From Clipboard to Positive Applications: Find out how Paul Du Bois, from Appenate Digitizes and Automates Paper Processes
Carl Lewis: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision33, and my guest is Paul Du Bois from Appenate. Paul, welcome.
Paul Du Bois: Thank you. I’m pleased to be here.
Carl Lewis: Please tell us about yourself, your company, what you do, where you're from, etc.
Paul Du Bois: I'm based in Brisbane, Australia. It’s the third biggest city in Australia, and I've lived here for 15 years. Before that, I lived in South Africa, where I was born. I founded Appenate 10 years ago because of what I saw as a need for doing documentation on mobile devices.
It was early in the mobile device revolution; the iPhone was out, but Android was still up and coming. I thought, “There are heaps of paper lying around in every organization. Can't we make this easier than dealing with everything piled on the front seat of your truck?”
Carl Lewis: Exactly. Paul, it’s interesting that you focus on apps and helping people do what they do, where they do it, on a mobile device. I looked at the collection of apps you guys have, and you have a platform for people to make their own. What makes something an app versus a full-blown application?
Paul Du Bois: The word app is probably the most abused word in the tech world these days. When I started the company, the word “app” meant a cut-down version of a full-blown application. SAP, for example. SAP has different modules, like financials, etc. Appenate fills the gap where you need to plug into the bigger application that's running the whole business, but you don't have the developers or the time. And the need is small in terms of the number of screens and data you need, etc.
But it's a critical process because it feeds into the bigger machine that’s the application. We've gone the no-code route with the platform. In fact, we did the no-code thing before it had a name. That’s my definition of ‘app,’ but it depends on who you talk to. App can mean anything these days.
Carl Lewis: You started in this area in the mining field, right?
Paul Du Bois: Yes. When I was the CTO for an ERP company in Australia. We had customers in the resources industries: oil and gas mining, utilities, and construction. I went to some sites to see how they operated and watch the software in action. I have a connection affinity with that. We’re also very safety conscious in Australia. There's a lot of paperwork compared to some US states. Sometimes we look at the US and say, "Yeah, they can do things quicker and easier because there are fewer things to sign." But safety is deeply ingrained in my background.
Carl Lewis: What did you notice early regarding how people were doing things and carrying around buckets of paper? What was one thing you thought you could help people with that occurred to you right away?
Paul Du Bois: Checklists. In the mining industry, there are a lot of checklists just in safety. Every mine site generally has its own safety regimen, although there are standardized frameworks and methodologies for performing safety checklists, inspections, audits, etc. In Australia, the head of each mine site is held personally liable if there are safety issues, so they’re incentivized to make sure they can prove they've done everything possible if there’s a safety incident.
You have a baseline framework and then minor variants on a per-mine site basis. When I saw all the paperwork involved with that, I thought, you can't just build a one-size-fits-all for those situations. Users and customers need latitude to change the application. That's how I got here. I wanted to make it easy for people to build custom apps to plug into their larger applications.
Carl Lewis: People use these applications, then feed information into their ERP or other data source. Does your platform have APIs and other things a modern application has?
Paul Du Bois: Absolutely. I started writing the code about 10 years ago, so the cloud was already happening, and it was obviously here to stay. Due to my background, I had seen many enterprises set up their own data centers or invest a lot into their own networks. I knew there would always be a hybrid need, where cloud is a great choice for most organizations. Having someone else manage the security is a huge cloud benefit, aside from the scalability benefits, etc.
But there will always be a group of companies, like governments and larger enterprises, where it makes sense for them to have their own investments and host on their own infrastructure. So, we designed our platform to interoperate through APIs JSON or XML and built-in connectors we keep adding for different storage, services, etc. It can run on our cloud – we use Microsoft Azure – and on AWS. Or inside your data center. Heck, it can run in a box under your desk. But I hope none of our customers are doing that!
Carl Lewis: Just when they need nostalgia.
Paul Du Bois: Yeah. I remember the Windows server, SBS boxes. Every organization having a closet somewhere running their email and stuff. It seems like a lifetime ago.
Carl Lewis: It does. I remember whole rooms with raised floors, air conditioning, and a lot of noise. We've come through several generations with servers.
It sounds like you see most organizations choosing cloud solutions. Is that right?
Paul Du Bois: Yes. Just like ‘app,’ ‘cloud’ is becoming a loaded word. For most of our small to midsized customers, we take our public cloud offering, hosted off Azure. But the more we work with larger enterprises, the more we see fragmentation, with enterprises running multi-cloud for redundancy. So, if Azure goes down, they have Google cloud for a backup.
The nature of security requirements is such that you’ll always need to control the lowest stack, the networking stack, etc., in certain industries and certain sized companies. But we see cloud in a multitude of directions as we work with bigger companies.
Carl Lewis: Yes. A lot of hybrid approaches will never leave. We agree on that.
Paul Du Bois: Absolutely.
Carl Lewis: Paul, put on your future hat, please. What’s coming in technology that will affect your business in the next three to five years? Ten years ago, you believed in the cloud and invested in it. What would you invest in today?
