Podcast | Democratizing Automation? Find out why Microsoft Power Platform has you in mind (and low-code/no-code)

Jean
Shin

Director, Strategy & Content | Podcast Host of Mobile Interactions Now

18min Podcast
Podcast - Democratizing Automation

In this episode, we check in with Jason Gumpert, Editor at MSDynamicsWorld. We’ll be going over the latest on Microsoft Power Platform, and its latest features that businesses can use to build low-code applications and automated processes that could work based on triggers and integration points with other systems.

Podcast Transcript

Jean:

Jason, welcome to the show. First off, a huge thanks for being my first guest who's also a podcast host. And your show, MSDynamicsWorld happens to be something I actually listen to. So I love it.

I'm looking at a lot of broader scope of integrations across stacks, mobile communications being a big part of it to make customer interactions work better, I would love you to just catch us up with the latest on Microsoft Dynamics and Power Platform, and other related solutions that help that initiative. But before I get totally lost in that, I would love you to just introduce yourself. We did a little intro in the beginning, but I'm sure the audience will love to hear it from you.

 

Jason:

Absolutely. Thanks, Jean, for having me. My name is Jason Gumpert, as you said. I'm the editor msdynamicsworld.com as well as another site that we've recently launched in mscloudnews.com, focused a little more on sort of the Azure business from Microsoft and what's happening there.

 

Jason:

But yeah, with MS Dynamics World, or MSW as we often call it, it's a site that we founded over 12 years ago at this point, and it's an independent news source focused on the news around Microsoft business application. So at the beginning, that was really Dynamics applications and really on-premises Dynamics applications, CRM, AX, GP, NAV. Jumping ahead, I mean, almost all those names are gone now. They've been replaced or evolved into primarily a cloud-focused suite, and it now includes Power Platform.

So yeah, I'm the editor. I write some of the articles on the site. I also work with all of our contributors and our writing team to do coverage. And it ranges from product news to channel news, which is a very big thing in the Microsoft space obviously with channel partners who are ISVs, who do services and systems integration type of work, customer stories.

In terms of the site itself, on the other side there's the editorial side which I manage, and there's also a lot of branded content. So for people doing research into solutions or research into different areas that they need to learn more about, whether it's industry-focused solutions or best practices on a certain business process or a certain area of capabilities, we offer a lot of that kind of content as well. As you said, we run a podcast that I've been doing for several years at this point.

 

Jean:

Now Microsoft as a brand seems to be going through a renaissance in a way. Can you just give us a quick trip down the memory lane and bring us to the Power Platform, which is relatively new, and how they all fit together these days?

 

Jason:

Sure. Power Platform really came into existence about five years ago, and it started with PowerApps and Flow as two products. And they were really meant to, I think you would say augment the business solutions that Microsoft already had. So they already had a CRM. They had at least four ERPs. They had, all of them are now considered legacy, but one for enterprise and like three essentially for the mid market and lower, even a sort of SMB I guess you would say market.

They introduced PowerApps and Flow at that time, sort of branded each on their own, one for building low-code applications and the other for building sort of automated processes that could work based on triggers and based on integration points with other systems.

And really, it's been I would say a pretty steady evolution since then where they've taken these PowerApps and Flow ideas, they've really built them out into what's now called Power Platform, which is still those two things, and added additional tools to that Power Platform in terms of things like virtual agents, which is essentially sort of bots that are pre-built to an extent so that they're easier to create than starting with code. And they've sort of wrapped in this portals tool that they acquired several years ago that also fits nicely into that platform.

It's been led by James Phillips, who's sort of the president of the Microsoft Business Applications Group. So, I mean, if you ever get a chance to sort of see him speak, he gives a really nice sort of Microsoft view of a sort of pitch or sort of vision of what it's all about.

And yeah, that's sort of where it all started. And I was looking back even further and I think there are some even predecessors to Power Apps and then Flow, things like GigJam, I was looking it up, which was something that was sort of introduced in 2015. And I don't know if it was a direct predecessor to PowerApps, but there were a few projects like that. Maybe some of your listeners might even remember some of them if they follow Microsoft, but different sort of prototype and experimental projects that Microsoft put out that were pushing into this idea of a new model for drag and drop applications that can pull in controls and integration points from various other products. So at the time, things like Skype, Outlook, probably Office, Office solutions, and putting together new kind of composite apps and composite processes that build off of what people are already doing and streamlining it.

