Flowable’s FlowFest 2022

Flowable is holding their half-day online FlowFest today, and in spite of the eye-wateringly early start here in North America, I’ve tuned in to watch some of the sessions. All of these will be available on demand after the conference, so you can watch the sessions even if you miss them live.

There are three tracks — technical, architecture and business — and I started the day in the tech stream watching co-founder Tijs Rademakers‘ presentation on what’s new in Flowable. He spent quite a bit of the hour on a technical backgrounder, but did cover some of the new features: deprecation of Angular, new React Flow replacing the Oryx modelers, a new form editor, improved deployment options and cloud support, a managed service solution, and a quick-start migration path that includes an automatic migration of Camunda 7 process instance database to Flowable (for those companies that don’t want to make the jump to Camunda 8 and are concerned about the long-term future of V7).

For the second session, I switched over to the architect stream for Roman Saratz’ presentation on low-code integration with data objects. He showed some cool stuff where changes to the data in an external data object would update a case, in the example tied to a Microsoft Dynamics instance. The presentation was relatively short and there was an extended Q&A, obviously a lot of people interested in this form of integration. At the end, I checked in on the business track and realized that the sessions there were not time-aligned with the two technical tracks: they were already well into the Bosch session that was third on the agenda – not sure why the organizers thought that people couldn’t be interested in technology AND business.

In the third session, I went back to the tech stream and attended Joram Barrez‘ presentation on scripting. Like a few of the other Flowable team, Joram came from Alfresco’s Activiti core development team (and jBPM before that), and is now Principal Software Architect. He looked at the historical difference between programs and scripts, which is that programs are compiled and scripts are interpreted, and the current place of pre-compiled [Java] delegates in service tasks versus script tasks that are interpreted at runtime. In short, the creation, compilation and deployment of Java delegates are definitely the responsibility of technical developers, while scripts can be created and maintained by less-technical low code developers. Flowable now allows for the creation a “service registry” task that is actually a Javascript or Groovy script rather than a REST call, which allows scripts to be reusable across models as if they were external service tasks rather than embedded within one specific process or case model. There are, of course, tradeoffs. Pre-compiled delegates typically have higher performance, and provide more of a structured development experience such as unit testing, and backwards-compatible API agreements. Scripts open up more development capability to the model developer who may not be Java-savvy. Flowable has created some API constructs that make scripts more capable and less brittle, including REST service request/response processing and BPMN error handling. It appears that they are shifting the threshold for what’s being done by a low code developer directly in their modeling environment, versus what requires a more technical Java developer, an external IDE and a more complex deployment path: making scripts first-class citizens in Flowable applications. In fat, Joram talked about ideas (not yet in the product) such as having a more robust scripting IDE embedded directly in their product. I am reminded of companies like Trisotech that are using FEEL as their scripting language in BPMN-CMMN-DMN applications, on the assumption that if you’re already using FEEL in DMN then using it throughout your application is a good idea; I asked if Flowable is considering this, and Joram said that it’s not currently supported but it would not be that difficult to add if there was demand for it.

To wrap up the conference, I attend Paul Holmes-Higgin‘s architecture talk on Flowable future plans. Paul is co-founder of Flowable and Chief Product Officer. He started with a discussion of what they’re doing in Flowable Design, which is the modeling and design environment. Tijs spoke about some of this earlier, but Paul dug into more detail of what they’ve done in the completely rebuilt Design tool that will be released in early 2023. Both the technical underpinnings and the visuals have changed, to update to newer technology and to support a broader range of developer types from pro code to low code. He also spoke about longer term (2-3 year) innovation plans, starting with a statement of the reality that end-to-end processes don’t all happen within a centralized monolithic orchestrated system. Instead, they are made up of what he refers to as “process chains”, which is more of a choreography of different systems, services and organizations. He used a great example of a vehicle insurance claim that uses multiple technology platforms and crosses several organizational boundaries: Flowable Work may only handle a portion of those, with micro-engines on mobile devices and serverless cloud services for some capabilities. They’re working on Flowable Jet, a pared-down BPMN-CMMN-DMN micro-engine for edge automation that will run natively on mobile, desktop or cloud. This would change the previous insurance use case to put Flowable Jet on the mobile and cloud platforms to integrate directly with Flowable Work inside organizations. With the new desktop RPA capabilities in Windows 11, Flowable Jet could also integrate with that as a bridge to Flowable Work. This is pretty significant, since currently end-to-end automation has a lot of variability around the edges; allowing for their own tooling in the edge as well as central automation could provide better visibility and security throughout.

