Sweet communications

Open source software purveyor SugarCRM practices what it preaches, using a set of open communications tools as the foundation of company -- and customer -- communications

The question is not whether you should implement unified communications technologies when your company is in the open source community and full of employees fresh from college who would rather instant-message than make a phone call. The question is how.

The question is not whether you should implement unified communications technologies when your company is in the open source community and full of employees fresh from college who would rather instant-message than make a phone call. The question is how, says Lila Tretikov, CIO at SugarCRM, an open source software company founded in 2004. The company ties multiple unified-communications packages into its own relationship management platform to enable effective communications among its workforce of 150 employees -- at least 25% of them remote -- and a development group in Shanghai, China, as well as customers and the extended open source community.

What are some of the tools you use that play into unified communications?We have our own plug-in for VoIP phones, called Sugar Phones, for our CRM system, which is what the company runs on. The CRM system is not just for sales, it's a tool to keep people, management and communications in sync across the organization. Everyone in the company uses the Sugar platform for whatever they need to do, whether it's HR or support, sales or finance. On top of that there's the phone, IM and e-mail all plugged in. Those are the dominant ones, and then there are infrastructure pieces, such as VPN.Is your VoIP platform open source?The VoIP server is built on top of Digium [which developed the Asterisk open source telephony platform]. We use the supported version. We get voice mail by e-mail, as part of the VoIP server setup. We have a converged network going into headquarters, with all voice, data and video going over fiber, all IP.What about presence capabilities?Calendars plug into Sugar's own software, and you can use Outlook or whatever client you're comfortable with. So, you can see if somebody's in a meeting, and over IM you can also see whether someone is available or not. Today everyone uses Yahoo IM. That is going to change in the next little while to an internally hosted solution. We're not sure which one yet.Why are you making that move?For a few reasons, security being one -- so we don't have company data going across the Internet unless it's secured. And we can encrypt messages, so there's more control. On top of that, there's convenience. We can have our own subgroup, and everybody in the company is automatically assigned to it, so it's less confusing; people don't need to use their personal IMs.Do you also use online meeting tools?Our biggest installation is [Citrix Systems'] GoToMeeting, but some people choose to use others for specific reasons. So, we use [Cisco's] WebEx and some Dimdim, for really simple things -- the open source version of Dimdim that has video, audio and everything else built in.How does all of this play out in practice?Let's start with the meeting tools. They are mostly used by sales engineers and the sales department, who use desktop-sharing and presentation-sharing software. More often than not, especially for initial meetings, it's very satisfactory. They can take the customer along, doing a presentation completely virtually. We also set up a lot of training Webinars that we publish on the Web. Some are live, some prerecorded. In terms of educating and early sales education, that is invaluable for us. And we use it internally to communicate with remote employees. When engineering has meetings with China, they use VoIP communications and video to communicate with them. We have a room with a big flat-screen TV so people can see each other -- a virtual office. We use Skype for video, and the environment is set up so you don't have to use your own computer.

IM is also used constantly. That's probably our primary method of communication before we pick up the phone or anything else. So, people who are in the same or similar time zones tend to use IM, and people who are in different hemispheres use e-mail or schedule meetings using a virtual office environment. Sugar is very much a virtual company, with a significant number of employees working from their homes which only furthers the need for unified communications. 

Profile of  Lila Tretikov Was that by design, to save on costs, or did it just work out that way?China made a lot of sense because of the cost, but the rest wasn't necessarily planned. It was a result of the kind of talent we were finding around the globe and the quality of the people. Another thing that's really important for us is being as green as possible. Being virtual is definitely another way to avoid the extra costs of driving and whatnot.

Plus the company is open source, so as a given, we have a community that is spread around the globe. And those people contribute in different ways even though they're not employees of the company. Sometimes we hire people out of the community as well. So it happened organically.

Larger companies sometimes have issues getting people to use these tools. Did you face any of that?Not at all. It's an open source company, so that type of communication is built into the DNA of the business. It's almost harder to get people to use more traditional forms of communication, rather than the other way around. I have people on my team who will update what they're working using Twitter. I'll get Twitter updates, saying part of my team is working on this, another part is working on that.Is that OK with you or does it create any kind of issues?It's not confidential information. It's usually something like, 'I'm working on scripts for bug reports,' not something sensitive. We have policies obviously, as any big organization would, around intellectual property and customer-related data. Can you speak to what these tools have meant to the company as opposed to buying off-the-shelf software?We do have off-the-shelf software, but Sugar has always been a lean, mean kind of machine. And a lot of our company is young, just coming out of college, so these are the tools they're used to. We don't see any need to stifle that. If they're productive with them, why not let them continue to use them? In our experience people are happier having that freedom. We do use Microsoft Office products, including Word, Excel and such. And we're rolling out Exchange. It's not that we're completely against [off-the-shelf software]. We basically use what makes sense to use. Ultimately it's a combination of a few factors. As a young company, cost is a big part of it. When the company was getting off the ground, if the tools were available and made people productive, we used them. Productivity is high because people are happy with them, they use them and they're extremely immediate. Most of the tools we use, the touch points are very quick. You can connect to the same person in multiple ways if you need to get ahold of them.You can send an e-mail and if the e-mail doesn't get a response, you can use IM or chat. If you go on an IRC [Internet Relay Chat] channel, you can find multiple people who can answer your question. There is a combination of tools at your disposal. Both from a convenience, productivity and cost perspective, this works very well. But as with any company, as the company grows, you end up narrowing it down somewhat just to protect yourself [from complexity].How is IRC used?Think of it as a chat room. It's used for internal teams and external developers. Open source companies usually have a community out there that has questions. They can send e-mails in, but that can mean a long wait for an answer. Sometimes they have a simple question or just want to have short conversation. An IRC channel is something you're always on, like an IM client. People at the company are in that chat room, literally. Whenever someone from the community comes in and asks a question, anyone within the company can see the question and respond to it. And for developers who have tons of people using Sugar in, let's say Europe, IRC is much more convenient than other mediums.Is there anything that has not worked too well with respect to your unified-communications efforts?The problem I see the most is that there are tons of tools out there, but they're not linked in together very well. They're just not mature enough where you have a complete communications console. It's a trade-off. If you look at Gmail, [Google has] some things integrated there. The problem is, you have to use Gmail. If you want to host your e-mail in-house, there's no option for that. Microsoft with its latest [Office Communications Server] is more like a complete console, but it doesn't have everything that we use. Microsoft has an in-house e-mail option, but the way Microsoft technologies work is, a lot of times once you get one [tool] and it percolates and everything else has to be hooked in, and the product is also proprietary.

