UiPath CEO pitches Robotic Process Automation as a worker’s new best friend - do we believe him?

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood May 21, 2020
Summary:
A crazy valuation, a billion dollars in venture capital funding, yet a cull of 12% of the workforce. We discuss the rise and role of robotic process automation in the enterprise with UiPath CEO.

Image of a robot

Is the world ready for not just automation, but ‘hyper automation'? Does every person in the world really need their own ‘robot'?

Welcome, even in these peculiar times, to the optimistic world of enterprise Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software company UiPath. As is beyond cliche, it's a company famously riding what Gartner said (last year, at least) is the fastest-growing segment of the global enterprise software market, and of which as of June 2019 it was the leader in, too, with 14% market share.

UiPath's pitch is that of hyper automation, which it describes as ‘automation to the masses by enabling employees to both engage in the automation process and benefit from working alongside robots every day' - in other words, its cloud delivered automation bots aim to replace people doing repetitive workflows with non-wage demanding lines of code.

The company gave diginomica an example of an (unnamed) professional services firm, which "upskilled" its 55,000+ employees with its offering so as to enable its employees to "deliver world-class insights to their clients".

This happened, we're told, by inviting employees closest to the processes to build their own automation, a step that saw several million staff-hours saved and promised annual savings of more than half a billion dollars, too. That's just under what the company has raised in VC money in 2019 alone, while it's also a pure Unicorn at $7bn ‘valuation'.

It's all heady stuff, and it's always worth remembering UiPath is only eight years old and did not benefit from being founded in the cash rich VC capital of Silicon Valley, but instead has more modest roots in Eastern Europe. But late last year, some of the chrome fell off when the company was forced to announce "strategic" headcount cuts of over 13% of its 3,200 payroll - a move its rivals were quick to say reflected deeper problems with the golden RPA promise.

We decided to push the company's CEO and Co-founder, Romanian-born Daniel Dines, about the cuts and if there might be reasonable questions to be asked about his firm's unstoppable rise. And this is what he said:

Given the acceleration of the market, the business had grown at unprecedented rates in the two years before. It was natural that we evaluated our teams and the spread of our resources.

Make of that what you will. For Dines, then, all's more than well reflective, indeed, of the epiphany he had when he managed to exit his native country (Romania) and get a proper baptism in American-style hypercapitalism (and at one of its most successful practitioners):

As a teenager in the early years after the totalitarian system collapsed, I always dreamed of being an entrepreneur and making it on my own. Many trials and errors in this area while I was a student-you can say I have always had the ‘independence bug‘-but I ultimately joined Microsoft. The years I spent in Seattle were very formative and fundamental for who I am today; they helped me to see the world of opportunities that were out there, and shaped me to always think globally.

I returned to Romania to start my own business, and to say that things were tough is an understatement. I went through all the phases of entrepreneurship, from getting drunk on my own success to struggling to pay salaries. But I learnt that in order to succeed you must keep trying, stay humble, accept you don't know it all and have a laser focus on the customer and their success. So I'm enjoying this exhilarating ride that UiPath is on while trying to stay true to our initial principles-offer the best technology possible, be customer-centric, fail fast then get back on our feet.

Raising concerns

Which is a perfect business philosophy. But whilst Dine proposes that RPA removes the mundane tasks from work, does that not conclude that many people will get replaced by said robots?

We raised this issue, citing much recent discussion that RPA projects aren't really scaling and that it's actually a lot harder than the propaganda suggests to identify and scope out what workflows really are best for automation. Dines would have none of it:

Business leaders everywhere are augmenting their workforces with software robots, and they're seeing the benefits almost immediately. They are creating millions of hours of digital capacity, driving fast productivity gains for every employee, and delivering much improved customer experiences. We estimate that for $1 invested in UiPath, our customers can return $15 or more in their first year. And with hyper automation, we're making it easy for more people across the enterprise to interact with robots, like business analysts.

Adding process and task mining, creating the Automation Hub open to contribution from all layers and departments in a company, launching StudioX democratising task automation for non-technical individuals… all these contribute to a real ‘automation first' era that will allow us to see deployments at scale everywhere. While no new technology comes without some disruption, people embrace RPA because it removes the boring, tedious parts of our jobs, the ones that we all dread. It helps us become more productive.

Drawing on the current global health pandemic, Dine also argues that COVID-19 will be a catalyst for increased use of ‘bots' and automation. He said:

If the global health crisis shows our industry something, it's that now is the time to automate. Of course, some of our customers are affected more than others, and we are by their side. We recently introduced software robots to automate the processing of test results reporting to patients in Dublin; this frees up more than 3 hours each day for the medical staff so they can focus on their work with patients, instead of handling computer programs.

We are also supporting customers in the aviation industry who had to cope with thousands of flight cancelations and the management of their customers, from retail who have seen supply chain disturbances or unexpected demand spikes overnight, from the medical gear industry, to name but a few. We are also donating free licenses and pro bono technical support to health care and public sector organisations taking the brunt of the crisis dealing with patients, or providing social support to citizens in need.

My Take

UiPath seems to be on the crest of a very successful wave, and its use cases do seem convincing. It is also very possible that our Pandemic-enforced surge in digital transformation will find it being turned to by many brands looking to find the right efficiencies and task redesign to enable them to survive the COVID Depression. But is this a message more for unsympathetic cost-cutters and 1%-ers not we mere hewers of wood and drawers of water? Personally, I'm still wary of a company that wants to give me a robot to make friends with it… I'm not entirely convinced he doesn't want the robot to just do what I do. Cheaper. And sooner.

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