Continuum CEO George lays out differentiated automation and orchestration strategy

Continuum CEO Michael George onstage

PITTSBURGH – RMM provider Continuum has reached a key inflection point in a long journey, where they are able to provide their MSPs with the automation and orchestration needed to deal effectively with today’s key problems like cybercrime. That was the message delivered by CEO Michael George in his keynote opening up the company’s Navigate event for their MSP partners here. In outlining the development of the company’s orchestration strategy, George provided the attendees with a well-orchestrated delineation of the innovation concepts which underlay the strategy, and which he believes make Continuum unique in the industry today.

“The SMB market has spent the last 20 years getting hyperconnected, with a massive increase in complexity,” George told the audience. “That has transferred the problems to the MSP market, which is generally ill-equipped to address cybersecurity issues.

“It is the perfect storm,  and cybersecurity is a pandemic crisis,” he continued. “People don’t like using the word crisis. We want you to embrace it. Crises have a slope of separation for people who understand how to make it an opportunity.

George cited Stanford economist Paul Romer’s quote that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

“Our mission to make you the disruptors in this market – not the disrupted,” George declared

George said that this is especially important when dealing with unanticipated disruption. He cited the example of the state-of-the art bridge over the Choluteca River in Honduras, which was rendered a ‘Road to Nowhere when Hurricane Mitch in 1998 rerouted the river. While the bridge survived intact, it no longer had a function.

“We don’t know what’s next,” George emphasized.

Talking with ChannelBuzz later, George said that this philosophy of looking ahead to what’s next had guided Continuum from the beginning, in 2011, when the players in the RMM industry were small, and many, like Kaseya, N-able and Level Platforms, were actively for sale.

“I was brought in to [private equity firm] Summit Partners in Boston in this environment, to help them do their due diligence on the category, and help them figure out who would be winners and losers,” George said. “One early leader, Zenith InfoTech, which had $20 million in revenues at the time, the same as Kaseya and Level Platforms, had done something very different from everyone else. In a world where the dynamics were dependent on hiring a NOC and help desk in the field –  that was the only modality under which you could operate as an MSP – Zenith had a NOC in Mumbai and were using an enterprise model, with NOC engineers solving problems from across the world rather than from across the street. Their workforce was educated people who were more stable. We were studying skills gap dynamics back in 2011, and determined that we were about to hit an important crossover dynamics. In April 2017, millennials, who were the product of a public education system that has been on a slow decline in STEM education, would outnumber boomers in the work force. That boomer workforce was more technically trained. So you had a macrodynamic problem where the new millennial workforce would be losing the technical support of them boomers. Zenith InfoTech had solved this problem by tapping into a stable third world workforce.”

As a result, Summit acquired Zenith InfoTech’s RMM business, and George became its CEO. By 2015, it was growing at a pace George described as ‘hell on wheels,’ at a pace of 33-37 per cent a year, and grew rapidly from a 20 million to a hundred million dollar company. George emphasized to ChannelBuzz that the company still needed to innovate aggressively.

“My nature is one of living in a world of discontent, and having a healthy paranoia, and that combination led me to see we had something special, but not to get complacent,” he said. “I spend a lot of time in the field, and wanted to make sure we were paying attention to the next macrodynamic that’s likely to unfold in this market.”

That would be cybersecurity.

“In 2014, when we first started this event, I stood onstage and talked about the skills gap, before it became a big issue,” George said. But at the 2016 Navigate, I talked from start to finish about cybsersecurity. Even some of our partners thought I was out of my mind. Nobody cares about cybersecurity in our space, they said. It’s seen as an enterprise problem. We said that ‘we know, but it will be a problem’. As a result, we become the only company in the category with a managed SIEM and SOC, and we have had this for more than two years.

“Now, not only does cybersecurity and cybercrime garner the headlines, but it is crippling MSPs who don’t understand it and don’t embrace it,” George told the keynote audience. “But it has been your advantage.”

Continuum’s secret sauce in addressing this issue, George said, was to realize that as has been the case in the past, conventional thinking is not always ideal for addressing complex change issues, and embracing disruptive new ideas was required.

“We realized that the next major shift would come from cybersecurity dynamics, and that MSPs were completely ill-equipped to solve it,” George said. “Moreover, even with 1000 people in our service delivery organization, that would pale in terms of the 250,000 people on the Chinese government payroll for the sole purpose of hacking into U.S. government and business systems. If it’s a battle of attrition, we will lose. So we needed to figure our how to build defense and remediation systems to deal with that crisis.”

