By 2023, Gartner projects that citizen developers will outnumber professional developers more than 4-to-1 at large enterprises. This astonishing development reflects the emergence of employees with “digital dexterity”, who are comfortable using new technologies that drive “better business outcomes”. One example of such technology is Tonkean’s Adaptive Business Operations Platform, a no-code/low-code automation tool that empowers citizen developers, or “makers” to optimize processes at the operations layer.
Sagi Eliyahu, is the CEO and Co-Founder of Tonkean, and he’s on a mission to transform upskilled personnel into makers, who use automation to identify problems and build solutions without any programming, or the need for IT resources. We talk with him about human-in-the-loop automation, and along the way we learn about the importance of optimizing for humans rather than data, the biggest challenges organizations are experiencing in deploying automation, and the surprisingly high percentage of IT & operations teams that have adopted or are working on adopting no-code/low-code tools.
Guy Nadivi: Welcome everyone. My name is Guy Nadivi and I’m the host of Intelligent Automation Radio. Our guest on today’s episode is Sagi Eliyahu, CEO and Co-Founder of Tonkean, a low-code, no-code automation platform. Tonkean believes in empowering the people closest to a business problem by turning them into citizen developers who can solve those challenges largely free of IT. And by doing so, they enable a new level of agility in business operations, while still ensuring compliance with security and other IT standards. It’s an intriguing proposition which has gotten Silicon Valley’s attention. On June 24th of this year, Tonkean announced they had secured a $50 million series B round from Accel. Other investors include former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, along with executives from Atlassian and UiPath. This seems like a milestone moment in the democratization of automation. So, we’re very happy to have Sagi with us today to do a deeper dive on what this all means to the future of business operations. Sagi, welcome to Intelligent Automation Radio.
Sagi Eliyahu: Thank you Guy, I’m very excited to be here and share my thoughts. Thank you for having me.
Guy Nadivi: Sagi, what inspired you to start Tonkean and how did you come up with that name?
Sagi Eliyahu: So the long story short is I’m originally a software guy. I’ve been writing code since I was 10 years old type of thing. And in my career, I grew quite rapidly from being an engineer to all the way to VP engineering, and GM of a engineering site and managing multiple teams and multiple areas of the world, at the peak over 250 people. And during my growth as a leader, I had to build operation and scale my teams. And to my surprise, every time I tried to leverage software to a business problem and business process, which for me was, should have been always a solution being a software guy. I found hitting a wall with the things that we currently have, whether it’s building custom things or buying packaged solutions, I felt like none of them is a good fit for everything. For some things, but not for everything. So I felt like there’s a gap in the way we approach software in enterprise, which led me to start Tonkean. The name Tonkean by the way, is a type of a primate of a monkey. So, our logo is actually a monkey. If you look closely, and we chose this name because, well, first of all, we wanted something related to monkeys because we wanted something that works with people and not a cold thing like a robot or a computer. But at the same time, it’s not as smart as people because it’s all about empowering the people. So, that’s kind of the fun part of it. And then, Tonkean specifically, we learned that they’re a type of primate that makes decisions in a group, so collaboratively and it’s all about working together. So, we found that’s a fun twist on the name.
Guy Nadivi: Okay. Speaking of primates, Tonkean focuses on human-in-the-loop automation. Please explain how your platform enables human-in-the-loop automation and why that’s so important?
Sagi Eliyahu: Yeah, when you think about enterprise software, we sort of got used to having monolithic applications. So every time we have a problem, every time we trying to increase efficiency, we turning to software to get a new application. If we have an issue with how we delivering customer support, then we’ll go and try to find a new customer support application. If we have an issue delivering on turnaround time of contracts, then we’ll go and look for a contract management system. Sometimes that is definitely part of the issue. Sometimes we’re not managing our data well enough, but business processes, I realized are not about data, they’re about people. And most of the process is actually a coordination that happened between people, and between departments, and between teams and not only the execution of the task itself. And so, while we have a lot of solutions out there and tools to handle data, very few of them actually help you handle the human coordination and the flow of work between people. We tend to improve our communication tools, chat messengers, applications versus the good and old email, but that’s just upgrading the vehicle, it’s not changing the route of how we work. And so, really creating a new leverage into how we use software, but without improving the way we handle people doesn’t actually solve anything. So for us, human-in-the-loop is the core of sort of the leap that we took with Tonkean.
