Benefactor Interview: Terry Walby, Thoughtonomy

Thought leader shares his thoughts and views from inside the AI industry

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Seth Adler

As I host the AI & Intelligent Automation podcast, I’m taking the opportunity to sit down with a thought leader from each organization to get a sense of each company’s thinking.

Next up is the CEO of Thoughtonomy, Terry Walby...

Seth: Terry, let's start with kind of an overview of what we're doing here. What's the vision?

Terry: Thoughtonomy are an intelligent automation platform, and the vision of the company was to create a platform to improve the productivity of office-space workforces, recognizing that most, if not all, organizations are limited by their access to skilled resources, yet have people being unproductive in their working lives, not being as effective as they could and not using the skills they've got to the best effect. So we set out to solve that problem by creating a cloud-based platform that employed artificial intelligence and robotic process-automation techniques in order to optimize the execution of work through digitization and automation. 

Seth: How long ago was it that you came up with this? 

Terry: We founded the business in 2013, we launched the platform in the back end of that year and started piloting with some customers in late 2013. By '14 we had long-term contracted customers using the platform to deliver business benefit, and we're now in the couple of hundred clients across twenty-eight countries worldwide with offices in the UK and the US. 

Seth: We are outside here in your headquarters - Tower Bridge is right here, the Tower of London is right there, we're sitting on a balcony and looking over the city, so if you hear some sounds, those are literally the sounds of London, and also we've got some bees that are joining us in our little conversation here...

Terry: We do, we're enjoying the joys of nature actually, it's a beautiful sunny day in London and it's an interesting place. It's headquarters for us, as I said we've got customers worldwide, we've got the platform running in five continents and delivering value to customers of all sizes, all geographies, and all industries. But London is an interesting city and actually as you sit here and look at one of the finest pieces of architecture in the world, the Tower Bridge there, you can also see the interesting juxtaposition in London of old and new, the old ancient monuments and the brand new skyscrapers that are springing up all around us, and actually that's quite an interesting analogy for the way we're deploying technology to effectively give new life to legacy systems and applications. Through digitizing execution of work in old systems, we can suddenly realize the benefits of an online interaction with a shiny new interface without actually changing the underlying architecture. 

Seth: You've got this phrase that you use, which I find fascinating: "The last I.A. solution you'll ever need to buy." I think that you were just essentially getting into the thinking of how that might be the case. 

Terry: We launched the Evolution Edition in April 2018, and actually that was a combination of the evolution of the platform over the period that we've been operating. One of the reasons we created a platform, a Cloud-based platform, is that it gives you the ability to continue to evolve capability without needing to do the kind of major upgrades and release cycles that you would with a standard software product that you install locally. So, by creating a Cloud-based architecture, effectively we've been able to rapidly iterate and develop capability in the platform, and we've done that very much based on customer-led design. We've worked with our clients and our prospective clients to understand the challenges they're trying to solve with the problem and then to build the platform to industrialize the solution to those problems. So it's continually developed its capability, particularly in latter years around the levels of intelligence that are in the platform, from both a machine-learning and autonomous management point of view, but also from the ability to use A.I. services to manage unstructural / semi-structured sources of information. 

So the Evolution Edition is really about bringing that concept to a new paradigm in the way that we deliver the platform. The platform will continually evolve, it will continually add capability, and clients will be able to consume that capability on demand should they wish to do so, so effectively it becomes an evergreen technology, there's no need ever to replace it or to do a major version upgrade. It genuinely, we believe, will be the last intelligent automation solution that businesses will ever have to buy. 

As a technology business, intelligent automation and delivering value to clients around their office-space workforces is all we think about. It's our reason for being, and I think that laser-focus has allowed us to be very rapid in the way that we've developed and iterated the technology platform. 

Seth: Yeah. Maybe that pace, maybe because it is such a large-scale solution, and one that is ever-changing, you felt the need to give a use-case ebook, right? So this is another tool that you've got. 

