Catching Up with Owen Allen from Akumina

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Danny:Hello and welcome to the Two Bald Brothers and Microphone podcast. This is your host Danny Ryan. I’m here with my co-host Tommy Ryan. How are you doing, Mr. Bald Brother?


Tommy:I’m doing well. It’s a good day. Speaking with Owen. Going to be fun.


Danny:It is. Yes, catching up with our good buddy Owen. Owen Allen, how are you doing?


Owen:I’m doing great. Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you guys. I don’t get enough bald brother time these days.


Danny:We like catching up every once in a while. It seems like it’s been a while, though. Let’s start with the back story. Where did we first meet each other? Is this when you were in the SharePoint product team? Is that where this whole thing started?


Owen:Boy, it would’ve been maybe 2009 or twenty ten.


Tommy:It was the night training, I believe, for early adopters. You were down in Atlanta.


Owen:Oh, the training in Atlanta? Yeah, that could have been it.




Owen:Yeah, definitely. The early, oh wow, what was the name of that, it was some sort of an early Ninja training that we did for developers.


Tommy:I want to say that they called it Ignite.


Danny:Did they call it Ignite back then?


Tommy:It was before they got accomplished.


Owen:It might have been an Ignite program, definitely. That was a good training tour and then after 2010 launched, we did a bunch of Azure training and I came back to you guys when I was with Pingar and you guys developed a good portion, if not the majority, of the Pingar SharePoint application as we interfaced that entity extraction artificial intelligence tech into SharePoint.




Danny:Nice. That was us. Was that Tommy or me? I forget which one of us did that.


Tommy:We didn’t do that.


Owen:I think it was a late night coding session and both of you guys were just bald brothering it away. It was amazing.


Danny:And we worked on the white paper too. The ISV white paper.


Owen:Oh, that’s right. That’s right.


Danny:I know you’re trying to forget that, but we did do that together.


Owen:That was a good white paper. We should refresh that for SharePoint 2010.


Danny:We should. I wonder what that…I love the, in the back of it, where you had sort of like the landscape of all the different vendors that were out there.


Owen:Remember that ISV map? That ISV map based on–


Danny:Yes. How could I forget, Owen? How could I forget? I thought it was really helpful.


Owen:It was at the time and, you know what, I think that it’s actually a cycle that we’ve reached now where SharePoint 2010 was a very solid platform for ISVs to build on. I think only in the past six months have we finally reached a platform with SharePoint Online that is solid enough for ISVs to take a real big bet on.


I’m really looking forward to the May SharePoint conference where we will hear the road map for the next year because I think that we’re going to see some great incremental improvements but I think that SharePoint Online is a very solid platform. ISVs can take large bets on it.


I just joined an ISV again, January 1st, I joined Akumina and part of the rationale was that, hey, you know what, it’s ready now. Now is another cycle just like 2010 where we’re going to see some incredible innovation coming from ISV partners. The SI, the system integrators, are going to add their imagination and their wisdom to these ISV solutions and, I think, over the next two years, we’re going to see some really good stuff coming on top of SharePoint Online, even better than we’ve seen so far.


Danny:That’s great. It’d be interesting to take a look at that and see if it’s the same players who are going to come out because you did, it was both vertical and horizontal solutions, right? I want to say. I haven’t looked at it in a while but I wanna say it was both.


Owen:Yeah, it was. We had a couple of pillars based on the type of technology and then a couple of pillars based on the industries. I actually tried to see if it made sense to reimagine that a couple of years ago and, the number of partners has ballooned so much, there’s no way you’d fit it on a slide. It would have to just be…You know that old gray bar paper or green bar paper from the mainframe printouts? It would have to be reams of that stuff, there’s so many partners out these days. It’s crazy.


Danny:One of the things that, in a recent podcast with Sam Marshall, your good buddy Sam, from the UK.


Owen:Good old Sam.


Danny:We had a conversation about, and one of the things that people are often coming to us about, is build versus buy for their intranet or digital workplace or whatever you want to call it, on SharePoint Online. I wanted just to talk with you about that. Get your thoughts on that, especially with what Akumina does. Just want to have a conversation about that. First off, there seems to be, I guess Akumina differentiates itself from just sort of like a layer on top of SharePoint. Just tell me more about the product and sort of like the philosophy behind the product.


Owen:Well, thanks. That’s a great opportunity to tell you about Akumina. Akumina is a scalable intranet platform on top of Microsoft 365 and I use the word scalable because you have to scale it in a couple of different ways. Technologically, you can scale it because we do a magic thing with the SharePoint web parts where we can host that functionality in our Azure service and then we can scale the distribution of what we call widgets across many, many different SharePoint sites. When you have to update functionality, you don’t have to update every SharePoint page, you can update it in one place and it scales across the enterprise.


