He studied economics in Dartmouth, where he finished the first of his class. His interest in computing led to his entry into MicroStrategy, a software firm that experienced a meteoric rise in the 90s. With the profits obtained he decided to found Appian together with three other friends. A board game enthusiast, Matt Calkins devotes part of his free time to creating them, and he likes to apply to the business world the lessons learned in a good game.
It’s not just about simplicity and speed, low-code also means power
Where does Appian want to go?
In order to answer that I should start with where we’ve been. Appian has been in business for 20 years. I started it myself, with a few friends, and I’ve been running it the whole time. We began doing custom development and, over time, we discovered a concept that you could build applications by drawing a picture, or a flowchart. And that idea was so exciting that we decided to pursue it to its logical conclusion.
A low-code platform is the fastest possible way to create a new application as if you’ve been explaining the application to a person, as nearly as possible, instead of explaining it to a computer. Our intention is to make it so simple to describe to the machine what you want it to do, that you are speaking more in your language, than its language.
That is the intention of low-code. And the future of Appian is to come closer and closer to that human like intention. It should be intuitive and simple to communicate your intentions to the machine, to say what your application should do, to build the application and to change it. We say that every 2 years we want to cut in half how much work it takes to build an application on our platform.
Like Moore’s law, but in reverse?
That’s our future. Continued simplicity. Organizations today express themselves through their behavior, and their behavior is written in software. So software determines the identity of organizations. But unique software is very expensive, so corporations are forced to use homogeneous software and to standardize their behaviors, because it’s so expensive to be different.
What we are trying to do is empower difference. And allow companies to be unique and express their own values, and live up to the attributes that define their own brand, and to differentiate themselves from their competition, by adopting new sets of behaviors, which can happen is you make your own software, and you change your own software. The thing I want us to do is to empower organizations to have their own personalities.
A bug is an error that emerges from the attempt of a person to speak in a machine’s language
Are you then trying to democratizing Enterprise Software Development?
I a sense, yes. But I want to be careful with how I answer this. It is true that we are empowering the developer. But I don’t yet mean that everyone should be a developer.
Let’s say that development is as easy as speaking, and you could just tell someone what the software should do, and it would just do that. Some of us would speak precisely enough to write good software, and some of us would speak in a less precise way. And, unfortunately, software works on standards, you want one application to be able to speak correctly to the next application and share variables, and reports, and pass tokens, and that sort of thing. For that, you need a certain level of precision.
You know, I love the idea of democratizing software, but we have to do it carefully. What we don’t want to do is allow a de-standardization of software, by empowering everyone to write it imprecisely. What I’m hoping really comes out of low-code, is that those who do write software, can write far more of it, rather than that those who don’t write software, can write some.
What’s Appian’s position regarding Open Source?
I love the Open Source movement. I love the dynamism and the idea that the best ideas should be shared. Although Appian is not an Open Source company, we admire the movement, and we’d love to move to a moment where technology doesn’t have to be as proprietary as it is now. And I don’t mean “proprietary” as in “someone owns it and sells it”, that is something that is likely to always happen. But “proprietary” in the sense that ownership and selling a technology constrains the way you use it.
I’d like to see software to connect from one organization to another. Today, software almost exists entirely within the organization that buys it. They implement it in some way, but there is little connection between it and other organization. So, the freedom to use software in different ways, and to use it more expansively, these things are very appealing to us, although we are not an Open Source company per se.
Bots and low-code. A couple made in Heaven or Hell?
Well, they need each other. Bots and low-code have a lot to add to each other, and they are both debatably incomplete, unless the other is present. For example, low-code need a bot to integrate with an application that doesn’t have an API. Old applications sometimes don’t have an API, and using RPA we can integrate through mouse movements, click, etc. to integrate or remove data from that application. RPA can be the best way to reach an old legacy application.
RPA, meanwhile, needs low-code. If you get too many bots, they can behave very decentralized and disorganized. And therefore you need some kind of orchestration layer, to be sure that they are being used efficiently. And there is almost nothing in which 100% of the cases can be handled by bots. Because this would mean they are no exceptions. Bots don’t handle exceptions very well. So, generally, what you need, even to handle a bot-centric task is some amount of human capacity, to handle the things that don’t make sense to the bots. So it’s a combined workforce. You need an orchestration layer in order to balance the workforce and route tasks between the two. And that’s low-code.
So RPA need low-code for those reasons: to rationalize large groups of bots, and to balance workload between bots (for the most work) and humans (for the exceptions).
Do you see Appian as a trend-setter?
Absolutely. No one else is doing what we are doing, because there is one difficult thing about it. Everyone realizes that making low-code makes creating software simpler and faster. If you are drawing the software, instead of coding it, it is going to be faster. Maybe 10 times faster, maybe 20 times faster. Everyone understands that.
