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Carl Lewis: Welcome to The Connected Enterprise podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision33, and my guest is Tom McGrath, a long-time friend at Vision33. Tom, thanks for joining me. Please tell us about yourself, your background, and what you do at Vision33.

Tom McGrath: I've definitely been around for a long time! I’m the principal architect for our Innovations team. I oversee the strategic technical direction of our products. I’ve been doing it for several years.

Carl Lewis: You've been critical for putting together our new Saltbox product, right?

Tom McGrath: Yep—it's my new baby.

Carl Lewis: I wanted to talk to you about it. It seems like we got slammed with integration projects over the last few years. That’s also when the pandemic came along, so I don’t know if it bumped things, pushed things, or created things, but we got slammed.

Tom McGrath: Yes.

Carl Lewis: What do you think drove that demand?

Tom McGrath: Pre-pandemic, we had a steady demand for integration, and we've been doing it for many years. The product we had before Saltbox was called InterConnect. Most of our opportunities were new deals, new implementations, and customers doing big projects. But there was a shift toward integration and digital transformation even before the pandemic—the pandemic just sped up a trend that was already happening. 

Carl Lewis: It feels like somebody stepped on the gas.

Tom McGrath: There’s always risk associated with adopting new technology, but the pandemic seemed to change the balance. The risk of not doing anything is higher because the ground under your feet has moved—now you have to do something. Suddenly, that risk equation shifts, and the status quo is what’s dangerous. Not changing is risky.

Carl Lewis: So, these integration projects have always been out there. We've been trying to call it synchronized systems or put them together, somehow knit them into what we think is whole.

Tom McGrath: We've been doing it for years, yes.

Carl Lewis: Then, along comes iPaaS—an integration platform as a service.

Tom McGrath: It's a game-changer.

Carl Lewis: What's the difference between Saltbox, an iPaaS solution, and our old InterConnect platform?

Tom McGrath: It’s a combination of the concept that it’s a service and it's based on cloud multi-tenant centralized hosting and technologies. It’s changed the equation because the investment required to get into integration used to be high. It was a significant investment in hardware and software, had a lot of upfront costs, and required a lot of infrastructure and expertise. It was a very technical skill set, and InterConnect was in a more technical developer-type world.

Tom McGrath: iPaaS changes that equation. Integration still isn’t a trivial project. But there's less cost upfront, and it's a subscription, so you can get out of it whenever. It's less risky to try something and easier to get up to speed. You can move faster, and you don't need expertise. iPaaS solutions take care of the plumbing; the foundational stuff is built in. You can focus on what's unique about your business and not become an expert in hosting a third-party integration solution—which people don't care about anyway. They don't care about the underlying software; they just want to integrate things. iPaaS lets people forget about that plumbing.

Carl Lewis: Yes, and certain things already exist. You're not creating a new connection to the ERP system or other new connection. It’s, “Here's what it does out of the box—what else would you like to do?”

Tom McGrath: It also has inherent scale built in. Normally, if you're successful, you’ll need more of this integration, and then it’s, "I need to ramp it up. Did I buy enough hardware? Do I have enough licenses?" Those are additional risks. But because iPaaS is built on the cloud, we're using Amazon’s core cloud services. They host Netflix—they can easily handle what we're doing for our customers. It's that level of scale.

Tom McGrath: We had periods where we doubled the volume of traffic on Saltbox across the entire platform in a month. We didn't notice—we saw it in our reports. We didn't have to do anything—it just worked. That built an inherent scale, security models, stability. You're getting a lot of expertise from a world-class vendor; we just build our unique stuff on top.

Carl Lewis: Can you talk a little about multi-tenant cloud? We have 100 people basically using the same system for different integration purposes. Everybody doesn't have to create their own system. It's all there together, so that's a lower cost. But it seems like everything about a project becomes less risky and less expensive with an iPaaS solution. The framework is in the cloud, but the tool itself becomes easier to use.

