Shropshire IT leaders win global recognition
A Shropshire business with a global client base has been marked out as a leader in its field after two key staff were awarded a coveted industry status held by only 21 specialists in the UK.
Purple Frog Systems Ltd is at the leading edge of developing and managing business intelligence solutions, which help to make firms more efficient and effective through understanding and using their data.
The Telford-based company, which works with clients around the world, now boasts two specialists who have secured Microsoft Most Valued Professional (MVP) status for their work with the Microsoft Data Platform.
While it’s rare for industry players to have one MVP in their ranks, having two means the business is considered outstanding in the sector.
Company founder, Alex Whittles, first earned the MVP accolade in 2015 and has retained it since, while consultant, Paul Andrew, joined the MVP ranks in the latest round of awards from Microsoft in July 2017.
The pair are two of only 21 people in the UK who hold MVP status for their “Data Platform” specialism and just over three-and-a-half thousand throughout the world across all eighteen Microsoft disciplines.
Most Valued Professional status is awarded only to those with exceptional technical expertise who are working on the “bleeding edge”* of the technologies they specialise in and who are exemplary at sharing their knowledge with the wider industry.
Both Alex and Paul travel the world for speaking engagements, to demonstrate their innovations and share knowledge with peers, as well as running key conferences for their sector.
Alex said: “Being a Microsoft MVP does make you part of a pretty exclusive club and it’s a huge testament to Paul’s skill that he has been recognised as being so valuable to the industry, and been invited to join these ranks.”
“Having two MVPs in one organisation is still very rare, but to do so in a business as small and agile as ours, and Shropshire-based rather than in a major metropolitan area, is something that we’re incredibly proud of.”
Purple Frog helps to transform businesses through bringing together all of their data, often from many sources, into a single data warehouse, and processing it so that critical information can be properly interpreted by business decision makers, often in real time, and acted on to increase the effectiveness of the organisation.
Paul explained: “What we are able to do opens the eyes of business leaders when they realise the wealth of information that we can put in front of them. All businesses generate lots of varied data, but it only becomes useful if you can turn that data into actionable intelligence and access it in timely and meaningful ways. That’s what we help them to do. Historically this has taken the form of management reports and dashboards, but these days we can also integrate Machine Learning in order to generate prediction models that are more advanced than ever before.”
Purple Frog Systems has a blue chip client base and has even worked with space agencies as part of its consulting role, though it is now looking to bring its skill set to bear for companies more locally.
Alex said: “What we do is at the cutting edge, but like any technology many of its applications are now becoming more mainstream and available to companies of all sizes, especially with cloud computing reducing the required investment costs significantly. To be able to visualise your business on a day-by-day basis and act on that intelligence provides a huge competitive edge, and I can’t think of any organisation that wouldn’t benefit from that. Being data driven is the new black, or purple, as we prefer.”
Unleashing business potential through data
The world is driven by data. Every business process, transaction and interaction generates useful information, from how much it cost to carry out to how long it took and its ultimate value or expense to the organisation.
Being able to see that kind of data in a meaningful way, with it related to every other source of insight, takes a business a huge step closer to maximum efficiency and, therefore, enhanced profitability.
There's a problem though. Achieving that nirvana-like state rarely happens. Various pieces of information reach different people in a company at different times. Some information doesn't reach them at all because it's not collected – or it is but its value is not recognised or extracted.
This is not just an issue for the world's biggest, most complex businesses; it is a phenomenon that affects all, right down to the smallest micro firms.
It has actually always been true that many businesses have failed to collate and act on all of the information available to them. In a digital world, where everything can be measured (ultimately in zeros and ones!) it's almost criminal not to be making the most of that granular detail.
There have traditionally been two stumbling blocks to changing this state of affairs. The first was the incompatibility of the information itself. Paper-based systems mixed with the introduction of computer programmes, which were often focused only on one task and built using a database or code that couldn't talk to other crucial systems. This is still very much the case in many industries where special software has been built for a certain purpose, with no thought of it having to talk to other systems.
Even should a business recognise this and be willing to tackle the issues, the next blockage has been in the cost of the computing power needed to crunch all of those numbers. Before any work could be done on the data, it generally needed suitable hardware and licenses to be bought, installed and maintained – only for them to become outdated within a year or two. Having the tools to meaningfully relate the data was also a barrier.
