Bethel Alumnus Leading in Fast-Changing Smart Home Market

As head of Samsung SmartThings, Mark Benson '01 is serving at the forefront of the home automation industry. In part due to the pandemic, the field is undergoing vast changes as people reimagine what’s possible in the home. But Benson still traces his motivation to Bethel, where he first learned he could use technology to help people live better lives.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

April 20, 2022 | 10:30 a.m.

Mark Benson ’01

Mark Benson ’01 speaks at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Looking back on his time at Bethel, Benson values the chance he had to live and grow in a strong community—something he says he would have had to seek out intentionally at a larger school. He formed many friendships that continue to this day and proved to be a vital part of his faith journey. He played tennis and served as team captain, and he also worked in the dining center. He played bass guitar with Vespers for all four years.

“Getting all of your devices to work together can be a challenge,” Mark Benson ‘01 said in January at the 2022 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a major trade show held annually in Las Vegas. Behind him on stage, a screen showed several devices—a thermostat, a smartwatch, televisions, monitors, a speaker, home security cameras, and more. “Today, we’re making it simpler.” Benson also uses another way to describe his work as head of Samsung SmartThings: “It’s helping people live better with their homes,” he says. Benson is at the forefront of the burgeoning home automation market, leading efforts to connect devices in homes—like those on-screen at CES—to help consumers find conveniences, fun, security, and more at home.

Few could have predicted Benson’s career path. He wasn’t avid about computers growing up and entered Bethel as a physics major, but an introductory computer course changed his perspective when the instructor highlighted how computers are tools to serve people in numerous ways. “My eyes were opened up to how you could actually change the world and make people’s lives better through computers, and I never understood that before,” he says.

After Benson changed his major to computer science with a math minor, he faced a steep learning curve, but his Bethel courses provided a strong foundation. And he commends his professors for helping him gain skills and equipping him to ask hard questions. “The Bethel experience really instilled in me this notion of asking in every step, ‘Why does this matter?’” he says. “'How is this going to impact consumers?’ ‘Why does this matter for the business, the world?’” After graduating, Benson faced two very different career opportunities. While an IT networking job would have paid more, he accepted a more difficult position at Logic Product Development. “I chose that path because I wanted to learn and grow and be challenged,” he admits.

Mark Benson ’01

Growing up predominantly in the 1990s, a tech career didn’t seem likely for Mark Benson ’01. His dad owned an Apple 2C with a floppy drive and a few games, but Benson wasn’t avid about computers. As a child, he wanted to be a baseball player, but one middle school career survey suggested he become an undertaker. The survey also suggested one role he wouldn’t like: an engineer. “And that’s what I ended up becoming,” he says with a laugh.

The role combined computer and electrical engineering, working with software that ran in pacemakers, defibrillators, and automobiles. Software failure could be a matter of life and death, and he faced high stakes, regulations, and oversight. The role pushed Benson, and he sought mentors as he developed new skills and gained experience. That role led him to serve as chief technology officer at Exosite, which created software that helped manufacturers use computers and mathematics to perform preventive maintenance to avoid downtime at factories.

Today at Samsung SmartThings, Benson holds a role similar to a CEO. Though based in software engineering, he leads a diverse set of several smaller teams that each serve as “radical owners” of their part of the company—embedded software, mobile, cloud, design, development, security, and more. SmartThings is an ecosystem that enables people to bring together countless smart devices and appliances—Phillips-Hue light bulbs, Nest thermostats, Ring cameras, and many more, which they can then control and program from SmartThings’ app or smart TVs and monitors. A decade ago, people had to be do-it-yourself hobbyists or enthusiasts to utilize smart home devices. But Benson sees consumers more willing to adopt smart home tech—if it’s more accessible. And COVID-19 led many to reimagine what homes can be. Originally a place of rest, relaxation, and safety, homes today are becoming a hub for work, exercise, and pretty much everything. “The home is something that’s so central to people’s lives,” Benson says. “In the last couple of years, people’s relationships with their homes have changed.”

SmartThings is striving to make smart home technology accessible. Benson and his family, for example, have more than 100 smart devices in their home. Their most used include lights, locks, thermostats, and appliances. When it’s time for bed, Benson just tells his Amazon Alexa “good night,” and it turns off all the lights, closes the garage door, and locks the doors. “It does all of that for me. It saves tons of time and makes me happy,” he says. He also has Nanoleaf lights that can change colors and respond to music. “You can turn your home into like a party zone, too, when you want to have fun or have people over,” he says.

Energy is another common usage. The SmartThings app allows people to visualize and reduce their energy usage on compatible devices. Users can program lights to automatically shut off when not in use, and thermostats can be set to reduce furnace or air conditioning usage when people are away before regulating the temperature when returning home. It can be used for security, as can monitor security cameras. It can even help with cooking, as an oven will turn on to the right temp to adhere to a recipe. “People are doing things that just make the home a better place to live in,” Benson says. “So there’s been a big trend up in adoption for smart home technology.”

And Benson is one of the leaders spurring major changes in the industry. SmartThings is a founding board member of Matter, a standardization effort aiming to improve and streamline home automation. Today, people have to research smart devices to ensure they’ll work with home automation systems and other devices. Benson describes Matter as a USB for smart home devices—the standard will mean that certified products are compatible. “It will make it much easier for the mass market to simply buy smart home devices and get them to work together.” This highlights a unique aspect of the home automation landscape: Companies—even competitors—work together because automation and interconnectivity are most valuable to consumers.

Throughout his career, Benson has relied on his faith. He often looks to the Bible and Jesus’ life for leadership principles as he strives to display servant leadership. “My faith is extremely important to me,” he says. “It’s central to my life and our family’s life, and is really integrated into everything we do.” He and his family are active at Plymouth Covenant Church in Plymouth, Minnesota, where he plays bass on the worship team.

Looking ahead, Benson and his teams are taking steps to integrate SmartThings more deeply into Samsung’s portfolio. Along with new products and efforts, they’ll work to integrate SmartThings hub technology into family hub refrigerators to make them more accessible and easier to use. For Benson, he will continue striving to take the hard road. It’s allowed him to grow the most. But it’s also necessary for his career as a leader in an industry almost certain to grow and change at a fast pace. “It’s good for business, and it’s also good personally,” he says.

The Benson family

When he’s not at work at Samsung SmartThings, Benson spends much of his time with his family: wife, Mandy, and children: Niles, 13; Sawyer, 10; and Talitha, 8. Benson also enjoys exploring coffee shops around the Twin Cities, and he still plays tennis a few times a week—with Bethel alums—as part of U.S. Tennis Association leagues.

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