Appian CEO says low-code automation is the next chapter

Matt Calkins of Appian wants to stretch the remit of the low-code movement the company pioneered.


Matt Calkins looks lonesome. He’s the CEO of a software company that’s booming as enterprises develop a voracious appetite for the so-called low-code movement whereby software development is radically simplified and accelerated. That buy-side hunger has helped drive up Appian shares to a valuation not far south of $10bn but Covid, the great catalyst of levelling down, means he is sitting almost alone, accompanied when we talk only by a charming lake vista at his HQ by the Washington, DC beltway.

Calkins says he is anxious to get back to the old socially interactive business world although he notes that might not be a perspective held by the majority.

“This has been my bunker throughout the pandemic,” he says over a video call. “I come to the office and it’s empty. Privately, I can’t wait to be done with it and travel again.”

But there’s no trace of self-pity in this softly spoken, cerebral man’s voice. Instead he laments the fact that “children lose the interaction that gives them essential social skills and confidence” and “at least half of what they learn is not the subject”.

Work is “like learning a language. When you’re learning, you learn better immersed.” But lockdowns have made accidental encounters rare and so “spontaneous learning” has been absent. That in turn impacts camaraderie. He gives as an example a TV sitcom: “My son is a fan of The Office and the whole thing is amusing when people get together. There would be no show if The Office was virtual. Just think about what a bad show that would be!”

Calkins declines my offer to rank his position on back-to-office plans where one is Goldman Sachs and 10 is a let-it-all-hang-out Valley tech firm.

“I’m not even deciding,” he laughs. “They don’t know, we don’t know… we should be experimenting. We need to have a little bit of humility and learn what works.”

But he disagrees with the view that virtual meetings have democratised decision-making, saying that an online conference is composed of an “in crowd” and an “out crowd”.

Going faster

Like many tech firms, Appian has excelled amid the pandemic, having tripled its value in the past year alone, even though he has famously said that he pays little attention to the ups and downs of share prices.

“I don’t claim to be unaware,” he muses. “I’m a steward for the stockholders after all, but I don’t get distracted by it and I’ve seen a lot of companies where [obsessing over share prices] does distract from their focus.”

“The low-code movement has surged. It succeeded in hard times [because] low-code was the means to agility and the means to transformation. Low-code is now a much more known term but it’s also shifting. Low-code is a moving target and [we want to] shape what it is becoming.”

So much so that Calkins has coined the term “low-code automation” and gained more reach by buying RPA company Novayre Solutions shortly before the Covid crisis had fully emerged. He believes the “same environment in which you draw the flowchart is where you deploy your bots”.

By creating a stack of low-code, RPA and AI, he believes Appian can enter a new stage of maturity.

“When technology firms are young they’re defined by the means and when they’re mature they’re defined by their ends,” he says. “We’re making the transition right now. [Businesses] don’t want to buy one product but complementary products from a single vendor.”

He also gives short shrift to the old chestnut that RPA and AI are job-destruction machines.

“It’ll change it but only for the better,” he says. “Just like the Industrial Revolution, we still have jobs, we just have better jobs. The work that a bot does is not work that we want to be doing. It’s going to enhance our humanity, it’s going to allow us to behave less like machines and more like people.

“People worry that AI is going to take their jobs, make their decisions ... I don’t believe that’s the case. It belongs down the stack, providing the information. It’s good for recognition and appraisal. What I would not have is it make human decisions … AI isn’t smart enough. The quality of AI conclusions relative to the data set is inferior to humans. It can play chess well, drive a car well because all the data is valid. Humans are great at reaching conclusions based on very little data. Humans are going to have a lasting advantage anywhere where the rules keep changing, as they tend to in human affairs.”

He’s aware of the risks of standing still because code doesn’t age like fine wine.

“We do a lot of rewriting,” he says. “Here’s my insight philosophy about code: where possible you want to leapfrog. [With software components] you don’t move in lots of little steps, you just keep them alive and at some point you discard and rewrite. That allows you to cycle out your oldest code.”

A different approach

Appian is an unusual tech success in that it did not take off fast, is not based in California and was not founded by techies; Calkins’ degree was in Economics. I ask him if he believes something different to the Silicon Valley/Sand Hill Road cookie-cutter approach is needed today.

“I hope so,” he says. “Silicon Valley has one perspective and it’s valid but you would think there’s an advantage to diversity of thought. I would love to see that happen. Silicon Valley isn’t smarter, it just had the infrastructure … the networks of financiers, investors tolerant of risk. They draw people who want to be entrepreneurs. There’s a great instantiation bonus but there’s no reason you couldn’t do the same thing in 100 places in the world (if they had the infrastructure).”

The CEO life

Finally, I ask about the CEO role at a time when populism is on the rise, we are all worried about our health and trading blocs are being challenged. Companies can become conduits for crass exchanges of views, reflecting a broader coarsening of the culture. Has that impacted how a CEO operates?

“Absolutely,” he answers. “It’s been a uniquely challenging time and it’s made my job more one of diplomacy and healing and cultural leadership than I imagined it would be. The world has been pulled apart we have polarised opinions and disrespect in the public square, and I want the company to be a place of healing: a place that reunites people who otherwise might have been estranged. I want this to be place of unity and respect.”