Brian Sommer's Month in Review - March 2020

Profile picture for user brianssommer By Brian Sommer March 31, 2020
A month dominated by a pandemic, but there were still other things happening in the world of enterprise tech...

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March was interesting: innovation was clearly evident even while the world dealt with an unprecedented pandemic. Here is my assessment of the most interesting stories of the month.   

Hopeful stories on the pandemic front

How do great companies plan for trouble? If there are bright spots in this coronavirus mess, these pieces are worth the time.

Check out this Texas Monthly article “Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic” This paragraph sets the tone for the piece.

This isn’t the first time H-E-B has done a good job of managing a disaster—it played an important role in helping the Gulf Coast recover from Hurricane Harvey in the immediate aftermath of the storm—which led us to ask: How did a regional supermarket chain develop systems that allow it to stay ahead of a crisis as big as this one? We spoke with nearly a dozen employees, executives, and customers to better understand—in their words—how H-E-B has taken on its unique role in shaping its business around the needs of Texans in the midst of trying circumstances.

You will have to read this one through to the end. It’s a superb piece that captures interviews with rank and file employees, planners, business partners, customers, etc. It makes me wish I was back home for the self-quarantine.

You should also read this Bloomberg BusinessWeek piece titled “How do you make more masks yesterday?” This is the story of how 3M purposely built surge capacity into its face mask production lines just for an event like this.  Here’s a taste:

The Aberdeen plant had already ramped up production of respirator masks in response to demand from first responders battling wildfires in Australia and contending with a volcano in the Philippines. Now, Rehder told his charges, Aberdeen would shift to “surge capacity.” Idle machinery installed for precisely this purpose would be activated, and many of the plant’s 650 employees would immediately start working overtime. “We knew it wouldn’t be a two-week blip, it would be longer,” Rehder says. “But I had no idea.”

Or checkout this story, “Swabs, Stat!” in the same BusinessWeek issue. It tells the story of a Maine firm jamming away at making virus test swabs.

The tenor of business press pieces is changing. From worrisome trends (and they’re still out there) to real progress by people and firms out there – all working to make a difference.

Microsoft is certainly feeling the cloud impact of WFH (work from home) and with companies shifting more load to their cloud. Hat tip to ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley for this piece. Here’s a taste:

Microsoft officials say the company has seen a 775 percent increase in demand for its cloud services in regions enforcing social distancing and/or shelter-in place due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. On March 28, officials also elaborated on some of the temporary cloud-service restrictions that Microsoft has put in place as a result of the pandemic.

In a March 28 blog post, officials said that demand for its new Windows Virtual Desktop usage has grown by more than three times. They also said government use of public Power BI for sharing COVID-19 dashboads is up 42 percent in a week. (As is the case with Microsoft's overall cloud services figure, we don't have a base number for WVD and Power BI from which to calculate these percentages.)

There’s also this WIRED piece on how we ended up with so many critical shortages during this pandemic. It should make any cost-conscious executive rethink some of their outsourcing decisions.

IoT in farming

Arable Labs CEO Jim Ethington and I spoke a couple of weeks ago. They’ve got some seriously cool technology. One product looks like a pole with a frisbee-like disc mounted on top. Depending on the configuration, these devices monitor the moisture content, daylight hours and scores of other parameters that are fed via a solar-powered Internet connection to Arable’s cloud. Farmers get real-time information about their crops along with suggestions to improve yields.

These devices - see image above right - can be placed most anywhere as they are solar-powered and connect to the Internet via 4G cellular technology in the device itself. If a farmer can put a stake in the ground, they’re connected.

Smart farm tech isn’t entirely new but Arable makes the farmer the owner of the data. Other ag-firms collect a farmer’s data, sell it to others and may charge the farmer for access to their own data.

According to Arable:

Data collected across the agricultural supply chain, digested and distilled with useful analytics, is the most powerful tool we have to adapt to our new conditions, and mitigate their harmful effects on our economies and wellbeing. This is the driving force behind Arable’s mission, and what compelled them to build their new suite of agronomic solutions. Building on the success of the original Mark device and Insights platform, Arable sought out feedback, pain points, and ideas from early adopters to understand what was missing, and challenged their engineers and scientists to test the limits of what was technologically possible. The result is shown in Arable’s unique approach to climate and plant science: it bridges the gap between measurements and models, going beyond their flagship device to incorporate deep machine learning, robust data science, and weather model and remote-sensed data fusion to fundamentally reshape the way we address the most important challenge of our time.

Think of Arable as empowering the farm of the future (a la factory of the future stories we’ve heard so much of in recent years). Its solutions aren’t a single IoT device product but very sophisticated, multi-measurement and communication tools that connect to a network designed to decipher the data in real-time. Check it out.


This month’s MIT Sloan Management Review is worth a read. In the front third of the magazine are articles on what it will take to build the future workforce.

AARP’s AARP Bulletin discussed the real cost of age discrimination in the US (Hint: It’s $850 million). Check out “Age Bias Costs Us All”.  It’s a shame that many HR technology vendors still don’t have functionality and analytics to halt this illegal behavior.

