Live From the Floor of Interop 2007: Inteview with CEO Dustin Snell

by LaRee, in AutoMate News, posted 5/22/07
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(May 22 2007)

Dustin, you have been working on AutoMate for nearly 12 years now. Over that time, the product has matured a lot. Many features like new actions and triggers have been added. But many users are wondering what the next "big thing" is? What do you see as the future for Network Automation?

What we have coming with the next version of AutoMate is going to be a truely revolutionary upgrade. We are going to change paradigms and really enable a whole new field of automation.

What can you tell us about the next version of AutoMate?

Today I am very excited to announce the next version of AutoMate, which will be called "AutoMate BPA Server 7". This is a product that has really been in the works many years. In short, it is the realization of our company name at long last. In this new product, we have completely re-approached software-based automation from a new perspective. In this new paradigm, automation is no longer limited to jobs/tasks and even more importantly it will not isolated to a single machine. It should be released by the end of July.

Dustin Snell

What's going to make the new version of AutoMate so special that customers will choose it over competing products?

AutoMate BPA Server 7 allows users to imagine, design and develop their automation routines in a manner which closely reflects their real-life Business Processes. This is far superior to the old way of doing things where jobs or tasks would have to conform to the systems in place used to automate them. Now, with AutoMate BPA Server, the system gives users the freedom to automate their business processes without constraints. This is done through the use of workflows, which act as an additional visual and logical layer existing above the task level, there the business process can be designed and relationships between individual tasks drawn, even to the point of allowing each task to be run on a different machine, all within the same workflow. There really is no other product like it and so far the reaction of our beta testers has been very favorable.

Network Automation has all types of customers - small business owners to fortune 500 companies. Will they all be able to benefit from the new version?

We are determined to make sure that the next version of the software retains its ease of use and its reasonable entry point in terms of pricing and performance characteristics that are seen in AutoMate 6. At the same time, we are adding tremendous capabilities.

The next version of AutoMate will work just as well on a single machine as it will on a server or a data farm. We are trying to make sure we strike that right balance. We don't want to leave any of our old users behind. We just want to expand the range of possibilities with the software, and the types of users that might be interested in using AutoMate.

AutoMate is known for its ease of use. Will this new version be just as easy to use?

We think that the new paradigms that we are introducing actually feel a lot more natural and user-friendly, so it probably should have been like this all along. We feel that we've stumbled across something really great here, through a lot of hard work and debates focusing on improving AutoMate's user experience. Sometimes these debates get a little heated about how things should be done, but we have a great mix of people involved. There are people involved in the design of this product who are not just techies. We have very technical people involved. And myself, I'm very entwined in the design process and involved in all of the discussions of how it's going to look and feel. We also have people that have no programming background whatsoever, but have deep experience with designing and reengineering business processes, and knowledge of the kind of capabilities that need to be in the product. We try to find solutions that work from all perspectives - technical, interface design, business, etc. When you sit down and use the new design it's amazing, you get a warm and fuzzy feeling that this is the right way and I'm really excited about that.

What differences will current users see when they use AutoMate BPA Server 7 compared to previous versions of AutoMate? Will it have a Task Builder and Task Administrator like we are accustomed to?

There will be some naming changes with some of those objects but for all intents and purposes, yes. All existing capabilities will still be there - all the actions will still be there and all of what we currently know as triggers will still be available, although, they may be called something else.

The old "Task Administrator" has been redesigned from the ground up and is now called the "Server Management Console." A new tool called the "Workflow Designer" has been added. The server itself runs in the background on a designated BPA Server and is also new (obviously). The good old Task Builder is still around but one will have a hard time not noticing that it now contains well over 250 actions.

In short, our goal is that despite certain paradigm changes, users should be able to do everything in BPA Server 7 that is currently possible in AutoMate 6, and much more while still leveraging much of their existing knowledge of AutoMate . It is also important to note that, although AutoMate BPA Server is now a true client/server architecture - it will still work quite well on a single machine. So single machine users definitely should not think that this product isn't for them just because it contains the word "Server" in the name.

What's a workflow?

In AutoMate BPA Server 7, a workflow is a visual representation of a business process. It looks like a flow chart and shows the conditions that cause tasks to occur, the machine on which the condition or task should occur, and the relationships between them.

Will you continue to sell AutoMate 6?

Yes. We will continue to actively sell and support AutoMate 6 for the foreseeable future.

What does the phrase "business process automation" mean to you?

