OTSE1 – No-Code Solutions, Training, Executive Buying, and the personal brand with Asif Rehmani

We’re excited to release our inaugural episode, the first of hopefully many, of On the SPOT. Thanks for listening, and don’t hesitate to let us know what you think!

Episode 1 with Asif Rehmani

Recorded Saturday July 1, 2017. Hosts Jay Leask and Craig Jahnke introduce the podcast, themselves, and kick off our first show with guest Asif Rehmani, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of VisualSP.

#spotpodE1 <– join in the conversation

In today’s episode we cover:

  • A bit about us
  • News (starting at 4:35)
  • Interview with Asif Rehmani (starting at 16:23)
  • Coming Next Episode – Microsoft Inspire Recap (starting at 51:29)

News

  • Office 365 turns 6 [ @mkashman ]
  • Microsoft releases Communications Sites [ Office Blogs ]
  • iPhone turns 10 [ ZDNet ]
  • Google Docs Phishing Scams [ CNET ]
  • 2.5 million people fall victim to Ransomware  [ Tech Republic ]
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) to combat malware in Windows vNext [ Engadget ]
  • InnSpire builds a computer into Ethernet Cables [ ZDNET ]
    Editors note: Jay called it InnCable in the show, which is actually the product name

Interview with Asif Rehmani

The below questions paraphrase Jay and Craig’s side of the conversation with Asif, the answers are his own words.

Can you tell us a bit about you and how you got into SharePoint?

Asif: I got thrown into SharePoint, I didn’t choose to be here; but a lot of people have the same story, where they’re like “Oh here’s a thing called SharePoint, figure it out, do this document management or search or something for us, for our company” and then “oh yeah, you have these other 10 things as well”. This was a common theme when I was starting out and within the first 5 years, so back in 2002 is when I started out, and a lot of people were getting throw into this thing called SharePoint. I got thrown into it by a company I was consulting for at the time, who wanted to get into Document Management and had no other way of doing it and Microsoft was proposing they use SharePoint. It was a horrible product, in SharePoint 2001, if anyone remembers, but it became a lot better in SharePoint 2003 and from there it kept on getting better and better and better … [2007] was the ultimately the year it became what it is right now. Because SharePoint 2003 was also fairly bad, if I may say so bluntly, and 2001 was horrible. That’s how I got into it.

You say you entered SharePoint begrudgingly, are you happy with the direction you’ve come?

There is, of course, a reason I’m still going very strong with SharePoint. Just because it began with a really rocky start, that doesn’t mean it ended that way, of course. And a long the lines of SharePoint 2007 on forward it has become an extremely strong product. So strong that I’ve actually looked around to there competitor products, I don’t want to name any specific ones, but you guys all know which ones I’m referring to, and honestly nothing comes close to providing the feature set and integration that SharePoint offers. That’s the reason I’ve stuck around and I’m still going very strong into SharePoint and Office 365 space. Absolutely, it has a great future ahead of it.

What inspired you to write the AvePoint blog post “SharePoint 2016 Productivity Features: Easy Ways to Get More Bang for Your Buck“?

My background in SharePoint since I began and even until right now is how to make it easy for people to get the most impact for what they need to accomplish. I don’t look at SharePoint as a product, I look at it as a platform that you can build whatever you want on. My inspiration has always come from people and challenges that I see out there in the businesses. You know, people struggling to have a easy to use form solution, or a automation solution, or a presentation, or reporting, or dashboard; things like that. And sometimes I tell people “SharePoint is not the right answer for you”. Most times that is not the case, SharePoint is the right answer, but sometimes it’s not.

