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An interview with Richard Thomas, CEO of Highlight - Part 1

Richard Thomas, CEO of Highlight, who established the company in 2000, talks about Highlight past present and future...

What made you set up Highlight in 2000?

Richard Thomas

As a small consultancy business back in 2000, we were helping large companies to build data networks. As soon as a system was installed, the customer would realise they needed information on how this critical asset was performing: whether it was working, breaking, fast, slow or overloaded

That meant installing a network management system which was, and still is, a big and complex beast. It takes lots of work to install, it tends to get out of date quickly and those who get trained on it move on, until nobody quite remembers how to run it. Soon the knowledge from that tool goes no further than the screen with the information on it. It doesn’t spread out from the engineering department.

Today, there are many stakeholders in a company who need access to this valuable information or who would really like it. Currently, many have to ask engineering for a report, and then may not understand what’s given to them.
We found that if enterprise users can have access to a screen that they can understand, they feel far more empowered, and far more comfortable about outsourcing their IT to a Provider. They know that whilst they may be giving away the responsibility for their IT, they retain visibility – and that’s a real help.

It’s a bit like driving a car without a fuel gauge. Even though someone reassures you that they are filling it up once a week, you’d still feel slightly nervous.

Why are the graphics so important?

As we began to develop Highlight, I was inspired by a series of books by Professor Ed Tufte about how really thinking about how you graphically display data can deliver more precise, effective and quicker analysis.

Tufte’s outlook was a perfect fit with my love of trying to understand how things work and my almost obsessive interest in seeing what is happening inside networks and applications; they have fascinating behaviours and patterns that can tell a complete story.
The human eye is particularly good at spotting these patterns. I’m often asked if we are going to put some Artificial Intelligence into our software. But that introduces some big unknowns into a critical area.

It’s far more effective to put a really clear picture in front of someone and let them interpret it. The presentation and the way an interface is designed is every bit as important as collecting the information in the first place.

So it’s not just about the technologies we monitor, it’s more about how we deliver it. We wrap it up in a package that makes it useable, and we spend time working out the best way to present that information so it drops straight into the reader’s head. For me, Winston Churchill summarised this best when he said; “I apologise for the length of this letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

How should Service Providers talk to their customers?

Our competitors deliver mostly engineering tools that just pour information on to a screen and assume the user will be able to filter it and figure it out. This is extremely annoying and time-consuming for enterprise users. Over the past ten years enterprise customers have become far less interested in how their technology works – they just want to know that it’s delivering. And they expect their service providers to help them achieve this.

It’s a bit like when you brought a car 20 years ago and it came with a tool kit. Nobody does that now, but if they did, you’d wonder what type of car you were buying. Dashboards on new cars now simply tell you if everything is OK or if you need to get it checked at a dealership.

The move to the cloud underlines this as companies say ‘we don’t want to run our own IT anymore; and with the cloud, we don’t have to’. They’ve pushed the responsibility for IT, as well as the responsibility for maintaining a technical understanding of IT, to their Service Provider.

Our partners’ engineers tend to use complex engineering tools to monitor their core networks because that’s what they need internally. However, their customers want to see something much simpler and that’s where Highlight fits in– as a customer-facing tool which sits alongside the internal, technical product. As a shared and independent service, both Provider and Customer can access the same information. And by enabling a conversation, Highlight improves the relationship and helps the enterprise feel more comfortable with their Provider.

Why is multi-tenant so important to Service Providers?

As far as I’m aware, all of our competition started out as enterprise tools designed for use by one company. They are now repurposing these to work in a shared multi-tenant space, but there are masses of things to consider that many miss.

We’ve grown up delivering a true multi-tenant service – this means it takes a Provider just 60 seconds to add a new customer, to set up some basic accounts and get them up and running. Multi-tenant means the Provider can easily create tiers of resellers alongside their different customers. They can then price Highlight differently for each one, configure it separately for each one, and then integrate it with their own billing system, alerting system and operations centre.


Interview with Richard Thomas Part 2