Podcast: Modo Labs Navigates the Post-Covid Workplace with No-Code

Low Code Screens



Welcome to PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. I’m Mark Feffer.

            My guest today is Andrew Yu, the CEO of Modo Labs. Modo’s a no-code development platform, which is used by leading colleges and universities, as well as global brands. We’re going to talk about engagement and what it means, returning to the office and the future of work, and, of course, low-code development. And we’ll do all that on this edition of PeopleTech.

            Andrew, what are you hearing from companies, employers out there about engagement? Is it as big a subject, as big a deal as everybody says it is?


I think it is a really big deal, and it is actually different from different types of customers that we have. Just to step back a little bit in terms of who we work with and just to provide you with the context where Modo fits into this entire new world, if you will, of the post-pandemic workplace, so we started this company out of MIT about 12 years ago. And the original initiative that we had prior to starting the company at MIT was to basically provide information so that MIT students and faculty and staff can have it in their phones, on their phones, whatever the phones that they’re using.

            At that time, it wasn’t really about engagement, although it turned out to be such. It was really about giving the important information to a campus. So, we got a campus like MIT or other universities, and then, how does the app help them, help our customers who are typically either in the IT department? They need an app, so the official university app for MIT, or the official university app for Penn State, or University of Florida, or whatever, UC Berkeley, that sort of thing. Then, what do you do with these apps?

            At the very beginning, it was all about, “Oh, so and so has an app. We need to have an app,” but it really turned out to be an engagement factor, where everyone from incoming freshmen or even before becoming a student that the university prospective students, freshmen, and then throughout the life cycle of the academic career, and then eventually after they graduate, all that stuff is covered under these apps.

            A few years ago, a number of enterprise customers came to Modo, and then they said, “We really like what you guys did at MIT, and we would like the same thing.” One of those customers was actually Capital One. Then one thing that we realized was … This was way back, many years ago, eight years ago, so way before pandemic. You could see at the time that they had similar problems. Now, the problem with the enterprise is that it isn’t that they didn’t have apps. Everyone had apps, but the problem was that they had way too many apps.

            So, there was this idea of consolidating all that into a single app, where employees can download that workplace app on their device, whether it’s a company issue or their personal, and then from that app, regardless of where they work … So, for instance, if you work at the headquarters, or if you are a call center employee out in Plano Texas, or if you are a traveling executive, or whatever the use case might be, again, that single app can help with this workplace engagement.

            Now, of course, COVID happened in 2020, and I distinctly remember visiting many of our customers, whether it’s universities or especially the enterprise, the workplace. We work with companies like Goldman Sachs. We work with companies like Okta, or I suppose for the … I don’t think I can reveal, but I can say one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies out there. GE, I think I can name them. So, these are some of our customers in the enterprise side.

            Now, before COVID, they had a different problem, which was, there were too many people at the office, and it was like, “Hey, we got one desk, and maybe there’s 1.8 person per desk.” That was the ratio. Then fast forward to obviously, during COVID, that number went down. Nobody was showing up, of course, because out of necessity, out of regulation, they could not get people even if they wanted to. So, different customers adapted different models.

            A customer like Goldman Sachs and a lot of the banks out there … I’m sure you’re familiar with the CEO of JP Morgan Chase publicly announcing, “Hey, everybody, if the employees can go out to have dinner at restaurants and go to the movie theaters, they should be able to come back to the office and work from there.” And for companies like that, it was really about they had a certain way of engaging with their employees, everyone coming in. If you are familiar with the world of investment banks, as an example, an analyst usually is required to come in at 7:00 AM or 8:00 AM, and they don’t usually go home until 10 o’clock at night, 11, 12, at one o’clock or 12 o’clock, until some things were done.