When you go to Wikipedia they give you several definitions. All of them seem to apply to AutoMate one way or another. Every organization has processes required for successful operation of the organization itself. Processes might be simple or they might be complex, but they can all be considered business processes. Examples include the mortgage origination and approval processes in the lending industry, or the aggregation of patient charts, data, and doctor's notes in the healthcare industry, or the process of re-starting a frozen server in any industry. Interestingly, business processes are often comprised of more than one department, more than one machine, and more than one program. And in order to fully automate a business process, document it, and make it so you can visualize it as well, much more than the capabilities offered by AutoMate's Task Builder is required. Usually, a task is just a component of a full business process. A business process may involve several different tasks that are linked - one task might need to occur before the other, and those tasks may not necessarily all occur with the same person, in the same office, on the same machine. With our new approach, we are going to allow you to approach automation from a higher level perspective of business processes rather than just the micro-level approach of automating activities by writing tasks. At the same time, we will continue to utilize and expand the functionality of Task Builder so users can write micro-level tasks using our traditional, "No Code, No Limits" method. This combination of high-level and micro-level capabilities cannot be found in any other automation software package, and it is what will separate AutoMate from all others in the marketplace.

Dustin Snell

What is Network Automation's position regarding Windows Vista?

Windows Vista is the current version of Windows. Anyone using XP at this point should realize they are now using an "old version" of Windows. We are a Windows software developer, so therefore, we are determined that our products will work just as well if not better on the current version of Windows. We enthusiastically support the changes in Windows Vista. In particular, we think the interface, stability, and security changes are all a good thing for the Windows ecosphere. We are even aggressively deploying it within our own company. We've already got about 60% of our machines running Windows Vista, and we are working on a full conversion by the end of the year. It's a great operating system. We are working very hard to release version 6.2, which, will be our first fully compatible Vista release. We are also working on Vista logo certification for version 6.2, which means a third party has rigorously tested the product on Vista. The next major version of AutoMate will also contain all of these changes and will work fully on Windows Vista. We do intend to continue supporting Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP. However, we are dropping official support in the future versions of AutoMate for Windows 2000, NT, Windows ME, 98 and 95 which were not supported anyway in AutoMate 6. We also will be supporting Windows Server 2008 (Longhorn Server) immediately upon its release.

Supporting Windows Vista is more then just running on it. It's also adopting the look and feel of Windows Vista. There are new fonts used, new interface paradigms, and we will be implementing the new fonts, the dpi-aware capabilities, and the new common dialogues in AutoMate 6 & 7. In AutoMate 7, we will be adopting more specific windows changes that will resemble the way Windows Vista does things, for example, new formats for wizard's and new ways of presenting data. In short, our goal is not to simply "work on Vista" but to "work best on Vista".

Does AutoMate have any competitors?

It depends on what your definition of a competitor is. If you want to use AutoMate just to launch programs at a particular time then, yes. I suppose the main competitor would be Task Scheduler in Windows which comes free, but most people know that they can do a lot more with AutoMate. Our biggest competitor isn't a particular product because anyone who tries to do what we do doesn't come close. It's our raw number of actions and triggers and the way that we implement each of those individual actions. If a so-called competitor comes up and says, "Well, we have FTP actions" you can pretty much ensure that they don't have nearly the breadth or the depth in those FTP actions that we have. They just quickly added: What file do you want to upload? What file do you want to download? That's it -- nothing, about how to handle overwrites, error handling, passive mode, firewalls, proxy support, etc. When we approach an action, we approach it in a holistic way. We don't just get the feature in there so, no, I don't think we have any real competitors. . Our real competitor that we struggle with is convincing people that they don't need to write code anymore. I guess traditional programming methods would be our biggest competitor for certain projects, especially automation projects. But it's much faster to build your automation solution with AutoMate. It's easier and cheaper to maintain, because everything is stored in plain English and it could be deployed much more rapidly. So that's our whole Develop, Deploy, Manage paradigm. Our biggest challenge is to communicate to people that they don't need to use batch files anymore. They don't need to write code anymore. They don't need to manage a bunch of scripts. There's a much easier solution, so getting that message out to the world has been our biggest challenge. It still remains our biggest competitor.

What do you think differentiates Network Automation as a company?

This is a question that is so very near and dear to my heart, actually. As I see it, most businesses like restaurants, movie theaters, and car companies -- but also in the software industry -- they really just do what they want. Often it's what they think is right for the customer but it's an imposition of will on the customer. These companies think they are serving their customers if they work really hard at imposing their will on the customer. I also see those companies' hiding from their customers quite a bit.

One way to get real customer feedback is to privatize your discussion forums. We see a lot of software companies that require paid subscriptions in order for users to get access to the discussion forum. Therefore, a new customer or someone considering purchasing your product has no idea what the other customers are saying. It's often the case that there are a lot of complaints about the software going on in those discussion forums, and it doesn't help the company sell its product when customers see that.