Tom McGrath: There are fewer moving parts, fewer things to get your head around. We can focus on a better user experience. Something else has been game-changing for us. We were in the hosted on-premises software business for several years, and new releases were frustrating. We would put out a new one every quarter-ish, and it took months before all our customers got it because once the release was out, there are still upgrades and getting the software out and planning projects for upgrades and all of that. But with Saltbox, we can do a release every week. We did 50 last year.

Tom McGrath: Every week we release a version of the software, and within an hour, everybody has it. It changes our ability to be agile and responsive to customers’ feedback and improves usability. With the amount we've been able to change and improve based on customer feedback and our own experiences over the past two years, Saltbox is almost a different product than when we started. Feeding best practices and our learning back in accelerates everything. The productivity, even for us, the software developer, is amazing.

Carl Lewis: We talked about the pandemic driving things, but which projects became the most important over the last few years?

Tom McGrath: ECommerce has been huge. People expect to buy and sell online—not just hosting their own stores, but also access to marketplaces like eBay and Amazon and other services. Logistics. And in the industry, there are so many more things to integrate. This iPaaS trend was the development of all these highly specialized and focused services: the CRMs, the Salesforces, the ShipStations.

Tom McGrath: There's been a real focus on Mailchimp for emailing, and there are so many specialized vendors saying, "I'm going to do one service really well and put an API in front of it." In the last five years, the number of things you can integrate with has exploded. It’s like assembling, which is like Lego blocks. I'm building a solution, and instead of building everything from scratch, I'm picking the Lego blocks that make sense. They all know how to fit together because they're all based on APIs. An iPaaS is basically a base block on the bottom that everything sticks to. It sets the standards and works with the APIs. But there are more blocks out there. More Legos, more sets, more different shapes and colors and sizes than we ever had.

Carl Lewis: That's an interesting thing because I hear people say it's easier to develop in the cloud. I think that illustration of it is like everyone is using the same set of Legos, right?

Tom McGrath: Yes.

Carl Lewis: That makes a huge difference.

Tom McGrath: For certain things we do, it's harder to build in the cloud because the cloud is a much more complex environment. We have no servers. We're dealing with service as APIs, microservice—so many buzzwords I could get into. And even though the actual work to code a feature is higher, the power we get out of that feature when it’s done is significantly more. It’s a trade-off: It's harder to build the solutions, but we're getting so much more when we're assembling the Lego blocks.

Tom McGrath: It's also more work to assemble. An on-premises standard solution has much simpler architecture, but it's nowhere near as powerful. When you factor that in, the overall productivity is significantly higher even though the bar, in terms of the knowledge and expertise it takes to build this, is higher.

Carl Lewis: It demands higher skills from development staff?

Tom McGrath: It does. We're getting more for the hour a developer puts in, but there's so much more to it than the effort required to build the feature. Think about it. Releasing 50 times in a year is a lot of overhead of releasing, right?

Carl Lewis: Definitely.

Tom McGrath: It looks seamless, but it’s a lot of work. The bang for the buck is huge, though.

Carl Lewis: I know it’s delivering value to the people who invest in making these projects happen. Because I've also been around Vision33 a long time, and I always felt like we were doing 50 or 60 projects a year. Now, it feels like 150, 200 projects a year. With a waiting list!

Tom McGrath: It's crazy.

Tom McGrath: We're focusing on making the platform easy to use and self-contained with little reliance on other people. We want a platform where the customers and consultants can be more self-sufficient, and it's more transparent and easier to manage. That’s partly because we can't keep up with the growth, so enablement is a huge part of making this work. Transparency is also a big part. If there’s only one place with access to everything, there's only one place to go to find what's wrong.

Tom McGrath: It's easy to do a demo where everything works, but real life is messy and gray, exceptions happen, and there are data issues. Say a sales order comes in from the ERP system, but the customer is on a credit hold, and the sales order fails. Or maybe the item wasn't set up in this system but in another system that didn't sync. We're focusing a lot on troubleshooting tools. We have visual tools so you can trace what went wrong and get the logs right in the tool. Because that's the real trick with good integrations: how well you deal with the exceptions.

