An Audience With….Mike Jones of Outsystems

Mike Jones has over 25 years in the technology market place. He started his career at EDS where he was exposed to early application development disciplines and methodologies. Mike was recruited away from EDS due to his practical experience with Information Engineering in the late 1980s by Texas Instruments. At TI Mike played key roles over a 10 year period in helping organizations adopt the information engineering methodology and TI’s model based application development tools. In the mid 1990s Mike helped lead the TI Software group’s charge into Component Based Development. During this time the early foundations for what is now called service oriented architectures was defined. In 1997 Sterling Software acquired the TI Software group. At this time Mike was asked to take a key role in leading Sterling’s charge into Object Oriented and Component Based Development methods and tools. Today Mike leads OutSystems’ marketing team and plays the role of chief Agile evangelist.

To learn about OutSystems and their Agile approach to BPM visit: http://www.outsystems.com

 

BPM seems to be very high on the enterprise radar this year following the economic difficulties of 2009. Do you believe it will deliver the promise of efficiency and tighter process control CIO, CTO and COO’s are looking for ?

I don’t think that the technology will deliver all the expected results per-se: it will be how companies use it that will dictate if the BPM initiatives are successful or not.

First of all, you need to ensure the right level of expectations from all the people involved. These are not just the CIOs, CTOs or COOs but also the business sponsors and even the business users that will ultimately use and benefit from the new processes to be delivered.

Another important aspect to consider is that most processes are user centric.

This means that most processes will need to have a front-end that users will interact with, to perform their process activities.

The process can be very well defined, extremely optimized, and award-winning material… but if the applications that support it are not designed to effectively support how users interact with the processes then adoption will take a severe hit and the process might even be labeled as plain bad by the business.

I’ve seen this element being overlooked time and time again, with disastrous results. People are one of the key elements that will dictate the success or failure of a process definition endeavor. Always keep then in mind!

Finally, we see many BPM projects running into classic scope and timeframe issues. At OutSystems we always take a pragmatic, agile approach to ensure that projects deliver the best possible results, really fast, and fully aligned with the initial expectations.

If a project’s scope is too large to fit a time-frame of 6- 10 weeks we try to break it into smaller projects (with well defined deliverables that address real business problems from the very first release).

Today, our customers don’t accept that project teams go dark for 9 months, and then deliver a very comprehensive architecture that covers all possible scenarios but is still useless to address business needs. They prefer short deliverables that incrementally add value and cover more processes. You need to deliver visible (and valuable) results quickly and stay away from big bang approaches.

What does BPM mean for Outsystems? Is it an IT discipline, business philosophy or both?

The OutSystems’ Agile Platform is a complete platform for web application development, which contains a module for Business Process modeling and execution which we call Business Process Technology (BPT).

In this sense I would say that for us BPM is more of an IT discipline. We often say that our Business Process capabilities are “the BPM for IT”. We advise our customers to deliver their BPM projects using the same Agile approach they use for delivering new web business applications. This means that the BPM effort can evolve at the same pace as the supporting applications always staying in sync with each other. We have found this to be key for incremental delivery and being agile.

You have a unique way of approaching the development of business processes, can you tell me more about it ?

Yes, OutSystems is not a traditional BPM vendor – in fact our roots are in the development world. The Agile Platform is typically used by IT departments to integrate, develop, deploy, manage and change web business applications. In November 2009 we launched version 5.0, which includes a Business Process Technology (BPT) module.

We moved in that direction because we had several customers asking us for an integrated process capability aligned with their development environment. They were feeling the pain of having a development cycle that was disconnected from the BPM cycle. In fact, when they started using the Agile Platform, they shortened the development/change cycles, which increased the gap with the BPM piece.

Again, the approach we took was very pragmatic. We worked together with our customers for over 18 months to really understand what type of functionality they needed and why they wanted it (instead of assigning a team of R&D engineers to come up with their vision of what business process management should look like). I guess we can say that the features we have today were designed by the customers and just implemented by our R&D team.

We wanted to keep things simple and ensure that the application development and business process modeling were consistent, so we augmented the Agile Platform to include a process layer.

In practice, what this means is that you now have one single toolset to completely define your business processes and the web applications that deliver the required business functionality.

The deployment of the processes and applications is automated through 1–click and happens in tandem. During the deployment, the TrueChange™ engine of the platform performs a full consistency check on the processes and applications to ensure that the resulting version is valid and will work. Any potential issue is highlighted and corrective measures are proposed to fix the problem.

When a user logs into an application he’ll be shown a small box in the lower right-hand side of the screen, with the number of activities that he needs to perform for the processes he’s involved in. When he clicks on that box, he’ll be shown a list of the tasks that he needs to complete. If the user clicks on one of the tasks he will be sent to the exact page in the application where he needs to perform the tasks. When this happens in many cases he is routed to a different application from the one he was using and is placed in context of the task he is expected to perform. This not only allows users to be fully aware of what’s in their process to-do list, but also saves a lot of their time since they don’t need to navigate through applications to find the page they need to perform their task. We call this capability Embedded Process Automation as it is completely managed by the Agile Platform.

Another very interesting aspect of bringing business processes and application development together is that you can do a complete debugging of both in real-time. The Agile Platform’s visual debugger can be used to stop the execution of a process or application at a specific breakpoint, and you can then follow the step by step execution of the process and supporting application to identify t

he root cause for an issue. As far as I know this
is a unique capability that is not found in other products.