From the very beginning, I have tried really hard to be very open in public and to utilize, our website specifically, as a communications vehicle more then just a marketing vehicle. Our customers drive our development by posting their suggestions and complaints in a public way, and we don't hide anything - positive or negative - from our perspective customers. Our approach is to be proactive with our perspective customers by showing them that we care. We strive to make transparent how we plan to address problems, and we are constantly following up with these customers to make sure they hear our message. It's all done in a public open fashion and I think people appreciate that in the end. Even if there are some complaints on the forums, that's okay. As along as people know we are listening and that we have a plan of action to address those complaints, that's what really matters. I think we've come through thousands - if not tens of thousands of times - on that. It also results in a customer base that feels has a closer connection with the company.

I actually participate in the discussion forums, myself. I'm the CEO of the company but I'm not too busy to dialog with our customers. Sometimes, I am surprised by senior managers and CEO's who don't take the time to listen to customers. Why would a CEO think he's too good to talk to his customers when his customers are the sole reason for his existence?

Tell us about the A-Team?

The A-Team is a new initiative that we started last year. The basic idea is to harness the incredible product knowledge and ingenuity that some of our customers have, as well as to officially recognize them in a meaningful way. Our A-Team members are amazingly helpful on our user forums, but they also drive many of our product development decisions during beta cycles. We wanted to publicly recognize them for the tremendous work that they do for our other customers. It has helped literally thousands of customers over the last six years. They are really helpful on the forums and we appreciate their participation greatly. We give them a certified badge that they could post so that people know that the information coming from this A-Team member can be trusted. They will also be our first wave beta test team for any future products.

What is your overall goal for Network Automation, inc. and how does it improve the status of the world and the nature of the Technology industry?

My goal for the company, first of all, is to create a perfect environment for fostering good people that will create great products that really help people. We don't really focus much on money here, because we believe if you have great products, the money will follow naturally. You got to have good people - smart people that communicate well with each other - that are satisfied and happy with what they are doing. Then your output will just naturally occur and you will get great products and your income will just naturally occur. Some people might say that my aim is to make money, and I think they have me wrong. Your aim should be to build a great company that creates great products that help people and the money will just come, sort of Karma in a way.

In the end how does automation software help the world? This is a tricky question because most people believe that the more things get automated, the more people lose their jobs. We don't market our product that way. We never marketed our product as tool for replacing people. I think that's a terrible message. The message that we communicate is that people are not machines; they shouldn't be utilized as such. People have intelligence; machines have no intelligence, so why are we using people to do things that machines should be doing? Let's free up people to do things that they are best at - be creative, build new things, invent new things, that's what were trying to do here. As long as I'm in charge of this company, you will never see an ad that says, "Drop dollars from your bottom line by laying off people and having AutoMate do the work instead." That's not what we are proposing. We are simply saying you could utilize your people better by freeing them up from the redundant tasks and letting them do what people do best, which is to create.

If you could go back in time and give yourself advice on running a company what would you say?

There are some things I don't want to mention publicly. I have been doing this for a long time now. It's been twelve years in the software industry alone. I definitely learned a lot in that process because I didn't go to a University for this sort of thing. I learned from the school of hard-knocks. One part of me wants to say that I would love to just tell the person twelve years ago everything I know now, but then I think that the lessons might not have sunk in as well, so there's not really much I would change. I'm happy with where we are now, and extremely excited about where we are going as a company.

What inspires you today and why from a technology perspective?

I have always been very fascinated by user interfaces. I love seeing new user interface paradigms. I wouldn't say inspire so much as excited by some of the geekiest things, like multi touch interfaces are really fascinating to me. I have been studying them a lot on my free time, believe it or not. I like the IPhone. I think it's pretty cool. I don't know if I will get one yet, because I have some practical things I need to do from my phone and I'm not sure it can do it with only 8 GB. But the interface looks just stunning. I might just get one just so I can check it out.

I think that some of the other demos I've seen with desktop computing, for example utilizing multi-touches, and it's really exciting. It doesn't really have an impact on AutoMate yet, but the way we interact with our operating system is going to change. I think keyboards and mice are on their way out. We are all going to be using touch screens. The touch screens might be mounted on the wall or will be our desks. We will move Windows with our fingers. If you need a keyboard, you'll use your finger to press an icon and that keyboard will come up graphically and be resized to fit your hands on the screen, and you will just type on the screen. We will move objects with our hands simultaneously - sort of a return to form of working on a desk. The touch screen monitor becomes your desk and you move windows around like you would move pieces of paper on your desk. Things are going to change and I think this will all happen in the next five years to ten years. Pretty amazing, and this phenomena of having television sets basically, standing on our desks and a keyboard and mouse and all these wires is about to change. It's going to look a lot like Star Trek. Seriously, look at Star Trek. There are no keyboards and mice. The reason for that is because there is a better way to interact with the machine, directly with your hands.