Episode 43: Charlie Isaacs

This week, Marc Garrett, Chief Technology Officer, speaks with guest Charlie Isaacs, the Chief Technology Officer for Customer Connection at Salesforce. This discussion is about the growing integration of data, customer relations and the Internet of Things in the solar industry, and how an industry leader like Salesforce is helping to pave the way.

Charlie has a successful track record of R&D leadership at companies such as Verizon, Answer Systems, Broad Daylight and Kana. He has been an early adopter and leader in the ever evolving customer relations management (CRM) and Internet of Things (IOT) software space, where he holds several patents. Charlie is a long time supporter of solar energy.


Jon Powers: Welcome to Experts Only Podcast, sponsored by CleanCapital, you can learn more at cleancapital.com I’m your host Jon Powers. Each week, we explore the intersection of energy, innovation, and finance, with leaders across the industry. Thank you so much for joining us.

Marc Garrett: For those listening, you’re hearing a new voice today. I’m Marc Garrett, guest hosting today’s podcast. I’m the Chief Technology Officer and a co-founder at CleanCapital, and I’m excited about today’s conversation focused on data and technology. Today, we’re speaking with Charlie Isaacs, the Chief Technology Officer for Customer Connection at Salesforce, who has a track record of R&D leadership at companies like Verizon, Answer Systems, Broad Daylight, and Conna. He’s been an early adopter and leader in the customer relationships management and internet of things software space, where he holds several patents. Charlie has been a longtime supporter of solar energy and I’m excited for today’s conversation about the growing integration of data, customer relations, and the internet of things, in the solar industry and how an industry leader like Salesforce is helping to pave the way. I hope you enjoy today’s conversation as much I did.

Marc Garrett: Charlie, thank you for joining us on Experts Only.

Charlie Isaacs: Hey, my pleasure, thanks for inviting me.

Marc Garrett: You Bet. Charlie, you’ve been a supporter of solar for quite some time at your UC Santa Barbara graduation ceremony in 1980 you gave a Valedictorian speech encouraging everyone in the engineering school to consider a career in solar energy. What led you to make this statement?

Charlie Isaacs: Oh, my gosh. Wow. That goes way back. Yes. I used to spend a lot of time on a sailboat, believe or not, and I know people are really going to feel bad for me, but I used to sail a lot. Actually I was on the UCS sailing team and we used to sail around Santa Barbara and we spent a lot of time on the beach at Santa Barbara and anybody who been the Santa Barbara, when they walk off the beach, they know they’ve got tar and oil all over their feet. And we used to sail around the oil derricks and we used to have to avoid them while we’re racing and things like that. And it was always frustrating to me that we had to drill down into the ocean and ruin the ocean to extract fossil fuels to fuel our energy needs. I was always against fossil fuels.

And I know that’s going to sound bad and I shouldn’t make negative comments like that, but I always thought there was a better way. And I discovered solar of course and I was actually even leaning towards nuclear because nuclear was even cleaner than fossil fuels. But I focused on solar because it didn’t have all the evils and it was just an efficiency and productivity issue. And I figured that we had so many smart people, so many smart engineers in the world, why can’t they get together and solve the two portions that I view. I over simplify everything. It’s efficiency of the solar panel and storage. And that’s why I want to really encourage everybody to enter that field.

And I was a big hypocrite because I didn’t enter that field. I got into other things, but now I’m back full circle and I think I’m helping support solar energy with my efforts with the orange button. And we’re going to talk about that later I hope. That’s why I wanted to encourage everybody and all my peers and colleagues to really explore solar energy and how to solve that issue.

Marc Garrett: Perfect. Thank you. Charlie, you referred to your role as the best job at Salesforce and you’re pretty seasoned in the technology space, having worked for players like Verizon and Answer systems, how did you end up on this career path and how did you get to Salesforce?