Accordingly, in 2015, George said that he asked his team leaders to get really strategic, and to design a platform that would completely disrupt Continuum if it entered the business today as a competitor.

“I wanted to make sure we were not the ‘platform to nowhere’,” he told the audience.

George also stressed in the keynote the lessons to be learned today from the work of Edwards Deming, a mid-century engineer and management consultant who challenged orthodox beliefs about the post-World War Two U.S. economy at a time when it was at its high tide in the 1950s.

“Deming understood that the post War Two economy needed to be about building the highest quality product at the lowest cost, which would only be possible through robotics and automation,” George said. George noted though that with the U.S. being economically dominant at that time, through the temporary historical fluke of traditional competitors, particularly in Europe, having had their economies destroyed by the war, Deming was largely ignored in the U.S. In Japan, however, whose economy had been annihilated by the war, they were embraced, notably by the automobile industry.

“Japan realized they couldn’t do things the way they had done before the war and be successful, so they adopted these theories,” George said. “Toyota had started building cars in the 30s, but their total car production in the 1950s was 300 cars a year. They brought Deming’s principles to bear, and they became fundamental to the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, and Toyota became the world’s largest automaker.”

George drew a direct parallel between the automotive industry of the 1950s and the RMM industry of today, where disruptors understand the need to reinvent themselves to maintain quality, and the disrupted focus on trying to make existing models work better.

“Our competitors hold on to help desks and NOCs in the field, trying to save people’s jobs,” he said.

George reminded the audience of the impact of the digital disruption era today, where the largest retailer (Alibaba) holds no inventory, the largest accommodation provider (Airbnb) holds no real estate, and the fastest growing banks don’t have money, because they focus on cybercurrency.

“In 2014, a New York City taxi medallion was worth $1.6 million,” he said. “In 2016, because of the impact of Uber and Lyft, one sold for $186,000.”

Finally, George cited Peter Norvig, who used to lead Google’s core search algorithms group, and his maxim that simple models and a lot of data trump more elaborate models based on less data

“AI processes two million times faster than the biochemical human brain,” George said. “Highly efficient parallel processing CPUs at an affordable cost has spawned AI, and business intelligence, it makes autonomic environments. We are now in a new age of autonomic computing.”

George said that following these principles, Continuum began its focus on artificial intelligence.

“We embarked on the AI strategy four years ago from a design perspective,” he said. “It took two years to get to implementation, and by last year 88 per cent was automated, with more to come.”

George acknowledged that reworking the platform to accommodate this has not been a seamless process.

“The road to success is often a bumpy one,” he told the keynote audience. “We have been working very hard and spent nearly 20 million dollars on the underlying platform that makes up Continuum. The legacy systems that existed were not up to the task. There have been interruptions during thus process, especially in service delivery, and I apologize to anyone who has had harm caused to their business.”

The results, he said, will deliver much greater value in the long run.

“The automation is not novel, but our concept of orchestration around it is,” George stressed. He drew on the the onstage presentation in the keynote by Tasos Tsolakis, Continuum’s SVP of Global Service Delivery.

“Our system reacts as a single body of cybernetically connected tissue,” George said. “Our entire system reacts and responds. The SOC immediately remotes in and isolates. The Help Desk immediately picks up the phone and tells the MSP there may be an issue, and that our SOC operation is investigating that activity right now, and that it is malicious, we may have to get a backup prior to that. While that’s going on, we have signaled our backup on rules to do a backup. It all takes place instantaneously through orchestration. The SOC then finds the activity, remediates it out of the system, and notifies the MSP.

“There isn’t anyone else on the planet who can do that in this business,” George emphasized. “This whole concept of being a platform for orchestration, using AI, managed detection and response, anomaly detection and threat analysis is way beyond any other company in this space.”

George also stressed that what is now different, even from last year, is that with the new branding from earlier this year around ‘what’s next,’ all of orchestration is possible because all the components now operate as a platform.

“We started as a RMM and NOC, and then we added a help desk and backup and DR, and added more security,” he said. “A year ago, we still looked like three or four siloed things that accretively got added. This year we broke it down, and collectively we are now a platform, so that we can engage in this level of automation and orchestration.”

That, George stated, provides Continuum with a core differentiation in the market, even as other players in the space rush to address the same issues.

“Our competitors are operating on old modalities and old systems,” George concluded to the MSPs in his keynote. “They are building their own bridges to nowhere with cybersecurity.  AI is the only way we can succeed, and we are empowering you with that.”

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