Tech Talk – SharePoint with Ryan Day          

I recently spoke with Ryan Day of ZAACT Consulting. Altigen has recently acquired ZAACT, and we’re excited for what we are doing together.

Q: Hey, Ryan, how’s it going?

A: Good, Gary, how are you doing? It’s good to see you.

Q: I’m excellent thanks. It’s great to speak with you today. As we get started, tell us a little bit about you and your background.

A: My background is in software development. I came out of college building software for a company that hired me right away. I soon started getting interested in content management systems. It was around 2006, at a conference where I was introduced to Microsoft SharePoint as a content management system, and I thought it was amazing. Shortly thereafter I switched companies to an organization that allowed me to use SharePoint full time. I enjoyed getting deep in the technology and doing a lot of customizations and did things which I probably shouldn’t have done.  But, it gave me a great understanding of the various cases for big content management systems like SharePoint.

Several years later I decided to start my own consulting firm. I took the leap and started doing consulting, customers liked it and things grew. I was able to add employees and found some amazing clients and kept growing the company. Recently, within the last year, Altigen approached me about acquiring ZAACT Consulting. I really like the vision that Altigen has around Microsoft Teams and communications. This allows us to use our deep knowledge in consulting and software development to bond together and build some fun, amazing things to solve real problems for customers. Bringing us together (ZAACT and Altigen) is a journey that I’m really looking forward to.

Q: Thanks, Ryan. We’re all really excited for what a combination of ZAACT and Altigen is bringing to our customers. Specifically, how we’re strengthening not only what we’re doing with teams and teams voice, but with the entire Microsoft modern workplace ecosystem. We are all familiar with what changes happened over the last couple of years with the pandemic and workplaces. Give us your viewpoint on today’s workplace post pandemic.

A: I would say things are continuing to evolve. Within the last month things seem to be changing again post pandemic. Some businesses are trying to get employees back into the office and I think there’s some reasons for that from a cultural perspective and the ability to have eyes on people to see that they’re doing the things they should be. I will say that every company I have talked to, including ZAACT we were more productive during the pandemic, and I think we are able to get more done. It was very intriguing to me to see people use technology and really blossom with the workload that they had despite being remote.

Remote work was a natural fit for us as a Microsoft partner. We have Microsoft Teams; we have the Microsoft tool set and it allows us to do everything remote. For example, I have an engineer that works from home. Whether it’s for a day or for a week or for a year, team members can work at home, and they can still attend all their meetings. They can meet with clients and work on all the technology they need. They can write the code they need, and the communication doesn’t stop. I also see things have extended a little bit more where you don’t even need to be at home, you just need a workable system and access to the internet to be able to communicate and do your job effectively. I do think there’s a need to come together. There’s a bonding that needs to happen to create and maintain a company culture. But as far as actual work itself, I personally don’t think there’s any need for anybody to be in any type of office, just as long as you can get your work done.

Q: There’s a cultural aspect of work at home and work to do in making sure your team still feels connected and appreciated and the need to ensure your people are happy and engaged. Process and technology are two areas where everybody rushed to get things in place so people could work from home and be productive. Coming out of that mode and now getting into this new hybrid work environment, what should companies be looking for? What kinds of things have you seen that is helping companies manage this?

A: I think having video conferencing is a big plus. I still use zoom for some clients because that’s what they’re using. They may not use Microsoft Office; they may not be using Microsoft Teams. I also use Google Meet from time to time. In fact, I was on a call earlier today and I just went to the link supplied which opens in a browser window. There’s a ton of different technologies out there that allow the video conference to happen. I think if you’re going to work remote, one of the things that we try to do is to have our faces viewable on video.

Video allows you to connect more than just hearing a voice over the phone. Connecting in more personal ways like talking about different things that you see on peoples’ walls or their environment and even what they look like. There’s a deeper relationship that happens when you can see someone as opposed to just talking to them. So, to me, that’s something that allows you to relate to somebody and that’s part of the consultative approach that we try to take with software development to discuss a customer’s needs and desires.

