Veteran Transition Profile: Craig Chambers, Cernium
As a Navy veteran with a degree in nuclear engineering and experience serving on nuclear submarines, Lieutenant Craig Chambers was well-positioned to make the jump into technology when he transitioned in the early 90s. As improved surveillance security technology and products have grabbed the spotlight over the past decade as the U.S. fights the war against terrorism, Chambers has taken his knowledge and experience to Cernium, where he currently serves as CEO. Cernium is on the cutting edge of the "intelligent" video surveillance industry, as its ExitSentry system is the surveillance system of choice for airports in North America; more recently Cernium has broken into the consumer market with the compact Archerfish system, which helps small businesses and families monitor offices and homes.
We recently chatted with Craig about his background and how the surveillance technology industry has changed over the years, and picked up a few tips for veterans who are making the jump into the civilian job market.
Military.com: Tell us a bit about your military background.
Craig Chambers: I'm a Naval Academy graduate and was fortunate enough to be sent to MIT for a year where I got a degree in nuclear engineering before going into the submarine force. My first tour was actually on the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear sub, during its last four years of operation. I stayed in service for 8 years after I finished at the academy, and I was lieutenant when I left... so there's hope for the lower grades.
Since I left the Navy I've been involved in technology firms of all different kinds. I went to business school on the GI Bill three years after I left the Navy, and that gave me the opportunity to get involved with a lot of different companies, and I was able to apply a lot of what I had learned about dealing with challenging technologies in difficult environments.
M: What led you to join Cernium?
CC: I was working for an Internet consulting firm, and I happened to be in New York City on 9/11, where I unfortunately got to see first-hand what transpired that day. Shortly afterward, one of the companies I had worked previously for invited me to put together a homeland security strategy. They were very much involved with video technology, so that was my first real opportunity to get immersed in what's happening today, with people using video for hardcore security applications as well as applications important for personal security and lifestyle. While on that assignment I networked with a gentleman who would eventually became our CTO here at Cernium, tossing around some ideas of what we might do in a future company. In 2005 Cernium was looking for a new strategy and new leadership, and based on my video background I was invited to fill the CEO role. I then invited our current CTO to come in and help implement the things we were talking about.
M: Tell us about the technology involved.
CC: The unique thing about Cerniuim is that it's created a very interesting technology most familiarly known as "video content analysis." It's basically a form of computer vision that lets the computer scan video in real time to get salient information: what are the objects in the field of view and what are they doing? So we took that technology and started to expand it both into homeland security and personal security and surveillance. What used to take racks of computer equipment we can now reduce to small, inexpensive devices that are affordable for consumers and small businesses.
The major advantage is that it allows you to get away from the old way of looking at video, which is to have someone sitting in front of a monitor wondering if something is going to happen. Instead you have the computer do that function and only provide video when it's of interest to the user. A great recent example: a lady in Florida happened to catch the burglars in her house by looking remotely at a video camera she set up. The good news is she got lucky and saw the burglars when they were in the house, but usually people are too busy with their jobs and kids and schools. Instead of that, you have a system that does the work for you instead of you doing the work for it. That was the concept behind creating our new consumer brand Archerfish.
M: What are the components of Archerfish?
C: It's actually a web-based system so if you log onto your own personal page on the archerfish portal it gives you access to the various cameras and video devices in your system. We make a few different versions of the hardware, and the most popular for consumers is an integrated smart wireless camera with a DVR built in. This could be of particular interest to those in the military because the cameras can be anywhere and you get alerts through your smartphone anywhere -- the system can send you alerts through texts or sms messages with video attached. So if you're deployed to Kuwait, for example, as long as you have broadband connectivity you can stay connected to your house, stay in touch with your family if they're back at the homestead. It's a good lifestyle management tool for people who want to stay on top of things from a distance.
M: And this technology was originally developed for use in airports?
C: Probably the most famous example showing the need for this technology was the Newark airport incident from last year, when someone innocently bypassed a security checkpoint, and as a result the terminal was shut down for a few hours in order for everyone to be re-checked and cleared. That kind of incident is not unusual, whether it's on purpose or by accident -- people are trying to get through the exit lane area, between gates and baggage claim, and usually someone from TSA or the airport is sitting at the desk to make sure people aren't coming back the opposite way, bypassing the checkpoint. ExitSentry monitors the flow of passengers through that corridor. Even in large crowds with everyone going the right way, a single person or object weaving its way back in the wrong direction can be picked out, and the appropriate folks can be informed in real time to do something about it. The same technology is used in Archerfish, and we boiled it down to a simple electronic device to keep up with wireless technology and improvements in broadband capability.
M: What do you see coming in the future for "smart" surveillance?
CC: We're continuing to work in the government and commercial sectors, and we're very excited about the response to Archerfish's capabilities, not just with our original target of small business and consumers, but with different government agencies that have taken some interest. I expect that we'll be doing much more with the government, especially now that budgetary priorities have started to shift and dollars are getting freed up in using technology to help protect different installations, from civilian agencies to military facilities. We're had some early discussions with Navy Exchange folks and AAFES for potential future use.
M: What advantages did your military experience give you in entering this industry?
C: The thing about submarine duty is that every day you're dealing with rapidly changing circumstances and a lot of technology. You're working within small, well-trained teams who have to think real fast and make good decisions, sometimes with not enough information or maybe not all the information you'd like to have. I think that's a great training ground for anybody in business, especially in entrepreneurial business, especially when you're often trying to build a business model that hasn't been attempted before. Judgments based on limited information in a very technical environment is great training for entrepreneurial business.
M: What advice would you give veterans who are transitioning into the civilian job market?
C: Trust that the training you've been given is very applicable to what you'll be finding in the business world, from the leadership perspective especially and also the ability to make good decisions based on the information you have. Second, it's interesting to me that over the past couple decades now, I've seen a transition from a time to when pretty much everyone had been in the military for part of their lives to where it's almost unusual to find someone with a military background, except in government businesses. It's very important to communicate to your potential bosses and peers what you have learned and internalized through your military career, not just technology and leadership experience but the versatile skills you've gained. Don't expect that everyone knows exactly what you're capable of doing just because you've been in the service for 10 or 12 years. We have to educate people now.