The Anvil Podcast: ProcessMaker

Rich: I’m speaking with Brian Reale who is with the ProcessMaker project.

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R: Thanks so much for speaking with me today.

Brian Reale

Brian: Yeah, thanks for having me.

R: Tell me about the ProcessMaker project: what sort of problem space you’re trying to address, and what your product does.

B: ProcessMaker is Open Source business process management tool, which is a discipline probably better known as workflow. ProcessMaker really focuses on automating approval based in a form driven workflows. Basically we;re sort of streamlining bureaucracies. Any time you’ve got an organization with 80 on up to thousands, people want to get things approved. They make requests and ProcessMaker generally looks for processes that have the word “request” or “approval” in it. So, a credit request or an employee onboarding request or leave of absence request. Anything that’s some kind of approval, request-based workflow is perfect for automating in ProcessMaker. It gives a business analyst, or business user, a visual environment for designing visually the process with the steps required – how it flows through the organization, and then adding in forms. Also the visual form designer outputs documents which might be these sorts of PDFs or Word documents, contract, invoices, things of that nature. So, it’s really about automating these kinds of approval workflows which happen again and again in enterprises.

R: Tell us about the relationship between the Open Source side and the commercial side and how that works together and what’s in one and not in the other.

B: There’s a company that I work for called Colosa. Colosa is the main sponsor of the project and has a core group of developers are part of Colosa. The primary product the full product is Open Source under the GPL version 3 license and then we also develop add-ons around it. Community members also develop add-ons as part of subscriptions where we’ll will provide support for the product and the additional add-ons to the product, and besides that we also provide services, as do many companies around the globe, that helped other companies automate their processes.

R: Do you have developers that work on the Open Source project full-time?

B: Yeah, we’ve got about eight developers currently that just work on the core Open Source product full time. Then we have another small team of probably two developers that developed these plug-ins. We have a specific plug-in architecture and then we look for areas where we can add some value and offer those as plug-ins inside of these enterprise subscriptions. Again them main purpose of enterprise subscriptions is so that those that want professional support around it can get it and also get some value added that with additional features.

R: Which came first: the Open Source product or the company?

B: Good question. The company came first. The company Colosa has been around since 2000. We were originally doing something else. It was related, and in the area of insurance. So we we originally worked on some insurance related projects and insurances is an industry that has a lot of workflows. So we realized that really what we were doing was developing workflows. So we decided in about 2006 to begin, trying to orient this a more generic and general fashion to create an Open Source product around it. And then it went on SourceForge in February 2008.

R: Was it Open Source to begin, or you you developed it in-house and then Open Source it?

B: We had developed parts of it in-house, and never explicitly had a license agreement around it so then we went back and redeveloped it and then said, let’s release this officially under a license. So we had developed parts of it but really not as as a coherent product. So that took a while to do, and then we released that.

R: I’m always interested in the process where a company take something internal and makes it Open Source. How did that go? Did you have lawyers that were nervous about it or was it pretty much smooth, or how did that process work out?

B: It was actually very smooth. I had had spent a lot of time the year prior going to different conferences and calling members and leaders of other Open Source projects to understand better how Open Source works, because I was kind of new to it at the time. And because we had been working mostly in PHP, that’s when we thought we were really part a larger community that does gravitate towards Open Source, and we should be participating in a bigger way in that. And so it was natural for us to do that. And because all the development we had done would have been very specific to clients, we sort of thought we had nothing to lose. There’s lots of literature out there saying what were the right reasons and the wrong reasons for looking towards open Source, but it worked very well for us.

R: Now you’re on the other side of that and the project is Open Source. Are the developers that work on the project … are they all from within the company or do you also have developers that contribute regularly that are outside the company.

B: We started of course the core development and now we have a community of about 5000 members. All of the language packs have been contributed by members. We are getting more add-ons and plug-ins contributed by members. A few contributions around the core – not too much yet but that’s starting to happen. So we’ve seen that process growing as users and developers become more involved. One of the interesting things about about ProcessMaker is, because it’s really a toolset for business analysts, we also have the ability for non technical people to contribute in the way of processes – contributing best practice processes and then sort of showing others how they’ve done maybe a credit request, or an employee onboarding process. So there’s two ecosystems of contributors there: one at the process level and one at the programming level. One of the unique things – there’s other workflow and business process management solutions and other Open Source ones – one of the interesting things is that this is a PHP based product and really the only one out there and so it kind of gives a different level of accessibility. We’ve seen developers and companies around the world who are gravitating towards ProcessMaker because they realize that there’s more talent, at a lower cost than say Java solutions out there. And our approach to is very different so as more developers are asked to develop systems with a CMS or based on another CRM, we become an interesting player there and an interesting solution because people can get up to speed very quickly and it looks and feels more like other things that worked in before.

