Need to integrate a few apps to solve a business problem? There is recipe for that

Workato takes a community approach to app integration that makes sharing data so easy even non-technical users can do it

 Vijay Tella has been neck deep in application integration technology for years, first as the SVP of engineering at TIBCO, the company that introduced the information bus, and then at Oracle, where he helped launch the company’s booming middleware platform. Today Tella is founder and CEO of Workato, a company that is putting integration tools directly into the hands of app users.  Network World Editor in Chief John Dix recently caught up with Tella to learn more about how he is trying to democratize the world of app integration.

Workato founder and CEO Vijay Tella

Workato founder and CEO Vijay Tella

Does the company name mean something?

It stands for work automation.  We’re all about making it easy for business people to integrate their apps.  There are so many amazing apps in every category for every type of business, from small businesses like restaurants to Fortune 500 companies.  Often these apps are picked up not by IT people, but by business users.  They’re relatively inexpensive and each one does a great job for the specific thing they do. 

As a group, however, they become problematic because your customer information, your product information, order information, etc., all of this gets fragmented across different applications. The coordinated information you need to address the important things going on in your business becomes challenging when your work is spread across so many apps. 

Individually, the apps are productive, but as a group there are serious productivity issues with apps.  That’s the problem Workato has set out to solve.

What types of apps are you talking about? 

Everything from Salesforce to Netsuite and QuickBooks and, in bigger companies, ServiceNow and SAP to Oracle. It’s every possible kind of business app.  We work with pretty much any app that has an API exposed, but we also support those that support comma separated values and those that support REST (representational state transfer) style interfaces. We connect with thousands of apps. 

I was involved in creating some of the first technologies in application integration. I was part of the founding team of Tibco where we created something called an Information Bus that helped disparate apps talk to each other. It became a gold standard for application integration a long time ago.  And I helped start the Oracle Fusion Middleware platform, a multi-billion dollar business today.  The reason we have done Workato is to bring the power of Tibco and Oracle to users of all of these cloud apps, but enable them to do the integration themselves with little effort.

Give us an example.

Take a small business like a restaurant using an iPad at its point of sale to capture sales information and an accounting app like QuickBooks for their books. The sales information from the point of sale needs to be reconciled and saved and summarized in the general ledger and the data structures behind this daily sales information and general ledger are complex and you need to be able to map between them. 

Not only that, when you are syncing between these things, the sync needs to be robust.  If you end up ringing up the sale twice or you had duplicate data or you have some incorrect or bad data that you propagate from your point of sale to your accounting, it messes up your system in a really bad way.  The level of integration required needs to be solid, it needs to be robust, it needs to be able to handle the complex logic.  And often the people that are using it are nontechnical.  They don’t even want to know about this stuff, they just want it to work.

As you get into larger business and more complex apps like Salesforce, NetSuite or SAP, the requirements for enterprise grade, robust integrations escalate.

The problem we set out to solve is to bring the power of robust enterprise integration to nontechnical business users, from small businesses to enterprises.  In small businesses, it is mostly about automating manual work. In larger companies it is about automating cross functional workflows across different departments.

Integrating everything under the sun seems impossible on the face of it, so describe how you work that magic.

There are literally thousands of apps out there and millions of work groups using those apps.  One of the key things we did was embrace a community dynamic. 

You’re familiar with GitHub? It’s an amazing community for developers, where if I want a charting tool for a program, on GitHub there are probably 20 public domain charting tools I can consider.  So I pick one, copy it, make any variations I want, and that’s it.  You can have private code on GitHub but a lot of the innovation happens in the public domain there.  GitHub is a multimillion dollar company, but the value of GitHub is not what the GitHub engineers have done; it’s the community that makes it an amazing thing. 

The approach we’ve taken is very much like GitHub.  The key concept at Workato is a thing called a recipe.  A recipe is an English-like set of instructions.  It’s a conversational way of describing how apps should work together, what information from what app is going to what app and in what condition and how it is transformed, all that stuff.  These recipes are designed to be fundamentally shareable and, by default, recipes are public on Workato.  Earlier this month we passed 100,000 public recipes. 

Each recipe is like a little mini-app for integrating specific apps.  If you’re looking to integrate, for example, QuickBooks or Netsuite with Salesforce, we have hundreds of recipes that do that.  They are variations of each other.   You consider your process and then go find something that works for you exactly or something that is close enough that you can tweak to your liking, because it is English-like and very conversational. 

It is designed to be easy to create new recipes, but it’s even easier to tweak an existing recipe. The goal for our community is to have 1% of people creating original recipes, 9% making variations of existing apps, and 90% simply finding what they want and running with it. Today, about 70% percent of people who come in find an existing recipe and go with it and 30% are either creating new or making changes to existing recipes.

Do you create any of these recipes yourself?

Partnerships have always been a big part of Workato. When you’re capturing orders from Salesforce and generating an invoice in Intacct, it’s a specific scenario that people at Salesforce and Intacct know.  We partner with several dozen ISVs, including Intacct, ServiceNow, Zendesk, Marketo and QuickBase, all sorts of companies, and we work with them to create a set of curated recipes that are good seeds for the community. 

So we create some and our ISV partners create others. Some of the most active people at Workato are these consulting partners, big enterprises to small consulting companies that create recipes.  They can keep the recipes private or open them up for anybody to consume.  The benefit of opening them up is when other people improve those recipes you also get the benefit.

When you look at recipes at Workato you can see how many companies are using a particular recipe.  When we see some core scenario emerging, we feature some of them.  So if you are searching, say, for an app for organizing a sales event and you want to take all the attendant information and load that into a marketing automation tool like a MailChimp, we’ll show a prioritized list of recipes. 

We have a lot of private recipes in the system too.  When you’re creating a recipe you feel is proprietary to how you’re doing business and you don’t want to share it, you can keep it private.  But when you have your recipe in the public domain it gets more use, and the more it gets used the more robust it becomes and the more it benefits you.

How about giving us a few more common use cases.

Take marketing automation. American Kennel Club uses Marketo to organize campaigns for different dog products and they have an ecommerce engine called Shopify. They use Workato to reconcile who is buying products with the campaign used.  That means their follow up is smart.  They’re not going to try to sell something

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