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Toast’s Mike Caneja on Disrupting the Restaurant Industry and Beyond

Mike Caneja

At my core, I’m a product person–a guy that likes to build things. With a background as an engineer, my career has been focused on the intersection of hardware and software. In my current role as a Senior Hardware Product Manager at Toast, we build all-in-one, cloud-based point of sale devices for the restaurant business–a need and industry which are both massive.

Working in product allows me to be both technical and work very closely with people. One day I may be diving really deep on a technical problem with engineers, but at the same time, I can take a step back, get out of the office and visit a local restaurant to talk to customers and understand their pain points, needs, and the general market landscape.

IoT has been my specialization for most of my career, and while that term has been around now for several years, the need for what we do remains significant and as exciting as ever. My focus has mostly been around hardware electronics, for example, building products, putting sensors and connectivity modules on them, and then figuring out how to harvest that data from the device and send it to the cloud. Once in the cloud, we can use the data to solve customer problems by building web or mobile applications that display the data in new ways to help customers optimize their businesses.

The industry is very focused on the SaaS businesses that are popular today. But I think as a whole, somebody like myself that's found a way to do hardware in the tech space, I don't think that's going away. In my previous role at Bosch, they focused on sensors, software and services. They make a lot of equipment that's not connected to the internet. In the future: 5, 10, 20 years from now, we're going to have more devices connected to the internet, both in a smart home, but also outside of our daily lives, like in factories and in supply chains.

People that want to get more into this hardware space: you’re not too late. My recommendation is to try to get experience with physical devices, things you can put your hands on, things that you can pick up and feel and touch.  For the tinkerers out there, there are several development kits from major semiconductor manufacturers, such as Nordic, Quorvo, Raspberry Pi, etc. that offer all-in-one solutions where you can attach sensors to physical devices, extract data, and start building out IoT solutions.

Thinking about specific systems, I was recently at the National Retail Federation trade show and was speaking to a company that builds digital price tags. Their product has a tiny little screen that has a Wi-Fi module in it that communicates to a hub that then allows a store to remotely change the prices on all their shelves. Additionally, there is also a camera on the opposite shelf that's monitoring inventory levels and can alert a staff member to restock the shelves. There are countless real world examples like this that are being developed or haven’t yet been thought of–which means countless opportunities for hardware/software engineers and product managers to dream and build. Early in my career, I started using a phrase: we could build whatever we want, but what should we build? That's really the question.

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