            I think in that particular situation, the place where employees are engaging with is actually at the office, sitting side by side, sitting within the same neighborhood at the office so that you can actually learn from your mentors. You can go out to dinner together. You can go out downstairs for a little coffee and then socialize. That was pre-COVID, and that’s basically what everybody was missing. Now, of course, if you fast forward to within COVID, then it’s like, “Okay, you work from home.” And again, using that analyst example, they might be living with three other roommates in a small, tiny apartment in Manhattan, whatever that use case might be. So for them, for those types of customers, it was very important for them to try to bring back people as soon as possible so that they can continue to engage with them.

            So, the apps that our customers have, again, I think Goldman had done a webinar with us. I can say their name. The name of their app is Canopy as an example. It was really geared to … That Canopy app kind of changed its role if you will, but it was designed during COVID to try to bring back people safely. Obviously, you cannot come in unless you have tested negative or whatever the vaccination and all those requirements. But even now, that app is getting used, but in today’s world, it’s more focusing on how do I allow people? How do I give the information so that you can decide, if you have the choice, if you have the option, to come in so that you can engage with your colleagues working on the same project and so on?

            Now, the communication of course can be done via email and such, but the apps are now designed so that you could actually say, “Hey, on Monday, I see that my managing director will be at the office on the 20th floor of this New York headquarters.” Well, I, as an analyst, if I happen to be working in that area, and if I am allowed to come in or if I required to come in, I could say on Monday, I’m going to show up. But I see that he’s not there on Friday. Maybe I’m not going to show up, that sort of thing. That’s sort of the engagement that we are seeing on one end of the spectrum, which is, I would say, more rigorous, encouraging people coming back, or even requiring people coming back as many days as possible.

            On the flip side, we have customers like Okta. What we see in the tech industry … and this goes to other tech companies as well … is that they usually came back with a public announcement that says, “We don’t need to have employees coming back to the office at all, but from time to time, we would love to have them come back.” And why? Because, obviously, they have a lot of real estate, a lot of big buildings, very nicely equipped, very nice environment, so people can go back in there and work.

            Companies like Okta took a slightly different way of looking at this future of work. In fact, we collaborate with them not just in terms of building the app, but also constantly reevaluating how other customers are thinking about this. In their case, the app usage is still covering the similar things, but also in their case, they want to create different reasons why you would want to come back. So, it’s very similar if you recall, a few years ago, when Apple created their own headquarters, brand new headquarters, with the circular architecture, and the basic idea was that they want to encourage people to meet one another completely just by walking into the office and coming out to actually go to the cafeteria.

            So, the architecture itself of a physical work workplace was designed that way. Again, engagement, in-person, getting to know one another, now those are some of the critical factors. Of course, our customers are cognizant of that, whether it’s companies like Okta or companies like Goldman Sachs. Then in between, there’s a lot of other variations of this idea, so that’s what we are trying to help with from a digital perspective, to allow them to again, provide that level of a feature set so that their employees can actually use it either directly or sometimes indirectly, just nudging the behaviors and providing them with the tools so that they can be not only productive but ultimately more engaged with their employer.


I want to shift gears for a little bit. When I was reading through your website, it looks like low-code is a pretty big part of you’re offering. Could you talk about that? How does low-code play into this?


Yes, yes. That’s an excellent question. When we first started our own platform many years ago, it was very much, I would say, the opposite of low-code. It was something that required a lot of technical knowledge and developers so that we would provide a framework, then they would get their developers to code things, and so on. But over the years, we learned that in order for these apps to be not only adopted by these institutions, whether it’s universities or in a large enterprise, we needed to actually have a very easy way for them to just configure things. So, no-code needed to do a lot of different things.

            What we ended up was if you wanted an app, just like what MIT had, or if you wanted an app, just like what GE has, or Goldman has, in theory, you could just configure things and then have it good to go. But where the low-code comes in is that every single customer, and I would say, even within the same customer, especially for larger organizations, your requirement for India office is different than your requirement for London office. The backend systems that they have sometimes it’s global, sometimes it’s local. Then how do we and the customer provide that level of customization?

            To give you a couple of useful examples, I guess in this case, one of our customers wanted to basically capture vaccination information from their employees through the app. So, the low-code basically allowed them to very quickly do that without really having a separate app developer for iPhone, and then Android, and then the web. Simply by leveraging what we call the X module, which is our low-code tool, basically they were able to do that within a matter of a few days and then get it up and running globally.

