ConnectWise on AI and RPA: Move Fast, Get Serious, Stay Safe

Note: I interviewed ConnectWise CEO Jason Magee a little too late to quote in this week’s post. I’ll have a bonus post based exclusively on that conversation next week.

In a sense, ConnectWise is about to come full circle. In 1982, brothers Arnie and David Bellini launched the company as a local IT solution provider from within a building in downtown Tampa where their father worked for IBM. Next week, what’s since become one of the globe’s biggest providers of software and services for MSPs will officially complete its move into a new headquarters on seven floors of the very same building.

Not coincidentally, that shiny new facility is where ConnectWise chose to host the first of a planned quarterly series of Automation Nation education and training events this week. Dedicated to helping MSPs “unleash the power of hyperautomation and AI,” the conference is an early step in a new but ambitious venture the Bellini brothers could scarcely have imagined 42 years ago.

This one is about arming ConnectWise’s products and partners to harness the transformative power of technologies that since ChatGPT’s debut roughly 15 months ago have moved from research papers to real world with head-spinning velocity.

“This isn’t something that may happen,” says Gregg Lalle, the newly named head of ConnectWise’s IT Nation partner community, about AI. “The train’s moving. People have to decide when they’re ready to go on the journey.”

To see the impact that journey can have, one need only look at ConnectWise itself. The “AI companion” (named ConnectWise Sidekick) and automation platform (named ConnectWise RPA) the company shipped last November, which have been up and running internally for over a year, have so far delivered a 13% increase in technician productivity, a 6% improvement in support issue resolution times, and an 11% improvement in help desk customer satisfaction while saving 5,500 work hours a month in ConnectWise’s NOC.

MSPs could be collecting similar results, the company says. Right now, at least, most aren’t.

“We’re just not seeing as fast of adoption as we think we should see,” says Jeff Bishop (pictured), the executive vice president and general manager in charge both of ConnectWise’s Asio platform and its monitoring and management products. The issue, he continues, isn’t apprehension, lack of awareness, or lack of interest so much as plain old inertia.

“It’s human nature. We’re all just going to keep doing what we’re doing. We’re so busy,” Bishop says.

Fundamentally, he and others on the leadership team suspect, the issue is that MSPs are moving on Sidekick and RPA at the same leisurely pace they usually employ when ConnectWise releases something new.

“It’s a little bit about training, it’s a little bit about onboarding. You test it and then you start letting people use it,” Bishop says. ConnectWise has been working very hard this week to persuade Automation Nation attendees that they don’t have that luxury this time.

“The first mover advantage is going to be massive and it’s going to be enduring,” says Jake Varghese, the EVP and GM in charge of ConnectWise’s PSA, quoting, and other business management solutions. “The entire industry is evolving, and the folks that participate at this stage, I think, will get disproportionate returns.”

The folks who delay, on the other hand, could come to regret it. “If you sit on the sidelines too long, then you’ll find out that you’re just not getting the clients because other partners that are delivering a similar set of capabilities can do it more cost effectively, they’re driving profitability, and they’re growing,” warns Ameer Karim, who runs ConnectWise’s cybersecurity and data protection portfolio.

Thanks for reading Channelholic! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.

Speed with safety

To move with unfamiliar speed on something as novel as AI, ConnectWise freely concedes, isn’t easy.

“They’re going to have to re-engineer a lot of things of the way they’re doing right now,” Lalle says. “It’s going to be a cultural shift.”

ConnectWise knows it has a critical role to play in that process. “You can’t just say, ‘here’s a brand-new tool. Good luck. Let me know how it goes,’” Varghese (pictured) explains. “We’re trying to help our partners navigate this situation.”

Automation Nation (an event name introduced years ago by LabTech, inventor of the RMM solution today known as ConnectWise Automate, before being retired in 2019) is one small part of that effort, according to Varghese, who promises much more to come.

“It’s one of our top two priorities,” Varghese says of AI enablement, rivaled only by the company’s ongoing (and extremely strategic) migration onto Asio.

The trick, as has been true since AI exploded into view over a year ago, will be moving fast on AI and encouraging partners to do the same without compromising safety or security. ConnectWise insists it will continue to strike that difficult balance.

“We will never compromise on security or responsible AI,” Varghese pledges. “It’s just a fundamental pillar for us.”

A forthcoming RPA feature that will allow an MSP’s clients to create bots of their own is a good, concrete example of the company’s thinking. On the one hand, end users deserve to benefit from AI’s productivity-boosting power every bit as much as IT providers, Varghese says.

“At the same time,” he continues, “it’s got to be a bounded domain. Don’t give them too much rope, because bad things could happen.”

When the magic happens

Do-it-yourself bots for end users, as it happens, are among many AI- and RPA-related items on ConnectWise’s crowded roadmap. According to Varghese, the list is long because the company is moving just as fast as it wants partners to.

“We’re treating hyperautomation almost like a startup,” he says.

But a more disciplined startup. If last year was AI’s “bright shiny objects” phase, in Varghese’s words, in which some new scripting tool or photo generator captivated attention every week before being supplanted the following week by something else, ConnectWise would like this year to be the one in which all of us get serious about the technology.

“2023 was the year of experimentation for AI,” Varghese says. “2024 is the year of implementation.”

The implementation milestones on ConnectWise’s roadmap involve features that fall into three loosely sequential categories that Varghese calls descriptive, predictive, and prescriptive. Sidekick’s functionality was entirely descriptive at launch last November, offering insights about customers, tickets, sales, and more based on data from a partner’s RMM, PSA, and other systems. Within weeks, it began acquiring predictive capabilities too.

“We could assist with some sales forecast-related stuff based on some seasonality and cyclicality information,” Varghese says.

