Software Development, Leadership, and Innovation in Boulder

Data drives almost all decision making in an organization, and with the amount and variety of data growing exponentially, harnessing it for business benefit is a continuing challenge. The value in data is only truly unlocked when it’s timely, accessible, and usable by the people who need it.

Two Workday employees, Sayan Chakraborty and Terry Olkin, know this better than anyone. These two enterprise application development leaders founded Gridcraft, a Boulder, Colo.-based company Workday acquired April 2015. The data analytics tool they developed uses the spreadsheet look-and-feel and functionality, providing an intuitive interface that enables non-technical users to identify and analyze useful data from different enterprise application repositories.

We recently spoke with Chakraborty and Olkin to learn more about the power of spreadsheets, their experiences since joining Workday, and the state of things in Boulder.

What prompted you to focus on spreadsheets?

Olkin: In an enterprise, there is always a problem with users being able to connect with different data sources in a way that they can easily analyze and manipulate the data in those sources. Spreadsheets are universally known and understood; people know how to use them and they have highly valuable characteristics. They are right there in front of just about every user, but they haven’t always been used in a way that integrates multiple sources. So we realized there was a need for technology with the look, feel, and functionality of a spreadsheet, providing an intuitive interface enabling non-technical users to identify and analyze useful data from different enterprise application repositories.

“The oldest known spreadsheet is on a clay tablet from Babylonia, 3,800 years ago.”

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Terry Olkin and Sayan Chakraborty

Chakraborty: We didn’t start off looking to build a cloud spreadsheet; rather, we wanted a way to help business users. The problem of making data useful is about being able to connect to multiple data sources, and giving users an interface that would make all that data usable. A spreadsheet is where users want to work—it’s where they feel comfortable. It’s interesting; the oldest known spreadsheet is on a clay tablet from Babylonia, 3,800 years ago. Then, with the advent of the personal computer, VisiCalc springs up in the later part of the 20th century, followed by Lotus 1-2-3, Excel, and others, but if you trace these things, you see that the paradigm has changed very little. The spreadsheet interface is a compelling way to think about data because it’s done in a way that mirrors how we conceptualize data and information.

How important is the user interface and experience for adoption and usage?

Chakraborty: Besides email, spreadsheets are the best known and understood applications in the industry. The expectations are already established, and there are standards for what can and cannot be done. When you start with a user experience like that, you essentially already have a trained user base. And if you consider the numbers—hundreds of millions of Excel users—you’re looking at a massive group of “programmers” who don’t realize that every time they create an Excel formula, they’re writing software. That’s a testament to the usability of spreadsheets. Consider the potential of that for customers of Workday Financial Management and Workday Human Capital Management.

“The available talent pool here is large, but besides just capability, we also focus on hiring for cultural fit.”

What were some early experiences that have informed what you’re working on at Workday?

Chakraborty: There were definitely some surprises along the way in terms of what users expect. For instance, most people understood the concept of tabular data—rows and columns—but they struggle more with the idea of bringing in multiple data sources, refreshing it as needed, and manipulating it within a spreadsheet paradigm.

Olkin: For end users, they love being able to access raw data and do something with it in an ad-hoc manner. They see the spreadsheet format and know they can do something with it, create something usable and meaningful. We’re really excited to apply this kind of experience to benefit the Workday customer community.

You’ve created a really dynamic team in Boulder. What are your plans for continuing to grow?

Chakraborty: The available talent pool here is large, but besides just capability, we also focus on hiring for cultural fit. We’re always looking to maintain a great culture and experience for Workday employees. We have an active intern program and we’re hoping to make many of the people in the program full-time employees.

Olkin: When we started, we were primarily a group of developers, and the whole time operated in a very collaborative way. This is a really experienced team, the best I’ve ever worked with. Boulder has a robust, diverse economy which is good for Workday and we’ve been able to build our team mostly with locals. We’ve just moved into a new office here, and we have plenty of room to grow, so we are excited to bring in more people who can help us continue to build great applications.