Jason Bittner (CEO): Hi everybody! I’m Jason Bittner. I’m CEO of Triple Helix Corporation and this is our inaugural podcast for Triple Helix. We’re going to talk about some interesting, cool technology topics we think would be of some interest to you.
I’m here to introduce my two colleagues, my Senior Developer Andy Webster who has been with us quite a few years and my other Developer Sam Sheldon who has also been with us a few years. They’re going to join us today in talking about some of these exciting topics. So without further ado, I’d like to dive into it. So what we thought we would start with is Triple Helix builds enterprise quality web applications and at the heart of those applications is a database and while most people have heard about databases at some point, we wanted to dig a little deeper into what really is a database and why should you, as a technology person, care about them.
Take it away, Sam!
Sam Sheldon: So, a database is at its most basic level, where you’re going to store all of the data that your company is generating. You’re going to have data about your products. You’ve got data about your employees and about your orders, your invoicing, all that stuff. Storing that in a database means it’s all centralized. You don’t have to hunt down three different Excel spreadsheets. You don’t have to go find your files in your filing cabinet. Everything is all in one spot and everything can talk to each other. Your orders feed directly into your manufacturing process, which can feed directly into your invoicing process.
Jason Bittner (CEO): Awesome… Andy, why should we care about a database?
Andy Webster: Well, it’s kind of like – do you wanna store your data on top of a desk or do you want to sort it in a filing cabinet? That would be the kind of analogy I would use. A database is a lot more flexible. You can re-sort the data in many different ways and report on it. You can make nice pretty charts and stuff like that, which are great for presenting information to other people in your company. You can identify the demographic you want to sell to easily and the data in your system backs it up and shows it so you can really kind of get the whole picture versus doing it manually on a spreadsheet or on paper.
You really get a lot more power out of your data by having it nicely organized in a way you can just query it and pull it all together, where it’s easy to understand.
Jason Bittner (CEO): I think that’s an important thing you said there. Because like with a lot of organizations we work with, they have lots and lots of paper. They have lots of spreadsheets.
Sam Sheldon: Correct.
Jason Bittner (CEO): If they are a little bit organized, they might actually have an access database which at its heart is a file based system which limits access to set data so if you and your colleagues and everyone wants to actually get to the data, you know having a properly formed database for structured query language is actually the way to go. To your earlier point, you can put all the data in one place and then you can start to do things with it as opposed to paper and spreadsheets and white boards. We see a lot of white boards in our work that the data is essentially static and not reachable or usable by anybody.
So you know in the work that we do we actually build dashboards for folks quite a bit and in said dashboard development we actually, obviously, use a data source which is the end database. So talk to me a little bit guys about how we build our dashboards and why they’re useful for the folks that have them.
Andy Webster: I think I can take this. So we build our dashboards as like a way of kind of putting all of the relative information which our customers specify in one spot so they can kind of look at a bunch of different things at a glance and that’s important because you can just pop that open every day and see kind of the health of your company based on your live data so you don’t have to have somebody go and then reanalyze that over and over quarterly or whatever, you can just
go and take kind of a peak at one particular aspect and you know you can build your database any way you want to really so the sky really is the limit as far as that goes. You can have as much granularity as you need to and really be able to drill in like a really easy to understand kind of way so I think that’s kind of a good overview of a dashboard and whhy you would want one.
Jason Bittner (CEO): So why build a dashboard? Like why not just open up the software you’ve already gotten and use it? Why do we end up building these for folks as opposed to it coming with the software they bought?
Andy Webster: Hm, that’s a good question. Well, I think because you can integrate it into anything really. You can download data and send it out somewhere, I mean, you could do it in a spreadsheet but the weakness of that is that you are now within the flexibility of that spreadsheet so you’re kind of limiting yourself in a sense.
Jason Bittner (CEO): Got it. Sam?
Sam Sheldon: Yeah, so what I was going to add… One thing to add to what Andy touched on but didn’t dive into is how useful live data is for dashboards. Because sometimes your data is going to be changing on a daily basis, as you, you know, as products move through your manufacturing line. Things like that.
