Appian CEO Matt Calkins: openness is the way to go

Appian this week rolled out tighter integration with Google's AI services as well as a new RPA orchestrator for managing software bots.

Credit: Appian

Appian founder and part-time board game designer Matt Calkins believes that "openness is the way to go" with regards to running the low-code software provider he founded in 1999, adding that - while there are no plans at present - he hasn't ruled out open sourcing some of the components across the platform.

Speaking at a roundtable during the company's Appian World conference in San Diego this week, Calkins has come off the back of a raft of announcements made earlier this week that include tighter integration with Google's AI services as well as a new RPA orchestrator for managing software bots.

The company has been especially busy in recent years writing 'connectors' for its platform so that other vendors' technologies can be pulled into the low-code platform - might it make sense just to publish all this code so that developers could do it upstream if they wanted to?

"If we had a long-term strategy to become open source, this would be a really good first step - to have the SDK, publish that, allow others to write components, host those components alongside our components, give our components away for free," Calkins said. "We're taking a lot of those early, openness steps. I don't know where that's going to lead - and I don't have a plan to open source anything - but it's at least an interesting step and an interesting direction we're taking."

Although the company positions itself as a 'low-code' platform, it also provides business process management and many other areas. When asked by another journalist if the company is selling itself short by focusing on the low-code approach, Calkins explained that the messaging is about simplicity, in a market that he believes is likely to become more crowded, including by the big cloud vendors.

"This is an important, fundamental part of your enterprise, you should be treating and thinking of it as such, and so I need a very simple term for it," he said. "That's the number one reason why I wanted to come up with one simple term... of course, every one of these terms, if it gets popular, will be highly contested.

"You'll have well-funded low performance competitors who try to drag down what the term means to a lowest common denominator. This is inevitable. It'll be even worse when we get even larger competitors in - let's say, someday, Amazon wants to be in low code. Well, they'll try to make low code seem even lower than Mendix made it seem. We're simply going to have to convey our own message."

He added that more closely aligning Appian's suite with the Kubernetes container orchestration platform has been something of a priority lately, and will continue to be in the coming months.

"We're putting a lot of work into that - that's one of our major initiatives last year, and this year, we feel that the technology is going to help us to be cloud portable, to be independent, it'll be in favour to our customers, who are now able to scale their application much more rapidly, by scaling only the parts of it that are under strain.

He points to the changes Microsoft has made over the past decade or so, "from being overly closed to extremely open, and just how that's transformed the prospects for the business. I think that's a lesson to everybody in the industry that openness is the way to go," he said.

Much of the messaging this week has been about the company's technology being used in the American public sector - including a US Department of Defense certification. Its conference party was even held on a destroyer that we heard was built during the start of the most recent war with Iraq.

Given that, is the company hoping to move more into the British public sector - especially given the tendency of many public sector agencies to build their own code from scratch - is there a way in for Appian?

"We didn't invent the app - everybody's out there building it, we just make it faster to build a powerful application," Calkins said. "So, there is a way in, and we have done some peripheral government work with the UK around the edge of the National Health Service."

One such partner is Serco, the public services supplier that was painted as having a "history of blunder and controversies" by an offshore law firm in the wake of the Paradise Papers leak, and that has consistently targeted the NHS for contracts. It also runs Appian platforms for contracts with the Ministry of Defence around RAF bases and refuelling stations, for instance.

"We're working closely with them on some UK bids - so I do hope that we'll find our way into the mainstream of the UK government market - today, I'd say we're on the fringe," Calkins said.

Finally, we asked if there had been any additional hurdles since going public on the Nasdaq in 2017, where at time of publication it is going for $34.15 a share, a healthy rise on its opening price of $17 back in 2017.

"A few, but not too many," said Calkins, who is also an economist. "I think for many companies it can be disorienting because it forces you to think short term, and it leads to bad behaviour. It also distracts people because they're watching the stock instead of doing their work. In our case I don't believe these things have been a problem... our ownership structure is such that we don't worry about getting fired by the shareholders if we have a bad quarter.

"So we can afford to look long-term like we always did, we make a point about how we don't pay attention to the stock price, so we've not suffered the problems that usually come with a public offering. Instead we've just gotten the good part, which is more publicity and more scrutiny by smart people to think about what the company should do."

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