Most weeks, the Aboard Podcast is only sponsored by Aboard—but this week, Paul and Rich celebrate Aboard’s relaunch by devoting the whole episode to their shiny new AI-powered product! After they take a (technical and non-technical) look at exactly what’s going on under the hood, they discuss the ways Aboard uses AI to help humans, not supplant them.

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Aboard Goes AI

Paul Ford: Hi, I’m Paul Ford, and I’m the co-founder of Aboard.

Rich Ziade: I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-founder of Aboard.

Paul: What is Aboard, Richard?

Rich: Aboard is an AI-powered data-management platform.

Paul: It really is. As of today—as of yesterday.

Rich: As of yesterday, we built something I’m pretty excited about. Today we are going to talk about Aboard, unlike other podcasts. I want to talk about how we got here a little bit, because I think there’s a lot to—I think the journey’s interesting. Journeys are interesting, oftentimes. Sometimes they’re not.

Paul: But no, this one’s going to be interesting. And we’ll talk about how we made decisions around AI, because it’s kind of a hot-button topic. People are either all in or they’re completely against it.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And we’ll talk about where we landed. For context, a lot of you may be new listeners because maybe some people paid attention to some media coverage, or came in for the new product.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Usually we do not talk exhaustively about our own product on the podcast. We talk about technology, we talk about, like—

Rich: Business and culture and working together. Just anything—

Paul: We try to, we try to keep it interesting for people who are, you know, building their careers and want to understand the tech industry and so on. But in this case, we did something and we’re going to talk about the thing that we did.

[intro music]

Paul: Let me set it up and then I’m going to throw it to you.

Rich: Okay.

Paul: So a couple of years ago, you and I sat down—we had an agency together, and we said, we keep building the same tools. We keep building a little bit of workflow management with Kanban and moving cards around, and we keep building sort of light data management and some collaboration features for our very nice clients.

Rich: Mmm hmm. Yes.

Paul: And we have to charge them a lot of money for it because you have to start from scratch every time.

Rich: It’s their code.

Paul: It’s their code. And so we said, let’s go ahead. And actually, in the classic phrase is “cannibalize your own business.”

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Let’s not do that anymore. Let’s do it in such a way that it’s generic and repeatable and you can build experiences that let people manage data collaboratively.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And so we set out to do that and, you know, we don’t need to recap the whole rocky road. It turned out to be really hard. It turned out to be something where we launched a couple times along the way. And…it turned out to be kind of successful. We got thousands of users for a tool that people look at, it looks kind of like bookmarking, but with a little bit of data.

Rich: It’s visual…

Paul: And we started to kind of build that business. And then today we’re making, not really a pivot, it still does all the same stuff, but it does it in some different ways.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: If you’d gone to last week, it was bookmarking-plus, like, it let you turn links into cards, add your own cards, move the cards around in space, you know, kind of like tabular, database-y stuff.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: What’s different today, Richard?

Rich: Well, bookmarks…. Over the last year, we’ve talked about how Aboard is real smart about parsing the web and storing that link that’s often ugly and unrecognizable in a visual way on Aboard. So it looks like a pinboard, no pun intended. And what people didn’t know is that links were just data to Aboard, to the Aboard platform. It was a type of data. And one of the things we were starting to think through is, wait—you can use this platform to save any kind of data. If I just want to keep track of my vendors for my small business or if I want to keep track of my sales leads or whatever, oftentimes that’s done in a spreadsheet or maybe one of the tools out there. It turns out Aboard is really good at that.

Paul: Well, you want to know something funny? You want to know the difference between engineering-type product people and the rest of humanity is we go, the web is full of data now, and you can turn any webpage into data. We have a data solution. Let’s bring those two worlds together and show people how powerful we can be with data. And they look at us and they go, cool. It made my link into a card—

Rich: With a picture.

Paul: I’ll put my tabs there because I’m a healthy, normal adult who doesn’t care about that. So we ended up in this funny world where we had this big old platform, but we had made something that was very sort of, like, a little light.

Rich: Yeah, but there’s this low hum in the background.

Paul: [low humming noise]

Rich: 2023. Last year—into this year, frankly—has seen a massive wave of change in technology as all this attention—

Paul: Crypto! Crypto is what you’re gonna—

Rich: Not crypto! Not crypto, Paul.

Paul: [overlapping] Yeah, okay. Not crypto?

Rich: 2023, not 2020.

Paul: Oh, sorry. For those, again, for our newcomers, Rich and I are long term crypto-skeptics. Sorry.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Nice knowin’ ya!

Paul: [laughing] Bye, guys.

Rich: We’re watching AI take off, and we are old, grizzled technologists, and it’s hard to impress us and hard to leave us saying, “Whoa, is this the next chapter?” And I’ll speak for myself, and I think I can speak for you. We see it. We see the wild change that is coming as a result of AI.

