WASHINGTON — July 13, 2010 — It’s one thing to create a software and services platform capable of running a business, but it’s another thing entirely to tailor that platform to run a bank, or a school, or a small retail store. That’s why Microsoft relies on an ecosystem of more than 640,000 Microsoft partners, whose role is to understand the needs of specific industries and customers, and design IT systems accordingly.
Each year, the Microsoft Partner of the Year Awards recognize those who have made a difference in creating the right solutions for customers. As senior director of Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Group, Pam Salzer is one of the administrators of the awards program. In the course of her work, Salzer has seen firsthand how a real understanding of customers and industries can enhance the value of just about any technology.
“Every organization is unique, with a structure, culture and staff unlike any other,” Salzer says. “Every industry has different requirements, regulations and markets.”
This week Microsoft showcased the 2010 Partners of the Year at the Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington, D.C. Salzer says what really makes this group stand out is their ability to help companies of all shapes and sizes do better business.
“This year’s class includes some interesting stories of partners who took the Microsoft platform a little farther,” Salzer says, “whether by building a new approach to suit a particular industry, or simply through outstanding customer service.”
Such is the case with Jack Henry & Associates, a 35-year-old ISV that primarily works in the financial services market. Jack Henry was recognized as ISV Solution Partner of the Year.
Tommy Bradford, managing director for the strategic alliance group at Jack Henry, says the company has well over 200 products designed to help banks do business — ATM processing, online banking, mobile banking, check processing, the whole slew of financial services offerings. The company serves nearly 14,000 financial institutions worldwide.
“If you were to open a bank, we can help you run it from stem to stern,” Bradford says.
One of Jack Henry & Associates’ flagship products, Optimizer, uses Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 as the basis for a tool that measures profitability by organization, customer, product and more. It can calculate loan performance, interest income and a host of other information to provide granular business intelligence for bankers.
“It’s basically a dashboard that executives at a bank can use to analyze performance and strategize business decisions,” Bradford says.
Developers at Jack Henry & Associates have spent a lot of time working with technical specialists at Microsoft Technical Centers (MTCs), having their solutions reviewed by experts in SharePoint Server, Office and SQL Server — especially when it comes to the business intelligence capabilities SQL Server offers. Bradford says the time spent working closely with Microsoft has paid off, helping Jack Henry & Associates build solid, reliable solutions that are now being used in banks around the globe.
“We have changed our architecture based on information from Microsoft’s technical resources, and in one case it reduced our development time in man-hours by six to nine months,” he says. “The sooner we get our product working and deployed, the sooner it moves from being a cost center to a revenue driver, so it’s worked out very well.”
In the world of IT, product development never stops, and Bradford says Jack Henry & Associates is continuing to innovate. The company is looking to integrate the upcoming Windows Phone 7 platform into its mobile banking solution, and is also looking to make better use of the cloud, exploring ways to make the Microsoft Azure platform work for banks by deploying it in a way that meets the industry’s stringent regulatory requirements regarding customer information.
“We have six datacenters where we host applications, and are looking at mixed models where we secure the data on our side and then use the Azure processing power,” he says.
The ultimate goal could be a virtually “serverless” bank, he says, where the institution doesn’t need to worry about backing up data, versioning applications, security or other IT concerns.
“We offer a service that monitors the network traffic and raises an alarm if there’s activity that shouldn’t be there,” Bradford says. “Basically we want to let a bank be a bank and focus on making loans, deposits and doing what they do best, instead of worrying about IT.”
The power of combining deep industry knowledge with cutting-edge technology was also demonstrated by Brazilian ISV Gestar Tecnologia para Educação, a Microsoft Dynamics partner that won Public Sector/Education Partner of the Year. Gestar Tecnologia para Educação has adapted the Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform for use by educational institutions in managing the life cycle of their relations with students, from application to matriculation to graduation.
According to Moacyr Galo, president of Gestar Tecnologia para Educação, the Gestar SRM (student relationship management) product is “basically the adaptation of the CRM concept to the education market — allowing educational systems to work differently with different groups of students.”
Gestar Tecnologia para Educação’s solution is able to integrate the typically disparate systems used by academic institutions to manage different phases of student relationships. The result is a centralized database inside Microsoft Dynamics CRM that consolidates student information so the school can create processes to improve academic results.
“Based on all the information we collect — grades, absences, test scores and such — the school can create groups of students based on performance and start processes to manage each situation,” Galo says. “Perhaps you have students with difficulties in reading or math. The school district can easily find those students and trigger interventions on those groups.”
The cherry on top of the system, Galo says, is a slick visual interface that Gestar Tecnologia para Educação developed using Microsoft Silverlight, which also allows the schools to incorporate pictures and put faces with names. He says the Silverlight interface combined with familiar Office functionality helps when it comes to driving adoption among educators.
“When educators can see what they are doing in a visual way using new technologies like Silverlight, they become really enthusiastic to use the system,” Galo says.
While Gestar Tecnologia para Educação has been able to hit the sweet spot in the education world, another 2010 awardee has combined some of Microsoft’s recent products to create a valuable offering for another key market — small businesses.
Harbor Computer Services has worked for 11 years to help smaller companies outfit themselves with competitive IT, often acting as an entirely outsourced IT department for their clients. While Harbor’s founder Amy Babinchak typically defines her clients as those with “less than 100 computers,” she says that recent advances in the cloud and some new offerings from Microsoft have made it possible for her to offer a robust package of technologies for companies less than one-tenth that size.
“Because cloud components are so cost-effective and low-overhead, small companies can obtain things now through the cloud that were formerly untouchable for them,” Babinchak says. “By combining the cloud with some other new products from Microsoft, we can now bring real value to those businesses and make a positive impact.”
Before the cloud, Babinchak says, if a small company wanted to use Exchange Server, it had to install a server. If it wanted automatic offsite backup for data, it needed to buy software and install it. It didn’t take long before the tally went beyond the typical budget of a small operation.
“All of a sudden you’re priced out of that small end of the market,” she says.
Because of this problem, many ISVs simply ignored the so-called 10-and-under market — companies with fewer than 10 PCs — figuring there was little to offer those customers. But now, according to Babinchak, “Having the cloud lets these customers get into the systems without having to make the big hardware and services investment up front.”
Babinchak says her company takes advantage of Microsoft Foundation Server and the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite subscription offerings to allow very small companies to experience big-time IT, such as advanced calendar and contact sharing, mobile access to company information, and refined control over access to network files.
“It’s a very cost-effective way to grow their business, develop their IT capabilities, keep everyone on the most up-to-date version, and yet pay only for what they’re using,” she says.
According to Microsoft’s Salzer, whether it’s Babinchak’s focus on enabling the little guy to compete, Galo’s attention to helping educators and students succeed together, or Bradford and Jack Henry’s solution to support bankers with a variety of business intelligence and customer service platforms, all of the 2010 Partners of the Year demonstrate the one unifying principle that brings them together on the dais this week — the ability to translate customer needs into dynamic technology solutions.
“We look for how well the partner demonstrates innovation, and how their solution solves real customer problems, with demonstrated business impact for the customer,” Salzer says. “To be one of 137 awardees selected from more than 3,000 submissions represents a tremendous achievement in that regard.”