Dan Speicher | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND

From the Cold War to One of Technology’s Hottest Fields

By Karen Rosen

Dan Speicher’s first job collecting and analyzing data was exhilarating, demanding and, to this day, in many respects classified.

After joining the Air Force in 1982 to help pay for his college education, Speicher scored so well on aptitude tests that he was selected to become an airborne cryptologic linguist.

The Nebraska native, who spoke German and a little Russian, underwent training for about 18 months, then was based in England, where he was assigned to perform reconnaissance onboard intelligence-collection aircraft. Speicher would intercept communications intelligence and translate information about potential enemies to battlefield commanders on line.

“We would get real-time information that essentially identified where the bad guys were located,” says Speicher, now the Chief Information Officer at Hughes Telematics.” It was a great experience for a young, single guy to fly and then to experience what took place in the Cold War.”

From just a few overheard words, Speicher says, he could determine “what kind of plane it was, where they were stationed and probably what they were attempting to do. And back then when we say on line, it was very rudimentary and the size of the onboard computers made the working space very cramped -- it was an exciting, fun time. It was the greatest job I never got paid to perform.”

The intelligence Speicher gathered was kept on numerous disk arrays, which were then put into suitcases and taken off the plane after missions because they “didn’t want the mission intelligence to get into the enemy’s hands.”

“There must have been eight to 12 suitcases full of disk arrays, and it was a total of 300 megabytes. It took four to five people to carry those into the building,” Speicher says. “And now you have a flash drive that has 20 times as much capacity.

“My kids call me a dinosaur when I tell these stories.”

Returning to the U.S., Speicher became an instructor in San Angelo, Texas, where he taught intelligence collection courses and was able to do curriculum development and create tests. He also designed and developed more than 40 computer assisted instructional courses on midrange computer platforms.

“I found it very logical and rewarding to be able to map and then develop a program and see it executed,” Speicher says.

Most importantly, he met his wife, another cryptologic linguist with experience in Polish and French. Because Speicher couldn’t follow her to Berlin, they decided to leave the Air Force and settle in Omaha.

Back to Civilian Life

Speicher was drawn to software engineering. He discovered in college classes that programming made perfect sense to him. “It was totally algebraic and linear in nature and I like debugging,” he says. “I could work on a car for hours and hours and never find what was wrong with the carburetor, but I could certainly debug a program in a few minutes and get to the root cause of the problem.”

Speicher joined American Business Lists, now infoGroup, in 1988 when it had barely more than 100 employees. When he left 20 years later, there were close to 5,000.

His first role with the company was in data development, starting with information derived from phone books. Speicher developed tools to allow the company to scan the consumer pages, automating a painstaking manual activity and making it affordable.

“I think we were trendsetters,” he says. “We were somewhat revolutionary. We did it by assembling mostly commercial software and tying it all together with a workflow system.  I wager that that system we built in ’96 is still running today in some form. It really paid for itself in a short amount of time.”

When infoGroup shifted its focus to mergers and acquisitions, it was able to find a struggling company, share some of its core services and allow that company to focus on its niche offering while augmenting the core company’s services and products. “Very quickly most of those companies turned profits, with just a couple of exceptions,” Speicher says “That allowed our company not only to stay profitable, but to grow. “

Known as a specialist in corporate integration, Speicher’s role was to build a core set of services that could be shared across the organization, then look for opportunities of leveraging new technology in other parts of the organization. In one example, he says, “We were able to consolidate three or four email businesses into one and we were also able to leverage that email technology throughout all of our products and services.”

Further branching out, inforGroup purchased some opinion research companies, owned directory manufacturing companies and would manage marketing data and solutions for very large customers, such as banks.

A Change of Pace

For one year in the mid 1990s, Speicher left the company to work at Mutual of Omaha, which was reengineering its accounting services.

Speicher found the insurance company operated very differently from the fast-paced infoGroup.

“They move very slowly,” he says. “They’re very organized, they’re very methodical, and they’re somewhat bureaucratic. To get the decision made, I refer to it as pulling an anvil with a piece of thread. It takes a lot of pulling. You just can’t give up and it moves so slowly, but you can do it. It just takes extreme determination and patience.”

The culture change was interesting and educational, but Speicher missed infoGroup. “I loved working in a business where you could make a decision in the morning and have outcomes the next day.”

He returned to his former firm, where he rose to Chief Technology Officer in late 2005. About three years later, a recruiter called and Speicher was lured to Hughes Telematics by the prospect of working in a start-up. He came on board in September 2008 as CIO.

He admits he was somewhat leery of working in the automobile industry, which at the time was struggling and accepting government money, But when he heard about Hughes Telematics’ capabilities, technology and vision, he met the team and was hooked.