It’s imperative to first build a relationship and understand the customer before we can provide an appropriate solution. It’s hard to make suggestions to somebody when you don’t know what they’re going through or what they’re thinking from a business perspective.  You need to understand their struggles. So, our first goal is to try to get to know people.

I love to get in person, have those types of meetings, but you know, video conferencing is a fantastic way to accomplish that.

One of the reasons we are a great Microsoft partner is because Microsoft has the tool sets to allow us to use video conferencing, but also to build solutions. There’s just so much that you can do with Microsoft, let along Microsoft Teams.

Teams is a product that continues to grow and expand, and it’s got deep roots in video conferencing and there’s a lot of things that teams allows you to do. We’re big advocates of the Microsoft Stack and the remote work ability that it provides us and our customers.

Q: The Microsoft stack you referred to is made up of a lot of different tools. The power platform, Azure, Teams, the Office suite, Power BI, you name it. There are so many different tools out there that people can use in their business. I think one of the challenges people face is leveraging all these applications and solutions. How do you get the most benefit out of your investment? That’s where Altigen and ZAACT come in. We can talk about how you are running a business process. What challenges a customer is facing? What do you wish you’d be able to do that you can’t? How do these issues affect your business? Why are these issues important? We can take all that and provide a solution that fits a customers’ business.

A: I want to emphasize one thing. It’s not about the technology stack. It’s about understanding the business and understanding the challenges. Only then can we think about presenting a solution. Initially we talk about business outcomes that relate to a problem statement. If we have a bunch of data without the context all we have is a bunch of data. We need the business context to provide insights and only then can we think about offering a solution. If we show you that data with the right insights, now you can see how the business problem can be resolved within the right context. Only then, can we start thinking about how technology can be harnessed appropriately.

When you start bringing up Microsoft or Google or specific tech stacks, it’s a challenge. Some people have had bad experiences with some of these technologies in the past. But the reality is we’re just trying to solve a business problem. When we share what’s possible with a good technology stack like Microsoft, then people start warming up and they start seeing the potential and what it can do. So just a little bit of wisdom on a consultative approach. You don’t necessarily need to bring technology to the table at every conversation.

Q: Thanks Ryan. Let’s talk a little bit more about SharePoint. I know SharePoint is one part of the Microsoft Stack. A lot of these technologies connect to each other. But, when you think about SharePoint and you’ve worked with SharePoint for a long time, how has SharePoint evolved and what are some of the key points of its’ evolution that you would like to highlight?

A: SharePoint is one of those technologies that people love or they hate. People that love SharePoint are the ones that have used it and understand it and have seen it working well. It can do some good things. When I say understand it, I mean they understand behind the scenes how it really works. They’re not just a junior developer that’s been working on it for a week and think they know how it works. I mean really understand the flow of content, the way to build a page, the way to display information or to build a custom Web Part or application.

When you really understand the potential and how it’s built, it becomes a nice tool to use.

SharePoint’s history has come from a simple WYSIWYG website editor. Its’ purpose was to provide a website editor for internal use.

Q: If you’re reading this and unfamiliar with the term WYSIWYG, it means What You See Is What You Get. There used to be a printing application for spreadsheets called WYSIWYG but that’s a story for another day.

A: Exactly. That may have been the predecessor but, SharePoint came out as a workable platform in about 2006 with MOSS 2007. This is approximately when people started to take notice. At this point, the WYSIWYG type editor for web pages started to provide the ability to also manage the content on the back end, some of the first wiki capabilities, blog posts, etc. It also allowed you to do some customizations. Over the years, it’s evolved into a major strategic platform that’s hosted in the cloud. (If you still have SharePoint on prem, we really need to talk.) SharePoint gives you the capability to do all kinds of things out of the box.

In the 2013 – 2015 time period a lot of companies got the impression SharePoint was going away. In fact, I know of a lot of consulting firms that sold off their SharePoint practices because they thought SharePoint was going away. But we found the enhancements and rebranding over time provided some rejuvenation and excitement.

