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Sage Summit 2014

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Introduction

I’m just back from Sage Summit 2014 which was held at the Mandalay Bay Resort/Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. There were over 5200 attendees at the show, a new record for Sage. The Mandalay Bay is a huge complex and I racked up a record number of steps for GCC getting from one place to another. Las Vegas is easy to get to for most people since there are a lot of direct flights from around North America and you can find really cheap hotel accommodation near to the conference (like $29 at the Excalibur which is connected to Mandalay Bay by a free tram). The only down side to having he conference in Vegas is that smoking is still allowed in many public places, which is really annoying.

The conference had a great many guest speakers including quite a few celebrities like Magic Johnson and Jessica Alba. The convention trade show wasn’t just booths, there were also open speaking theatres that always had something interesting going on as well as the Sage Innovation Lab Exhibit.

There were a great many product breakout sessions as well as a large number of breakout sessions on general business and technology topics. The intent was to make Sage Summit a place to come to for a lot more than just learning new technical details about your Sage product, or promoting new add-ons for you to purchase. A lot of customers attending the show told me that it was these general sessions on accounting, marketing and technology that they found the most useful.

The show was huge and this blog post just covers a few areas that I was directly involved in or attended.

Great General Sessions

Besides the mandatory Sage keynotes, there were quite a few general sessions which were quite amazing. My favorite was Brad Smith’s interview with Biz Stone the co-founder of Twitter and Jelly. Biz certainly provides a lot of interesting context to Web startups, as well as a lot of interesting stories of why he left Google and chose the path he chose. It was certainly interesting in the way a lot of the successful founders left very secure lucrative careers to really struggle for years to get their dreams off the ground. A common theme was the need for persistence so you could survive long enough to eventually get that big break. Another common theme was to follow people and ideas rather than companies and money. Now I’m going to have to read Biz’s book: “Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind”.

bizstone

Another very popular session was the panel discussion with Magic Johnson, CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, Jessica Alba, co-founder of the Honest Company and J. Carrey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Solutions. This discussion concentrated on their current businesses and didn’t delve into their celebrity pasts for which at least two panelists are rather well known for. There were a lot of good business tips given and it was interesting to see how Magic Johnson and Jessica Alba have adapted what they did before to becoming quite successful CEOs.

magicalba

Sage’s Technology Vision

A lot of Sage’s technology and product presentations were about our mobile and cloud technology vision. The theme was to aggressively move into these areas with purposeful innovation that still protect the investment that our customers have in our current technologies. At the heart of this vision is the Sage Data Cloud. This acts as a hub which mobile solutions can connect to as well as a way that data can be accessed in our existing products whether in the cloud or installed on premise. Below is the architectural block diagram showing the main components of this.

sagetech2

This is perhaps a bit theoretical, but we already have products in the market that are filling in key components of this vision. Some of these are included in the next diagram.

sagetech1

We use the term “hybrid cloud” quite a bit, this indicates that you can have some of your data on premise and some of your data in the cloud. There are quite a few use cases that people desire. Not everyone is sold with trusting all their data to a cloud vendor for safe keeping. In some industries and countries there are tight regulatory controls on where your data can legally be located. The Hybrid Cloud box in the diagram includes Sage 50 ERP (US and Canadian), Sage 100 ERP and Sage 300 ERP.

To effectively operate mobile and web solutions, you do need to have your data available 24×7 with a very high degree of uptime and a very high degree of security. Most small or mid-sized business customers cannot afford sufficient IT resources to maintain this for their own data center. One solution to this problem is to synchronize a subset of your on premise ERP/CRM data to the Sage Data Cloud and then have your mobile solutions accessing this. Then it becomes Sage’s responsibility to maintain the uptime, 24×7 support and apply all the necessary security procedures to keep the data safe.

Another attraction for ISVs is integrate their product to the Sage Data Cloud and then let the Sage Data Cloud handle all the details of integrating to the many Sage ERP products. This way they only need to write one integration rather than separate integrations for Sage 50 ERP, Sage 100 ERP, Sage 300 ERP, Sage 300 CRE, etc.

We had a lot of coverage of the Sage 300 Online offering which has been live for a while now. This was introduced last Summit and now offers Sage 300 ERP customers the choice of installing on premise or running in the Azure cloud. Running in the cloud saves you having to back up your data, perform updates or maintain servers or operating systems. This way you can just run Sage 300 and let Sage handle the details. Of course you can get a copy of your data anytime you want and even move between on premise and the cloud.

