All hail the new Sage as Sage Summit UK swings into town
- Sage Summit 2017 was a refreshing affair that demonstrated a 'new' Sage that has been conspicuously missing in the past. There's an awful lot to do but progress is good and customers should be encouraged.
Before getting into the nuts and bolts of the event, I want to set out something of my history with the company as it provides an important context as to why I am enthusiastic about Sage in a manner that has been absent for nearly 10 years.
My first major encounter with the company was in 1992 when I undertook the first in depth review of Sage Sovereign 4.3. If you don't remember it then worry not. It's akin to Sage 200 and was a beast of a product. Over the years, Sage and I regularly ran into one another but around 2005, the wheels started falling off and by 2012, I'd lost interest in them altogether.
The lost years
In the period 2005-12, I covered them extensively as they lurched from one failed cloud play to the next. It was an interesting time because while the KashFlows, Xeros and FreeAgents of the world were making hay, Sage was floundering. Eventually, Sage drifted into that place all software vendors secretly dread - irrelevance - and I became bored with trying to find new words to describe 'fail.'
The problems Sage had were self inflicted, self evident and well known by the company. Sage had become fat, happy and arrogant. It was institutionally incapable of change and as such, had become what financial analysts call a 'value play' where growth isn't expected and a steady stream of dividend income is propped up by a company led by maintenance revenue.
Worse still, Sage refused to both commit serious resources to R&D and could not listen to the many voices counselling it to develop for cloud in a fundamentally different way from the old Sage model. It was an accounting software vendor company being run by accountants who did not understand software.
In late 2014, the company was at a tipping point. It either drifted into a long and painful period of decline or it injected fresh blood. Fortunately for all stakeholders, it chose the latter course with the appointment of a robust leader in Stephen Kelly. Two and a half years on, a fresh management team, along with a few old timers I've known for many years, are bringing Sage back to a place where it competes with the not so quite new kids on the block, and is back talking growth.
Sage Summit 2017 - the highlights
At this year's Sage Summit event, it was pleasing to see the company in combative mood with its partners - of which Derek duPreez has plenty to say. For myself, I was impressed to see Sage put people on stage who, while inspirational, are folk with whom the audience can directly relate. Not for Sage the Richard Branson's or Alan Sugar's of the world, but the former co-owner of the 110 shop Coffee Republic and one of the UK's most prominent YouTuber's, SBTV's Jamal Edwards.
The UK government's Making Tax Digital pilot project may be wobbling but Kelly assured the audience (via video) that Sage 'has your back' when it comes to representing the needs of UK small business at the government level. That was supported by an emphasis on the extent to which Sage solutions are compliant with legs and regs.
On the product side, there wasn't a huge amount for customers to get their arms around other than mentions of Sage's Pegg chatbot that helps with travel and expense handling plus a refresh on direct bank feeds. As I tweeted:
Diehard analysts will hate this keynote. An hour in and no product. I'm loving it. #sagesummit.
— (((Den Howlett))) (@dahowlett) April 6, 2017
Later in the day, I caught up with Stuart Lynn, Chief Product Delivery Officer. Lynn and I go back many years but we hadn't met for something around 8-10 of those years. I wanted to get a sense of how Sage development is proceeding because therein is the nut for what customers can expect by way of innovation.
When we last met, Lynn was struggling to address many of the issues I'd seen around Sage's cloud efforts. It was a tough meeting. This time, he was beaming.
When Stephen (Kelly) came in he was very clear - "We're a technology company." I can tell you that was music to my team's ears. It meant we were going to get the R&D commitment we needed. Things are very different today. So what you have is the accounting core which we'll always develop and hold for ourselves, and then we're building using microservices principles. So new functionality can plug into any of our solutions as demand dictates. We now work extensively with partners so AWS is there for us, we have an active partnership with Microsoft as some products are on their technology and of course we're working alongside Salesforce on the Force platform. We now send out teams to get stuff done with the instruction they don't come back until it's built. That's how we did Live in three months. OK - it wasn't all there at first but it is a product that stands well in the market today.
This sea change in development approach is vitally important for Sage which has no pretensions to be a platform company of itself but recognizes the importance of getting away from the 'not invented here' syndrome that had hamstrung Sage for years.
I also spent time with Michael DeJongh who manages the ISV channel. He explained that Sage is working to make sure that ISV partners are protected for the solutions that fit their portfolios of customers in the sense there is no immediate forced march to the cloud solutions.
There is a significant number of customers who do not see the need to move to the cloud and we get that. They are being supported by partners who have built industry specific functions that will need supporting for years to come and that's OK.
I agree with that sentiment in the context of the Sage customer portfolio. While the company will encourage new businesses to start with Sage One or Sage Live - the cloud offerings, the fact remains that for many businesses, there is no obvious benefit in switching to a different technology when their chosen solution is already mature and remains fit for purpose.
Having said all that good stuff, Sage is not without challenges. This was a UK specific event and as such, the company only has to address a relatively small portfolio of products. The company line about extensive and cross product integrations is well said but when expanded to the company's global technology landscape then things get immeasurably more complex.
Sage knows this and is working towards finding the global elements where it is possible to build RESTful APIs for an integration hub and where the challenge needs handling differently. That will be a slow burn over some years. The good news is that Sage is thinking about this in a purposeful manner such that there may come a day when we're talking seriously about very few code lines.
This way of thinking is more important than at first seems the case. Sage would like to believe that it can take its customers from nascent startup to multi-national player with its portfolio of products. The reality is that doesn't happen very often. Instead of going Live to 50 to 100 to 200 to X3, the more likely path is Live to 50 to NetSuite/Microsoft to Oracle/SAP.
If Sage can establish a technical underpinning that allows them to swap out core functionality AND retain industry specific functions, whether in-house or ISV developed, then Sage's desire to carry customers from cradle to maturity is much easier to 'sell' as a business value proposition.
In the sessions, Sage spent a good amount of time talking about AI, bots and the like. Speakers met the 'will my job disappear' question that seems to turn up in every conversation but I'm not convinced that an AI emphasis is wholly appropriate. I am far happier seeing a de-emphasis on the buzzwords, a de-emphasis on the obvious robotic connotations and a plain speaking exposition about how automation is and will make life easier. Conflating the threads is confusing and while Sage endeavored to make it a fun thing, I wasn't wholly convinced it worked as a set of marketing devices.
It's always easy to pick holes in any company strategy and one thing I hope Sage stops doing is getting too far ahead of itself in marketing solutions and programs that don't yet exist.
Overall though, I was impressed and I"d have to agree with Lynn's assessment that Sage has got its mojo back.
As I closed out my time at the event I asked Alan Laing, UK MD Sage (and EVP partners and alliances) a question that always provides useful insights into what the company is really thinking - what keeps you awake at night? His answer was refreshing.
I want us to innovate at a pace that keeps customers happy. There's a massive set of opportunities for us and there is a lot of work ahead but still, we have to do more.
One small aside. During the keynote, Laing mentioned Sage's 2+2+2 initiative for giving back via the Sage Foundation. The numbers refer to percentages of time, money and software. Employees have 5 days a year to devote to a giving project of their choosing. That's beyond the 1+1+1 that Salesforce touts. An admirable undertaking.