Over the years, Microsoft has been very dedicated to SharePoint as a platform and things that SharePoint initially had are the beginnings of how some of the other products came into being. Power BI was initially part of SharePoint and then it was so popular that they broke it off into its own branded solution that you can run on its own. There’s a lot of things that SharePoint has spawned over the years.

A tremendous number of Fortune 100 companies use SharePoint and a vast majority of those, are using SharePoint as an Intranet and/or as an internal business platform.

Q: We talked about SharePoint being one piece of the Microsoft technology stack. I want to make sure that everybody understands that SharePoint is part of the plumbing behind today’s M365/O365.

I know we’ve talked about that, but what are a few things that people get wrong about SharePoint?

A: I don’t know if it’s necessarily doing something wrong, but it’s how you look at the way SharePoint functions. Many times, we implement SharePoint, or somebody’s implemented SharePoint and they think search within SharePoint should act just like the search on Google. They type in a term, and they’re expecting the results to act and appear just like they have been using Google. But it’s not set up the same way as Google. You can configure search results to act very much like Google, but you must configure a little bit and it’s not going to act the same way Google acts out of the box. It’s different because you’re looking through business documents, you’re looking for more content that’s a bit deeper than just a surface keyword like you might find with Google. It’s a different type of experience. The first thing I would say is, there isn’t anything wrong with SharePoint or the platform, it’s just the way that people approach it. They approach it like any other piece of software that they’ve been using that worked in a certain way and now, it’s not working like that out of the box. Because of this, people will say they don’t like it.

Another challenge we run into is where someone administering a SharePoint environment or building custom scenarios on SharePoint didn’t really understand or know what they were doing and made things more complicated than it needed to be. This gives them a bad taste in their mouth for a good technology. Because it wasn’t implemented properly, they mistakenly think the technology is bad. That’s something we run into quite often.

When someone has a previously unpleasant experience because it wasn’t implemented properly, they don’t want to bring it into a new company. Because of that, they like another product better. We always try to get people to understand the true value of a good intranet, for example. With a SharePoint solution that is built right, it allows them to do the things they need to do. We even surprise them with things they wished they could do but didn’t know how.

I will say, from a SharePoint perspective, as it moved to the cloud, one of the things Microsoft has done an excellent job of is locking down the security and ability to harm other servers and environments. That’s always something that customers ran into when they are/were in an on-premises scenario. If a custom developer runs some infinite loop or something that’s going to cause server degradation, it could cause other applications to falter as well. So, there are some things that Microsoft has done as they moved to the cloud that allow some fail safes to be in place.

Q: As you know, Altigen and ZAACT are focused on three things; customer engagement, business systems integration and workplace productivity. Can you give us a few examples of customers that have transformed their business with SharePoint as part of the solution and what the solution looked like?

A: You bet. I was working with a health care organization a year or two ago, and they had some very specific document management needs. Some of their documents had to go through a specific workflow to get properly approved. An out of the box workflow wasn’t giving the visibility they wanted to identify which documents had been approved, which documents have gone through the workflow, and which haven’t, etc.

To solve this, we built them an interface to see the process and the progress of these many documents and the status of each document. They could then see where these documents were ‘stuck’ and where the delays were occurring. It was very insightful for them. Unfortunately, there were a couple of individuals who had previously passed away in the organization. The system was still trying to email them for approval because they were still responsible for approving some documents. They also were able to overcome scenarios where documents were sitting on an approvers desk for two or three days. They are now able to see these issues and improve their internal business processes. It’s these types of scenarios that allow us to provide the visibility into what’s happening in the business.

I’ve got so many examples of business process improvements. Another one I bring up often is a company that wanted to streamline the approval process to purchase hardware. Instead of the IT manager buying items and then sending the invoice, they wanted purchases to follow a specific process to justify what item(s) they needed, when it was needed, the specs, etc. Once this was input, it would be sent for budget approval before purchase approval. We supplied them a solution to submit these requests, manage the process and then manage and see budgetary impact, delivery dates, and so much more insight than they had previously.