The Sage Innovation Lab

On the trade show we had a special section for the Sage Innovation Lab. Here you could play with Google Glasses, Pebble Watches, 3D Printers and all sorts of neat toys to see some prototypes and experiments that Sage is working on with these. We don’t know if these will all be productized, but it’s cool to get a feel for how the future might begin to look like.

Summary

This really was Sage Summit re-imagined. There were a great many sessions, keynotes and demonstrations on all sorts of topics of interest to businesses. This should be taken even further for next year’s Sage Summit which will be in New Orleans, LA on July 27-30, 2015. Does anyone else remember all those great CA-World’s in New Orleans back in the 90s?

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Written by smist08

August 2, 2014 at 8:07 pm

Unstructured Time at Sage

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Introduction

Unstructured time is becoming a common way to stimulate innovation and creativity in organizations. Basically you give employees a number of hours each week to work on any project they like. They do need to make a proposal and at the end give a demo of working software. The idea is to work on projects that developers feel are important and are passionate about, but perhaps the business in general doesn’t think is worthwhile, too risky or has as a very low priority. Companies like Google and Intuit have been very successful at implementing this and getting quite good results.

dilbert-google-20time

Unstructured Time at Sage

The Sage Construction and Real Estate (CRE) development team at Sage has been using unstructured time for a while now. They have had quite a lot of participation and it has led to products like a time and expense iPhone application. Now we are rolling out unstructured time to other Sage R&D centers including ours, here in Richmond, BC.

At this point we are starting out slowly with 4 hours of unstructured time a sprint (every two weeks). Anyone using this needs to submit a project proposal and then do a demo of working code when they judge it’s advanced enough. The proposals can be pretty much anything vaguely related to business applications.

The goal is for people to work on things they are passionate about. To get a chance to play with new bleeding edge technologies before anyone else. To develop that function, program or feature that they’ve always thought would be great, but the business has always ignored. I’m really looking forward to what the team will come up with.

so-many-toys-so-little-unstructured-time-new-yorker-cartoon

We are still doing Hackathons, Ideajams and our regular innovation process. This is just another initiative to further drive innovation at Sage.

Crazy Projects at Google

Our unstructured time needs to be used for business applications, but I wonder what unstructured time is like at Google where they seem to come up with things that have nothing to do with search or advertising. Is it Google’s unstructured time that leads to self-driving cars, Google Glasses, military robots, human brain simulations or any of their many green projects. Hopefully these get turned into good things and aren’t just Google trying to create SkyNet for real. Maybe we’ll let our unstructured time go crazy as well?

Anathem

I’m a big fan of Neal Stephenson, and recently read his novel Anathem. Neal’s novels can be a bit off-putting since they are typically 1000 pages long, but I really enjoy them. One of the themes in Anathem are monasteries occupied by mathematicians that are divided up into groups by how often they report their results to the outside world. The lower order reports every year, next is a group that reports every ten years, then a group that reports every 100 years and finally the highest group that only reports every 1000 years. These groups don’t interact with anyone outside their order except for the week when they report and exchange information/literature with the outside world. This is in contrast to how we operate today where we are driven by “internet time” and have to produce results quickly and ignore anything that can’t be done quickly.

So imagine you could go away for a year to work on a project, or go away for ten years to work on something. Perhaps going away for 100 years or 1000 years might pose some other problems that the monks in the novel had to solve. The point being is to imagine what you could accomplish if you had that long? Would you use different research approaches and methods than we use typically today? Certainly an intriguing prospect contrasting where we currently need to produce something every few months.

My Project

So why am I talking about Anathem and unstructured time together? Well one problem we have is how do you get started on big projects with lots of risk? Suppose you know we need to do something, but doing it is hard and time consuming? Every journey has to start with the first step, but sometimes making that first step can be quite difficult. I’ve had the luxury of being able to do unstructured time for some time, because I’m a software architect and not embedded in an agile sprint team. So I see technologies that we need to adopt but they are large and won’t be on Product Manager’s road maps.

So I’ve done simple POC’s in the past like producing a mobile app using Argos. But more recently I embarked on producing a 64-Bit version of Sage 300. This worked out quite well and wasn’t too hard to get going. But then I got ambitious and decided to add Unicode into the mix. This is proving more difficult, but is progressing. The difficulty with these projects is that they involve changing a large amount of the existing code base and estimating how much work they are is very difficult. As I get a Unicode G/L going, it becomes easier to estimate, but I couldn’t have taken the first step on the project without using unstructured time.