Now though, the potential of on-demand processing power sitting in what has become colloquially known as 'the cloud' puts colossal resources at the hands of anyone who has the vision to harness them.
Every piece of data you can capture can be put to work – and it works best when you can put real-time information in front of the people capable of acting upon it.
Take a retail operation. It could be operating hundreds of stores, with thousands of stock lines, open up to seven-days-a-week. It's highly conceivable that the process of re-ordering stock which has gone low is a manual affair, relying on staff to keep lists and orders to be phoned or emailed through to head office. A busy manager might not get around to that as quickly as they would like, which has the potential to lose days in which the replacement stock is languishing in a warehouse, which in turn ripples down the supply chain to the manufacturer. Every minute a customer can't buy that product in the shop is a potential missed sale.
But let's be generous; the world has moved on and those shops may now have an electronic point-of-sale system which tracks and reports stock levels by SKU. Head office has up-to-date numbers and can act on that. However, that's not the whole story. The data might be interpreted differently if it's efficiently modelled and related to other critical data, such as individual store turnover, predictions based on historical seasonality data, national trends, even potentially internet memes which will have an impact demand...
All of that information comes from different places, but now we can gather it, properly relate each piece against the others and present it to management in graphical dashboards which give real-time views of what is actually happening in the business. This allows them to act in a rational, coherent and timely way that ultimately translates into efficiency and profit.
The same concepts can be applied anywhere. Throughput of parts, mechanical breakdowns of machines, staff rotas, inflows and outflows of cash, cost per customer acquisition. You name it, it can be measured, reported on and improved.
What is missing in many business sectors so far is the appreciation of the depth of data available and the fact that it can be pulled together and turned into one of the most valuable assets in any organisation. That is, as long as it's done properly; it is too easy to mistake the relationships in the data and be led down the wrong path, which is why specialists in managing the data are needed and the tools they use are built for the task.
This is likely to be the bottleneck to adoption of data-driven business models, at least in the short to medium term, because this is a specialism which will be in demand when the wider business community wakes up to the opportunity. It will pay to get started early.
The businesses who enjoy the most success in the months and years to come will be the ones who grasp the power and possibility of their data, now that the tools to use it are available and affordable, at whatever scale.
Purple Frog at the heart of “big data” revolution
What difference would it make to your business if you could see all of the moving parts presented in one place, in real-time?
Imagine a “dashboard” that shows you the numbers that matter the most, allowing you to act on them straight away.
It could contain the number of orders, as they come in. It might show the level of stock you hold, the most popular products today, the level of profit you’re running at or the number of staff hours lost (and therefore the cost) because your most troublesome machine is down again.
It’s hard to think of many businesses that would not benefit from being able to see their most crucial figures pulled together and presented in meaningful ways.
Many organisations do not actually recognise the value and depth of information that they generate all the time and could be using to improve efficiency – and therefore profit.
Fortunately, we live and work in exciting times, where the technology and skills exist to identify, collect and process all of this information. It’s not something that happens widely yet, at least not in meaningful ways, but it is the direction of travel that will be taken by the firms which will be the most successful tomorrow.
The biggest blockage to making this a reality is the expertise to extract and interpret and combine the data. It’s quite a specialism, which then has to be allied with the technological know-how to present it in reliable and understandable ways.
One of the companies leading the way internationally in this fascinating and burgeoning field is based right here in Shropshire. Purple Frog Systems is recognised throughout the IT sector as a leader in its field when it comes to managing and using big data, to the point where computing giant Microsoft has identified two of its consultants as Most Valued Professionals on the global stage.
It’s an accolade given only to those who lead the way in their field and who share their specialist knowledge with the wider industry.
Founder and principal consultant at Purple Frog Systems, Alex Whittles, travels the world presenting on the intricacies of his specialism and the company runs some of the most popular conferences on what is known as data warehousing. He and his colleague, Paul Andrew (also a Microsoft Most Valued Professional), can often be found on Microsoft’s Redmond campus in Seattle.
