E118: Vince Ball, VP Product Innovation at Nytec – Interview

July 12, 2017


This interview is about creating cutting edge products. It’s with Vince Ball. Vince is the Vice President of Product Innovation at Nytec, which is a product design and integrated technology consulting firm. Their work is primarily around consumer electronics, with a lot of work around IoT and wearables. They have built some amazing products for Xbox, Carnival, Samsung and others.

Vince heads up their Product Innovation Center. This is where Vince and Nytec explore and develop more cutting edge ideas.

Here are some other things we talk about:

-Hear in depth about Vytec’s Carnival Cruise intelligent location and experience project.
-What is Vince especially interested in?
-What does Vince like to do in his spare time? He must have a sweet home.
-How does Nytec’s integrated approach differ from other design firms?



Dave Kruse: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode at Flyover Labs and today we get to talk to Vince Ball. He is the Vince President of Produce Innovation at Nytec. And Nytec is a product designed integrated technology consultant firm, and their work is primarily around lifestyle tech and a lot of work around IoT and wearables and they have built some amazing products for Xbox and Carnival, Samsung and others. So Vince has a real interesting role. He heads up their product innovation center and this is where I think Vince and Nytec explore and develop more cutting edge ideas, but we’ll hear more about that for sure from Vice. Before Nytec Vince was with Microsoft for many years, so I’m looking forward to hearing more about Vince’s background there and how he thinks about design and innovation and what he is pretty excited for now. So Vince, thanks for coming on the show today.

Vince Ball: Yeah, thanks Dave. I’m excited to be a part of this.

Dave Kruse: Definitely. All right, so before we talk about Nytec and what you are doing now, can you tell us a little bit about your background and so we get to know you.

Vince Ball: Yeah, absolutely. So I actually started out at a Paul Allen’s company basically just right out of school. I focused on design at a local university here, in Western Washington University and that was really my first story into software design and development. That was a lot of fun, but it kind of set me up for a position at Microsoft and I did get an opportunity to go work at Microsoft. Ironically I was only supposed to be there a month. I was there to fill in for someone else that had already had a full time position there and they just couldn’t start in time, so I was filling in and I ended up staying for 18 years. So it worked out well. I had a lot of fun in Microsoft, and mainly in the hardware group there focusing on a wide variety of products and that was exciting for me because it really helped me learn how to develop product. Not only develop product, but design and engineer and then manufacture those products at really large scale and a very high quality bar. It also helped me I think understand what customers’ want? What their behaviors are? How they use products? What they care about, mainly around quality.

Dave Kruse: And what were some of the products you worked on?

Vince Ball: Oh yeah! That was the exciting part.

Dave Kruse: Maybe some, could you – especially if you had like some good successes and maybe a follow-up to the existing here.

Vince Ball: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, you know we – gosh! Worked on so many different things from remote controls to mice and key boards to smart toys. We worked on these actimades – speaking of a flop. We worked on these smart animated dolls and one of them was Barney. A really interesting product, but we found out the toy industry is a little different than the consumer electronic industry as far as how quickly they move and how quickly those sort of trends move and so while we developed this product that’s really great for kids, it just wasn’t a category that made sense for us from a development cycle standpoint. And then that moved into, you know moved beyond mice, keyboards, gaming products into sort of ultimately then Surface Computers where I was Design Manager for Surface.

Dave Kruse: Oh cool! Wow! Okay, and so with the Barney product, like what to do – did you guys just not do enough. I mean this is a very common mistake, so you did not put enough research or understand the consumer or understand like this adoption rate or what was it?

Vince Ball: Yeah, we really understood. So what was interesting was we didn’t understand the channel. So we understood the customer, we understood the technology, we understood how to create a unique experience that would engage children in learning. What we didn’t anticipate and I don’t think understood fully is the channel of delivering toys. It’s just a completely different animal and the timeframe you know, every six months they rev the toys. Different toys come out and they become trends and so when you’re developing you know technology, you can’t necessarily respond that quickly and it just was a category that didn’t work for us.

Dave Kruse: Interesting! Okay.

Vince Ball: And I haven’t seen anyone really be successful in that type of category in essence.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, what year was that around that you did that?

Vince Ball: Gosh, it was probably 10 years ago, 10, 12 years ago, yeah. And then on the flipside, you know mice and keyboards have been a category that had been hugely popular as well as profitable for many, many years and obviously with the transition from desktops to notebooks, laptop computers, keyboards that’s a declining market, but we were – we’re still – I think they were still selling like 2 million mice a month.