So I think that was sort of where they started with it. And really, they've just been trying to sort of build that out and make it appeal more to enterprise customers and people in various industries and with various roles, whether it's on the sales and customer service side or more operational.

 

Jean:

So one way I was trying to relate to this in terms of getting some of the business users, some of the people who are not really heavy developers, to Power Platform was...We understand low-code, no code, but it's just that in practice, remember how Microsoft bot framework worked…so, rather than having to actually build from that…by using virtual agent tools on Power Platform, it just gets you there a little quicker and easier. And that's the whole concept behind the power part of the power platform, to help what they're calling citizen developers in a way…or is it more for more heavy lifters, like system integrators et. al? What's the user base here?

 

Jason:

Yeah, that's sort of the vision. The vision is that they have something for every possible role in an organization. So some of these Power Platform tools like the virtual agents or Power Automate, mostly it's built on Azure services that are much more like raw Azure services. And they put frameworks around them so that if you are a real developer or a solution architect or an enterprise architect, you can map out your own pure sort of from the ground up solution using just raw software as a service or various Azure services and build from there, write your own code and just call on these services to deliver messages to create sort of much more low level frameworks on which you can build I should say.

But when it comes to Power Platform, they've taken a lot of those same services and they've put these wrappers over them so that someone who's not a developer can come in and can do a slightly more restricted set of things, but can do them very quickly. And they don't need to call on a developer and put it into an IT team's queue of sort of new projects to put together. They can do it themselves to a much larger extent. And maybe you need someone with sort of 25% of the skills of a typical developer, someone who has some technical acuity. Some of it you can do with someone who has almost none.

And that's really I think part of their grand vision, is that they put this set of services and tools in place that the whole organization can take advantage of at the right time. And part of that is I think reducing the load on the IT department and maybe the developers in that IT department in a larger organization.

 

Jean:

I can totally embrace that, but I'm going to bring it to something closer to today's topic in a way…what it really means from the enterprise's point of view, especially because the CX stack, customer experience stack is becoming a huge topic, at least in my space, and really look at what it means for those folks who are trying to put all those components together to make the experience work on mobile phones that consumers are walking around with these days.

 

Jason:

When it comes to sort of Microsoft's CX application stack, one of the challenges is understanding what should you be buying from Microsoft out of the box, like fully developed applications, like the Dynamics 365 solutions that deal with sales and customer service and field service and all the sort of capabilities that go along with that pre-built, or whether you want to take something like Power Platform and build it yourself, or some mixture of the two.

And that's really where you get into a bit of complexity and where there's not a single answer for everybody. It's something that I think the whole ecosystem is sort of wrestling with or looking for some clear guidance on. I think that's where, for example, system integrators are trying to give a lot of guidance right now whether you want to go all in on building your own things or whether you can really find a use for what's been prebuilt. Obviously there's a higher cost for providing the prebuilt features that Microsoft builds, a lower cost for building it yourself in terms of licenses, but more work and more sort of maintenance costs to kind of keep those apps fresh and developed, but obviously more power to control them and have them do exactly what you want.

 

Jean:

We talked about Power Platform, but the thing is, the whole ecosystem of Microsoft, it just expands across. So I think who is initiating that project probably has a lot to do with the team makeup of it and eventual decision. What you see more of these days?

 

Jason:

Yeah, I definitely agree with you. That seems to be a big debate. And when I talk to different companies, they say the same thing. I mean, organizations are starting from different points, where some are very IT-driven and IT makes all the decisions, and in other organizations, what you see is almost the opposite, where they will sort of get their hands on something like PowerApps and some sort of enterprising individual users who really like that kind of thing. They start building a few little apps to improve their productivity. And then they find from that that they really like it. And then IT is then sort of playing catch up to support them because we now have these apps floating around in our Microsoft environment. We need to make sure that no one's sort of building out the wrong integrations, that data privacy is being handled properly. So it really varies from organization to organization.

 

Jean:

If there is a business imperative…from the situations I’m more familiar with, I go into meetings, and when we talk about Microsoft Dynamics or other CRMs and related solutions…it usually comes in after talking about, "Okay, this is what consumers are wanting, so we have to get to it. We have to have some conversational channels fired up, and oh by the way, can all those conversations be saved on my CRM?" which happens to be Dynamics or something like that. And then you open that discussion and you start having an IT department discussion. And then we’re like, "Okay, to what extent or to what kind of features you really need to support?"