Alex said: “Because we live in a digital world, there is data everywhere, about almost every aspect of what a business does. It’s not always obvious, sometimes far from it, but even the most simple process or interaction could have a massive impact if you can gather, analyse and read the data. That sounds obvious, but the information most businesses hold comes in a multitude of different formats, very few of which are designed to talk to each other or be directly relatable.
“That’s where we and the tools we use come in. Our specialism is identifying the data, being able to reliably extract it and understand it, relate it to other sources of information and then present it, often in real time, to our clients.”
One of the hardest things about handing data, Alex will tell you, is that if you interpret it wrongly or misunderstand what it’s telling you at any stage, you will end up spitting out bad data at the other end of the process, so experience in understanding the pitfalls is crucial. Fortunately, Alex is a member of Mensa.
“When we come to presenting the data it’s been through a number of processes, from being extracted – perhaps from some obscure, task specific manufacturing system – to being combined with other sources of intelligence and then, essentially, made readable by anyone,” he explains.
“By the time it reaches the production manager, the finance director or the CEO, the hard work is done and they are able to look at straightforward, often graphical representations of the inner workings of their organisation. From that they can made rational and timely decisions.”
The obvious question is how this might work in real world situations. What can you learn that you can act on and where does the information originate?
“The things you can learn and the way data can be used are essentially endless. One great example is a national FTSE250 chain of retail stores that we work with. Their point of sale systems, the tills, record when a product is sold and that data all goes back from each shop to head office in realtime. When a particular line gets low, or perhaps is showing itself to be more popular than others, that information can be acted on very quickly to ensure there are no sales lost through running out of stock. If it’s in the warehouse it can go straight on a lorry for the next resupply, or an order can go to the supplier for more to be ordered, perhaps even automatically.
“In the past this might have relied on store managers filling in forms or spreadsheets, maybe once a week, and sending them to head office to be read and compiled by someone else. Literally weeks would be lost across the course of a year in time taken to resupply that directly impacts on the bottom line.”
The same principles can be applied in almost any business. Purple Frog Systems has also worked extensively with financial organisations, for example Principality Building Society. As anyone who deals with figures will know, there can be multiple versions of the truth depending on how number are reported and interpreted and finances can be a fast-moving environment, affected by global factors.
Alex said: “For Principality we were able to provide them with definitive, accurate numbers, quickly made available to senior management and anyone else who needed them. On top of this, the system provides a full audit trail and transparency in the calculations used. And because the information is in one place and known to be high quality it means that all of the regulatory returns they are required to make are available and ready to be filed weeks before the regulators demand them.”
Those are just two examples of very different businesses which have grasped the nettle and put their data to work, with transformative results. When you begin to imagine the possibilities for your own business they can seem endless – and very exciting.
Why then isn’t every business already doing this? Alex and his team know: “We’ve reached a point now where more people are understanding the value of their data, which is collected all over the place. Having the technological tools to pull that detail together and process it meaningfully and, critically, in an affordable way, is what has really changed.
“It used to require massive, expensive mainframe computers to do this kind of work. Now anyone can access the power of cloud computing, where you can turn on the processing power and storage you need on demand and only pay for what you use. No need for technicians to maintain your servers or for expensive capital replacement programmes, just rent the capacity you need. That puts it in everyone’s grasp, with tools like Power BI that have revolutionised the accessibility and cost of this, bringing Business Intelligence into everyone’s reach.”
Presumably then, every business will be going down this road any time now?
“Realisation is dawning for many business leaders, but the bottleneck is likely to be skills. If you misunderstand the relationships in the data what you get out is worse than useless. In fact it’s positively damaging because it’s wrong. Specialists with the right credentials need to be behind interpreting and presenting the data and they are going be increasingly in demand because such skills are not a tap you can simply turn on.” says Alex.
That’s something Alex and colleague Paul are both concerned about and actively working to change by supporting initiatives to encourage more young people to look at the opportunities in science, technology and engineering.
So, does global demand for their particular skills mean that Shropshire holds little business interest for the Purple Frog team?
Not at all, says Alex: “It’s great travelling the world discussing what we do and working with global companies, but it’s not all glamour and we can see huge potential for companies right here in Shropshire to harness business intelligence and put themselves at the forefront of their sectors. The advance in cloud technology and the Microsoft technologies we work with make this a reality for everyone and we want to encourage that. The data revolution is open to everyone!”
