Workday's Bhusri on indirect access, AWS, happy customers and next gen finance

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy November 14, 2018
Workday is evolving but founding principles remain intact. Key among those is the notion of hap[py employees and happy customers. We speak with Aneel Bhusri about this and other topics.

Aneel Bhusri - Rising 2018
Meeting with Aneel Bhusri, CEO Workday is always a pleasure. He's not your typical avuncular Silicon Valley CEO but when he speaks it is with an iron certainty and passion that's impossible to ignore.

Our meeting this year at Workday Rising in Vienna was no different at many levels although I sensed a degree of introspection that comes from running a 13-year-old company that is maturing as a cloud HR and finance system of record provider.

Since the company is in quiet period, there were a number of topics that are off limits. Even so, there's always plenty to discuss.

The first thing that always impresses is Bhusri's obsession with happy employees and happy customers. Opening the main day keynote, and running through the obligatory corporate accomplishments, it took less than two minutes for him to get into his mantra of

We believe that happy employees leads to happy customers

In our later meeting, he hammered home the point, taking obvious pride in the much-touted executive customer satisfaction score of 98%.

I'm obsessed with having happy customers but you know there's always going to be that percentage of customers that aren't happy and that can be for a variety of reasons. It's mostly those smaller customers where the Workday fit really wasn't right. Most important, the Fortune 500 companies we work with are resourced for Workday. The smaller companies don't always have the resources and I think it's getting better with the new tooling where we're getting closer to 1:1 on implementation as against the cost of software. We're mostly there but the medium companies that use this approach are not looking to do the highly configured solution that a Bank of America or Morgan Stanley might need.

Workday A-team
Aneel Bhusri, Tom Bogan, Chano Fernandez and Robynne Sisco

Later in the day and as part of Workday's effort to validate its claims, I attended a customer panel session that included relatively new businesses FlixMobility, The Gym Group and Umanis, each with employee numbers ranging from 1,200 to 2,400. Each of those companies reports a good experience with Workday.

While not mentioned directly, I got the sense that the Sacramento payroll project which is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit weighs heavily on his mind as one that 'got away.'

The problem is that there's only one Aneel Bhusri and at the size the company is now at, failing projects that cannot be brought back from the brink are bound to be part of what the company has to manage going forward. That aside, it's hard to find customers who have major concerns and much of the credit here has to come down to the product and the obsession with making customers successful.

During the day I met with a German customer that has experience with both SAP and Workday and I asked why they are so keen on Workday, a relative newcomer in the German market.

Workday is more expensive than SuccessFactors but the user experience and interface wins. Our business is transforming and having that consumer-grade UI on a mobile device helps our very experienced and long-serving staff adapt. It means 'change' becomes 'chance' (opportunity) - very important for us.

That basic UI design decision was taken a long time ago and has gone through several iterations but it was always with the end-user in mind.

But as Workday looks to expand its portfolio, responding to the need for modern analytics and the creation of the accounting center, fresh issues open up. For example, the much vaunted 'Power of One' where everything operates off a single object model and single codeline is much harder to get right when mixing transactional and analytical systems. The complexities involved are made worse when considering the merging of external data sources, subsidiary data from third-party systems into a Workday environment.

Among certain industries, financial services, healthcare for example, there are millions and millions of detailed line items from external systems you'd want to bring in, analyze and report on but also drill back to the source data. We're relying heavily on the Prism technology which we wouldn't have been able to do before. There are several customers that we've committed it to - there are certain market segments where we just have to build it out.

You'll see us build out templates over time, some directly by us and some by our partners who want to establish IP in vertical markets.

That brings up the future potential for indirect access issues as data is passed and processed back and forth with third-party systems. Here I asked Bhusri specifically how Workday plans to address that:

We don't have plans to charge for that but where the customer is using our hardware resources then yes, they'll have to pay for that.

I asked how this might operate, proposing that metering at the API-level is my preferred choice. Bhusri confirmed that is likely to be Workday's preferred route.

The announcement that Workday now offers AWS as a hosting platform in Germany came as something of a surprise. I, along with Chris Pang from Gartner was interested to dig into what this means. In essence, Workday will offer AWS as an alternative in early 2019 with what it expects to be like for like pricing and with none of the complexity that can come from weaving your way through Amazon Web Services price book.

We haven't got all the details worked out but customers won't need separate contracts. We have good long-term arrangements with Amazon which benefits customers. A few German institutions have said they would only consider Amazon if we hosted in a dedicated German data center but you won't, for instance, be able to host in both Germany and the U.S. as that would break the codeline. We have sufficient security permissions to comply with GDPR, that's been available for quite some time. So for European customers, we can host in Ireland, the Netherlands or Germany. Brexit is uncertain and we don't have a data center in the UK but we'll deal with that as we need to.

Workday is no longer the scrappy startup it was when I first met Bhusri. It is maturing rapidly but with an expansive eye to the future. To that extent, Bhusri has made important executive changes in the last couple of years and now has a fully refreshed leadership team. What hasn't changed though are the founding principles upon which the company was built accompanied by a quiet humility that allows him to say with genuine sincerity:

I don't believe I should be out there tooting our own horn. That's for our customers.

And with that - we were done.

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