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DTA Hosts Qubole Executive Roundtable Discussion on Meshing Business Strategy with Fast Evolving Technology
February 7, 2019 News teamed up with Qubole to run an executive round table that took place at the Fat Cow Restaurant in Singapore on 29th Jan 2019.

The overarching theme of the session was to discuss how IT and Data Professionals are having to become the leading managers of digital transformation. As you would expect with such an open topic, the discussions were wide ranging as were the variety of views expressed.

We managed to assemble a group of executives that represented a range of industries, from startups through to established MNCs, with government and academia also in attendance. The variety of participant experience made way for fascinating discussion and invaluable knowledge sharing.

The full list of participants included:

  • Namit Jain – SVP Engineering Qubole
  • Jae Lee – CTO World Roamer
  • Vishnu Bhan – SVP – Digital Client Engagement & Solutioning, DBS Bank
  • Batyrbekov, Kuanysh – Financial Modelling, ANZ Bank
  • Chakib Abi-Saab – CTO OSM Maritime Group
  • Helena Ooi – Head, Strategy, Maybank Singapore
  • Professor Ma Maode – Nanyang Technological University
  • Mi Aung – Senior Scientist: Deep Learning Department, Institute for Infocomm Research (I²R), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)
  • Eric Sim – VP, Strategy & Technology at ST Logistics
  • Nikunj Vora – Sales Director, APAC, Qubole
  • Ashish Dubey – VP International Solutions Architects, Qubole
  • Andrew Martin – Group Publisher at Asia Online Publishing Group and Session Moderator

Namit Jain had diverted on his flight back to India from the US to attend the sessions and gave an opening address prior to the general discussion getting underway. He shared how cloud is a major factor in transformation and that companies that don’t embrace cloud are likely to lose competitive advantage. He also shared considerations around “build or buy” explaining that as companies use technology to develop new business models, they need to understand what is right for their own use case as they wrestle with buying technology that may not have a 100%  fit with what they are trying to achieve, as opposed to trying to hit the 100% but taking on the risk and possible expense of building.

Namit’s experience as first chair of the Apache Hive Committee, using technology such as Hive to solve major issues at  Facebook, and running cutting edge engineering teams at Nutanix and now Qubole gives him a unique perspective as not only  does he develop technologies that other companies use to transform, at the same time he has to manage engineering teams that need to transform their own processes and activity.

Following the opening address from Namit, we jumped into the first question of the day.

How do technologists deal with choosing the right technology when technology changes so fast?

Worldroamer CTO Jae explained that often the problems he experienced with technology choices was not so much concern over which technology to pick but more on getting the rest of the business to understand. When you ask to spend big money, the question comes back from stakeholders “What is a micro service?” for Jae, he feels the major issue is communication and culture through the business in which technologists work.

The conversation inevitably moved to cloud, with general agreement around the table that a cloud strategy goes hand in hand with digital transformation. However, Vishnu from DBS raised an important point that can restrain establish companies in regulated industries.  He pointed out that as you move to cloud you lose the level of control. Giving a specific example he referred to a recent example in the news where a glitch in an airline booking system led to them selling business class tickets at around $600 instead of the $7000, they should have been selling for. He explained when things go wrong, they can be difficult to put right, but when thing sit in your own datacentre you always have the last option to “pull the wire”, but you lose that control as you move applications to public cloud services. Despite this, Vishnu is a big proponent of cloud explaining the around 70% of his banks’ IT was already in cloud.

Kuanysh from ANZ bank brought a slightly different perspective to the discussion. He argued cloud or no cloud was not the issue, as an example if his bank can provide customers with a better interest rate, then they really don’t care whether or not they have moved IT to cloud or not. In making the point, Kuanysh hit on one of the major agreements of the afternoon, namely that technology and business is more intertwined than ever before and technologists need to think about the bottom line, customer retention and customer acquisition just as much as their line of business counterparts.