There’s a lot more of that coming soon in areas like device management and security. Prescriptive functionality will start arriving too toward the end of the year.

“That’s when the magic happens, when the power of AI gets combined with the power of RPA workflow, and now with your permission we can start taking actions to remediate certain scenarios,” Varghese says.

Think of it as ConnectWise’s answer to Atera’s auto-pilot.

“You’ve got AI, you’ve got RPA, you’ve got our workflows engine,” Karim (pictured) says. “They’re all kind of trying to do different things, but when they come together, it allows you to do a lot more all of a sudden fully automated.”

Imagine, for example, ConnectWise’s security software continuously collaborating with its RMM software behind the scenes not just to scan for vulnerabilities but to run RPA workflows that fix them too.

“It can just auto-remediate things,” Karim says.

Think even bigger, as ConnectWise does, and you can envision scenarios in which Sidekick writes—rather than just runs—RPA workflows for you based on an intent you voice in natural language.

“My intent is to go patch all these machines. Make sure that the first couple will work, and if they all work, then I want you to roll all the rest of them out over a two-week period and do so without disrupting people. Go,” Bishops says by way of example.

This isn’t science fiction either, he adds. “You’ll probably have some level of that this year,” with a lot more to follow in 2025.

Same for the sample scenario Karim describes in which Sidekick notices that a user has tried and failed to login multiple times during a road trip.

“It would do the proper authentication to make sure it’s actually you, so correlate the right location, right IP. There’s a variety of ways to verify if that’s the right user,” he says. If it is, then the issue is probably not a brute force attack but a forgotten password.

“AI could be smart enough to just basically reset the password, send the credentials back to the same original email address, and allow the person to log in,” Karim says.

This too isn’t a glimpse into a distant tomorrow. “We’re not 100% there yet tying in all those things together, but we’re not too far from that either,” Karim says. “I would say, if I was to speculate about such a thing like that, we’re less than six months away.”

Produce8’s plan to help with digital health

Labor, according to ConnectWise, accounts for 50 to 70 percent of an MSP’s spending on average. While ConnectWise strives to reduce those costs by doing work for technicians, a newer vendor is pursuing the same goal by enabling technicians to do the work they’re still responsible for more efficiently.

It’s called Produce8 and came on my radar last week when it announced that Marco La Vecchia (pictured) is now its chief revenue officer. La Vecchia, for those who don’t know him, has previously held senior channel management roles at N-able and AVG (later acquired by Avast). The company he now works for was co-founded by Chris Day (who founded IT Glue), Mark Scott (who co-founded N-able), and Joel Abramson (currently a board member at ScalePad), with seed funding from Joe Panettieri and his colleagues at Channel Angels.

Produce8, in other words, is loaded with managed services royalty and zeroed in on a pressing use case. According to the company’s research, 30% of a typical tech’s day is spent looking for information, 20% is wasted in attention-sapping communication tools like Teams, and 10% gets lost in multitasking and context switching. Not coincidentally, ticket close rates have declined 30% in the last five years even as ticket volumes have risen.

Where ConnectWise and hyperautomators like Rewst and Pia are all taking that problem on as well, Produce8 is less interested in automating work than in helping technicians work smarter.

La Vecchia calls the company’s solution, which reached market a few months ago, a “productivity analytics tool” and likens it to a digital health tracker. Install it on PCs and phones, hook it up to the apps employees use regularly, and within about 90 minutes the system starts supplying individual and company-wide data on how much time people are spending in those tools, how focused or distracted they are while working in them, and more. You can then set and track progress toward goals for improving those numbers.

“Maybe I spend two hours a day in Slack and I want to reduce that down to an hour and a half a day,” La Vecchia says. “Produce8 will start reporting on how I’m doing against the goals that I’ve implemented to manage my daily activity.”

Critically, La Vecchia emphasizes, the solution is designed to empower employees rather than spy on them like a silent monitoring tool or other productivity tracking solution. “When you think of the employee as the most critical asset that any business has, you really want to make sure that they’re happy, that they’re focused, and that they’re feeling that they’re getting a lot out of their job,” he says.

You’d also, of course, like them to get some revenue-generating work done. “The ultimate goal at the end of the day is to start helping employees get time back in their day so that they can really produce profit,” says La Vecchia, noting that Produce8 believes it can ultimately help users free up 90 wasted minutes a day.

And come to think of it, isn’t that something every employer wants? Produce8 thinks it is, and has introduced a partner program to help MSPs resell a tool originally meant for their own use to their clients.

“I could take it into an accounting firm, a law firm, a small or medium-sized business, all the way to an enterprise,” La Vecchia says. Produce8, which will handle implementation and support directly with the end user, will give 20% of its $18 per user per month subscription fee to the reseller, which can benefit in less tangible ways too.

“This really allows the MSP to have even more stickiness with the end user customer and become even more of a trusted advisor, because they’re having a strong conversation on something that all businesses are concerned about, which is their employees,” La Vecchia says.

Anything that all businesses care about, needless to say, should be of at least some interest to MSPs.

“We believe that there’s a massive opportunity in the SMB space, in the mid-market, in the commercial space,” La Vecchia says, for MSPs and Produce8 itself.

Also worth noting

Three months after buying outsourced services vendor Solutions Granted, SonicWall has added support for Windows Defender, SentinelOne, and Cylance to its MDR offering.

Cisco has introduced new ways to weave security and networking together, bolster identity security, and roll out generative AI.

OpenText is using machine learning to boost code security.

Dell’s 2024 partner program includes increased profit potential for cloud infrastructure sales and more.

A very busy Channel Program has acquired sales consultancy CyberSells.

Blancco’s endpoint “data sanitization software” is now part of Lenovo’s ThinkShield security portfolio.