So what I'm looking for, and we're getting there pretty quickly, is a unified console where all of your communications are tied in, and your relationship system as well. So, you have your phone, chat, SMS client and e-mail, all within the same visibility frame. And there's intelligence around it, so if the same person calls and e-mails you, all of that is tied in together. If someone is e-mailing you, the system might already know this is an important contact, based on your response rate, and it will highlight it for you or display it larger. It also will tie in all of the other communications you've had with that person. A lot of times CRM does that, but the hooks need to be there either within the CRM system or within the communications panel itself.

Do you at least have that one frame that gives you phone, chat, IM and e-mail all together?Well you have your desktop, basically -- that is a frame, except the applications don't talk together. The way we make it work together is, we feed it into Sugar. So, we have the ability to feed our phone conversations and e-mails and tie it in that way.Can you explain how you use Sugar as a platform to integrate these other things? Is that just something you've done internally for your own employees or is that the way the product works?I am not as customer-facing as other people in the company, so I can't give you a clear answer; but I would assume people do use it for that. Sugar is much more of a human-relationship-management platform than anything else. I think CRM is a narrow description of what we do. Often Sugar is deployed for purposes other than just plain salesforce automation. It's more than just a sales tool; it's a way to manage your relationships with other people. And there are plenty of plug-ins [that allow for functions like unified communications], so I'm assuming other people are using them.What are some of the challenges in providing proper security when you're using all these tools?Good encryption is one. Today, most of the time you have to install something specific for a particular client and both parties have to have it; there's no de facto standard. With our internal users, for remote users we use a VPN, so the channels are encrypted. With partners and customers, usually it's not particularly sensitive data, typically just demos or presentations. If you're going to be communicating any kind of private data, we require you encrypt your communication channels. You download software, PGP for example, for chat. E-mail just goes over SSL and phone calls go over the VPN.Did you have to do any training to educate people on how to use the unified-communications tools?

We're a highly technical company, which makes it much easier. We have some training for new employees that come in, but it's pretty basic. We know when a particular person comes in they'll have certain needs, and we'll pre-install all the tools they're going to need, including the encryption tools.

You've worked at some large companies, what would you say are the keys to rolling out the same sorts of unified-communications tools on a larger scale?With larger companies you need to have a clear strategy. If you look at a company like Google, they actually have a bottom-up approach. They allow their users to do whatever they want in their particular group, more or less. 

Click here for a podcast with a Google executive explaining the company's strategy.

Those people who want to use Twitter for their communications, they can. Larger companies I've worked for, like [Bank of America], you're just not going to have access to those sites [like Twitter] because they block them for security purposes. When you are in an environment like that, you have to have a very clear strategy because you can't allow grassroots mechanisms. And that means you have to go figure out, is Microsoft Communicator sufficient for my needs or do I need something else? If I need something else, am I going to do a hodgepodge? How do I connect those technologies? Once you have that in place, you need controls to manage them. You do it as part of your installation process for provisioning your machines -- once users get their workstations, everything is already there. So, once a user comes in and starts his or her machine, all of the communication tools come up, including an IM client with all other employees pre-populated in it. So, everyone will be able to see the new employee and be able to communicate with him.

Is there any way to gauge the productivity gains you're getting?

[Laughs.] It's really hard to tell, but my guess is that we get gains because it's just so much easier to communicate while you're doing other things. For people who write code, a lot of times they'll be starting up a server or something and they have some time, so they're basically parallel-izing their work. For me, it's probably about a 30% gain. I'm pretty decent at multitasking, so I can parallel-ize a lot. It ultimately depends on the person. But this year vs.1998, let's say, when chat was only available on Unix machines, the productivity gain is really significant.

Has Sugar been using unified-communications tools from Day 1?Yes. In fact, [the founding developers] used to use gaming rooms to talk to each other, because it was a virtual group developing the software.So, that was the best communications vehicle they could find at the time?Right.

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