Monday, May 26, 2014

Revisiting Green IT

It’s more than 20 years now from the first collective industry recognition (Energy Star ratings) and the desire to do something about reducing power consumption by IT equipment. The cycles of heightened awareness and hype coincide with economic cycles or at times a paradigm change brought about by new technology or use of existing technology like virtualization or cloud computing. So when one of the organizers asked me to talk about Green IT, I was perplexed on the unexpected resurgence; or was it a red herring or just a slot filler ?

Researching the market beyond personal experience to understand the current traction and prominence of Green IT, I started talking to CIOs to understand their journey or milestones on the subject; I was hoping to use some of the insights in my presentation to an audience of CIOs. Thus over the next few weeks the data points that I gathered did not focus on public or private clouds, but to understand if Green was still a discussion in different industries and industry leaders or has Green fatigue set in ?

Less than a decade ago carbon credits were a boardroom discussion and some people made a lot of money trading them; then they just vanished. Data Centers started touting Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) or Data Center Infrastructure Efficiency to demonstrate how Green they were. Overhead non-compute power usage for cooling and other uses ranged from typical 80% to highly efficient 10%. Power used by servers and computers for the same task has been reducing almost linearly over time challenging PUE.

CIOs finished fixing the data center quite early and also created efficiency for end compute devices with power management policies and improved awareness. From there on they focused energies on office infrastructure, ambient lighting and temperatures, electronic documentation, communication and as a result saved trees. A few also took control of energy usage monitoring with embedded and targeted sensors linked to BMS (Building Management Systems) and reduced power consumption in good measure.

The question is, with so much getting done and almost every enterprise reaping the benefits over the last decade, is Green still a relevant discussion ? Who if anyone is tasked with overall enterprise Green initiatives ? Is it only about controlling power used or creating a movement to conserve natural resources ? Is Green an integral part of decision making explicitly mentioned in evaluation parameters or implicitly used in every decision making ? Have people stopped flying around for meetings and embraced Video Conferencing ? The answer is Yes and No.

I don’t believe that CIOs are measuring and reporting metrics around Green. None of the CIOs I met did, but there is a discussion around power efficiency and overall cost of running BAU or keeping the lights on. CXOs are not enamored by earlier conventional solutions which are now basic hygiene as are new LEED certified buildings. Reality is that for technology and compute power, the bar keeps shifting every 4-5 years; what was green in 2000 or for that matter even 5 years back appears archaic when compared to currently available hardware.

At the conference the audience engaged in a discussion and debate on the relevance, challenges and opportunities; one of the participants sought suggestions to break the cultural vice around personal printers which gave his global centurion company a person to printer ratio of close to one. Someone shared extreme automation to switch off lights and air-conditioners when there was no movement resulting in hilarious and occasionally dark and sweaty situations while people were in the room working !

Green is here to stay and awareness of the new generation brings new opportunities. For CIOs it is important to seek avenues beyond the conventional interventions of the past. Cloud computing is shrinking the data center and mobility is driving the workforce out of offices. Power generation is focusing on renewable energy sources which reduce the global carbon footprint. Some of the power hungry enterprises are going to embrace these as the world works towards creating a better tomorrow.

The role you play in this evolution is up to you !

Monday, May 19, 2014

Customer Advisory Boards

You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new.” So said the most iconic leader in the IT industry and stuck to this philosophy as his company built some of the most vied for products; the success that followed remains unparalleled though the bull run has slowed down a bit. Everyone wondered exasperatedly on how they can replicate this model as it is contrary to conventional wisdom and what they were taught in B-school.

Until not too long ago the software industry churned out products with features and functionality based on internal discussions on what the customer may need or in some cases based on what their initial customers asked for. With generic solutions not fulfilling the expanding needs, over time they started hiring industry domain experts to create vertically aligned solutions. This did address the gap partly for a while and then customers started demanding better aligned solutions for their specific problems and opportunities.

Some companies recognized the need early and started creating Customer Advisory Boards (CAB) with CIOs of their large customers to participate in the product roadmap. This was extended to include some of the innovative adopters of their solutions though they may not have been high revenue customers but brought value to the discussion. The ensuing engagement, discussion and debate influenced the prioritization of new features and in some cases the positioning of their solutions resulting in a win-win situation.

