The Team behind Xplore Rugged Tablets: Meet Ron Harter, Senior Director of Software Engineering

The following is part of a year-long interview series that will showcase the Xplore engineers and Solution Architects working tirelessly around the clock (literally) to find new ways to apply rugged tablet technology to common and complex business challenges.

Ron Harter, Senior Director of Software Engineering

Tell us about your job:

How long have you worked at Xplore?
I joined Xplore when Xplore acquired certain Motion Computing assets in April 2015. So, just over two years. If I add my Motion tenure, then the answer is 15 years. I’m one of those grey-haired engineers that our VP Bryan talks about.

What area(s) are you responsible for?
It’s necessary to wear many hats at Xplore. I have overall responsibility for software, but also have responsibility for the development of our entry products, the Bobcat fully rugged tablet and the XSLATE D10, which is our fully rugged Android tablet. Of course, I keep my eye out on all of our products to ensure that each system architecture integrates smoothly with our software.

Talk about your greatest successes:

What is the most exciting project you’ve ever worked on while at Xplore? Why was it exciting?
I can answer that two ways. First, the acquisition. An acquisition can be a traumatic event, and cultural clashes are inevitable when bringing together two companies. I made a personal commitment to make it work, and provided leadership and support to help others make it work. This has happened and I’m proud of that.

XSLATE D10 Rugged Android Tablet

Secondly, no doubt the XSLATE D10. Delivering Android was incredibly complex, involved many third parties, and came with significant technical challenges. It was fast paced and high pressure. We built a team that was relentless and refused to fail. We successfully released the D10 – and then, we released it again when we upgraded the D10 from Lollipop to Marshmallow. (Xplore is committed to upgrade Android OS releases per our agreement with Google, and one of Xplore’s larger telco customers required Marshmallow). Our development partners were concerned about whether Marshmallow could even be integrated on our hardware. We successfully proved that it could.

Have you worked on projects that open up new markets (for Xplore)?
Absolutely. The Bobcat and XSLATE D10 rugged tablet platforms have fundamentally changed Xplore during the last few years. These are game changer products for the company. Bobcat and XSLATE D10 were launched when the primary product that Xplore was selling was the ultra-rugged iX104C5 – and newer generation XC6 – platform. The Bobcat and XSLATE D10 platforms took a bold new direction, opening up new unaddressed markets as they were literally half the weight and half the thickness and half the price of the iX014C5. Today, the Bobcat, XSLATE D10, and XSLATE B10 models all share an attractive industrial design, and everyone knows that attractive products sell better. Xplore’s market share has increased significantly since introducing Bobcat and XSLATE D10 for the fully rugged tablet segment, propelling Xplore into the number two position worldwide according to VDC.

*Note: The XSLATE D10 replaced the RangerX Android tablet, but the XSLATE D10 has gained broader acceptance. In fact, one of Xplore’s largest customers is now using more than 10,000 XSLATE D10 tablets, and the XSLATE D10 had the single largest purchase order in the company’s history.

What is the biggest customer success that you’ve seen while at Xplore? Why was it a success? What hurdles did the customer have to overcome?
Again, it’s the XSLATE D10. It was a success because of the passion of our sales and Solution Architect team, people like Cindy Murnick and Chris Maxwell. It was a success because of the engineering team’s tenacity – people like Mike Toolin, James Dieso, Andrew Love and many others. Bryan’s partnership and support were invaluable. And really, my wife, Mary Jo, who put up with countless late-night conference calls and weeks away overseas in Taiwan. Wait, maybe on the last one it was something she rather enjoyed!

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Have you seen the products you develop “out in the wild” – used by companies that you come across in your daily life?
Sure. After 15 years it’s nearly impossible not to. Any time I see someone using a tablet that we made, I try to get a chance to talk to them. It’s exciting, but sometimes you hear about areas for improvement. It’s a learning opportunity which I try to leverage and feed this back into new or existing products.

