Attunity CEO Aki Ratner shares his vision of the future in operational business intelligence with DM Review Editorial Director Jim Ericson.
Aki Ratner did not arrive at his current position via the usual Ivy League education and executive career path. Until a decade ago, the man who today is CEO of data integration software provider Attunity was busy flying planes - for the Israeli Air Force. Fortunately for all involved, Israel's military provides parallel career tracks for its pilots - and Ratner chose technology. "I graduated from the university, and for the next 20 years I was involved in both software development or management and flying. It was really a lot of fun." After leaving the military in 1997, Ratner became president of Precise Software Solutions, a small database performance software provider that soon went public and was sold to VERITAS in 2002 for more than $600 million. Just a year ago, Ratner joined Attunity, a more mature company - which has been publicly traded since 1992 - and set about building his vision. In December 2005, that goal was reached with the release of Attunity InFocus, a software product that is meant to address user-defined business topics. DM Review spoke with Aki Ratner around the time of the InFocus release.
DMR: This year everyone is talking about information management. Is it a real trend or just repackaging of old products?
AR: I believe information management will be the major trend in the coming years. Five years ago it was application management. The old approach was to manage applications as critical resources for the organization. Currently the idea is that you have a lot of information being generated all over the place by different applications and you want to have a layer above it. Business users don't care about the application; they care about the information. This is where information management will be a significant trend that will capture the attention of everybody.
DMR: Do you see corporations that are leveraging information as a core strategy?
AR: Most, if not all, IT projects that deal with information management require access to different types of data sources. In that sense, there is a close correlation between enterprise information management (EIM) as a strategy and the business requirement to retrieve the data that is relevant to the specific project. I think that information management is indeed a core strategy for many corporations and creates many opportunities for a company like Attunity.
DMR: What is the typical business case for your product?
AR: In almost every organization, much of the information is not easily accessible. With Attunity Integration Suite (AIS) the technical guy comes around and says, "I found it, eureka! I know how to recreate the data, and now it's going to be part of the overall picture." If it's business intelligence (BI) or a data warehouse, it's a very easy business case. I see it over and over with almost every customer.
DMR: Your company uses the term "operational business intelligence" to describe your new InFocus product. What do you really mean by that?
AR: We believe that the old BI approach is passive, meaning that basically you are getting reports. They can be smart reports, important reports. However, in most cases the users of the reports are the analysts within the organization. Management is using BI solutions mostly for key performance indicators. When looking at what a manager does on a daily basis, a lot of his decisions don't regard the strategic direction of the company; they regard an issue or a topic such as a customer, partner, vendor or project that they should deal with. The Attunity InFocus product enables managers at all levels to get on-demand and real-time information from multiple sources and to work on that information and take action accordingly. This requires a product that can adapt according to the way people think and work. Attunity is unique in providing this kind of a product.
DMR: That sounds like a pretty high bar for a data integration product.
AR: It is important to say that this is an off-the-shelf product, not a project. We all remember a time when we had a precise need for something, knew the requirements and were told by system integrators that we'd get a spec and results within six to 12 months. Businesses are constantly dealing with circumstances that arise, and their issues are unique and different. I will give you two examples. We have an installation at a large newspaper. Their pain point was the need to manage the lifecycle of the paper in their organization. They are constantly buying and selling different types of paper and printing processes in different sites. The improved asset management capabilities of their paper allowed them to realize a very quick ROI. Now, they can issue purchase orders, look at stock supply and compare pricing at any time. I wouldn't have thought that this would have been their most pressing business problem before I met them.
A different customer, a very large car retailer in the U.S., wanted to manage their marketing programs for selling different lines of cars. They wanted to see if the marketing was effective and, if not, to start moving the budget from one program to another in order to promote the right car. They have benefited from getting the data on demand.
Each customer has different problems, and being able to address their problem quickly is very important. The key is context, capturing the way people act in a very straightforward way in a one-week implementation. That's not a project; it's an off-the-shelf product.
DMR: How do you like being CEO of a publicly traded company, and do you feel pressure to quickly deliver profitability?
AR: The challenge is explaining to the shareholders that the money you are investing now is to build the future. You have long- and short-term plans. The short-term plans are shown in the quarterly reviews and reports. The long-term plan is to make sure that by investing the money in the right way we will take the company to a large presence in its space. I think the majority of shareholders saw what was done when I was involved with Precise Software Solutions. It was a little easier there because when we started, the company was privately held and we could implement our plans almost without limitations. Now at Attunity, we are investing the proceeds from current technology into a vision that is progressing on plan and will allow us to address major market opportunities.
DMR: That means you have an optimistic outlook. What do you like most about the data management and BI industry today?
AR: I like that it's going more and more into the business space. If I recall what happened 15 years ago, it was all in the technical space. Because the innovation came from technical people, there was never enough understanding of the business value behind innovation. Now we are starting from the business pain. Since the dot-com bubble burst, the emphasis has been much more on the business value. I think the impact of these products being developed for the business is very high and it helps organizations significantly improve their business. I meet a lot of CIOs and IT managers who are very business-motivated. This is the biggest change in the last three years.
DMR: What don't you like about the state of the industry?
AR: I see three things that are of concern. The first one is the fact that there is a consolidation now where large companies are buying smaller companies. The second one is that many large enterprises only want to deal with large, well-established vendors and stable vendors. The third is that small companies look forward to being acquired at the right price. This trend could very well impact future innovation. Having said all that, I do believe that we are living in a very dynamic and exciting period, and I am enjoying it immensely.
DMR: You saw the results of acquisition at Precise Software. Are you considering acquisitions, or are you priming the company to be bought?
AR: We are always looking for opportunities to buy technologies that can get us where we want to be faster. I think the strategy at Precise was very good. We wanted to build the best company, one that would last forever. We did not look to be acquired; we felt we were not going to sell the company. When the right opportunity came along, we were flexible enough to make the right decision. I think the other way around is very dangerous. When your only objective is to sell the company, you are not making the right strategy decisions, everything is short-term and you don't invest. We think we can grow our company to be a substantial size, and then we will consider all options.
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