Tijs, Jorram and Paul are all open source advocates in spite of Flowable’s current more prominent commercial side; I’m hoping to see them shifting some of their online conversations over to the Fosstodon (or some other Mastodon instance), where I have started posting.

That’s it for FlowFest: a good set of informational sessions, and some that I missed due to multiple concurrent tracks that I’ll go back and watch later.

Will the elephant replace the bird?

tldr; I’m on Mastodon at fosstodon.org/@skemsley

I’ve been on Twitter since March 2007 and have amassed over 7,500 followers (probably half of them bots, but whatever). There’s a current push to move off Twitter and onto Mastodon, an open source microblogging social network, because of the declining standards of content and new ownership over at the bird site. Can we successfully make the shift from tweeting to tooting?

In the old days of Twitter, which don’t seem that long ago, I used to engage in a lot of conversations: my timeline was mostly tweets from my friends and business colleagues, and we would banter back and forth. These days, however, I use Twitter mostly as a broadcast platform, where I post links to new blog posts, videos and other publications. I respond if someone mentions me directly, but it’s no longer the place that I go to start a conversation. It’s just too noisy, full of promoted tweets, and retweets about topics that I don’t care about by people who I barely know. To be fair, some of that is my fault: I tended to follow most people who followed me and had some sort of similar interests, and it’s a lot of work to go back and pare down that list of 2,000 who I follow to a more reasonable number. When lists came out, I started putting people on lists rather than following them directly, but it was probably already too late. Same, by the way, for LinkedIn: I was indiscriminate about who I added to my network, and it’s just too noisy over there for a real conversation.

Enter the elephant. Mastodon is an open source, decentralized social platform that has functionality quite similiar to Twitter: posts are “toots” instead of tweets; you can like, share and reply to posts, and can see a running feed of posts. The big difference is that Mastodon isn’t one company, or one instance: anyone can create a Mastodon instance, either privately for use within a smaller group, or included in a group of federated servers that share posts and (to some extent) account information. When you sign up, you need to choose the server where you want your account, although you can follow accounts from other servers. If you want to change servers at some point in the future, you can; however, it doesn’t appear that you can move your posts to the new server (although you will move your following/follower lists), so there is less incentive to do this once you start posting a lot.

I looked at the available servers that follow the Mastodon Server Covenant and are part of the fediverse (the group of federated servers), and picked fosstodon.org, which is a technology-focused server that includes a lot of (but is not exclusive to) free and open source software. I’m not exclusive to open source, but I do cover a number of process automation vendors with open source offerings and this felt like a good fit. You can find and follow me there at fosstodon.org/@skemsley. Will I be better at curating my follows on this platform, which I so miserably failed at on Twitter and LinkedIn? I have way less FOMO these days, so maybe.

I’m already starting to have some conversations over there, but finding it difficult to find who from my current circle of friends and colleagues is on Mastodon, and on which server — searching by name really only gives you who is on your server unless someone else on your server mentions them. I also have a lot to learn about curating my feed, since the defaults are Home (my posts, re-toots of my posts, and my followers’ posts), Local (all posts from everyone on my server) and Federated (holy crap, everything in the fediverse). I’ve discovered an unoffial but quite good source of helpful into at fedi.tips and will be reviewing more of that.

On a side note, Twitter tends to be a good platform for contacting customer service for some organizations, so I’m not going to abandon it outright, and I’ll still use it for broadcasts. Just covering my bases.

State of Process Orchestration panel replay

I was at CamundaCon in Berlin last month, and was on a panel about the state of process orchestration. Check it out.

