Interview with Augusto Albeghi, creator of Viney@rd Business Intelligence software.
1. Before we get into your software, I'd like to talk about some BI background. Viney@rd is a Business Intelligence tool, a buzzword familiar to larger businesses, but an elusive term for small businesses
- how would you describe Business Intelligence for a small business, say a small manufacturer with one or two large customers.
First question, first hit! Communicating Business Intelligence is terribly complex if the audience is not familiar with the idea already. That’s why I mostly use the term “Spreadsheet Automation”, which is much more immediate and it is not a fake definition as well. I try to convey the ideas of “cleaning up the mess with the spreadsheets” and “keeping data in a single, regulated, repository”. In this way the advantages of having such a tool in place are easier to catch.
2. How would a bakery, or other "multiple small customers" define or use Business Intelligence?
Anyway, BI is a process, the process of supporting people in taking informed decisions with relevant information. Each business has its own processes and specific issues that require managing different data, from different sources, for different purposes. BI applications and BI projects are the tools and the means that provide the information to support the decision process.
if you like your gut feelings or you can’t help showing how cool you are by guessing business decisions, well, do not use BI.
BI comes into play when too many “business elements” to stay in someone’s head are on the field. Maybe a family owned, single window, bakery does not have the foundations required to make analysis; some base documents are required to work on. As long as you issue invoices to customers and payments to suppliers, you have the raw material needed to start the process. In case of many small customers some of the typical issues are customers’ profitability and clustering.
3. What you've created seems to address a common problem you were running into as a consultant, can you describe the "spreadsheet hell" a bit for me?
Once I used to work for a small software house which also sold hardware and packaged software (about 30 people and roughly 5M$ a year). They had, on the network, an Excel file named “Everything.xls” on which they organized their entire activity. They served a lot of small customers and a bunch of large accounts. All the information was at hand but they never committed to analyzing it. No use to say, end of year accounting income statements were always a surprise. Instead of stepping back and make a serious analysis of their profitability, they just accused people to be unreliable and making mistakes. I didn’t last long by them, but this is another story.
When we incur in “spreadsheet hell” we are already one level up than that pictured above. We have data available, coming out from company systems, but often in raw formats. Almost every software can export data as an Excel table, a csv file or other comparable formats. To be transformed in meaningful reports, they often require a huge amount of “sweat and blood”. Refactoring data takes time, costs money and is incredibly prone to errors. Often a degree of automation by VBA or external references is in place but I have yet to see an architecture which is not rigid nor baroque. The system management is usually a one man show, leaving the company decision support system vulnerable to a two weeks’ notice. But the worst is yet to come. While working, people make different versions of their spreadsheets; in a moderately complex environment spotting the right version the day after, is extremely difficult, even for the most organized people. Chances are that your boss will get a stream of spreadsheets and she is likely not as organized as you are. You had better praying that she will not prepare a press release based on wrong or incomplete data.
4. When was your "Aha" moment that you decided to create Viney@rd?
There was no sudden revelation. The idea has been bouncing in my head for years. People like Excel, and they want their data on it because a) they can organize it freely and they’re not tied to the metaphor of the table i.e. they can address and change every single cell and b) Excel saves statically files on a familiar place like the user’s hard disk. The most common censure users make to classical BI tools are a) some data/master data which I have on my spreadsheet are lacking from the datawarehouse b) I can’t format my data as freely as I can in Excel.
5. Have you considered some kind of source control or history system
(bookmarking,etc) in your software?
What triggered the decision of making Viney@rd was a meeting where I was trapped in no man’s land between customer’s IT people and customer’s users; users were asking boldly for new data and new master data and the IT adamantly refused because users’ data requests could be sourced only from scattered spreadsheets and not from the existing systems. That evening, in the subway, I decided I had had enough of that, and I needed to start steering my working life.
