CTO Sessions: Colin Earl, Agiloft

What makes an effective tech strategy? “A focus on the customer’s needs today and technology with the flexibility to accommodate their needs 5 years in the future.”

Headshot of Colin Earl, Founder and CTO at Agiloft

Name: Colin Earl

Company: Agiloft

Job title: Founder and CTO

Date started current role: August 2020 (CEO prior)

Location: Redwood City, California

Agiloft CTO and founder, Colin Earl, is a software industry veteran with over 25 years of experience as a developer, product manager, and CIO. Earlworked at IBM, General Electric, and three start-ups before founding Agiloft in 1991. His vision was to accelerate the building and deployment of enterprise business applications by removing the need for manual coding. Under his leadership, Agiloft has achieved this goal, creating a market segment for agile business software. Earl’s focus is on growing a world-class team and aligning the interests of staff, partners, and customers. He has an engineering degree from Imperial College and moved to Silicon Valley in 1986.

What was your first job? I started my career as a programmer. Back then, programming was done with punched cardboard. Each card corresponded with one line of the program and those were individually fed into the computer. While I was a student at Imperial College in London I was recruited by GE as a mechanical engineer and got a job in the computing department. A year later, I was flying to Silicon Valley to work for my first startup.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes, although, programming was new on the scene at the time I started my career (hence the cardboard method). I remember being greatly influenced by a book I read while I was an engineering student titled “The Soul of a New Machine,” which was about building and designing a new computer. The book described a work culture that was based on merit, rather than seniority, and exposed a way of work that was focused more on efficiency than “clocking in and out” at certain hours. The essence of this book has stuck with me throughout my entire career. In fact, while I was CEO of Agiloft, the author of the book Tracey Kidder, was on the radio. I immediately called in to the station and told him that he changed my career.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have an engineering degree from Imperial College in London.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I worked for GE, IBM, and then three startups in Silicon Valley before starting my own company Agiloft in 1992. I was recruited by GE while I was an engineering student—it was with GE that I moved out to Silicon Valley in the 80s. In 1986, I left GE to join a team of engineers at a startup called Automation Technology Products, then later began working with another startup, called Rasner, for about four years. I left Rasner to work as a full-time consultant at IBM; simultaneous to that, I started developing my own product and business idea on the side. For two years, I was spending roughly 30 hours a week developing my proprietary software that would later turn into Agiloft. Since IBM limited consultant tenure, I left IBM to contract as the director of engineering for Highland Digital in Silicon Valley. That would be my last role before fully launching my own company, which I first called Integral Solutions Corporation.

In those early years, the company’s focus changed a few times; we began developing a work-based software for customer support automation, called Support Wizard. Then later, we pivoted to focus more on the needs of enterprises, which delivered backend and support without any coding. This was then called Enterprise Wizard but would soon become Agiloft. We designed our product to be highly scalable and highly secure, and that’s still true today. A lot of these early-stage changes were to meet the needs of the market at the time, and we continue to adapt to market needs today. It’s been almost two years since I stepped away from CEO and transitioned to CTO, where I can really sink my teeth into the technical side of things; a pursuit I’ve always enjoyed.

What type of CTO are you? My passion has always been rooted in the technology. Being a technically minded CTO is very important to me, and I think it’s wise for CTOs to really take an interest in the technology they’re driving. When the technology is your passion, your hobby and on your mind day and night, you’re naturally more inclined to stay up to date with the industry and competitors and always think about that next challenge. If it’s not a passion, you’ll be more responsive than proactive, playing catch up rather than always thinking of how to do it better.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? GPT-3. The implications of these qualitative advances in AI’s understanding of English will unlock use cases in every industry—from speech-to-text conversations to novel drug trials—absolutely transforming the world as we know it. GPT-3 has gotten to the point where it can accurately understand a single sentence in English instead of multiple related sentences of text. This was not the case a few years ago. GPT-3 is getting close to understanding full paragraphs and passing the Turing Test.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Yes, two things: blockchain and aspects of quantum computing in communications. So far, Blockchain has proven to be of little value outside of cryptocurrency. The only benefit is that it’s all electronic, untraceable, and that there is no central bank. Its best use cases are criminal. If you take the time to understand how something like bitcoin, for example, works and what the network of computers pairing bitcoin are actually doing (i.e., what operations they are computing on a day-to-day basis), you’ll see that all this processing power is going into generating random numbers, taking the hash of these numbers, and checking the hash to see if the first 12 digits of the hash are all zero. The world is using power generation the size of Sweden to power this operation, which has intrinsically shown no value. Billions of dollars in hardware, energy, and other resources are being used for something that has extremely weak justifications. That should signify to everyone a flaw in the process and market of blockchain. I also believe some aspects of quantum computing in communications are overhyped. It’s possible to create a generally secure communication network with quantum, but they will not replace traditional CPUs to perform useful work, in my opinion.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? I’m proud of our development of Agiloft’s AI capability and the roll out of a true no-code AI platform later this year. Integrating AI into the Agiloft no-code platform is a significant undertaking. It’s not hard coded so it can be configured to suit a wide variety of technical use cases.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? We’re leading digital transformation focused on customer experience. Integration with other systems is a big part of this. We’ve created connected experiences for our customers by integrating with Boomi, Salesforce, Microsoft Teams, and many more.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Contract Lifecycle Management (CLM) is primary. Our CLM software is based on a true no-code platform that adapts to meet customers specific business requirements. It saves customers tens of millions of dollars a year, according to their in-house analysis of hard cost savings. The system literally pays for itself each year. Our customers also report soft savings like increased transparency, insights, speed of turnaround for negotiating new deals, and regulatory compliance savings. Another big aspect of customer success in CLM is our no-fail implementation. Thirty percent of enterprise software implementations across the industry fail. This is largely due to other systems not having the flexibility to configure to and address the user’s business needs. But we’ve never had a truly failed implementation. We’ve taken over failed implementations from competitors, but we always deliver for our customers. Eliminating this threat of failure and providing a platform that meets the need of the world’s largest companies, at or under budget, make Agiloft unique.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Flexibility is a key factor. Our no-code platform adapts to different business workflows in the ballpark of a few days or hours.  

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? No, but that is because our technology strategy is built on providing the customer with real-time flexibility rather than trying to predict exactly what their needs will be in advance.

What makes an effective tech strategy? A focus on the customer’s needs today and technology with the flexibility to accommodate their needs 5 years in the future.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? CTOs must ask the right questions and look forward. The role of the CTO will become increasingly dependent on input from deep learning systems and AI. In the past, there were two primary components to figuring out what a company should do: asking the right questions and getting the right answers to those questions. Where is the market evolving? How saturated is it? What technical developments are coming? Potential threats? Today, the hardest challenge is answering these questions and accurately predicting the size of the economy. This is notoriously difficult and inaccurate. AI will make answering these questions easier.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Conceptualising Agiloft and growing it into an industry leader.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have focused on the CLM market sooner. The configurability of our no-code platform is a critical advantage in a market where the requirements for enterprise implementations vary greatly. It is much less of an advantage when a cookie cutter solution is considered adequate for most businesses.  

What are you reading now? Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared M. Diamond

Most people don't know that I… Meditate for 45 minutes per day

In my spare time, I like to…Read, kayak, and swim.

Ask me to do anything but… “What will you do when you retire?”