How We Brought Complexity and Simplicity Together to Form Workato

This is the complete origin story of Workato as told by our Founder and CEO Vijay Tella on July 28th, 2016.

Workato was recently named a Leader in the Forrester Wave: iPaaS for Dynamic Integration Report with the best scores in the market for both platform power and (low) cost. This comes at the heels of it being named by Gartner as a 2016 Cool Vendor and us reaching some major milestones – over 14,000 businesses using Workato and having 100,000 public integration recipes created and shared by our strong community from business users to citizen developers and integration experts. It sure is turning to be a great year.

Hitting all these milestones has made me think about how Workato began and what we wanted to change about the integration landscape. The vision my co-founder Gautham Viswanathan and I had for Workato, which is short for “Work Automation,” has been to provide a modern enterprise-class integration platform that is usable by the business users and not just IT. It is humbling to see our customers, amazing partners (Quickbase, Service Now, Zendesk, Marketo, Intacct) and now analysts (Gartner, Forrester, Constellation Research) supporting us on this journey.

I will date myself by saying this – but I have been immersed in the world of integration and integration platforms for some 25 years now. First as an early employee of Teknekron, where I helped create the first software based integration middleware called The Information Bus (TIB),  then as the founding head of engineering at TIBCO and as the Chief Strategy Officer for Oracle Fusion Middleware. I met Gautham at TIBCO where he created BusinessWorks, the definitive enterprise integration software to this day and a still a model for most of the current iPaaS platforms, before going on to run a couple of SaaS companies in the CRM space.

Business apps had become simpler, mobile, inexpensive, fast and beautiful, while the integration products to connect these apps remained technical, complex, expensive and forbidding.

After 20 years of enterprise integration, I took a big detour to do a consumer mobile video start-up called Qik (think Periscope + Instagram for video), which grew to 20M users. Everything about Qik was different – how you design and create a consumer product, how your users ‘learn’ to use it, the community dynamic and much more. It was an amazing learning experience. When Qik was acquired by Skype, Gautham and I reconnected. He pointed out that the integration problem we thought we had solved so well at TIBCO was not really addressed when it came to today’s apps and cloud-based services.

As I looked at the issue more deeply I started to understand what Gautham meant – Integration platforms had moved from on-premise into the cloud in form, but not in the spirit of cloud and consumerization. The integration market had stagnated. Furthermore, business apps had become simpler, mobile, inexpensive, fast and beautiful, while the integration products to connect these apps remained technical, complex, expensive and forbidding.

The Epiphany

The big realization for me came from my Qik and Skype experience. It was that the same people that used Skype/Qik in their personal lives were also using these consumerized business apps at work. Their expectations around products, whether it was for personal use or business use, was the same. And, it was clear that those same people needed to connect the apps they used at work to automate their routine tasks and get things done. We realized that there was this huge gap for these users who didn’t want to use the complex products in order to get their apps to work together and still had to rely on IT to do this for them.

The other realization was that even the least technical employee—say, a sales event planner syncing event attendee information from Eventbrite to leads in Salesforce—still needed their integrations to be reliable, handle complex data, apply business logic, and filter out duplicates and bad data. The true takeaway was that what was required was true consumerization of enterprise-class integration platforms.

comparison chart written

So, by 2012, we had put together an integration dream team with two main beliefs: first, that business users driving the digital transformation initiatives should not have to compromise on quality, features, and power of the platform they choose; and second that large companies, even Fortune 500 companies, should not have to deal with hard-to-use, time consuming, expensive software. We had the vision and a highly qualified team including:

  • The former SVP of Platforms and at Salesforce
  • The former VP of Product Management for Oracle Middleware and then Splunk
  • A Principal Architect for TIBCO BusinessWorks
  • A member of the founding team of AWS
  • And my co-founder from Qik

Now it was time to build.