Your levels of inventory are going to change throughout the day. If your machines are down, things like that, dashboards can help you catch that. As it happens, you can see those changes in real time. And if you leave it open in such a way it’s visible to you, you don’t have to go into your ERP software necessarily to see this live data.
Jason Bittner (CEO): For the benefit of our listeners, what’s ERP mean?
Andy Webster: Stands for Enterprise Resource Planning but they’re just kind of a pre-structured database that is already set up to hold all of your companies day to day data and employees information… stuff like that so it kind of is already set up in that sense.
Jason Bittner (CEO): These ERP systems are basically very large software packages that companies have bought to run their organizations. We do a lot of work with manufacturing specifically so an ERP system as it relates to manufacturing helps these companies run the entire operation. That’s everything from getting information about the inventory, viewing reporting, etc.
Dashboards are built mainly because the ERP is not providing a complete sense of information and moreover a lot of ERPs don’t create a real time view of data. You very largely get a static view. You’ll have to ask for the data to regenerate manually. It’s not given to you in real time. So these dashboards we’re talking about allow you the ability to have the data really at your fingertips and built for exactly what you’re looking for.
I think both of you guys would agree with me when we go into these standard packages, the ERP is not providing what the end customer is looking for. It’s close but because they try to do a one size fits all package – it just doesn’t work. Every company is unique as is the dashboard and information they need to see. Building a dashboard is our way of giving a company a view of their systems and operations in the way they want to see it.
Andy Webster: I would agree with that.
Jason Bittner (CEO): This kind of brings us to another thing that’s a hot topic for Triple Helix.
Folks come to us and they have data challenges. They don’t know if they should get rid of their existing system and buy or build something new or maybe enhance (or what we refer to as augment) their existing system.
The question is – are you going to build something from scratch (completely custom software build) or are you going to take what you already own and augment it so that you don’t have to throw away what you’ve already bought?
Sam, why don’t you talk to me about what it’s like to build a completely custom software? We’re actually doing that right now with one of our customers, right?
Sam Sheldon: Yeah. So building a completely custom software starts with looking at all the data your customer has to look at and the processes they are currently working through. Whether that’s manufacturing, maintenance, etc, whatever the case may be.
You look at all their processes and all of the data that generates and then you kind of break it down into its component pieces. So for manufacturing, for example, you break that down into how orders come in. How do you manufacture products? How do orders get invoiced? Then you’ll look for ways to tie that together and figure out how best to store all of that data so you aren’t constantly repeating yourself.
For instance, you always want to know how many items you have in your inventory and you never want to have to repeat that anywhere. That’s the first step in figuring out how to organize all of your data, how to best set it up so you are not having to repeat anything and everything is organized. Then on top of that you build on things. Such as a custom dashboard. You build that on to support whatever process the company is going through.
Jason Bittner (CEO): What would you say is the advantage of a custom build though?
Sam Sheldon: Advantage of the completely custom build is that it’s completely custom. You’re not going to have to try to fit yourself into a box that most people fit into.
We are going to be looking at exactly what you need and you’re going to get exactly what you need, no more, no less.
Jason Bittner (CEO): So it’s completely built for a customer’s specifications is what you’re saying?
Sam Sheldon: Yes, exactly.
Jason Bittner (CEO): Got it. Andy, what do you think? What would be the benefits of an augment over a custom build?
Andy Webster: Well if you already are using an ERP and there’s just some specific reporting you need that your current ERP doesn’t supply or it’s really expensive to add it on, then you can look into an augmented solution. Basically what we do is pull from the ERP system into our own database and create new reports that don’t exist in the ERP currently so you can have custom reports on top of everything you already have with your ERP. I guess the benefits of that would be not having to junk your current ERP and learn a brand new solution. It would also be less expensive to augment and just add some stuff on to your existing ERP.