SQLBits 2017 – Several Shades of Purple
This year Purple Frog Systems are getting involved in SQLBits more than ever before! With Europe’s biggest Microsoft data platform conference being hosted in our home town of Telford we had to set the frogs free and add our special shade of amphibious purple to the 2017 event.
- We’re part of the event organising committee.
- We’re official event sponsors.
- We’re official conference helpers.
- We’re speaking in sessions.
- We’re recruiting.
- We’ll even be dressing up for the Friday night party!
This year Purple Frog’s Paul Andrew will be taking to the stage on both Friday and Saturday.
When: Friday 7th April. 17:00. Dome 7.
Session Title: Orchestrating Data with Azure Data Factory
We are honoured to have been invited by Microsoft, as partners, to present a recent Azure Data Factory and Azure Data Lake project as a use case within Chris Testa O’Neill’s session. See how we developed this big data solution.
When: Saturday 8th April. 09:45. Dome 6.
Session Title: Building an End to End IoT Solution Using Raspberry Pi Sensors & Azure Services
The popular talk from our recent tour of the UK community user groups has come home in all its real-time data glory. Be sure you come along and learn how you too can harness the power of IoT using event hubs, Azure Stream Analytics and Power BI.
Visit Our Stand
If you want to come along and have a chat, we’ll be in the exhibitor hall just in front of dome 6. I’m sure you’ll spot us! We’ll have prizes and drinks vouchers to give away.
Looking forward to seeing you at SQLBits 2017!
SQL Saturday 543 Sponsorship in Manchester
On Saturday 22nd July Purple Frog Systems were the proud sponsors of SQL Saturday 543 held in Manchester.The day started with the key note from Microsoft's Andrew Fryer on the middle floor of the venue, seen below.
Then the Purple Frog team were out in force with Alex Whittles speaking in two sessions; A Drive Into SSIS and An Introduction to U-SQL. Paul Andrew was manning the sponsor stand with an excellent IoT real-time data demonstration.
Utilising the flexibility of the Raspberry Pi running Windows 10 IoT Core 3x sensor readings (light, temperature and Bluetooth Low Energy) were streamed to the cloud and live visualisations presented in Power BI captivating visitors.
Thank you all those were came to speak with us. We hope to see you again soon.
STEM - Weston Road Academy SQL Server Introduction
As part of the STEM ambassador programme on Friday 8th July Purple Frog’s Paul Andrew went along to Weston Road Academy in Stafford to teach the Year 10 ICT class basic T-SQL syntax using the latest Microsoft SQL Server 2016 technology.
Due to limitations on the local school network we weren’t able to get SQL Server Express installed. This presented the perfect opportunity to use the power and elasticity of the Microsoft Azure cloud by spinning up 17x virtual machines for the training event. Students were then able to remote desktop into the virtual servers and experience first-hand what a real world enterprise grade database management system would look and feel like.
By the end of the 2 hour session students had learnt and written basic T-SQL data manipulation queries covering SELECT, INSERT, UPDATE and DELETE with references to real world applications used throughout.
We are very proud to have been given the opportunity to plant the seeds for the next generation of data scientists, analysts and developers.
A very big thank you to Weston Road Academy staff for their warm welcome and the efforts extended to make this knowledge sharing visit possible.
SQL Saturday Manchester Sponsorship
As a Gold partner, we'll be there for the duration, and look forward to meeting you there.
For more information, take a look at their website: click here
Aramark Contract Won
Purple Frog have won a repeat contract with Aramark to design and supply a BI project for their newly won contract with NAAFI.
Alex awarded Chartered IT Professional
We are proud to annnounce that Alex has been awarded Chartered IT Professional status from the British Computer Society. This reflects his history within the IT community, and the knowledge and experience he has accumulated over this time.
Purple Frog hits the Target
We are deligted to announce that we have won a new contract, designing a BI system for Target Group.
Hollie awarded BCS Membership
We are delighted to congratulate Hollie on being made a full Member of the British Computer Society (MBCS), as well as being voted onto the committee for the Telford/Shropshire branch of the BCS.