The Platform Chronicles: 10 Questions with Ken McElrath, Skuid founder and CEO
On creating a leading “no code” platform with more than 5 million users on the Salesforce Platform.
Welcome to The Platform Chronicles, a series designed to introduce readers to some of the most innovative Salesforce customers, partners, and employers.
This issue introduces Ken McElrath, a design thinker, author, artist, and serial entrepreneur. Before launching Skuid in 2013, he founded Skoodat, a cloud education management platform, and Cazabba, a creative and technology services firm. Earlier he led marketing and product management for RetailersMarketXchange (RMX), a Bay-area startup, and consulted with at least a dozen other tech startups. He spent his early career leading marketing for various divisions of MicroAge Inc.
Fun Fact: Ken has co-authored two best-selling books: The Ascent of a Leader, and Beyond Your Best.
10 Questions for Ken
The following is a lightly edited transcript of our ten questions for Ken.
Ken, I first heard about Skuid years ago when several CIOs mentioned your company’s name at an event I was hosting. What led you to building user
experience tools for the Salesforce platform?
In my previous company, we built education solutions on Force.com. To get the user experience to fit the needs of educators, we had to write a lot of Visualforce and Apex code. While our customers loved the UX (Salesforce gave us two awards for it), each customer still wanted to make changes to fit the needs of each role and function. Plus, they wanted to easily connect to data across orgs and outside of Salesforce, without using code or integration software.
All of this was impossible for us to deliver at scale in 2012, because we (and education organizations) did not have enough time or money to make all the required changes for every customer, role and context by writing code. So my engineers decided to abstract away much of the complexity, making it possible to customize and personalize the UX without writing Visualforce or Apex, and Skuid (Scalable/sustainable Kit for User Interface Design/development) was born.
Your website touts Skuid as the leading “no-code” platform. Some CIOs embrace no-code as a panacea for ‘citizen developers.’ Others see it as endorsing chaos that they will ultimately have to step in and fix. What has your experience been?
“No code” is not a cure-all. No tool or platform is. But, with the right guidance and guardrails, the right tool can generate a giant leap for human productivity and efficiency. Skuid is all about freeing people to thrive in the digital enterprise, but too much freedom can also lead to unintended negative consequences without proper boundaries and processes.
We take a very unique approach to app development. From the beginning, we strove to create tools that foster a user-first, or what we call “design-first” perspective. I’m not talking about fonts and colors here. I’m talking about turning app development upside down. Most enterprise software tries to take a data-first approach, working from the back end to the front end. Often the software (and budget) falls short of what people actually need to get their work done more efficiently.
The problem with a data-first approach is that in the end, the user experience is really just an experience. Users get left out. This is why enterprise software often feels way too hard to use and learn, instead of just delivering what the user, role, or team needs to achieve a particular task within a specific context.
Companies often talk about having a great user interface, but creating a better skin on top of the wrong process doesn’t really solve for the user. Success requires the right strategy, and we think putting the user back into the user experience should underpin all app development. Start from the user and work back toward the data. It’s proven to be a revolutionary approach for many of our customers.
Salesforce Lightning has improved the user experience for millions of Salesforce users. How do you position Skuid relative to Lightning?
Because every company and every customer is unique, the need for customized — even personalized — user experiences will continue to grow exponentially, yet we don’t have enough software engineers and UX designers to keep up with current demand.
Lightning Design System provides an excellent new user interface for Sales Cloud and Service Cloud as compared to Classic. And the Lightning Framework delivers a more modern framework for coding Lightning components for use with Sales Cloud, Service Cloud, and Lightning Communities. Skuid committed to Lightning very early (when it was still called Aura) and has been 100% native within both the Lightning and Visualforce frameworks for years. We also plan to be ready for the next generation, when that comes.
But whether you’re using Visualforce on Classic or Lightning, problems persist. From an adoption perspective, expectations for apps have escalated dramatically in the past 10 years. Customers and employees now expect design-forward, engaging, personalized solutions to their needs, with no friction and no training required, regardless of the task or role. Many organizations do not have the time, money, or people to write code for enough Lightning components to solve their many unique and changing user and team requirements. This problem is not unique to Salesforce. It has persisted for decades, giving the word “customization” a bad rap.
