Altigen / ZAACT Tech Talk; A Better Together Story
Today’s Tech Talk includes both Mark Allen (CTO, Altigen) and Chris Weideman (Digital Transformation Officer, ZAACT) as we discuss Altigen’s acquisition of ZAACT.
Q: Hello Gentlemen, to kick things off let’s do some introductions. Chris, if you wouldn’t mind going first, can you tell me a little bit about your background?
A (Chris): Yeah, absolutely. I’m Chris Weidemann and I have been in information technology for over 20 years at this point, and almost exclusively building software for organizations. I started out working in the Washington DC area where I was helping to build systems for federal and state government entities.
Some of the federal entities include the Army, the Navy, the EPA, whatever it may be, building software to help them on their missions, projects and goals. Eventually I made my way into Microsoft Consulting and now helping ZAACT customers take the existing investment they’ve already made in Microsoft and better utilized that investment. That may be configuring or implementation of Office 365 and Azure. More specifically, helping them build some type of business process system or application using the Microsoft Cloud.
Q: Thank you Chris. Mark, please give us a little about your background for the folks that are reading.
A (Mark): Sure, I’m Mark Allen with Altigen. I came to Altigen via acquisition a little over a year ago. I’m a long-time entrepreneur and technology innovator. In around 2006, one of my first companies, I created a hosted voice platform out of Microsoft Office Communication Server (OCS) before Microsoft had voice. We created what we thought was a neat idea to host a chat, voice and video platform with voice being a hosted phone system. A years’ worth of lawyers later, we gave that technology to Microsoft, and it became the premise for what is now called unified communications. Since then, I’ve innovated in that space. I’ve started several companies and added various technologies to the unified communications space either for Microsoft or the companies I’ve started, the most recent of which was CoreInteract. CoreInteract is a continuation of this longtime Microsoft Unified communication strategy to add customer engagement as a service on top of what we call Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS). As CoreInteract evolved and those markets evolved, and matured I had the opportunity to merge with Altigen.
The short answer is, I’m a long-time innovator in this space as well as an entrepreneur, but happy to be at Altigen these days to further drive these Customer Experience as a Service (CXaaS) solutions or whatever the market will name them going forward.
Q: Thanks, Mark. Let’s keep going with that. Would you please tell us a little bit more about Altigen?
A (Mark): Absolutely. Altigen is a 25-plus year company that has always delivered best in class customer engagement solutions built on Microsoft technologies to the marketplace. Altigen was one of the first companies to have a PBX solution built on Windows, while other companies were building on other platforms. So, a long time Microsoft product innovator. Altigen has evolved over the years into more specific customer experience solutions and then adding suites of applications and services around that core base. Obviously, it made a good fit for CoreInteract technology to come over to Altigen to help further Altigen’s’ strategy in delivering customer service experiences. We now have a suite of products around CXaaS for mid-size and large enterprises to help them with their communications and customer engagement.
With Microsoft’s evolution into Teams, Altigen has put a good amount of time and effort into products and solutions, specifically targeting Microsoft Teams at this point.
Q: Thanks, Mark. Chris, tell us a little bit about ZAACT to give us some background and what makes ZAACT special.
A (Chris): Sure. ZAACT is a Premier Microsoft consulting firm that focuses on the progressive cloud. We’re helping customers either with their existing investments in the Microsoft Cloud or providing expertise to assist them in moving from an on-premises system to the cloud. This includes everything from SharePoint, Microsoft Teams, the tool sets around Office 365 and Azure as well as the numerous other Microsoft platforms and services.
We help our customers drive value from the investments they are making or have made in this software by working with them to identify how they can get more value out of the investment. It can be hard to understand the constantly evolving changes, configuration options and policies that are available. It’s our team’s goal to stay on top of those things, understand them and provide guidance on how they affect the business, and the opportunities organizations can leverage for benefit.
Once everything is configured appropriately, we’re building software to help them really manage and integrate their business into Office 365.
Q: Great. Thinking about what this combined company and these types of situations, customers start to wonder, “What does this mean for me?”. I think it’s important that we touch on that. Chris, if you wouldn’t mind, what should ZAACT customers think when they hear about this change?
A (Chris): We have a lot of customers that have come to us as they’ve made this investment in Office 365 and in teams specifically. We focused on transitions to teams as COVID drove remote work into all our lives. Many customers have wanted to make a deeper investment into teams including the voice side of teams. It’s something that we haven’t been able to support to the extent that we wanted to. With this combined organization, we now have experts in that field. They come from Altigen, and it now brings some harmony across all of Office 365. Now, there’s no area that we can’t support in a premium effort.
Q: And Mark, if you wouldn’t mind, maybe the same from an Altigen perspective. What should Altigen customers expect?
A (Mark): I think I’ll come from a slightly different standpoint. As we’ve talked about in previous Tech Talks, this made quite a bit of sense. We have the vision of our solutions becoming a platform. We’re pushing further than just a static product that has feature sets. A platform to let people take their digital customer engagement where they need it to go. That involves so much more than what comes out of a box. Microsoft offers this broad array of options on their platforms of services, applications and tools in addition to Teams to make them all work as one experience and to make the technology do what the customer needs it to do. As we’ve released CoreInteract with these other applications, and deployed it, the number one question customers or partners has been, “Do you have an expertise in…” fill in the blank with a Microsoft solution or service… because we’d really like to integrate with Dynamics for example. We really want to integrate this and that. That’s where we’ve been short.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve been great at delivering solutions for Microsoft Teams, but when you start talking customization, integration and really leveraging the full Microsoft Stack, as Chris just mentioned, we fell short. So together we will be able to turn that into a yes and start really providing a broader set of solutions.