Dave Kruse: Wow! What?

Vince Ball: So when you think about quantity, yeah and reach and you know everyone has had some access to the Microsoft mouse, so it’s pretty cool when you can develop and design products that have that type of connection with customers.

Dave Kruse: Interesting! So when you’re at Nytec, how is your – I mean I’m sure it helps in many ways, but is there kind of a situation that comes up when your thinking it through product design in Nytec and you’re like Oh! You know we have to make sure we remember the channel strategy and like really research that. Is it something that keeps coming up or is this kind of just an integrated view of it?

Vince Ball: It’s really a more integrated view. We do have situations where we’re new to a particular industry, so you know maybe its we’re developing a IoT product for heavy equipment. Well, that might not be a category that we’re very familiar with. So we definitely do our due diligence on what is the category customers’ bill. So how was our client delivering that product, servicing that product? How do they reach their clients? Is it B2B, is it B2C and that’s really important for us to understand. So we developed the right product, we developed the right distribution. We developed the product in the right place, whether that’s China or Mexico or the US or – so fulfillment is also part of the equation.

Dave Kruse: Got you, okay. Interesting! All right, can you tell us a little bit about your role at Nytec and I’m curious how you got to Nytec and why you left Microsoft?

Vince Ball: Well, yeah so I had a really great gig at Microsoft. I was there for a long time and I had a really strong team and working on great products, so why would you leave? I actually had a family member that was ill, so I decided to leave and spend some time with him and in that process, a friend of mine that owns Nytec and he said, ‘hey, can you come by and I got this new building. I mean I moved some test equipment over there…’ because Nytec historically has been for 43 years an engineering, staffing and test company. So Nytec had a number of large environmental test equipment that they were going to move into this building that we’re in now, our headquarters and I started talking to him a little bit about the business and we started developing what it would mean to actually build a truly world class product design and engineering consultancy. Something that’s different than what our competitors are doing and because we have competitors that are design agencies and they say they do engineering, but they might have a mechanical engineer on staff and it might do something very beautiful, but it’s very difficult or costly to engineer, because they just simply don’t have that experience. And then the other side is an engineering company and engineering companies or consultancies will say they have design, but they might have one industrial designer. They don’t necessarily think – they don’t have this integration. And then lastly, the last piece of the puzzle which we added this last year is really about manufacturing management and the manufacturing and designing for manufacturing is really critical and to bring that into the process early enough enables us to be in a unique position to really move quickly, make great decisions along the way and do that together as a cross functional design, engineering and manufacturing team. And so we pulled this plan together and executed this about four and a half years ago and went from really no business at all to a really outstanding steady business.

Dave Kruse: Wow! That’s impressive. And so what’s your role in Nytec?

Vince Ball: So my role, I basically lead – there’s two businesses. One is the client services, which is really the staffing side of business and then the product innovation center where we manage projects end-to-end, from design engineering and manufacturing management. My role is to run that business and really what it comes down to is you know, I’m here to make sure the team’s running smoothly and that we have great projects to work on and then we – the team has the right tools and capabilities to enable them to deliver successfully for our clients and then really to instill in everyone this customer obsession of ensuring great customer support and all of that really blows down to delivering quality across the business.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, okay. And you know what’s kind of – yeah, I mean you kind of touched on like your process at Nytec. I mean it sounds like your quite integrated, which is really unusual. But yeah, how does that…?

Vince Ball: It is for a consultancy, you know not for large companies. I mean this is really how large companies develop products and it’s very integrated. We start at the same time. The engineering and design start together at the beginning of the project, really to understand what the scope of this effort is, who the customers are, what are the goals of this project, schedule someone. But really they might have a different level of effort at the beginning. Design typically has a larger effort at the beginning. Engineering starts off more on a technology standpoint, but together over the course of the development its very, very collaborative and down to the way we design the building and the way our process is set up, it’s really meant to encourage that collaboration, as well as a very tight security between different projects, because we do have Fortune 50 companies in here that want to maintain their IP and they also are competitors in many areas across the businesses.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, okay. And yeah, I’d be interested to hear more kind of about the integrated process. So I don’t know if you have a specific product, you could share some – kind of like how you take it from beginning to end?

Vince Ball: Sure.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, I don’t know if you have one, but yeah, interested to get a hand on.

Vince Ball: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So let’s take – I mean Carnival – the Carnival project has been announced. It’s a pretty needy project and that might be a good one to use as an example.

Dave Kruse: That sounds good.