Lots of interesting discussion, and it was fun to hear other perspectives from a large SI (Infosys) and a customer (PershingX) on the panel with me. Thanks to Camunda for the invitation, and my first European trip in almost three years!

CamundaCon 2022 – that’s a wrap!

It’s been a quick two days at CamundaCon 2022 in Berlin, and as always I’ve enjoyed my time here. The second day finished with a quick fireside chat with Camunda co-founders Jakob Freund and Bernd Ruecker, who wrapped up some of the conference themes about process orchestration. I’ll post a link to the videos when they’re all available; not sure if Camunda is going to publish them on their YouTube channel or put them behind a registration page.

I mentioned previously about what a great example of a hybrid conference this has been, with both speakers and attendees either on-site or remote — my own panel included three of us on the stage and one person remotely, and it worked seamlessly. One part of this that I liked is that in the large break lounge area, there were screens set up with the video feed from each of the four stages, and wireless headsets that you could tune to any of the four channels. This let you be “remote” even when on site, which was necessary in some of the smaller rooms where it was standing room only. Or if you wanted to have a coffee while you were watching.

Thanks to Camunda for inviting me, and the exciting news is that next September’s CamundaCon will be in New York: a much shorter trip for me, as well as for many of Camunda’s North American customers and partners.

CamundaCon Day 2: Business Process Optimization at Scale

Michael Goldverg from BNY Mellon presented on their journey with automating processes within the bank across thousands of people in multiple business departments. They needed to deal with interdependencies between departments, variations due to account/customer types, SLAs at the departmental and individual level, and thousands of daily process instances.

They use the approach of a single base model with thousands of variations – the “super model” – where the base model appears to include smaller ad hoc models (mostly snippets surrounding a single task that were initially all manual operations) that are assembled dynamically for any specific type of process. Sort of an accidental case management model at first glance, although I’d love to get a closer look at their model. There was a question about the number of elements in their model, which Michael estimated as “three dozen or so” tasks and a similar number of gateways, but can’t share the actual model for confidentiality reasons.

They have a deployment architecture that allows for multiple clusters accessing a single operational database, where each cluster could have a unique version of the process model. Applications could then be configured to select the server cluster – and therefore the model version – at runtime, allowing for multiple models to be tested in a live environment. There’s also an automated process instance migration service that moves the live process instances if the old and new process models are not compatible. Their model changes constantly, and they update the production model at least once per week.

They’ve had to deal with optimistic locking exceptions (fairly common when you have a lot of parallel gateways and multiple instances of the engine) by introducing their own external locking mechanism, and by offloading some of this to the Camunda JobExecutor using asynchronous continuations although that can cause a hit on performance. The hope is that this will be resolved when they move to the V8 engine – V8 doesn’t rely on a single relational database and is also highly distributed by design.

They run 50-100k transactions per day, and have hundreds of millions of tasks in the history database. They manage this with aggressive cleaning of the history database – currently set to 60 days – by archiving the task history as PDFs in their content management system where it’s discoverable. They are also very careful about the types of queries that they allow directly on the Camunda database, since a single poorly-constructed search can bring the database to its knees: this is why Camunda, like other vendors, discourage the direct querying of their database.

There are a lot of trade offs to be understood when it comes to performance optimization at this scale. Also some good points about starting your deployment with a more complex configuration, e.g., two servers even if one is adequate, so that you’re not working out the details of how to run the more complex configuration when you’re also trying to scale up quickly. Lots of details in Michael’s presentation that I’m not able to capture here, definitely check out the recorded video later if you have large deployment requirements.

CamundaCon 2022 Day 2 keynote

My little foldable keyboard isn’t playing nice, so I’m typing this directly on my iPad which is…not ideal. However, I will do my best and debug the keyboard later.