OK, you hid a bug in my office! Viney@rd is very young and still lacks some features that are quite standard in BI systems, but I also plan to implement a whole new set of features which are not found in conventional systems. To be clearer, Viney@rd is already unconventional featuring the ability to refresh a complex layout without disrupting it and giving the user control on the data itself, all within Excel. Nonetheless, it is going to be more unconventional implementing features like data tagging and streams of information.
6. Suppose I have a small business, and I think I might be interested in Business Intelligence - but currently have nothing in place to collect or analyze information, how exactly do I get started? What do I need to gather? What kind of information about my business do I need to know before I can even start using something like Viney@rd.
By tagging data we can address a human brain peculiarity which I saw in action many times. BI tools ultimately present tables to the user, but the user does not think to data in a tabular view. Let’s make an example: orders backlog. A conventional implementation will show an order list to the users. The users sees inside the list that bulky order that will save this month’s target, those awful orders with low margin but exceedingly complex to prepare, the order for which more information is always required, the orders that must be prepared separately because … etc. etc. These categories, usually, are too human and too heuristic to be implemented in a database. There must be a way for the users to tag their orders and to analyze them according to the categories they use to make decisions in their current activity.
Yes, I have some other weird ideas but I do not disclose them now otherwise I will not get published!
First let me make a point: do not think that Viney@rd is something exclusively “small”. As it is now, it can’t handle the terabytes, but there are, even in large companies, areas where the data volume is not a factor. Many financial analyses, for example, do not involve a lot of data and may benefit from a tool like Viney@rd.
7. Many of our readers are connected in some way or another to the business of software, self employment, and the autonomy movement, can you describe the biggest lesson you've learned in creating your own software?
If you are interested in BI, it’s hardly the chance that you have nothing already in place. More likely, you are accessing various disconnected data sources. You browse printouts from QuickBooks or some other accounting package for financials and credit management. You have a spreadsheet which details the activity of your three small delivery vans and freighters invoices for long range transports. Your receptionist keeps another spreadsheet with complaint calls updated by hand. Your warehouse manager e-mails you weekly with a list of late deliveries and defects spotted upon delivery. Your two salesmen keep sending Excel files with the coming months forecasted sales. I can go on with production, R&D, HR etc. etc.
It may easily come a time when you need all those data together to manage your business effectively. For example you may need to have, by product, the stock, the available production capacity and the orders backlog in a single place to judge if you can fill the orders or you are going to be late. That’s the point where Viney@rd comes into play.
I do not think I can really teach something to someone. StraySoft and Viney@rd are still in their infancy and they still have to prove everything. There are lots of very informed blogs about going solo or founding a micro ISVs, I read many of them and I do not want to repeat what has already been said.
The one point I feel to touch is about the target audience of the software. It appears to be one order of magnitude easier to market something targeted at developers or IT technicians rather than general business software. Many of the subject gurus, as a matter of fact, sell to techies. For general business sw I think the Micro ISV should act more like an established company.
8. One last group of questions, non sequitur, You mentioned your love for American Football, how popular is it in Italy? What position did
you play? Who is you favorite team?
Nonetheless, I’m going to launch a partner program in few months where, for a small fee, implementers can have access to Viney@rd database and internals, a supplement of education and a fast lane for support requests. The ideal partner would be the freelance consultant or the small consulting firm, who can use Viney@rd for their projects.
American football became immensely popular in the ‘80s, with hundreds of teams and attendances in the tenth of thousands for the top matches. Unluckily the growth had no solid roots and the Italian federation was poorly led. In the ‘90s many clubs filed for bankruptcy and the players base shrunk. In 2002, the “hannus horribilis” (the terrible year) of the American Football in Italy the Italian American Football Federation was expelled by the Italian Olympic Committee for financial misdemeanor and forced to shut down. Since then, there have been various “leagues” striving to resume activity but only a handful of teams is active now.
Thanks to Augusto for his responses!
I used to play defensive tackle in the 4-3-4 defense or nose tackle in the 3-4-4.
My original team, “The Crusaders”, has disappeared now, and I do not want to take a stance for an American team! What I can say is this; if I close my eyes, I can still see Mike Singletary leveling legions of runners to the ground…