‘Internet of things isn’t just about smart machines, it’s a fusion of technologies’

Ahead of this year’s IoT Summit in Dublin, Caroline Dowling, business group president at Flex, reflects on her career and offers her views on the future of tech

4th June, 2017
Caroline Dowling, group president at Flex: ‘We are now entering the fourth industrial revolution’ Picture: Justin Farrelly

County Cork native Caroline Dowling is president of the Communications & Enterprise Compute (CEC) Business Group at Flex, a Nasdaq-listed electronics maker which designs and “builds intelligent products for a connected world”. A Harvard graduate and 19-year veteran with Flex, she has run the tech giant’s cloud, enterprise, telecom and compute business group for the past five years. Here, she gives some insights into her career and reveals how she sees her industry developing in the future.

Describe your daily work routine.

I run a business group called CEC, Communications (telco), Enterprise Compute and Cloud Data Center Solutions. It is our largest division with about $9 billion in revenue, or 35 per cent of our $24 billion annual revenue.

Our CEC division designs, manufactures and delivers solutions and products to telcos such as Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia, network providers such as Cisco and Juniper, converged and security such as Intel, Citrix, FireEye, Nimble Storage and cloud data centres with IBM, SoftLayer, Google and others in both hardware and software solutions.

Most recently, we have been expanding to provide cloud, security and storage solutions to the automotive, digital healthcare and smart city industries. The infrastructure sector is changing a lot and at speed, shifting to open platforms in technology hardware and software – whereby we are creating building blocks and architecture that optimises performance for future demands on storage capacity, speed in networks, zero latency tolerance through telcos, networks and, of course, data storage security.

Alongside our team, I focus on product design, product roadmapping, technology partnerships, manufacturing, logistics, market share, growth, and financial results. I spend time with our customers, investors and industry analysts, time with our technology partners and, of course, our own employees. All of these conversations are focused on what’s going on now and what’s next: how can we sustain momentum and deliver.

I believe the only sustainable advantage is around people and culture – culture is the bridge between strategy and execution; our people are the glue that holds it together and deliver.

What do you do away from work?

I love cooking, reading, music and hanging with my family and friends. When it comes to our holidays, I have to note, as any true Corkwoman would, travelling to west Cork is my destination of choice. That is where we holiday with our family and friends, hitting Finbarr’s or Der’s for a cold one, or sitting outside Denny’s on a sunny afternoon catching up. You can’t beat that.

We decided many years ago that keeping the family in Ireland was better for us; allowing us to raise our family within an Irish culture, a somewhat slower pace where the extended family and neighbours help a lot. That is something to be treasured, and I appreciate it. We were not willing to sacrifice this by moving and separating ourselves from our extended family and friends. Of course, if we moved, it would mean less travel for me. However, it was an informed choice and one I would make again today.

We have to imagine a world where hardware is potentially free or leased in the business model. Software is also perhaps free; the model will be built around solutions and delivery of these in a secure connected environment. That’s a lot of change compared to today

Tell us something very few people know about you.

I will be a grandma any day now, so definitely no moving me now. We are excited about our daughter Sarah and husband Tim’s pending arrival, nicknamed ‘Freddie’. We don’t know if it is a boy or girl yet . . . going the old-fashioned way on this one. It really is a special time in life for us all.

Every grandparent I know has shared this and the experience is simply beautiful. Owen and I and Sarah’s stepbrothers, Cian and Eanna, are already figuring out how to spoil this welcome addition to our family. All going well, we will be celebrating ‘Freddie’s’ arrival shortly.

You are speaking at the forthcoming national IoT Summit in Dublin. What will be the focus of your talk?

Our world has evolved through innovation from the industrial revolution to the information age, and we are now entering the fourth industrial revolution, which is being driven by technology. We hear a lot about IoT, internet of things, and the digital era. However, it’s not just about smart and connected machines or devices: it is a fusion of technologies in digital, medical, automotive, energy and the physical infrastructure itself. It is a change on how we communicate, operate, exist. I will look at how technology is driving a paradigm shift in how we deliver a connected world and look at what it means to us.

What do you see as the main challenges ahead for the IoT?

Regulatory and business models need to change pretty dramatically – that is critical. We have to imagine a world where hardware is potentially free or leased in the business model, software is also perhaps free; the model will be built around solutions and delivery of these in a secure connected environment. That’s a lot of change compared to today and companies need to think through what changes they need to make to address this.

What innovations do you envisage will be developed over the next ten years in the IoT space?

The speed of change will be incredible. Just think: this time ten years ago, Apple launched its first iPhone. Look at how smartphones and the way we communicate and connect have transformed and enriched our lives. The evolution of IoT will follow a similar path. There will be significant progress in connectivity, sensors and cloud-based analytics which will allow faster and better decision-making across all industries.

As we connect these billions of “things” or devices, increased data, and latency becomes a critical factor to deliver some of these crucial services such as autonomous driving, AR/VR etc.

Other innovations include:

- Connected agriculture will move to vertical and in-vitro food production, which will see higher yields from crops, lower inputs required to produce them, including a significantly reduced land footprint, and the return of unused farmland to increase biodiversity and carbon when in autopilot mode.

- Connected healthcare will move from the current reactive model to a more predictive healthcare, with sensors alerting of irregularities before any significant incident occurs, and the possibility to schedule and 3D print “spare parts”.

- Connected manufacturing will enable the transition to manufacturing as a service, distributed manufacturing (3D printing) and make mass customisation with batch sizes of one very much the norm.

- Connected energy, with the sources of demand able to ‘listen’ to supply signals from generators, will facilitate moving to a system of demand more closely matching supply (with cheaper storage, low carbon generation, and end-to-end connectivity). This will stabilise the grid and eliminate the fluctuations introduced by increasing the percentage of variable generators (solar, wind) in the system, thereby reducing electricity generation’s carbon footprint.

- Human computer interfaces will migrate from today’s text-based and touch-based systems towards augmented and mixed reality (AR and MR) systems, with voice and gesture-enabled UIs.

Caroline Dowling is keynote speaker at the IOT Summit 2017 on June 22 at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. See iotsummit.ie for more details

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