Entrepreneur Martin Bosshardt rejects the notion that ETH graduates end up pursuing their careers in dark research laboratories. He and his colleagues focus on how global organizations can employ security technology in a way that is more efficient, more automated and more scalable. For him, ETH Zurich plays a vital role in this context: it trains the engineers that he desperately needs to ensure both service quality and the future growth of his company.Mr. Bosshardt, when did you decide to become an engineer?
I already knew that I wanted to be an engineer while I was still at secondary school. Although I would not describe myself as a typical tinkerer, I enjoyed experimenting with electronic components, building alarm systems and taking radios apart.
Was there a particular turning point for you?
I think it was the day our neighbor stood on our doorstep with a banana box. In the box — neatly dismantled into its individual parts — was a moped. When my parents looked at the mess in the box, they thought it was pretty unlikely that I would end up riding the contraption one day. Nevertheless, they insisted that if I were successful, then I would absolutely have to wear a crashhelmet for my own safety.
And how did the story end?
About a week later, my mother bought me a helmet, which I even agreed to wear on my victory tour through the village.
You studied electrical engineering at ETH in Zurich. How did you find out about ETH back then?
Even in those days, ETH was the top school for engineering. My father had also studied at ETH and, as luck would have it, Professor Georg Epprecht, who taught electrical engineering at ETH, was our neighbor. He watched me one day as I took a radio apart. He reckoned that if I wanted to learn to how to put it back together again, I should study electrical engineering. Which I then did.
How did you enjoy student life at ETH?
I had a really good time. There was an unbelievable amount of stuff to see, do and learn. I was passionate about the subject matter, got heavily involved in the development of an electric car and naturally spent as much time as possible on the ETH computers. They opened the door to a new world for me — the world of global networks.
But as far as I was concerned, the best thing about ETH was the many like-minded people, all of whom really understood how things worked. Two of them have shaped my life in a special way.
That sounds interesting. Who were those two people?
First of all, my wife, Daniela, who was studying pharmacology at ETH back then. We got married in 2004 and today are the happy parents of two sons — Lino and Jon. The other person who has greatly influenced my life in a very positive way is Florian Gutzwiller.
With whom you run Open Systems AG today...
Right. Florian Gutzwiller, the founder of Open Systems AG and currently the chairman of the Board of Directors, is heavily involved in the development and global expansion of our firm. Before setting up the company in 1990, he was responsible for running the most important communications computer at ETH. It was he who opened my first account on the Bernina mainframe, which used to be ETH’s most powerful communications system. So you could say that he was the one who gave me access to the global networks that would one day become the World Wide Web.
You worked as an intern in Japan for a few months while you were studying. How did that come about, and what exactly did you do there?
ETH boasts a superb international network from which undergraduate and doctoral students can benefit directly. I definitely wanted to make use of that opportunity and gain some experience abroad. Through a student exchange program, I obtained an internship with a Japanese technology firm in Tokyo. During the internship, I had contact through ETH with the University of Tokyo, where I got the opportunity to spend my final semester and write my diploma dissertation at the Institute for Nanorobotics after completing my industrial internship.
And what exactly did your work entail?
We were asked to build a scanning tunneling microscope that could position a scanning tip accurately to one atom, where the scanning tip had the necessary precision to scan a carbon lattice. The subject could hardly have been more topical, as it was in precisely that year — 1986 — that the German physicist Gerd Binnig and the Swiss physicist Heinrich Rohrer received the Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope, with which they made atoms visible by using tunnel current. After five months of really hard work, we managed to complete our project successfully. It was an amazing experience. I felt as though I’d been present at the creation of the Earth.
To what extent did ETH play a role in this work?
Of course we had regular contact with ETH at the organizational level and, interestingly enough, also at the technical level. As we did not have suitable visualization software available to us in Japan, we used a mainframe at ETH in Zurich to compute the image out of the processed data overnight and print it out in Tokyo. Looking back on it, that was a tremendous achievement in our project. You should remember that in those days the internet connected only something like 1,000 machines.
How did your career develop after you graduated?
Back in Switzerland, I applied for a job with the technology conglomerate ABB. In our first meeting, my boss asked me how long I would need to pack if ABB needed me in a different country. A couple of weeks later, I was working in Malaysia as a commissioning engineer on a major building site for a combined cycle power plant.
That sounds like you were thrown in at the deep end...
I was lucky enough to be given responsibility early on at ABB. After Malaysia came Indonesia, where I had the sole responsibility for the commissioning of the control systems in a similarly sized project. We had 12 months to bring the machine online. Every day’s delay would have triggered a contractual penalty of CHF 500,000. At times, more than 3,000 people worked on the site. The power plant was finished on time. Today, it generates electricity for around 10 million people.
These projects clearly demonstrated to me how, thanks to the engineering sciences, it is possible to build complex machinery that far exceeds the capabilities of a single person. Nobody knows every single detail of a power plant from top to bottom. You need to break down the overall system into manageable parts in order for specialist teams to construct it and put it into operation.
