Last week at New Relic’s Future Stack 2016 event, I saw the embodiment of what it means to build the essential bridge between developers (geeks) and the business (suits). It was quite the revelation at several levels but one that left me feeling that a long standing problem is on the cusp of being solved. Let me explain.
The geeks v suits divide
I’ve worked with enterprise software for more than 30 years and in all that time, there has been an ongoing problem that has proven largely intractable. On the one hand, the business usually starts the buying process but it quickly gets handed over to technical experts who have to make sense of what is on offer and then figure out how to make software work in the context of the buyer’s technical landscape.
Along the way, myriad concessions and compromises have to be made such that what ends up being delivered is rarely that which was originally sold – or bought. In short, the conditions are set up by which those who made the initial purchase decision (the suits) end up living with what the technical folk (geeks) can deliver. It’s not optimal and often sets up a tension that is hard to resolve.
That partially changed with the introduction of cloud solutions which have often been sold on the basis of providing configurable rather than custom solutions. That allowed buyers to get more or less what they need without too much technical input. Or at least that was mostly true for SMB businesses. Large enterprise wasn’t so easily persuaded.
However, as internet based technologies have taken over from on-premises systems, and vast amounts of data have been created, the ability to manage growing and complex landscapes becomes a technical necessity. Enter companies like New Relic which operate in the broad ‘application performance management’ or APM segment. At the most simplistic, New Relic’s job is to help companies keep their internet based systems going in real time, regardless of what’s going on in the hardware and software. It accomplishes this through a system of monitoring and alerting.
Bridging the gap
But something has changed which alters the focus that New Relic applies in first addressing a largely technical audience.
Last year CEO Lew Cirne had this to say when I asked about the interface between the business and developers:
Where we align well is where people believe software is going to be the transformational agent for the whole company and the CTO ought to be at the CEO side. If you look at companies like GE, they’re companies that love us and partner well with us. And we struggle sometimes with companies that think that IT has this back office function. Think about Paul Cheesbrough [CTO, News Corp], he gets more time with Rupert Murdoch than the CIO does, or at least similar, they’re in constant communication. So Paul and Rupert and two other executives come visit and because he’s passionate about his business and curious about technology, he [Murdoch] goes visit New Relic and Dropbox and a bunch of other technology companies to see how those companies can help. I think that’s shortening the connection between the technologist and the business person.
Fast forward to this year and it has become apparent that CEOs want much more than Cirne was suggesting last year. Today, they are intensely data driven and the News Corps of the world are no longer outliers with vision. This technically led and data driven approach is going mainstream at a rapid pace. Today, CEOs want their software investments to solve real business problems not simply count the beans, inventory or headcount.
This year, Cirne and I discussed a luxury goods company that is using New Relic to help optimize shop based inventory on a global basis. That company, which cannot yet be named, but which would be instantly recognizable, is using New Relic to track patterns of buying behavior such that it can suggest inventory types in each location. The company believes this will help them optimize the whole supply chain. That’s new.
At Concur, an SAP acquired company in the billing and travel space, New Relic is providing the monitoring services that allow Concur to scale massively as it modernizes its infrastructure for the 21st century. At West Corporation, a unified communications provider that spans numerous industries including healthcare, education, media and technology, New Relic is putting dashboards directly into the hands of users with strong Excel and some SQL skills so that they can develop their own alerts. (More on this in a follow up story.) In walking the halls, I was impressed at the range of questions for which customers are seeking to get answers.
Whether you count that as a giant step forward or simply an increment on last year’s messaging, it strikes me that New Relic has managed to do something I did not expect to see from a technically based organization. They are delivering data driven answers, some of which are outlined in the photo I took and which sits at the top of this story, that serve the needs of both the technical people and the business user. Over to Cirne:
When half of Dominoes Pizza’s business is coming through digital, every suit wants to know what’s going on in digital. That’s happening, and meanwhile, the other trend we’re seeing is, I wouldn’t be surprised … I’m hearing more and more this is like the next generation CEOs, they want our CTOs alongside, so basically, business leaders have to have an understanding of technology in order to be really successful with digital, which is helping the rest of the company, so there are these forcing functions that are leading to a thinking they have to work together. They have to, and there’s a growing appreciation for what either side brings to the table, especially when they can agree on the data.
It is that ability to provide data upon which everyone can readily agree which provides the essential bridge between IT and the business in a way I have not seen in the past. Put another way, when you get to meet people with the title ‘SVP digital transformation’ who talk both tech and business scenario building then something different is happening.
