Fed clients demand scale, rigor
- By Susan M. Menke
- May 12, 2004
Matthew Calkins, Appian's portal builder
Matthew Calkins became a director of MicroStrategy Inc. in 1994, in his twenties, at the height of the dot-com era. He and three friends co-founded Appian Corp. of Vienna, Va., in 1999.
Their goal for that venture, he said, 'was to link people to information on a grand scale.' Appian has done that with several groundbreaking information portals it built for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Federal Emergency Management Agency and World Bank during the last two years.
The privately held company, which started with four employees, now has 134 who mostly work on federal projects. Calkins serves as president and CEO. Last year's revenue, he said, was $24.6 million.
Born in Hartford, Conn., Calkins grew up in Mill Valley, Calif. He received a bachelor's degree in economics from Dartmouth College and was named his class' outstanding economics graduate.
GCN chief technology editor Susan M. Menke interviewed Calkins by phone. GCN: You've built several portals for the government in the last five years'notably Army Knowledge Online, Navy Knowledge Online and Disaster.gov. Is that Appian's main work?
CALKINS: I'd phrase it a lot more broadly. Portal is a catchword that caught on a couple of years ago, but I don't think it describes the heart of our business well. We're building information infrastructures, processing information for the government.GCN: How did you get started?
CALKINS: We were doing consulting work that had to do with routing the right information to the right person, and the portal was the closest market to what we were already doing. So when we came out with software that connected people with information, they called it a portal.
In fairness, we're really doing more than that. It's not a Web page. We're trying to target information, add knowledge and real-time analytics, and route information through a process. It's deeper than a portal and also really big'scalable.GCN: How many of these have you built, and how many are you continuing to work on?
CALKINS: We're at the World Bank, the Marine Corps and the Homeland Security Department, in addition to AKO and NKO. Those are ongoing projects, and we've got a number of spin-off engagements in each one of the major organizations that have come to maturity on our software.GCN: How do you approach design?
CALKINS: The government has unique requirements. We can't get away with putting a business process management solution in a box and sending it to a government organization and expecting it to be sufficient.
Government agencies are different from commercial entities. It's simply not enough to give them something shrink-wrapped.
There are real differences between what I call government process management and BPM. We do BPM, but I'm trying to make a point that government is different. One size does not fit all.
Government processes are so much bigger and complex. You can't make a misstep in a government process. Frankly, sometimes in the commercial space if a process is slightly wrong, well, a few eggs get broken. It's no big deal. The government is much more rigorous.GCN: How did you discover that?
CALKINS: We showed up at our first government engagement and realized there would be no compromise. They knew what they wanted, and it was extraordinarily precise.
The Army has every piece of software ever written. They want you to connect to every bit of it, and they have more information than any other organization on Earth'I don't know that for a fact, I'm just guessing. And they've got to get it to just the right person.
There are other big, nongovernmental organizations, but I challenge anyone to find any with a greater distance between the source of the information and the decision-maker.
The Army collects data from the soldier on the ground about that soldier's experience'which gear worked best, which pack did they like to use, which fabric was light in the desert? We collect and send that information to the people who make purchasing decisions.
The distance between the one who knows what the right gear is and the one who decides is really long. That is a common problem. Any government process management tool has got to be good at distributing information over a long distance and targeting it. You can't just use a megaphone, there'd be too much to listen to.GCN: How did the AKO chat groups form? Did the soldiers themselves ask for it?
CALKINS: Yes. People used to chat on public Web sites about their Army experiences, and having that open to the nation's enemies makes no sense. So we've gotten it to be more private, and we've allowed perspective on it'sorted and compartmentalized and exposed it to the decision-makers directly. We've distributed the information better.GCN: What are the current metrics?
CALKINS: We measure the number of participants and the e-mail soldiers send back home. We're the network through which they communicate. We have more than a quarter-million soldiers per day using the service. There aren't many intranets on Earth with a quarter-million registered users.
They've got kiosks [overseas] because they don't all have portable computers. We get the most amazing complaints. I hear there's too much dust in the kiosks in Afghanistan. These things matter in the field.
The way it used to be was that an order would be e-mailed and stored a thousand times in a thousand e-mail accounts, taking up gigantic amounts of bandwidth. Every time there was a new version, it too had to be bounced off a satellite, and that would take up bandwidth. Now they've got it down to just sending links. It's so much better.
You can check security when somebody tries to access the link. You don't duplicate all the space in everybody's e-mail account.
A bunch of soldiers were just about to ship out to Iraq when each one was targeted by AKO because the immunization they'd been given was out of date. There's no way they could have known that otherwise, and it would have taken a month and a pile of paperwork in the old days.GCN: How did you get the work for the Navy's NKO portal?
CALKINS: The other vendors couldn't match our [AKO] record after we scaled to so many users. This hasn't been pulled off by anybody else. We're specialists in scalability.
The Navy's needs were very different. The Navy spotlight is on distribution of information, but there's another dimension added to that: the five-vector model for things you should learn in your career as a sailor. They track every sailor's progress in five dimensions, and that training aspect was the initial justification for NKO.GCN: You sound very confident about the quality of your software. Do you write all of it yourselves?
CALKINS: We do, yet we are extraordinarily open. Our role in this market is to be an open broker, compatible with everybody. We run on all platforms and take data from all large legacy systems. That's how we compete. A company like IBM Corp. or Microsoft Corp. will sell you everything [proprietary]. We're a nice compromise.
We write in Java except for our data storage. We like Java because it's so portable.
There have been instances when we've written an environment for information but were not allowed to look at the information. It was too secure.GCN: When a customer wants changes in the software, how do they happen?
CALKINS: We make changes to the structure. We're not librarians of the content, although we have complex archiving technology. Making sure the environment meets the customer's needs is an ongoing process.
With the exodus of [retiring] government workers over the next few years, it is so important to encode information now about the processes of doing their work. That needs to outlast the jobholders.