Day 2 of CamundaCon 2022 here in Berlin started off with a keynote from Bernd Ruecker, Camunda co-founder and chief technologist, and Daniel Meyer, CTO. Version 8.1 is coming up, and with it some new connectors as well as other core enhancements. Bernd started out with a reinforcement of some of Jakob Freund’s messages yesterday: the distinction between task (depth) and process (breadth) automation, and how process orchestration is characterized by endpoint diversity and process complexity. These are important points in understanding the scope of process orchestration, but also for companies like Camunda to distinguish themselves in an increasingly diverse and crowded “process automation” market.

Once Bernd had walked us through what an initial process orchestration could look like (for a bank account opening example), Daniel took over to take about moving from an initial project to a transformed, process-centric enterprise. Some of this requires tools that allow less technical developers to get involved, which means having more connectors available for these developers to create apps by assembling and configuring connectors, while more technical developers may be creating new connectors for what’s not offered out of the box by Camunda. Bernd, who loves his live demos, showed us how to create a new connector quickly in Java, then expose it graphically in the modeler using a connector template – this makes it appears as an activity type directly in the Camunda modeler. Once they are in the modeler, connectors can be used in any application, so that (for example) a connector to your bespoke mainframe monolith can be created and added to the modeler once, then used in a variety of applications.

The concept of connectors as a way for less technical developers to use a BPMN model as an application development framework isn’t new: many other BPMS vendors have been doing this for a long time. Camunda is obviously feeling the pressure to move from a purely developer-focused platform and address some level of low-code needs, and connectors is one if the main ways that they are doing this. The ease in creating new connectors is pretty cool – many products let you use their out of the box connectors but don’t make it that easy to make new ones. Camunda is positioning this capability (creating new connectors quickly) as core to automating the enterprise.

We heard about more of what they’ve been releasing this year, including the web modeler that allows new developers and business analysts to be onboarded quickly without having to install anything locally. The modeler includes BPMN validation so that correct process models are created and errors avoided before deploying to the server. They are also using FEEL (friendly enough expression language) – borrowed from the DMN specification – for scripting within tasks. This use of FEEL is also being done by other standards-focused vendors, such as Trisotech. We also saw some of the things that they’re working on, such as interactive debugging to step through processes, and an improved forms UI builder. Again, not completely new ideas in the BPM space, but nice productivity enhancements to their developer experience. Based on what they’ve seen within their own company, they’re integrating Slack and Microsoft Teams for human task orchestration to avoid the requirement for users to go to a separate app for their process task list.

Bernd addressed the issue of Camunda supporting low code, when they have been staunchly pro code only for most of their history. Fundamentally, the market (that is, their customers and prospective customers) need this capability, and it’s clear that you have to offer at least something low code (ish) to play in the process automation space these days. This is definitely a shift for them, and they are doing it fairly gracefully although are a bit behind the curve in much of the functionality because they stuck to their roots for so long. In their favour, they’re still a small and nimble company and can roll out this type of functionality in their product fairly quickly. They are mostly just dipping into the pro code end of the low code space, and it will be interesting to see how far they go in upcoming releases. Creating more low code tooling and more connectors obviously creates more long-term technical debt for Camunda: if they decide this isn’t the way forward after a while, or they change some of the underlying architecture, customers could end up with legacy versions of connectors and low code tooling that need to be updated. Definitely worth checking out for existing Camunda customers who want to accelerate adoption within their organizations.

By the way, I’ve had so much great feedback on our panel yesterday: happy to hear that we had some nuggets of wisdom in there. So many good conversations last night at the BBQ and continuing into today between sessions. I’ll post a link to the recorded session when it’s published.

Back to Berlin! It’s time for CamundaCon 2022

I realize that I’m completely remiss for not posting about last week’s DecisionCAMP, but in my defense, I was co-hosting it and acting as “master of ceremonies”, so was a bit busy. This was the third year for a virtual DecisionCAMP, with a plan to be back in person next year, in Oslo. And speaking of in-person conferences, I’m in Berlin! Yay! I dipped my toe back into travel three weeks ago by speaking at Hyland’s CommunityLive conference in Nashville, and this week I’m on a panel at Camunda’s annual conference. I’ve been in Berlin for this conference several times in the past, from the days when they held the Community Day event in their office by just pushing back all the desks. Great to be back and hear about some of their successes since that time.