Paul: Well, let’s be clear. Let me tell you what we see. We see a tool that can do a certain set of things that used to take a lot of work to do with a computer, and it can do them in a kind of slightly randomized way, which turns out to be good for a whole lot of specific tasks. What we don’t see—and we’ll talk about that in a sec. What we don’t see is the computer gestating into a giant cosmic brain taking over the world.

Rich: Not yet, at least.

Paul: [laughing] That’s 2026.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: No, the whole thing about AGI and all the drama in Silicon Valley and so on, I don’t see that. What I see is a very weird kind of new database that you can put stuff into and get stuff out in unpredictable ways, and that turns out to have really interesting side effects.

Rich: I think that’s the thoughtful, not overhyped way of describing it.

Paul: I see it as a technologist, this was always the thing about crypto. I was like, yeah, I don’t know if it’s going to change the world. It’s just software and it’s kind of slow.

Rich: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: The AI stuff is software, and it’s kind of fast and interesting.

Rich: Yes. Yes. And so we’re observing this.

Paul: Yes. The squirrel is riding a bicycle.

Rich: The squirrel’s riding a bicycle. The images are funny. I signed up to Midjourney through Discord, but we won’t give Midjourney shit about that, I think they’re now a web app. Obviously using, you know, ChatGPT and Copilot, and it’s a fascinating time. It’s doing all kinds of fascinating—there’s an explosion in AI startups. And what we’re seeing is a lot of AI assistance getting bolted onto existing software. So you’re seeing, just pick any, anything—Canva, Notion, Airtable.

Paul: Well, and there have been a lot of stories about, you know, the auto dealership that you could chat with, and someone convinced it to sell them a car for a dollar.

Rich: Exactly.

Paul: New York City right now, they have a chatbot that you can, it tells you things like, no, you don’t have to pay, you can do anything you want with your workers’ tips.

Rich: [laughing] Yeah, right…

Paul: So…

Rich: So we’re observing all this, and we’re hanging back, and the reason we were hanging back is A) we wanted to like, watch it a bit. And B) we wanted to not just duct tape, like, an assistant, name them, you know, Claude or whatever French name—

Paul: Aboardie.

Rich: Aboardie, and have it sit on the side. We wanted it to be something that was a little different. Related to that, all the UI around AI seems to be like this fake chat client.

Paul: And sometimes it produces images, but yeah, in general you feed it blobs of text, it gives you blobs of text or images or—it gives you documents back.

Rich: That’s right. That’s right.

Paul: Now let me describe, to help this make sense to people, what Aboard it is under the hood, it’s a platform. So Aboard has this kind of experience, and the experience is there are lots of cards, they have data, and you can organize them into, you can put cards in stacks, that’s the equivalent of folders in our world. You can add tags to them, you can add custom data to them, so on and so forth. So how do you get that started? Well you can go in with your mouse and you can click around and you can make an environment like that.

Rich: There are a lot of tools that also do that, right?

Paul: That’s right. Or in Aboard’s world you could also—and this was always the plan, you could write a JavaScript object that describes how the whole thing should work, just one big object. And in fact when you are moving your mouse around you’re kind of doing that under the hood, right? So we had this system that would spin up these relatively complex data environments that let people talk and comment on cards and it looked kind of nice. Underneath it was an API, a way to talk to it, and you could send it some data and it would make you software. That was the goal.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And I know that sounds really arbitrary, but what that means is that we could walk into organizations eventually and be like, want me to make you some software? Help me make one of these little data objects, my friendly nerds.

Rich: Okay, now you’re getting to the fun stuff. Now that you’ve explained it to the nerds of the world.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Including us frankly.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Let me boil it down to the non-nerds of the world.

Paul: Please.

Rich: AI is writing essays, it’s summarizing in paragraphs, it’s drawing funny pictures. Can we use AI to make software?

Paul: That’s right. And so what you have to do is make the AI produce data instead of pictures of flying squirrels.

Rich: Can I ask AI, can I ask Aboard to generate a tool for me to get me started to get work done? That’s what we’ve created and we’re excited about it. We kind of lucked into it, because architecturally, you would think…

Paul: No no, it was as all by design, from the beginning.

Rich: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Paul: Five, six years ago, when I was grumping about workflows and you were like, I’ll take it. I know what to do. We were anticipating this entire new ecosystem.

Rich: I’m going to go into sales mode for just a second.

Paul: Just to be clear to the audience, we weren’t. We did actually have a little stroke of luck here.

Rich: We had a stroke of luck.

Paul: First of all, actually, before you go into sales mode, describe what it actually does. So I’ll be Aboard and you can ask me questions. You’ve gone into Aboard and you go into Board Builder.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And there’s a text box.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: What do you type into it?

