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Interview: Appian's Matt Calkins on low-code & the rise of hyperautomation

18 Nov 2020

A lot can change in 21 years. It takes a strong company to remain true to a few key technology ideas, and concentrate on their evolution.

That’s exactly what software firm Appian has achieved since its founding in 1999. While it has been a long and often tough road, it has been an immensely successful one for the company.

I spoke to Appian’s Matt Calkins about the company’s past and present, as well as how low-code and hyperautomation are rapidly transforming workflow processes.

“1999 was one of the worst years to start a business. So many launched that year - right before the dot com bust. It was a time of hubris - and overfunding -  yet most of those businesses were about to hit a wall.”

It's a humbling start to a company that started that same year - and survived the dot com bust.

“We started off in a very self-reliant mode and refused venture capital. And we’ve grown steadily for 21 years as a largely self-funded grower. That has made us different from other technology companies because you had to be a bit different to survive," says Calkins.

Now the company is predicting a US$297 million revenue income for the FY 2020, proving that Appian is in good stead.

Calkins recognises that Appian has a strong, skilled and passionate team that cares not only about the business, but also the wider community.

During COVID, company employees volunteered to help out in the community - whether it was picking up groceries, teaching disadvantaged kids or just providing support, Calkins says it was a major highlight of the year.

“I would say my favourite times of the year have been times when, instead of feeling ourselves weak, we felt strong enough. That's the best thing.”

The Appian team has remained dedicated to a few great ideas that have seen the company through good times and bad. Calkins says that the very best technology idea the company has had during its evolution is the concept of workflows.

“Software is the hardest thing to change in any company. In a big company, you can't change anything before you change your software. As such, companies are stuck in the past. They're paralysed in the face of a moment when change is required.”

Nothing could better illustrate Calkins’ point than 2020 - a massive year of disruption and change, which left some struggling because their out-of-date behaviours and practices could not keep up with the mobility needed for a largely remote world.

“Companies can’t trade away future mobility in order to address a problem right now - and companies can’t do it cheaply because they might end up paying for it in the long run.”

Now though, many organisations understand what Appian has known for more than a decade - that workflows are incredibly important as ways of communicating a will to a machine or a process.”

Low-code is a kind of software development that applies automation to coding, thus removing the repetitive coding processes from a developer's workflow.

Low-code, Calkins says, multiplies the speed at which a developer can create an application, change the software, and it saves on technical debt.

“For example, if a new device comes out, all your old applications automatically run on that device. If a new security standard comes out, all your applications conform to that security standard. With a new cloud, everything comes out right in the data format, and new anything, all your applications are automatically migrated so that they keep up with the standards.”

“The absence of that effect is known as technical debt. Technical debt occurs in almost every application. IT departments spend an extreme amount of resources dealing with technical debt," he adds.

Low-code, built on a platform like Appian, means that all applications are automatically updated and free of technical debt, accelerating developers’ brilliance, Calkins explains.

Automation is another way of using a workflow to bring together different types of work such as artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, and people. They all have different abilities and work better together. 

In a way, Calkins says, automation is about uniting assets such as people and data across an organisation.

Hyperautomation is the same thing, but there is an extra emphasis on the process layer. That is, it is enterprise-grade automation with work routing, rules, colocation, scalability and security, and designed for scalable, mission-critical business processes. Calkins believes it will be an important technology that intersects with low -code.

Automation is what most organisations need to do right now to unite dispersed assets. Low-code is the way most organisations want to do it. Both of these will be a powerful combination, but first businesses need to understand. That’s part of what a new ebook called HYPERAUTOMATION is about.

HYPERAUTOMATION is a collection of essays on low-code development and business process automation. With a foreword from chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov, as well as experts from MIT, KPMG, Capgemini, and Appian's own Matt Calkins, the book shares different perspective in an effort to educate and inform readers about the past, present, and future of hyperautomation.

No conversation would be complete without mentioning how low-code and the various forms of automation fits into the broad umbrella term known as digital transformation.

For some, the term was a discussion point for boardrooms but it wasn’t achieving much. Along comes 2020 and suddenly boardrooms, managers and staff had to figure it out fast.

“Agility is a core component of digital transformation and it has been shown to be valuable this year. I think a lot of people will look at the events of 2020 and think, ‘we should have followed through on that digital transformation idea. We should have become more digital, and more agile. Digital transformation is an overused term, but the idea behind it remains relevant. Yes, you should transform now. You should be agile.”

“I think that low-code and automation, or hyperautomation, if you prefer, can contribute to some of the most important elements in digital transformation. And if there is a digital transformation in 2021, I think that low-code and automation will be the primary beneficiary of that.”

Calkins adds that enterprises have the choice of best-of-breed IT or a stack provided by one IT vendor or 'tech giant'.  Many are choosing stacks over best-of-breed, but he suspects the pendulum will soon swing back towards best-of-breed.

Appian is not a 'tech giant', so its philosophy is to ensure that other vendors’ technologies integrate with Appian’s own. Likewise, for enterprises, Appian respects data across the enterprise and connects to it - thus making it a kind of best-of-breed product.

Calkins believes that best-of-breed will never go out of style - in fact, the more he talks about it, the more he wants to enable these kinds of strategies because they work perfectly for automation and uniting dispersed assets. 

“Best-of-breed just makes sense. We’re committed to that philosophy and making it work for our customers.”

Learn more about Appian at appian.com.

Grab your copy of HYPERAUTOMATION here.