Is TASER's Rick Smith the Steve Jobs of police technology?
Differences abound, but when it comes to charisma, innovation and leadership, there are more similarities than you might expect
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Scottsdale (Ariz.) headquarters of TASER International in order to spend time with some of the company’s executives, tour the facility, and check out their newest technologies.
During the visit, I was struck with an observation about which I felt compelled to write — specifically, that a strong argument can be made that company co-founder and CEO Rick Smith may very well be the Steve Jobs of law enforcement technology.
It’s cliché to compare some corporate executive to the founder and driving force behind Apple, but if you will indulge my inner geek, you might understand why I make such a bold statement.
The Same, But Different
I’ve gotten to know countless executives in law enforcement technology — folks who have delivered amazing and lifesaving concepts to market in a dizzying display of devices, but until that day in Scottsdale, nobody had yet reminded me of Jobs. Here's why the Smith comparison struck me:
• Steve Jobs was in his early 20s when he co-founded Apple Computer Company with Steve Wozniak. Rick Smith was in his early 20s when he co-founded AIR TASER Incorporated with his brother, Tom.
• Jobs’ company started out selling a purpose-built hardware device and ended up as purveyors of an ecosystem for consuming music, movies, and more. Smith’s company started out selling purpose-built hardware devices and is now positioned as a solutions partner for law enforcement in an array of areas.
• Both companies have had instant-sensation success stories, and both have heard their customers’ vocal dismay at their rare (but important) misfires.
• Finally, both companies have evolved along with the needs and wants of their customers — most notably the eager embrace of “cloud computing” solutions.
However, this is not a mirror-image comparison — there are some very distinct differences.
• While Jobs was a notoriously difficult man, I found not one employee who would say a bad thing about their CEO or about the work environment he’s created.
• While Apple is secretive in the extreme in the inception and creation of its new products, TASER actively seeks input from police officers around the world.
• And most obviously, while Apple (for the most part) creates consumer goods and services with the aim of art, or fun, or imagination or invention, TASER is laser-focused (pun intended) on protecting life and preserving truth, period.
I kept the above observations to myself when I spoke briefly with Smith at the Scottsdale facility, but I presented the concept when I spoke with him via phone soon thereafter.
“That comparison to Steve Jobs, that’s unbelievably flattering for me,” Smith said right up front. “That man was just a legend with what he pulled off — enormous shoes for anyone to fill.”
While flattered, Smith quickly added that he agrees that there are real similarities between the two companies.
“I think there are some really strong parallels that you put your finger on there," he said. "TASER is making a move similar to what Apple did in the consumer space — we’re just doing it in law enforcement. When Steve Jobs came back, one of the things he did — one of the most important things he did — was to develop a digital hub strategy.”
Apple identified the essential fact that people don’t want to just buy widgets or computers with cobbled-together, work-around fixes for their use. When no alternative exists, they will do that, but what they really want — even if they don’t yet know it — is an end-to-end system that works easily, even effortlessly.
For Apple, that became known as “the ecosystem”, and for TASER, that’s currently known as “The TASER Experience.”
“We — like many companies, I’m sure — have been inspired by the genius of that strategy and we see a very similar problem in law enforcement," Smith said. "Our assessment is that there are a couple of factors at play and one is the exact same phenomenon that was happening in the consumer space in dealing with digital media.
“There are lots of widget and hardware vendors making different kinds of cameras, be they in a car, body cameras, etc., but if you looked at that all those vendors, they are fundamentally hardware manufacturers. The real challenge in the hardware is how do you make these systems seamless and easy to use for law enforcement? We see a transformational opportunity here to do for digital evidence in law enforcement what Apple did for digital media in the consumer space.”
Making Complicated Easy
As mentioned above, there are some really important differences — not just between the two men and the two companies, but between the two groups of customers.
As you may have noticed in the first days of the 2012 Holiday Shopping Season, consumers upgrade their personal technology gadgetry as regularly as they change their socks. Law enforcement has to deal with a much, much longer buying cycle.
“The problem is compounded significantly for law enforcement because they’re hamstrung by government purchasing requirements," Smith said. "The way they buy technology requires long purchasing evaluations. They got to go through competitive field tests and competitive bidding processes,. so the purchasing process alone can take up to a year.”
He added that a lot of agencies don’t even have an IT department or, if they do, the IT department is run by the city, not the agency. There’s a fundamental lack of organizational control on the part of the police force to make decisions, to quickly adapt to changing landscapes, to quickly adopt new technology.
“If you look at the traditional technical sales model, basically agencies have to license software and operating systems from Microsoft, get RMS systems from vendor A, a digital evidence system from vendor B, and then they have to put it together on site and then they figure out how to make it all work.”
Oh, and they have to decide (or the city’s IT department decides for them) which computer manufacturer gets to deliver boxes full of laptops and desktops.
All of the above (with the notable exception of Microsoft), goes to the lowest bidder.
Sound familiar? Smith correctly has discerned that these are complex enterprise systems and they’re being run by organizations that are not built to do so.
“We started formulating what we call the TASER Public Safety Platform Strategy, which says basically the way we are approaching developing projects is to look at the competencies we can bring to the table," he said. "One is hardware — the long term DNA. Another is enterprise software. A third is infrastructure — namely deploying things over the cloud.”
You see, making something easy to use is a really complicated engineering problem, and Smith understands that as well as Jobs did.
Let’s Geek Out to the Movies
It was at that point in the conversation that Smith and I began to discuss our mutual belief that the cloud is the future of computing. We got to talking about Sand Hill Road, forecast reports from research firms like Forrester and Oppenheimer, and some other somewhat esoteric technology concepts I’ve had few opportunities to discuss in my half-decade or so working in the law enforcement industry.
It was here that the real difference between Jobs and Smith became most starkly illustrated.
Whereas I cannot fathom myself at a bar, talking and just having fun with Steve Jobs, I can very easily visualize doing so with Rick Smith. In fact, I did exactly that only last month at the TASER Party during IACP 2012 in San Diego.
As we tied up our discussion, almost-boyish enthusiasm on both sides of the phone line increased yet again when the topic turned to science fiction movies.
For those of you who have never been to TASER HQ, you should know that it’s sort of like a movie set. In fact, many elements in the architecture — under the direction of Rick Smith — are homage to certain famous science fiction movies. For example, the eye-scanner security mechanism and the sliding-door, sally-port foyer are from Men in Black, while the catwalk from the work area on the third floor to the big conference room is from Star Wars.
Surely there are many other little references I missed during my one-day visit there, but Smith was more than happy to explain some of the reasoning behind his design choices for the building.
“We wanted our building to inspire our employees,” Smith explained. “We wanted it to be in a creative place, that they were coming into the future and they were working on the future and the same experience for our customers to project to them creative forward looking environment. We want to be your technology partner and we need to project that.”
Life imitates art, right?