One final example that I will give is from a big project for an entity in the state of Utah to manage contracts. Their contracts were managed all over the place. There was no visibility into which contracts were expiring or up for renewal. They didn’t know which contracts were still valid. They didn’t know the critical terms. We built them a contract management system so that they would always know when a contract was going to expire, if something needed to be signed, if there were different statuses that needed to be changed based on dates or other terms, etc. They needed a complex system to manage these contracts. This can be critical for businesses. A specific example is a ski resort in Park City, UT. They did not pay their lease on the mountain that housed their ski resort and allowed it to continue to operate. Unbelievably, their contract expired, and they didn’t know. Because it expired, they lost their lease on the mountain. Their lease was acquired, and they no longer had a ski resort. This shows the importance these situations from a business process perspective. Understand things like contracts and other types of data that have a big, meaningful impact.

Q: Those are great examples and cover a lot of different scenarios, from purchasing and finance to contract management. It’s often front-line information workers that are responsible for these processes and require authorization, approval, and oversight. And like you said, rather than those getting stuck on a desk waiting for a signature or stuck in somebody’s email and buried how many hundreds or thousands of emails deep we can help set up and automate important triggers so that things can be dealt with at an appropriate time.

If you could influence SharePoint development and create an ultimate solution to make everybody’s life easier what comes to mind?

A: I don’t have one example but, we have built several solutions that focus on SharePoint. I always have innovative ideas for different things that Microsoft should consider. I will say there was one point of frustration that happened around 2012. SharePoint came out with both an internal tool and a public tool. You could build public websites and host those on SharePoint. We really liked that experience, because then we could manage both public sites and internal sites. Both talked back and forth. We could put a form on the public side that would come in and equate to some internal stuff. There were a lot of things lacking with the public sites and it was competing against WordPress and other solutions focused on the public side and that’s why Microsoft pulled the plug on the public site aspect of SharePoint. But I really liked that solution and I wish instead of pulling the plug on it, Microsoft would have put more into it and allowed that to be a workable option. I can’t tell you how cool it would be to have a one tech stack that you can manage public and internal aspects that back and forth have one company managing the technology for you. That’s one thing I wish Microsoft would have kept some focus on.

Q: Here’s a fun question. Ryan, I’m giving you the ultimate power over SharePoint product development for the next 3 minutes. You can do whatever you want, whatever you need with SharePoint. What would you change or do?

A: There is a lot going on with the new modern framework with SharePoint and there are quite a few restrictions and things that you can’t do. I would provide the ability to develop anything on the platform, anything, anytime and custom code wasn’t limited to the platform or to the security or to any type of feature.

Obviously, there’s some security reasons why that’s not a good thing to do and there’s lots of other reasons for restrictions but, from a developer’s perspective and from a usability perspective, it would make just a ton of sense to have a platform that I can expand infinitely and doesn’t have any restrictions on what can be done. So, if I had the ultimate power for this platform, it would be to give the platform the power to do everything I wanted to do at any given time.

Let’s be clear, there are specific limitations to ensure a productive environment. There are limitations that won’t allow you to take down the servers that Microsoft is hosting, that won’t allow you to degrade security features that are meant to be in place. There’s a lot of safeguards to save you from hurting yourself. That’s why there are these restrictions. As a developer, I want to be able to play around with all of that.

Q: Anything else, Ryan that you wanted to share today about SharePoint or about where ZAACT and Altigen are headed?

A: I would just say that the focus we have with Altigen is primarily going into Teams communications and deep Teams development to ensure Teams can be a product that companies utilize going forward. I’ve had a lot of great discussions with customers over things that we can do in Teams to customize it to meet their specific needs. I’m excited for the solutions that we can help implement. I know Microsoft is putting a lot of focus, time and effort into ensuring that teams can continue to be a force going forward. I would just say that my excitement for the vision that we share around communication and the products and the technologies we’re delivering and how we are going to market here is very exciting.

Q: Thank you for your time, Ryan. I do appreciate it and look forward to our development efforts and all the customer challenges that we can solve together.