The other place where you have to have scalability is you have to be able to cross between an IT solution and an HR or corp comms, a people solution. You have to be able to scale at how are you messaging and how are people going to interface with this. People need to be able to choose their own experiences and we need to be able to scale in all of these third-party applications that the company is using from other parts of their organization such as finance applications or ERP applications or time management or learning management systems. We have to scale to bring these kinds of things in.


I think the workplace, this digital workplace, that needs to be provided to employees uses Microsoft 365 as the base but it really needs to have a larger umbrella on top that’s bringing this in and Akumina is doing a good job with its customers of bringing that in. We provide the product and we have wonderful system integrator partners that help make that a tremendous experience, building on top of our scalable portal interface.


Danny:This is something that, I would say, in between the build versus buy. This is more of something where you’re able to put something together so you’re not building on top of Microsoft 365 directly. You’re working with your product to put together the building blocks for the final solution.


Owen:That’s correct. I think you’re right. It probably is a little bit in between a build versus buy. We don’t necessarily replace the Microsoft 365 pieces. You’re buying additional capabilities on top of Microsoft 365.


Danny:Gotcha. Gotcha. Sounds like you work closely with SIs to go and develop more like line of business applications or how does that work?


Owen:That’s a great question. We actually have what we call workspaces, which is a configurable business object, configurable envelope, that can work in any industry. We have customers using it in the finance industry and in the architecture industry and in the commercial real estate industry and all of these people, they can build an industry solution based on this building block. So you use Akumina and you buy this workspace, which lets you manage all of these entities, and then the system integrators can help the customer target that into their industry. It’s kind of like buying the framework for an industry solution.


Tommy:Nice. Nice.


Danny:Any questions, Tommy, as we go along here? I’m going to pull you in.


Tommy:Yeah, within that, are there specific web parts that are included or what are the components that go into that package?


Owen:Inside of the workspace element?




Owen:So when you define a workspace, you define, for example, we have a customer that would have two types of workspaces: one, a commercial loan, and one, a residential loan. When you define a new loan application comes in, let’s say for a commercial loan, a new workspace is created, and what you’ve done is you’ve defined what is created in that time. It might bring in a feed about the latest interest rates. It might bring in a feed where you type the loan application, the person’s history or their history with your company or history about the product that they’re asking for the loan on, etcetera. It brings a defined set of data feeds and dashboards so that the loan adjuster can have all the work that they need to do there in front of them.


Tommy:Okay, so it’s like provisioning out of site based on some key data elements that define what need to come into that site.


Owen:That’s right. A site that has different states, different milestones, different metadata, different people assigned to it…It also includes a monitoring system and a reporting system that lets you track and filter across all of the define workspaces.




Danny:Does Akumina, does it run on Azure? How is it set up?


Owen:That’s a great question. The logic behind these pages are in Azure but the pages themselves are all SharePoint pages. Whether it’s a classic page or whether it’s a modern page, both types of pages you can use to build out the Akumina solution. But there’s an Azure-based logic element, we call the application manager, that runs inside of Azure and that can run inside the customer’s Azure or inside of an Azure that we host to make it simpler for the customer.


Danny:My understanding from previous conversations with you is the data that you guys are accessing are stored in SharePoint lists and document libraries. There’s no other data store out there that you’re working with?


Owen:That’s right. While some of the widget and application logic is in the application manager, all of the data is in document libraries and lists so your other applications then act on that data or populate that data work fine. Then you open up a workspace in Akumina and it’s working on the same data. I will say that the modern site pages are really turning out to be a pleasure for us to work with. We have a web part that goes right on the modern site page that lets you choose any of our widgets and put them on the modern site pages so you can take the widgets that you’ve built anywhere and stick them on the modern site pages so you can have the Akumina scalability regardless of what type of sites that you’re building.


Danny:Awesome. Saw that you guys won, and we mentioned Sam earlier, you’ve won an award for multinational corporations, which is cool. You must be working with multinational corporations then. Yes?


Owen:You know, we do. We have a multilingual capability set up both for the content and for the menus and navigation, etcetera, and for the static side of the sites, etcetera, as well as the content management side. We have multilingual throughout and we have quite a few customers that are in Europe and Southeast Asia that are using this. Whether or not they’re using multiple regions in Microsoft 365, they may not be, they may still need to have multilingual requirements for their site, or multinational requirements for their sites. It can be independent of whether of not they’re leveraging the Multi-Geos in Microsoft 365 or not. Some of them are. Some of them aren’t.


Danny:And one of the things out of the report was that more and more product companies are working with larger organizations so people on the tens to hundreds of thousands of people using these products, which is great from our perspective, great to see, because the reason why we build collaborative solutions is because we want lots of people to use them as a greater impact so it’s good to see that it’s not just addressing the SMB space.