Enterprise Integration For All: Easier Said Than Done

It’s easy to understand why people would want an enterprise platform that required no coding and was simple enough for the everyday business user. There was, however, a very good reason that no one had created it yet – it was fundamentally very difficult to deliver. Making something that has inherently powerful capabilities – like enterprise-class automation – and yet simple to understand and use is nothing short of “the holy grail” of engineering. This article does a great job explaining the conundrum when it comes to combining complexity with simplicity. Making something that is basic and easy to use is the stereotype of simple. That’s most consumer software. At the same time, there is plenty of enterprise software that’s advanced but also looks exactly that way. It can’t be used without lots and lots of training. That’s what we‘ve learned to accept. It’s the stereotype of powerful. Even worse, there are many examples of basic technology that are much more complicated than they should be. Remember programming your VCR back in the 90’s?

Holy Grail

What we set out to develop with Workato is an elegant solution made possible with deep engineering of abstract technical details and, at the same time, relentless dedication to optimizing the end user experience. There aren’t many products like this around but the ones that got it right have prospered; Google makes the mechanics of searching the web look really easy, while the iPhone created a very powerful yet easy to use mobile device. That’s the kind of product we wanted Workato to be. We are continually working towards creating the most elegant solution for enterprise-grade integration!

How We Re-imagined Integration

Our next task was to figure out how we would make our product fulfill this grand vision. We knew the existing powerful integration tools, the very products we had all helped build, had become outdated. The growing number of apps being personalized by business users (think the growth of Shadow IT), rich interfaces, and large volumes of data (including big data solutions) meant that we had to re-imagine and build an integration platform for the 21st century. Furthermore, we had to take it beyond integration and into automation so that businesses could see value from the platform right away. Last, the challenge of simplicity vs. complexity – how can we build something that’s inherently powerful yet extremely easy to understand and use? This meant figuring out answers to these questions:

  • Handling Every Use Case
    • With the large number of app combinations and customizations that are done by businesses for each of the apps, how do we handle every integration and automation use case?
    • How do we make this such an integral part of the product that we don’t need any specialized implementation services team?
  • Rethinking UX
    • How do we make it so simple that a business user, who has a better understanding of their business needs, can build out the integration?
    • How do we empower every employee in the company, not just just IT, to harness the full power of their apps and be in charge?
  • Rethinking The Business Model
    • How do we come up with a model so that the large number of business users who are not technical can get and use Workato on their own?

It took us a good 2 years full of hard work, a few key breakthroughs and experimentation before we got to a point where we felt confident we could solve these difficult problems. The whole time, I maintained faith that if anyone could crack this nut, it was this team of integration, cloud, big data and consumer experts.

I. Handling Every Automation Use Case, Every App Combination, and Every App Customization

Businesses today use a plethora of apps and app combinations to suit their specific needs. These apps are customized in some form or another to address the specific needs of their business. For example, a company might use Salesforce to keep track of their clients, Marketo to run their marketing and lead generation, Netsuite to do accounting and so on. Within each of these apps, the company has created some form of customization, ranging from custom fields, custom business workflows, custom templates etc. IT departments in large companies spend a lot of effort and time just handling these customizations. An integration platform of the 21st century has to be able to handle these customizations and do it in a way that can be easily addressed by the business user as a business grows and changes.

This led to the birth of Workato Recipes, a simple approach to creating powerful automations and workflows. A recipe is a set of steps a user creates that completes work between two or several apps. These building blocks have the power to detect and remove duplicate records, work with multiple apps and multiple instances of apps, plus automatically detect errors and rollback transactions, and makes sure that every event is delivered – no matter what. Essentially, a Workato recipe can be as simple or as complex as you’d like it to be with multiple steps, manipulating data, embedding workflows/business logic, handling complexities around getting user inputs and lots more.

Even with the flexibility of recipes, we knew that as a startup, we could not personally build out every possible automation scenario and customization need of enterprises. We needed a way for our users to easily share their recipes, allow others to copy them, and ultimately build a community. This would not only help us address the various needs of the enterprise, but also reduce the cost of automation by reducing the overall implementation cost. So, we borrowed a page from GitHub and started building a strong community of customers, partners, citizen developers, and integration specialists who contribute their recipes on a regular basis. Now, with over 100,000 public recipes, we are seeing theory become a reality as a majority of our customers are finding recipes that meet their need in the community, cloning them, making them their own through small customizations, and sharing them back to the community.