Who is your main audience, business users or IT?

The set of challenges and needs that OutSystems and the Agile Platform address are extremely relevant for IT in general, and application development and management in particular.

Therefore our main audience is IT professionals.

But it is interesting to see that the business is becoming more and more tech-savvy and engaged in application development and business process activities: today we have a growing number of business users contacting us to know more about the technology and agile approach; some even download our free edition, to start playing with it before they even involve their IT teams.

At the last count on my vendor list there are over 70 BPM players in the market with a good mix of commercial and open source solutions. What made you decide to launch in such a crowded market?

Well, we don’t see ourselves fully participating in the BPM market as there are many things we have not tired to deliver, for example, if you want to do business process analysis there are some very good and specialized tools to help, we are not in this space. In addition, we are focused on the IT side of the equation which makes us different from a majority of the BPM players. When you look at the business process modeling and application development tools, we see a large gap which we are working to fill with one unified modeling and development platform.

We’re seeing movement by most BPM vendors to try and bring the application development closer to the process definition in an effort to address the disconnect between the business process and supporting application.

Drilling into the disconnect we have found it causes 2 main problems:

Changing the processes is relatively easy to do at the modeling layer, but extremely hard to reflect throughout the whole system, down to the applications;

The fact that business process modeling and application development don’t move at the same speed, causes one to get stuck waiting for the other, in cycles. This has a negative impact on the promise of improving business agility through BPM.

Given OutSystems background, we found ourselves in a very interesting position, since we were able to create a product that effectively closes this gap! Thus, we are providing a new, some have even said a next generation, capability by unifying the two worlds and taking a very pragmatic, agile approach to delivery.

You guys are fairly active on the social media scene, has this helped raise awareness for the company ?

Absolutely!

We’ve always been a very open and transparent company, and actively promote these behaviors in our people. It’s actually something that is part of our personal DNA.

We have embraced Social Media more actively a couple of years ago, and have seen a tremendous support from everyone in the company.

We didn’t invest much time in creating strategic plans or corporate guidelines for Social Media usage, but witnessed a natural engagement of everyone, using the tools they prefer (whether it’s Twitter, LinkedIn or other communities).

Social Media is a powerful platform to listen to what people are saying, get feedback about our products, and also spread the word about our company and products to whoever is interested in listening.

Do you see integration with social and collaborative networks as a key component for business process development over the next 2 years and what direction do you see it taking if so ?

It’s difficult to predict what the future holds in terms of social or collaborative networks. The way most companies are using these technologies is still being shaped and I guess everyone is still learning from it, drawing their own conclusions and figuring out how they can use these tools for their “ultimate goal” – whether it’s to sell more, support customers better, improve communication…

How these tools integrate with the company’s processes really varies depending on the business area. We are finding that it is fairly obvious how you can integrate these tools in your CRM, Marketing, Customer Support and Customer Service strategies and processes.

In the long term I expect we will see that every process that involves collaboration, idea sharing, feedback gathering and communication is a potential for leveraging one or more of these tools For application development we have invented a collaboration capability called Embedded Change Technology (ECT). ECT enables users to pinpoint an area in the running web application page and type a comment in a popup window. This comment plus the screen capture of the page is made available to project managers and developers for review on our project management tool. ECT is being used in multiple situations always with the purpose of improving communication and alignment between business and IT team members. For example, business analysts use ECT to validate requirements and capture feedback from users, QA engineers and Testers use ECT to flag problems and post comments.

How important is the wider community to Outsystems both in terms of developer and practitioner input?

We are working towards growing our community of practitioners, since we believe this is key to support our growth strategies.

Our community of developers and IT professionals is very important for us and has been growing steadily. In the past year we’ve seen a big increase in individual participation. People are more and more engaged and willing to share their successes, ask questions and provide help to others.

Other communities that include CIOs, thought leaders and analysts are also increasing their “discussion” activity around OutSystems, which is a very positive sign of our growing reach.

With a few vendors picking up on the iPhone success and launching BPM focused apps do you see an increase in business process becoming a mobile solution?

Definitely! Part of our days is spent away from our laptops but the business must go on, right?

The ultimate goal of business processes are to improve the way companies operate, and that should not be limited to what happens inside the office walls.

Processes already span across departments and applications, and it’s inevitable that they will go beyond the computer and into the mobile world.

I can easily imaging a Sales Manager approving sales proposals on his iPhone, or a manager flipping through his team’s expense reports to approve expenses while sitting in an Airport lounge.

Now that some of the big players have concluded a wave of M&A activity do you foresee any further mergers happening this year and are they a positive or a negative for the industry?

M&A will always be difficult to predict, and the impact on the industry is even more difficult to evaluate.

On one hand, vendor concentration has the downside of reducing the variety of offers available to companies. But it also simplifies the selection process which is a positive thing when you have a market with so many players. If done in a constructive manner, a M&A can bring to market a better, more powerful product that will serve companies better.

Finally, what next for Mike Jones?

Continue to spread the word about the great things that we do at OutSystems and how companies can really benefit from using our products. As you know, it is amazingly hard to get people’s attention these
days which makes it very frustrat
ing when you have something as complete and powerful as the Agile Platform. We continue to find that it is impossible to get people to believe it does what we say it does. So we will continue to invest in free training, software, etc because once you try it you will like it!

 

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