Pushing the limits of virtual collaboration - how ThoughtSpot used Zoom to drive the development of ThoughtSpot Cloud

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed November 9, 2020
Many companies underestimate how far online collaboration can go - not ThoughtSpot. Their story of building a major new product release - ThoughtSpot Cloud - via Zoom-based collaboration brings many lessons. Here's what I learned.

ThoughtSpot - zoom session
(Talking BI and Zoom with Thoughtspot)

One of my enterprise stump speeches is: a scant few companies have really pushed the limits of video collaboration tools. I've mostly focused on the creative disappointments called "virtual events."

But when Zoom gave me a chance to talk to one of their customers, BI vendor ThoughtSpot, about how they brought the company through a crucial cloud transition with Zoom-based collaboration as a key component, I took them up on it.

"COVID transformed how we operate"

Soon I was on a call with two members of ThoughtSpot's leadership team. Where did they want to begin? Start with the pandemic. As ThoughSpot co-founder and Executive Chairman Ajeet Singh told me:

COVID fundamentally transformed how we operate and how we are innovating.

Facts versus opinions about COVID - high stakes indeed. Facts about COVID can save your life. Opinions, well, the further they get from facts, the more problematic our collective health becomes. Singh says this applies directly to ThoughtSpot's corporate purpose. Singh again:

At the highest level, ThoughtSpot's mission is making the world more fact-driven. There are a lot of discussions between people that are based on opinions and ideas. Those are important as well. But if we can ground them in fact, then those discussions can be more meaningful.

If there's any silver lining to recent events, one could be the popularization of data:

Obviously, with the election and what we have seen with COVID, for the first time in the history of humanity, billions of people have been exposed to data, what it means to read charts. So many people had never seen: what is the infection rate, test rate, survival rates and this and that. It is definitely showing us that we as a society will be better off, if we could have easy access to useful facts with big data.

Yes, tech has advanced. But that's not enough to close the gap:

Now with cloud, we have figured out how to store lots and lots of data. But how we bring that data and insights to the common person - that's where the biggest gap is.

ThoughtSpot wants to close that gap in the workplace. They aren't short on ambition:

Google made information really ubiquitous and accessible. Everybody could get the same information - it made it a level playing field for everyone. We are doing the same thing for data.

The perils of enterprise search - and the data problems yet to solve

That made me think of enterprise search - a treacherous problem for vendors to solve, with so much hype come and gone over the years. But that's not what ThoughtSpot is trying to do. Yes, ThoughtSpor believes enterprise users deserve the simplicity of a simple/elegant interface. But they want to answer different questions. As Singh told me:

You have more than a billion-plus people in the world who are knowledge workers, and they could use data in their work life. But you only have a couple of million analysts who know how to actually answer questions with data. We think about data as really a user experience problem. Our industry has focused on databases and data lakes and performance and cloud, and so on. But if you can't make the user experience simple, not many people can benefit from it.

But this is not a "where's my PowerPoint I was working on last night" type of enterprise search. Singh says ThoughtSpot's goal is to help users solve business-relevant, analytical problems - without having to craft SQL queries or what have you. 

Yes, on the surface, we look like a search engine. But under the hood, we are a massive number-crunching machine. Numbers are inherently more complex, because they are stored in a lot of different databases.

It's ThoughtSpot's job to deliver those numbers in a format users can consume - and trust.

With numbers, you need to get them to be accurate... If you want to find out what's the COVID infection rate in my county, you want to get numbers you can trust... So we had to go to first principles, to invent a new kind of search engine that understands numbers... And in real-time, come back with an answer for the user, a chart they can look at - then they can ask the next question.

How is this working out for customers? Well, ThoughtSpot doesn't disclose their exact customer count, but they said more than twenty percent of the Fortune 100 are customers. I also checked out some intriguing customer videos, such as this one from Chick-Fil-A (Chick-fil-A Recaptures 100,000 Productivity Hours with ThoughtSpot). Singh cited the example of Canadian Tire, a major Canadian retailer. When COVID hit, Singh says Canadian Tire's merchants turned to ThoughtSpot for a fresh view of demand:

What are the most popular items? What are the items that are less in demand now? The world is changing so fast - you can't depend on the twenty dashboards that your data engineers have built, because they give you a very static view. So you could ask that question [in ThoughtSpot]. And then you can say, "Ah, I see there's a lot of demand for [this item] coming from North America. And within that, which states have the highest demand?"