II. Rethinking the UX

When it came to design and user experience, the big question we had was: “How can we provide the rich set of features that are desired by enterprises, in a way that is simple enough for anyone to build even the most complex recipes?” The answer came in a very surprising way – when I saw my 9-year olds (they’re twins!) playing around with MIT Scratch. They were building really fun games and animations without any coding by simply dragging-dropping things into place. Inspired by this, we got to work to figure out how we could replicate this experience. The idea of drag and drop was no longer revolutionary at this point – back at TIBCO BusinessWorks we had come up with the original visual wiring interface for integrations that included the ability to drag and drop boxes and flowcharts, manipulating them and more. Since then, this approach has become commonplace and is now used by pretty much by every integration platform out there.

mit scratch

At first, the drag-and-drop model from MIT Scratch seemed like a great alternative model. However, in the early evolution of this design at Workato, we found that the drag-and-drop UX that was so intuitive for my nine-year-olds was actually hard for adults. They were regularly stumped about what to drag and where to drop. We started talking to our potential users and the “A-ha” moment came when we realized that business users were used to writing out their automation requirements or explaining their use case in plain English. We struggled with this realization for quite some time – doing integrations with plain English language, or “scripting,” was contrary to industry standard which ironically favored the visual wiring interface we had created at TIBCO. Still, despite our skepticism and the general industry bias against scripting, every test we did showed that people were able to build integrations and workflows a lot faster by just writing out the steps of an automation in plain instructional English, like a cooking recipe, as compared to the visual drag-drop.

This led to the birth of our Chef UX technology, which lets you write your integration and how you’d like to automate your workflow almost completely in plain English. Judging by the fact that around half our users were able to have their apps connected and working together in less than an 10 minutes, I believe we are onto something here. The idea of scripting is still so uncommon in the market, that often when new customers first see our recipes, many ask us when we plan to build out a visual wiring model. Then they try it and are consistently amazed by how fast this system enables them to build out their integrations and how easy-to-read the automations are for others to reuse and re-purpose.

Workato Scripting

We still have a ways to go in making automation recipe building even easier, but the deliberate decision to use scripting while letting the platform do the heavy lifting in understanding and implementing these plain English directions seems like a step in the right direction that is here to stay.

III. Rethinking the Business Model

The last big hurdle was finding the right business model to ensure this new product could reach our intended audience which spans the spectrum between specialists and lines of business users in enterprises. Our belief that even non-technical business users require their integration to be robust, secure, automatically handle errors, remove duplicates, and lots more was the driving factor in the need to differentiate our business approach. In our past lives at TIBCO and Oracle, it was all about enabling large sales teams to sell large chunks of expensive software. We saw the same approach being followed by the other traditional integration platform providers. To be able to reach business users without compromising the power, extensibility, and governance by IT, we had to do something new. Thanks to my days at Qik, we were able to settle on the Freemium and community route. This way anyone can try our platform, start creating recipes, share them with others in the community, start automating their workflows, and see immediate value before paying.

high touch low touch

While traditional integration vendors offer a complex, “high touch” product at a high price, we created a powerful product that was “low touch” and therefore could sell at a lower price. In fact, we feel strongly that as a buyer, you should demand a “low touch” integration platform. This is your #1 indicator that you will get a “high productivity” integration platform. The physics are simple: the more “high touch” the integration platform, the less “high productivity” you will get.

Looking Ahead

The idea that integration can improve productivity by connecting apps and data has been talked about since the early 2000s. Our founding team has been involved in building some of the earliest platforms. Now we have come together once again to re-imagine integration and build a platform that not only helps you easily get your apps working together but more importantly, helps you and your business become more agile and productive.

Our ongoing goal with Workato is to create an enterprise-class integration platform that is at least 10 times more productive than existing ones and to offer it at a fraction of the cost to businesses of all sizes. We’ve made a huge amount of progress towards this goal and are incredibly excited to keep pushing the boundaries.

We are inspired by the recognition and support we are seeing from our customers, partners and now analysts and I would like to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart. Here’s to building a great future together.

If you haven’t already, try Workato for yourself and let us know what you think.

As always, we love any and all feedback.