No matter what the software solution, people always want apps that work “outside of the box.” This may sound very familiar, hearkening back to why we originally built Skuid. Every company, team and individual has unique roles, processes, and requirements. Writing code to get this level of design, interactivity, usability, connectivity, and full, end-to-end customization would be next to impossible. Even if you could, it would not be sustainable, because business needs change far too fast, and code is painful and expensive to maintain.
The old ways of building apps just doesn’t scale. If it takes a year to design and deploy an app with code, a company will miss an entire year of productivity, and most likely, the app will no longer meet the needs that the company defined a year prior. Why? Because the market changed, or the business changed, or the process changed.
If you can create a custom application exponentially faster than hand coding — say in 30 days — then why code? If you can iterate and maintain that same app far faster than writing code, then why code? If you can get to true agility at these speeds, you can deliver customization — even personalization — at scale. This is why Forrester Research says our customers typically get a full return on their investment in about 30 days. It’s about that design-first approach, enabled by our design-first platform.
Skuid also has a great Lightning migration story. Because Skuid works in both Classic and Lightning, and because Skuid can run natively in Visualforce or the Lightning Framework, companies can build Skuid pages and apps and run them in the Classic/Visualforce paradigm and when ready, run them in the Lightning paradigm — without a bunch of rework. We even have some customers running Skuid in both paradigms simultaneously. We have customers doing that today.
We recently talked to a SAP customer who was looking to use Salesforce as a front end to Fiori, SAP’s own front end. Wouldn’t it make more sense to replace Fiori with Skuid?
Fiori is actually a set of design principles for creating user experiences in SAP apps. It is often combined with UI5 for development which is mostly code-based. So yes, you would absolutely want to use Skuid instead of using Fiori with UI5.
With Skuid’s Design System Studio, UI components, and open integrations to OData, you can rapidly build a design-first, front-end for SAP Hana or SAP Gateway instances, and present a unified experience in the context of Salesforce. As an example, a major EU-based oil company recently built a combined custom Salesforce CRM + SAP ERP solution with Skuid.
Let’s talk about your platform. Looks like you have a 3-D strategy — Design, Develop, Deploy. Can you talk about how this has evolved and maybe give us a hint about what might come next?
If you think of our approach plus our platform, it’s actually 5-D: discover, define, design, develop, deploy. But on the technology side, originally Skuid provided two major things: drag-and-drop, highly configurable user interface components, and the ability to connect and perform full read/write functions across all Salesforce objects, presenting it in the browser without server-side code. By doing these two things, we hoped to eliminate repetitive Visualforce and Apex code, including the mundane task of writing test code for simple stuff like adding fields to a custom layout. We also wanted people to be able to create highly efficient, user-centered apps, by only pushing and pulling data that is essential to the task currently being performed. Architecturally, this meant we chose to run the user interface in the browser, rather than server side.
Since our humble beginnings, we have added two major innovations, along with a bunch of other important enhancements.
More recently, we added the ability to automatically style apps with a master design system, which can be created with our Design System Studio. The DSS controls the look and feel of every component and every Skuid app without writing any front-end code. We have a pre-packaged theme for the Lightning Design System of course, but most of our customers want their own fonts, colors, styles, etc.
For example, one major public-sector customer recreated their design system very quickly inside the Design System Studio to ensure that their Salesforce apps share the exact same look-and-feel. Design consistency and flexibility is non-negotiable for most of our clients because they want their customers to enjoy a seamless experience across all their apps and sites. User experience plays a gigantic role in driving the best customer experiences.
Integrations beyond Salesforce objects have also progressed over time to include REST, SQL, OData, and others. With Skuid’s common data abstraction model, developers are able to build solutions that integrate disparate data sources much easier and faster.
We are a Mulesoft partner, and have the ability to develop front ends that leverage a Mulesoft interface. We have more work to do here, but we see a massive opportunity to drive greater adoption of Mulesoft and Salesforce. We also plan to integrate Lightning Data Service so developers can automatically leverage the services it provides.
For developers, it’s often the little stuff that saves tons of time. To this end, we have added powerful declarative client-side business logic to our platform, so developers can create multi-step, branchable, reusable operations with the UI and connected data sources. Our new deployment CI/CD enabling tools are also quite popular with developers, including an API and CLI to retrieve and deploy Skuid metadata, and working in shared repositories.
