Thinking Radically: Interview with Transpara’s Michael Saucier and Robert Hylton

It appears that many organizations are rapidly adopting mobile business intelligence (BI), and the technology promises to become a natural component of every BI application in the near future. And this has only been made possible by the hard work of number of software companies over the past several years in establishing the foundation, changing mindsets, and applying new mobile-based techniques to the BI space. One such company is Transpara, a provider of a product called Visual KPI, a software application that enables organizations to monitor and manage dashboards, alerts, and analytics using mobile devices. In this interview of the Thinking Radically series, we speak with Michael Saucier, chief executive officer (CEO) of Transpara and Robert Hylton, vice president (VP) of Transpara. Take a minute to read both Mr. Saucier’s and Mr. Hylton’s thoughts on their product Visual KPI in particular and on the mobile BI space in general.



Michael Saucier, Founder & CEO of Transpara

Michael Saucier has 25 years of experience leading enterprise software companies and innovation in the mobility, manufacturing, and utilities industries. Transpara is the third software company he has founded.

Prior to Transpara, Mr. Saucier served as VP of worldwide marketing and business development for OSIsoft, developers of the OSIsoft PI System data historian. In this role, he worked closely with customers—including those in the power generation, T&D, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals markets—and partners around the world. Mr. Saucier received MSc and BSc degrees in chemical engineering and a BSc. degree in chemistry from the University of California, Santa Barbara, graduating with highest honors. He is an acclaimed speaker on strategic business and technology issues, including the value of enterprise mobility and performance management technology in the utility sector, and he has presented at numerous industry events worldwide.


Robert Hylton, VP of Transpara

Robert Hylton has held leadership positions in the technology industry for more than 15 years, and is an expert in international marketing, sales, and business development. Prior to joining Transpara, Mr. Hylton spent 10 years at Microsoft leading product marketing, business development, and global sales teams in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. He was also responsible for Microsoft’s Server & Tools division P&L in Asia, worth more than $650 million across 13 subsidiaries. Prior to joining Microsoft, Mr. Hylton worked with Transpara’s CEO and founder and was responsible for overall marketing with Mr. Saucier’s first two software companies (Sequencia and PID).

Mr. Hylton is the author of Supplier Empowerment – Solutions for Business-to-Business E-Commerce (Microsoft Press - ISBN: 0-7356-1498-9), and has been a featured public speaker at more than 100 events, including presentations with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. Mr. Hylton holds a BSc degree in marketing from Arizona State University.

JG. Could you give us a brief history of Transpara, and particularly of Visual KPI?
RH. Transpara was founded in 2005 after Michael Saucier (the founder) sold a previous company to OSIsoft (makers of the leading real-time data historian called the PI System). After a few years as VP of marketing there, he saw the need to take all of this wonderfully useful data and put it in the hands of more users (beyond just the “data folks”). It was also starting to become clear that people might not be chained to their desks in the near future, and with BlackBerry and Windows Mobile just emerging, the time seemed right.

Our first effort, which quickly became Visual KPI, involved taking OSIsoft PI System data and putting some of it on a BlackBerry. Just accomplishing this simple task was a serious effort back in 2005-2006, but what we learned in the process created some of the most important differentiators of the current product. Many of these decisions were born out of necessity than vision at the time, but they worked. Here are a few examples:

•    There were no apps or “app store” model back then, so the only reasonable way to get data on a phone was via the browser. Because of this, we never built client apps and were never tied to a particular platform (putting us in a great position today). We also got the desktop client and other platforms (tablets, HDTVs, portals, etc.) for free because we had built an intelligent multi-browser app to get to the various mobile devices.

•    The existing desktop tools for working with data would never fit or even display on a 2005-era smartphone, so we focused on the data and not trying to shove an existing app onto a device. This is probably the most important thing we learned and still focus on today—mobile BI is very different from BI on mobile, and for good reason.

•    At the time there was no clear leader in mobile platforms (Blackberry and Windows Mobile were most of the market back then), so we couldn’t really pick one to hang our hat on. We went with a client-agnostic approach which has served us very well and positions us in a great way, particularly considering the constant changes in mobile platforms, speed at which new devices enter the market, business models, etc.