Paul Du Bois: The tech industry is changing fast. I think we're in a consolidation stage right now where the cloud providers are clear who they are. If we talk purely about the hosting infrastructure, I can see there being opportunities for new providers to come in. Microsoft is already moving in this direction. The buzzword is ‘edge centers,’ and it’s having data centers much closer to you, possibly in your city. I expect more localized hosting, but still through a cloud-based approach. It makes sense for many reasons, particularly around latency. Now, we have enormous monolithic data centers in one place hosting multiple states or countries.
From a redundancy perspective, the more localized edge centers, the better. If something happens, you're less likely to be affected unless it's global. Also, the mobile space is fun because there's new stuff we're trying to decide how to use. Augmented reality (AR) is interesting; I think we'll get that versus the full Oculus thing. It's the most accessible of the alternative realities. It makes sense in a business context.
We're asking, “Can we provide some simple tools inside the app that would be like a drag-on field that allows you to do a measurement between two points with AR?” You can do that – there are demo apps – but we want to commoditize that and make it a field you can add on any form you build in our app. That's the direction we're going right now, but I'm also interested to see where AR goes. With the mixture of technologies that support the AR experience, vision can become a lot smarter. Like camera vision through your phone, though, not the HoloLens thing. HoloLens is cool, but I can't see whole workforces working or walking with that on their head.
Carl Lewis: Not everybody wants the helmet.
Paul Du Bois: It's like Google Glass. It was an interesting concept, but you look like an idiot. There's that authentic and wearability aspect versus holding your phone up and using your camera to assess something and get more data, like measurements or a person's heart rate.
Carl Lewis: I agree. AR is a fascinating area for the future, but there aren’t many examples of real-life uses. What do you think will be the biggest challenge of utilizing this technology?
Paul Du Bois: We have historical examples to show us. Nobody liked touchscreens until the iPod/iPhone revolution. We'll give credit to Apple, but it was also an excess of technology that all got to the same point, where it allowed that experience to be halfway decent. That's the problem right now. We have words floating around the space, like AI. AI is interesting, but we haven't figured out how to make it usable yet. Google just did their latest Android preview, saying it’s a personal assistant. But it was a personal assistant five years ago; it just gets a little better every year.
We're still trying to come to grips with that stuff. That's why I come back to AR. It’s the most intuitive for a regular person, like someone trying to do a job in the field. They don't want to fiddle around with things. They want to hold up their phone, get what they need, and move on. Appenate tries to make that possible with the apps people can build. There’s still a lot of work to do within our platform, though. It's the same with all new technologies. How will it be accessible to ordinary people versus the science experiments many of them currently are?
Carl Lewis: That's always been my feeling – that the illustrations we see are experiments somebody did in a research lab or college setting. It's fascinating, but also like, "How could I use that in business or my personal life?" And there's an evolution of time that must pass before that occurs. I remember the first time a customer said, "I want my warehouse guys to be able to capture their time about a job, but without a keyboard." We wrote an application with a touch-sensitive screen. I didn't know those existed, but it's the standard for many people now. Laptops, phones, etc.
I was still using a Kyocera phone. Things have changed so rapidly over the last 15 years; I wonder how long this change will take. I may be retired, but I'm sure it will affect everyone's lives. As soon as there are real working examples, people catch on, and it explodes. I'm curious to see how many of those situations happen and how fast.
Paul Du Bois: Yes. And that's the case for every pervasive technology shift – it has to make sense quickly. I had an Ericsson P800 touchscreen phone with the fold-up thing. It was like a brick, but I loved it. It had a stylus; it felt like the future. Three years later, the iPhone debuted, and it was instantly obvious my phone was obsolete. That's the issue with many of these. AR looks interesting. There are so many potential things AI can do. We have a company in Brisbane that’s using AI to predict prostate cancer from simple assessments of blood work. It's amazing.
There are heaps of potential, but it isn’t where we can say, "That makes perfect sense. We should use it right now. We need it." It's not there yet.
Carl Lewis: It’s on the way. That’s part of the journey. Paul, how did communication change for you and Appenate in these pandemic days?
Paul Du Bois: We were a remote company from the start, so everyone already worked from home or occasionally in coworking spaces. We don’t have an official office, just a place we can meet if necessary. We’re very comfortable with video conferencing. When the pandemic came around, it was business as usual internally. But the pandemic made it obvious that we must help our people connect with real humans in real-time and real space. When everyone got locked away and lost opportunities to go out for coffee, we saw the effect on our people. And we’ve been remote since day one, so I can imagine it was harder for companies used to working in offices, where you can look over the desk and say hello or ask a question.
We solved some of those problems, but we saw the impact of the pandemic in terms of separation. So, we intentionally set up meetings in the cities we have people. We have virtual coffees, which are just big Zoom hangouts where we talk about anything but business. It's like the water cooler. We also have in-person meetings every month. We'll pay for coffee, and everyone goes to the same location and works on laptops. We've become a lot more intentional about being connected.
Carl Lewis: I found that interesting about Appenate, because many businesses I work with weren’t remote, so their struggle was how to get there. Their scramble from a professional perspective was, “We're not with each other, so how do we work virtually?”