Carl Lewis: Transparency is critical. I’ve heard several customers mention how they can look at the reports and see how well things are going.

Tom McGrath: Yes. There are dashboards to see success and failure rates, and you can drill in to see why something failed. It’s so detailed that if I have a flow chart view of my integration with 12 steps, I can see it failed on step seven in these areas, and it took 10 seconds. Why did that take so long? You need that level of visibility because there’s more to integration than building it—you must manage/maintain it, too.

Tom McGrath: That's another advantage of iPaaS. It allows us to build in the tools to build integrations, implement, and manage them. There’s proactive alerting for issues, predictive analysis, looking at baselining, and finding performance bottlenecks. And the beauty is that when we add those features, we add them for everybody. You get a real bang for your buck with an investment in those features.

Carl Lewis: The first customer experience is a new exception, but once you deal with that, you've dealt with it for everybody. That's powerful.

Carl Lewis: This seems like typically the SMB space we work in. We work with some larger organizations and do big projects for them, but it seems like in the SMB marketplace, people are stepping in this direction more than before. And those that haven't have an idea. What’s the message that's helped those that have gone for it and will help those that haven't?

Tom McGrath: I see what’s happening in technology as a great leveler. We’re doing integrations on subscription, where you don't have to host or buy software or hardware, so smaller customers can do world-class complex integrated solutions that only large and enterprise customers could do just a few years ago. That flips the model on its head and levels the playing field—small businesses have the agility of being small. They don't have the overhead and bureaucracy, but they can have technology that's just as good, so they can compete with those larger companies.

Tom McGrath: Look at solutions we build where people deal with multiple eCommerce sources— they’re dealing with third-party logistics (3PL). The whole ERP system is automated and integrated, and this company has 50 people. What I just described was a multimillion-dollar project for a Fortune 500 company just a few years ago, but now that 50-person company can do it.

Carl Lewis: Software as a service, where you're just paying something every month, is a lot more affordable than a loan for a $150,000 project.

Tom McGrath: Yes, and there’s less risk if your business changes direction or you don't need this anymore, etc. A subscription isn’t a big capital outlay you're paying depreciating and paying down for the next five years. You can walk away from it, so it’s easier to be a risk-taker without betting the firm.

Carl Lewis: Also, if you do business in multiple places, like eBay and Amazon and a Shopify eCommerce store, you had to handle those integrations separately. Now, they can all run through Saltbox.

Tom McGrath: Yup. You can manage them all from one place. You don’t need to hire five developers and manage the development staff. You can build it on top of a platform. You can work with a company like us to get it off the ground and then take ownership yourself, or you can do it all yourself. It changes the game. Those projects weren’t doable when you had to sit down at a code editor and click file>new. Then what? With these solutions, we have things like golden workflows.

Tom McGrath: We pre-define some of the common integration points. Shopify going into SAP Business One, for example. Our pre-defined templates of the most common integrations are usually in play for sales orders, returns, pricing, or item availability. They’re built in, so you start with a project, not a blank slate. You just tweak, customize, and add what’s unique to your business—no building something from scratch every time.

Carl Lewis: Those connectors have standard golden workflows in them, but you can make them bigger, better, or create new ones. They’re a huge head start.

Tom McGrath: Exactly. They’re also good for understanding best practices and how you’ll build your own model among the ones that are there. There’s good reuse and best practices built in.

Carl Lewis: We’ve both been in ERP for a while, and we know that early on, ERP was going to be the center of everything. We saw ERP systems go from basically accounting plus inventory and some manufacturing to CRM, analytics, HR, and it’s a giant elephant that's difficult to manage. But despite that stuff being built into ERP systems, people are still building onto it. It's like going backward in time to best of breed.

Tom McGrath: Yes.