Guy Nadivi: Let’s expand a bit upon the subject of processes. Can you provide some examples of processes Tonkean typically automates for its customers?
Sagi Eliyahu: Absolutely. So, let’s double-click on the example with the contracts. If you have a sales team that sells to B2B, for example, for businesses, and they have the need to have contracts created specifically for a customer, or redlines that comes from a customer and so on, they need to work with the legal team and the finance team to really turn over that contract. When you think about that process, the technology that exists today is really siloed into each part of that process. So, you’ll have CRM and other technologies that help sales manage their part of work. You’ll have CLMs or contract management systems that will help legal do their work and finance for their invoices and so on. But, the process itself is actually above this. It’s in what we call the operation layer, where really it starts from sales, but it goes through all the different departments and then come back to the person that requested it. So, if you don’t optimize for the humans and you optimize for the data, then the entities that fills the gap are the people that need to jump between different systems, remember the different URLs, learning a new applications to work with in order to contribute to that process. In reality though, that’s never the case. If you think about that scenario, if you’ve ever worked with sales people, for example, they would never use that new UI. They never remember the URL. They’ll continue to do what they always do, which is sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org and asking, “Hey, where’s the latest NDA?” “Hey, can someone please review this contract ASAP?” That type of work comes from a different perspective on how we should look at ROI. We used to look at ROI as a one single thing as the company ROI. What’s the ROI for the process, the return of investment for the process? Where in reality, there’s a lot of different, what I call personal ROIs, that are more important sometimes than the overall ROI. If the salesperson in our case, or the lawyer, or the attorney in another case doesn’t have alignment into what is their personal ROI of their task to the bigger process, then they’re just not going to execute their part. And so, you’ll lose efficiency in places where you were trying to improve and not thinking about the people, not thinking about the change management that comes with it would actually cause reduction of efficiency on the long-term. So this is one example, handoff between sales and legal that Tonkean helps with. But, really anything that is heavy on coordination of people, like approval cycles and triaging and routing of requests, whether it’s in customer support and success, whether it’s in sales, whether it’s in legal, whether it’s in finance, other type of use cases that are very, very permanent and successful with Tonkean that we’ve seen so far with our customers.
Guy Nadivi: When you talk with your customers, what are they telling you are some of the biggest challenges they’re experiencing in deploying automation within their organization?
Sagi Eliyahu: So, I hinted on it. One of the biggest one is definitely the change management. So, how do I deploy technology and automation without forcing and recreating my entire environment, and having a lot of upfront work in order to make sense of it? So, change management, time to value are two sides of the same coin that comes up a lot. The second part of it, and that kind of leads to that bigger concept that you mentioned in the intro around empowering operation teams is really who’s the part of the business that needs to maintain and build on that automation and on that technology? If this is still IT or heavily based on IT, then IT remains the bottleneck and the leverage is limited to the, how much IT can do and commit to. And then if it’s not involving IT at all, it becomes shadow IT; and therefore, an issue with whether it’s privacy, or data management, or compliance with certain things that the business needs. So those two areas, one of how fast and how we can reduce change on one hand, and then who’s empowered are the sort of the two biggest, I think, challenges that we’re trying to tackle headfirst, but what we’ve seen every time when a customer and a company trying to evaluate how to involve automation further.
Guy Nadivi: Your software’s most recent update this past spring focused on, “Bridging the gap between IT and business teams”. Sagi, what are the biggest gaps you’re seeing between IT and business teams that could be solved with automation?