Charlie Isaacs: Oh Wow. When I first got out of school, I know I wanted to give back and contribute to the United States in some way. And I knew I couldn’t enter the military, and I couldn’t really do… well, I had medical issues with allergies and things like that, so they wouldn’t take me, even if I want to apply. I figured, how can I help? And I joined a government’s systems company and which became part of Verizon eventually, but I was doing imagery exploitation. How I ended up evolving into a really cool role was we were… this is going to sound negative again, but we were expiring spying on the Russians during the missile treaty talks and we were doing imagery exploitation on that. And then we converted that to commercialized activities and started doing weather forecasting and things like that with the technology we were building.

Anyway, make a long story short, I started off, that’s how I got my start in the world. And it was a combination of hardware and software skills required, for all of that cause I was actually helping build these workstations that manipulated the imagery. And software was identifying points on the images to locate where a tube missiles were and things like that. All the bad stuff was, so I got into emerge of hardware and software from a really early start. And that just evolved into roles where I focused, where I could apply software and hardware together. And you mentioned I liked the boasted, I’ve got the best job in Salesforce. When I first started at Salesforce, I was doing what we call our service cloud was customer service. And I was asked by the CEO, Marc Benioff, how I thought we could sustain our growth year over year.

And my simple and quick answer to that was Internet of things. And Internet of things is again, a merging of software and hardware. You’ve got software running on hardware at the edge, you’re pushing through a communications layer to the cloud. So if you’ve got a solar panel and it’s got sensors on it, reporting how much voltage is being generated at the solar panel and it goes into a solar controller, well wouldn’t it be great to know when that thing’s failing or not producing as much energy as it should? So you should be able to dispatch a field technician to get there, to clean off the solar panel so that is more efficient. What I did at Salesforce was initiated the beginnings of our Internet of things program, which we call internet of customers because we don’t really have an IoT platform. We rely on others like for example, Cisco and ATNT and AWS to provide us with the data at the edge and we merge it with customer data in the cloud.

Anyway, to make a long story short, about six years ago, I started off doing that and now my job, which, sorry that was a long winded answer to your question. My job evolved into doing workshops with our IoT early adopter customers who wanted to connect, for example, their hot tub Jacuzzi. They said, “Hey, we have a hot tub here, and we want to raise the level of customer experience by anticipating what’s going to happen to that hot tub. It’s going to get the filter. The turbidity level of the hot tub getting cloudier and cloudier so we need to push a notification to the customer that they need to change your filter or they need to add chlorine tablets. Again, it’s merging the customer experience with the actual physical device. And that’s what we do at Salesforce. And I get to do workshops like that all the time. I was with ABB, they make robots. We did an ABB robot integration, over the weekend. That was very fun. It’s like every day for me is like a science fair project and it’s very rewarding and I get practically instant gratification, working with these fun customers on next generation use cases.

Marc Garrett: Golly, Charlie, that does sound like a great job. And for the record, we’re happy Salesforce customers, you’re among friends, so it’s okay to spy on Russians and be opposed to pop appeal.

Charlie Isaacs: Yeah. I’m not sure how we evolved in, from spying on Russians to a Jacuzzi hot tub. But I guess we got done. I want to say thank you. I should’ve started off by thanking you for being a great Salesforce customer. And usually whenever, whenever you hear anybody from Salesforce speak, the first thing we do is thank our customers. My bad, I was remiss in not thanking you. Thank you for mentioning that.

Marc Garrett: Oh, you bet. Charlie, for our listeners who are not familiar, can please explain what the orange button initiative is and how and why Salesforce is involved.

Charlie Isaacs: Okay. The way I… and again, I over simplify everything I look at in the way I look at you orange button initiative, is this a way to provide a standardized way of exchanging data about a solar installations, clean energy installations. And mainly, for what I’ve seen, it’s mainly focusing in the United States and think of it and I’ll dig down in the weeds for just a moment. It’s a way to receive XML, for example, or spreadsheet files or CSV files. Get them in a standardized format so that companies can hit the ground running without running through a whole bunch of red tape to get their projects approved and funded and verify that they’ve crossed all the t’s and dotted all the I’s.

Marc Garrett: That’s helpful. I actually have to admit, I didn’t realize that you could use a spreadsheet natively in an orange button. What kind of impact Charlie has the orange button initiative had so far and what needs to be done for the standard to reach his potential?