Part of the problem is that we expect our Agile teams to accurately estimate their work and then rate them on how well they do this (that they are accountable for their estimates). This has the side effect that they are then very resistant to work on things that are open ended or hard to estimate. Generally for innovation to take hold, the performance management system needs a bit of tweaking to encourage innovation and higher risk tasks, rather than only encouraging meeting commitments and making good estimates.

Now unlike Anathem, I’m not going to get 100 years to do this or even 10 years. But 1 year doesn’t seem so bad.

Summary

Now that we are adding unstructured time to our arsenal of innovation initiatives, I have high hopes that we will see all sorts of innovative new products, technologies and services emerge out of the end. Of course we are just starting this process, so it will take a little while for things to get built.

Our Sage R&D Leadership Conference at Newport Beach

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Introduction

This past week I had the privilege of attending a Sage Leadership conference that was put on for about 40 of the key Sage North American R&D Leaders. It was held over two days at the Newport Beach Hyatt Hotel. Newport Beach is a beautiful spot with Balboa Island and Back Bay in easy walking distance along with a number of good restaurants. The intent of the conference was to give people a chance to get away from the daily grind of problem solving and routine management to really concentrate on leadership. This is very important at Sage right now as the company is going through a large number of changes to adapt to the fast changing technology/societal landscape that we are now living in.

We had an artist drawing visually what we were doing, so in this blog posting I’ve added a few of her drawings on the relevant topics. They are really quite good and much better than getting an e-mail of PowerPoint presentations.

Sage Vision

The conference got off to a rocky start when the group was asked to stand if you could recite the Sage Vision statement and only a couple of people on the executive committee stood. This then led into a discussion about the Sage brand and the Sage Vision.

Just to be clear, the Sage brand isn’t just the Sage logo and the Sage Vision isn’t just some feel good marketing text that we put under the logo on our brochures. These aren’t about marketing at all, they are about defining the company that we want to become. The Sage Vision statement is:

To be recognized as the most valuable supporter of small and medium sized companies by creating greater freedom for them to succeed.

We then spent time breaking apart and analyzing this statement and then ensuring that what we are working on today aligns with this vision. Some of the key parts of this statement are that we will be recognized, that we do provide value in everything we do, it defines our market segment and defines our goal. We want to give our customers freedom from dealing with accounting matters so that they can concentrate on their real business whatever that may be.

p6

Leadership

After fully drinking the vision cool-aide, we then went about discussing and talking about leadership. A lot of this revolved around being a confident leader. In our ability to inspire our co-workers and to get all the cats moving in the same direction.

We discussed leadership attributes that we at Sage do well, but more importantly we spent more time discussing the leadership attributes that we are lacking and how to develop these.

The diagram then gives a good representation of what was discussed:

p5

Customer Connectedness

Rather than doing a Clint Eastwood and having the customer represented by an empty chair, we actually invited a couple of customers to kick off the second day. We started with a question and answer session to learn about their businesses, to learn about the problems that they are having, about what is working well. Not just for their ERP system but for their whole business in all its aspects.

p2

We were asked to take notes and then when the Q&A was over, the second part was to have our own Shark Tank show. Each table became a team (about five people each) and had 45 minutes to come up with a product idea to pitch to the sharks which in this case were our two visiting customers. They then judged the ideas and awarded a bottle of monopoly money to the team that they wanted to invest in.

This exercise was a lot of fun and was a good exercise of the creative juices. The winning ideas are then going to be fed into our innovation process to see if other customers also think they are good ideas.

It was interesting to watch, since this was entirely developers, that they fell into the same traps that we usually blame Product Management for, namely answering “yes it can” to every question and under pressure on pricing to keep lowing it until it’s a free service.

Innovation

A primary goal of the conference was to foster more innovation in everything we do. One fun exercise was to have all the tables go off into their own groups and put together a play or skit on a day in the life of someone using technology ten years into the future. I blogged on my vision of ERP in 2020 a couple of years ago here. Certainly my vision of ten years into the future was way more conservative than anything envisioned here. Center stage went to voice interaction and general direct input into the brain. In a way projected where technologies like Siri and Google Now along with Google Glasses will be in ten years.

