Against the grain: three business apps CEOs putting in a challenge

One of the advantages of my role as Computer Weekly’s business applications editor is that I get to have fairly in-depth conversations with US CEOs visiting London. These are background interviews since CW steers clear of giving a platform for suppliers to sell to our readers.

In this blogpost are gathered up excerpts from three of these briefings. All three CEOs are tackling their industry space from a relatively fresh angle, building on modern IT. There’s no endorsement here: similar technologies are always available. And the cliché of “disruption” is surely boring. Nevertheless, these are thoughtful types and, as CEOs, it is their job to do strategy: they own that in a way no other executive does or can do.

Frank Bien is the CEO of Looker, a business intelligence company based in Santa Cruz, California.

Bien’s narrative of business intelligence goes like this. There have been three waves of BI, he says. The first was “the big monolithic stacks: Business Objects, Cognos and Microstrategy. What you go there were complete systems. And you spent a lot of time ‘manicuring the lawn’. By that I mean databases were slow, and were built to do transactions, not to do analytics. So, when you wanted to ask a question, you had to reorganize the data physically”. And that, he maintains, became rigid and inflexible.

The second phase was one of “blowing up that stack about seven years ago. And there were small tools raining out of the sky to do things separately, like data preparation or visualization. And, as vendors we said to customers: ‘you put all that together’”. This, in his view, is the era of Qlik and Tableau.

“At the same time, there was a revolution in data infrastructure, with technologies coming out of Google and Facebook, and so on. Then the cloud happened, with Amazon Redshift, Azure, and so on, and it became trivial to store everything. So, that second wave of BI tools was evolving while there was a complete revolution underneath it, and the tools did not catch up.

“And so there is a third wave, where there is a re-constitution of a complete platform, but working in this new data world”. Which is where, needless to say, Looker comes in, in his view.

“I think the BI tool is dead. The big trend is that people are creating a separate class of application. If you think about who is being successful in data, it is not Tableau or Qlik, it’s companies like New Relic, AppDynamics, and Anaplan. These are all SaaS products that are providing a consolidated view, based on monitoring, to a knowledge worker, within workflow. Looker is a tool to build those applications: like AWS billing analysis or a Google marketing attribution application”.

Bien also takes a robust line on the fashion for artificial intelligence/machine learning. “It is parlour tricks. It is interesting to provide AI on really specific business problems, like ‘be predictive on my sales pipeline and tell me what leads would be most interesting to convert’. But the attention it is getting now is [excessive] and the main thing is to have access to reliable data, otherwise your predictive modelling will be false”.

Embedded BI

Stephen Schneider, CEO of Logi Analytics, based in McLean, Virginia leads a supplier that also takes an embedded approach to BI. He takes the view that the business intelligence and analytics market has become commoditized. Logi embeds its analytics into software, including ad-hoc appslications.

“We do believe every company is becoming a software company, so that represents a growing opportunity for us, as applications become more analytical”.

Connected planning in the cloud

Anaplan – mentioned by Bien – is a UK company, founded in York by Michael Gould, that has a base in San Francisco, as well. Its relatively new CEO, Frank Calderoni says its “connected planning”, cloud-based software is well positioned to challenge SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft.

Calderoni was a senior finance professional at Cisco and at RedHat, where he was CFO. In the finance organization, as a user, he had, he says the usual experience of using Oracle, SAP and Microsoft. “That’s all that’s been available for decades. They are costly, complex and resource heavy. Having now the ability to work with something as flexible and agile as Anaplan — it is a whole new world”.

On Calderoni’s account, Anaplan is being used beyond finance and sales, considered departmentally, to other functions, like supply chain and HR, as well as in a more enterprise-wide way. He gives as an example HP using the software to take their sales forecasting down from four months to one week, but then extending use from sales to financial forecasting. And he cites supply chain use cases, especially in retail. EAT is a UK customer that uses the application to track what foodstuffs are being bought more than others “so they can stock the right food in the right place at the right time”. Louis Vuitton is also using the software to do similar supply chain analysis, to decide what products are most heavily in demand.

Calderoni says the biggest issue companies now have is how they make decisions in a digital context. “There is a higher level of completion now that means they require information that is not readily available from planning tools they might have had in the past. That’s how we get in”.