Vince Ball: So at the beginning of the project we’re really focused on understanding you know what the environment is, what the use cases are, scenarios, those type of things and that’s done with the client. It’s done with the core team and what we call that is discover phase and really what we have is four main phases to the way which we approach any project. At the beginning of each phase or at the beginning of the project we have this discovery phase. With Carnival we spend a number of hours and days actually on their cruise ships, understanding all aspects of essentially a floating city, you know not only what is the customer experience, but also what is the cruise experience and what are all the different aspects that they participate in and how will that effect designing a solution for improved customer experience. And so we took a – gosh! I think we had three different cruises early on. We spent a bunch of time understanding what are all the different aspects that we could impact the customer experience on what are really painful things that are happening right now and how could we leverage technology or process to make improvements to those.

Dave Kruse: Did Carnival come to you with an idea or did they say, ‘hey, we need you know – here are a few ideas we have. You know what would make the most sense?’

Vince Ball: Yeah, so Carnival came to us with a few ideas. It came – actually the guys that are leading Carnival from an executive level came from Disney and the Magic Band project and so they had some ideas of how they could leverage the technology. We were using a different technology – to create some personalized experiences for guests. Beyond that there wasn’t a lot to find and what we did is we spent probably nine months just working on what those experiences could be, identifying those core areas and then working to identify a platform of sensors and readers that would be installed throughout the ship and then a wearable that would enable the system to come alive.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, okay. And so how long did it take you from beginning to end, by the time they approached you to coin it first?

Vince Ball: It’s been about two and half years in total effort and deployment will be in November on the first ship and so it’s really interesting, it’s a really interesting project, because essentially you’re developing experiences for a floating city.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, which could be applicable to other more…

Vince Ball: Yeah, you know there is all aspects. There is all aspects of – actually you want me to pause here, because this leaf blower guy is having a trouble to turn this off. Do you want me to do that?

Dave Kruse: No, I can’t hear him. I think we’re good. I’ll let you know.

Vince Ball: Okay. Yeah, so as we worked through this phase, we’ve got discovery, envision, reform and realize. Really it’s an iterative process and we worked through developing the platform, we then add additional functionality and features, we then test those in the environment and that’s critical because there is unique aspects that come out when you introduce the product in that environment. So I’ll give you an example. With Carnival in particular we’ve developed not only the sensors that are throughout the ship and readers that then read data off of those sensors, the wearable, but we also developed a new smart door lock for all of the cabins and in collaboration with our software and Carnival. So when we get in that environment. The environment of a ship is quite different. The construction is all steel. You’re basically in a steel box, which creates really unique challenges for RF technology, and so you just can’t get that if you’re doing testing within a traditional building, and think of where you have dry wall and wood and insulation. You don’t have the same effects on the system. And so it’s really important to get into the environment, try and get it in front of customers early so you can understand how they actually receive and use the product instead of making assumptions. Another example is with the Ware Wall, it’s called the Medallion. It’s a kind of just maybe a little larger than a quarter and probably about a quarter inch thick. That, it doesn’t have any working buttons or there is no on or off switch, it’s just always working and that can go into a variety of accessories, whether it’s a pendant, something you wear on your wrist or kind of put in your pocket. It needs to work effectively in all those plays and with RF Technology your body can have a huge effect on the performance of the radio and the way in which that device performs and so testing that and also learning – you know people aren’t going to want to put this in their purse or they are going to throw this in their beach bag or they are going to want to wear this in the pool and they are wearing their swimsuits. So how do we create these accessories that would enable that and then test those scenarios to ensure the system is performing perfectly?

Dave Kruse: So I mean how do you adapt. If someone puts it in their purse, do you have to increase the signal or how do you – yeah make…

Vince Ball: So what we do is then we take that information back and if that is a case that we haven’t thought of, then we have to do some testing to see what are all the different things that could be in a purse that could affect the performance? What kind of performance are we getting out of it? Does it need our minimum requirement as far as performance in that scenario? What’s the number of people we believe will actually be in to use that scenario on the ship, so we know how many people are on the ship, where it’s going? Is it common for women to carry a purse around the ship and so it’s – we take those things into factor as well.

Dave Kruse: And what else can it – what can it all do? You know I’m guessing you can make payments, can unlock doors and things like that. Anything else?