The key theme is that no one will be keying in ERP transactions anymore. You will just do business by chatting and gesturing, sign contracts by shaking hands and all the debits and credits will happen magically (via technology) in the background.

Summary

The conference was a great deal of fun and highly successful. It was good to meet a number of people I’ve only dealt with via e-mail in person finally, as well as a number of people I didn’t know at all. It was good to ensure we are all aligned and working to the same vision and that we are all innovating together toward a common goal of really providing that freedom for our customers to succeed. But more importantly there are a number of things for me to start doing immediately on returning to the office.

Newport_Beach

Written by smist08

March 2, 2013 at 3:35 am

Sage Innovation Process

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Introduction

Sage is always redefining and working to improve its software development methodologies. We’ve transitioned from using Waterfall to using Agile development. We’ve incorporated User Centered Design into all our development. We’ve spend much more time having everyone in the organization connecting and talking to customers. We bring customers into our offices for “coffee with the customer” chats, where the whole development organization can hear what is working well and what is causing our customers pain.

We are now endeavoring to transition our development process to be more upfront User Centered Design and to introduce much more creativity into our processes. To some degree having creativity and processes in the same sentence sounds contradictory; however, we do need to have organized creativity that results ultimately in shipping software. The goal is still shipping software and not producing PowerPoint’s. What we want to do is ship software that aligns very closely with what customers require and which delights users in how appealing, friendly and easy to use it is.

What we are really trying to avoid is:

http://www.dilbert.com/2012-05-07/

which unfortunately happens in far too many products.

Generating Ideas

We started this process with a number of “idea jams”. We ran these as all day events at our various development center campuses. We picked half a dozen product categories, like manufacturing, and created a team for each one of these. Participants then volunteered for a team. The team then had the day to generate ideas (usually 100) then narrow them down to the top three and prepare a business case for their ideas. These were then presented to the whole group with some very original and animated presentations. Then everyone voted on which they felt were the best.

We don’t only take ideas from our idea jams, but also from customer feedback, competitive analysis, disruptive new technologies, business partners, development partners and any other source we can think of.

So out of these processes we accumulated hundreds of great ideas. Now what?

Narrowing Our Focus

Now we want to pick the best ideas to actually implement. So how do we pick and choose? As a first pass, the Product Management teams picked the twenty or so best ideas.

For the second pass we set up interviews with the CEOs of companies (generally of companies that already run our products). We hold these interviews as Webinars and generally for each interview run three ideas past the CEO using artist’s conceptions, mock-ups and verbal descriptions. Basically we want ideas that will excite the CEO of a company. After all the CEO has the ultimate buying power and if the CEO wants our product then we have the best chance of successfully selling to that company.

As you can imagine, getting an hour of a CEOs time for this sort of interview, can be quite difficult. CEOs are very busy and often barraged by huge amounts of sales pitches and spam on a regular basis.

Call to Action: If you are a CEO or know a CEO who might be interested in these sort of interviews, please contact me, by e-mailing me at Stephen.Smith@sage.com.

The following diagram shows this narrowing down process. We are now moving a number of ideas into the “Experience Testing” phase. Where we really want to focus on the overall experience to ensure we are delivering great business value to our customers in a very pleasing package.

Overall Process

All this initial idea generation, customer validation and experience design then become the first steps in an overall Software Development Process as shown in the next diagram.

This diagram emphasizes the initial phases, so the usual Agile Product Development then is the black box between “Experience Testing” and “Early Adopters”. However with modern development techniques all the boundaries in the diagram are very blurry and there is quite a bit of iterative improvement in each phase.

Basically we want to keep getting continuous customer feedback through the whole process. We never really know how well something will be received until the customer is running the real product on real production data in their real environment. We need to get to that phase as quickly as possible. Development needs to be oriented to delivering a minimum viable product as quickly as possible to get it to the early adopters. This then leads to real feedback and to the all-important “persevere or pivot” decisions that need to be made in any innovation process.

In any iterative process with lots of feedback, it’s very important that we achieve lots of “validated learning”. Where all the truths from all this feedback are documented and incorporated going forwards. So we keep moving forwards and don’t just iterate in circles. The Lean Startup people have very good processes for doing this, so you really do learn from your mistakes and don’t just keep repeating them.

Summary

The goal of this initiative is to make Sage’s product development process more innovative and creative. To incorporate much more structured design into all aspects of development. To really encourage far more stakeholder involvement in all parts of the software development process. To really get and incorporate feedback as validated learning’s that greatly enhance our products.

