Line-of-business: Software for the people

George Mathew, President and COO of Alteryx offers his personal experience on the generational shift in software development

This is a contributed piece by George Mathew, President and COO of Alteryx


Should today’s leaders have worked at yesterday’s great software companies in order to create tomorrow’s software? I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, but it certainly helps. That understanding gives incredible perspective on what works, what doesn’t, and what should be the future of software. At least for me, it provided profound lessons in both success and failure to scale future endeavors forward.

Prior to joining Alteryx in 2011, I worked at two of the world’s greatest software companies, first at Salesforce, then at SAP. Both are now incredibly large organizations, to be sure. That size and scale is enormously helpful for anyone seeking to understand how enterprise software really works. For me, it provided a series of feedback loops (and safety nets) that enabled me to learn, push the envelope, make mistakes, find successes, and repeat.

And if you’re lucky enough to be at a technology company during its period of rapid growth, this feedback loop only accelerates. In my three years at Salesforce, the company grew from 300 employees to 1,600. There is no way to experience that kind of hyper-growth other than to be in one of those rocket ships. Every day was a new challenge, every quarter had a new milestone, and every year involved a new job!

When you’re working inside a hyper-growth rocket ship, all your critical skills sharpen at an accelerated pace. At Salesforce, I learned that it was essential to deliberately make decisions while staying intensely focused on driving outcomes to completion.  It was instilled in everyone who was at Salesforce back then to have both a clear strategy and a firm execution plan. I see plenty of founders today go ahead and fire, thinking they can aim later. Hey, shooting is the fun part. But if you want to hit your target, you need a viable plan up front. Incidentally, called this Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, and Measures, aka V2MOM.

Let’s focus on Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff for a moment. He had a clear vision of what Salesforce was going to be from the very beginning, long before the rest of the market understood that vision. Even more importantly, Benioff was able to communicate not only his vision, but also his execution plan to employees, customers, investors, and even competitors. His laser focus on vision, strategy, and execution defined an entire generation of enterprise software. Most of us who left Salesforce’s aegis went on to apply our experiences to every professional endeavor afterwards.

After Salesforce, I was fortunate to be at SAP during a period of significant transformation. When I joined the company, SAP was reinventing itself in response to changing market dynamics, including the rise of SaaS (mostly driven by… that’s right, Salesforce). What struck me, after a few years at SAP, was the emergence of a whole class of business users that were thirsting for better software experiences. From my perspective as the general manager of the business intelligence unit, it became clear that all the big BI vendors were missing the rise of do-it-yourself, end-user-driven software. An entire generation of BI/analytics software users were disenfranchised. The large players in this space were simply too focused on expensive, centralized solutions and became too slow at meeting the rapidly changing needs of BI/analytics end-users.

Amid that dislocation, the opportunity to create disruptive companies such as Tableau and Alteryx emerged. In our case, we focused on making the end-user experience of data analysts paramount, thus enabling them to significantly decrease the time it takes to prep, blend, and analyze their data. It was the opportunity of a lifetime—but I only saw it because I stood on the shoulder of giants. My time at Salesforce and SAP gave me the instinctual understanding of when a market creation event was underway. Better still, it taught me how to be in the moment while driving both strategy and execution during the hyper-growth period.

Everyone talks about how the Cloud is accelerating the current revolution of software consumption. This is undoubtedly true. But what doesn’t get as much attention is who is driving this generational shift in enterprise software. A decade ago, corporate software buyers were not the same as the actual software user. Users were seldom involved in deciding what software they would use. Today, the consumerization of enterprise software has now shifted the buying decision to the line-of-business users—to the people.

This is why I believe that developing software that is for the people matters more than its eventual deployment model. It is all about enabling the self-service and self-determination of users. This is why the next great software companies are dedicating a significant percentage of their R&D capacity to user experience (UX).

Salesforce broke new ground a decade ago by shifting toward a user-driven software experience rather than focusing on IT-driven sales. Salesforce was adopted over competing CRM products as it offered a more compelling experience for sales managers and sales operations folks—the actual CRM users in 2006.

In today’s enterprise software market, the user experience is more important than ever. This new generation of software is striving to take UX to the next level. The goal is to not only acquire users, but more profoundly, own their mindshare. This is the new religion of great software. Software should be for the people—and the winners in the industry are the companies that live by this new reality.