Sagi Eliyahu: I think the reality is that both sides of that question, both IT on one hand and the business units on the other hand are actually have different goals and have different motivations that sometimes are conflicting, but most of the time are just acting on a different mindset and priorities. IT has an important role in compliance and security, but a more important role in strategy of the infrastructure. You don’t want to bring in technology or toolings that are not going to fit what you’re going to be in a year, or are not going to fit a situation that are going to hurt the business if we can’t be agile enough to make change. On the other hand, business is driven by business results, but are a lot of times more short-term in nature. Not all the time, but a lot of times business would prioritize immediate type of value and return, and so would prefer to move faster, “break things” versus necessarily worry about potential risks that might never happen. So, both things are incredibly important when you think about the relationship between the two. Unfortunately, a lot of the recent years, both in automation and in enterprise software in general. To be honest with SaaS as a whole, was somewhat trying to solve only one side of the question at a time. So instead of trying to say, “Hey, how do I bridge the two?” A lot of vendors and technologies were focusing on, “Okay, how do I enable business to move faster, so they won’t be stuck on IT?” Or “How do I enable IT to have audits, and alerts and security technologies trying to clean after the business?” And so, that fed into sort of like a spiral of the two, really pulling the same rope and trying to win over each other. What we’re trying to do, and I think what some of the automation technologies, even further the no-code type of motion and movement is really enabling, empowering the business to run faster, but in a safe environment that is predefined and pre-approved by IT. So, instead of trying to just remove shadow IT without understanding why shadow IT exist, instead of forcing shadow IT without understanding the risks of it, we’re trying to hit it head first by creating a safe environment, while empowering the business unit to run on their own.
Guy Nadivi: Speaking of shadow IT, we’re hearing more and more talk these days about citizen developers who are being enabled by low-code, no-code platforms like Tonkean. Do you think automation, and orchestration of IT and business processes will be the so-called killer app for citizen developers? And if so, how will this change the jobs of information workers?
Sagi Eliyahu: So, I think this is a very interesting situation that we’re in, in this market, where there’s a lot of concepts that are all trying to push us into the same goal, but there’s nuances to them that really makes, I think, a difference into whether they’ll be successful or not, whether it will be a “killer” not. And, I think actually we can start with that concept of citizen developer. When you think about what citizens developer is meant to be is basically saying, “Hey, let’s allow anyone that is not a developer to be able to develop things in software.” And a lot of times when you talk about low-code or no-code, that focus on the coding aspect of it, sometimes in our perspective misses the mark. So in fact, Tonkean, we actually don’t try to have everyone in the business build software or build solutions. I don’t think that anyone should, or maybe even can. What I do think though, is that there’s a lot more that should and can build software, than the one that can actively code. And so, we think about this type of personnel as what we call “makers”. So, it’s type of people that have the curiosity and drive to make solutions to problems. And specifically in businesses, a lot of times those exist in operation teams, whether it’s sales ops, legal ops, finance ops, marketing ops and so on. Those operation teams are tasked with improving processes and improving the use of technology. And a lot of them are indeed those type of makers personalities. They want to build things, they want to solve problems. They identify the problems and they immediately trying to figure out solutions. But, they’re limited to the fact that they cannot code, so they can only buy point solutions, so that’s what they go and try to do. So, install and download or start to use more, and more, and more and more applications that is detrimental to the fact that IT needs to control more applications and improve them. And so, they won’t let them and sometimes the budget is not there. And so, there’s really sort of like a mismatch into what they want to do and are able to do with what are the tooling that exists to them. So, I think when you think about from a perspective of a fit into capabilities, control, and drive, there’s a real silver line there of no-code specifically, I think, to really elevate those type of people. And the way I like to call it, increase the pie of who are the people that can leverage technology. That to me is a cure application of “citizen developers”. It’s not saying everyone can be a developer, but expanding the circle of the ones that can do it by helping them not need to worry about some of the best practices, and sort of like guide them and drive them into the right way of doing things that is safe, secure, scalable. And that way, win the trust of the rest of the business.
Guy Nadivi: Earlier this year, Tonkean released their State of Business Operations report based on a survey of 500 operations and IT professionals across the U.S. Sagi, what were some of the more notable findings you reported on?