Some of the services vendors took the cue and hired from the industry to strengthen their industry practices; consulting companies followed suite thereby changing the discussion with their customers. They determined that the need was to embed the resources internally and not limit to an advisory role. Now the software industry is going through a transition with even mid-sized companies thinking of CAB to gain the benefit of customer connect and better alignment of their product features and evolution to what the industry wants.

Interestingly hardware manufacturers have remained disconnected; they continue to launch products with the philosophy of the icon attributed with the famous quote. Past practice of customer focus groups has largely been discarded by marketing teams. Faster processors, bigger, brighter and higher resolution screens; consumers love it and they do more of the same. Then they have attempted to push the same products to enterprise customers and wondered why it is not gaining traction the way consumers are lapping them up.

CIOs are not excited; what else do you want has been the lament ? Over the years the clear message from many CIOs to the IT industry enamored by all things mobile (phones, tablets, and applications) has been that the faster, better, cheaper does not connect with enterprise use cases. Enterprises need manageability, serviceability backed by service levels, and reasonable (measured in years not months) longevity. Consumer devices require additional investments to make them work in our environments.

Consumer applications and games are great; couple of apps on the app store for some customers or pilots on industry specific use cases does not make you an enterprise ready development partner. We don’t want to explain everything from the basics to your team; how are you going to fill in the gap between what we say and what your team understands. Do some homework and more than anything else listen before you start crafting solutions; you have an advantage over your big competitors, use it well.

The question is then, is CAB the way to go for companies who want better traction of their solutions or services in the enterprise space ? It is a model that may work for the larger IT companies; how does a smaller outfit get the benefit of the experience ? In “Scaling Startups” I had referred to a mentoring model and role that CIOs can play; maybe it is time for IT companies to embrace CIOs to help them forge ahead. What is important is the change in mindset and philosophy with internal agreement on the new way of working. I hope IT companies understand this sooner than later.

As a CIO, are you up to the game ?

Monday, May 12, 2014

A new government

The country is going through the most complex exercise of voting for and electing new representatives to the government. Selecting amongst the candidates is difficult; some of them are easy to disregard as they have no visible credible experience to stake a claim to the seat. Handfuls have relevant experience and on paper they look like good options.  References to past work demonstrate their ability to deliver and execute; a couple have the backing of their respective political parties who lend the promise of a collective manifesto.

Every 5 years this process repeats itself, sometimes a little earlier if the incumbent government is unable to serve out a full term. Soon we will have a new government, a new head, a set of ministers who will vie for the most visible and high profile ministries. The correlation between portfolios and core competencies is always a good thing to do; however many a times that does not happen. Bureaucrats and the staff within the ministries does not change much, they follow the new directions set by the ministers irrespective of expertise.

Running an enterprise is very much like running the country, especially a large diversified group with interests in varied businesses. Each company and function has a head that is selected from outside more often than inside. The selection is most of the time purportedly on core competency and merit. The difference between a government and an enterprise is normally the available options from which a candidate is chosen. In a government, the candidate is from the elected party, in the other case almost everyone can apply.

Government portfolios are presumably distributed by the head of the winning party and head of the country collaboratively. Most often decisions are based on seniority, past experience, credibility and interest. Cross functional movements are the norm and it is expected that the person would do equally well in the new function too. The rationale here is that a leader need not be a functional expert; the team has adequate skills to advise the leader on the best options when taking a decision. We know how well this process works.

In the corporate world the skew is more towards functional expertise while selecting a person. Cross movements do happen at beginning and mid-careers; moving up the ladder, these are rare. Leaders at the top take on additional responsibilities at times; lateral moves occur but are not frequent. Success rates are higher in comparison as everything is expected to be time bound. It is not a sure shot recipe for success; we do observe failures across the board, many attributable to the leader not being effective or fitting in.

It is not necessarily the interviewer or selectors inability to assess that result in a bad selection. Drawing parallels, it is evident that the best person does not always get selected for the job; favoritism and at times other factors like past workplace association, belonging to same religious sect or geographical area, been to the same school/college, having the same ideologies, result in sub-optimal choices. While not always avoidable, enterprises do watch out for such hires critically lest they end up with unwanted baggage.