•    Selfishly (at the time), we were tired of some of the baggage that enterprise software came with (long sales cycles, big projects, herds of consultants, lots of traveling, etc.) and excited about Web services and Web applications, so we created Visual KPI in a way that eliminates as much of that as possible. Again, we originally did this for us, but these constraints turned out to be great for customers as well, because it forced us to think differently. We focused on letting people leave their data where they want (even multiple places) so that we didn’t have to deploy a giant, heavy master data source and ask people to move their data into “our thing.” We created an enterprise product that uses an Excel-based tool for deployment and one that we can use with customers over the Web, and in fact we rarely need to visit our customers, which are located all over the world. Over the years, we have gotten good enough at deployment that we can get a customer up and running in less than a few hours, so we now include basic deployment at no cost and even can let customers try the full application with their own data for free. It has become the best of both worlds—the performance, security, and sophistication of enterprise-class on-premise (or cloud) server software with the speed, ease, and business model of a Web 2.0 service like Internally, it means we can deliver better software and support with a smaller team.

Visual KPI is now a significantly more modern piece of software that takes advantage of the latest technologies and devices (iPhone/iPad, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Android, PC/Mac browsers, and more), but it is still focused on the same simple objectives we started out with. While there is endless work to do to make it better, our biggest challenge is to keep our priorities as simple as they have been all along.

JG. In your viewpoint, what are Visual KPI’s most important differentiators compared with other mobile BI solutions?
MS. There are a few, but we will try to keep it brief:

•    Visual KPI is not a new master source of data—we encourage our customers to keep their data where it makes the most sense for them, and let Visual KPI make it more useful from there. This is also a critical way we eliminate the need for a big, ugly IT project.

•    Visual KPI is focused on data that is “made for mobile,” such as real-time, fast-moving, location-specific operations data. This is not a traditional BI application with heavy analytics and hundreds of screens shoved onto a mobile device. It delivers clear information in context to decision makers so they can act.

•    Visual KPI is a browser-based Web app (that supports all major device platforms). No software lives on the device, which not only makes it more secure, but also allows us to focus most of our resources on improving functionality instead of compatibility (e.g., chasing all of the devices makers and app stores). Because of this, we support all major smartphones, tablets, PC/Mac browsers, portals, and other Web-connected devices that people are inventing right now in their garage.

•    Alerting. In addition to great data, a true mobile application needs to alert decision makers when things go wrong (or right) so they don’t need to be watching at all times. Visual KPI Alerts also provide contextual information and links directly to a real-time trend, showing when the event occurred and what has happened since.

•    No big project. Because Visual KPI is entirely data-driven and our deployment/configuration tool is based on Microsoft Excel (zero code), we can deploy Visual KPI on real data and devices for a customer via the Web and in less than a day.

•    Security. Visual KPI was designed to be secure from the beginning. It is a Web app so almost no data lives on the client site; all transmission can be encrypted; it has multiple industry-standard authentication methods and full Active Directory integration; clients never access data sources directly; and it is BlackBerry Enterprise Server/Mobile Data System (BES/MDS) friendly. Sharing is built-in throughout the application, but is all done through links that contain no data. If users aren’t authenticated, the links are useless.

JG. How does a mobile BI solution impact the way organizations are currently interacting with BI?
RH. Mobile BI is impacting how users interact with BI (and data in general) in many ways:

•    Self-service. Rather than asking the “data people” for a report or for some analysis, users can get the answers they need to do their job quickly, easily, and from anywhere. It’s self-service BI from any device. Only deep analysis or custom reporting requires the core BI experts, which frees them up to make sure the data quality and offerings are even better for the users.

•    More operational versus future. People use their mobile devices for very specific purposes, and there is a reason—e-mail, Twitter, Foursquare, and Google maps are more popular on mobile compared to editing spreadsheets or creating long documents. The successful mobile apps all deal with the “here and now.” Translating this to BI, it means that operational and fast-changing data is key for mobile, while deep analysis and sophisticated future planning are best left on the desktop.

JG. Are mobile BI solutions really speeding and improving the decision making process? If so, in which way?
MS. Absolutely. We have several case studies that highlight this, and the one that comes to mind is Mohawk Fine Papers. They are constantly dealing with custom orders across 35,000 products involving real-time inventory turn and other issues they battle. Previously, they had people running to PCs when they physically noticed an issue (such as an inventory backlog somewhere in the facility). Now they see these issues from wherever they are and before it becomes an issue they would notice physically. This is one of many examples.

This is also amplified with scenarios where remote workers are involved. We serve electric utilities with hundreds of users in trucks that all have access to what they need, and wind farm operators that can turn turbines on or off without “calling home” for more data. It really is changing the way operations happen in several industries.