My reasoning for this particular article … is people need to understand the capabilities that SharePoint 2016 has. In terms of how easy it is to make, for example, forms, and automate those forms, and have an end to end solution set that you can gather information, automate that information to the right people for approval, report on that information. All that stuff using Power Apps, Flow, and on the back end you can use Reporting Services or a general SharePoint dashboarding tools to report on data. All that stuff is very easy to [use] if people understand what they can and cannot do. The thing that I like the best about this platform is there are so many things that I just talked about this platform, and many more, that don’t require any programming experience to make happen. No code ways of getting some really, really awesome solutions out there quickly, easily, rapidly. We live in an era where things are moving so quickly that if you don’t do things quickly and you wait for a developer team to get things done, sometimes they’ll never get done, other times it’ll get done way beyond when it was actually needed.

We live in an era where things are moving so quickly that if you don’t do things quickly and you wait for a developer team to get things done, sometimes they’ll never get done.

What skill set do I need to hire for no-code solutions?

You’re not [looking for a .NET developer anymore]. Having said that, many people who call themselves SharePoint Developers start with the .NET or the development side of things first, which in my opinion, is a mistake. The skill set that executives, and I’m also an executive/CEO of VisualSP, the thing that I look for when I’m looking for adding people to our team would be somebody who has an understanding of the business challenges and then the capabilities of the platform. Honestly, I look at the SharePoint Developers almost as something I DON’T want on my team. That is something that I can outsource fairly easily these days, but what I really need is somebody who can understand the business challenges and the value propositions of what can be done with the product with or without the help of third party products.

There’s a term I like to use, I know it’s not a formal term, but it describes most people very well, is the SharePoint Gal, or the SharePoint Guy. The person who is in the middle of the development team and the executives. The person who understands both sides of things but is not truly an executive nor is he truly a developer. Now when somebody goes out and is looking for a SharePoint person, they’re probably not going to put SharePoint Guy or SharePoint Gal as the title – though it should be [the LinkedIn title], there’s no better title than this. But a SharePoint Architect or a SharePoint Program Manager, an Intranet Manager; those things are the ones that real SharePoint Guys and Gals use to describe themselves. So I would say look for those titles. Definitely, at least in my case, I’m not looking for SharePoint developers at all because they’re going to be looking at doing everything programmatically, and that’s not what I’m looking for.

Sometimes I like to draw these things out, so let me see if I can draw a mental picture. My kids, I remember when they were growing up, they had some pretty big Legos. Those big Legos, they could use three or four of them to make a structure, and they were really happy with what they could build with those three or four Legos. As they got older, they had more smaller and smaller pieces of Legos and they started making a lot of enormous structure,s but hundreds of pieces. I feel this thing happens with developers a lot. They start out doing things the easy way, and then they go deeper and deeper and deeper, and the Legos get smaller and smaller and now they ave so many different things they are using to make these structures. There’s nothing wrong with this, but they forget the big pieces exist, and those big Legos are the no-code structures that I’m talking about.

For example, picking up Power Apps, or picking up SharePoint Designer, or picking up Flow and making things happen quickly! When I say quickly I mean within ten minutes! Something that I used to do with hours or weeks of times. That’s possible these days. It’s always good to know what I can do quickly without going the hard way. There’s no reason sometimes of doing it the hard way.

When I say quickly I mean within ten minutes! Something that I used to do with hours or weeks of times

I’ve had many people come to my classes before and say “man, I wish I knew what you taught me these last four days. I would have not spent the four months that I did making this, for example, workflow from scratch. I could have done it with just Flow, or SharePoint Designer very easily. So it’s good to know what’s possible, not saying that programming and developing is not important, it very truly is, but for many different kinds of things you can live without it, especially for quick prototyping, quick rapid development, until you’re at the point you need to make a true enterprise solution with extreme detail; and that’s where you go to programming. Not from the start.

You’re talking about Rapid Prototyping – this is a completely different type of model from the typical development mind set where you have a long process of developing business cases, requirements gathering, developing software, etc …

Rapid prototyping is when we start using these tools to accomplish, yes, but many times the actual prototype becomes the production ready solution; still using the same no-code solutions. But, it is true that many times you get to a point months later, or maybe even years later, where you realize “now I need to move to the programming side of things,” but it is also true that for many solutions you never get to that point; you’re OK going the no-code way forever. That I’ve seen many times as well.