Sagi Eliyahu: Yeah, that was actually a very exciting survey for us and an initiative, because you can definitely see a lot of trends when you talk to people and you have your own point of view of a market. But once you start trying to quantify it, it’s really exciting to see the result. I think there was many takeaways, but I think that the two that were most interesting to me personally is first of all, just the awareness and current adoption of no-code. And, it was actually quite shocking to see that 95% of the people we talked to, both IT and operations teams have already mentioned that they adopted or are actively working to adapt no-code, low-code tools. It’s way higher than I thought. And, only 5% of them really said that they’re not expecting their organization to adopt that at all. So, that I think was one important one to just kind of show a little bit of the maturity curve of the market, and we might be further ahead than one might think. I think the second part was maybe not shocking at all, but very good sort of like to verify in the numbers was the distinct difference between how IT teams think about the world of applications and enterprise software, versus how the business unit thinks about it. IT was highly agreeing with the fact that there are too many apps. There is way too many software, different distinct softwares that we use. And then in general, that they would somewhat prefer to build versus buy to solve their problems. Obviously, because they can. I think what’s interesting that just as that was extreme on the other side of it, on the business operation teams, it was a clear signs of, we don’t have enough applications in the sense of, we don’t have solutions to everything that we need. We’re not feeling like we’re fully leveraging technology. And at the same time on the build versus buy, we prefer to buy. And we prefer to have things built for us, versus relying on engineering to build. So I think those combined, to me, painting a very interesting picture into where we are in this industry and what is the appetite for this industry to really start doubling down on that market.
Guy Nadivi: I understand you started an online community called AdaptiveOps, where ops teams can network and talk about the automation initiatives they have and learn from each other. What prompted you to establish that community?
Sagi Eliyahu: So, the AdaptiveOps is its own thing that we started earlier last year under Tonkean. And, I think the goal from it and what we’ve been seeing so far, this is very exciting, is really to focus on the “makers” concept. The goal of Tonkean, our mission, our stated mission is to make a world of makers, is that increasing the pie concept of allowing more people to leverage technology. And our approach to this, going through the operation teams, identifying them as a group of people that has a lot of those makers mindset and can use more tooling, and more knowledge, and sometimes education and sometimes just experience is a key to drive that mission forward. So, Tonkean product and platform is all about providing those tooling and capabilities. AdaptiveOps is really to help with the knowledge side of things and create a community, where operation professionals and leaders across the different departments can learn from each other and can help each other work better together as well, but really nurture their own maker, skillset, and drive. And so, we’ve seen an amazing sharing of knowledge between finance 101-type of community-driven webinars to teach each other, like the basics of finances, similar to sales, and sales and legal and HR, and really the shared experience around how do you improve a process? How do you even go about that? What type of research do you do? What type of tooling do you use? When does one use automation and when it is actually better to have people involved? What does it mean to take work out of people? How do you use that capability to elevate their job, versus risking their job? There’s a lot of those nuances that we believe we can help, but nothing’s better than having a community that helps each other and to really drive that sort of movement forward. So, it’s operations.community, that’s the URL. And, it’s really about that cross-functional operations and focused on the makers type of people.
Guy Nadivi: Other than ROI, is there a single metric that best captures the impact of automation on business and IT operations?