            Or, let’s say, in India, one of our customers had a requirement where they were going to have reserving gym space, the treadmills and other equipments at the gym. The back end … Obviously, it’s a local business or local company that’s operating that … they have APIs. So, as long as you got APIs, now you can use this low-code and get a developer or two to basically create that environment.

            Now, we see this all the time at universities because there’s more than what you want to … What we provide out of the box, of course, is good enough for a lot of our use cases, but there comes a time when you need to do something special, something different. So, we see that a lot at the university level as well. One of our customers in Houston, University of Houston, for example, they’re very prolific. And once you have your developers trained on this low-code stuff, then it’s really easy for them to create different use cases, whether it’s handling things like density information, so where in the current campus is it crowded? That used to be a thing if you recall. People didn’t want people gathering together as an example. That level of stuff you got that their networks providing APIs, and then they can just create that X module very quickly with the low-code.

            So, that’s kind of how it’s currently being used. With all that said, though, of course, we use it ourselves so that if we wanted to create anything brand new, starting about two, three years ago, we’re also leveraging the same. So, it makes our job easier for our own developers to do this, and this is sort of what’s behind the scenes and the secret sauce, if you will, of what our customers are taking advantage of to make their apps even better.


You talk also on the website about low-code enabling the citizen developer. I’m wondering if you really believe in that concept of people like me learning a little bit about code so I can build little apps. Do you think low-code is really for that purpose, or is it more about streamlining the software developer’s work?


Yeah. I think it really depends on the organization that we work with, but I can give you a few examples of where the, I would say, in this case, it’s really about citizen developer, where the value of that comes in. What we are seeing is that even though we offer the platform so that you, as the customer, whether it’s a university that’s nationally ranked, one of the top schools, or your community college, or your small liberal arts college, or an international school down in Chile or Mexico somewhere, the problems that you have in your campus is fundamentally different. So, the problem that MIT has is fundamentally different from the problems that Penn State had.

            Now, there’s a lot of common things. Everybody wants to check their grades on the homework, and everybody wants to do certain things, but there are certain subtle differences just because of the layout of the campus and the types of problems that you have. So, we’ve been running what we call Ideathons over the last few years. It kind of got interrupted by the pandemic, but two, three years ago, the winning team … and, by the way, the idea behind the Ideathon was it’s really about the citizen developers. Universities would have about 60 to 70 or 80 different students participating in this Ideathon, and over a weekend, they would basically not only learn how to use this platform and the no-code and low-code, but come up with a solution that, obviously, it’s not quite production-worthy, but is good enough to basically be the first beta version, if you will.

            Ideas that different institutions came up with different students vary. UC Berkeley was actually the winning team from UC Berkeley came up with the idea of solving this food insecurity on campus. And up until that point about three, four years ago, I didn’t realize that there was this problem across all these different universities, where there’s a lot of hungry students who cannot afford to eat good meals. These students actually created that, so that’s a citizen development story. Now, a couple years prior, I think Harvard students came up with this mental health. There’s a lot of stress on campus, a lot of pressure, so how do you do that?

            Now, taking that to the enterprise level, now, again, there are different problems that they want to solve. What we see typically is that … Actually, one use case of a customer whose headquarters building actually has a multi-story parking, and it actually happens to be located in the Washington DC Beltway. Well, guess what? From about eight o’clock in the morning to probably 9:30 AM, we see the spike in traffic to that particular module. Why? Because that’s a problem that that particular location has. If you’re trying to drive in, just going through the first floor, second floor, third floor, all the way up to the ninth floor of a parking structure, that’s a long time for you to waste on.

            So, if you actually had a mechanism and by which you could actually say, “Oh, I should go to this garage. I should go to that floor,” that makes it much easier, and it really saves time. That’s solving problems, and those types of things can be created by citizen developers as well. So, it really opens up the use case of the different problems that people can solve within these apps, and it really broadens the audience, if you will. So, you don’t have to necessarily just rely on the IT developers. You could actually open this up to the other members of the company, members of the organization.