Paul Du Bois: Yes.
Carl Lewis: The frustrations have been because they don't have those relationships in the office happening in real-time. But even after that, once they were remote, you still needed ways to associate. And some places locked down completely, so people had no contact with anyone outside of their house.
Other than maybe the grocery store. But that became mechanical: get the food, get out, go home. No human banter, no interaction. Everything had a scientific timing to it. You were in more of a hurry to get through the store and out the door than ever. We found that our lives lost the casual pieces. Everything became a function of necessity rather than a casual, “I can get this done.”
Paul Du Bois: Yes.
Carl Lewis: That you noticed that more after the pandemic, even though you'd always been remote, was interesting. It suddenly became apparent because they couldn't pursue connections other ways. And you've made ways for that to happen, which is clever.
Paul Du Bois: And necessary.
Carl Lewis: Paul, you’ve worked with many companies, helping them design, deploy, and use apps. What’s the hardest part about a customer engaging with your business to do this?
Paul Du Bois: My favorite saying when talking to customers, especially about large projects with many bits and pieces, is that it’s easy to get lost in the tech and say, "We need to learn how to use this platform. We roll all our requirements documents; we need to push all this out. We need to get it done." For me, tech is the easy part. There are other platforms like ours, but I'm biased toward ours. We make it as easy as we can but also give users a ton of power. But we steer our customers away from getting wrapped up in that and saying, "Wow, I can do all these things." It's empowering.
But the biggest thing with an app rollout, especially if it's the first time and the company's very paper oriented, is the people problem. I've seen projects in my career – not just in the mobile space – where we've done a great job of implementing, training, and helping the customer squeeze everything they can out of the software. But it falls flat because the users are an afterthought. They get it like a training manual thrown at their face, saying, “Starting Monday, you're using this.” It's not a good experience, and it sucks for me, as someone who writes software and still likes writing code.
I write code for two reasons: I like solving technical problems, and I want it to add value. I don't want it to be something people loathe using. We’re always trying to get better, although I'm sure there are parts of our system that suck to use. But I've seen cases where the tech was great, and the people were awesome, but the rollout to the users fell apart. It usually falls apart for several reasons. One, there aren’t any phases to it. It's a big bang rollout. They throw a training manual over the fence to the road maintenance team and say, "You need to follow the guides and use the applications to do your job starting Monday."
They put a whole new thing in the middle of their workflow without asking, “What's our migration strategy? How will we help people move from where they are, whether that’s paper or other applications, to this new thing?" Companies must put more effort into the people side of things and less into the tech side.
That's what I try to enforce with customers: Think about your people because they’re the poor bastards who have to use the application. And if it's meeting every requirement on your document, great. But what if they go back to paper because they couldn't be bothered? The whole project is a failure. What was the point? You paid us money, which is great for us, but I'm not in software to make a ton of money – I'm in software to add value. And if we're not adding value, I don't want to be part of it.
Carl Lewis: I hear you. Do many companies involve the daily users in the creation, process building, and documentation? Or are they victims of whatever people above them decide?
Paul Du Bois: We see both. The best companies we've worked with have had an integrated effort, where they brought the right people to the table, even before they selected software. They discussed the real problems versus whatever the dashboard says is a problem. They got on-the-ground intel and involved that in the process from the start.
Quick example. When we were in beta, we were excited. We had a large town council prospect who agreed to work with our horrible alpha beta software. The person was the depot manager, and she oversaw dispatching road repair and road crews. And they had a problem with those huge digital signs on the side of the road. They’d put them out but wouldn't recover them all. They couldn't find them. I don’t know how, but that was a core problem for them.
The manager had no idea about this. So, she built this into it. They were doing GPS location recording when they dropped the sign off and powered it up. The pilot was great – but when it went to IT for approval, we discovered IT had been working on something similar with a developer. And after 12 months, the developer had produced something worse, in my opinion, than the depot manager had thrown together in three hours with our horrible software.
It was a huge political problem, but there was that disconnect. IT wanted to do it their way, so we lost out there. But I'm not bitter. It's one of those enduring memories where I think, "You know what? There's a person who's going to have to use whatever the hell IT produces for them." And she’ll be stuck with it, even though it was inferior, took longer, and cost more. It’s because they didn’t talk to each other and work together.
Good organizations pay attention to the issues bubbling up from the frontline versus the IT department in their ivory tower doing what they want. Or sales, or whoever it might be.
Carl Lewis: We've gone through a generational change where IT 15, 20 years ago was a special class. They were the only ones with any knowledge, and they gave us what they thought we needed. It rarely hit the bullseye.
Paul Du Bois: Yes.
Carl Lewis: But now, many users are knowledgeable and can join technical conversations. Not to the degree our IT professionals can, but they can. There are phrases in the industry like ‘customer experience’ that IT people have heard, and they have your frame of mind: I want to add value. I don't know if everyone wanted that 20 years ago when they entered their IT careers. There have been big changes.
Paul, it's been great to hear about your business. We’re not done with mobility yet, so we'll watch what you're doing. Thanks for joining us, and to everyone out there, stay connected.