With headquarters in Ottawa, Canada, Cognos has grown from a consulting company that provided information system consulting to the Canadian federal government into an international software and services corporation with more than 32 offices in 12 countries around the world. It seems fitting that a company with such a global presence should be led by an individual with a diverse international background. Ron Zambonini, president and CEO of Cognos, is an Italian who was born in Glasgow, Scotland. "This sort of dual heritage," Zambonini comments, "makes me more than a guy with a 'funny' accent who waves his arms a lot. My life path has taken me from different parts of Europe to the United States and Canada. Consequently, I think globally which is very important to Cognos' worldwide growth and to how we are able to satisfy customers from all over the world."
"From a corporate standpoint, we're pretty old for a software company. We began consulting in 1969, so we're almost 30 years old. Then about 18 years ago, one of our great guys, Bob Minns, currently our senior vice president of technology, had the idea of writing a tool to do the porting from IBM. And that was, of course, 4GL. That's how we became a products provider, and we've been inventing good products that help people get closer to their data ever since," Zambonini proudly states.
Cognos PowerHouse 4GL is a development environment for building applications for mid-range computing systems. It is the success of the Cognos 4GL product line that provided a foundation and corporate infrastructure that enabled the development of Cognos' business intelligence products and services.
Zambonini joined Cognos in 1989 as vice president of research and development. He was promoted to senior vice president of R&D in 1990 and to president and COO in January 1993. In September of 1995, Zambonini became president and CEO. Under his direction, the company has become one of the leading strategic suppliers of enterprise business intelligence tools.
"Cognos' stock price has done very well. In fact, the price has gone up 12 times since I have been president," notes Zambonini. He states that proudly, but then his sense of humor becomes evident--and he doesn't even mind being the subject of the joke. "I like to tell this one," he says. "One of our development managers suggests that maybe the stock increase is not related to the fact that I am president, but rather is related to the fact that I am no longer vice president of research and development!"
Reflecting on that possibility, Zambonini comments, "But when I was vice president of research and development, I really was a guy that pushed, and our products are better now because there's dedicated attention to quality. And I still like hands-on involvement, especially in the product area. Because of my background, I like to sit down with the developers. I'm not a highly technical guy, but I am very enthusiastic about the products. I like to get the new products installed at Cognos, so that I can see my data with them."
Convincing potential customers to purchase Cognos' products is only the beginning.
According to Zambonini, the first reason that companies choose Cognos' products is for their functionality, ease of use and the richness of the product. The second reason is because they trust Cognos.
"Building trust is very important," he emphasizes. "Customers stay with us as they grow because we support and service them well. Potential customers know that there is a lot of hype in the market. At Cognos," Zambonini states, "we have a culture of being able to do what we say. We have strong products, strong support and strong service. Our customers know we will follow through and make them successful. I believe that we can absolutely make a difference to a corporation. We can make a difference to its revenue, and we can make a difference by helping people make better decisions every day."
"When customers buy our products, we have to deliver real value to them. We have to show them how Cognos' products make a difference in their organization. This is not like a platform decision. It's not like buying an ERP system. There's a softer value equation when we're saying that we'll give you insight into what's driving your business to make better decisions. This is much harder to measure," Zambonini explains. "So we have to show people how to measure the value they're getting from our products. A lot of people approach business intelligence as only replacing all those COBOL reports they had before, but it's much more than that. To me, it's almost like reengineering your company because you're doing your business in a different way. And, getting that across is very important."
One of the ways that Cognos' customers can learn how to fully leverage the power of Cognos' products is by attending the Business Intelligence University which Zambonini describes as a new concept in management studies. In a three- day course, participants create a three-year plan for a manufacturing business and then run the business over 12 quarters.
"You set yourself up in teams," says Zambonini, "and you are competing with other groups to see who can make the most profit. You make strategic decisions on buying equipment, hiring people, marketing and budgeting. And then you get the effect of what happens on business intelligence. You see the reports, and then you make decisions. When you've finished, you understand the whole idea of a coordinated organization and how important it is to not make decisions in a vacuum. You learn that all decisions in an organization are connected to other departments. You learn that investing in business intelligence is important. The great benefit of the Business Intelligence University is that it is enabling people to see that they really can have a huge competitive advantage if they get wired into business intelligence products."
Zambonini predicts that the Web will play a major role in the business intelligence market. He explains, "To me, the biggest benefit of the Web right now is that we have a very standard, simple user interface--simple so that people who haven't used it for weeks can go there and immediately be productive, and standard, meaning that people here and in Sweden and in Australia all have the same user interface. The decisions that vendors make in the next couple of years are going to be very important. I think this is a tremendous challenge that is going to face the industry in the next couple of years--to present a simple, standard user interface. Every time the industry has been offered that opportunity, it has failed," Zambonini declares. "Java offers lots of promise, but it's like a Lorelei on the rocks, trying to lure you to destruction. Because, with Java, you could make a user interface just as complicated as Windows. And, if we do that, we're probably going to lose all the volume of the Web. And, we're going to have to worry about performance, too. Java is very useful for certain things, but we have to be careful because right now the biggest thing the Web gives us is mass deployment. We're only going to maintain that if we keep things as simple as possible."
"We feel," Zambonini says, "that most consumption of information from now on will be done over the Web. Our future focus is going to be on Web Products. Cognos Web Reports is basically the infrastructure on the Web which offers you the information. That is going to become very sophisticated. For example, in a company with 20,000 to 30,000 users, the product actually has to track what you're interested in so you can be alerted when things change."
Data visualization, Zambonini says, is also going to play a big role in business intelligence. "The technology is now able to get the information to the people, but what you've really got to do is get them to consume it. You've got to get them to internalize it. Since we're living in a television society, people are accustomed to having everything presented visually and in snippets. We are going to have to go that extra mile and do that for our customers. A picture is truly worth a thousand words," he concludes.
When asked what makes him proud to be a part of Cognos, Zambonini states that it is the people at Cognos. In addition to their dedication to the Cognos organization and the quality of its products, these employees also regularly participate in community service projects. These projects are done in teams of anywhere from 10 to 40 people. "We focus on children, education, senior citizens, the environment and animals. Our efforts have been highly recognized by the community as well as by other corporations that use our program model in their companies." Heartwarming accomplishments to add to their high technology accomplishments.
"I think," Zambonini says, "that people would say that my greatest accomplishment at Cognos was the transition from 4GL to business intelligence. Let me clarify that this was really a team effort. We were fortunate to have some hot products at a time when the market was really looking for them. And, at the same time, we had a big infrastructure in terms of sales and support. We had offices all over the world which were being underutilized. Managing the transition was important, but when I'm sitting in my rocking chair some day what I would like to think of as my biggest accomplishment is building the team!"
With the software industry still in its infancy, Zambonini predicts that in seven to ten years there will only be a few big software companies--probably less than ten. He says, "We are all trying to make Cognos one of the bigger ones. We are all very competitive and winning is what drives us. And, for us to win, our customers have to win," he emphasizes. "Fortunately, I am surrounded by the most dynamic group of individuals in the business. The people at Cognos are true believers in themselves, the technology and the products that they deliver. The Cognos team is innovative, and they produce the highest quality results. I am also proud of how loyal they are to this company. This enables us to provide our customers with the best service and support--experienced Cognos employees are truly dedicated to making our customers successful!"
Ron Zambonini, president and CEO of Cognos.
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