Enterprise

Charles Lamanna runs one of Microsoft’s fastest-growing businesses: Helping regular folks build business apps

Microsoft’s Power Platform strategy includes low-code and no-code software development tools that allow non-technical people to build applications for their team’s needs.

Charles Lamanna

Microsoft corporate Vice President Charles Lamanna told Protocol about low-code/no-code tools.

Photo: Microsoft

Despite the fact that enterprise tech is still trying to figure out exactly where it fits, Charles Lamanna is all in on low-code software development. “I think there's probably no more perfect manifestation of the Microsoft mission statement of ‘empower everyone and every organization in the world to do more’ than low code,” he said.

Lamanna, whose career at Microsoft has been marked by a swift ascension to the upper executive ranks, began his journey with the company in 2009 by helping Microsoft shift one of its most storied products — Office — to the cloud with Office 365. But an itch to build new products and services and a curiosity about the public cloud led him to co-found cost-management startup MetricsHub in 2012. Within six months, Microsoft acquired the company, and the capabilities Lamanna developed laid the foundation for what would become Azure Resource Manager and Azure Monitor, among other services.

In another moment of prescience a few years later, Lamanna and a small team of developers entered a Microsoft hackathon where they built a product called Wolf Crow, a low-code/no-code automation and integration tool that would later become Azure Logic Apps, then Microsoft Flow, then Power Apps and eventually Power Platform, a group of business software tools that he now oversees along with Microsoft’s Dynamics 365 applications.

Now, as corporate vice president of Microsoft Business Applications, Lamanna has a broad remit at the center of “one of the fastest-growing Microsoft businesses at scale.” That business is Power Platform, which according to Lamanna has more than 7 million monthly active users, more than $2 billion in revenue and is growing at an astonishing 72% year-over-year.

In a conversation with Protocol, Lamanna talked more about why Power Platform matters to Microsoft, how it plays with Dynamics 365, Teams and the broader Microsoft suite and why productivity and collaboration are key to Microsoft’s low-code future.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How many people are using Power Platform?

There’s a few stats we've shared to size it: There’s over 7 million monthly active citizen professional developers, which is pretty astonishingly big if you go compare it to a programming language or something. And the majority of those are business users, non-coders. [Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella] shared, I think a quarter or two ago, that we crossed $2 billion in revenue in the trailing 12 months, which is growing 72% year-over-year, one of the fastest-growing Microsoft businesses at scale. The dollar piece … shows there's value. Because that's the other thing — lots of people use it, and they get a lot of value. 97% of the Fortune 500 uses the Power Platform, 92% of the Fortune 500 uses Power Apps in at least one department. It’s not like air, I don't see it literally everywhere, but you run into it all the time.

What factors do you see driving low-code adoption?

I consider myself a technology historian to a degree. There's a great article — I think it was by Joel Spolsky — once that talked about what spreadsheets did for data entry. Forty years ago, there were professional spreadsheet users and data-entry users because you didn't have a personal computer or you didn't have spreadsheets. There were several hundred thousand people with that job in the U.S., and then all of a sudden, you get the personal computer and the spreadsheet and a lot of the work they used to do, people just do themselves, because I can just open Excel and put the data in.

But what's interesting is these professions evolved to higher-end, more sophisticated solutions where they got to use more mathematical creativity and statistical creativity instead of just [doing] the simpler tasks. So the analogy I would draw is what I think low-code will do today.

Today, if this is the total number of solutions that the enterprises should build, say there's 500 million of them: They can only afford to build 100 million at the current cost per solution that gets built. So 400 million apps have demand that goes unmet. Those 400 million can now be picked up and built with low-code tools by the business users themselves, and by non-coding but technically proficient people. Think of an IT admin who maybe can’t deploy to a Kubernetes cluster but definitely could go build a Power Platform solution. So they can go attack those 400 million. And the 100 million, a portion of those will also now be built with low-code to go faster and be more affordable.