It is relatively easier to replace a person within an enterprise as compared to the government; performance appraisals even though many a times skewed do elevate non-performance. On the other hand, recently observed citizen activism has its place in creating change. Cabinet reshuffles however move the problem from one area to another; this is rare in the enterprise though not unheard of. Are there learning that can be applied to enterprises to not follow the same path that ails many parts of the government ?

I believe that when we choose an elected representative or a new hire, in both cases rigorous due diligence is essential. Our choices can come back and haunt us not just in the short-term but also in the long-run. Both impact our lives and future; we tend to spend more effort in our workplace due to impact proximity and blame bad decisions to the ill choice of others. If we want control of our future and destiny, we have to exercise our rights and influence outcomes. Can we afford not to ?

You decide, you have a choice !

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Digital Moron

Not too long ago one of the consulting companies’ classified people by their digital proficiency and created three groups; digital dinosaurs, digital migrants, and digital natives. This was picked up by many people who used this classification to target their solutions or services to their respective benefit. The resultant divide did not matter to the bourgeois or the elite, they anyway continued to demonstrate behaviors that they did; the world continued to evolve, and gave way to a new species, which is gaining ground.

Characteristics of the first three categories were quite easy to comprehend and evident with their names. The Dinosaurs are the people born before the advent of technology (today’s 60+ generation) who use basic technology to stay connected. Migrants (born before 1990 or thereabouts) embraced the new technology wave sometimes a bit uncomfortable, but more or less adept. The Natives are born into the new world and do not know of a life without social media, mobility, ubiquitous connectivity and instant gratification.

As is with all kinds of evolution, there are genetic mutations, exceptions and the differently abled who do not partake in the normal. They have all the means, the environment, the facilities, the stimulus, the desire; they show a lot of promise and demonstrate a stray spark of brilliance. These individuals are mostly found in the cusp of the natives or wannabe migrants (migrants who believe they are better natives than the natives themselves). It does not take too much of an effort to spot them, they are visibly obvious.

In a digital conference with average participant age less than 24, we tried spotting the pseudo natives; one of the sparsely haired speakers in mid-40s was desperately trying to impress the audience with his knowledge and investments into digital startups. A mobile cloud, take it anywhere you go; make 2G work at 3G speeds; family only social media, were some of the references to his invested concepts which he believed were ahead of the evolution curve. No one had heard of his ventures but the crowd humored him to get his wallet share.

A corporate 20-something CDO (Chief Digital Officer) reveled in the fact that he was ahead of his peers having already achieved the pinnacle position in an industry which was always in the forefront of digital technology. With an MBA from a prestigious institute, he strutted around to the envy of others who wanted to get there. He was on stage being interviewed on his vision and predictions of where the digital world was headed. Not that he wanted to entertain the audience; his responses had most people snickering.

His stated digital strategy for the company revolved around leveraging an existing portal which had lost traction with customers. Is mobility part of your strategy ? Off course, we are deploying apps ! How do you plan to differentiate ? We are looking at global trends ! Do more of the same, do it a little differently; will it change the world or bring around a revolution ? As the Q&A progressed, the audience became restless wanting to be rid of the listless conversation. One anonymous listener shouted across the room, “Get off the stage, you …” !

Titles aside the general enthusiasm around digital everything ranged from wearable technology to esoteric business cases; the general feeling was that if you are a migrant, there’s a generation gap, if you are older, why are you here ? You don’t understand our language; you don’t belong to this new wave. Don’t slow us down; we know where we are going. While some oldies tried to moderate the irrational exuberance reminiscent of the dotcom era, the young believers retaliated with cries of frustration with the dinosaurs.

I think that giving some latitude to sprouting innovation connect to real life use cases is the need of the hour. It would serve the well-wishers to espouse the cause while staying out of the way of the emerging digital tsunami. The velocity and variety of change challenges legacy thinking; to understand and appreciate the thinking process of the new generation entrepreneurs requires unlearning and new mindset failing which the older generation and some from the current too run the risk of being alienated or being labeled Digital Morons.