Workday Acquires Upshot, Strengthens Data Science Expertise

In 2013, Joseph Turian and Thomas Kim met in San Francisco to reminisce about their days as undergrads at Harvard University in the ‘90s, and share what they’d been up to since then.

Turian had been drawn deep into the world of data science, earning a Ph.D. with a dissertation on how systems could use large-scale machine learning to understand English, and was consulting through a company he founded called MetaOptimize. Kim was a lead developer in enterprise analytics at Salesforce.com. It didn’t take long for the two to recognize an opportunity to combine their expertise and interests.

The result was Upshot, a company they founded in September 2013, just one month before competing in the Salesforce1 Hackathon—and winning a $1 million prize. They had built a mobile-based enterprise data analytics application for the event based on natural language processing (NLP) capabilities. The application made it possible for salespeople to ask questions into their smartphones—“How many lost opportunities did we have this quarter?” or, “How many salespeople do we have in Florida?”—and get results out of Salesforce in graphical reports.

Now, they’ve brought Upshot’s talent and IP to Workday, following Workday’s acquisition of the small company last February.

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Upshot co-founders Joseph Turian and Thomas Kim are putting their data science and analytics expertise to work at Workday.

Turian and Kim say they recognized pretty quickly that it was the right fit. “If you go to one of those very big companies, you’re like a cog in the wheel. If you go to a start-up, you’re too limited—the data sets are small and not that valuable,” Turian says. “But how often do you get the opportunity to work on the data set of a $1 billion-a-year company? There is so much fun work to do.”

Workday, meanwhile, gains talent with expertise in the most recent and innovative areas of data science, says Dan Beck, senior vice president, product marketing and technology strategy at Workday.

“It’s relatively easy to find Ph.D.s that have strong statistical backgrounds, but there’s a pretty small pool of people who have strong statistical, machine learning, and world-class programming skills packaged with enterprise experience,” Beck says. “We acquired Upshot for the best reasons there are—talent and innovation.”

From Harvard to Hackathon

Former Upshot Co-Founder Joseph Turian is now a Principal Software Development Engineer at Workday
Joseph Turian is a principal software development engineer at Workday.

Turian gives the impression of a scholar and a free spirit. He’s prone to thoughtful pauses followed by eloquent responses, as if his brain travels into far-off galaxies most mortal minds will never venture into. He grew up on Long Island, the son of a television engineer and teacher, and as a child, sang for a while with the New York City Opera. Now he sings in a rock band in San Francisco.

Kim spends his free time at home catching up on episodes of “The Walking Dead” and “Orphan Black,” in between preparing, with his wife of three years, for their first child. He grew up in Orange County, the son of Korean immigrants who succeeded with a number of small businesses—groceries, dry cleaning, landscaping. That same industriousness and entrepreneurialism has emerged in his own career path.

Kim and Turian met on their first day as freshman at Harvard, becoming fast friends through their mutual interest in computers, and later became roommates for a year. Sixteen years after that first meeting, they were accepting one of the two top prizes awarded at Salesforce1 Hackathon 2013.

“The Hackathon was a month long, and we busted our asses, morning, noon, and night on that application,” Turian says. “We gave this great presentation on stage. We asked Marc Benioff, ‘Do you have any questions?’ And he said, ‘How did you do that?’ It was one of the proudest moments of my life.”

Meeting of the Minds with Workday
Shortly after the hackathon, about 1,100 people submitted requests for information about the beta program for Upshot’s winning enterprise application. It underscored what Kim and Turian already knew—there is a strong need for technology innovation in the enterprise world, despite the fact that most engineers view consumer technology as the holy grail of innovation.

“The enterprise world is very straightforward—there is a direct connection between the engineering problem you’re solving, and the customer problem you’re solving,” Kim says. “The value being delivered in consumer technology isn’t always that clear, which makes it less technology focused in a way.”

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 Thomas Kim is a principal software development engineer at Workday.

As Kim and Turian went about developing a go-to-market strategy for Upshot in 2014, their fate would take another twist. Through a mutual acquaintance they met Vlad Giverts, senior director of software engineering at Workday, and began to learn how Workday’s vision of bringing the best and latest technology innovations to the enterprise so closely aligned with their own.

Giverts introduced them to Workday’s Beck, and David Clarke, senior vice president of technology development at Workday. In February, Workday acquired Upshot, and Kim and Turian joined the company along with Alex Nisnevich, their first employee and another master of data science out of UC Berkeley.

Beck says their skills are particularly helpful for Workday’s focus on predictive and prescriptive analytics, meaning the ability to analyze data around an organization’s talent and finances, predict what might happen, and then deliver recommendations to a business leader or manager on what steps to take next. In April 2015, Workday announced Workday Talent Insights, the first of a new family of applications that comes from this focus.

For example, Workday Talent Insights features Retention Risk to help businesses answer things like, “Which of my top performers might leave in the next year, and what’s the cost to replace them?” That’s just the first step: Beck said in a blog post that customers will start to see prescriptive capabilities in Workday Insight Applications later this year.

The acquisition of Upshot follows the acquisition of Identified last year, which was also focused on pulling in new data science IP and talent into the Workday platform and products, both existing ones and those in development.

“Workday’s approach to acquiring is dramatically different than that of traditional enterprise software companies,” Beck says. “Their approach is to buy legacy products and customers from various vendors to get instant new revenue and market share. At Workday, we have always known this ‘Frankensoft’ approach is not the best one for customers, and that’s why our acquisitions to date—including Cape Clear, Identified, and Upshot—have been about bringing phenomenal talent and technology into our platform and products.”

Indeed, the acquisition of Upshot and Identified were not intended just for Workday Insight Application products.

“These machine learning and data science skills and capabilities we’re bringing in are making Workday technology services smarter overall,” says Workday’s Clarke, who also co-founded Cape Clear. “This is all about innovation across the Workday technology stack.”

Kim explains what impressed him most about Workday. “This is a major enterprise software company that really understands that data science is the present and future of solving big business problems,” he says. “It’s easy to imagine the kind of apps you can build to help organizations. Better yet, the data Workday has is authoritative—it’s clean data because it’s actual operational data, and all in one system.”

“I really like the culture here,” Turian adds. “People genuinely care about what they are doing and about customer satisfaction. A lot of company cultures can come across as insincere—and Workday’s doesn’t.”