Day 1 started with an opening keynote by Jakob Freund, Camunda’s CEO. This is a live/online hybrid conference, and considering that Camunda did one of the first successful online conferences back in 2020 by keeping it live and real, this is shaping up to be a forerunner in the hybrid format, too. A lot of companies need to learn to do this, since many people aren’t getting back on a plane any time soon to go to a conference when it can be done online just as well.

Anyway, back to the keynote. Camunda just published the Process Orchestration Handbook, which is a marketing piece that distills some of the current messaging around process automation, and highlights some of the themes from Jakob’s keynote. He points out the problems with a lot of current process automation: there’s no end-to-end automation, no visibility into the overall process, and little flexibility to rework those processes as business conditions change. As a result, a lot of process automation breaks since it falls over whenever there’s a problem outside the scope of the automation of a specific set of tasks.

Jakob focused on a couple of things that make process orchestration powerful as a part of business automation: endpoint diversity (being able to connect a lot of different types of tasks into an integrated process) and process complexity (being able to include dynamic parallel execution, event-driven message correlation, and time-based escalation). These sound pretty straightforward, and for those of us who have been in process automation for a long time these are accepted characteristics of BPMN-based processes, but these are not the norm in a lot of process orchestration.

He also walked through the complexities that arise due to long-running processes, that is, anything that involves manual steps with knowledge workers: not the same as straight-through API-only process orchestration that doesn’t have to worry about state persistence. There are a few good customer stories here this week that bring all of these things together, and I plan to be attending some of those sessions.

He presented a view of the process automation market: BPMS, low-code platforms, process mining, iPaaS/integration, RPA, microservices orchestration, and process orchestration. Camunda doesn’t position itself in BPMS any more – mostly since the big analysts have abandoned this term – but in the process orchestration space. Looking at the intersection between the themes of endpoint diversity and process complexity that he talked about earlier, you can see where different tools end up. He even gives a nod to Gartner’s hyperautomation term and how process orchestration fits into the tech stack.

He finished up with a bit of Camunda’s product vision. They released V8 this year with the Zeebe engine, but much more than that is under development. More low-code especially around modeling and front-end human task technology, to enable less technical developers. Decision automation tied into process orchestration. And stronger coverage of AI, process mining and other parts of the hyperautomation tech stack through partnerships as well as their own product development.

Definitely some shift in the messaging going on here, and in some of Camunda’s direction. A big chunk of their development is going into supporting low-code and other “non-developer” personas, which they resisted for many years. They have a crossover point for pro-code developers to create connectors that are then used by low-code developers to assemble into process orchestrations – a collaboration that has been recognized by larger vendors for some time. Sensible plans and lots of cool new technology.

The rest of the day is pretty packed, and I’m having trouble deciding which sessions to attend since there are several concurrent that all sound interesting. Since most of them are also virtual for remote attendees, I assume the recordings will be available later and I can catch up on what I missed. It’s not too late to sign up to attend the rest of today and tomorrow virtually, or to see the recorded sessions after the fact.

Automating claims and improving lives in Africa – aYo at #CommunityLIVE

After hearing Heidi Badenhorst of aYo Holdings speak this morning at the Hyland CommunityLIVE 2002 general session, I knew that I wanted to see her breakout session for more details on what they’re doing. I use microinsurance as an example of a new business model that insurance companies can consider once they’ve automated a lot of their processes (otherwise, it’s not cost-effective), but this is the first chance that I‘ve really had to hear more about microinsurance in action.

Ayo provides low-cost hospital and life insurance (as well as a few other types) for more than 17M people across several African countries, with the goal to scale up to more than 100M customers. As with a lot of other businesses spreading into developing countries, the customers use their mobile phones to interact with aYo’s insurance products through mobile money for receiving payments and WhatsApp chatbots for gathering information and submitting documents. aYo is owned by MTN, the largest mobile provider in Africa, and the insurance service was first started as a loyalty benefit for mobile customers.

