Competitors Become Collaborators

Competitors Become Collaborators

How Kim Johnson and The PoE Consortium Are Taking the PoE Industry Next-Level

Versa Technology (VERSA) first connected with Kim Johnson (KJ) during her tenure as VP of Marketing for Igor Tech, when our teams collaborated on a case study for the Alila Marea Beach Resort in Encinitas, CA. Since then, Johnson has moved on to become Chief Marketing Officer at MHT Technologies, where she has spent a whirlwind first year spearheading a complete company and branding overhaul for the 15-year-old company. In addition to navigating the transition process, she has established marketing budgets, spearheaded event planning, and juggled numerous year-end initiatives. Amidst all that, she carved out some time to sit down with us and discuss the future of a new PoE (Power over Ethernet) Consortium and the development of industry standards. 

VERSA: We’d like to start by asking you about your latest endeavor—the PoE Consortium. It’s remarkable to see such a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and technical expertise, who are essentially rivals in a specialized industry, unite to push the boundaries of the discussion around PoE infrastructure. Was that always the goal behind starting the Consortium? 

The PoE Consortium has already drawn in over 40 members. Some are small companies, some are mid-size, and some are a little larger. That number includes many companies that are, out in the market, competitors. But in the Consortium, we’re coming together because we see value in this technology and want to get the word out. 

Previously, as individuals, we weren’t making the impact needed to further the adoption of PoE technology. So now, together, we’re trying to create something that can help steer and educate the market to help promote this technology. The idea is that if we put our efforts together, we can go further. That’s really the theory behind it. 

The IES press release announcing the Consortium’s founding states that you are the president. This significantly expands your list of responsibilities, particularly after transitioning to working with MHT.

KJ: Yes. It was a big year for me because I joined MHT as their first-ever CMO, MHT was a founding member of the PoE Consortium, and I became the first president of the new organization. Both roles were new to me, and both required significant attention to successfully execute.  

While I was bringing the PoE Consortium through its first actual year of operations – the year where you’re creating everything from scratch, you’re building the structure, you’re getting all set up, trying to recruit members, figure out your vision and your plan, and so on – I was also leading MHT through a major overhaul. This included a company name change, rebrand, website overhaul, messaging update, and more in addition to managing the daily marketing operations. Even for me, it was a lot to manage!  

Today, I’m proud of both the growth in the PoE Consortium and where MHT technologies, as we’re known today, has landed. 

PoE Consortium LogoAt the Forefront

VERSA: As you are aware, the Building as the Edge concept was highlighted at the Winter Building Industry Consulting Service International (BICSI) Conference & Exhibition in Tampa. This concept envisions a building’s entire infrastructure—cabling, LED lighting, sensors, IT networks—as an integral part of the technology ecosystem. 

And as companies compete in an ever more technology-driven economy, having a solid IT infrastructure becomes mission-critical. PoE provides the affordable connectivity needed to make these visions achievable. It seems like the PoE Consortium finds itself at the nexus of an exciting shift in thinking. 

KJ: I think that is the thing a lot of us like the most about PoE – once you have the backbone in place, it’s flexible and additive in nature. Customers can start with a basic PoE lighting package and add more later. Increasingly, “simple” PoE projects now also include a wide array of sensors and PoE shading because it all integrates so well.  

It used to be that five years ago, it was just lighting with motion detection sensors. Then, it became lighting with advanced sensors and environmental sensors for feedback on things like temperature, humidity, lux levels, air quality, and more. Based on sensor feedback, you can now have the lights adjust throughout the day, autonomously adjust to optimize your environments, and get the data and controls people are seeking from smart buildings.  

Consider this scenario: You’re managing a building in Texas in the summer. Your PoE controls software gets feedback that a sensor in a conference room is registering a significant increase in temperature, but the occupancy sensor shows no one is in the room. The space could be set up to automatically adjust the shades down, reducing the heat capture and therefore reducing HVAC costs for cooling an unoccupied space. 

The ways to automate your building to work better for the occupants and the environment are endless. And I think that’s the goal: seamless automations to improve the built world environment. The occupants shouldn’t notice the technology. It should just work, and it should be responsive. That’s the vision that we’re working towards, and this group believes that the low-voltage advantages of PoE technology is the best way to achieve a smart building. 

