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PTC LiveWorx - Neil Barua on the shape of things to come for ServiceMax

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton May 18, 2023
The former ServiceMax CEO, now President of SLM at PTC, sets out his vision in our exclusive interview at LiveWorx in Boston.


Neil Barua, President of the Service Lifecycle Management division of PTC, is in ebullient mood on Day 2 of PTC’s LiveWorx conference in Boston, MA. The sense that the company’s first annual conference in four years is going well is palpable.

The former CEO of field service management provider ServiceMax, which PTC acquired in November, has headed up the SLM group since the $1.46 billion deal, the largest ever for PTC. That product line now becomes part of an integrated SaaS portfolio, alongside its longstanding integrations with Salesforce.

It forms part of PTC’s “data thread”, an unbroken yarn that aims to loop back and iteratively improve every product and service for its customers. That “new vision of service” is what Barua focused on in his upbeat – and often deeply personal – section of the keynote presentation. During which he said:

For me, running SLM and our team is about service and service. Not only is it, in many product companies, the most important generator of sustainable, recurring revenue and profitability, but more importantly, it's also the criticality of what the service does for the world and the things that all of you design, manufacture, and put out in the world for us to consume. 

But for me it's actually really personal. My father, an immigrant from India, came here and was a food technician at an aseptic food processing plant. And, you know, when Fridays came, the number one thing I wanted from my dad was three hours of after-school play with me in the yard, but my dad had to spend those hours filling out orders manually with pen and paper. 

Now, fast-forward all these years – my father is now 84 – and the three hours work that he used to have to do, sacrificing spending time with his son, is now done now in five minutes using the digital tools that we've created. So, it’s very meaningful to me.

The personal anecdotes didn’t end there. Barua shared the story of visiting a relative fading in palliative care and noticing that all of the medical equipment in the clinic was supplied by ServiceMax customers. A similar story centered on devices used in cancer care. He explained:

It was very humbling at the time as CEO, seeing the criticality of what we do, ensuring that the equipment’s uptime was maintained.

Bedding in

As Barua pulls up a chair with diginomica, I ask him how the acquisition has been bedding in over the six months since it was announced?  How does he find being a big fish in a much bigger pond – one on the opposite coast to his corporate roots? He says:

It's been, remarkably, a special place and unique place that I actually underestimated when we closed the deal with PTC. I live on the West Coast in Menlo Park, but I've been spending most of my time here in Boston, with the team here, and having my team interact. 

It’s a unique enterprise software company, because of the depth of the capabilities, and what we do for customers broadly. The consistency around caring about the customer, caring about the quality of what we deliver versus just talking about it. That gravity around building great products, and servicing and implementing them well. 

I haven't seen many enterprise software companies do it this well at scale.

As to how  Barua’s new vision for service plays in a division of a larger entity, rather than as head of a standalone company, he says:

Something that underpins this digital thread that we're talking about, the physical and digital world interacting, is that ServiceMax is now augmented by all the other SLM capabilities within PTC.

So, one of the key things that we're working through is how do you create a digital platform that understands what's happening to assets worldwide? And, how to create a consistent data framework, by which you can interact with the digital world of how products are designed and are lifecycle managed. And through [PTC applications] Windchill, Creo, and ultimately, Onshape.

My belief in future service is all about having that understanding of what is happening to a technician, what's happening with spare parts or inventory, and then having a loop back into how you create better, more resilient products from the get-go. All that needs a very consistent data platform – to actually have usable data, right?

And then you add AI. And as was noted in the Q&A session yesterday, you can’t apply AI consistently unless you break down all the silos of an organisation. In the past five years, we've actually been using AI very consistently in how we deploy, and our customers deploy, field technicians. I think that's just the tip of the spear, as it were, but it's where the future is going. My point is the capabilities we now have under one roof enable all of this to occur in a way that's actually usable for the customer.

Then he adds:

Take an MRI machine. With ServiceMax and our SLM capabilities, we know exactly what's going on with that machine on a daily basis. And so, as we continue to refine the data thread, what we'll see is consistency around what's happening to that machine. What are the elements that are repeatable, or non-repeatable, that can flow back to the design center so that they actually know how to fix things?And that’s also when AI gets applied. That's the interesting piece of generative design: applying AI to data aggregation off the asset. That's a critical point. I think it’s the future.

So, as part of PTC’s wider portfolio, product and service data are increasingly filtering into central data repositories, to which more and more services can be applied, including AI. The result is products and services that get better all the time? Barua affirms: 

Yes. And the reason I'm super excited about what we've created here is we've got, within PTC, a very prominent PLM – a digital system of record of the product. And with ServiceMax, we have the asset system of record. And as you know, we are also very much tied into Salesforce CRM, which is the customer’s system of record. 

