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Windward Reports - In the beginning...

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Windward Reports – In the beginning…

The Doctor looked at the bump on my neck and said "it's nothing, but we'll do a biopsy just to be safe." And the result was – cancer. I had stage IV squamous cancer that had started in the tonsil and spread through part of my neck. My odds were good, but… what matters is where the data point named David Thielen falls on those odds. It's very disquieting to realize that I can do everything, absolutely everything, and still end up dead.

So how do they treat squamous cancer? Basically they almost kill you at the cellular level. Every cell is severely wounded. And the cancerous cells are killed in the process because they are killed by treatment that only (interesting word only) seriously hurts the healthy cells. And they also apply radiation to the throat area. That so injured my throat that for 6 weeks I was fed via a tube permanently tied into a vein in my chest. My wife and youngest daughter mixed up the feedbag twice a day and plugged it in to me – good times.

Now here's the part they don't tell you (and it's a good thing they don't). The day the treatment is over, a week after treatment is over, a month after treatment is over – you are still half dead. But slowly, ever so slowly, you start to regain energy. And that led to a major problem. I wanted to work again. I was going nuts not working. But what company is going to hire someone who says "I now have enough energy to put in a good 3½ hours/day of effort?" Not gonna to happen.

So I decided I needed to write a program to keep busy as I regained my strength. So I thought back to an idea I had had several years earlier…

The CFO at a startup where I was VP of technology was describing the reports he needed our system to produce for their tracking. We were struggling over it for various reasons and so I asked him to create what the final reports should look like for me in Word and/or Excel. He would make up the actual numbers but it would give me layout, formatting, and the data we needed to record.

Important lesson I learned here – there was data he needed in the reports that we had not put in our schema because we did not realize it would be needed. Always design the data part of your reports before you lock down your database schema. Always!

Ok, so he put that together and emailed them to me and what struck me was – why can't I now just click a button and turn those into report templates. It was all there, and yet we then had to start from scratch using Crystal Reports (which my developers detested) to build up what was those examples. So that became my guiding principal – to take sample reports created by the end user of the reports and just add tags for the data.

The Product Design

Ok, the way you're supposed to do this is you look at the market, review what is out there, talk to potential customers to see what they want. But I did it the way most software start-ups operate, I had an idea that I believed people would want and had a clear idea in my head of what it should be. I also had an advantage that I wanted this at several companies I had worked at.

The program was written in Java because 7 years ago Java was the technology for enterprise software. CGI programming under C++ was in some use and .NET was getting started, but Java was the big boy. I also went with XML instead of SQL for the datasource because you can push SQL to XML but putting XML into SQL is difficult to impossible in many cases.

So I spent a couple of months, got a complete system, and almost released it as open source. If I had it would have been a very different story, it probably would have been left as is. Why? Because it was so easy to use and rock solid – so there would have been no reason for any company using it to purchase support. But I did decide to put it up as a commercial product and…

In that first month a couple of companies bought it, including a bank in Japan and a state agency. It was a real product and enterprises found it useful. Not only useful, they found it to be a significant time saver. And this was version 1.0 – XML data only, Word only, no AutoTag, no charts, etc. But that core idea, simply implemented – people found it compelling.

At first it was a pretty minimal operation. I had a student working part-time covering support as needed (we would get 1 – 2 questions/week), another person part-time doing marketing (mostly Google ads and some white papers), and a part time person handling operations, finance, etc. And as much as possible we were focused on eliminating the need for a person to answer questions – making the program so easy to use there was no need to ask us questions and setting up the online store to handle sales.

I'm very proud of the fact that we had customers who evaluated the program, purchased it, and used it without ever needing to ask a question. I think that speaks louder to the simplicity and how solid the code is than anything else. On the flip side, as we've grown and grown, for a long time there was no significant income from training or professional services – because it's rarely needed (this has changed as it is now being incorporated into very complex systems).

All Us

Ok, so I started selling it and people bought it. Not a lot, but enough. So we were a very rare thing, a start-up that was profitable from the beginning. Because of that, we have never had to raise venture capital. This was invaluable during the recession because we were not in the position of many companies who needed to raise money to stay in business. Having control of the future in your own hands is very scary at times, but it also has significant advantages.