Messaging on the benefits of PoE technology needs to continue because it is still not widely known in the industry. Our member companies are diverse – we even have electrical unions who have joined as members. This tells me that, instead of being afraid of PoE technology, people are embracing it because they see it as a solution to the challenges we face in implementing smart building technology. 

Partnering to Make PoE Ubiquitous and Turnkey

VERSA: I think it would be helpful for others to understand how they can make the most of this opportunity to network with other experts in the PoE industry. Could you guide me through the process of collaborating with the Consortium?

KJ: To get the benefits of networking within the group, active participation in the PoE Consortium is essential. What you put in is what you will get out of it. That’s why I’d recommend you join the group and raise your hand in a committee. The real work is done there. We have committees that would gladly welcome people with a wide range of skill sets, from marketing and events to policies and membership, to our most active committees: training and standardization.

Regarding training, we recognize the need for standardized installation procedures across various PoE products and it’s one of our top priorities from the training committee. To address this, we are working on sponsoring training sessions through organizations like BICSI, aiming to establish a consistent knowledge base for installers. This initiative ensures that regardless of the product used, the foundational skills for effective installation are in place. Our goal is to demystify PoE installation, advocating for uniform training to make this technology more accessible and less intimidating.

In terms of standardization, our efforts are complementary to existing Ethernet Alliance and IEEE standards. We are not competing but rather aligning with industry norms. Our standards committee is dedicated to creating uniform design guidelines, aiming for consistent terminology and symbols across different companies specifically when it comes to PoE lighting, shades, and sensors. This approach facilitates easier understanding and implementation of PoE technology, and hopefully reduces market confusion.

So by joining the PoE Consortium and participating actively in our committees, members can contribute to and benefit from the collective expertise and efforts in the PoE industry. This collaborative approach not only fosters professional growth but also advances the field as a whole.

And of course, we hosted four in-person events last year and plan on doing a similar number this year. Last year we held events in Tampa, Las Vegas twice, and Austin. We try to line them up with a conference or event that would give members an extra reason to fly in. We strongly encourage all members to attend if they can! These are social events, working sessions, strategy meetings, and more which help build relationships across the industry. 

Our next event is January 29th in Orlando, FL. Visit our website and submit a membership form to learn more. I’ll be there and we’re expecting a great turnout. 

PoE Consortium Membership CTAThe Power of A Vision

I’m hopeful that this next year be able to focus more on growth and impact the industry and start to really push out our vision for:

  • Uniting the industry messaging on PoE benefits
  • Growing our membership base
  • Advocating for PoE technology broadly and to AHJs
  • Publishing unique thought leadership 

We are, hopefully, making more of an impact there. This year was fantastic. We built a strong foundation. It was a lot of work, and I didn’t do it alone. I had a great leadership team with me and many very active members. 

The Spark of a Shared Idea

VERSA: This year at BICSI in Tampa, one emerging need identified was addressing the skills gap. The seasoned generalist population is retiring en masse. Meanwhile, the younger people in these trades have not had sufficient time to learn more nuanced skills. Now the younger population is involved in aspects of IT administration, facilities management, and other industries relying on PoE products. Do you think your leadership as a young female in this industry is helping expand the PoE Consortium’s reach and inspiring the next generation of technical leaders? 

KJ: There is a skills crisis in this industry, no doubt. We need a consistent incoming group of new leaders and experts in this field to support the growth. There are not enough installers, designers, and engineers to support the demand for the current PoE projects we have, let alone the growth we’re seeing coming down the pipeline. It is my hope that this group can help inspire the next generation. For example, the PoE Consortium has a free membership level for students who want to get involved and network for career opportunities. Our trainings should allow people who are already in an adjacent field gain skills to transition to this new opportunity. 

So yes, there is a technical skills gap for sure. There is also a soft skills gap. In a fast-growing industry like ours, both are a problem! 

I am aware that I have made a bit of a name for myself in a very niche area, marketing this technology. What I think is most important is that, regardless of age or gender, I am an example of the fact that you don’t have to be a product designer or highly technical to participate and lead and make a difference in this group or in a STEM field. In fact, the overreliance on technical expertise might be something that’s been holding the industry back – there haven’t been enough people to bring this technology to market who’ve been experts in the communication, marketing, and soft skills side of business development. Marketers can help communicate the value of this technology, and I think that’s important. It’s a great way for people to get involved in a STEM industry without having a technical background. 