Vince Ball: Yeah, yeah absolutely. It really is about personalization of your experience and so when – let’s give you an example. Say today I want to order a drink. I want to get a drink. I’m out by the pool. I go up to the bar and I have to wait in line to order a drink. With this new system I can order the drink from my chair. So through an application that runs either on your phone or a tablet, I can order the drink. The person delivering the drink knows where I am because of the wearable and I can actually track where my drink is coming from and when it will be there. But what’s better than that is if I decide after I order my drink my buddy comes up and says hey, let’s go you know shoot some hoops up on the basketball court which is on a different deck, the system knows where I am and so now my drink will be delivered to me there instead of where I ordered it at my chair and so that’s around personalization. Some other things related to that might be dinner. So if I know wherein my other friends have scheduled dinner, I may be able to schedule it at the same time, but when I arrive there is historical information captured; one, they greet me by name because they know who I am because the medallion is actually showing up on their display showing that I’ve just arrived. They can greet me by name. They know that you know I have so many people with me and that those people are also there. And when I go to order dinner, they might tell me about some different options on the menu that I might be allergic to, so to stay away from those, because I put in my personalization file that I am allergic to peanuts for example. And so they can really craft up a much more personal experience as if they have a relationship with you. So it’s actually really powerful.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, it’s quite a comprehensive system which I have a question about. Before that, I was just curious. If I am going to the bar to order a drink and I have five people with me, how accurate is the location? Like can the bartender – they are all like around me. Will the bartender know me versus them?

Vince Ball: Yes, because your picture shows up. So that’s the last five you know five feet. So now, yes your name shows up, but also your picture and so that basically enables me to know you from your friends.

Dave Kruse: I mean yeah, I’m really curious about the use cases, because I mean it sounds like this must have taken a while to put together. I think you said it took – I mean that was the nine months, but I mean you have a lot of scenarios here.

Vince Ball: Yeah and there’s other companies involved. It’s not you know just Nytec. In fact there is 10 other companies involved. We just are the preferred hardware part. So there is a bunch of software back in the services, a lot of infrastructure that needed to be pulled together as well. Nytec is just the primary hardware partner.

Dave Kruse: Got you. And did you guys do the use cases? Like were you a part of the team?

Vince Ball: Yeah, Oh yeah! Yeah, yeah.

Dave Kruse: Okay, interesting. And was there any use case or assumption that you made at the beginning that was completely wrong or like that surprised you or anything like that that you can remember? Its fine if you can’t.

Vince Ball: That’s a good question.

Dave Kruse: It’s fine if you can’t

Vince Ball: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.

Dave Kruse: That’s fine. All right, so let’s see, that was good. I kind of like digging into a project like that. It kind of gets a feel for how you guys think and what type of projects you work on, but yeah, I can see why you call yourselves integrated.

Vince Ball: Exactly, yeah.

Dave Kruse: So, yeah I guess let’s see where I want to go. We have a few minutes left I think. So I’m curious you know, what do you personally like to work on a lot? So like if you had to work on one thing all the time what would it be? Or it could be like one new technology coming out too. Something that’s like really interesting or really excites you, what would it be?

Vince Ball: I would say like right now there’s a couple of things I am interested in. One is just where transportation is headed and how technology is really going to change this, change transportation in general. Whether its trains, you know airplanes or cars, those sort of industries haven’t really changed that much and this feels really like a transitional time where we’re really going to see some big innovation in this space. So that’s an area that I’m super interested in. The other thing that is not necessarily a product but something that’s fascinating is an area that sort of keeps me sort of interested is just the aspect of customer service. So I know we are a product company, but customer service is so important to us and it’s an area because I got into this service industry that really makes me want to focus on understanding them more and interested in how just one employee can really affect the satisfaction of the customer, but also just the way in which and in both ways it can be good and bad, right. So it’s really critical to any businesses success and it’s interesting to me to understand what companies are the most successful and how customer services play a role in that or not and why that is?

Dave Kruse: Would – Does Nytec primarily focus on hardware projects? Like would they ever do more of a customer service design type project? I don’t know what they would look like exactly even, but…

Vince Ball: Yeah, well its interesting. I would say that we are focused on hardware primarily and really the intersection between hardware and software and services and so how together does those create unique experiences for the target customer. How do they solve problems? How do they create new experiences? That’s really critical and so if it’s about service, that’s part of the problem that we’re trying to solve right. So if it’s an aspect of how do we change the way people take flights from Seattle to San Francisco, there is a journey there at all stages that design and engineering and technology can affect and so it’s really interesting to look at it from that journey point of view and identify those areas where we can do something, maybe sooner than later that can evolve over time to get to that ultimate experience.

