Terrasun Team Interview: Shar Allen, Director of Product Management at IHI Terrasun Solutions

Shahriar (Shar) Allen is our product expert. His path to energy storage had a few turns in it that gave him a wide variety of interesting experiences in his career.

Q: How did your career start?

A: I was hired as an electrical engineer in charge of controls at Inland Steel. I was only there for two years because steel mills are scary places to work. I left to go to Motorola where I worked on a public safety communication system. In second or third week, when I was still “in training,” the guy sitting next to me was working on software and was struggling with a problem. We started chatting and eventually he let me look at what he was working on. After he went home, I stayed for several hours and rewrote a giant chunk of his work. I was just trying things out and experimenting, but instead of saving my work I accidentally submitted it! Went home, went to sleep, and showed up late the next morning. One of the directors was waiting at my desk and I was petrified – I didn’t know getting in a little late was such a big deal. She asked me to come to her office and brought up this piece of code and asked if I wrote it. That was my last day as a hardware engineer – they moved me to software the next day, and that piece of code became integral to making the communications system work efficiently.  

Q: How did you get into the renewable energy industry?

A: I worked with Jamal Burki, now President of Terrasun, when I was at Motorola. A few years (and jobs) after I left Motorola, I had started my own consulting business and got called into what was then IHI Energy Storage to help out. At the time, there wasn’t enough work to hire me as part of the team but I was really intrigued. When we started working on the Tucson, AZ TEP project, I had the opportunity to join full-time. It was a really exciting time to join – I got to see the project on the ground and got a tour of the containers in the desert. Since then, I’ve focused on our product landscape.

Q: Let’s talk industry: what is something you think will happen within 5 years in the industry that people aren’t paying attention to just yet?

A: Energy storage overall is ripe for change. For the duration that I’ve been involved, the storyline has been the same: the product is too expensive relative to the problem we are trying to solve. The need for energy storage is growing and growing but we are not yet able to meet the need cost-effectively. This market is largely untapped – that need is not going away, it’s just building and staying pent up. All of these projects we hear about, I believe there are ten more that are cancelled or denied because they’re just too expensive. But they need to be done! So there’s a huge market hiding right now that is going to burst out at some point. Extends from residential through all of the commercial channels and beyond. We’re just waiting for the right mix of technology that makes this all really cost-effective.

I think that will happen in the next few years – we’ll see the birth of new technologies and their commercialization, and five years from now we’ll be laughing at the days when people were spending hundreds of dollars per kWh for battery energy storage. I don’t know how or when that will happen, it’s all hard to predict! When we get there, this market will explode.

Q: You’ve done so many different roles at this point – what do you see as “your thing”?

A: I think I like my role now a lot, I enjoy being on the product side of things. For the majority of my career, I managed technical resources – came up the ladder as an engineer, earned some credibility as a manager. Then I was sort of done with it because I kept having to solve the same problems at a larger scale with bigger consequences, but the challenges were ultimately the same. I went into consulting to diversify my skillset.

With my time in consulting, I wound up having all of this engineering experience balanced with all of these other business-oriented skills. No matter what problem a company was facing, I  could help to some degree and figure it out.

I like being further away from the hardware, software, and engineering problems because I get to look at our challenges from a different viewpoint now while understanding the engineering behind our work. I like to think about what product we should make it rather than how to make the product. For an engineer, their job is to deliver with quality anything we’re going to offer customers. I like thinking about what we can do, what we should do, how we best utilize our resources and create value for the company and our customers.

I used to get so excited about that though – I used to say there are a million ways to paint a room, I want to find the absolute best way to paint this room. I think that’s what made me successful in engineering. After I did that for years and years, I started to say oh this room looks a lot like the last room, I’ve already thought about how to paint it. I decided it was time to... Paint something different.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to try in your career?

A: I think I know what I’d like to get into someday! At some point I want to focus on financial challenges – that’s a challenge I haven’t really faced yet that I feel I would do well with. I don’t know when or where though. It’s exciting to me to not know all of the details – I want the challenge of learning something new and figuring out challenges, and gaining completely new skills.

Q: How would you describe your life’s philosophy?

A: Maybe learn constantly? I didn’t choose that philosophy, but that’s the path I have taken.

If one of my kids were going down my path (which none of them are) I would probably tell them to go deep and not do what I did – not because I haven’t had great fun with it, but because I think it’s easier to gain value from a specialty or focus than from gaining some knowledge on many topics. At the same time, I recognize I’m the type of person that finds adventure in learning about a lot of different things.

Q: Let’s close out with a story. What was the most memorable experience in your career and why?

A: The first memory that comes to mind was probably the most challenging experience in my career. I was sent to Hong Kong to work on the Hong Kong Royal Police Department communications product they bought from Motorola. Hong Kong is on basically the opposite time schedule as me, so I was working Hong Kong daytime hours making sure the radio system was working and recording issues for the engineers at home. What I didn’t realize going into the trip was that I also had to work Hong Kong nights – working with the engineers at home to  solve the problems I’d found during the day.

Because of the nature of the work, all of my communications with headquarters were confidential. I couldn’t talk on a regular phone so at night I would sit on the roof with my laptop and little spy-style phone talking to the US team until 3am. I’d find some food, go home and sleep for maybe five hours, and then got back to it. It was brutal. I was only supposed to be there for a week or two before my replacement came out, but when they did send someone new the plane had severe turbulence, passengers were very injured. I stayed for another week and a half to help my convalescing colleague settle in.

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