Then came a short interlude in consulting...
Yes, that was a very important step for me, as it required complete immersion in the role of a service provider. Economically, this period was overshadowed by the dotcom crisis, which had a large impact on both our company and clients at the time. I could scarcely have had a more interesting and informative time than working with the management of a service provider.
But you still moved to Open Systems in 2002...
Open Systems had fascinated me from the outset. It was love at first sight.
You are the CEO of Open Systems AG and a shareholder. What does it mean for you to be an entrepreneur?
For me, being an entrepreneur means bringing into line the goals of the customers, the goals of the employees and the goals of the shareholders. This is the only way for a company to grow sustainably and establish itself on the market in the long run. I really enjoy accompanying this growth and it fills me with pride to think that more 130 people work here today. When I started, we had a grand total of 17 employees.
You spoke about the strong growth of your company. What is your recipe for success?
Information technology is predestined for automation. Consequently, we try not to view our people as parts of a machine, but as engineers who develop and build a machine, giving them the chance to constantly advance the level of useful automation. I’m not convinced that we should relocate simple, repetitive activities to cheaper regions. We delegate these often boring tasks to the computer. That works better in IT than any other industry. There are no physical or geographical borders in our business, and our logistics costs are minimal. Automation makes us competitive, and our work more exciting. It also helps us provide higher quality, as the services are more secure, more stable and more scalable. Achieving a high level of automation is exciting but also very demanding work. To do it well, we need the best and most creative engineers we can get.
So, as far as you’re concerned, your technology is not your key selling point?
We differentiate ourselves in the market with our staff and how we employ technology, not with the technology itself. In their day-to-day work, our employees focus on how we can apply security techniques in a way that is more efficient, more automated and more scalable. And this is how they also constantly redefine the way we work at Open Systems. So recruitment and continuing professional development of the teams are critically important. Many of my colleagues studied at ETH. We do, of course, also recruit from many other excellent educational establishments. But ETH remains a very important talent pool for us.
Another important point is the fact that a company is only as good as its customers. We have the privilege of working for prestigious organizations that are highly successful all over the world. The customer mix is particularly interesting – alongside conglomerates from all sectors of industry, we also have a strong presence with NGOs. The motivating effect on the staff of supporting prestigious NGOs should not be underestimated.
In 2011, you won the SVC Entrepreneurs Award for the Zurich region.
I received the award on behalf of the management team and all employees of Open Systems. I was, of course, incredibly proud, and still am today. What I particularly liked was that many of my colleagues attended the award ceremony.
You are working hard to establish the topic of IT security at the executive level. Is that an issue for you personally or just clever marketing?
Probably a bit of both. Whatever else, I’m still amazed that many directors and senior managers continue to delegate IT issues to their IT department.
The most important development – seeing as it is the most disruptive — in a company comes from IT. This is a game-changer for everyone, no matter which industry they operate in. Be it retailing, tourism, aviation, banking or insurance. Even the taxi industry is being redefined by IT. We all know this. But it seems to me that the «Kodak effect» is still widespread. From my point of view, this is one of the biggest dangers for a company. As far as I’m concerned, the responsibility rests with the senior managers and directors. They need to look at both the possibilities and the risks inherent in information technology.
ETH Zurich supports outstanding students who want to do their master’s degree at ETH with the «Excellence Scholarship & Opportunity Programme (ESOP)». Open Systems is supporting this programme. Why is that?
Because ETH is extremely important – for Open Systems, as well as for Switzerland in terms of a business location. Giving the best young talents the chance to study at one of the best universities in the world is something well worth supporting and highlighting — for these students as well as for the university. What matters to us is not to profit from ETH but to give something back. So we offer internships and support students in their master’s theses. Open Systems is helping to ensure that ETH remains one of the world’s top universities in the future. So the sup- port is less of a commitment and more of an obligation.
How will you make an engineering degree appeal to your sons when they’re deciding what to study one day?
I view a degree in engineering as one possible door that opens a thousand other doors. So I consider this education to be a great option — even for people who don’t yet know for sure what they want to do later professionally, or what position they would like at work.
But I will also try to eliminate a number of prejudices that still exist, such as that an engineering degree is incredibly hard. Or that engineers end up in the darkest corner of some half-forgotten laboratory later in their careers. Quite the opposite is true: there are few other degrees with as many fabulous, practice-oriented exercises and technical «toys» in their curriculum. Plus, the competition between medical students or law students is just as hard, or even harder — all the more so later in the profession.
Engineers are trained to break down complex systems into manageable parts, in order to make mechanisms of practically any size run. As an engineer, you learn how to think, and how to view the world in a very specific way. This knowledge later works worldwide, irrespective of permits or legislation. I consider this school of thought to be one of the best principles for an entrepreneur or manager. After all, companies are complex systems. The potential and opportunities for engineers will become even more pronounced in the future. Just think about how many established markets are currently being revolutionized by new technologies and how many new opportunities are being opened up by innovative technologies. An engineering qualification — and this is something I believe most strongly — is the ideal preparation for the future.