This new Canadian light switch talks back, senses temperature and saves energy

Company name: ecobee
Job title: Director Product Management
Amount of time with company: 2 years
Education/Training: MBA, Schulich School of Business; BEng, India
At ecobee, a Toronto cleantech upstart, Sahaj Cheema found the right place to realize her passion: building products that solve problems for people. Sahaj leads development on the affordable ecobee 3 Lite smart thermostat that can be controlled from a mobile app. She’s also leading the development of Switch+, ecobee’s first smart light switch with built-in Alexa Voice Service. After studying engineering in her native India, Sahaj landed in Toronto to complete her MBA, a move that planted the seed for her career in sustainable technology. During a break in her busy schedule, Sahaj explained her motivation to create “planet positive” products that save energy and lower home utility bills, while also improving their owner’s comfort and well-being.

How long you’ve been working at ecobee? How did you come to work at the company?

I’ve been at ecobee for two years. Before ecobee, I worked as an innovation strategist for a strategy and design consulting firm called Idea Couture. Once we presented our ideas to the client, we had no control over what they would build and when. You might really believe in a concept, but you may not see it go to customers, sometimes for years and sometimes never.

This was my first job right out of my MBA, so it was almost a continuation of my learning. I started craving to take ideas and concepts all the way to meaningful impact on consumers lives, building from the nuts and bolts.

What brought you to Toronto?

My dad is in the Indian army, and I did my engineering degree in in this town near Bombay called Pune. Then I worked as a software developer there for almost three years. I knew I wanted to do my MBA, but I really wanted to expand my horizons—we had lived almost everywhere in the country—and that’s why I started looking abroad. Ultimately, I did my MBA at the Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

Were you always passionate about sustainability or saving energy before you came to ecobee?

I think the seeds of it were planted during the MBA. Schulich has a few sustainability courses that I took up, so that was at the back of my mind.

From the first interaction that I had with somebody at ecobee, it became really clear how sustainability is a priority. We’re not here just for profit, we’re here to actually change the world for the better.

One of the company values is to think “planet positive.” As we are trying to make any choice, let’s say we’re trying to decide packaging or material finish for a product, we’ll make a choice that’s planet positive. We’ll remind ourselves, “no, the stain solution is not great. It doesn’t work great for recycling.”

Given that’s the space that I operate in for eight to ten hours a day, I take that forward when I’m home, as well. Just using less energy, trying to buy greener products, becoming more conscious about how I dispose of electronic waste and reusing more things. I think that’s now been ingrained in my mindset and it’s become a personal value.

Can you tell me a bit about some of the projects you worked on in the past? And what you’re working on right now?

When I started at ecobee, my first product was ecobee 3 Lite. It had just about kicked off, so we were in the early hardware alpha stage, but from that point on I took the lead. That first full year I was working on bringing ecobee 3 Light to the market. At that point, ecobee 3 was our flagship thermostat and it was doing really well. ecobee 3 and Google Nest were both at the $249 price point. We wanted to create a really good looking, solid product for consumers who possibly want fewer features. ecobee 3 Light launched as a $169 product with somewhat pared-down functionality, but still overall, a top-notch experience.

Since then, I’ve been working on a smart light switch called the ecobee Switch+ that has Amazon Alexa built into it. The light switch is our first product that’s not a thermostat.

Tell me a little bit more about what your day-to-day working at ecobee. What is your favourite part of your job?

My day-to-day is busy. It’s really, really fast. As a product lead, you’re at the intersections of all the different work streams that get this product from an idea to something that consumers can experience in their homes.

Facing unexpected challenges with my team is what I enjoy most. I do a lot of planning but there are always unforeseen developments that happen along the way. Then you’re like, “we didn’t plan for this. This is not working. What are we supposed to do?” I think that getting the team together and doing almost real-time challenge solving, that’s the most exciting part. In a lot of ways, we come up with even a better solution than what we started out with.