Charlie Isaacs: Yeah, and again, I mentioned that a spreadsheet because I guess that was what we call in Salesforce a forward looking statement. Right now if you’re going to work with orange button, and again I’m stealing the thunder of what we’re going to talk about in a minute Hopefully. There is the ability to communicate with an API. SO the orange button initiative is including not only a set of standards but they’re developing an API document or it’s like mostly developed. I think the first version is out and the API allows you to exchange the data in a common format. And what it should do is eventually end up in a rose and tables in a database somewhere or, and again, I’m very Salesforce biased. So why not be able to, um, like with our latest release, you could upload a spreadsheet and it’ll automatically format that spreadsheet and take those rows of data in your spreadsheet or your CSV file and placed them into what we call a custom object in Salesforce and parse the data and make sure the fields are appropriately assembled and then they could trigger a workflow.

I’m getting way down in the weeds and I’m stealing some of the thunder and that is a forward looking statement, but that is how I view orange button is the ability to make it easy for anybody who’s interacting with any solar or clean energy projects to get their data in and trigger workflows and approvals.

Marc Garrett: That’s helpful. Charlie, helping our listeners understand how mature orange button and its integration into Salesforce is. Can somebody go and look on the APP exchange and find an orange button app or is that on the roadmap?

Charlie Isaacs: Yeah. That would be something that… and we’ve been talking to some of our financial services customers and financial SEI partners and also some of our banking customers. And it runs the gamut. Some of them, and I’m not gonna mention any names, they want to build their own APP, right? Some companies are gonna say, “Hey, we want to own all this intellectual property associated with the orange button.” We’re going to build our own APP in Java from scratch or python. I believe there’s a python library up and get up for Orange Button. And you can write your own stuff. And except the data and the Sangin into that format. But the way I look at it, again, I over simplify everything. Why not have, especially since some of these financial institutions are Salesforce customers, they already have their customer data, and they had their partner data loaded into Salesforce.

Salesforce is a platform. And you mentioned that there’s something called the APP exchange. So, in my opinion, someone should build or multiple companies should build AppExchange plugins for Salesforce that accommodate, that are either private app exchange apps, which we have the ability to do that. You can provide, like if you’re an outside partner like Deloitte or Accenture or our two biggest partners, they could build their own orange button, app exchange app that they can sell or provide to their financial institution, customers that comply with the standard of the orange button, mandates. And they could make that available to their own customers, their own that happen to be running Salesforce or not. And so they could provide that as a competitive differentiator. Or there could be a whole, a company that decides to build their entire business around, okay, I’m going to build an orange button app and put it on the APP exchange and make it available to everybody and sell it to them for $1 a seat or whatever they want to sell it for.

And then have that provided the ability to allow companies to interact with the standard API that loads the data in the sales force and triggers Salesforce workflows and merges that data with, Bank of X. I’m not gonna mention any names because I know I’ve talked to a few of them, and I’m trying to convince some of them to get on the APP exchange to do this already. And I think it’s the right approach. There’s no company in the world now that should try to build a platform from scratch that never makes sense, to Oh yeah, I’m going to build my own hosting center, and I’m going to build my own software. I’m going to write everything from scratch when there’s already in an infrastructure in place, and you can get the best of both worlds, where you can write your own software if you want, and you can host it in the cloud, and you can sell it. And there’s a mechanism to do that, and you leverage all the existing functionality that’s already built in the Salesforce.

I’m sorry, that was a really long answer to your question, but does that answer your question?

Marc Garrett: That was very responsive. Thank you. Charlie, we’re both of the generation that may remember electronic data interchange less than fondly short version is a EDI. How does orange button strike a balance between being sufficiently robust to describe complex transactions and being simple enough for developers to want to use it?

Charlie Isaacs: Yeah, back in the days of EDI, we didn’t really have things like… first of all there’s an unfair competitive advantage because we have the cloud. We have things like get hub where people can, if they want to, they choose to make their stuff available for free, like the python libraries available for orange button, they could do that. So it makes it extremely easy to, and I call this stealing other people’s code. I know that sound that has negative connotations, but that’s how I have to admit this. When I do hackathons, when I do workshops with customers, I have my own library of Code that I’ve written myself. And some of that I’ve borrowed from get hub right, or I borrowed from other sources I borrowed from other people in Salesforce, and I just take that with me Everywhere, and it just grows and grows and grows.