Assuming that’s not too much of an overstatement on my part then in my view, the company is positioned to address the needs of a much larger market than might be apparent from the company’s roots in technical solutions. And while Cirne was not prepared to be drawn in that regard, I could not help but notice a smile as we talked this through. Even so, we capped this part of the conversation with:
What I think our software does is, it doesn’t just solve the problem that I was originally talking about, I think it puts me in a position where, as a business person, I can hand directly to the user and say, “Take a look at this, what do you think? Will this solve our problem?” They will then be able to influence going back to those who have got to build software directly, and therefore, that link between the user, the business outcome, and the technical people has been properly created.
How to win
But exactly where is this new found appreciation having the greatest impact?
I feel like it depends on the nature of the company, right, and their route to the customer, but in particular, the role that we feel like is becoming increasingly strategic that we’re serving, is the product manager, who has to aggregate across all the customers they want to reach and make the very hard choices about “How do I prioritize engineering work?” They’re bemoaning how little data they have before they’ve seen us, then all of a sudden it’s like, “Wow, I can make data-driven decisions on the most important challenges. So now, how do I allocate these precious engineering resources?”
Turning to other topics, I mentioned that as the company unveiled new product capabilities during the keynote, there was spontaneous applause from the audience. I rarely hear that without some encouragement from the stage but that wasn’t necessary at Future Stack.
I was talking to some engineers yesterday, reveling in the moment, and the words that came to me was, “This is why we do what we do.” We work so hard to create something with hopes that we make our customers’ lives better, to the fact that they’re willing to applaud for it, and as you say, it might be something that is expected of consumer technology events, like an Apple event or something like that. I agree with you, it’s pretty darn rare in enterprise software.
It’s been in the DNA of the company to be motivated to build software their customers love, just for the joy of that reward, but it’s turned into a business strategy as well because, while I think we have a wonderful marketing team and a great sales team, they’re world-class at what they do, the best marketing we could ever ask for is word-of-mouth reference, people telling their peers that they love what we do.
Project Seymour – New Relic’s next evolution
Finally, I wanted to better understand what’s next for the company in the context of the newly announced Seymour initiative. In a blog post announcing the solution, Cirne said:
Here at New Relic, we spend a lot of time looking at application and machine data. As our cloud-based Digital Intelligence Platform helps more than 14,000 companies run their digital businesses, we ingested more than 25 trillion events last quarter alone. With Project Seymour, we’ve think we’ve found a way to help customers leverage the data about how they use New Relic to dramatically simplify the overwhelming task of understanding what’s really going on in their digital business. We’ve distilled the work from more than 1,000 engineer-years into AI algorithms that tirelessly pore over that data to understand what’s important to you and surface that knowledge where it’s most relevant.
Traditional monitoring solutions have trouble coping with this much data. So in Seymour we surface these results in a personalized data feed that’s designed to constantly evolve and improve to meet your needs. You can teach Seymour what’s interesting and relevant to you by providing simple feedback—via a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down button—that helps make our machine learning systems even smarter.
The feed packages this personalized information and insight into cards that make it easy to see what’s happening at a glance, whether it’s an error incident, a spike in traffic, or an emerging usage trend. It offers a quick archive view of the insights or patterns that Seymour determines will be most important to you, based on your role, permissions, and feedback history. Put simply, Seymour is designed to take the burden off our customers and put it into AI.
Seymour is slated to be available in the early(ish) part of 2017 but already shows considerable promise. I was impressed by the fact it can be demonstrated on a smartphone and that the company plans to integrate directly to Slack for team work purposes. The ability to receive notifications to which the user can simply apply a thumbs up or down is the first of many steps that will be needed for Seymour to learn which alerts are important to teams. Over the longer term, New Relic hopes to bake in predictive capabilities so that users will have guiding clues about where anomalies are arising, whether software or hardware. Whether that translates into fix recommendations is a story for another day but it would not surprise me if that becomes possible.
While this story has devoted a lot of space to the expanded capabilities and use cases that draw the business and technology builders closer together, there is little doubting that the company’s long term vision is something to which management is laser focused.
Going into our meeting, I reflected upon the amount of work that appeared to be in front of the company last year and the promises it made at the time. To its credit, New Relic has delivered on everything it laid out in 2015. But what is equally important is that there is a purposeful vision that lays the foundation for an exciting future.
Image credit - The author
Disclosure - New Relic covered the travel expenses of the author and has recently become a premier partner.