Q: That sounds exciting! Let’s shift gears just a little bit. What are you most excited about in terms of our future together? And Chris, we’ll start with you.
A (Chris): There’s a lot of synergies and before we even started talking about opportunities together, we started talking about the customers and products that we have built independently. And there is a lot of overlap. For instance, at ZAACT, we’ve built a lot of systems and solutions for a couple of credit unions here in our area, and those have been integrations with conversational bots in Microsoft Teams. That dovetails nicely with Altigen’s focus and products. It’s very natural. There is a lot of synergies between the teams too. When I look at things that are going to be exciting and fun to build together, it’s going to be these synergies, these areas that we already have a lot of excitement around internally with our teams, including Altigen. Together we can bring that knowledge base, be excited together and build some cool things together.
Q: Very exciting, Chris! Mark, same question for you. From a more technical perspective what are you excited about with the future?
A (Mark): I agreed completely with Chris! The there’s already been some tremendous and exciting overlaps with what we’ve been doing and where we’re going. It’s interesting because these overlaps are in areas where we have a shared interest. It’s like both sides of a coin. We have shared goals. Altigen has been focusing on one side. ZAACT has been doing the other. This is where it gets exciting from a technical, deeply technical conversation. I believe that the best solutions to the market come from the real world. We want customers to continue telling us what they need. Customers will make products great, and we’ll start to see veins. An analogy like the gold rush days when miners found a vein of gold and they would chase it down into the mountain. There’s going to be a common vein amongst the customers as they share their needs and desires with us. As we hear from multiple customers and we identify these commonalities, we will run deeper into that vein and find out what other solutions or products are going to help customers on their Microsoft journey.
At Altigen, we have been product focused traditionally. ZAACT has that customer focus. They have an innate ability to go in and talk to the customer and find that vein. I think together we will be more powerful to build on that. We can follow that vein deeper into the mountain.
Q: I’m going to switch gears just a little bit and I’d like to hear what you would have Microsoft do or change if you could. Mark, we’ll start with you on that one.
A (Mark): It’s probably loaded from Altigen because we do rely on Microsoft Technologies to deliver our solutions. I have a long list of things I wish they would add. APIs were released, but I get it. They, like us, have a road map and a strategy. We understand this may or may not align perfectly with what we’re doing. We usually program around that.
If, however, I could control Microsoft, the one thing that would help us from a technology standpoint is listening to some of the Azure consumption stories a little differently. Let me explain. I’m getting a little technical on this but, and this is common among all major clouds, they look at each other. They look at each other for pricing. They look at each other for pricing structures. What are AWS charging for this type of thing? So, we’re going to charge for that but, we’re going to cut it by 20 points. They didn’t look at the market. They looked at their competitor, which is fine because, neither of them is all the way down to this individual product level.
When we start developing an application and we need to use something in Azure or whatever, we may find the pricing structure isn’t geared towards the real-world use case. Here’s an example. Some of the technology we absolutely love is the ability to take audio and video from, say, a discussion just like this one and have it run through the cognitive services for real time, sentiment analysis, etc. The pricing structure from Microsoft and others is based on finishing a conference meeting and submitting it and have this information come back. The pricing was geared around that.
Now, let’s take this to a contact center with 300 agents and we want to watch what’s going on in real time. Monitor how customer engagements are going. Where does the sentiment indicate problems and we need to react to something? The pricing wasn’t structured for this scenario. And to be fair to Microsoft, they have listened to us and tried to be flexible in the past. The point is, they didn’t suspect this use case.
So, if I could wave a magic wand, there’s a few things on this topic I’d love to work with them on.
Q: That’s good, Mark. And we can dive into that in the future a little bit more if we need to, but Chris, what about from your perspective? If you could ask one thing of Microsoft and they would provide it to you, what would it be?
A (Chris): I think from our group venture perspective Mark hit it on the head. We would both be waving our wands in that direction. I think that makes a lot of sense to Mark’s point earlier. We are very customer focused and when I look at the customers and the things that they’re dealing with and the things that frustrate them they wish would change and ultimately, bring a lot of interesting value or opportunities for us is the way that Microsoft Teams handles the external user experience, and specifically the switching between identities and tenants.
It’s something just about every customer has a complaint about and it becomes something that we have to build around when building custom solutions and how that user experience is managed today.
It forces some design decisions in the custom applications so that we are not putting a user into a complicated or unfriendly user experience regarding tenancy switching. The reality is most customers of scale and size have multiple tenants, whether that’s because they need to be able to split departments or tenants for information or acquisition purposes. There are hundreds of different reasons why but, when you go and talk to a lot of these larger organizations, mid-market and above, most of them have multiple tenants. So, the ability to navigate the multitenancy experience at the user level is something that I would love to see changed and ultimately would provide us with opportunities to do things differently as we’re building products and services for customers.
Q: As we finish up, what is something that you want to make sure that people understand about this topic of a combined ZAACT and Altigen organization? What’s a key headline that you see as very important for people to understand? Chris, we’ll start with you on this one.
A (Chris): It’s the notion that we are stronger together. Individually, we have weaknesses. But, as a combined group, we really start to bring benefits to our customers. This was evident when we started talking and looking at this merger. I think we all got excited because we see this better together opportunity. We are a stronger company together.
Q: Mark, what about your thoughts?
A (Mark): I would completely concur with Chris. Better Together. The 1 + 1 = 3 or whatever you want. However you want to say it, it’s really nothing left on the table. We can help customers get to where they need to be with their Microsoft investment and their business needs. We can solve their use cases and the right experience top to bottom. I think that’s the takeaway exactly, better together.
Q: Thank you gentlemen. I appreciate your time, insights and look forward to great things!