Containers Aren’t the Cure: Why Tech is Just the Seed for Digital Transformation

January 17, 2019 Derrick Harris

Sometimes, clichés become clichés because they’re true. The best sports teams really do take it one game at a time. People from Minnesota really are nicer. And culture—well, everything involving people—really is the hardest part of digital transformation.

You hear the latter all the time when listening to people talk about their teams’ evolutions from legacy IT shops to more modern, cloud-native operations. Because it’s true. Buying and even deploying software is relatively easy if you have budget; signing up for a cloud service is even easier. But getting people to change their mindsets and reverse decades of learned routine is hard.

Inertia knows no bounds: The problem isn’t just the ops team that has always done things a certain way, it’s also developers who have settled into the comfortable rut of quarterly releases. And the CIO (and maybe CFO) who’s trying to fit the square peg of real transformation into the round hole of IT budgets built around buying servers, storage, and installed software. And on, and on, and on.

These setbacks tend to derail, at least temporarily, a lot of modernization projects that were kicked off with the best of intentions—happy customers, happy employees, and better businesses. It happens with even the shiniest new technology toys, from the cloud to Kubernetes, and from Hadoop to artificial intelligence. You can buy into the vision and literally buy the software, but those ambitions and bits are only as effective as the work that goes into improving the people and processes they serve.


Technology matters—but so do culture, process, talent, and more

Think about it like buying a sports car. If you can’t drive, a new sports car is just an expensive piece of driveway art. If you decide to get behind the wheel anyhow, you can expect a steady parade of jerky starts and stops; just a big waste of gas on top of those hefty car payments. Should you actually get the car accelerating, things can get out of control very fast—shiny new Lamborghini, meet sturdy old telephone pole.

But if you have the skills to handle it, that sports car can do some amazing things that your previous vehicle simply was not designed to do, no matter how good a driver you are.

The same principles hold true for enterprise software—from pure-DIY open-source Kubernetes to platforms like Pivotal Cloud Foundry, which come with more guardrails in place. They’re the engines that power initiatives like continuous delivery and cloud-native architectures, and capabilities like auto-scaling and zero-downtime upgrades. Organizations that want to do these things at enterprise-scale and with enterprise-grade sophistication really do need to adopt technologies built to deliver on those goals. They also really do need to master everything around those platforms—agile processes, fail-fast mentalities, empowered teams, and more—that will allow organizations to take full advantage of them.

This is why, in a comprehensive report detailing best practices in digital transformation, Forrester analysts cite technology as only 1 of 6 essential factors—along with culture, talent, structure, metrics, and process. Here’s the entire list, along with the analysts’ explanations of why each is important:

1. Culture. Peter Drucker said it best: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A development leader’s investments in any of the other five levers can quickly come to naught if individual team members resist necessary changes or executives reject new ways of working and budgeting. Transforming the development organization requires strong support from application development leaders in close coordination with CIOs and digital leaders.

2. TalentTalent remains in short supply, as evidenced by high starting and average salaries for software developers. And even with the advance of low-code development platforms and the expanding role of nontraditional developers, we expect shortages to persist as firms work to increase their development capacity. Demand for talent will increase further as digital experience delivery continues to evolve into new areas like chatbot integration, Alexa skill-building, and integration with artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. Successful development organizations must adjust their recruiting, retention, and sourcing strategies to account for this.

3. Structure. Organizing teams around digital experience delivery defies traditional structures and management roles, which retard velocity by separating marketing and operations from IT and application development. Effective digital delivery also demands new software delivery roles, working spaces, and adjustments to sourcing strategies.

4. Metrics. Great customer experiences increase customer value. Measuring customer value (or lack thereof) is a primary driver of digital experience delivery. Teams at Walgreens, for instance, use the time it takes customers to refill a prescription via mobile as a benchmark for convenience.           

5. Process. Traditional software delivery processes are rife with handoffs, delays, and waiting for things to get done. Forrester data shows that only 46% of global developers believe that their team consistently delivers on time. Wait-time is the silent killer of faster application delivery. Continuous delivery (CD) practices standardize and automate processes so they’re easier to monitor and enforce—and quality improves because automation eliminates sources of manual errors.