That they don’t seem to understand is that that software should also be more powerful. The reason for that, is that you delegated the authorship of the software to our platform. And if the platform writes the application, instead of a human being, the platform can add an arbitrary amount of additional functionality for free.
The goal is that every 2 years we want to cut in half how much work it takes to build an application
What do you mean by “for free”?
Let’s say the platform has compatibility with every mobile device, this capability would be automatic. If it is compatible with every cloud and portable within clouds, this would be automatic. The highest security requirements could also easily be made automatic.
All of this functionality can be delivered for free, and, in fact, should be delivered for free if anyone has realized the upside of the low-code concept, they should be delivering a great deal of functionality for free, because that’s how you capitalize on the efficiencies that are possible delegating the authorship of an application to a platform.
When I say “for free” I mean it doesn’t take any additional human labor to do these things. For example, let’s say we have an organization writing software on our platform, intending it to be used entirely on a desktop setting. And then one day, maybe a year later, someone decides to try it on their mobile device. And they find out that the only thing they have to do is to download an app, log in, and everything works.
All the screens are totally compatible, and formatted for the mobile device. They have a tremendous amount of power in the mobile device, and they didn’t plan for it, they didn’t invest in it, they spent zero amount of time on it. And they just got if for free.
They described an application for one narrow area, and they got all the other areas for free. They may not need the high security we put in our platform, but they got it anyway, for the same price.
Could you please give us an overview of the low-code market?
Appian is about 20 years old now, and the fastest growing part of it is Europe. And, in Europe, the fastest growing part is Spain. We have very good leadership in Southern Europe, but also I think we have found a market that appreciates what we can do.
I think the Spanish market is looking for flexibility, instantiation of new behaviors. There is benefit being achieved rapidly. So, for example, Santander adopted our software not long ago, and has already rolled out 10 applications, touching 28 divisions, and it is having a meaningful impact on the way a large organization runs.
This, in a word, is empowerment. Allowing a business to define itself rapidly, is something we can do, and we can help an organization to do. Very few other technologies can have such an effect. They are not simple enough, or powerful enough. So we are bringing this unique combination of virtues, and I think the Spanish market appreciates it, and we have great momentum. Not only with the buyers, but also with the partners.
How is Appian doing in the Public Sector?
It’s our second largest market, after financial services. Financial services have been, year after year, our largest market, because it’s a matter of rules, because decisions mean so much, because there is so much value attached, because there is so much regulation and the rules are always changing. It’s a perfect environment pro the use of low-code.
However, government is a close second. Government is usually too complicated, and too slow. And we can help make Government more flexible, more citizen focused, more efficient. And so we have done a great deal of work in the Public Sector, specifically in the US. You know, we started in Washington DC, and it’s still our headquarters, and largest office. It’s right outside the Capitol.
So we began doing a lot of government work. And we have sustained that and we’ve spread to other countries. We do a lot in Britain, in Australia, and we are building our qualifications, and I think we are qualified to do Public Sector everywhere.
In RPA, low-code is the orchestration layer that balances workload between bots and humans
What does the Public Sector like more? Lowering the cost or increasing the speed?
Generally, they have power as a prerequisite. So we are only considered if we are powerful enough. And then, of the options that are powerful enough, they will favor us for our speed. It is interesting, how these factors, we are strong in, work. One is the prerequisite, and one is the differentiator. Because speed tends to be the differentiator, and power the prerequisite, we have pitched our speed more than anything.
Just recently we have started a new program, called “The Appian guarantee”, that says that a customer’s first application will be live in eight weeks. That’s an important statement, because nobody else can match it. We were doing it anyway, so this is just standard operating for us. And because it highlights the differentiator.
We want a client to find us, because we can build a powerful application, like they need, but choose us, because of our speed.
20 years ago… why did you think it was a good idea to start Appian?
I didn’t imagine that it would turn out like this. I was working at a company, and I was in my 20’s. I got lucky at this company. It was in the 90’s, and a few companies were becoming very valuable, and I happened to have a few options in this company, which became very valuable. So I happened to be at the right place and I gave it up to start my own business.
It was a difficult decision actually, but I did it, because I wanted to have more of a cultural impact, and not only a financial impact. I already felt like I could make money for myself, but I wanted instead to set an example. I wanted to create a place that had good values, and that was good to its constituencies. By this I mean that it would come through for everyone that affiliated themselves with my organization.
I still feel that way. Every customer that buys Appian software, it is very personal to me that they turn out well. That good things happen for them. And every employee that comes to work at Appian, it matters a lot to me whether that is a good part of their career and if they are happy that they came to Appian. This is really the purpose of the company. I really do care more about that that about if we make more money this way or that way.