One funny note on retaining control, we do have an advisory board with some very experienced people who's advice I greatly value. A year ago they told me that I needed to bring in a CEO and move myself from CEO/CTO to just CTO. And it was absolutely the right decision – under our new CEO we've grown at 50% during the recession – she's really good. But for those that figure if you hold a majority of the stock you can't be demoted – yes you can (and most often should once you get to a certain size).

With all that said, we did hit a point about 2 years ago where we started losing money month after month. We cut where we needed to and my wife and I put some of our own money in to get us through that trough. Running off cash flow with no investors is great, but make sure you have reserves you can call on, if not your own then an investor in some form.

Ok, so I had something and the company needed more than me. So the first people I got were a full time salesperson, a part time marketing person, and a part time support person (we had so few questions a full time person was not needed). And with that team we grew to almost a million/year – 2 full time people and 2 part time. We've grown a lot since then but I want to emphasize this for those looking to start your own company – you don't need a ton of people. You're left having to do many things yourself but that's why it's called sweat equity.

Granted, we figured out how best to use Google (both PPC and SEO) as well as social media. The things we did can't be repeated today. But there are new approaches today where you can get a lot of attention for a small amount of effort. And Google remains the great equalizer. Competing with the big guys using the same marketing approach they use is close to impossible, so you have to find a better way to get the word out – and that rarely requires a lot of money.

For example, we were asked a lot if we would be around in a year. Windward was first created to develop the game Enemy Nations and so the company was over 10 years old. So I would point this out and say we existed before Enron and are still around after Enron. People would laugh, and then accept that as we will be around. The trick is to find some distinct advantage or difference that you can use.

Going Forward

Ok, so we're now almost 8 years and 9 versions later. More people, more products, more functionality in the base product. What were the coolest things looking back at all of that?

  1. We ported the engine to .NET by using Microsoft J#. So we have a single set of source code (about 2% is platform specific), but it is then complied to native Java and .NET code. It's a really cool way to do this where we keep a single code base, but both engines are native code. The J# group at Microsoft did a superb job.
  2. Moving to our new offices a couple of years ago. The larger offices and the nicer facilities was to me a sign that we had become a substantial company.
  3. Fully incorporating AutoTag into the Office ribbon and making chart & bitmap tags actual charts & bitmaps in Word. It took us to a level of natural use for designing reports in Office that was an order of magnitude over our previous effort. And that previous effort was way beyond anything else out there. I think we now have a report designer that makes everything else look prehistoric – and that's super cool.
  4. The emails I get from customers. That's the validation that we have delivered something to them that is of great advantage, and that we do so with a very responsive support team.

Sometimes I miss the early days. The program was 100% my code, a high priced Google keyword was 28 cents, and the overhead was minimal. But mostly I really enjoy where we are. I've built a development team that is as good as I've worked with anywhere. We have a killer product that saves people a lot of time and money. And I have a company that provides good jobs to a number of people.

So to those of you thinking of starting your own company, if you think you have something good – go for it. And remember step 1 does not have to be raising money.

Tags Start & End

Tags Can Start & End Anywhere

Appendix B

.NET code for multi-page image output

Appendix A

Java code for multi-page image output

Data Bin Search

The Data Bin can now be searched to find a table, column, node or other piece of data without scrolling through it all.

Shrink to Fit

This will shrink the contents of a cell until it fits the defined cell size.

Time Zone Conversion

A new Windward macro has been added to help with converting dates and times from UTC time to the local time zone.

Image Output Format

New image output formats added.

PostScript Output Format

PostScript, commonly used with printers and printing companies, has been added as an additional output format.

New and Improved Datasets (Designer, Java Engine, .NET Engine)

Datasets have been re-written from scratch to be more powerful and easier to use.

Stored Procedure Wizard (Designer)

This works for all tag types that are connected to a SQL-based data source (Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL, or DB2).

Boolean Conditional Wizard (Designer)

Before, conditional statements could only be written manually. Now they can also be built using our intuitive Wizard interface.

Reorganized Ribbon

The ribbon menus have been re-organized and consolidated to improve the report design workflow.

XPath 2.0 as Data Source

Adds various capabilities such as inequalities,descending sort, joins, and other functions.

SQL Select Debugger

SQL Select  Debugger

  • The look and feel was improved
  • Stored Procedure Wizard
  • Improved Exceptions pane

Tag Editor/Tag Selector

Added a Query tab as a field for typing or pasting in a select statement

  • Color Coding of Keywords
  • TypeAhead
  • Evaluate is now "Preview"

Rename a Datasource

All tags using that Data source will be automatically updated with that name.