I kind of see it as a broad spectrum, and one of the core theses that we have for Power Platform is that it has to be a platform that works for all three types of users: business users, so the citizen developers; IT professionals, so non-developers but technically proficient folks; and professional developers. All three have to be able to work on one platform. They don't all use the same user interface, they don't all use the same programming model, but all three have to be able to work on one platform. Otherwise, you can't really enable all 500 million apps, because you need all three to start using these tools and to use them together in concepts like Fusion Teams. Otherwise, you'll never be able to go tackle it broadly.

The best low-code tool ever is Excel.

Our view is, we have slang for it: no-code, low-code and pro-code. All are welcome, is what we say. No-code for business users, low-code for IT pros and pro-code for the pro devs. And we really focus on making that possible. And that's a hard thing from a technology and a user experience thing, that is the big challenge. How do you make it that capable but that understandable; that powerful, but that easy to get started?

That makes sense. [Low-code/no-code] is really just a spectrum, and there are trade-offs at each stage. You get more power here, but then it's harder to use, and maybe less power here, but then it's easier to use [and] faster to get started.

The best low-code tool ever is Excel. I can open Excel and I can make a list of stuff and add stuff up with no training. Then you have people who I swear basically get Ph.D.s in Excel doing super complex [net present value] derivative modeling, unbelievable things in Excel. That's all one platform. The magic is that it can be one platform. And there's probably a whole other background as to the magic of platforms where you can reuse it for many use cases because you get amazing skill and leverage, but I think it's the same type of approach.

How does Power Platform play across the broader Microsoft business software suite, going into Dynamics 365 and Office?

We like to think that Office and Dynamics kind of rest on top of Power Platform, and what we mean by that is, if you want to do extensibility and customization in Office or Dynamics, you turn to Power Platform. So if you go to a SharePoint list, and you want to add a workflow on your SharePoint list, that's actually embedded Power Automate. Or if I go to SharePoint and want to embed an app on my SharePoint site, that’s going to be through Power Apps. Or if I'm inside of Microsoft Teams, and I wanted to build a custom workflow, that's Power Automate. Or if I want to build a dashboard and report, that’s Power BI. Or if I want to build a chat bot in Teams, that’s Power Virtual Agent. And we have really seamless and easy integration. The same thing is true [for Dynamics], Dynamics is literally built on top of Power Platform, so if you want to go change a form or a data schema or some logic or workflow in Dynamics, you just end up inside the Power Platform experience.

We have this belief that over time, every enterprise software solution will need to have extensibility through low-code [tools], and you start to see that: Every company advertises low-code/no-code customization and configuration now. And one of the things we announced at [Microsoft Build] was basically the Power Automate embed capability. So other software companies can even embed Power Platform inside their solutions, their SaaS offerings, without having to go build their own low-code platform.

Do you see productivity and collaboration tools as a key part of this low-code/no-code movement?

I think one of the most interesting opportunities is that low-code lets you build a lot of things, you get a lot of apps. We have customers with tens of thousands of apps and tens of thousands of Power Automate workflows and tens of thousands of Power BI dashboards and a thousand Power Page websites, so you get a lot of solutions.

And one of the biggest challenges is: How do you make it so that your users can discover them? Having communication, collaboration and low-code working well together makes it so you can actually embed a Power App in Microsoft Teams. You can, for example, pin a Power App in Teams in a Team’s channel, or in the personal tab on the left-hand side, and a lot of our users and customers do that because, that way, it doesn't feel like I'm going to a different app or a different website: It actually feels like it's part of Teams. That type of discovery — and all that discovery is open so anyone can go use it at any company, it's not just a Microsoft-only extensibility model — but that type of integration makes it so easy for the solutions which are built so easily to also be used so easily. So I think that's a major component.

And then one of the biggest things that we do is, we don't make you learn: If you already know Office, you already know Power Platform — that's kind of our overarching thing. We work with the Office team and the Power Platform team to share design patterns, to share [user interface] components, to share user experience or interaction models, things like the formula language — it really is an extension of the Excel formula language. We do those types of things because we already trained a billion people on Office; let's have their skills feel familiar when they end up in the Power Platform.

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