As a recent guest on the Field Service Podcast, Varlink’s Founder and CEO Mike Pullon reflected philosophically on his thirty plus years in the sector identifying the key milestones in the evolution of rugged devices. Field Service News’ Deputy Editor and host of that podcast explains more...
“Distributing rugged mobile computing, barcoding and EPoS products to system integrators and re-sellers since the 1980s,” reads the header on Mike’s Pullon’s LinkedIn profile. As an overview of a career it’s pretty accurate.
From the early alliterations of proprietary operating systems, through to today’s ubiquitous Android devices, via Microsoft’s dominance, Mike has seen technology’s evolution first hand. “I can remember mobile computers going from being a computer on a shopping trolley to something that resembles the devices we’re using now,” he laughs, “So I’ve been around a while.”
Mike is the Founder and CEO of Varlink, a distributor of mobile computing, EPOS and auto ID brands. Readers of Field Service News are more likely to know the York-based outfit for their catalogue of rugged devices; distributing laptops, phones and tablets from brands such as Honeywell, Janam and Zebra to the service sector. Our paths initially crossed at Varlink’s ‘Meet
the Manufacturer’ event in Leicester, an annual gathering that enables brands to showcase their wares to buyers, to share new models and to tell customers face-to-face what new innovations are on the horizon. Sent by my Editor to write-up the event and tasked with speaking to exhibitors and delegates to get an overview of what benefits the event brings to the service sector, I collared Mike into giving me an interview about the show.
As well as discussing the value of the event (and a shared passion for running) we pursued other, broader topics about connectivity, IoT and the future of the rugged device; big horizon-scanning topics that would suit the content of a podcast. Then, some months’ later, we were doing just that with Mike as our guest on The Field Service Podcast.
But first of all, let’s rewind back to the origins of Mike’s career. In 1979 he was taking his first steps into the barcoding and POS arena, as Product Manager at label printer Norprint, spending eight years at the firm. A Sales and Marketing Director role was taken at Kingstown Photocodes, a barcode data capture system supplier, hardware re-seller and distributor. He left the position in 1994 but retains a minority shareholder stake.
"From large, clunky computer terminals in shopping trollies to slick, lightning quick Android devices we see today, rugged hardware has come a very long way..."
That same year, having absorbed a large amount of knowledge, Mike felt confident to launch Advanced Bar-Coding Ltd., a firm that also re-sold and distributed Auto ID and EPoS hardware. It was eventually sold to Scansource in 2002, and after overseeing the acquistion, Mike founded Varlink in 2005. The rest, as they say, is history. But what about the history of mobility? I plotted its path with Mike on the podcast.
From large, clunky computer terminals in shopping trollies to slick, lightning quick Android devices we see today, rugged hardware has come a very long way. Yet, as Mike explains, its purpose has remained unchanged since its inception. “The technology that I’ve been involved in since the late 70s and early 80s has always been about productivity enhancement.
“If I go back to some of the first applications I was aware of, it was all about how a company could reduce the amount of paper it was using, and it was seen very much as an internal enhancement.
"They were going to do a better job, they were going to reduce the number of notepads, the number of missed phone calls, the carbonised books. All these things were being engineered out but it was very much about how they could do a better job for themselves.”
However, the influence of courier delivery led firms to think beyond the walls of the distribution warehouse to the product’s final destination: the end-user. “It’s swung away from being something which is going to reduce a company’s external issues,” Mike says, “to one where they can actually offer better service than their competitors, which then becomes a clarion call for everyone competing in a particular sector to do a better job for their customers, ‘oh and by the way we’ll be more efficient too.’”
The integration of Android has been, according to Mike, another major revolution in rugged’s evolution and a complete enabler for the sector. “It’s one of the very few instances I can think of in my career where the technology that users are being asked to use they are familiar with,” he says.
“The thing I most enjoy about being in the position I’m in is talent spotting and developing colleagues..."
Android is the world’s most popular mobile operating system, with an estimated half of the UK’s mobile phone coverage running on the platform. It means that engineers issued with a device running on the platform will already be confident in its interface.
It differs from the last public/enterprise technological crossover, when Personal Computers started appearing in offices. “In the early days,” Mike recalls, “when PCs arrived on people’s desks, we didn’t have PCs at home, very few of did. This [Android] is one technology where people are familiar with the mobile phone before the device is delivered to their van, car or cab.”
This is just a snapshot of our conversation and I urge you to go and listen to the full podcast but I felt this small focus on Mike’s thoughts on an evolution that not only covers rugged devices but technology more generally deserved a spotlight in these pages.
Finally, at the end of each podcast, I ask our guests what inspires them to do what they do. I was looking forward to Mike’s response:
“The thing I most enjoy about being in the position I’m in,” he says, “is talent spotting and developing colleagues. – straight from university, for example – and you like to think you’ve helped them along the way.” And what about the vendors, is the same developmental approach applied? “A group of people, like Janam,” he says, “who were a new company when we were first worked with them.
“They’re a great company with great people, so being able to spot a rising manufacturer and finding them away of merging with them into our current roster, that’s where the challenge comes from and when you get it right, that’s where the enjoyment comes from.”