JG. Do you think going mobile in BI helps to extend BI use within an organization?
RH. Yes! Because of this self-service trend more people have access to data. BI and the rights to core data was formerly the domain of a very few, but mobile BI has allowed smart companies to put data in the hands of everyone, from the CEO to field personnel to even third-party partners. Whoever can use simple, timely data to do their job better is a candidate, and with an ever-growing population of smart device users this is set to explode as companies “get it.”

JG. What does an organization have to consider in a mobile BI solution before taking the step to deploy one?
MS. This is something we spend most of our time on with customers. It turns out the software is the easy part. The parts that require more thought concern these questions:

a)    What do you want to track (and where does that data live)?

b)    How do you want your data organized (geographic, departmental, political, something else)? and

c)    Whom do you want to give access to initially?

Security is another big consideration, but in most cases we inherit existing security requirements of the customer’s IT environment and with any luck, they have already made most of the security decisions before we come along (for e-mail and other access).

JG. Ten years ago, did you imagine BI would be where it is right now? What do you consider as the major advances?
MS. We are less surprised by how far it has come and more surprised by how complicated it still is. It took us years just to keep things simple enough that we could offer customers a free trial using their own data—which is crazy! After all of the amazing advancement we have seen, most BI implementations still require months and a huge investment on the part of the customer. Also, I think the press and excitement about the cloud is great. We have yet to see our customers start putting their sensitive data or spending real dollars on it, but the interest is there. If the world will get to that point, I’ll bet we can get our deployment down to just minutes if someone knows what they want to track. This would be a huge win for us, but we have yet to see material action from most of our customers on that front.

JG. Do you think there are one or more industries that have particularly benefited from (or been impacted by) mobile BI solutions?
RH. We have a fairly industrial customer base (energy/utilities, oil & gas, alternative energy, data centers, etc.), and these industries have all seen a big improvement in their ability to operate and to keep the trains moving so to speak. These companies already rely on operational execution more than most, but the big change we see is that ALL industries are jumping on the operational excellence bandwagon because they see how important it is (and because many are losing some of their other ways of differentiating themselves, such as marketing). The top companies in the world right now are amazing operating companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, etc., and all of them are better than their peers at both operations and at using data to their advantage.

JG. Besides mobile, which other events do you think have radically changed the BI space?
MS. The easy answer here is the cloud, improved user interface/visualization technologies for the Web, and some excellent technologies that no one could have dreamed of a couple of years ago. For example, we now offer GIS/geo-location of KPIs with mapping right on the mobile device at no additional cost, which is all possible through embedding Google maps.

The other critical movement comes from consumer Web services along with the iPhone/iPad and that is that simplicity and good looks matter. It is no longer acceptable to throw hundreds of numbers on a screen with tons of charts. Things need to make sense and they need to do their job for the user. In our case, we have to deliver the key information for making quick decisions graphically, in context, and at the right time. Anything more or less destroys the usefulness of it.

JG. With all these new advances in the BI space, what changes need to take place in the chief information officer’s (CIO’s) mindset to make the best possible use of new BI solutions?
RH. The biggest change we hope to see going forward is the mindset of “BI requires months and millions of dollars.” Most companies have great data that is ready to use today. It may be in multiple systems and not perfect, but the holy grail of perfect data in one system has only been seen in one place—demos from software companies. The CIOs we see that are the most successful today are the ones putting whatever they have to use immediately and making improvements along the way. Quick, small wins that keep them moving forward (and as a bonus, mobile BI helps them highlight what needs fixing much faster than the big project does).

JG. What is your favorite electronic gadget?
MS. My Sonos system! Love it!

RH. The iPhone is easily my favorite and least favorite gadget.

JG. What is was your favorite cartoon or science fiction character?
RH. Ralph Wiggum (Simpsons). “What, me fail English? That’s unpossible.”

MS. Peter Griffin (Family Guy) with a thousand gems like this:

Peter: Are you gonna eat that stapler?

TV Executive: You . . . can't eat a stapler.

Peter: Wanna split it?

JG. What is your favorite book?
RH. Hmm. Tie between “I am Ozzy” (humor) and “The Big Short” (business and action adventure combined)

MS. “Foucault’s Pendulum” by Umberto Eco. Later this book was plagiarized by Dan Brown, who called it “The Da Vinci Code” after his book with the title “Foucault’s Pendulum for Dummies” was rejected.
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