How do you approach getting people to use these new tools when the pace of new tools is often faster than it takes people to learn the old ones?

Well hopefully things are not changing that quickly that half-way down learning one tool this one becomes defunct. I’ve seen the tools we have had still have a fairily long lifecycle. Of course they do get replaced eventually by other tools, so let’s talk specifics.

SharePoint Design for an automation workflow tool, Infopath has a form tool. Now both of them are evolving to Power Apps for forms, and Flow for workflow, right? But even right now there’s still some really good use cases to continue to use InfoPath and use SharePoint Designer. I’ve even advised people to use both in certain instances because neither of them could accomplish everything they wanted to accomplish, so they’re using both things in tandem. At the end of the day, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t force anybody to use anything. It comes down to asking “what’s in it for me? Why should I care about what you care about, Asif?” And you have to make that case for them: what is YOUR pain point? What are you trying to accomplish? What is it going to help you with your work, your career progression, how you make an impact on your organization? And that’s when you put a tool, if needed, into play.

It comes down to asking “what’s in it for me? Why should I care about what you care about?”

[An example]: What you’re telling me, for example, is that you have a process for on-boarding people. Currently people are just sitting there, from an HR perspective, and it takes some time, [let’s say] one day, to actually get started with their new equipment. Some of these precedures that you have right now, could you automate some of these things? If yes here’s a good automation tool you, or someone on your team could use, maybe SharePoint Designer or Flow, to automate the tools. Would you like that? Would that help you to go from a day to half a day? The answer of course is going to be “Yes, absolutely! Show me how. Or show my team member how to do it and we’ll do it.” So it has to come from the progression of what they need or what their pain point is, to what they need in terms of tools. [it can’t be] hey check out this shiny new tool, check out what it can do. That is never the answer.

How does an executives leadership fit into getting people to use, but more importantly, WANT to use the tools?

[ From AvePoint.com blog “Successful SharePoint Adoption: 5 Ways Executives Can Help” ]

[As an exutive] the motivation will come from the fact of “what’s in it for [the employee/end user]”. Anybody that I have seen try to do it the other way around, as here’s what I want for my company or here’s this thing I want, it has never worked. Human behavior is always thinking about “what’s in it for me”. It’s not a selfish way, that’s not what I’m saying, it’s more about the self satisfaction that I’ll get for helping others, helping my company, or helping my team. Still that’s something that’s in it for them.

So you (1) Motivate them to get them to that point where it’s there idea, not your idea. It has to be their idea. Then you (2) Guide them, “alright, here are the different options you have”, then let them choose. Whatever makes the most sense for them. Once you have that guidance done, you (3) Enable them with the right tools in their hands to do the job. Once that’s done you (4) Inspire them, obviously, afterwards to get them going. Maybe do it with them, or get them the right mentoring that’s need to get them inspired enough to make it happen, and if they do a good job, obviously, you (5) Reward them.

So the reward part of it is very necessary as well, that recognition. I’m not saying money, or material things like that. sometimes the recognition or appreciation goes a long way. And that reward, all of us need for us to start the cycle all over again, because if you don’t get that reward at the end you won’t be motivated to try something new. So that’s, in a nutshell, that’s how I perceive these five steps.

How important do you see the top down model for new tools?

I personally am an executive as well in our company. VisualSP is not that big, about 12 people, but at the same time I feel that if the support is not there from my level or the executive team level, that others who actually do the work won’t be as motivated. The top executives have to be really bought into the direction that the company needs to take for others to pay attention and actually do the job. If the buy-in at the executive level is not there nothing is going to happen, or it’s going to happen but it’s not going to be sustainable in the long run.

If the buy-in at the executive level is not there nothing is going to happen, or it’s going to happen but it’s not going to be sustainable in the long run.

