An interview with Augusto (StrayCat), a Startup Entrepreneur with an interesting technology StraySoft.
Ajay- Describe your career as a BI consultant.
Straycat- I’m an aerospace engineer who had to turn to IT right after graduation because of the Italian aerospace industry crisis in the first half of the 90’s . My first job was by the company now called Accenture, as a simple developer. I was part of a large project for a large US food corporation.
We built an enterprise level reporting and budgeting system based on what was later to become Hyperion. After that I had various experiences, always as an IT professional, always focusing on BI or related subjects. I worked for the Milan Airport Authority, the l’Oreal group and couple of local software houses. Now I’m a project manager by a large Italian consulting firm but, most of all, I’m a bootstrapping entrepreneur.
Ajay- How do you think we can teach BI at an early stage to young students.
Straycat- I think that the main problem resides in the naïve university approach toward business data analysis. Collecting data is considered trivial compared to other related subjects.
Data availability is often given for granted, then equations are written upon them. No use to say it is not trivial at all and there is an entire class of problems which students are not aware of.
A few lessons spent focusing on data quality, aggregations, measure definitions etc are enough to create the necessary awareness of the problem. It’s no longer cool telling to be ignorant on the subject!
Ajay- Describe the most challenging project you ever did. Name a project which led to the biggest dollar impact.
Straycat- About three years ago we signed a contract with a large fashion firm here in Italy to reengineer their entire business intelligence setup. It has been a project ranging from sales to production, from accounting to human resources.
It impacted almost a thousand users in six different time zones. The main challenge we had to tackle was the fragmentation of their legacy BI systems, which produced different jargon and practices across the corporation. We changed the database and the presentation layer, built a modern datawarehouse, and worked relentlessly on change management.
I can’t disclose figures but the new unified system shed light on some bad practices, revealed inefficiencies and provided a whole new set of analytics that increased market awareness.
Ajay- Describe your start-up StraySoft and what it is hoping to accomplish.
StraySoft is a small and fresh startup devoted to build Business Intelligence applications.
It produces Viney@rd an Excel/SQL Server based spreadsheet automation and BI tool.
I have personal reasons for embarking in such a project but the kick off came from a sudden realization. Despite the terrific sophistication level provided by current BI tools, the one thing each and every user wants is to have data in MS Excel.
This is simply a fact, users get data, elaborate them and make Excel reports. It’s not a matter of features, people feel in full control only when they have an Excel file.
Why? Because Excel is able to address a single cell, and the figures within can be adjusted at will and saved in a familiar place like C: .
So, the original idea (2 years and one half ago) was to create a tool to refresh a complex layout without disrupting it i.e. a tool which could address query results into single cells.
This can be done by Excel alone but it’s far too difficult even for and advanced user.
Viney@rd features this but I soon realized that, if I wanted to go down this path, I had to tackle a second issue: the data provided by the systems are never the data required by the user. I’m not talking about bad analysis or wrong KPIs; even if the architects did everything fine, the human brain works according to categories that often are not saved within a database.
Example: you are a salesman and you have 4 customers who make the 75% of your business. Plus you have 40 customers who make the other 25% of your business.
Question: “how many customers do you have?”, reply: “I have 4, customer A,B.C and D. A is bla bla bla, B is bla bla bla, C etc. etc. Oh, by the way I have some others but they are marginal.”
The salesman needs any kind of information about the 4, and just few hints about the rest; every detailed information about the rest is perceived as clutter. He needs a screen with 4 ultra detailed sheets per customer, not a customer ABC report with 44 rows.
So far nothing revolutionary, what is revolutionary is that the user himself must be able to tag the 4 main customers according to his own perception of the customer importance.
If one of the small customers is going to place a large order, than it must become important as well and should immediately take the fifth place, to be automatically demoted when the opportunity expires.
The point is that these rules are defined heuristically by the human brain and have so many exceptions that can be handled only by a human brain. This consideration led to implementing the unique feature of letting the users change their data directly by an Excel table.
The Viney@rd database is easy to be fed by traditional techniques but Excel sheet data can be saved within as well. This gives the best of both worlds, a central repository for “conventional” data, so no more “spreadsheet hell” nightmares, but the ability to classify and adjust the data still working in Excel.
This approach has limits, specifically when we talk about large amounts of data, I’m the first to admit it, but I still think that it’s the one thing that can popularize BI among business users.
When large vendors will embrace this, I’ll remind them this interview! ) Viney@rd now is in its infancy but already implements these two core features.
There are a lot of things to do, and many features to add to take it to a full corporate level, but I enjoy the process so much that I can’t stop working on it!
I’ve been asked “What if I buy from you and you go belly up next year?”. My reply is that you must shoot me to stop me from working on it! I still have a long list of features to implement and I’m not going to dismiss the fun!
For example, did you ever notice that people think naturally in terms of information streams ….?
I’ll consider myself successful when 3 conditions will be met:
a) I’ll have a body of satisfied users which had their working lives improved by my products
b) I’ll make a living out of StraySoft together with the employees, when I’ll have some
c) people will think to me as the Business Intelligence “enfant terrible”.
Ajay- What do you do in your spare time ?
StrayCat- Sorry? What’s spare time? Jokes apart, I devote time to my wife, who’s really supportive in this effort. Late at night, before falling asleep, I’m used to read for half an hour: I’m passionate about history; but the events I really never miss are the Italian National Rugby Union Team matches.
Ajay- why do you tweet using the name Stray Cat ?
Augusto- I named the company StraySoft after the adoption of a stray cat; the full story is told here http://www.straysoft.com/dblog/articolo.asp?id=30.
The twitter name came as natural as naming the company. I know that someone may find it awkward but I feel like going upstream on that! Secondly, I want to keep my consulting activity and StraySoft totally separate for a matter of convenience. I did not, and will never propose my product to my consulting customers.
Ajay- What visible trends in Business Intelligence do you fore see for the next two to three years.
Augusto- The #1 trend is that all the main vendors (excluding Microsoft, which already did) finally realized that there’s a midrange market which needs BI more than ever.
What they’re doing wrong is targeting this segment with the same enterprise class tools which miss the few key features required by this market.
The #2 trend is the rising of workgroup BI and the new dignity given to informal analysis. This is a whole new approach I do not share completely but I admit it has its strengths.
The #3 trend is at the opposite side of the spectrum; unconventional databases (columnar stores, appliances etc.) are becoming increasingly popular to manage very large amounts of data.
There are two fake trends: Clouds and SaaS. They’ll get a share of the market but will not become, in the foreseeable future, the reference architecture. Thank you again for giving me voice. All the best. Augusto Albeghi
Ajay-To know more on Augusto’s startup and Vineyard please see www.straysoft.com