Carl Lewis: I want the best CRM system that meets my needs. The best website. Shopify doesn't work for everybody, some people need WooCommerce or BigCommerce because they have different feature sets. They string everything together. For me, it used to be that the ERP system was dead center. The master of everything. But with iPaaS, it seems like now, because I'm knitting all these other pieces together and integrating them tightly, we say it's loosely. It's coupled, but tighter and more reliable than ever. It doesn’t break like it used to. It's like ERP is moving out of the center, and—for me—Saltbox is becoming the center.

Tom McGrath: There's some truth to that. Back to the Lego analogy: I’m cherry-picking the bricks that make the exact Lego I want. Then Saltbox, or whichever iPaaS solution, becomes the centerpiece for that. One challenge is that every system might have a customer record, but everyone has their own definition of what that customer is, or what that product or item SKU is. Or the current price. What’s inventory availability?

Tom McGrath: The ERP still has a central role in the reference data. Say I'm integrating two eCommerce systems. For example, I'm working with Amazon and using ShipStation for the shipping piece. Each of those will have a customer record that represents Acme Widgets, and each will have a different ID and data model for how they do that. But something must be the source of truth, and that’s ERP’s role. Not to be where you do everything, but the source of truth for common elements everyone needs to agree on.

Tom McGrath: Often, we see that they must choose which system knows who the customer is. 90% of the time, that's still the ERP. We don't make the Shopify ID for the customer. We take the Shopify customer and store it in the SAP Business One system: "This customer is Acme Widgets, and their Shopify ID is X, their ShipStation ID is Y, their BigCommerce ID is Z, etc." That’s the place where we know the truth. I see it as a co-center. More of the transactions and work are being distributed to these end systems, and the iPaaS systems are sitting in the middle, moving everything around and doing all the transactions. But the ERP is still, at least logically, the hub.

Carl Lewis: That makes sense. It's always going to collect the master data.

Tom McGrath: Distributed is great, and reaching out, and all these touchpoints everywhere is great. But if you get too distributed, it can be like a bowl of spaghetti. You need a place to organize and know the truth, and I think that’s what the ERP is for.

Carl Lewis: What's next with Saltbox?

Tom McGrath: Another 50 releases. That's going to continue. We're continuously adding new features. It's iPaaS, right, an integration platform as a service. But it's also a platform, so we’re looking at the platform aspect. What we've got in Saltbox is a platform for integration. We’re asking: What other things can we do that complement that? We’ve been focusing on data automation—moving data and transactions around and transforming them. There are also big opportunities in human workflow in terms of augmenting those things.

Tom McGrath: It’s back to ‘we're moving things between point A and point B,’ but maybe there's work to do in the middle to improve the things that require human intervention. You mentioned earlier like we're getting our own ability to store data in Saltbox. So maybe we can bring in an order, maybe there's a little work to do before it goes in the ERP. Maybe we can do that in Saltbox before and add a human element step in the middle or approvals or other pieces. Our #1 goal is improving the productivity and usability continuously.

Tom McGrath: It's already very easy to use. It has great tools. But we're not content to sit back on that. It’s about enablement. We want to minimize the consulting required to get up and running and maintain it so people can be self-sufficient?

Carl Lewis: I heard we're investing in documentation. That’s exciting.

Tom McGrath: Oh, yeah.

Carl Lewis: We're going to have a technical writer create materials so customers can maintain it themselves.

Tom McGrath: Yes, and best practices.

Carl Lewis: And partners can maintain it. 

Tom McGrath: Better sample integrations we can use. Like reference documentation, yes, but also training materials like online videos for building your own workflows, establishing those best practices, and sharing our expertise.

Carl Lewis: That's second-generation Saltbox. I like it. Tom, thank you. I've wanted to talk with you for months. You're the guy designing this and having the dreams about it. The way you shared today will help people understand why we get so excited about the cloud.

Tom McGrath: We are very excited about this. And I'm enjoying it. It’s the most fun I’ve had building something in my career. But I'm not satisfied yet. We can make it even better. We're not slowing down.

Carl Lewis: That's exciting. I’ll try to get you back for an update. For everyone else, until we meet again, stay connected.