Connecting to a Data Source

New single interface to replace 2 separate dialog boxes

Tag Tree

Provides a display of all the tags in the template, structures as they are placed in the template. Provides an easy way to see the structure, go to any tag, and see the properties of a tag.

Added Javelin into the RESTful Engine

Support for Google Application Engine Integration

The ability to integrate the Windward Engine into Google’s cloud computing platform for developing and hosting web applications dubbed Google Applications Engine (GAE).

Additional Refinement for HTML Output

  • Improved indentation for ordered and unordered lists
  • Better handling of template header and footer images
  • Better handling for background images and colors

Redesigned PDF Output Support

This new  integration will allow for processing of complex scripts and bi-directional  text such as Arabic.  Your PDF output  will be much tighter and more closely match your template, and we’ll be able  to respond rapidly to PDF requests and fixes.

PowerPoint Support

Includes support for new ForEach and slide break handling, table header row repeat across slide breaks, and native Microsoft support for charts and images.

Tags are Color Coded

Tags are color coded in the template by type, making it easy to visually identify them.

Increased Performance

Version 13’s core code has been reworked and optimized to offer a reduced memory footprint, faster PDF generation and full documentation of supported features and limitations in the specifications for DOCX, XLSX and PPTX.

Advanced Image Properties

Documents can include advanced Word image properties such as shadows, borders, and styles.

Improved HTML Output

Windward has updated HTML output to reflect changing HTML standards.

Version 13 New Data Sources

Windward now works with a slew of new datasources: MongoDB, JSON, Cassandra, OData, Salesforce.com

Generate Code

Designer (fka AutoTag) Generate Code tool allows you to open an existing template and, with a click of a button, automatically create a window with the code needed to run your current template with all data sources and variables in your .NET or Java project. The process is quick, shortens delivery time and helps alleviate any bumps in the road.

Pivot Tables Adjusted in Output

Any pivot tables in the template are carried over to XLSX output. The ranges in the pivot ranges are adjusted to match the generated output. So your final XLSX will be pivot tables set as expected in the generated file.

Imported Template Can be Set to Match the Parent Styles

In an imported sub-template, if its properties for a style (ex. Normal) differ from the parent template's properties for the style, the use in the sub-template can be set to either use the properties in the sub-template, ot the properties in the parent.

Tags can be Placed in Text Boxes

Tags can be placed in text boxes. Including linked text boxes. This gives you the ability to set the text in a textbox from your data.

Tags can be Placed in Shapes & Smart Art

Tags can be placed in shapes & smart art. This gives you the ability to set the text in a shape from your data.

HTML Output Supports Embedded Images

When generating HTML output, the engine can either write bitmaps as distinct files the generate HTML references, or it can embed the images in the HTML providing a single file for the output.

Footnotes & Endnotes can Have Tags

You can place tags in pretty much any part of a template, including in footnotes & endnotes.

Document Locking Supported in DOCX & XLSX

Any parts of a DOCX or XLSX (PowerPoint does not support this) file that are locked in the template, will be locked the same in the output.

Specify Font Substitution

If a font used in the template does not exist on the server generating a report, the font to substitute can be specified.
In addition, if a glyph to be rendered does not exist in the font specified, you can specify the replacement font. This can be set distinctly for European, Bi-Directional, and Far East fonts.

Process Multiple Datasources Simultaneously

When Windward is merging the data into a template, it process the template handling each tag in order, and the tags can pull from different datasources. This allows the select in a tag to use data from other datasources in the select.

David Thielen

President/CEO at Windward Studios

From his early years as a Senior Developer at Microsoft, to legendary designer of the popular Enemy Nations strategy game, to reporting and document generation guru, Dave has never lost his passion for building superb software and teams.

david@windward.nethttps://www.linkedin.com/in/davethielen/

For over 10 years, Windward has lead the industry with our world-class document generation platform that creates visually stunning, data-powered documents designed exactly the way users want and are created in a fraction of the time and cost compared to existing solutions. Proudly located in Boulder, Colorado, Windward Studios is the premier solution for developers and business users adding reporting and document generation capabilities to their applications in over 70 countries around the world.

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