Dave Kruse: Do you guys ever come up with ideas and approach clients saying, hey we have this idea for improving the transportation experience of whatever it might be. Have you guys ever done anything like that?

Vince Ball: Yeah, yeah absolutely. You know we have done that. We do that a lot in a product, in a project. So you know as we understand what that customer or that client of ours is trying to solve and we really get into and understand what that product will deliver or potentially could deliver, we are always identifying new ways to enhance that new features and sometimes new products that are complementary to the product that they came in originally, thinking it was the primary thing that we were focused on and that’s all just about understanding truly what it is that they are trying to solve.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, okay. And before we end, I got some more personal questions. I was curious how do you continue to keep learning? Like what do you read or who do you talk to or do you take time to think about and kind of map out some of your ideas or yeah.

Vince Ball: Yeah, you know I think I tend to surround myself with other people that are in not necessarily the same industry, but are interested in learning and so whether it’s in the technology area, whether it’s in real estate, whether it’s in boarding, I try and really immerse myself in what that experience is, because I am always learning and I am always interested in trying to make that more interesting, a better experience, more enjoyable. So in some ways it’s probably a real pain for people around me, because they are always like ‘Vince, when do you – you need to just like enjoy what’s here,’ you know but I don’t know, it’s just the way I live. You know it’s about the way I design my home, it’s the way in which I – or I choose to go on vacation.

Dave Kruse: Well I got to hear about those two things, yeah. How is that – how do you design home and go on vacation?

Vince Ball: Well, I mean I just – I designed my homes for the last two, three homes I’ve had and over time you learn what things work. What works and what doesn’t for you; what’s important for you and how do you improve upon those things? Whether it’s you know how closets are situated or how many closets you have versus how do you create the right floor in your home for entertaining. What are the different aspects of lighting? How does that affect the mood of the event? I like to have people over and so creating a different maddic experience with lighting, music, smells, I don’t know, it’s fun.

Dave Kruse: That’s another whole podcast, because we like having people over, but our home needs some help. So I am going to hit you up for some pictures, because we got to figure this out, so.

Vince Ball: Sure.

Dave Kruse: That’s awesome, all right interesting. Wow! And let’s see, a couple of more questions. One is, yeah so how do you get away from work and what do you like doing outside of work?

Vince Ball: You know I believe my wife would say I don’t ever stop working, so that’s probably not a good thing, but I just love work. I mean I love what I do and it is lifestyle, it’s not necessarily work. So I don’t necessarily get away from work. I’m always – because it’s enjoyable. Stress, yes, there are stresses and of course there are aspects that I do want to get away from and sort of relax and I do that through you know spending time with my family. I have two kids, two boys, 16 and 18. They are active; a lot of fun and that really is the one thing that as I am with my family kind of gets me out of thinking about work or engaging in those kind of things.

Dave Kruse: Nice.

Vince Ball: Travel, I travel a lot. I am fortunate to travel.

Dave Kruse: Oh! You do, okay. For work and fun?

Vince Ball: Yeah, yeah.

Dave Kruse: Nice. What’s one of your favorite places to go if you had to go back?

Vince Ball: Italy. Italy I think for sure, yeah.

Dave Kruse: Italy?

Vince Ball: Yeah, yeah.

Dave Kruse: That’s a good one.

Vince Ball: I think I travel a little too much. I visited 14 countries last year.

Dave Kruse: What? Wow!

Vince Ball: Yeah, I know. Crazy!

Dave Kruse: That’s nice. Both work and play is it for?

Vince Ball: Yeah, both work and for fun and actually anytime I travel for work I try and make time for a little fun as well.

Dave Kruse: That’s good, that’s good. Yeah, that’s not bad. I mean it sounds like you know your work is in some ways your hobby too, which is in this day and age it’s not a bad thing. I mean if you can create it, you can kind of get that. That’s what everybody is trying for nowadays.

Vince Ball: Yeah, absolutely. I think so. Yeah, I think I’m really lucky.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, definitely. All right, well I think that just about does it for us today. So Vince, I really appreciate your time and your thoughts and hearing about how you guys work at Nytec and just what you’re excited about. So I really appreciate you taking the time to chat.

Vince Ball: Well, thanks Dave. I really appreciate you taking the time to interview me; care a little bit about what we’ve been doing, right.

Dave Kruse: That’s right, and your home, so. No, but thanks everyone for listening to another episode of Flyover Labs. As always I definitely appreciate it and we’ll see you next time. Bye everyone. Bye Vince.

Vince Ball: Bye.