6. Technology. A shift toward cloud-native architectures, digital platforms, APIs everywhere, and open source results in technology infrastructures that are more modular, helping software development teams act independently. Modern applications also scale up (and down) as needed, freeing teams to focus on building software that differentiates their firms’ digital experiences.

You can delve deeper into these areas and see suggestions for addressing them by downloading the entire report here.


Successful companies are embracing the whole package

It’s not the type of thing that usually makes it into a press release or customer highlight reel but the truth is that lots of companies—Pivotal customers included—struggle to solve for all of these factors. We have customers that just do a Pivotal Labs engagement to learn our agile methodology and culture hacks, and others that just license Pivotal Cloud Foundry. But the ones that truly nail their transformations embrace the interconnected nature of the two.

At Boeing, Director of the Office of the CIO and Chief of Staff Niki Allen took both business and technology leaders (including her CIO and CTO) to tour Pivotal Labs offices before signing a contract and kicking off her Digital Transformation Environment effort, which has helped the 150,000-person company revamp how it does software. Although she trusted Pivotal’s reputation for helping large enterprises transform their businesses and her technology colleagues were onboard, she knew that buy-in from both sides would be critical for her vision to be successful.

“[The technology team was] super-excited, were ready to get started, said, ‘Hey, Niki, let’s sign a contract and go...' But I had one more group to convince, and that was the business stakeholders. The reason being: They were going to be my advocates. If I get this right, they’re the consumers of this new model. So I took … all of our business leads … through Pivotal, as well, so they could see an imprint and have a visual of what it was we were trying to become.”

—Niki Allen, Boeing

Even little things can make a lot of difference. For example, DICK’S Sporting Goods is undergoing a significant cultural and organizational transformation to make its product teams more responsive and give them ownership over the entire application lifecycle. But on top of all the technological, structural and process improvements, there’s this from DICK’S Director of Engineering JP White:

“In addition to restructuring the way we’re working, we’ve restructured the physical layout of our offices, as well. So, as one team figures something out, there’s an opportunity to physically just spin around and … to talk to another teammate that may be facing a similar problem. And then that becomes kind of the de facto standard… The more we can identify these best practices and templates, it allows the teams to focus more on solving customer problems.”

-JP White, DICK'S Sporting Goods

Or, to put a finer point on it, there’s this from Thomas Fredell, Chief Product Officer of Merrill Corporation, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based company that manages document security for billions of dollars worth of transactions each year:

“Getting our teams up to speed and understanding what it meant to work with Pivotal crafted and formed the foundation that we needed. That's what we got out of the [Platform] Dojo. We got that jump start in terms of our knowledge and what we needed to start to be able to craft and to deliver our application on top of the foundation that Pivotal gives us.”

—Thomas Fredell, Merrill Corporation

The experiences at Boeing, DICK’S, and Merrill align closely with what Gartner found as part of its 2017 Enterprise DevOps Survey, in which respondents overwhelmingly pointed to culture and leadership buy-in as the two most people-centric aspects of scaling a DevOps initiative. Skills and technology are attainable, but a team that’s rotten from the inside or hamstrung from above will always be limited in terms of how well it can deliver on its objectives—especially when those objectives include leading the company into a new area.

Image from Gartner, Hack Your Culture to Drive Quality and DevOps Success; August 2018.


We’re here for you

If you’re struggling to get your digital transformation effort off the ground, or still trying to figure out where to start, don’t fret. This stuff is hard, especially when you’re a large organization with decades of technology and process to overcome. That’s why more than a decade after cloud computing hit the mainstream and we’ve all heard so much about how Google, Netflix, and Facebook operate, so many enterprises are only now really tackling modernization.

So read the analyst reports and watch our customer videos. Or, for more inspiration, check out our customer page highlighting what your peers are doing with Pivotal. And then get in touch: We have the technology, we have the methodology, and helped some of the world’s largest companies transform their businesses and IT processes for the digital world. You could be next.


About the Author

Derrick Harris

Derrick Harris is a product marketing manager at VMware.

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