“I was really, really impressed when I met them (the leaders of Hughes Telematics) with how focused they were on integrity,” Speicher said. “The more I interfaced with them, the more excited I got about this opportunity. I saw its potential as I  read more about their vision. I could see the potential of using this technology in a number of different vertical markets.”

Hughes Telematics is a leader in implementing the next generation of connected services for the automobile, starting with an onboard, indash solution for Mercedes-Benz called “mbrace” that was released in November 2009.

In-Drive, an aftermarket product, launched with State Farm last September. The small device communicates driver behavior, a characteristic allowing the insurance company to offer discounts for safe drivers.

The technology will be required in California and Speicher sees rental car companies as an avenue for further growth.

Changing Peoples’ Lives

The health and wellness space is another area ripe for leveraging telematics solutions.

A Hughes Telematics subsidiary called Lifecomm uses the same back office systems for a telematics device that will launch later this year. People can wear it around their necks, on a belt clip or as a wristwatch. Speicher says some people compare it to a Dick Tracy watch.

“If you’re an elderly person and were to fall, we have sensors in the devices that will identify that fall via a sophisticated fall detect algorithm,” he says.

If the person is unconscious and doesn’t respond in a certain amount of time, paramedics will be sent to the location of the fall.

“I could easily see the marketability of this technology, whether it’s monitoring a child or an adult, a vehicle, a railroad car, maybe your home. We could use it in numerous verticals,” Speicher says. “I love the technology. I’ve always been a fan of building great things.”

Buildng a Legacy

While Speicher was growing up in Omaha, his father was a general contractor. “We’d drive around town and he’d say, ‘We built that Pizza Hut back in ’68, that hospital took us two years to finish’… all over town you see his legacy.

“He’s getting older now. I look at it as if he’s become a little bit immortal.”

Speicher sees his own legacy in processes and service-oriented architecture.

“I love to see a big project complete and I love to see an idea go from concept to making money or saving money or changing the way we do business,” he says.

At Hughes Telematics, Speicher’s team includes 160-180 of the company’s 280-plus employees.

He allows them to “run fast and jump high,” but adds “we have to share a brain at the end of the day. I like to coach and share enough thought to where I’m anticipating that they’re thinking the way I do at the end of the day … and vice versa.”

Speicher says sometimes there’s criticism when people are allowed to trip up or to make a mistake. “But if you have a little patience and look forward six months, you’re going to know who was able to learn and grow and adapt and overcome.”

Speicher can envision having his own business in the future, either in high-tech or technology services.

“I’m a big believer that the evolution or the biggest explosion in technology growth will be on the data side,” he says. “I’m excited that we’re about to come to a point where telematics, communicating machine to machine is going to be a commodity.”

For example, he says, “The appliances in our houses are going to start talking to each other. At some point, these things are going to say, ‘Hey my light’s burning out,’ and tell you or somebody else that they need a new part.”

As devices increasingly communicate with each other, Speicher sees that dovetailing with deciding what to do with that information. He cites an experiment in San Francisco in which chips are built into the pavement to sell parking stalls. “We need to standardize that data communication layer,” he says. “I think that will be an exciting growth technology and I’d love to be part of it.”

Secrets to Success

  1. I really am a believer that if you are integrity-oriented, maintain an objective perspective, and try to be honest with yourself first, you can cut so many corners and not have to say you’re sorry at the end of the day. You will eventually  garner respect and trust, Then, you can go out on a limb and take a significant risk, but you’ll have people supporting and following you.
  2. I play basketball and I don’t think you need to be a high scorer to be the guy who wins. I think you need to be the best point guard in the game. You need to understand everybody on the floor, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are. Sometimes you have to score because you have no one else to pass to. You need to know who to feed, who to talk to and be aware of where the other guys are. I personally don’t look for the glory. The best scoring play to me is that easy layup because of your perfect pass and you helped someone else looked great. If you can do that enough, you’re going to win.
  3. In this industry there’s so much pressure and there’s so much competition and it is hard for some people who have not been in an environment where they’ve had to compete, let alone with the clock running down. I really think that’s almost an imperative that somebody have experience in team-oriented sports as a child or in some kind of competitive environment where they work as a team. When the stakes are not your job or your life or your children’s future, you learn how to win, you learn how to lose, you learn how to communicate, you learn how to score under pressure and you learn how to sit on the bench. You have that great season where you win every game and you have that season where you lose many more than you win. Team sports teach us so much about many aspects of life, with little if anything to lose … except the score.

Dan Speicher is Chief Information Officer at Hughes Telematics. Atlanta Trend expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Dan Speicher for sharing his thoughts with us.

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