Building the cloud enterprise: Surviving an industry shift

The enterprise software industry of today could learn a lot from the consumer desktop software industry of the 1990s. Back then, the advent of the web sent out a wave of disruption, knocking some desktop developers completely out of business and driving the rest of us to innovate.

The web didn’t come with desktop’s channel constraints. Some of us took advantage of that, realizing it was much more powerful and effective to build products that actually fit the new platform and gave users a more streamlined, efficient experience. The developers who misinterpreted the shift in technology built the same products they’d always been building and found themselves with bloated, feature-riddled software that no one wanted.

Today’s enterprise software industry is on the cusp of a parallel shift. As more enterprises move to the cloud and BYOD gains ground in the workplace, enterprise software developers would be smart to learn from the desktop’s mistakes.

When the web hit the software industry, most desktop developers were busy fighting feature wars. Desktop software carries an innately high transactional cost. It’s expensive to produce and distribute and expensive to purchase. Consumers want to be sure that if they’re spending so much of their hard-earned money, that they’re getting the most bang for their buck. So, the product with the most features, regardless of usability, typically won.

Over time, most desktop software ended up with massive feature bloat. The problem with these products, once the Web came into play, was that they were so heavy and clunky that the Web couldn’t hold their weight.

When we were building Writely at Upstartle, we realized we could trim down our product and streamline the user experience. We could cut all of the features that didn’t make sense. We gave users everything they really needed — right up front, easy to get to, easy to use. The web made everything faster, simpler. It put the user experience front and center. There was an ever-increasing focus on design and a need for agility. We built methodology around getting products improved and features built faster, in the simplest way possible.

We realized worse really is better. Consumers were won with direct, approachable interfaces, not feature excess.

Enterprise software has been a little bit slower to come around to this type of user-driven model. CIOs were traditionally choosing their tools the same way desktop software consumers had been — who could offer the most bang for their buck? But the wall of security that CIOs have been building around their organizations for years is being increasingly permeated by mobile devices and cloud-based applications. IT can’t lock down the applications their employees are using on their own devices and, all too often, it’s too hard to keep employees from getting to unauthorized cloud-based applications.

IT decision-makers are forced to provide the tools their employees are using the most, in an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attempt to secure their enterprises and ensure adoption.

But CIOs don’t need to sacrifice the security and stability they want from on-premise solutions when they decide to move to the cloud. Enterprise software can be securely delivered and deployed at a much lower transactional cost. Enterprises can scale faster and worry less about software updates. The tools CIOs pick for their organizations can be safe for the enterprise, but they need to be better than the free tool their employees can pick up from the app store.

We need to be able to compete with consumer-grade applications and be the app that wins the hearts and minds of users. CIOs can’t force their employees to stick to the approved app. We have to be able to stand on our own merits as a consumer-grade application without sacrificing our enterprise-grade polish. We can’t let our user experience suffer to deliver on the CIO’s demands. We have to deliver on both.

If we’re serious about delivering user-driven, consumer-grade applications with enterprise scale and security, we need to stay as agile as possible within the constraints that keep us stable. Daily releases and a focus on building natively to the cloud help maintain a focus on simple implementation and a fast, streamlined application. We can’t sacrifice correctness for simplicity and we can’t be sloppy about delivery, but we need to deliver convenience, which is an incredibly complex challenge. We need to build in a thorough system of reviews and tests, without hindering velocity.

Above all else, we need to focus on our users. Collaboration should be easy. It should be readily available. It needs to be secure and it needs to be simple. We need to figure out how to do everything faster and better to stay ahead.

Sam Schillace is vice president of engineering at Box and will speaking at our Structure conference on Thursday.