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When Modernization Becomes Mandatory

By now, no one has escaped the effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic. Every major corporation is dealing with the logistical and economic impacts of the pandemic. While many industries such as hospitality are dealing with huge slowdowns, other industries are struggling to deal with the logistics of maintaining continuity and dealing with sharp new demands on the business. In this environment, companies need to evaluate key systems to ensure that their business can continue to function.

Retail and B2C have been turned entirely upside down. Retailers are scrambling to adjust to an entirely e-commerce driven paradigm - and even those retailers with a significant online presence are now dealing with extra strains on their online systems. For those select retailers who are still physically open, they are dealing with enormous supply chain problems as global and local freight have drastically slowed down, and on top of this, they are now looking for ways to stock in-demand products like cleaning supplies and protective equipment.

Much of the office work across the globe, by this time, has transitioned to some sort of work from home format. This work from home policy has put a strain on key systems, such as VPN’s that now have to deal with anywhere from 2-50 times their typical load. Companies with call centers have scrambled to operate them remotely. In a similar vein, internal help desks which operate as the beating heart of office logistics, have needed to rethink their procedures.

After a few weeks of quarantine, most companies have made immediate adjustments to maintain as much business continuity as possible. However, IT owners all now understand that the current climate of at least partial quarantine and social distancing is more likely to continue for months than weeks. Those systems that are limping along, barely meeting the demands of March 2020, absolutely need to be fixed immediately. As the country enters a deep and rapid downturn, no one can leave money on the table - it’s now a matter of economic survival.

Note: The recommendations here are heavily influenced by two of my favorite IT-related business books - “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz, and “The Phoenix Project” By Gene Kim. These are highly relevant reads about business leadership during crisis.

Of course all IT leaders are currently in lifesaving mode, where their immediate concern is trying to mitigate existing issues immediately. At the same time, recognizing that the current COVID-19 crisis will continue for the foreseeable future, leaders need to plan to get their key systems on solid footing to support the business. My recommendations are four-fold:

Make the painful decisions necessary to free up budget and resources to support the critical business systems in need

Many businesses are entering a truly precarious time. At a moment like this, no organization can limp through critical business systems not keeping up to par. Leaders must make hard, painful cuts to non-critical business systems and redirect time, money and resources towards the most existential threats.

Pull SME’s from across the organization to focus on immediate mitigation efforts, focused on days not weeks

Knowing that many businesses are facing an existential threat, the top SME’s need to be directed towards mitigating business-critical issues. That may mean that they leave pet projects that have personally invested in, or take on roles that don’t match their title.

In parallel, assemble a team to focus on near-term fixes that can be achieved in weeks not months.

With SMEs focused on minimizing business disruption, organize a team focused on the next level of fixes. They should operate independently of the SME’s, so as not to impact their work. This team can be comprised of those resources freed up from non-essential work, and their charter should be working out longer-term solutions. However, the key here is that longer-term means weeks, not months. In this environment, it’s hard for most businesses to plan out well beyond that timeframe.

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My focus is cloud and application modernization, and there are a few key areas where organizations can make quick, tactical wins:

Lift & Shift

For in-house systems failing, look for opportunities for tactical 2-6 week lift & shifts to a cloud or hybrid cloud solution. Depending on the age and technical structure of the application, this could be feasible within a few weeks. For example, organizational apps built using Spring Boot already have much of the framework in place to run well on the cloud, while legacy SOA applications built on custom J2EE containers may be harder to migrate over.

If it does not seem feasible to migrate the application, consider whether any facets of functionality from the application can be quickly duplicated to the cloud. For instance, if data access is a major issue, look if you can duplicate parts of that data to the cloud and quickly free up some bandwidth on the underlying system. Or, you could cache data to the cloud to back a legacy API that’s struggling under load.

Cloud Data Analysis

For systems inflexible to current business needs, or lacking the right data to support new business needs: don’t get stuck in manual data processing using Excel. In this day and age, having up-to-date information should be a given, but this can be extra difficult given locked down and developer-centric reporting tools in most enterprises. Plus, existing, large in-house data platforms may not be able to support the rapidly changing data needs in a COVID-19 world.

To deal with this, look to migrate key data subsets into the cloud. You cannot migrate everything easily in the short-term, but most organizations should be able to quickly and tactically move over important data to be analyzed. Once in the cloud, you can use friendly tools like Google Data Studio or Microsoft’s Power BI to quickly analyze your data. These tools, running in the cloud, can process data sets quickly and in real-time.

Cloud SaaS Solutions

For organizations struggling with remote call centers: see if you can get any immediate gains using cloud-based tools like Google Call Center AI. This product, and others like it, are completely cloud-based, accessible to a remote workforce, and relatively quick and easy to set up. Migrating an entire call center would be unwise in these circumstances, but examine if these cloud-based tools can be quickly stood up to support a subset of your clients.

For in-house help desks that don’t work well remotely: look to shift to a SaaS version of your helpdesk tool. Helpdesk solutions like Zendesk, Freshdesk and others can be enabled as options. This concept can be generalized for all in-house software. For any key software running on your internal network, look for opportunities to migrate to a SaaS or cloud-hosted version. Using SaaS-based solutions will offload the need to work through your VPN, and ensure your employees have access to functionality quickly, promptly and easily.

As the world responds to the COVID-19 crisis, it’s been common to hear immediate solutions discussed in the context of “until things return to normal.” Particularly when it comes to how foundational systems are built to respond to changing customer behavior and market forces - this is the new normal. Countless businesses are having their hands forced in the push to a digitally-native world, and in many ways, these changes won’t be undone. They’ll just continue to evolve and move forward. It’s never been more critical for the underpinnings of your business to do the same.