Rich: I type into it, “I need Aboard to help me manage design candidates for my SVP of…SVP of Design role.”

Paul: Okay, so now, I take that—

Rich: I hit enter. What I just said to you is typed in the box.

Paul: Okay, so now I take that and I give you back in about, like, usually around half a minute, all in, I go and I say, okay, here is what I think a card would look like, and a card has the name of the candidate, it might have salary requirements, ranking and priority, and like five or six fields you might expect.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Portfolio link, stuff like that.

Rich: It essentially models the data, automatically.

Paul: And so the AI goes and says, I think when you’re talking about this stuff, this is what the data should look like.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Now and then, it says, here are the folders that you might put them into, the stacks, and so the stacks are things like “applied,” “interviewed”…you know…

Rich: “Job offer made”…

Paul: Exactly.

Rich: Et cetera, et cetera.

Paul: Classic workflow. And then it might have some tags too, for like, you know, “good candidate” or things like that.

Rich: Experience.

Paul: So it whips all that together. And if you say I like it, that actually it looks kind of like what I want, I might change a few things.

Rich: Mmm hmm.

Paul: You hit “create board,” and now you’re in a world where a couple, there’s some sample cards clearly flagged as AI, so you can get your bearings.

Rich: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm.

Paul: They were generated, we know they’re generated. And then you can poke around in there and then you can change a few field names. And then the critical thing is I can invite everybody else who’s working on this higher with me.

Rich: Mmm hmm.

Paul: And we can all collaborate on the hiring board.

Rich: So you just generated a candidate-approval workflow.

Paul: I didn’t buy—

Rich: It’s real software. Is it a prototype?

Paul: No, it’s real software. It works. It can be a prototype. We can experiment with this and decide if we want to go buy the expensive HR software because maybe we need it. Or can we just stick with Aboard?

Rich: Mmm hmm.

Paul: Should we change a few things to make it a little more custom for us?

Rich: Okay, so Paul, I’m going to play new person who just heard about this. So it’s not an AI assistant?

Paul: No. It gets out of your way once it sets it up.

Rich: And it’s not answering in big blobs of text.

Paul: No. It will suggest more data for you over time. But no, in general, it is not big blobs of text.

Rich: I’m typing in a prompt and I’m getting software based on what I asked for.

Paul: That is the deal. As long as the software is Aboard-like, meaning, which is pretty broad, like, it’s cards, Kanban tables, things like that. So what are we replacing? We are replacing me and my—I’m going to create this Google sheet that will list all the candidates because I have this stack of resumes in my inbox.

Rich: Spreadsheets.

Paul: It’s replacing that like sort of shared spreadsheet. Not the math part, but the list part.

Rich: Yep.

Paul: It is a first swing at the complicated HR system, because maybe you’re only hiring one person and you don’t want to spend $60,000 a year on like this one thing.

Rich: You don’t need the fancy tool.

Paul: You don’t need the fancy tool. And so it’s like, it’s a swing at that and it’s a swing at the collaboration parts of all of those things. We figure that very nice commenting—one thing we haven’t talked about is this all works on mobile. Like, it’s, you can—

Rich: There’s a mobile app.

Paul: There was a funny moment last weekend, because we were working in the staging environment, and we track all of the relationships for the company in a board that you and I built. And I opened up the mobile app and I was kind of like seeing how the mobile app was going and then I was in that board and I was updating as I was kind of waiting for my kid to come back from something.

Rich: Mmm hmm.

Paul: I’m sitting there and I just actually started using it and updating it. And I gotta be frank, I’ve used a lot of customer relationship management tools. They all could be better. Ours is utterly credible. It’s good.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And it comes with the thing and I can customize it like in any way I need to. I keep forgetting that I’m using our own software. That is to me the highest praise that I can give this thing.

Rich: I want to put an asterisk on what you just said. You’re not using our own software, as in like the CRM tool we built. You are using the software that was spun up out of a request.

Paul: Yes.

Rich: In our tool.

Paul: Yes.

Rich: I think we’ve built something novel. I’m allowed to say that—

Paul: Honestly—

Rich: People can sling vegetables at me. I don’t care.

Paul: No, we’ve gone and talked to lots of other technologists, including people who are industry analysts, and they’re like, I mean, maybe somebody else is doing this, but it’s pretty novel.

Rich: I’ve never seen it before.