Owen:Right. In fact, I think that there’s a little bit of a spectrum between the smallest companies or the smallest sites inside of a company, you know, might be looking to buy just add-ons or looking to buy just web parts or looking to buy skins all the way up to, hey, I’d like a portal that skins my SharePoint site. You might get more and more complex and there might be seven, or eight, or nine different layers of complexity up here. We certainly do target the medium to large company. We think that there’s a…While a small company can use us, and we have some small companies that use us because they have some complex content requirements and some complex scenarios for delivering their portal. But the biggest value-add for this type of technology for scalable portals is where you do have a larger number of employees.


Danny:How does workflow fit into all this? Are you utilizing what Microsoft uses? How does that fit into Akumina?


Owen:We’re big fans of workflow. We think workflow makes a big difference but we do not supply a workflow engine so whether using Nintex or K2 or Datapolis or Microsoft Flow, or if you’re building your own state management engine, you can interface to the SharePoint underpinnings, document libraries and lists, in any standard way.


Danny:Awesome. How does mobile fit into all of this? Do you have a separate mobile app or how does that work?


Owen:All of the pages that we build, whether it’s a classic site page or modern site page, are responsive. We actually try and make sure that we’re configuring the portal site, the portal experience, to work on a mobile device. That being said, there are times when you want some of the native capabilities of the mobile device. For those cases, we do provide the ability to build a native iOS or Android application. That then gives you interfaces with notifications or interfaces with other capabilities of the device, like data collection and capabilities of the device, that you might want to integrate into your app. So you have your choice there. Generally, until they need the capabilities of the device, they just use the website in its mobile form because it’s designed to be responsive for different sizes.


Danny:I know you’re working with a lot of customers and seeing what they’re doing to focus in on what’s being called the digital workplace. Anything that you’ve seen from customers that you thought was really cool or a trend that you’re seeing or anything with regards to what’s going on out there that maybe you didn’t think of but you saw customers doing that was pretty neat?


Owen:That’s a great question and I’m really glad you asked that because there’s been two ways that my mind has been expanded in the short time that I’ve been with Akumina. Before I was with Akumina, I did  teams a couple of different places and I helped companies implement technologies and helped them build strategies around that. But now, with Akumina, when I’m talking to customers about the digital workplace, there’s two primary areas.


One of them is that, traditionally, we’ve always been focused on corporate applications and corporate usage. There’s probably somewhat of an argument to say, hey, some of that corporate is going to be the branded cultural piece, the intranet portal that Akumina can provide on top of 365 and then other pieces of that corporate piece would be out of the box SharePoint, out of the box Microsoft 365 components. But then, when you expand beyond the corporate employees, and you say, “Who are my field employees?” and “Who are my workers at my plants?” and, “Who are my workers across the company?” Now, all of the sudden, you have a higher importance on how do I communicate the culture to these people and how do I make it so, they don’t know how to use Microsoft 365, they know how to…We need them to do their work. We need to make that experience as easy, and as straightforward, and as discoverable and as easy for them to learn as possible. That takes a more branded experience and a more cultural aware experience that fits with their company so that importance has raised in my mind in the short time I’ve been here.


The other one is that, if I’m only building a people solution, or if I’m only building an IT solution, those are great, but they’re not helping the most of the employees until I combine them. Until I get my IT leadership and my HR leadership in the same room, and we’re talking about what’s the real purpose and how do we meet that purpose with IT. I think that that is a conversation that is going to continue to grow throughout this year and the years to come about how do we make our organizations work together with common goals and no longer do we have an IT goal to enable and an HR goal to enable but we’re putting them together to enable the whole company.


Danny:Awesome. One last question. I know you were recently at a conference in Branson. How did that go? Anything you took away from that?


Owen:Oh, it was great.


Danny:Tell me more about that.


Owen:Well, I’ll tell you, it was the North American Collaboration Summit, and it was hosted by one of these Microsoft MVPs named Mark Rackley. Mark is one of the most passionate and down to earth and just solid people inside of the SharePoint and Microsoft 365 community. I saw him again this week at the MVP summit here in Redmond and he had his personality effused throughout the event. Wherever you were in the event, you knew that it had the Rackley seal of approval on it, if you will. He curated the list of speakers that was there. We were blessed enough to be able to give a session and he curated the list of sponsors and then watched over the event. He focused on activities for the events with the community so that the attendees got to know each other as well.




Owen:I guess I see that as a precursor to this May SharePoint conference because it gives me confidence and hope that–


Additional Credits

Podcast Producer – Oliver Penegar
Intro/Outro Music – Daniel Bassett

Danny RyanCatching Up with Owen Allen from Akumina

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