If I looked at all these different members, I would ask them to consider how they’re investing in market expansion. Do you have a director of marketing? Do you have a communications expert? How do you listen to customers? How are you taking your individual brand, product, and company to market? Right now, I think the PoE Consortium is helping a lot of companies, in a way, fill that gap.

But of course, back to your original comment – if I can inspire a young person or a woman to consider this field, that’s a bonus to me. Buildings are for all people, so having a diverse set of voices in the room when smart building technology is developed will only make the products and services our members offer even stronger. 

VERSA: How did you come up with the concept of the PoE Consortium? 

KJ: The PoE Consortium came from a cross-market collaboration. If you go back about two years, I was head of marketing at a company called Igor. I was hosting a major event that pulled together over 20 companies into one trade show exhibit to demonstrate the power of PoE technology and the diversity of products that would work with it in a live hotel room we built on the show floor. There, I met AK who was at the time a competitor but is now my colleague. We discussed similar market challenges, especially around educating people on the benefits of PoE and how it was preventing the growth of the entire market. 

We first discussed doing a white paper – a piece published by competitors would surely grab the market’s attention, right? And then we thought, what’s better than two competitors? That led to us adding a third competitor, then a fourth competitor. Then the group thought we shouldn’t leave any out. And then people were pulling each other together, and the conversation led to everyone seeing that there was a need for the market to have more leadership in marketing PoE technology, educating, and explaining it so that we could grow the market to grow as individual companies. 

From there, we realized that a one-off white paper might be cool, but it wasn’t going to have a lasting impact in the same way as an organization could.  

Consistent Messaging Within and Beyond

VERSA: It’s easy to see why the Consortium elected you to spearhead things because of your communication expertise, especially because that’s what’s needed initially. You are already so knowledgeable about PoE technology from your time with Igor. MHT appears to be quite innovative and a lot of fun in a whole different way because of the dynamics of your executive team. 

KJ: Thank you! I appreciate the comments. And yes, we’ve got good energy and momentum at MHT Technologies, too. 

How Can People Become Involved?

What kind of action could someone reading this article take to get involved? What kind of support do you need? What are you looking for to help go into the next phase? 

KJ: We are looking for people who want to step up and be active on the committees, and that requires membership to participate. We’ve tried to keep the membership rates accessible for most companies, so the base is only $1,000 for a year, as you know, for industry organizations. That is typically a pretty good rate, but it partly reflects the fact that when you join, we really want you to contribute. We’ve got a lot of committees that we would love to see grow a little bit more. For instance, there’s a marketing committee on the PoE Consortium that could use some love because everyone who’s joined is so interested in the training and the standards committees!  So we are open to a wide variety of skillsets. It’s a great opportunity for people to gain new experiences and have an influence on the direction of this group. 

We also need: 

  • People who are creative and want to assist with, maybe contribute their skill sets in, website changes that would make it more dynamic or interesting. 
  • People who want to help set up the structure of the organization for international growth. 
  • Policy-oriented thinkers to build out our handbook on policies, processes, and operations for long-term success. 

There are many ways to become involved that would contribute to structurally supporting the PoE Consortium. Non-technical people are more than welcome because we have so many other things we could use your help with and skill sets. I think that also is a big reason why the founding members recruited and elected me as president, because they knew my history in the industry, professional skill set, and marketing expertise were critical for the early development of this organization.  

I think the Consortium would love to see a little more diversity in the skill set of our members who participate. You might work for a technical company that installs this or develops PoE technology or is related to it, but you don’t have to be an engineer to participate, or a programmer or a certified RCDD. We need those technical skills, but we need the soft skills too! 

And to enable our long-term growth, the next step is to bring on some administrative, part-time staff to alleviate the day-to-day responsibilities of the volunteers. I want to take away some of the executional work that I carried this year for that next president because our organization will not be sustainable if we stay all volunteer based. Having some support allows people to be involved in the way that they’re excited about without it feeling like a chore. Contributors should be able to do something that elevates the consortium, elevates PoE technology, and honestly elevates your career and your network. 

VERSA: Kim, thank you for taking time out of what I’d imagine is a very full schedule to come and talk to us. The Consortium clearly could be a huge opportunity for our industry and I’m sure there will be readers out there who appreciate what you’re doing.  

KJ: Absolutely. For anyone who wants to connect, I can be found on LinkedInI’m looking forward to welcoming more members! 

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