“We didn’t like any of the alternatives”

Jacob Fahrenkrug is responsible for the digital products at VC/O. When he started, it was like jumping into the deep end. 

Jacob is 34 and has already experienced a great deal in his professional life. He has worked as an IT specialist for large corporations such as Bayer and the Deutsche Post, been employed in the finance, telecoms and gaming industries, helped to build the yetu start-up company and witnessed how it crashed. When he came to VC/O at the end of 2017, he was confronted with a task that everyone only expected to fail. He explains just why he is still there, and why he feels that he is in good hands as the father of a Viessmann subsidiary, in the following interview.

What do you do at VC/O, Jacob?

I am the CTO and CPO, so I’m responsible for technology and all the digital products.

What was your first task?

One of our key products is the ViCare app, which allows our end customers to manage their heating systems through their smartphones. It is also linked to the Vitoguide app, which enables our specialist partners to monitor the facilities in their care. Both apps were on the verge of total failure. My job was to prevent this.

How did this happen?

ViCare was originally set up for around 50,000 end devices. But, at the point in time when I started here, there were a great many more facilities online. The old back end of the device, that was still screwed on by hand, was developed by an external service provider who no longer worked for us. The system was completely overloaded and could go out of control and break down any day.

What would that have meant?

In the worst case scenario, the product would have become totally inoperative for our customers for months on end. Also, monitoring by the installers could no longer be guaranteed. It was also not clear whether we could ever start the system again after a breakdown.

Sounds like the perfect nightmare for the CTO. What options did you have?

We developed a new back end, on which both apps would be able to run. We had two alternatives: either we keep the system in operation a little longer and risk a total breakdown, or we restart the app on the new back end, but with some bugs and fewer features than with the old system. We didn’t really like either of these options, but we had to prevent any possible breakdown. So we decided in favour of the new app.

And what effect did this have?

The new app only had the most basic features. It had no newsfeed and no holiday function. It wasn’t even possible to schedule with it – to set the heating system up for its daily operation. It was a product that, in effect, didn’t meet the Viessmann quality requirements. Fortunately we launched it in the summer, when most consumers weren’t really bothered about heating anyway. As such, most of our customers didn’t even notice.

And how is it all looking now?

Viessmann builds world-class boilers. They are developed and launched over the course of 12-18 months, which is a relatively short timespan in the industry.The customers were also used to these development times for the software which, in the era of the internet, is in fact very slow. We have reorganised the app and its work processes in such a way that we can add new functionalities in two to four week intervals – and we do this consistently. So we’re getting there.

What have you learnt from this crisis?

If you come from a start-up environment, where you can change everything very quickly, you have to get used to the processes in an industrial company. We need to carry our employees with us from a “we build highly-efficient heating systems” mindset, to one where “we build solutions that contribute to our sustainability”. It’s no use being impatient here and putting yourself under time pressure. You need to keep a cool head if you want to build bridges.

Where do you still want to go with this app?

It is not just about getting the operating element onto people’s mobile phones, so customers don’t have to run down into the cellar to regulate the temperature. That’s just the first step. In the long term we want our customers to manage the energy in their houses with ViCare. We are aiming for the perfect compromise between convenience and sustainability. We want to get to know our customers and their families and develop an adaptive system, where users can always feel comfortable at home while consuming a minimum amount of energy.

How important is the issue of sustainability in your work?

I have four children and I do not want them to have to live in a world in the wake of a climatic disaster. That’s why the issue of sustainability is very important to me personally. Our guiding principle at Viessmann is that “We create living spaces for generations to come”. That’s what we live and breathe. I could earn more elsewhere as a freelance consultant, but here I get the feeling that I can make a contribution towards ensuring that our world does not go down the pan.

Can you give us an example of how Viessmann sees the Smart Home of the future?

If the user is going jogging, for example, and the system knows about this through their Apple Watch and assumes that he or she will soon come home and would like it to be warm and ready for taking a shower. Another example is when you get up from your sofa to get yourself something to eat, the electronic floor heating follows you from the living room into the kitchen. That’s not just comfortable, it also saves energy. That’s something that Google, Apple or Amazon cannot develop, but Viessmann can.

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CPO und CTO Jacob Fahrenkrug im Gespräch

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