Paul: I think that what we have stumbled upon, frankly, is a pattern that we will see lots and lots of, because the miracle of AI has limits.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And what we’re doing here, and I think this is really important, because AI is a dramatic, intense subject for people. Look, if you have a workflow in your head that always works for you when you are like managing your hobby or producing the newsletter or any of that stuff, use us without the AI. That’s totally fine. Import a CSV, get started, whatever. But so many people have this blank-screen problem, where it’s like, we got to organize this stuff, and then somebody kind of takes a first stab and somebody else is like, I don’t like that field name. And so we’re moving that along. But what we’re really not doing is trying to get humans out of the loop. We’re trying to replace onboarding. We’re trying to make it really simple to fill in that blank page and then adapt it to your needs.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: As opposed to continually getting into your world.

Rich: I think there’s a lot of innovation ahead around the interface and the outputs with AI.

Paul: It’s not chat in this case, right?

Rich: It’s not chat. We are one of the few tools that is not just going to spit out chat results or an image or a generated image.

Paul: Yep.

Rich: Instead, what we’re actually doing is we’re crafting software, and it’s an excellent starting point. Is it exactly what you asked for? It almost never is. But, man, if you can skip the first two months of going back and forth about what software you need, that’s huge.

Paul: But I tell you, Rich, you and I, we’re old agency hands. Even when we would build it to their requirements, it wasn’t right the first time.

Rich: [laughing] Exactly.

Paul: And in fact, one of the things we doubled down on at the agency was getting prototypes across the line as quickly as possible to get feedback. Because working software solves—all discussions end and people go, “No, actually, I need this.”

Rich: And they react to that.

Paul: That’s right.

Rich: Rather than a blank screen or a blank whiteboard.

Paul: And that was always, that was, we weaponized that and we would move faster than others.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And that was, the goal here is to put that into everybody’s hands.

Rich: Tell it what you need, and it hands you a tool.

Paul: Every now and then it does get a little wacky, but that’s fun! We’re having fun! It’s a new era.

Rich: Wacky… That asterisk is gonna hang on AI for a while.

Paul: It’s not only that. Look, dude, this is a kind of marketing podcast. But there were moments when we turned this on and got it working that were like, “Oh, this is a career definer for me. I don’t know if the entire world will want to come to it, but my God, I saw it. I was like, I have really never seen this before.”

Rich: It’s wild.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: It’s wild. We’re excited, as you can see. I will say one other thing, Paul. I want to close it with this. There’s a lot of discussion about how AI is going to replace humans. It’s going to take jobs, it’s going to just be this automation machine, and that’s not what we aspire to here. We want to build a tool, and tools are used by people. And if we can skip a couple of months or a couple of hundred thousand dollars for you to get a tool in your hands that you can build on and use, that’s exciting to us. We’re taking, I think, an ambitious yet pragmatic approach to how to leverage AI to accelerate value into people’s hands. I know that sounds sales-y, but it’s really genuine.

Paul: I mean, let’s be frank, you and I are a little sales-y.

Rich: I don’t have to, Paul—I’ve recorded 200 podcasts without talking about my product. I want to talk about my product today, man!

Paul: I think that is very fair. No, I think to that end, yes, some things can be replaced by AI, but, yeah, no, we are here to make the computer more helpful—

Rich: To you!

Paul: To you.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: So that you can do your thing. And I don’t want to like, go into a big hand-waving ethics argument, but I think that there is a framework that can emerge here where you use the thing for what it’s good for, to kind of empower people, and then you get out of their way. That is what—

Rich: Quickly.

Paul: That’s what the whole deal in software is supposed to be. I don’t want to get humans out of the loop.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I like them.

Rich: [laughing] Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Rich: I’ve said in the past, by the way. I think people and people interacting with people is gonna actually really be really important in the context of the AI wave that we’re experiencing. I actually believe that.

Paul: That’s your trend prediction for—

Rich: That’s my—

Paul: There we go.

Rich: That’s my Gartner…right-hockey-stick…

Paul: Hype cycle.

[outro music]

Rich: Paul, you know what’s cool about this podcast?

Paul: What is cool?

Rich: We don’t have to end it by promoting Aboard.

Paul: No, this one in particular.

Rich: Check it out. We’d love to hear what you think. Go to sign up. And we also want to hear what you think by emailing us Talk to us. We’re pretty excited about this. It’s early days. It’s going to get better and better. And thank you for listening to our non-promotional podcast episode.

Paul: We really do want your feedback. By the way, there is a platform page on the website, and if you are an organization that would like to bring a little AI smarts into the room and talk to me and Rich about how that could work for you and if it could scale? We’re not actually super eager to, like, have you get your checkbook out. We just want to make friends and sort of see how this works. So absolutely get in touch. We would love to turn you into our guinea pig.

Rich: That was a lot!

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Have a wonderful week. We recommend you listen to this podcast twice.

Paul: Oh, absolutely. [laughter] Okay. We’ll see you back next week at the normal time.

Rich: Take care.

Paul: Bye.

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