Sagi Eliyahu: Yeah. I think even when you do think about ROI, there’s multiple types of how companies work and how they service their customers and so on. Agility and adaptiveness, I think became much clearer as a need and climb in the order of priorities, something that we’ve seen a lot with our customers, which is somehow, sometime hard to put a number on it from an ROI perspective, is that ability to move faster when change comes. If you are locked into big monolithic applications, or if you’re locked into in-house built, making changes in the matter of days or hours is almost impossible. And, it’s definitely impossible on the bigger companies. When you have something like Tonkean, when you have a layer that is basically focusing on the business logic and it’s a no-code, and it’s run and managed by the business, their ability to move fast, make changes, and adapt is far greater, and we have great case studies of our customers doing that during COVID. So, I think adaptiveness is one. And the second thing I can think of that is harder to measure ROI is really the impact on the teams themselves. We’ve seen multiple times operations professionals bringing in Tonkean and starting using it, and getting promoted within few months because they’re starting to get a massive impact on the business. And all of a sudden, it actually create jobs. There’s now more that, that team can do. And so, they want to invest in it and hire more people. So now, that person becomes a team leader and have a team of people that can build things and run things. And similarly, on the IT side of things, the ability to reduce some of the investments off the shelf, type of shelf software that they’re not fully leveraging, while still creating full compliance. We’ve seen people get promoted on that side too, after bringing something there. So, the personal concept of personal development, I think is also something that is hard to put an ROI number to it. Because again, it’s not a traditional company ROI, but it’s definitely a huge impact that we’ve seen from adopting automation and adopting no-code platforms, specifically from our experience of customers adopting Tonkean.
Guy Nadivi: Sagi, for the CIOs, CTOs, and other IT executives listening in, what is the one big must have, piece of advice you’d like them to take away from our discussion with regards to implementing automation for their business or IT operations.
Sagi Eliyahu: I think at the end of the day, we called Tonkean the operating system for business operations. We came to the concept of operating system from the concept of abstraction. I think when you’re a CIO or CTO, or any other senior technology executive, you really need to think most of the time, that’s what you do. You think 10 steps ahead. You’re thinking to yourself, “Okay, what is the organization going to look like in a year, in two years, in three years, in 10 years?” And so, investing in the structure, investing in the separation of responsibilities is something that I think is more and more become actually the role of the CIO and the CTO. Just like we architect software in a certain way and we improved with object oriented programming, and we improving to service oriented architecture that separation of control and separation of who’s responsible for what, and the protocols between them became a critical way to build software faster and build more scalable and more secure software. Similarly, when we organize internally in an enterprise, how we deploy technology, how do we leverage technology to solve business problems, having a new standard of how do we operate, who’s responsible for what and what are our leverage points is going to become critical into a successful organization that is leading the way versus one that is lagging. And, I think there was a lot of things that had to happen for our company to exist & other companies in this space to exist, a lot of iterations and improvements to the entire market and industry. But I think we are in a place right now, where we have enough things in the cloud and we have enough awareness. And like I said those makers type of people that we can train and empower to create sort of that new standard. And so, I think looking at automation and no-code, low-code and other in that space, not as a necessarily a tactical band-aid, but as strategic infrastructure decision into how the company should operate next year, and the year after that and in the future.
Guy Nadivi: All right, looks like that’s all the time we have for on this episode of Intelligent Automation Radio. Sagi, historically, every technological advancement was accompanied by fears of what its impact would be on the entrenched way of doing things. However, people often don’t realize, or didn’t realize or couldn’t foresee all the new jobs and opportunities, which those technological advancements would create. In Tonkean’s case, and the case of every low-code, no-code automation platform, I think it’s very clear that you’re empowering an entirely new class of highly paid professional, which you call makers. And, I think that makers are going to make out quite well in the digital transformation that your platform enables. It’s been a real treat having you on the podcast. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Sagi Eliyahu: Thank you so much, Guy. That was great. And hopefully, more people would look into this space in that type of a view and we would make a world of makers. So, thank you so much, Guy.
Guy Nadivi: Sagi Eliyahu, CEO and Co-Founder of Tonkean. Thank you for listening everyone. And remember, don’t hesitate, automate.
CEO and Co-Founder of Tonkean
Sagi Eliyahu is the CEO and co-founder of Tonkean, the Operating System for Business Operations. Tonkean transforms operations teams from facilitators into makers with an enterprise-grade, no-code process orchestration platform. Sagi and co-founder Offir Talmor started Tonkean in 2015 to expand the pie of who can deliver software and make a world of makers. Prior to Tonkean, Sagi held executive engineering roles at Jive Software, and served for four years in Unit 8200, the Israeli Defense Force’s elite intelligence agency. He applies much of what he learned from developing data and information systems for the agency to his work at Tonkean.
Sagi can be reached at: