Future Forward Full Interview: Advancing Artificial Intelligence and Natural-Language Interfaces
These profiles are based on interviews, and the opinions and statements are those of the subject and are not necessarily shared or endorsed by this publication.
Shafat Qazi is the CEO and founder of BQE Software.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background of your education and career before BQE Software.
Qazi: I got my bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from India, a college called the National Institute of Technology. Then I went to SUNY Buffalo and got my masters in structural engineering. It was during that time I also developed a medical billing software for doctors just to help out my own doctor. Then he fell in love with it, and he started marketing it.
My thesis in engineering was earthquake retrofit, and this is in the mid-’80s and back then, 1988 actually, California was in the middle of retrofitting its buildings. I wanted to come to California and develop software that would make it easy for us to analyze buildings with earthquake forces. I drove all the way from Buffalo to Los Angeles in 1988 in my broken convertible and landed in an engineering company, where I became a partner in two to three years later.
I also became the chairman of the Structural Engineers Association Computer Applications Committee due to my strength in computer applications, programming and technology. I was also a board member of the association. It was during that time–this is pre-internet days to bring it into context–that I wanted to learn more about what engineering firms, architectural firms and other professional-service firms were using for their business.
The committee I was chairing sent out surveys–several thousand surveys to all the structural engineers, civil engineers–asking them various technology-related questions, and we got the surveys back by mail. I remember our executive director handed me a big pile of papers, saying “these just came in the mail. I compiled them for you.”
I took them home for the weekend. As I was going through them, there were questions in the survey about what are you using to capture your time, how are you managing your projects, and how were you doing your client billing? All kinds of things. Of course, that’s where I saw the biggest complaints like, ‘We don’t have anything, but can you recommend a software? We’re very frustrated. Billing process is painful. Project management is a nightmare.’ All kinds of stuff.
Of course, I was an owner of my own firm. I had been managing and running that firm for a few years now, and I had experienced similar pain points. At that point, there used to be a product called Wind 2 FMS, which was really a poorly designed product with a very frustrating, bad user experience. That was written in DOS.
All that combined together inspired me to start BQE Software and address the business-management, project-management aspect of our firm, so we could really automate most of those repetitive, mundane tasks, and focus on growing our business and doing what we really love to do, which was engineering or design or whatever it might be.
That was 1995, when I sold my shares at Breiholz Qasi Engineering and created BQE Software, with my partner David Breiholz also investing in my software company. We started small of course, but I had a large following because a lot of people knew me already. I had created the largest engineering user group, SEIANT, and there were close to 40,000 engineers from all over the world participating in that group.
I had developed that group as the chair of the computer applications, and this is early days of internet, and it became very popular, very fast. Long story short, that’s how I got where I am today. Now you fast-forward 20 years. BQE software grew from zero to 240 employees, with nearly 100,000 users.
We are basically there to displace bad products or products that were written with old technologies. We’re coming in with artificial intelligence, machine learning, that kind of stuff, in addition to smart project management, mobile app-driven technologies.
V1 Media: You started to touch on BQE Software. Could you tell me a little bit more about its products, services and markets, particularly the BQE Core?
Qazi: BQE Software developed its first product called BillQuick, and the purpose of that product was to help people manage their projects and bill their clients effectively. The company grew into accounting eventually, into project accounting, and then into resource planning and business intelligence and all of the other necessary elements that a business needs, such as HR management and things like that.
Back in 2012, we decided to build a ground-up brand-new product, BQE Core, that would be a ‘game changer’ for the professional-service industries, namely architects, engineers, accountants, IT consultants and law firms. We kept a mindset that it should be something that would last at least 10 years. It will be mobile first. It would have the top-notch technologies in it, including AI and ML, and it should be very affordable.
It should be fun and easy to use. Of course, when people use it, they should never want to go back to the old ways.
We wanted everyone in the office to use BQE Core and manage their day-to-day life with it, including project management and reporting percent complete on the task, so everybody is fully informed.
We also wanted people to move away from QuickBooks, because many engineering firms and architectural firms are unfortunately thinking that their business-management software is QuickBooks, which really is small-business accounting software, and they’re doing a big injustice to their business by not having agile, affordable software.
That was our second target: to bring them back into the same price point, but give them the right tools for their business, so they can, obviously, make more money or get more done in less time.
BQE Core is our flagship product now. It’s been out nearly two years. It was released on July 19, 2017, and it is being received extremely well by not just by our customers, but also by independent reviewers and analysts.
It’s five years of R&D, $25 million of investment into building this ground-up software. Once you start using it, you will never ever go back to your old ways.
V1 Media: For BQE Core, who are its target consumers?
Qazi: Civil and structural engineers are our biggest audience. Nearly 51 percent of our users are civil and structural engineers, and that may be because I was a civil engineer practicing structural engineering myself, and I was very well known in the community. We had an initial success with that group, because they immediately saw the value and level of detail that went into the functionality of Core.
We focus on companies with less than 500 employees; our sweet spot is 20 to 100 employees. We have customers that are five employees. We’re able to scale down and scale up, and we are 100-percent cloud based.
You don’t need any servers or anything like that. You just need an iPad, laptop or a phone to get started, and you’re up and running your business in a matter of minutes. There is low cost of implementation and a truly unbelievable, simple and delightful experience when it comes to user experience.
V1 Media: Can you tell me a bit about the new Core Intelligence? How it works, what its functions are and uses, and how it’s different from other interfaces.
Qazi: As you are probably aware, in the last two to three years, a tremendous amount of artificial-intelligence (AI) progress has been made by exposing the deep neural network that IBM and Google made public through open source and through open APIs, combined with the AI for natural-language processors (NLPs).
When we were developing Core, we saw this writing on the wall where speech will be very common and acceptable for consumers, and obviously the impact was very clear through Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home devices, where they started popping up on people’s desks and in homes. We built all that technology, and we built ground-up AI within our product, so your software can become your repository or database for your business.
Instead of having to turn on your laptop, go and log in and run reports, you could just have a conversation with your product, and you can just ask questions about, ‘Hey, what’s my profitability? How much money do I have in the bank? Who owes me money? How much money do people owe me? How much do I owe people? Can I make my next payroll? How’s my such-and-such project doing? Who’s my best employee? Who’s my worst employee? Who’s my best client?’
It’s AI that goes beyond just a questions and answer. It will draw associations commonly overlooked unless, as a user, you remember to ask.
Anything you can think of, you should be able to ask it without having to even log in because it would log you in with your voiceprint, which is actually safer than even facial ID print.
Now we’re seeing this technology being rolled into watches and cars, so it really should be available to you anywhere as long as you have your phone, or any kind of smart device, with you. I have one on my desk right now; I have a Google Home device. If you want, I can ask it a question, just to give you a sense of how it would respond.
V1 Media: Go ahead. I’d like to see how this works.
Qazi: OK, Google, talk to Core Intelligence.
Google Home Device: OK. Getting the test version of Core Intelligence. Hello Scott Jackson. How can I help you?
Qazi: What’s the ideal pay rate for Scott Jackson?
Google Home Device: The ideal pay rate for Scott is $69 per hour. What else would you like to know?
Qazi: What’s his effective bill rate?
Google Home Device: The effective bill rate for Scott is $163 per hour. Can I help you with anything else?
Qazi: Who’s my best client?
Google Home Device: Arclight Theaters is ranked number one among 11 clients with 161-percent profit, which amounts to $274,899. Anything else?
Qazi: How’s my business doing this year?
Google Home Device: This year, your net profit is 18 percent, which amounts to $211,028. You have $1,145,264 of income and $934,236 of expenses. Is there anything else I can help you with?
Qazi: Can you update me on the PV Country Club project?
Google Home Device: Did you mean Palos Verdes Country Club West Wing extension?
Google Home Device: The project is doing extremely well with a profit percentage of 40 percent. Do you want to know more about PV Country Club?
Google Home Device: Can I help you with anything else?
Qazi: Yes. What’s on my to-do’s for today?
Google Home Device: You have nothing on your to-do list on the 11th of July, 2019. Would you like to know about your upcoming tasks?
Google Home Device: You have no upcoming tasks. Why not do some painting?
Qazi: OK. Thank you. Goodbye.
V1 Media: That was good. I appreciate the demonstration.
Qazi: I don’t know if you noticed that I asked her, ‘what’s Scott Jackson’s ideal pay rate?’ Then I said, ‘What is his effective bill rate?’ It understands the context, so I didn’t have to say Scott Jackson the second time again.
It understands the context I’m in, and when it’s not clear, like when I called it PV Country Club: ‘it’s the Palos Verdes Country Club, West Wing extension.’ There are multiple phases on that project and multiple projects with the same name. We built it smart enough that if you say, ‘Hey, what’s on my to-do,’ it says ‘you’ve got a meeting with John Doe. By the way, John Doe has unpaid invoices for 90 days.’
It’s like a human assistant or a business analyst that is smart enough to know everything about your company files and give you intelligent information that obviously allows you as a project manager or a business owner to make the right decisions all the time and not be worried about: ‘Am I guessing? Was this the right decision or not?’ Because now you know it is actually based on true numbers.
V1 Media: Can give me a very short version of how the artificial intelligence works and why that’s so special?
Qazi: The biggest thing about artificial intelligence for this kind of usage is its ability to get smarter by creating self-learning algorithms through what we refer to as machine learning. The big advantage also is that in previous speech-to-text world, you had to say things in a scripted manner. The artificial intelligence with the NLP, the Natural Language Processors, are more focused on intent rather than the words.
It doesn’t really matter whether you say, ‘what’s the balance on this client or how much does the client owe me.’ Google and IBM and Microsoft are doing a wonderful job in making the NLPs available through open APIs to consumers, so we can have it extract the intent, and that intent then gets translated to our servers who then understand what the intent is and deliver a human-like response back.
Whenever we’re unsure, we can trigger a follow-up question like it did during the demonstration. And when I answer, it then gets smarter and learns that and saves that in its memory: ‘OK, next time Shafat says PV Country Club, he does mean Palos Verdes Country Club.’
V1 Media: I saw on the release that it mentioned Google products a couple of times. Is that the only interface that it works with, or does it work with other voice-recognition programs?
Qazi: We just released our integration with Google Home. We are planning to release an integration with Amazon’s Echo and Microsoft Cortana, and we will also have it included inside our mobile app. You could just do that. Right now, if you have a mobile phone and you have the Google Assistant app, which is available both on Android and iPhone, you will be able to use the Core Intelligence piece. It’s an approved app by Google.
V1 Media: You showed me some nice examples of engineering uses. What might be some other applications that engineers might be able to use that you didn’t cover?
Qazi: Well, the biggest benefit, whether it’s an engineering company or any professional-service company, is that we recognize that the No. 1 cause for lack of profitability in our businesses is project overages. Where the AI plays a role, which is not from Core Intelligence but through other AI built into our application, is the ‘proactiveness,’ where you can set up the alerts and notifications about something not going right on your business or your project.
At engineering firms, we hear a lot of them saying, ‘Six out of 10 projects would exceed my fixed-fee budget because my employees would spend too much time on things.’ Having technology like BQE Core in your business empowers people to just set up these projects, and we monitor these projects.
‘We’ meaning the technology monitors the projects and alerts the project manager. As an example, let’s say you gave somebody a drafting task of 100 hours to finish the drafting on a project. From time to time, the system will ask the draftsperson, ‘What percentage are you done on your drafting task?’
If the draftsperson says, ‘I’m 30 percent done,’ but has burned 70 percent of the budget, then we will send an email to the project manager or a notification on their mobile phone saying, ‘There’s something unusual here that the draftsperson is reporting 30 percent done, but out of 100 hours, 70 hours have been utilized. You may want to have a conversation seeing what’s going on.’
It is technologies like these that we now start relying on and letting us know that something’s wrong rather than us having to go pull reports once a month. Usually by that time, water’s over the bridge. It’s too late to save it.
V1 Media: Could you tell me, based on your experience, what you believe the future of interfacing with computers and project management is both for BQE as well as the world overall, particularly for engineers? Also, why do you think this is the next direction?
Qazi: I believe the biggest revolution coming into our offices is going to be artificial intelligence, natural-language processing and machine learning. These technologies will empower business owners, business managers, project managers, even rank-and-file employees to get more done without actually having to waste time doing reports or entering data.
One of the other elements is financial. In Core, for example, we download your bank transactions, your credit card transactions automatically into the system and code them for your accounting and post them to the right projects. These are the kind of things that right now businesses are spending lots of time on, wasting hours and hours doing that. Taking that time off of them and automating it is where I see the future, and AI has made it possible.
Not too long ago, my friends and family would tell me, ‘Shafat remembers everybody’s phone numbers,’ because that’s what it was. I had to remember people’s phone numbers or we had to have some kind of Rolodex to look up phone numbers. Today, I don’t even bother remembering phone numbers because technology has made it easier for us to just dial and find people’s phone numbers and not even care about what the phone number is; go by the name. A similar concept we’re seeing is that AI and ML will be huge for businesses.
Now, is this something that is going to come in the next six months? No, I think it’s something you will see building up in the next five years. Of course, BQE Core is now the first business application worldwide that actually allows you to have a dialog with your software.
Imagine designing a building for earthquakes, and you’re asking the questions off of your analysis software, saying, ‘Hey, what happens if this building goes through 1940 El Centro? What kind of damage do you think the structure would have? What would be the extent of the damage or what if we put base isolators instead of dampers?’
All these things now can be answered interactively and cleverly and often save you time. Because now behind the scenes, all this information is being processed by super computers, so the answer’s coming to you in a fraction of the time it would take you to do it on your own PC.
V1 Media: So what is BQE Software working on next?
Qazi: We have three ‘mega releases’ coming out in the near future. We just released Core Intelligence. You will probably see that we will be releasing the human-resource portion of Core, where you can manage employees and their performances and their salaries and their benefits. Basically, from onboarding to off-boarding, everything that you need to do with your staff, which again, is a very painful process right now and a manual process.
Then we’re releasing our CRM, which is our Client Relationship Manager. Then of course, toward the end of the year, we’re releasing a full-blown payroll system with Core. This is a first in the business world, especially for professional-service firms where it’s the most needed, because we never went to school to know about people’s utilization rates or their ideal pay rate. We definitely would benefit from it. ‘We’ meaning engineers, because I still refer to myself as a civil engineer.