Tell us about collaboration:

How frequently do you work with third party software providers, ISVs, on projects? What is that experience like?
I have the pleasure of working with both IHVs and ISVs in my roles. Putting together a system, including the hardware and the software, and particularly Android, is extremely complex. It takes a lot of coordination. The challenge is always a matter of priorities. It’s not very often that a third party’s priorities align with ours. It takes relationship building and sometimes just sheer force of will. However, being successful and sharing in that success with our partners builds strong foundations going forward.

On average, how much time is invested in the field with customers to understand their challenges and architect a total mobility solution that will solve all of their business challenges with a single investment?
It’s all about building the right product with the right features. It’s impossible to do that without understanding the customer’s wants and needs. Some needs the customer themselves may not even perceive. We try to get out in the field and have first-hand customer experience. We also spend a lot of time in meetings with customers, either by phone or in person. We have a network of excellent resources who touch customers on a daily basis and we leverage their learnings too. There is nothing more important to a product manager than having the product accepted and loved by end users. 

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Are there any tips you would give to a customer that…

  • Has never been through this process before?
    Don’t specify the solution in terms of technology, describe it as a use case, what is it the user is trying to do. We will figure out the implementation and focus on the requirements.
  • Wants to achieve a certain ROI for the lowest TCO and, therefore, tries to prioritize price over performance? Or compromise a computing capability?
    Compromise can lead to mediocrity and failure. Stay focused on the prize.
  • Needs to improve mobile workforce productivity levels but doesn’t have a huge budget to embark on a complete mobile tech overhaul?
    To borrow a well-known phrase, “it’s a journey, not a destination.” It’s important to have a vision. Articulate that vision. There is nothing wrong with baby steps. We all have to learn to crawl, walk, run.

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Tell us about the future:

In your opinion, what’s the next big “rugged tablet application”?
When you step back and look at what’s going on around us, the human machine interface is changing dramatically. The presence of intelligence is becoming universal in IoT. Natural human interaction through voice, vision, facial expression is happening and will only get better and better. Bringing devices into these harsh environments that can participate in those experiences affords incredible opportunity. Keeping our devices technically relevant as these trends emerge and evolve takes vision, insight and a strong engineering team. Xplore has that.

Tell us more about you:

You’ve worked for other mobile computer OEMs; what makes Xplore different?
Xplore is passionate about solving each customer’s problems and is willing to invest in customization to solve those problems if the customer is committed to partnering and putting skin in the game. A lot of others would walk away from these “opportunities”. Xplore loves the challenge and loves to meet them. Xplore innovates where others won’t.

Can you describe your typical “day at the office”? Do you even have a traditional office?
Every day is an adventure! My office is slightly cleaner than Bryan’s.

Does your family understand the work you do, or do they only understand it generally?
In general, yes. They’ve seen and touched nearly all products I’ve worked on. Mostly, they try to ignore me!

What products, outside of computers, that you admire or think have been well engineered?
I think the BMW Z3 and Z4 are very attractive. I owned a Z3 for many years and never had any problems. But in general, I look for usability and reliability in a product.

You aren’t just an engineer…what do you do for fun?
I love to golf – though I’m not very good. It’s a good relief for an extended period of time generally in a very green and picturesque setting, and challenging. It’s a good outlet. My wife plays soccer, so it’s a good formula. She heads to the “pitch”, I head to the course, and we hook up at the end of the day. I also like to watch older movies. I’ve probably watched Wyatt Earp, Starship Troopers, Shawshank Redemption and several others hundreds of times.

If you weren’t an engineer, what would you want to be “when you grow up”? Why?
Well, I’ve had the pleasure of being a newspaper person in another life. I have an undergraduate degree in mass communication with emphasis in print. I also had the pleasure of teaching computer science at the university level. I acquired a master’s degree in Computer Science along the way. So, I’ve had experience outside of product engineering. If I weren’t in product engineering at this time, I would like to be a PGA golfer, and that ain’t happening!

What would you tell someone considering a career in STEM?
I would encourage it and have been a big supporter of Girl Start for many years. I’ve organized some charity golf outings benefiting Girl Start in the past. So yes, I would encourage it. I also would counsel that people look at trends in technology. I particularly think software is a good place to be as all these algorithms for doing advanced artificial intelligence, vision control, voice recognition and so on rely on good software skill sets.