Josh Bersin weighs in on “The Big Reset” – a look at how corporations and HR must use this pandemic time as an opportunity to strip down bad processes, work, budgets, leadership and more. It’s a timely piece and one worth reading.

In “Siri, did I ace the interview?”, Fortune looks at the role AI has in recruiting. Firms I frequently cover like HireVue and Pymetrics are featured in the piece.

Fuel 50 - I did a quick call last week with Fuel50’s CEO/Founder Anne Fulton. Anne clearly cares about employees – hers and those of her customers. One of the things Fuel50 is doing re: coronavirus is in their FuelFutures and other new modules. Fuel50 has four offerings of relevance. According to Fuel50 they are:

  • “FuelArchitecture supports an organization’s redesign through virtual collaboration tools rather than in-person meetings to conduct job architecture reviews. This powerful career architecture tool assists with organizational redesign which could be an urgent imperative right now for many businesses
  • FuelMobility, the organizational talent matching tool, supports identifying the best-fit talent that organizations want to retain, redeploy or retrench.
  • FuelGigs allows employees to be quickly redeployed to more immediate task priorities to meet demand. An example is the huge demand for food delivery services as people move to online delivery due to social isolation measures.
  • FuelFutures supports employees who may be displaced to find opportunities beyond their current organization. Organizations may be looking for scalable, virtual solutions rather than expensive outplacement services that were used in the past. Employees can be given access instantly to online coaches, job information and an artificial intelligence (AI) engine that matches them to the best-fit roles and vacancies to map to their personal skills and talents.” 

You can experiment with FuelFutures yourself at .

Anne’s perspective is that many firms will definitely want their employees back once the pandemic ends. I like executives who think like this. To that end, employers, today, need to do whatever they can, to hang onto whatever loyalty might exist with these recently departed employees. One sobering thought on this is from the Josh Bersin article referenced above. He shared:

One of our clients in Aerospace, which has been through layoffs during many cycles, shared that “30% of employees laid off would never come back to work for your company again.” Think about that.


AuditBoard - I had an interesting call with Daniel Kim, co-founder of AuditBoard. AuditBoard is a five-year old firm that lives in the GRC (governance, risk & compliance) space.

What made the call so timely is that AuditBoard consists of several one-task tools that are relatively easy to implement.  One of these is a new RiskOversight module:

An expansion of the AuditBoard platform, RiskOversight is purpose-built to elevate and execute risk management programs across the enterprise — including risk identification, assesment, response, mitigation, and monitoring — all in a highly integrated, visual, and intuitive solution.

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FloQast – I have written about FloQast before including this detailed piece in January this year.  This month, they announced an enhanced automatic reconciliation capability. This builds on their Simple AutoRec tool that was announced in Q1 2019. The latest tool has machine learning technology within it.  According to Floqast:

FloQast AutoRec leverages AI to automate the account reconciliation process and empowers corporate accounting teams to regain hours or even days each month to focus on more strategic issues. Requiring no rules definition or set-up, on average, AutoRec automates up to 75% of the financial transaction matches out-of-the-box, making it quick and easy to reconcile multiple accounts all at one time. For the remaining unmatched transactions, FloQast offers an intuitive and easy way to resolve these and finish the reconciliation via a standardized Excel account reconciliation with a full audit trail.

Key new features in FloQast AutoRec include:

  • Threshold Matching. For transactions that should match but for which there are minor discrepancies, threshold matching automatically completes those matches in a controlled way, within a specified materiality threshold.
  • Progressive Matching. For companies that want to reconcile accounts ahead of the close, progressive matching enables teams to import and match transactions during the month, and as often as appropriate for the account, so that only the  final month end transactions need to be reconciled at close. Teams can upload month to date files to ensure that all transactions are included, without concern of transactions being duplicated.
  • Roll Forward Transactions. Transactions that have not cleared during the month must be included in the next month's reconciliation. AutoRec automates this process to ensure your reconciliations include all the needed transactions.
  • New Settings. AutoRec works easily with your existing files in their current format, without requiring modifications to fit within a rigid pre-defined format.
  • Custom Configurations. Custom configurations are available to automatically match transactions for accounts where descriptions are highly variable.

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Odds 'n ends

Data PrivacyLightReading had a news bit that stated the FCC may fine wireless carriers $208 million for secretly selling customers’ location data. My recommendation, add a couple of zeroes to that number to send an even stronger message to firms that pimp out their own customers.

Court case: Google v. OracleFortune has this update on the Google v. Oracle API case that should be heard soon by the U.S. Supreme Court. I get that the ownership of APIs is an important technology issue; however, I really wonder if that group of jurists has the knowledge to sort this one out.

Fortune also had this lengthy piece on AI. Specifically, it looks at the massive amounts of investment going into AGI, artificial general intelligence. Given all of the application focus on machine learning lately, this piece gives you a peek at what is coming for the next wave of AI technology. Get a fresh cup of coffee for this one.

MIT Technology Review has a piece on the end of Moore’s Law: The End of the Greatest Prediction on Earth . It walks readers through the myriad of adaptations innovators made to keep the Law viable. It also speaks to what’s ahead and how we might not be ready for this law to end.

Last word

Be safe everyone!