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The effects of COVID-19 on the pace of analytics software development are still unknown.
Like so many organizations throughout the world, the central offices of many BI vendors -- many of them in California, where there's a mandatory stay-at-home order -- are ghost towns as almost all employees work remotely.
If software engineers are allowed to return to offices in a matter of weeks, it stands to reason that analytics software development won't be affected much. But if COVID-19 forces people to work from home for months, at the very least analytics software development will have to be done differently.
No longer will software engineering teams be able to collaborate in person. Problems that might be solved with a simple question asked over a cubicle wall might go unsolved because now it takes a phone call, text or virtual meeting to ask that question, and that seemingly minor barrier might subconsciously prevent the question from ever being asked.
A new collaboration
Many vendors maintain offices throughout the world in addition to their headquarters.
ThoughtSpot is based in Sunnyvale, Calif., but has offices in Bangalore, India, Tokyo, London and Seattle. Qlik was founded in Sweden, is based in King of Prussia, Penn., and operates offices in seven other U.S. locations. Sisense is based in New York City, with offices in San Francisco, Melbourne and Tokyo, among other places.
They're all seemingly set up to operate seamlessly, even under the unique circumstances created by COVID-19.
But with just about everyone now working from different locations, there isn't that opportunity to brainstorm over a cup of coffee. Instead of hindering communication, however, Sisense CEO Amir Orad said he thinks working from home will lead to more widespread collaboration.
"Necessity is the mother of all innovation," he said. "Working from home, we have more Slack activity today at Sisense than ever before. We have 15 offices, and until now the people in the main offices had an answer advantage -- the water cooler. Everyone else was screwed because they weren't at the water cooler. They missed the … hive mind. But now everyone is on the same page."
Meanwhile, according to analysts, the new reality, which currently includes stay-at-home orders in more than 20 states in addition to entire countries like Italy and Great Britain, could create circumstances that actually improve the ability of software engineers to innovate.
"I have heard anecdotally that some teams feel more productive," said Donald Farmer, founder and principal at TreeHive Strategy. "There are fewer endless, unproductive meetings and there's more real development/design time. For sure, there's not so much corridor chat, but it's difficult to quantify that value. So, [there might be] a longer-term dip in creativity, but a short-term increase in productivity. It could be fascinating."
Similarly, Doug Henschen, principal analyst at Constellation Research, said people working from remote locations will actually provide new opportunities for not just software vendors but all organizations to develop new methods of collaboration that could prove better than traditional methods.
"I think this will be a tremendous opportunity for vendors and practitioners alike to gain a whole new set of collaborative and remote working skills, and I'm sure it will lead to lots of creative workarounds," he said. "Those used to working on cloud platforms and on digital collaboration platforms will obviously have advantages in adapting and thriving in this changed environment, but new users will see the challenges and current practices with fresh eyes."
Doug HenschenPrincipal analyst, Constellation Research
In particular, he added, vendors might see an increase in users' requests for new features and functions that enable collaboration.
"Yes, we will miss opportunities for serendipitous, in-person discussion and brainstorming, but I think a huge new slice of the world's workforce is going to gain digital collaboration skills and many employers may liberalize work-from-home options in the wake of this crisis," Henschen said. "As somebody who has worked primarily from home or on the road since 2004, I'm mostly seeing benefits."
A time to pause
Another perspective is that a temporary slowdown in the pace of analytics software development might not be a bad thing.
Vendors have been adding new and upgraded features at a furious pace over the past couple of years as BI platforms have begun to incorporate the more and more sophisticated augmented intelligence and machine learning tools that are moving analytics beyond data visualization and into a new realm.
As a result, it's challenging for many users to keep up with all the new products and take advantage of their capabilities.
"While delivering new and improved tools will always be a priority, I feel that in the BI space, we're getting really close to hitting a point of innovating too fast for organizations to keep up," said Mike Leone, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "So while working from home may limit engineering communication and brainstorming on a coffee break, for example, now may be a great time for vendors in the BI space to recalibrate a little bit."
Instead of focusing mostly on innovation, vendors can hone in more on customer service, he added.
"[Vendors can] recognize that businesses need a lot more help in enabling a greater number of users to use the right tools," Leone said. "And while that can mean improving self-service capabilities, it should also be viewed at as helping new end-users learn."
Rather than focusing on analytics software development and upgrading a machine learning tool or adding a data storytelling feature, vendors could use this time to improve training programs and focus on improving the collaboration capabilities of their platforms.
"Collaboration should be front and center everywhere," Leone said. "In a time where so many are working from home and may very well be doing so for some time, it's time to focus on collaboration."
That collaboration, however, is just what will lead to innovation, according to Orad. And it won't just be analytics software development that will benefit.
"After every fire, new flowers come up and new species flourish, and companies that are forced to work from home will innovate faster than ever," Orad said. "Communities of employees untapped before will suddenly get an equal voice to the people sitting next to the CEO's desk. Many things will be dramatically improved at an accelerated pace as a result of where we are."