I think it’s extremely important for the top-down support to be there right at the beginning. For people to understand why it’s important to the executive, why it’s important to the company. And then once the why is accomplished, “what is my role”, “why should I care”, “how am I making the impact”, “what’s in it for me .. to help the others as well”, “and at the end of the day, how do I make this impact for the company as a whole”. All these things need to be thought about from the top down as well; it cannot be some individual or small department that goes rogue and makes all the stuff happen [using flow, etc].

What are your thoughts on grass-roots efforts?

The grass-roots efforts, many times do start out [but] never take hold and die out because they were never able to get the executive support. In fact, a good friend of mine … went from a very recognizable company where she was making some amazing impact to a different company, and that’s the reason she told me that she left. “Asif, I never got the executive support that we needed to make the impact we were trying to make for years” and this is a really, really impactful ,talented individual, who left the company because she could never get the executive buy-in for her efforts and what she was trying to accomplish with her team in SharePoint. So grass-roots efforts are great, but they have to establish that credibility and that effect to the upper management otherwise it will, eventually, fizzle out, unfortunately.

What are some of the top pain points you’ve seen in the SharePoint platform?

How to make use of the platform [itself]. If you remember the decision Microsoft made, I’m not talking about SharePoint for a moment; Microsoft made the decision in approximately 2007, to go with [the Office application] interfaces to go from File menus to Tabs, and everybody complained at that time – “Oh this doesn’t make sense, we want our menus back”. The main reasoning for this was not the lack of features that the product had but the lack of usage that the product was getting. They went this route to make things easily accessible to people and much more contextual. “Here’s what you need because you’ve clicked inside a table — add a row, add a column”. It was just not that easy to do before that.

I see this pain point still, unfortunately, exists with SharePoint. When people get stuck it’s not easy for them to find the help they need, where they need it. This pain point is something that has been a thorn on my side for some time. Teaching people how to do things is one thing, but making things available to them when and where they need it is the most important thing. That pain point, unfortunately, still exists. Companies, including [VisualSP] but others as well ,are all acting towards that main pain point from all different facets to make it easier for the end user.

When I make a presentation like this and talk about this main pain point I show a big jumbo jet and I talk about this huge jumbo jet. I say “Think of this as your SharePoint environment. It’s beautiful, lots of space in side, so many things you can do with it. Go from A to B in luxurious style, but then once you look inside the jumbo jet, if you only see a few people, or you see nobody, what’s the point of this hole thing? this expense, this thing that you did?

You need to have end-user buy-in, end-user simplicity to how they can use a product; that should be your first priority, not your last priority.

You need to have end-user buy-in, end-user simplicity to how they can use a product; that should be your first priority, not your last priority. Without users everything that you do is useless. Then I also give an example of companies like Craig’s List. Look at their site, even after a decade of them being in existence, it’s not fancy, but the usability and the usage of a side like that – there’s so much out there, but why? Because they get what they need from it quickly, easily, fast.

How do you make SharePoint and Office 365, for that matter, to that point. Where things are simple, not complex. They get to what they need quickly. And yes, for people who want to dig further, you make it so they can dig further to what they want, but how did they get to what they need to do quickly to get their job done. Because at the end of the day all these people are end-users and officer works; they’re not SharePoint end-users, they are end-users who have a job and they just happen to do that job with SharePoint or with Office 365, and we always want to keep that in mind.

Can you tell us about how VisualSP solves this problem?

I’ve been a trainer for a very long time and I had been teaching all different features, etc, but I had that realization about 6-7 years ago: it doesn’t matter how much I teach them these things. At the end of the day if the end-users are not using these things then it’s all useless. We actually pivoted our company at that point to provide a context sensitive product to help you communicate whatever it is you need to communicate to people what, and where they need it. It’s a little bit harder to do in an audible manner compared to if I do it visually, but imagine: currently if somebody has an issue or a question when they’re looking at a list of managing resellers for a company, and they have a question on this metadata, where do I go for help? You usually probably call somebody, or email somebody, and say “hey what is this thing over here?”