So, if you think through the application of AI, you have Salesforce applying AI to a lot of what they do, within sales in particular. Next, we're doing it on the asset system of record ourselves. And what you heard from Jim [Heppelmann, PTC President and CEO) in the Q&A yesterday was all about generative design. Link all three together, and it's a formidable, consistent source of data that can inform how products are designed.”

All that said, on reflection, was it an error essentially to omit PTC’s vision for AI from the opening keynote – if for no other reason that it’s all everyone in tech is talking about in 2023? Barua argues: 

Jim is a phenomenal leader of this company. And there was a lot to talk about, because so much has happened in the four years since the last LiveWorks. But on that point, it also goes to the special and unique part of this company: it’s got a very high ‘say, do’ ratio. We talk about things that actually have application to customers, versus appeasing the flavour of the day, so to speak. 

That said, the flavor of AI is spread across this business already, like it is in many others. It’s just that ChatGPT has elevated the consumer applications very significantly. 

But there’s something really interesting that we're doing here ourselves. ChatGPT has huge language learning models, taking aggregate information from the internet that is predominantly text and visual based. ZINC is our own communication platform specific to field orders – work execution that has relevancy to field service workers, who are an ageing workforce. 

For them to be able to ‘Ask ServiceMax’, instead of ‘Ask Siri’, what happened previously in such cases, then recommend ways to fix it, what parts do they need, and so on. That's using the capabilities of ChatGPT and it’s what we're doing with [collaboration tech] ZINC.

That raises the question of whether Barua is worried that Microsoft’s close relationship with, and investment in, OpenAI is opening the door to it muscling in on all kinds of industries in the cloud, including PTC’s? He responds: 

Microsoft has been a partner for a long time, and they've done tremendous stuff with search and with ChatGPT in the OpenAI partnership. But I have a deep belief that having real depth of expertise in an industry vertical – not a fancy-looking PowerPoint, but the depth of everything Jim talked about – you're not going to land a glove on this company if we continue to execute in the manner I've seen so far.

He adds:

What we hear from customers is, before we get to AI, ‘I need a really good system of record, because I don't even know where my assets are’. I was talking to one of the largest energy management companies recently and they don't know where their assets are. So, how do you apply AI to things like that? Things you are unaware of, because it's been logged on very antiquated, homegrown tools, or on Microsoft Excel.

So, they love what's happening because as customers deploy ServiceMax, they will have a consistent data framework on which they can apply AI to how they dispatch technicians, how they put spare parts in their trucks, how they think about inventory. And I think those foundational elements are very important.

But another challenge surely lies in the cloud itself. At a UK conference on data management and protection a while back, diginomica heard banks, charities, and even government departments say they have no idea where in the world their data is located. They know it’s ‘in the cloud’, but that could mean any number of different legal regimes. And for many, data is their real asset. Barua says:

This is part of the thing I try to resonate is that with the siloed nature of organizations, particularly in industry, manufacturing companies, high technology, even medical device and pharma companies, those silos need to be broken, frankly, so that the data can be used by the right people, and not aggregated in a way that’s selfish by one department.

At the keynote yesterday, Barua talked in very personal terms about the need to keep critical devices, such as life-saving medical equipment, running. One of the challenges in that space, when it comes to networking specialist equipment, is that a lot of it was never designed to be connected to the internet in the first place. That can lead to major security problems. The same principle applies in smart factories and on energy platforms: ageing but highly regulated plants being exposed to the network, he says: 

ThingWorx is PTC’s IoT connection point. But you're absolutely right, for the last five to 10 years there has been excitement around IoT connected devices, but the actual machines weren't ready. But the good news is that, because of the pandemic, there has been a significant overhaul of medical devices. During the pandemic a lot of new equipment started coming into clinics.

They are now fitting IoT-connected devices that can tell us to do preventative maintenance, tied to ServiceMax. So, we know there’s a problem before the IoT sensor says that something's wrong with the MRI machine. And it brings in either remote support or a service-delivery person from the manufacturer. So, I feel very good about the prospects for PTC. And that's augmented by the fact that we've got great customers that we're taking care of. And we're developing new technologies for them. 

He concludes: 

We're not sitting still, so I'm truly excited about the future.

My take

My first time talking to Barua, although he's been a regular on diginomica over the years. An engaging speaker who, unusually, is not just talking in buzzwords and hypotheticals, but getting to grips with day-to-day issues for real customers, in a way that feels personal and informed by first-hand experience.

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