R: Where is the product going in future revisions and specifically, if somebody wanted to get involved at this point, what sort of things might they be interested in working on?

B: We’re members of the organizations that are interested in BPM. One of them is the OMG. Another one is the workflow management coalition – the WFMC. There’s a standard around BPM called “Business Process Modeling Notation“. In August of 2010 OMG released BPMN 2.0. It’s interesting is that it’s explicitly a semantic language that not only allows you to visually draw the process but it’s meant so that providers that are doing the drawing can draw and then you could export that in BPMN 2.0 compliant XML and later import it into another modeler or another engine. So let’s say you wanted to use the ProcessMaker modeler, but Oracle’s BPM engine you can do that or vice versa, when everybody fully supports the standard. That’s still taking a while for big vendors. It’s taking them longer because they’ve got a big install bases. But it’s also creating a bigger ecosystem, so those that are interested more in simulation or analytics, this idea of exporting and importing and eventually getting to the level what you could export and import multiple times and eventually get what they call a round trip with your your BPMN model. It’s an exciting time for the industry because of that.

We now have in our beta have really the only BPMN 2.O. editor – JavaScript-based editor – in the world. It’s pretty interesting notation designed to really create a common language for those that are trying to design and describe processes. We’re working heavily on that and are putting that into the product. We’re also working on better support for multiple databases. Currently ProcessMaker runs on MySQL. It’s a PHP product, as I mentioned. The BPMN piece is kind of big area in the industry and that’s really what our main focus is, and I think that for those that want to get involved, there’s lots of opportunity. We’re always interested, and would welcome more contributions in the core.

The plug-in architecture, we’ve recently documented that, so I think now in our wiki – users have been screaming for that for years – now they can come study that and figure out how to develop plug-ins that can do other things. We’ve done things for – around digital signatures, around integration with other solutions, and I think there’s just a lot of ways that people can go with that.

R: What are some of the products in the commercial space that are doing what you’re doing?

B: Well the big players in the commercial space would be IBM, SAP, and probably Oracle. I think IBM claims to have the biggest lion’s share of the market. But it’s an extremely fragmented market and in fact I’d say the number one competitive element in the market is custom programs. So other people build things not realizing maybe they could build them more quickly, or maintain them more easily with with a business process management framework, or workflow product. So it’s an interesting arena because there are lots of different solutions but each one is a little bit different. They haven’t been very monetized at this point.

R: Tell me what particular applications you’ve seen this put to in the real world – how people are using it, and especially how people might be using it in ways you didn’t anticipate.

B: As I mentioned, it’s a product meant for large organizations and our sweet spot tends to be maybe 100 employees to maybe four or five thousand employees. So any larger organizations that have this problem of how to coordinate better between employees regarding approval-based processes. Outside the US we’ve found an interesting niche with ProcessMaker in banks. Large banks in Eastern Europe and Canada. A number in Latin America, a number in Africa. And they sort of drive value because they can put 10, 20, 30 different processes on the platform. Everything from a check approval request, to some kind of incoming wire transfer, conciliation requests, all these sorts of requests and approval-based processes on the platform. And a because you can develop custom processes, each one is doing something unique. And that’s why they need a platform that allows them to build what they currently have. That sector, government, lots of government projects. We just saw a big USAID projects in Peru with the Peruvian government done with ProcessMaker. We’re about … we have a Colosa customer in the UK that’s launching a big government project in UK right now. And then cross enterprize, so any kind of manufacturing company that wants to add value or do custom work on top of existing ERP’s that’s another big area. Telcos – we have a number of telcos in different countries around the world using it as well. And probably some of the bigger names – Lenovo, the laptop maker uses ProcessMaker. Toyota in India uses ProcessMaker. Those are probably some of the more recognizable names. Universities as well. Lehman College from Sunni systems is using ProcessMaker. Kind of across the board in any large organization.

R: Thanks for after speaking with me today, Brian.

B: Thanks, Rich.

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