well.

Ledge: What does a control system look alike? Are we talking about a bunch of a computers in a closet now? What happens in a home that is trying to use these things? What’s the actual control system?

Ben: Pretty much. It’s usually one main computer that’s controlling the overall systems. The most robust way to handle this stuff is to have each individual subsystem – say you have motorized shades in a residence, say you have audio distribution to a residence – you want all of that to work independently so that the control system can tell that what to do.

You never want to be in a position where a computer dies and you can’t push a button to turn a light on.

Ledge: Does that happens sometimes, where you have trouble integrating all those things, or is this a pretty common type of problem now?

Ben: It can happen. It can happen if you don’t think about it ahead of time, and it’s easy to fall into that trap.

We’re fortunate to be in a particularly difficult place to do the basic stuff because power can be inconsistence and internet connectivity can be inconsistent. So, built into the DNA of SAV is creating these things to be robust, to be bomb proof, because you never know what’s going to happen. You don’t have much control over the exterior circumstances, working on a mountain in Montana.

Ledge: We work with tons of software engineers and entrepreneurs that are always looking for interesting projects and to get involved in the next thing there.

What do you see on the software side for these controls systems and integration points and all that? Is there any unaddressed or poorly addressed area? Where might somebody spend their time and investment to get involved, or maybe some opportunities for business there?

Ben: There’s a few places. I think the biggest thing to keep an eye on is network security, and in general security. People have been able to rely for so long on just expecting not to be noticed if you have holes in your network, if you have vulnerabilities. You can’t rely on that anymore. It’s been a learning process and it’s been an adjusting process for the whole industry.

We have a huge responsibility to the clients. We’re not just putting in networks as a backbone for these systems so they can communicate, we’re also responsible for the security of them and for the security of everything else that’s going to be on that network. It’s not just our stuff that’s going to be attached to that once that system gets turned over, it’s going to be anybody with a password.

Ledge: Yeah. Security and IOT and hijacked devices. The idea that your refrigerator can hear everything that you’re doing. I think there’s a lot of sort of crazy looks at the Internet of Things that, now we need to realize that every device has an IP address and it’s connected. That’s cool and it’s neat that your pantry can order new stuff when you run out, or whatever happens, but you have the obligation then to harden that network and each device on there. You can no longer just install a Linux virtual machine on your router and set it and forget it, because that thing is going to get probed and hacked every minute of every day.

Ben: Yes. Thinking about how you maintain updates and security updates to hundreds and hundreds of networks that belong to other people, that you’ve hand off to other people it requires a much more hand-in-hand relationship with clients now than it used to. As you said, you can’t set and forget. Once you’ve done it, you have a responsibility.

Ledge: Do you have to take responsibility for updating the firmware on all these devices once when they’re in somebody’s house? Is there a kind of a service contract relationship?

I mean, a regular homeowner would never be able to keep up with all this stuff. If my shades are internet connected, there’s a firmware update.

How do you deal with the ongoing maintenance and service of a system like that?

Ben: It’s absolutely a service contract and an ongoing personal relationship all the time.

What I do, my primary responsibility here is the upfront design. Is setting standards, maintaining standards, and designing these jobs so that they’re future proof, bomb proof, and they work the way you want them to do.

Then, as a company, we’re also responsible for maintaining service, keeping in touch, especially on the side of network, especially on the side of surveillance and security and access control. Where, if things were to go wrong, if you don’t stay on top of that, you could have actual serious repercussions. It’s one thing for your music not to play, it’s another thing for your cameras not to be secure anymore.

Ledge: Or if all your doors unlock or something at the same time, right?

Ben: Exactly. Exactly.

Ledge: It’s very interesting. Let me ask you this. We’re in the business of evaluating really excellent engineers. We work in the software space, but I think across disciplinary approach. I’m thinking about engineering from a mechanical and systems and integration.

What do you look for when you’re thinking about, hey, what’s a really great engineer? What are the heuristics or the traits of an excellent engineer that you want to work with? [00:10:13]

Ben: My answer to that has changed. If you had asked me a few years ago versus today, especially when I first started managing engineers, my highest priority was technical expertise. I love working with people who are the best at what they do, who know the most, who can bring the experience and the understanding, and can answer the kind of questions that no one else can answer.

That said, at this point, my most primary, my most important factor is being a team player. Is being able to work with the people around you. Being willing to take responsibility.

It’s all about the soft skills. You learn that when in school as an engineer, and people don’t take it seriously as they should until they’re in the workforce, until they’re working with other people. It’s great if you know everything but it doesn’t help anyone knowing everything if you’re not good at communicating that. If you’re not good at taking responsibility. Unless you’re the kind of person who people want to work with.

Ledge: Couldn’t say it better myself.

Well, Ben, thanks so much joining us. Really enjoyed the insights. I know personally I’m looking forward to when my home can do all these things. So, please go and make this as affordable as possible.

Ben: I’ll do that. Thank you very much, David.