I notice that Skuid offers a free trial. How has that worked out?
It’s worked out well. It provides a way for developers to install and learn Skuid, and for customers to try it out before they buy. We also offer free templates for a number of popular use cases, so users don’t have to start with a blank page.
Do you have any customers implementing Skuid on their own or are most/all working with a partner on their Skuid initiative?
We have customers who develop solutions with Skuid on their own, and those that work with Skuid professional services or a partner. Both models have been successful. The most common approach involves our professional services team building the first MVP (Minimal Viable Product) version of an application with the customer — what we call our “teach to fish” approach.
We introduced a design consulting offering with the formation of Skuid’s Experience Design Group (XDG). XDG employs a human-centered, persona-driven design process to create enterprise solutions that bridge the gap between business goals and users’ needs. This design process combined with a Skuid implementation on Salesforce has been very successful in helping customers who need assistance in designing and delivering thoughtful solutions that hit the mark.
For those developing in-house solutions, it is common for core teams trained on Skuid to own, develop, and maintain applications, and then continue to find new use cases to expand the use of both Skuid and Salesforce. We have a number of SI partners building with Skuid, including Accenture and Fujitsu, as well as smaller consultants like Rosetree Solutions and LeanCog.
When you first started working with Salesforce, Sales Cloud was the primary offering. How has your business changed as Salesforce now that Salesforce has a much broader portfolio?
Well, it can certainly be a challenge to keep up with all the change at Salesforce. While many still view Salesforce as being primarily about Sales Cloud CRM, it’s become far more — and far more complicated.
One of our core value props has been to bring together disparate data into a unified, human-centered UX, and this plays very well with customers that have numerous instances and varied products across the ecosystem. While most of our customers use Salesforce Sales Cloud as their primary system of record, our most popular data source type is actually REST, which connects Skuid to any system with a REST API. This includes most everything now owned by Salesforce, such as Heroku, Mulesoft, Marketing Cloud and Tableau, plus Einstein.
What’s your secret sauce — faster implementations, wider user adoption, or ease-of-use?
The secret sauce is contained in two interconnected things: our design-centered approach and our design-first platform.
Speed is certainly a big deal, but it’s actually not the primary benefit of Skuid. Speed and cost savings are both fantastic by-products of eliminating unnecessary code. But the biggest return on investment comes from user adoption. You get fast and furious payback when people actually use apps instead of avoiding them. We have many customers who have taken Salesforce adoption from below 30% to well over 90%, improving productivity, data quality, and transparency.
Our design-centered approach, which I’ve mentioned already, weaves tightly throughout our platform. On the technology side, it’s really a 1+1+1 = 10 thing. Skuid becomes a force-multiplier due to the tight integration between our powerful data abstraction, comprehensive style control, and dynamic interactivity. It’s the seamless integration that gives developers and admins the power to create consumer-grade, context-sensitive experiences for specific user roles and teams.
When users sit side-by-side engineers and engage in app design up front, they love solutions built with Skuid. And when those same users provide feedback or their needs change, enhancements can be turned around within hours or days instead of sitting on a huge backlog waiting for a coder to address and debug.
You’ve been a Salesforce AppExchange partner for a long time. What product or service would you like to Salesforce offer to improve its platform?
We love APIs, and we love staying way ahead of the curve.
It would be very cool if Salesforce released new capabilities and APIs to developers earlier, before a public product launch. This way, we could actually deliver awesome products and features in tandem with a Salesforce launch, similar to how Apple shows off vendor software concurrently with each new OS or hardware launch. Right now, there seems to be a significant lag between a Salesforce launch and the delivery of partner products that can actually take advantage of the new stuff.
About Skuid: Skuid was founded in 2013 on the simple belief that enterprise software should stop forcing people to behave like machines. Instead, apps should behave more like the humans who use them, so everyone can thrive in the digital world. With Skuid’s simple-to-use but incredibly robust cloud front-end design-and-deploy platform, anyone can connect to disparate data sources, assemble highly complex, made-to-order applications, and instantly make changes — all without writing code. More than 5 million users across 32 countries use Skuid to engage with each other, with data, and with new customers in meaningful ways.