View from the Airport: Appian World 2021

Even in the virtual world, a return to reality is starting to take shape

If you'd asked me this time last year, while covering Appian World from my COVID fallout shelter (aka my house) where I’d be in 2021, my answer would likely have been “In the US, covering Appian World”.

Yet here I am, still at my desk at home and still attending virtual conferences with the pandemic having continued for longer than many of us imagined. But part of my prediction was right and in mid-May 2021, like mid-May 2020, I am once again attending Appian World.

With the novelty of virtual conferences having worn off somewhat, both for attendees and presenters, what I’ve found at my first virtual conference of the year is less talk and more meat.

Appian used this latest conference to unveil version 21.2 of its platform, and from speaking to CEO Matt Calkins and listening to the keynotes and product demos over the past two days, it does seem there’s some genuine excitement among the team about it – particularly the data element. Sure, that could be hype and good media training, but over the years you do develop a sense for when someone really cares and when they’re doing the best with the marginal improvements they’ve been given.

As something of a layperson, I’ll admit that some of the more technical demos of how companies’ new products work are sometimes a little outside of my grasp. However, those on offer at this conference really did show how simple Appian seems to have made it to bring data from disparate sources into a low-code development environment.

Of course, no conference would be complete without some guest speakers and I was really taken by the second-day discussion with Dr Mae C Jemison. She’s a former astronaut who was the first Black woman in space, was a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, founded a consulting group that looks at the socio-cultural impact of technological developments, and was the first real astronaut to appear in an episode of Star Trek. Did I mention she’s a medical doctor, too? 

Her most recent triumph was leading the winning bid for DARPA’s 100 Year Spaceship project, which saw her organisation – the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence – receive a $500,000 grant to further the field of space exploration. She remains the principal of the initiative today. 

I may be biased because I really love space (as you will hear on the IT Pro Podcast episode published 21 May), but honestly, I find this project really exciting because of the real-world impacts it will have right here on Earth. Technology developed for space exploration frequently makes its way back to the general population – something to consider next time you eat some freeze-dried food or see a reflective blanket wrapped around someone in an emergency situation.

But her message was about far more than just space. She spoke about how she often seeks to bring in outsiders who will have a different perspective on how to solve a problem, helping to prevent groupthink; how sometimes traditional ROIC isn’t the best way of measuring success, particularly if the project in question is a long term one; how it’s important for adults to learn new tech skills rather than just leaving it to the younger generations. After all, how will you inspire children to learn how to code if your attitude is it’s too difficult for an adult to comprehend?

Overall, despite still being a virtual conference, Appian World 2021 had far more of a feel of a ‘real’ event than some of last year’s did, which I’m glad of. A level of a return to normality is to be welcomed and while it’s not quite the same as being on the ground, it’s been a pretty good approximation.

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