IT Selector interview with Thinkwise
Pearls in the IT
In this series companies are portrayed that have played or still play a prominent role in the Dutch ICT world.
Thinkwise does not want to be a software company
Thinkwise has a mission: it wants to deliver software to customers that supports the business in a simple and transparent manner, with an infinite lifespan, both technically as well as functionally.This is why the founders Victor Klaren and Robert van der Linden established the Apeldoorn company fifteen years ago. They claim to make the development of business software a manageable process, based on a model driven methodology.
With their low code development platform, the Thinkwise Suite, the company in Apeldoorn claims to produce, modify or extend business software at least eight times faster than other existing methods. ‘Companies think that our solution sounds too good to be true, and too cheap’, says co-founder and managing director Robert van der Linden. Thinkwise therefore offers a so-called test drive: a free proposition as proof, for which the current business software is modernized on a small scale.
But even then ICT directors of Dutch companies are reticent, he notices. For example, Thinkwise carried out a test drive for a garden centre chain after the implementation of a Navision package had failed. Even though the garden centre were impressed by the success of the test they still decided to continue with Navision. Also a technical service provider that had to replace old Lotus applications, did not dare to switch over to Thinkwise.
Van der Linden: ‘A pity. I understand this to some extent. People have become afraid to try something new. This is not their first bad experience with business software. “It did not bring us what we had expected”: is what you often hear.’ Additionally, Van der Linden finds that Dutch ICT directors, in comparison to their American colleagues, are more conservative. ‘They prefer to wait and see what others do and have difficultly placing us. We are not a supplier of software packages and neither do we do customization. It is difficult to categorize Thinkwise.’
Against this flow Thinkwise has grown into a company with a hundred and twenty employees. The head office is located in Apeldoorn and there are branches in Rotterdam and Eindhoven. Car and truck manufacturer VDL was the ‘breakthrough’ customer for Thinkwise. The company in Apeldoorn is the strategic software partner of VDL, which includes the Nedcar factory in Born, and among other things is replacing its ERP environment that was developed in RPG (with thanks to the car enthusiast site www.loveatfirstdrive.nl).
The customer portfolio has leading names such as VDL, Sligro, Mojo, WEC Lines, Troostwijk and Vacansoleil. The company focuses on medium-sized companies and institutions such as municipalities. It often concerns customers that, as Van der Linden calls it, have a ‘technology debt’: systems that should have been modernized or replaced a long time ago but which has not happened through fear or false economy. For example, Sligro has its own system developed in RPG, VDL along with SAP also has an in-house RPG system and the valuations and auction house Troostwijk bought a Navision system that required a large amount of customization. ‘Now that everything changes so fast with digital innovations and companies cannot quickly respond to market developments, then they run the risk of losing the battle. They are therefore in search of innovative, affordable and flexible solutions that support them in this.’
Thinkwise is replacing parts of the RPG environment for Sligro but the company is also involved in modernization programmes. Such as a mobile solution with which representatives, who visit the supermarkets, can immediately process their findings automatically instead of manually. Troostwijk wanted a registration system to support the assessor when on the road and for Vacansoleil Thinkwise implemented new back-office software for the planning, reservations and the yield management.
With the acquisition of Sligro as a customer about ten years ago, Thinkwise gained its first major customer. ‘That was a signal for us that we were on the right path. The real breakthrough in the market came when we signed the contract with VDL, a high-quality technology company which many people follow as an example. If VDL top man Willem van der Leegte buys that software, then it will be alright, is what everyone believes. We benefited from that.’ Thinkwise is the strategic software partner of the car and truck manufacturer and among other things is replacing the enterprise resource planning (ERP) environment that has been developed in RPG. Thinkwise has also a developed a quality management system for VDL.
Van der Linden started his career in the software industry with the German software company SAP. He started working with the ERP software supplier itself – as ‘employee 900’ – and subsequently ran his own company in the United States for ten years:
SAP implementer Integration Software. After he sold his company to the American IT service provider Ciber, Van der Linden became a director in Europe. However at the end of 1999 Ciber also bought the SAP partner Solution Partners in the Netherlands. He had friends working there and he did not want to work as their manager. In addition, he started to dislike working in a large company.
Back in the Netherlands Van der Linden carried out a number of consultancy jobs and did doctoral research at the University of Twente into interface technology. Central question: how can you describe interfaces in a model-based manner, so that when a system must be changed, the interface can be quickly adjusted without manual modifications. He did not complete the research but Van der Linden did come into contact with Victor Klaren. He worked at Telic in Enschede, a company that had gone bankrupt, that had invested a lot of money into the development of new, integrated business software. Klaren, just like Van der Linden, had opinions about how things should be different with regard to ERP software. They founded Thinkwise in 2002, informed Telic customers that they wanted to continue the software support and started to give the idea of a software factory some shape.
He had a wonderful time at SAP – in the 1990’s that company was so ‘hot, that it is now difficult to imagine’ – but now understands that things have to be different in the software industry. ‘The strength of an ERP package is the integration; there are far better solutions in the market for the individual functionality. However, these ERP systems have become so large, because as many employees as possible have to work with the software, that modification and implementation is hardly possible anymore and has become far too expensive. I am not saying that all packaged software is bad. But that business software in a general sense has three major problems.’
The first problem is the fast functional obsolescence, where a package no longer fits well with the business that it must support. This process is continuing to accelerate.