Microinsurance is about tiny premiums and small payouts — small amounts in our rich countries, but a day’s pay in many African markets — and the only way to do this effectively is to maximize the amount of automation. Medical records are rudimentary, often hand-written and without standard treatment or claim codes, making it difficult to automate and subject to fraud.

They have been managing all of this with manual processes (including manual downloads of documents) and spreadsheets, but are moving to a greater degree of automation using Alfresco Process Automation (APA) and other components to pay 80% of the claims without human intervention. Obviously, they need content management and intelligent capture as well, but the content-centric process orchestration and AI for fraud detection are key to automation. They also needed a cloud solution to support their multi-national operations, and something that integrated well with their claims system. Since their solution is tightly integrated with the phone network, they can use location data from the claim to correlate with hospital locations as another potential anti-fraud check. They’re also using behavioral data from how their customers interact with WhatsApp to optimize their customer experience.

We saw a video of what a claim looks like from the customer side — WhatsApp chatbot with links for uploading documents — as well as the internal aYo operations side in more conventional Alfresco workspaces and dashboards. This was really inspirational on a number of levels. First of all, just from a business and technology standpoint, they’re doing a great job of improving their business through automation. More importantly, they are using this to allow for cost-effective processing of very small claims, and thereby enabling coverage for millions of people who have never previously had access to insurance. Truly, a transformational business model for insurance.

CommunityLIVE 2022 Day 2 general session

I’ll be heading home this afternoon, but wanted to grab a couple of the morning sessions while I’m here in Nashville. Nashville is really a music city, and we’ve started of each day with live music from the main stage, plus at the evening event last night. Susan deCathelineau, Hyland’s Chief Customer Success Officer, kicked things off with a review of some of the customer support and services improvements that they have made in response to customer feedback, and how the recent acquisitions and product improvements have resonated with customers. Sticking with the “voice of the customer” theme, Ed McQuiston, Chief Commercial Officer, hosted a panel of customers in a “Late Morning Show” format.

His guests were Heidi Badenhorst, Group Head of Strategy and Special Projects at aYo Holdings (South African micro-insurance provider); Adam Podber, VP of Digital Experience at PVH (a fashion company that owns brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein); and Kim Ferren, Senior AP Manager at Match (the online dating company).

Badenhorst spoke first about how aYo is trying to bridge the financial gap by providing insurance to the low end of the market, especially health insurance for people who have no other support network in situations when they can’t work (and therefore feed their families). They use Alfresco to automatically capture and store medical documents directly from customers (via WhatsApp), and plan to automate the (still manual) claims processing using rules and process in the future. This is such an exciting application of automation, and exactly the type of thing that I spoke about yesterday in my presentation: what new business models are possible once we automate processes. I’m definitely going to hit her breakout session later this morning.

Podber talked about their experience with Nuxeo for digital asset management, moving from 17 DAMs across different regions to a consolidated environment that has different user experience depending on the user’s role and interests. With a number of different brands and a huge number of products within each brand, this provides them with a much more effective way to manage their product information.

Ferren was there to talk about accounts payable, but there was a hilarious Match.com ad shown first where Satan and 2020 go on a date in all the empty places that we couldn’t go back then, plus stole some toilet paper and ended up posing in front of a dumpster fire. Match is an OnBase customer, and although AP isn’t necessarily a sexy application, it’s a critical part of any business — one of my first imaging and workflow project implementations back in the 1990s was AP and I learned a lot about it how it works. Match used to combine Workday, Great Plains, NetSuite and several other local systems across their different geographic regions; now it’s primarily Workday with Hyland providing integrated support and Brainware intelligent capture.

There was a good conversation amongst the panelists about lessons learned and what they are planning to do going forward; expect some good breakout sessions from each of these companies with more details about what they’re doing with Hyland products.

Maximizing success in automation projects: my presentation from CommunityLIVE 2022

Hey, I gave a presentation yesterday, first time in person in almost three years! Here’s the slides, and feel free to contact me if you have questions. I can’t figure out how to get the embed short code on mobile, but when I’m back in the office I’ll give it another try and you may see the slideshow embedded below. Update: found the short code!