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Sigma Computing advances data collaboration with new tool

Live Edit not only enables collaboration during the decision-making process but also lets data engineers and business users work together as they develop new data products.

Sigma Computing on Thursday unveiled Live Edit, a new feature that enables customers to collaborate throughout the data analysis and data product development lifecycle.

Founded in 2014 and based in San Francisco, Sigma Computing is an analytics vendor that aims to make analytics accessible to a broad base of users through a spreadsheet interface. The interface is built on top of a sophisticated back-end platform that enables them to explore and analyze data without requiring code.

Collaboration, meanwhile, is a rising trend in analytics.

Business decisions are rarely made by just one person, noted Donald Farmer, founder and principal at TreeHive Strategy. But before the advent of the cloud, collaboration only came when someone presented data and it could be discussed. Now, enabled by the connectivity of cloud, conversations around data can take place much earlier in the analytics lifecycle.

As a result, analytics vendors are now offering collaboration capabilities within their platforms, enabling users to make collaborative decisions without having to congregate in a boardroom.

"Analytics is still -- at heart -- decision support. And we generally don't make decisions in isolation but in collaboration," Farmer said. "So the more collaborative the analytic experience, in theory, the more collaborative the decision."

Similarly, David Menninger, an analyst at Ventana Research, noted that collaboration tools are growing among analytics vendors as they recognize that decision-making is not an isolated undertaking.

"It's very rare that a business decision is evaluated, made and implemented by a single person," Menninger said. "Collaboration tools are a way to share information so that everyone who needs to be [informed and involved] can be informed and involved."

New functionality

Qlik was among the first vendors to offer a collaboration tool, launching Collaborative Development in 2019 and adding Collaborative Notes in 2021. Since 2019, platforms including Domo, Power BI, ThoughtSpot and Yellowfin have all added collaboration capabilities.

Live Edit from Sigma Computing, however, incrementally advances collaboration beyond what other vendors have so far enabled.

While the tools other vendors have built let users collaborate during the decision-making process, Live Edit enables users to collaborate during data preparation and data product development as well.

Using Live Edit, data scientists and data engineers who prepare data can collaborate both among themselves and with end users who will eventually consume the data. Conversely, end users can collaborate among themselves during the analysis process as well as work with those preparing the data to ensure the usability of data products.

Spreadsheet tools like Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel similarly enable collaboration before the analysis stage. Given Sigma Computing's spreadsheet interface, Live Edit mimics the collaboration capabilities in those widely used spreadsheet tools.

"Live Edit is more focused on the data than the collaborative processes," Menninger said. "They're [enabling] multiple people to be working with the data simultaneously as opposed to tools to support the exchange of information. They're focusing the exchange of information around the data."

He added that Board International's platform and IBM Planning Analytics have a similar focus on collaboration around the data, but neither is a traditional BI tool.

Farmer, meanwhile, noted that Live Edit most resembles Qlik's Collaborative Development but differs slightly.

"There is some unique aspect to Sigma's work -- the direct connection to the data warehouse -- but that's an incremental improvement," he said. "Good for them for doing this work. It's not easy to get it right."

It's very rare that a business decision is evaluated, made and implemented by a single person. Collaboration tools are a way to share information so that everyone who needs to be [informed and involved] can be informed and involved.
David MenningerAnalyst, Ventana Research

In addition to extending collaboration to an earlier point in the analytics process, Live Edit enables up to 20 people to collaborate in a worksheet at the same time with measures built to ensure that no one person's changes override another's even if they're working simultaneously, according to Sigma Computing CEO Mike Palmer.

He termed Live Edit's capabilities synchronous collaboration -- enabling multiple people to edit simultaneously -- versus asynchronous collaboration that is more a back-and-forth, with one person editing and commenting at a time.

"Live Edit enables synchronous communication versus comment and annotation capabilities," Palmer said.

The results are increased speed because users don't have to wait on others to finish their work and better outcomes because employees collaborating concurrently can more easily build upon one another's ideas, he said.

Funding follow-through

Sigma Computing's launch of Live Edit comes a year after the vendor secured $300 million in venture capital funding, which represented a tenfold increase over its previous funding round of $30 million.

In early 2022, Palmer said that Sigma planned to use the funding to advance product development.

To that end, the vendor now has more than twice the number of engineers it had in December 2021. In addition, total staff at Sigma Computing has grown from 150 to 400, and the vendor opened a New York office to complement its main office in San Francisco.

Live Edit comes as a direct result of Sigma's increase in engineering staff, according to Palmer.

"We can have ideas, but nothing is real until someone writes code," Palmer said. "We have been able to generate these new lines of pursuit in product because of the talent we've hired."

He added that Sigma Computing focused on developing Live Edit because market conditions have evolved.

BI is no longer one person presenting data to a group. In addition, organizations are phasing out the old method of submitting a ticket to an IT team and waiting on them to build a data product -- without any discussion during development -- that may or may not meet the specific needs of the end user who submitted the ticket.

Meanwhile, spreadsheets like Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel have long had content collaboration capabilities, so mimicking their functionality was a motivator for Sigma. And Sigma is a SaaS application that has access to billions of records in cloud data storage platforms such as Amazon Redshift, Google Big Query, Microsoft Azure, Snowflake and Databricks that enable users to work with their data right in their data warehouse.

Therefore, combining a modern approach to BI, traditional spreadsheet functionality and the power of the cloud served as Sigma's impetus for developing Live Edit.

"Why we did this now comes down to the fact that customers have pivoted to [the cloud]," Palmer said. "They want to work with live data at scale. They want to work in the formats they're comfortable with like spreadsheets. And they expect that the features they had in those spreadsheets to port to this new tool, which is Sigma."

Future plans

Spreadsheets have been a differentiator for Sigma Computing since it first launched in 2018.

Founders Jason Frantz and Rob Woollen developed Sigma's interface as a response to what they viewed as a lack of access to data. While vendors like ThoughtSpot chose to focus on natural language search to give users access to data, and others like Narrative Science -- now part of Tableau -- and Toucan Toco made data storytelling the focus of their platforms, Sigma chose to focus on the familiarity of spreadsheets as a means of enabling data exploration and analysis.

That spreadsheet interface remains the vendor's strength, according to Menninger. It's also limiting, however, he added.

"People like and understand spreadsheets, so it's relatively easy for people to get started and make some progress with Sigma," he said. "On the other hand, you're restricted. So the spreadsheet is a double-edged sword."

As a result, Menninger said he'd like Sigma Computing to perhaps add some traditional BI capabilities like data visualization.

Likewise, Palmer cited Sigma's spreadsheet interface as both a strength and somewhat limiting, and noted that the vendor plans to add more traditional BI capabilities.

"Our core strength has been the ability to allow an end user to do ad-hoc analysis. And that is what's at the core of who we are," he said. "Where we continue to assess and meet the market are in some of the features that have declining importance but still have importance, like visualizations."

Beyond adding some traditional capabilities as Sigma Computing makes its platform more full-featured, Palmer noted that the vendor's roadmap includes predictive analytics.

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