Terry: Absolutely, I think one of the things that we've realized is what we've created, and indeed one of our differentiations in the automation marketplace is we've created a virtual workforce. The concept is it's digital labor that you can turn to any task across any part of an organization, any division, any activity. Any process that it's been taught to do, it can do, and it's been taught to manage those with a fairly small resource pool because it's effectively orchestrating work based on business priorities. You teach it to do ten things, you tell it the importance of those ten things, and it will work out for itself how best to get them done to meet your priorities. So that's great, and it means that effectively what we've created is a pool of Cloud-based digital labor that can turn its hand to any work for businesses of all types. 

One of the challenges when working particularly with new clients that are new to this technology is helping them to understand, "Well what does that mean for me? What can I do with it? Where should I start? What are things that you can surface?" Because the market to some degree is still largely unawares of the power of this technology and the things that it could do for them. So in order to help organizations identify typical use-cases, the things that they might think about, the things that might be relevant to them across their industry, across their sector, across the function they operate in their business, in order to do that, we've created the ebook to start to socialize some of those ideas and surface some of the things that other organizations are doing, which may just stimulate the thinking. 

Seth: Most corporate enterprises are at least somewhere on the I.A. journey, let alone the A.I. journey, and so when you speak to corporate enterprise I.A. practitioners, what are you interested in finding out? What do you wanna know from them no matter where they are on their journey? 

Terry: I think the important thing is to think about the destination. It's a classic phrase but if you start with the end in mind then you really do set out on the journey in the right way. And I think one of the challenges that organizations adopting our P.A. have had is this actually: because it's non-disruptive technology, it's actually quite easy to do tactically. 

It's quite easy to buy some software, maybe even download some free RPA agent, stick them on your laptop or your desktop computer, or if you're thinking a bit more further advanced you might put 'em on a server, but tactically deploy something, wrap it around a bit of process and see if it works. And because it's easy to do that, organizations have done that, they've done those pilots and they've done those tests, and then they suddenly find that six months, nine months, a year, eighteen months down the line, they've got these tactical deployments of software agents that aren't well-governed, aren't well-managed, and haven't really been thought about strategically. And as that starts to become something that isn't a tactic to solve a few efficiency problems but a strategic direction for a business, they need to unwind all of those things and start again. 

So, understanding that it might have the potential to be a strategic direction, a strategic investment, something that underpins mission-critical processes and applications in your business means you need to think differently about the architecture that you build, how you configure the environment, how you govern and manage the productivity, manage it in production, manage the changes to it, manage all of the disciplines that would go with an IT project. So obviously if you're just testing and piloting then typically you wouldn't do that, you wouldn't go and build an enterprise and infrastructure that's highly available and highly configured and geographically resilient, because it's expensive and kind of would undermine the business case for doing so. 

One of the great things about having built a Cloud-based platform is actually, from somebody piloting, testing, evaluating their first process, to rolling out their millionth application of the technology, it is an enterprise architecture. It's highly available, it's configured geographic replication, it's continually updated and backed up so there's no danger of first of all outage, and second of all loss of data. So whether the investment is tiny because you're just trialing or proving the value of it or whether it's actually a strategic asset to your business, then you're getting the benefit of the same architecture. 

Seth: This is the Tesla for an A.I. practitioner. It's Cloud-based so, yes, you've got the car, but the software continues to evolve. 

Terry: Absolutely, and we were born in the Cloud business actually, so from the beginning we designed the platform as a Cloud-based architecture, and that means again you think about it differently because you think about the ability to deliver it globally with complete consistency. You think about the elasticity of a Cloud-based environment and the ability to scale up and down to meet demands, and what that drives obviously is the ability to have consumption-based pricing, and only really consume what you need and therefore only pay for what you consume, so it makes it a much more cost-effective solution, and of course as you say, underpins this platform of pros. That means it will continually evolve and you use the Tesla analogy there, it's great, yeah, absolutely. As new features and functionalities become available organizations immediately have the ability to adopt them and consume them and evaluate them and make them part of their solution. It won't be forced on them, but they'll have the option to do so should they wish to. 

Seth: We've been talking a lot about kind of hurling forward into the future based on the fact that everything is ever-changing, and we've got this Cloud-based solution that kind of evolves with us. Talk about the mindset though of getting back to basics, consistently, throughout your journey. 