            Now, you don’t necessarily have to hire them, let’s say. But as long as you can involve them, then they could actually come up with not just the ideas, but also implement something. Then you can take that and implement it directly inside these workplace apps or campus apps.


Thinking about low-code, the other things your platform does, what are some of the challenges that customers are telling you that they have to deal with?


Usually, the challenges that customers have is meeting the needs of their customers, and it’s really about the constantly changing needs of this new world, especially in the last few months. And what I mean by that is that it’s not for the lack of … Obviously, before COVID things were a little bit more stable, but during COVID, and, of course, even today, different. The challenges are, how do we quickly adapt to this new world? I mentioned about, I think it was the JP Morgan Chase CEO saying something about a year and a half ago, and then apparently, he changed his mindset a little bit because he is now a little bit more embracing of this you don’t have to have come into the office every single day kind of concept.

            Then that type of thing also forces the organizations to really change in terms of how they should be bringing people back or whether they should be using this type of reservation system versus another type of reservation, or what type of services they provide for those companies or organizations, providing free lunch or free whatever. How do they actually deal with that? Then, if you’re opening up amenities that you didn’t have before, or actually you weren’t allowed to open before, then how do you deal with that? How do you actually communicate to your employee base? Then, especially for those people working from home or in a hybrid environment, what are the additional benefits that you want to provide, and what are some of the things that you can do to interact with them, with the employees?

            All these things, again, are changing, sometimes dramatically, in a very short timeframe, and in other cases, subtly changing over time. With all that said, these are the types of a very fast-changing world, a dynamic world, if you will, that requires this agility so that you can quickly make adjustments to, especially from our perspective, the apps that the customers are using or their employees are using so they can be more helpful. And I would say, I guess, the keyword would be change management and to be able to effectively carry that out instead of saying, “Hey, send out an email saying listing out all the things that they’re changing,” versus how do you also nudge the behavior through the usage of these apps and so on?

            That’s what we are seeing in terms of the challenges, and, of course, our task is to work with our customers so that they can serve their customers better with this agile methodology, but really having these tools that they can then adapt to make those adjustments.


My last question for you today is, is there a particular kind of company that you look for as a customer? I guess, who’s the perfect customer for you?


Actually, there are actually a number of different perfect customers for us, but obviously, we’re servicing different industries. We’re definitely, I would say, one of the leaders or more dominant players in the higher ed space, especially for larger universities, I think just our market share in some of the nationally-ranked schools and so on. I think the university market, that’s been our bread and butter, so that’s one.

            But going to the enterprise, I think right now, we’re kind of seeing our platform getting adapted by a couple of different examples. I think I mentioned you Okta. I think it’s still valid for these high-tech companies or companies who are basically going hybrid all the way. I think that’s one use case. The other one is more traditional companies. That’s not necessarily in a specific sector because we service financial services to companies like GE that’s got manufacturing and others as well.

            So, I think it’s just the diversity, but having said that, typically our sweet spot is larger organizations with multiple locations, different types of employees. And our primary, if it’s like a small company with, I don’t know, less than a few hundred people, it’s probably … We can still service them, but we would be much better adopted by the larger organizations because of the fact that we got all these other multi-location capabilities and multiple personas and things of that nature that they typically see as a huge benefit above and beyond this one-size-fits-all app approach.


Andrew, thanks very much for coming over today.


Yeah, you’re very welcome and thank you for having me.


My guest today has been Andrew Yu, the CEO of Modo Labs, and this has been PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. We’re a publication of RecruitingDaily. We’re also a part of Evergreen Podcasts. To see all of their programs visit www.evergreenpodcasts.com. And to keep up with HR technology, visit the HCM Technology Report every day. We’re the most trusted source of news in the HR tech industry. Find us at www.hcmtechnologyreport.com. I’m Mark Feffer.

Image: Modo Labs

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