Over the years I've had the privilege to meet and, on occasion, work alongside some of the very best people in the technology business. One of those is Mark Nittler, who today announced he is stepping away, following a 12-year stint at Workday. Mark Who? you might think.
Mark isn't one to be a 'front of house' type, but he does enjoy a robust debate about what works and what doesn't. To that extent, he's one of those thoughtful people who take their time to formulate answers to significant problems but doesn't need the bright lights of a stage upon which to share the outcomes.
I first met Mark back in the day when he was at PeopleSoft. A gentle giant in my eyes, we reconnected when he went to Workday as employee number 28.
We arranged to meet at Office 2.0, an event that heralded the first attempt by practitioners and thinkers to re-imagine what the world of work in business would likely look like in the 21st century. It was an exciting time with ideas popping at a rate of a dozen a minute. That was in 2006 and, of course, most of what we were thinking about at the time turned out to be wrong.
To put this in context, Twitter was a science project, and Facebook was barely on anyone's radar. Slack didn't exist, neither did Zenefits, and a whole slew of companies that we now associate with the current run of commonly used applications and services were either nascent or nonexistent.
At that meeting, which included Brian Sommer as I recall, Mark talked about the way in which he wanted to reimagine enterprise financials. Top of mind was the notion of getting away from the tyranny of the accounting code block, that thing that, to this day, constrains a ledger coding system such that once you've laid it out, you don't want to touch it again - ever.
The practical problem with the code block is that it is incredibly difficult to get right. Its very rigidity means you have to try and take account of every possible eventuality both now and into the future. It was not uncommon for vendors to code for the code block in up to 72 alphanumeric characters to ensure there would be enough space to accommodate all possible permutations that a system might need. Then there were sub-ledgers, that other bane of the coder's (and finance person's) life.
Mark wanted to do this fundamentally differently. He wanted a single ledger system that would not be constrained by the code block. I don't know if I was able to add much to that conversation, but as an accounting geek, the idea certainly appealed. Somewhere along the way, we also got into discussing the concept of tagging as a way of making the ledger much more flexible.
Tagging is a way of creating an infinitely variable coding structure that allows for insanely complicated ways of reporting but without necessarily disturbing the underlying coding structure. That certainly got me excited. Even now, I can get excited when I hear a Workday customer talking about the creative use of Worktags. I'd go so far as to suggest that most Workday customers are only scratching the surface on this one, even though it was baked into the design some years back.
It took Mark and the engineering team at Workday a good while to figure out how to bring these ideas to life and, if truth be known, some of the early versions were less than optimal. Reporting, the one area where Workday wanted to shine, proved to be a much harder nut to crack than anyone imagined. I recall wondering whether Workday should try because, in my experience, no ERP vendor had overcome the problems of creating an elegant reporting system without the help of a third party add-on. To this day, SAP with its BOBJ tools and Oracle with their Hyperion offerings are a testament to the difficulties involved.
Even Workday, with all its high powered brains, has made (a very few) acquisitions designed to make sure that Workday financials remain relevant, modern and capable of stacking up against their competitors as best in class. A good amount of credit for that has to go to Mark and his often dogged commitment to making financials work the way he imagined, a single ledger system capable of doing everything a finance person needs.
It was Mark who parlayed the term Franken-soft to describe competitors' offerings and rightly so. Back in 2012 when both Brian Sommer and I were on ZDNet, Brian talked about this and the difference the Workday architecture made. If you'd like a refresher on Brian's gripe about old ERP, then this from 2015 sets it out nicely.
Today, and only two days after Workday reported record revenue and a good clutch of new financials customers, Mark has decided the time is right to pass the baton.
As seems routine these days, his decision was announced on Facebook, which is where I learned of his decision. This is what he said:
After an incredible 12-year ride, I am "hanging up" my Workday #28 jersey. The opportunity to conceive, build and bring to market the first new approach to enterprise “Financials” in 30 years – and to be able to do it with the industry’s best co-workers, thinkers, partners and customers – has been beyond amazing. Thanks to Dave Duffield and Aneel Bhusri for providing me that opportunity and for building such a great company, and to all those who made it such a fantastic experience.
The future? Well, I can’t stop thinking about how new ideas and technology can transform finance and accounting; we are not done yet! But that’s for later.
I, very truly, could not have done it without all of your support and I am looking forward to the start of a new chapter.
You may not have heard of Mark Nittler but if you are a Workday user and want to know who sweated over how the Workday financials product ought to be built, then you can thank him for much of what you see today.
We've only met a few times over the last 11 years, but on each occasion, there was always something fresh to discuss, along with lamenting our receding hairlines. We last met for a beer when Mark was doing a stint in the UK. That's probably a year or so ago. Of one thing I am sure. We shall not be strangers.