Terry: I think the concept of getting back to basics is one that's come out of a lot of discussions ,and actually interestingly not just with people who are taking their first step on the journey but actually with people who are mature or who are thinking about their next step. And I guess it really goes along with this idea of thinking about where you're going, thinking with the end in mind. Actually, that means think as though you're starting your journey, think not "Where am I and how am I hampered or how am I constrained by the point of time I'm in now," actually "Where do I want to get to and how do I best get there?" 

Seth: So Stephen Covey by the way is gonna really appreciate your multiple references to starting with the end in mind, one of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." 

Terry: Absolutely, I'm not sure he's trademarked the phrase but certainly it's an interesting read. 

Seth: Sure, you're not losing that time if you read that book, right? 

Terry: Absolutely. 

Seth: You're sharpening the saw, maybe. That's another one of those habits. Now, as we make our way into 2019 if you can believe it, what are you thinking, and what do you think we're going to be facing as we go forward? 

Terry: I mean it's interesting we've seen lots of commentators back in 2016, '17, and '18 predict that it's gonna be the year of the robot, and I think in reality the technology as we exit 2018 and look forward into 2019, this technology is still nascent. There's still a huge amount of growth. There's still a huge amount of the market that is unawares of what they could be doing with intelligent automation. There are still a large number of organizations who have started the journey but haven't really scaled up their adoption. 

But of course, there are many use-cases now and proof-points of organizations who've used it to transform their business, both from an operational efficiency point of view, which is I guess in many ways the obvious place to start with automation, you know, "Reduce my cost of operations and make me more efficient." But actually what's been really interesting in 2018 and what we think we'll see a huge amount more of in 2019 is organizations that are taking this concept of digital labor and creating new service offerings, building new capabilities, building even new businesses because you can do things differently based on a foundation of digital workers where you don't need to go and hire armies of skilled resources in order to launch a new product, to create a new service, to deliver new value. And that's been some of the most exciting developments we've seen in 2018, both from emerging tech startup organizations, big businesses creating new functionality, and specialists pivoting their business from legacy service delivery to new ways of doing it. I think we'll see a huge amount more of that in 2019 and it makes the market a very exciting place. 

Seth: Absolutely, and it kind of shifts the mindset, re-shifts the mindset to, "You know what, let that intelligent workforce, let that be the tip of the spear, and add the humans second," you know? 

Terry: Yeah, for the technologists there's an analogy here with the concept of server virtualization where people took physical servers and put a layer of virtualization that meant you could do more with your asset. And for the first few years of that being the case, that was about efficiency, it was about getting more from your IT estate. Actually the second wave of server virtualization is what became the foundation of Cloud computing as we know it today, which is, actually once you've virtualized the server, once you've disaggregated the workload from the asset that's running the workload, you can start to do things differently. You can move those workloads around, you can put them in different geographies, you can scale them up and down, so the second wave of the technology was about creating a new operating paradigm and allowing people to launch new services. 

And so, for us the digital workforce analogy, the virtual workforce analogy if you understand why we use the term I guess, is the same. Wave one is about creating efficiency, about operational effort-reduction, about improving bottom-line margins through improving workforce productivity. Wave two will be about this new service wave, new offerings, new capabilities, new functionality, built on digital labor. 

Seth: What's old is new again, and we kind of have already done this, and it's just a new tool set, and it's just new technology, right? 

Terry: Absolutely, and actually it's an interesting point. One of the things that we advocate is not really thinking about this like a technology. It is, of course it is, it's bits and bytes and software under the covers, but actually if you think about it as technology you start to think about it in ways that people would deploy traditional technology. ERP systems, BPMS tools, and IT service management tools, the things that underpin business operations. They are tools that people use to give function or value. A digital workforce is technology but isn't a tool in the same capacity, it's something that sits above and around applications, tools, systems, and uses them and adopts them and manages them in the same way that people would. So the analogy is again, back to the point, the analogy is not, "It's a new technology," the analogy is, "It's a different way of thinking about the workforce." 

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