How can you get them the help they need right in their working environment, when and where they need it. That’s the main goal, main vision, for VisualSP

There’s nothing that is easily accessible directly in my work environment, on my screen, to get me the help I need at the time I need it. We tried to solve that challenge of how can you get them the help they need right in their working environment, when and where they need it. That’s the main goal, main vision, for VisualSP.

How do you convince prospective customers that spending the money on [training] add-ons for their solution?

Something that Microsoft themself is doing right now, is looking at the usage of what they have put out. Namely, Office 365. When they see the telemetry data of how much or how little something is getting used, that’s where the put more backing behind [a product]. We tell the customers very simply that “just because you have all these things doesn’t mean they’re getting used”. [You need to look at] what is not getting used, number one, and number two, what about the support that you or your support team has to provide right now? How much money are you paying for that?

The reduction of support costs is a big driver for what motivates people.

The reduction of support costs is a big driver for what motivates people.”Yes, I want things to be easy for people; I want support tickets to go down. I want the process to just work” and when they see it for themselves with the analytics that it’s not working it’s that simple. Either [they] get a person to just go from end-user to end-user to end-user to say “Can I help you? Can I help you?” and help everybody in person, which is never going to happen; or [they] get some kind of a system or something that they can get the help they need where they need it. Then track the support ticket reduction, which we have been able to prove that there’s a 28%, usually, reduction in support tickets, when a company uses our product. At the end of the day it all comes down to cost. What is your cost, today, for running your SharePoint environment without a product like ours. I’m not saying ours is the only, or the best product, but something like ours is needed because it’s not built into SharePoint.

For listeners who want to build their own personal brand, can you talk about how you were able to build your brand?

My secret sauce is that there is no secret sauce. What I started doing in the begining, and I do to a certain extent, is “how can I help others get into my head”. For what I know, how can I push it out to their head? I started doing this in different classes that I did, then I started doing it in conference presentations, then I started doing it in video tutorials. I still do some of them right now, I just don’t have much time to do as many tutorials that I’d want to do. And that just caught on. Even when YouTube was in it’s infancy and I started doing this and putting it on our website people, when they come up to me at a conference, they say “I’ve watched some of the stuff that you’ve done over the years and that’s helped me get a promotion …” or get a job, or get ahead of the curve, or just help me in general. That’s my reward, and that keeps me going, and do more of what I can do, and what my company can do to help those people.

The end result of all this is automatically the brand and name recognition and other things that came with it; but that was definitely never my intent, to go for brand recognition and my name to be in the industry, you know, high. But that’s the secret sauce: how can I make an impact on others, and that automatically turns into a rewards that helps motivate you even more.

Lightening Round

These one-word answers were provided in a quick back-and forth, minimal context lightening round to end the interview:

  1. Apple, Microsoft, or Amazon?
    Microsoft
  2. What is your favorite dead technology?
    The iPod for Microsft — the Zune
  3. Your must-see TV show?
    Silicon Valley
  4. What are you currently reading?
    Simplify (Ten Practices to Unclutter Your soul, by Bill Hybels)
  5. When you hear it, what song do you have to dance to? 
    I don’t dance, personally, but … Eye of the Tiger, by Survivor
  6. Tyrannosaurus or Stegosaurus?
    Tyrannosaurus

Asif Rehmani | VisualSP.com@asifrehmani

Coming Next Episode

On July 14th, we’re looking forward to recording our next episode with Dux Raymond Sy, CMO and Public Sector CTO of AvePoint. During this episode we will recap Microsoft Inspire (July 9-13). AvePoint has a number of speakers at Inspire talking about things from Cloud Migration to IoT, Security as a Service to CityNext, GDPR, AI, and much more. In the meantime, check out #MSInspire on twitter to follow along with it live!

Have a good night, and  a pleasant tomorrow!

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