There’s so much open source out there, there’s so much free stuff. And during the days of EDI, we didn’t really have that number one. There’s one aspect of it. The other aspect is the folks at Department of Energy that helped develop this all the standards. I mean they were very exhaustive on their approach for defining what needed to be in the standard, but I thought they did a really good job of boiling it down and making it easy enough and understandable enough so that it wasn’t EDI revisited. Did that answer your question?

Marc Garrett: It sure did. Yep. When we see a new standard is in the process of being adopted, there are a lot of different roles, that have to participate people in different roles, I guess I should say, that have to participate. The Push, the standard forward. You probably have a manager, she’s going to be responsible for actually saying, “Okay, officially I bless this. It can be used in our enterprise.” You’ve got the coders who if they don’t adopt the standard, it doesn’t really matter what the manager said is kosher for the enterprise with the coders don’t want to code it. It’s not gonna go anywhere. And then you’ve got the maintainers of the people who work on the open source libraries, and you mentioned earlier, and they’re the same people as the coders, but they’re wearing different hats. If from each of those perspectives, what case does the manager make to persuade her peers, that orange button is mature enough to actually adopting the enterprise?

Charlie Isaacs: Well, the manager, could just take a look at the documentation that’s available right now and see that it’s robust enough to, and this is going to sound bad, but I think this should be, an agile approach to development and not this huge waterfall model where the managers should, should say, “Okay, we’re going to have a nine month project and at the end everything’s going to be done.” It should be an iterative approach because, and by the way, it should be iterative, number one because it’s faster and better that way and agile because it’s better and faster that way. But also because the standard is still evolving a little bit, but it’s to the point where hopefully we’re going to do the right thing and not deprecate any of the standards that are already there. An example of that is like in Salesforce, we’re at API version 52 or whatever it is.

I’ve forgotten how many versions of the API we have. We never deprecated any of our codes. You shouldn’t, if you have version 12, your API interchange with that version of the API, your code, the erode should still work with version 52. They should take the same approach, and I’m hoping they’re taking the same approach with orange button, even if the standard evolves that everything that we’ve done today is backward compatible. That being said, assuming we could do that, then the manager could leverage the existing documentation and the existing standards and get the team embarking on a sprint of development that could result in a really short period of time, a rapid prototype that we get them exchanging data and triggering workflows for example. And that would go along way to seeing the value.

And I think for all projects, and I take this approach for IoT to your project is not going to be well received by anybody, including the manager’s manager, unless you can prove the ROI of the project. The fastest way to do that in the best way to do that is to ensure in the early sprints of development that you get a stage where you can say, Hey, look, let’s prove the return on investment for the development effort, and the work we’re doing so that we can show to our management team that this is truly a worthwhile effort, and it’s worth funding the additional sprints. I’m hoping that answer your question.

Marc Garrett: It did. It surely did. Let’s look at the developer role then of what would the first steps be for a developer to pick up orange button and let’s just say working on one or two weeks frame?

Charlie Isaacs: Yeah. Again, there’s a, I hope I’m not speaking out of school here, but there’s, I believe there was a get hub repository up there in python. If you’re not a python developer, you could probably take it and python is relatively easy language, you can reverse engineer in and rewrite in Java if you want, if your language of choice is Java. But there are also the last time I looked, there are a testing scripts and things like that, so you can help test the data. Worst case he gets wrote about Python server. Okay, this is a plug, you can throw up a python server on, on Heroku. Heroku’s an acquisition by Salesforce or whatever. They’re one of our divisions of Salesforce. But if someone said, “Hey, Charlie, spin up a python server, you can spin up a python server and get the get hub library up and running in a python server.

And in a matter of well maybe I’d say hours, but you can probably say a couple of days. So, get started with that. And then once you’ve got that running, start pouring through the documentation through the set of API calls and just start experimenting with the API calls. And the other approach you could take if you’re out there, and I’m going to make this offer to you if you wanted to get started on Salesforce, and you want to see… if you want to interact with our custom objects set in Salesforce, I’ve already uploaded a standard CSV file from the Orange Button Standard. And I’ve created the roles required in a custom object. I could show you how to do that, or I can hand over what we call an org. You can start experimenting with that, and you can actually owe us into Salesforce and start exchanging data in Salesforce.