Putting Zoom to the test - crowdsourcing for the ThoughtSpot Cloud push

I don't care how innovative a company is. Eventually, a major course correction is in order - and that's your true test. That's also how Zoom enters this story. For ThoughtSpot, that shift was about pushing into the cloud. This is my opinion, not ThoughtSpot's, but I believe the writing is on the wall for on-premise BI. There will always be exceptions, but cloud offers too many data advantages - from quickly scalable storage, to mashing up open source data sets, to applying algorithms across the data. Then there is SaaS as-a-service consumption, and a different pricing model.

ThoughtSpot evolved into a similar realization - and they addressed it with urgency. Singh explains:

There are a couple of very interesting trends that intersected for us. One is the rise of cloud data warehouses. As you know, Snowflake just went IPO. They've been a partner of ours for a while. And we saw they were growing really fast. A lot of our customers were asking for our service, our technology to be available as a SaaS offering as well.

Giving customers the option to put ThoughtSpot on a hyperscaler was a key step, but it wasn't the end:

For a long time, we have had the bulk of our customers running our software in the cloud - all three clouds. We support Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. But we've been selling software. For our customers, they want really fast time to value. And that is possible in a SaaS offering. So that's where, as soon as COVID happened, we had this ask from a large segment of customers. And that's when we decided to actually start a new product line, ThoughtSpot Cloud.

Sumeet Arora, ThoughSpot's SVP & Head of Engineering, got to work. For his team, this wasn't just about SaaS service delivery. They had other goals for ThoughSpot Cloud:

  • speedy onboarding
  • beefed up self-service capabilities
  • collaborative - make it easy for analysts to create on top of the data, and share with others

And the results? As Arora told me on the call, they think they have achieved something special:

From the pressing of a button that, "Hey, here is your order," to actually beginning to search after connecting to their cloud data warehouse in 24 minutes. From zero to search in 24 minutes, which is a breakthrough, I would say, for the industry.

As for the role of Zoom, this fits in with the crowdsourced nature of the project. Not only did ThoughtSpot pull customer input into the development process, but they also used Zoom to do the same for employees. One key driver: an employee hackathon, facilitated on Zoom. Arora explains:

This was an eye-opener for us. Every one of our employees participated in this hackathon. We received way more ideas than the number of employees we have. And we invited the whole company - even the sales engineers and the customer success engineers. We were boundary-less in that sense. The energy and ideas were infectious.

Using Zoom as the collaboration platform, Arora's team helped narrow those hackathon ideas from 168 to 34 ideas. Smaller teams of 3-4 engineers coalesced around these ideas, setting up their own Zoom breakout rooms. But the ideas were narrowed down in a democratic way. Arora: 

It's not like the managers do anything automatically. Through the magic of Zoom, because people are presenting their ideas, everybody's listening.

And all this is happening over Zoom. Think of simulating watercooler chats, day and night collaboration, people working across boundaries across the globe. Location did not matter.

On the fifth working day, the engineering teams presented the ideas they had coded, on Zoom - to the entire company. The winners were chosen, not by product leaders, but by vote. The top ideas were funded, and are now shipping to customers in the product. On April 1, 2020, ThoughtSpot announced their SaaS plans. Eight weeks later, it was ready for beta testing. In September, the SaaS version of ThoughtSpot was generally available. Employees rallied around the deadlines.

All the ideas, when they become product, people get really inspired.

Time for a gut check: I asked Arora if his team had any concerns about Zoom security. Obviously, Zoom has had an intense year when it comes to security scrutiny, with a slew of product improvements and PR issues to address this year. Arora told me: "As far as I can see, the world's biggest companies are using Zoom right now." He said they keep tabs on any unknown phone numbers in their meetings, and ask people to turn their video on. They haven't had any security issues or concerns. 

The wrap - pushing the limits of virtual beats rushed re-openings

I've argued for a while that companies aren't pushing the limits of virtual platforms enough. Perhaps you can't have the same community as everyone-in-the-same-room, but you can push that envelope far more than people think. ThoughtSpot's design example illustrates the point - with five product ideas built and demoed via Zoom calls, shared with customers for input, and delivered as product.

Why wait for an on-the-ground hackathon to be viable, when you can accomplish this much virtually? ThoughtSpot has taken this further, such as: Friday morning yoga and meditation sessions for the entire company, including employees' families. "We wouldn't have thought of doing that before COVID," Arora says. Exactly. Asynchronous communication has its place also. Zoom also has more of that going on that many users realize via universal chat, and, soon, as they've announced, embedded applications called Zapps.

Pushing that virtual possibility beats the heck of out waiting for offices to re-open, or re-opening too soon, and pressuring employees return before they are ready. Instead, we can learn from examples like these, where new ways of working could become permanent fixtures of whatever is next.