With this in mind, Chakib from OSM Maritime Group explained that in his role as CTO, he has two “balls he needs to juggle”. One is to drive efficiencies from existing IT operations, the other is to explore how new technology can be implemented to transform their business and indeed business models. He gave examples of how they are using drones to acquire deep analysis of conditions of ships and how that is being used to offer new chargeable services to customers. When asked if he saw a key part of his role as being a contributor to the company’s revenue growth Chain was emphatic, he is part of the executive and the role of the CTO is very much about driving new business initiatives. Any CTO who does not see things that was Chakib argued is most likely in the wrong job, possibly an IT manager promoted to CTO but still trying to manage IT.

When asked about the risk involved in moving to new technologies Kuanysh from ANZ bank said that in his experience, there is no “first mover advantage”. His point being that competitive advantage doesn’t come from jumping to a new technology before everyone else, rather it is better to observe, understand and implement tried and tested solutions. According to Kuanysh this doesn’t stifle innovation, rather it de-risks it. Whilst no-one disagreed with his point others have are perhaps a little more adventurous. Chakib said that for traditional IT, the old players are usually the safest and best bet, but when you start looking at systems that push the boundaries you have to find new companies with new ideas. In his case, if the companies are small but innovative, they may consider buying them or even partnering with them to ensure they remain stable.

Eric Sim from ST logistics was brought into the company to drive transformation and change. He pointed out how this directive had come right from the top of the organisation (his CEO) again hitting on another point that everyone agreed, namely that the highest-level execs need to be “bought in” to the whole process of transformation for it to succeed. Eric made an interesting observation. He had found that the easiest process and areas of the business to transform were those areas that had not yet been fully digitised. In effect, where he had a clean sheet of paper and could start from scratch, he had found he could implement cutting edge systems that genuinely had transforming effects on his business with less risk, more success and more speed. The challenge of transforming legacy IT systems was much harder to do and that was also where Eric saw most resistance to implementing change.

Having the CEO back change is vital.

The idea of resistance to change was something that Eric elaborated on. He explained that the resistance can come from inside the IT team, but also from any other part of the organisation. In his case, when he implemented automated forklift operations in warehouses unsurprisingly resistance to the tech came from the warehouse staff themselves.

Helena, head of strategy at Maybank built on this theme, she explained that resistance is to be expected. But in her experience, it’s not always just about fear of change or even fear of losing one’s job, it’s that people often don’t have the knowledge of new systems, technologies or processes. According to Helena in these instances it’s not that they want to resist, its more that they just don’t understand or know how to make change happen. That’s where as leaders of transformation, communication culture and education are just as important as implementing new technology.

Helena also explained that this communicative approach to transformation is especially important as in her experience whilst CEO backing for change is vital, if the push is 100% from top down it is also doomed to failure. In her view as a leader of transformation it just as important to have the people affected by and implemented change to be on board and supporting the initiatives.

Ashish from Qubole picked up on the fear element. He explained that he spends a lot of time explaining to companies why having cloud at the centre of your transformation strategy is absolutely critical, but it’s very common that IT professionals worry that by moving to cloud they will not only lose some control, but they might also lose their jobs. He pointed out that he can’t remember hearing about any companies laying off employees because they moved their infrastructure to AWS. It’s about learning new skills and adapting, because the time that AWS may free up from IT operations will be redeployed into building or buying new technology to digitise and transform your business.

Chakib and Vishnu concurred with this point, explaining that as they have adapted their own technology, new business models have emerged and they are now looking for staff with new skill sets. In Chakib’s case OSM need more people that can bridge the gap between tech and business, in Vishnu case he sees a shortage of what he terms true “business” analysts.

Last word of the afternoon went to Professor Ma Maode from Nanyang Technological University. Bringing a different perspective to the conversation, but many years of experience as an educator he left the group with an optimistic note. Change is inevitable and with change, jobs also inevitably will disappear, but also with change new challenges and new typed of jobs will also be created, the challenge is one of continuous education, as business and technology transforms, the people must be educated to transform their own skills and abilities at the same time.

The assembled participants nodded in furious agreement, as we all agreed that the professor had brought a fitting end to a lively and fascinating round table discussion.