 

Jason:

Products or Power Platform products. It's not out of nowhere. It's coming from a history of investments in other capabilities. Those investments have already been made to some extent. So I guess my point is that a project that brings in Microsoft products, isn't starting from a green field of nothing. It's usually starting from a place where they have sort of existing processes, existing systems, and looking for a way to either migrate or add these capabilities.

And that's where it gets complicated, especially I think when it comes to customer data, whether it's chat and conversational data that already has pathways into the system, or whether it's trying to re-imagine it completely. My sense is that when these companies do sit down and really plan it out, do some demos, see sort of what the capabilities of the various tools are, they're all mapping out a very sort of unique path there, especially in larger enterprises where there's a huge amount of data. And it usually involves some combination of data migration, of building out services and integration points and triggers and so forth to really suit their needs. So they're not losing data there, they're minimizing obviously the size and the scope of projects, but still getting enough value out of any new tools they're buying that they can show a net increase in the way they serve their customers.

Do we build something out to really suit exactly what we need or can we start fresh with sort of some of these much deeper products that do multichannel sort of customer engagement, or that do detailed analysis of all the touch points that our customers are having with us right now, versus building something from just using sort of fundamental parts and creating something custom?

 

Jean:

Do you see Power Platform as something that is separated out? From all these different clouds and platforms, is it pretty easy to navigate across as a citizen developer?

 

Jason:

Yeah, I mean, I think that's one of the strengths of it, is that if you can navigate between... It takes a little bit of learning, but I can understand it and I don't actually own any of the systems. I mean, I think that they've created a paradigm that that is pretty easy to navigate, going from being a developer or a solution architect in an IT department perhaps to having some other role in the business and being able to look at what the various components are,

When it comes to Power Platform, there are still sort of two camps in my view. A lot of this did come out of the Dynamics group at Microsoft and a lot of it was sort of built, at least to an extent, saying Power Platform will extend Dynamics. It'll allow you to build custom customizations on top of it. It came out of this XRM movement, which was part of the Dynamics CRM world, where developers who worked on Dynamics CRM would build other kinds of like relationship management tools, not just customer relationship, but managing a bunch of apartments or managing rental cars, or any kind of entity you could sort of have data about and relationships between sort of entities, there was that kind of thing [inaudible 00:14:52] XRM.

So Power Platform now covers that, but it also covers this idea of I'm just going to build a simple app from scratch with no sort of basis in any other system that we have. And when you get into that world, a lot of those people don't deal with a CRM system or they don't care about customer experience. They're dealing with some other challenge in their day-to-day work.

And over the years, those two different camps have sort of evolved. So depending on who you ask, they might say like, "Oh yeah, Power Platform is what I use to manage my SharePoint lists," and they've never heard of Dynamics, they've never touched it. And other people might look at it simply as a way to build new interfaces for their Dynamics system. That's the main reason they use Power Platform, is to automate the way data flows into Dynamics or the way certain roles need to use that data.

When you talk about Power Platform in particular, one of the big, big effort seems to be making it palatable, making it very, very friendly to the needs of the enterprise client, as opposed to the mid-market client. And that gets into governance and sort of IT policy stuff, and just really scalability, which I think you touched on a while ago. Like at a giant organization with lots of departments, lots of sort of offices around the world perhaps, different lines of business even, how do you sort of harmonize all of these different roles and let them all sort of use this stuff, make it cost effective, but also make it safe to use and not chaotic? That enterprise-grade, sort of proving itself as an enterprise-grade set of solutions and the industry would be the two that come to mind first I think.

 

Jean:

That's really interesting. When it comes to enterprise solution, the geography has a couple of implications, it’s not only the scalability, but also the whole security part of it as well. Do you see  any regional differences in the community size, where there are more people?

 

Jason:

It kind of varies by product, I would say. And to your point, I think when you talk about individual countries, Microsoft certainly has plans, especially with its cloud, where it sort of adds cloud presence. Oftentimes it'll go into individual countries, Germany, Switzerland, China, all sorts of different countries, with an offering that will work in that country. And I know Germany in particular, I know that there's the need to let organizations that are based in the country keep all their data in the country, keep all their processing of services in that country too. And that's obviously a very big market for Microsoft, for any enterprise software vendor out there.

Some of the US data centers are certainly some of the busiest that Microsoft has as far as I know. I think where you see data centers going up, I think all of these other services will follow. Power Platform follows the data centers. Azure services follow the data centers. So that's kind of a good measure I think of at least gauging where Microsoft sees the most opportunity.

Part 2 of the interview with Jason Gumpert will be released in two weeks, following this release of Part 1.