And once you’ve done that, you can leverage all the power of Salesforce. All the workflows, all the email alerts and all the… you want to use SMS texts to notify people. Everything we’ve got built in the Salesforce platform, including Salesforce management, you could, again, I’m making the offer to your listeners that I or someone on the team can work with you to make that happen.

Marc Garrett: That is a generous offer, and I suspect you’re going to have multiple people taking you up on it, Charlie. So speaking of Getup queen capital is a python shop, and I checked the getup repo for the orange button and python library just before our call. And it looks like it is actually actively maintained. The latest commit was yesterday. But I also noticed that there are only seven watchers. I’m just wondering what can we do to help get the word out?

Charlie Isaacs: Well, okay, the best thing to do, well, hopefully people listening to this podcast will start watching it. Number two, I should probably do now that I’m sure that it’s up there and has maintained, people like me can start tweeting about it. We should start and then also interact with it and we can start posting our results, interacting with the library, and like a simple tweet stating that, “Wow! Look, I was able to launch this on Heroku, in five hours and I was exchanging data. And here’s the result. That goes a long way to getting exposure out there for this type of an open source project.

Marc Garrett: You Bet. Charlie, I’m curious to know, what are you sitting there thinking, Golly, I wish this guy would ask me this question about orange button. What are we missing?

Charlie Isaacs: The only thing we’re missing is, again, and that’s why I made the offer. I’d love to see more people being interested in, especially Salesforce customers. And if you’re not a Salesforce customer, that’s fine too. But leveraging the power of a platform to get a project started, and we don’t have a lot of interest in that right now. And I like to see… we’ve done internal experimentation, but I want to see a real customer exchanging data, pushing data in and pushing data out, having their customers pull data out, so we could prove out the power of the platform.

Marc Garrett: That’s great guidance, Charlie. Last question. You talked about all the way back in 1980, you knew that solar was the future. Even if it was a somewhat circuitous route for yourself to get there professionally. If you could sit down with yourself coming out of high school or college, what advice would you give?

Charlie Isaacs: Oh, boy. I started really late in my career thinking about underrepresented classes of people and so actually two mistakes. That’s number one. I didn’t really focus on how do I really lift up this person? Like an example is my favorite volunteer organization right now is black girls code. We didn’t really have that back then, so I can claim that, oh, we didn’t really have that organization, but I should have been, as soon as I got established in my career, I should have been thinking more and more about how we could get that started earlier and I would have started that earlier. So underrepresented class that people, including women, encouraging women to get into technology. Sure. I encouraged my daughters to get into technology and I failed miserably, but then as soon as that happened, they didn’t go for a bachelor in science degree or an engineering degree.

I doubled down and said, okay, now I’m going to start volunteering more and more for stem organizations. But we’re in a really bad state right now with not having a sufficient technological workforce because we don’t have enough educated people in the underrepresented class. Think of how that’s impacting our ability to… and we’re not seeing it right now, but in the next two to three years, if we don’t really double down on this, we’re going to get out performed by other countries that have more trained engineers, or higher skilled engineers, and we needed to leverage the entire population in order to continue to be the best in the areas of technology. Anyway, I would advise myself, “Hey, Charlie, you should be giving back more earlier in your career and start helping these people out.”

Marc Garrett: Charlie, that’s great advice, and I think that’s a great way to wrap up the interview. I want to thank you again for your time. I really enjoyed it and I also want to thank our producer Lauren Glickman and a special thanks to Matthew Hershey for coordinating today’s conversation. Have a great day, Charlie. Thank you.

Charlie Isaacs: No, thank you very much. Great questions.

Marc Garrett: Oh, great. Thanks.

Jon Powers: Thanks for listening. In today’s conversation, find more episodes on cleancapital.com iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You like what you hear. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a five star review. We look forward to continuing our conversation on energy innovation in finance with you.