And remember anyone that is or knows a CEO that might like to participate in our concept testing, please let me know.

Written by smist08

May 12, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Sage ERP Labs

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The pace of technological change seems to really be accelerating these days. Here at Sage we want to ensure our products can utilize or integrate to all these new advances. We want to ensure we are ready for any new disruptive technologies that come along.

Product Management normally gathers features by studying the market, by talking to customers, evaluating the competition and generally learning what the market is asking for. This works well for adding business functionality and accounting features, but it tends to not work so well for predicting the impact of disruptive technologies. This is because most of the market isn’t aware of what is coming and describing it can be quite difficult.

What we need is a method to present disruptive technologies to the market in a manner that is understood in the context of their ERP and CRM business applications. Many times, these days, new technologies are presented in how they can benefit say Facebook users, but then it isn’t clear how these ideas can apply to the Enterprise.

Sage ERP Labs is an initiative of the Sage North America Mid-Market ERP (MME) group to provide framework for doing this. We are providing a forum for gathering and sharing ideas, and then a framework for developing Proof of Concept (POC) demos that can be used to evangelize and showcase new technologies in an Enterprise framework. These POCs will be developed across all our products including Sage ERP Accpac, Sage ERP MAS 90 and Sage ERP MAS 500. We will also be considering ideas around our connected services initiative.

We will then take these POC’s and present them to customers, staff, and analysts to get an idea from the market whether we should then add these to our release roadmap to productize and include in a future release. The goal is to start a conversation with our various stakeholders on how these often esoteric ideas can benefit them. Often the initial ideas won’t work directly, but with some work and lots of feedback can be translated into truly innovative features with real ROI.

To some degree this has been going on already informally in people’s spare time (see the examples below). What we want to do is to nurture this innovation and be able to allocate people’s time to develop these ideas. Basically to become much more enterprising in our endeavors. To make innovation become much more a part of our Normal Operating Rhythm (NOR).

Examples

The official Sage ERP Labs initiative is new, but it sprang out of a few POC’s that we did over the last year around Sage ERP Accpac 6.0A.

Accpac Mobile

We created an Accpac Mobile POC which I blogged on here. This was to showcase that the GWT based HTML5/JavaScript/SData technology being used to develop the new Accpac Web based User Interfaces could run on mobile devices as well as on Desktop Computers. Demoing some basic ideas now lets us go out into the market and get feedback on what features various people in the Enterprise need to access from their ERP via mobile devices. We can talk to CFOs and show them a few ideas to get their creative juices flowing and then discuss the types of data they would like to receive this way, or what they would like to enter for mobile devices.

Social Media

Social Media is a huge topic these days. So much marketing and corporate customer connectedness is happening via Facebook, LinkedIn, Quora and Twitter. Companies are asking how they can leverage that from their ERP. What does that mean? We created an integration to the Accpac 6 Portal which I blogged on here. This was just done via customization, so people can use this now if they wish. But the main point was to provide some context to start a conversation on what people really want. It’s easy to just add a feature to satisfy a feature sheet check box, but to provide real value takes a deep understanding of people’s problems and how to solve them in a real and meaningful way. So this is just a starting point, and then as we add Social Media to the core product going forwards it should be a much more integrated, holistic and valuable feature, than just adding some links and connections to random web sites.

Eclipse Plug-In

These innovations don’t need to just target end users. They can also target the developer community. Sage ERP MAS 90 has a plug-in for doing ProvideX development in the Eclipse IDE. Originally for Accpac 6 development you did your coding inside Eclipse, but then a number of other activities in other tools like our screen designer in IE. So why not take the expertise we had from creating the MAS 90 Eclipse plug-in and create an Eclipse plug-in for Accpac? Which was done as a POC and is now part of the standard SDK and blogged on here.

Summary

We are currently in an idea generation phase, once we have a good selection of ideas, we will select the best ones to proceed to POC stage. Once we have the POC Demos, we will begin socializing these to get feedback on what really needs to be done (or not done) and then hopefully start including these innovative ideas as real useful features in our core products.

If you see one of these demos, please provide some feedback. You can have a real impact on future releases and a say in the direction.

This initiative has been rolled out to members of our R&D team but if you have an idea, feel free to e-mail me at Stephen.Smith@sage.com and I can enter it into the system.

Written by smist08

February 26, 2011 at 5:59 pm