The second problem is the technological obsolescence: the software has been developed in a certain technology and modifications have to be made in the same technology. Major package suppliers can no longer modernize themselves; their technology is embedded.
The third problem is that business software is far too complex. ERP systems have become far too large with a great amount of functionality that nobody uses, modifications cost a lot of time and includes the necessary high-risk testing and implementations take forever. Van der Linden: ‘For example, SAP was created around forty years ago using Abab/4, a self-developed 4GL programming language. If someone wants to modify SAP then they will have to learn Abab. However to build a web portal or a smartphone app a different technology is required; and these all have to be connected to each other. And that is without even talking about those applications that were developed in old languages such as RPG and Cobol; and there are hardly any persons left who know these languages.’
‘If I am talking to a company on the telephone’, he continues ‘and I ask what software they use and I get the answer: “SAP” or “Oracle”, then my second question is: “And what else?” I am then given a list as long as my arm. And that is just accepted.’ Users have become far too dependent on software companies, in his opinion. Software is a black box for them for which they pay too much and are scared of changing it. ‘They get no guarantee that it will still work tomorrow. Even though software in a business environment should actually work just as it does at home. You don’t read the instructions at home to install an app. If you go to work then you have to follow a course to be able to understand something about the software.’
Director Van der Linden sees a bright future for his company. Thinkwise is active in the so-called market for low code development, where research agencies such as Forrester and Gartner forecast large growth. For the coming years he has the ambition to expand into Germany and become active in the American market with which he is very familiar. ‘That will take place via partners. But everything proceeds gradually. I do not need to be active in every market and gain any customer. Companies as Philips and Rabobank, for example, have shown interest but are too large for us at this time. I do not want to be swallowed up by large customers, such as happened to Baan with Boeing.’
With Thinkwise, Van der Linden and his partner Klaren want to do things completely different. Their ‘new ERP software’ is produced by means of the modelling platform, the Thinkwise Suite (with as component, a software factory). Furthermore, this platform also modernizes legacy software.
‘To put it simply: in contrast with most ERP software developers we are finished with programming. This does not resolve the three issues with business software’, he states.
‘We opt for modelling and creating models of your organization: a process model, one model for your data structure and one for your user interface. Furthermore we have built so-called technology plugs for the various platforms: – web, Windows and mobile – and for new platforms, such as the Internet of Things. Such a plug is placed in a model and reads all the information that is necessary to determine how the software must be displayed and how the various business processes operate.’
He further explains this set-up of a ‘software factory’: the model, filled with business logic, is specific for the customer, the plugs are generic; all customers use the same plugs. To prevent the plugs becoming obsolete there are around twenty-five technicians working at Thinkwise who maintain these tools and keep them up-to-date. For example, by keeping track of which new Windows version is coming and which new browsers. They also keep track of technological developments and when necessary, they include innovations in the plugs. ‘Customers do not need to worry about technology. It is a strange state of affairs that a company should be worried that a new browser may be released that will disrupt its webshop. Their IT supplier should take care of this. However my experience is that they do little on innovation. They particularly keep their systems running and milk their customers. Just look at the statistics: according to research by Deloitte around sixty percent of IT investments are spent on maintenance and administration and sixteen percent on business innovation.’
Thinkwise also makes use of the software that a customer already has. Those applications already contain so-called metamodels that include information about the business processes. ‘We can extract data from those kinds of data models and user interfaces and include them in our models. However, we do not convert the old program code. That will be a drama. You never know which choices a programmer once made when writing the code. This is exactly what we want to get rid of.’
The director points out that the models are easy to modify to satisfy on new developments, progressive insight and changes in legislation. Validations take place automatically. According to him, this provides greater control than a system with millions of lines of code that were written by someone else thirty years ago. ‘We guarantee that everything will still work tomorrow after a modification. A developer makes a couple of errors on every page with code. We significantly reduce the risk. Each model contains a code template on which you can perform a risk analysis. This provides direct insight into the consequences of a modification in the system. We open the black box, that was formerly the software for the customer.’
Apart from the ‘family businesses’ that Thinkwise serves, the company also focuses on software suppliers that have difficulty modernizing their packages. This concerns suppliers of branch packages that have a loyal group of customers and exist from revenues from maintenance and customization. ‘However, they can no longer sell new software versions.
This would mean that these companies will disappear in the future. Using our Software Factory them are able to modernize their software.’ Examples are Acto Informatisering, a software house for the building and installation branch, and Antea, that supplies software to municipalities for the management of the public space.
‘In the beginning we still saw ourselves too much as a technical company, reflects Van der Linden. ‘But it is not about the software but the customer’s business proposition that must be supported. Software is only a means to achieve that. From this point of view I do not see Thinkwise as a software company but as a business company that supports customers in their market approach. It is with good reason that we employ many business informatics personnel. They can write programs, but also have a comprehensive understanding of business processes.’
The Thinkwise Suite is an integrated software development environment with which new software applications are developed or existing applications are modernized. These applications consist of a database, business rules, user interfaces and, if necessary, data interfaces to other applications.
The suite consists of the Thinkwise Software Factory, an intelligent application manager (IAM), abstract graphical user interfaces (GUIs) and an upcycler (for reading in software and data conversion). According to Thinkwise the business software that is built with this suite automatically remains technologically, functionally and simply up-to-date. The company claim that buying new software is no longer necessary.