With an augmented system, we are able to just build on an application that does the additional things you need it to do. There’s a lot of leg work the ERP already does and you already have a lot of the data sitting there. It becomes less intense to reach your goals through augmentation. I’m not saying a custom solution is always going to take a really long time but depending on how big your operations are, an augmented solution could be a good option for you.
Jason Bittner (CEO): Yeah, in our work we typically find maybe one out of every ten billion custom builds because they are a little bit more involved since you are giving the customer exactly what they need. Whereas with an augmented solution we find that most of our customers may have already purchased software that’s very expensive and timely to implement… The idea of throwing it away is not very attractive.
We really have never seen better than an 80% fit with an out of the box ERP solution, so there’s always about 20% room where the ERP isn’t meeting the customer’s needs and they need something else to help them.
The idea with augmentation is building an application that can talk to that ERP and provide assistance where it’s needed. ERPs have a native database. Our applications have their own database. But these components are able to talk to each other and pull data to show things that normally aren’t able to be seen. We create a lot of applications for critical reporting.
The ERPs aren’t really great at producing data, especially data which is very unique to the customer and that the customer needs to be shown in a very specific way. We’ve found situations where augmenting is actually expanding functionality. We have a custom where their customers wanted to order products from them and they currently have an ERP in place that’s basically showing all of their inventory, what’s available, expiration dates, etc… but when somebody wants to order from them, it’s being done through spreadsheets that are emailed to the company, who then fulfills the orders by manually typing them in. This is very laborious. We were able to help them augment by creating a portal customers can log into and place their orders. Orders are then automatically placed into the ERP and properly formatted – providing functionality where it didn’t exist before.
In our practice, we’ve found a lot of companies invest in multiple systems – separate systems for finance, production, manufacturing, execution, etc. They might have a completely separate system for their inventory. They are manually adding data between different systems.
It’s a lot of extra effort. Let’s chat briefly about what it’s like to automate systems to talk with each other and why that’s important. Andy, I’ll start with you.
Andy Webster: Kind of what you touched on there with spreadsheets versus a direct connection.
When you have something set up in a database with an application layer behind it, you can make different databases talk to each other.
You can pull in the information from each database, sort it out in the application and make things that wouldn’t normally talk to each other communicate and filter the data between applications. You can pull information from one database, process it, and insert it into another relevant database because you have an application in the middle allowing you to do so which saves time over doing this manually. You may only have to edit a couple of fields here and there.
Sam Sheldon: Jumping off what Andy said… One of the big benefits of automation is that without automation, what you’re getting is downloading a spreadsheet from one system, making manual changes and having to manually upload to another system.
With automation, an application is able to remove the element of human error and do these things seamlessly.
Automation is going to do the same thing, the same way, every time. You don’t risk somebody typo-ing when changing a spreadsheet manually. You don’t have the risk of a spreadsheet not saving. Automation is basically a pipeline. No person has to actually interact with it for it to function.
It’s basically just magic. It goes from one piece of your system to another and you don’t have to think about it.
Jason Bittner (CEO): Magic, I love it. It’s kind of what we do here. We make a little magic, don’t we?
Sam Sheldon: There’s some types of magic computers are really good at.
Jason Bittner (CEO): Well I think that’s all we have for today. I just want to say thanks to Sam and Andy for chilling with me and talking a little bit about databases and why they’re important and why we like working with them.
They certainly add a lot of value to our customers especially if you have existing databases that are not talking to each other or in the case of a custom solution, you may not even have a way of organizing your data. Putting all of that information in an organized system is very useful. The entire planet runs on data and the ability to manage this data and put it in places where it’s efficiently accessed and used is critical. So for the folks that have actually invested in these ERP
systems, they are seeing the benefit of having them. But that’s just a component. You have to be able to use the data effectively to get the value out of it. It’s not much good if it’s just sitting somewhere in a spreadsheet or database but not actually being accessed and used. In our work, we do our best to expose the value of data for a company.
So thank you both for your time today and thank you everyone for listening. We’ll see you next time. Bye bye.