We posed a series of questions to Leapfrog Services CTO Emmett Hawkins about the IT changes he’s seeing during COVID-19 and asked what he recommends moving forward. His insights cover everything from how to think about IT differently to how to tackle transformative IT projects.
Q: What are the biggest changes you’re seeing in the way your clients are using IT since the start of the pandemic other than remote working?
A: I’m seeing companies do one of three things. They’re either using stopgaps like Zoom to continue to do business until they can get back to normal. Or, they’re doubling down on the digital transformation they had already implemented, like custom apps and touchless transactions. Or, they’re fast-tracking digital initiatives they had scheduled for 2021 or 2022.
The doubling-down group is glad to have done some digital transformation before all this started — now it’s their sweet spot.
Q: For companies currently using stopgaps or fast-tracking digital transformation, what are the most important changes they should make to prepare for the next year or two?
A: The first important change is to adopt a new mindset. I think companies should keep two words in mind when thinking about IT in the new normal: nimble and ubiquitous. Nimble in that your IT should be flexible. People should be able to use any device to interact with your company, whether they’re employees, customers, vendors, stakeholders, anyone. And ubiquitous in that people should be able to interface with the company from wherever they happen to be located.
The second is to take action on the new mindset. Move quickly, don’t wait around. Get rid of any kinks in your remote working process to relieve frustrations that employees and customers may be having, and shore up security for these platforms. Also, fix anything that may break soon to avoid potential headaches. Then, focus on how you can decouple from on-premises solutions and infrastructure. The fastest way to take action is to apply tools and platforms that were built for a distributed workforce to as much of your IT environment as possible.
Q: What are some examples of tools and platforms built for a distributed workforce?
A: These are cloud solutions that can be integrated into existing IT environments. The ones that enable secure access to company resources so people can collaborate and close deals and accept payments electronically are at the top of the list right now. For many companies, making this happen will involve moving some resources and computing to the cloud.
As far as specific tools go, a lot of our clients use Microsoft Teams and Sharepoint for collaboration and are adding live chat to their websites to answer customer questions and move sales along. For chat they use LiveChat, Chatbot, Sendinblue or another proven solution. For payments, they use PayPal, Stripe, Square, SecurePay. There are a lot of good options.
Transforming IT in this way is innovative for some companies but that doesn’t mean the technologies they use should be the most innovative ones. Right now, it’s best to stick with proven solutions and work with experienced partners, vendors, and advisers to get it done. The companies you work with should also have a deep bench — you don’t want any surprises or long delays. Working with seasoned pros also helps with apprehensions.
Q: Do you have any advice for companies that want to make these changes but are unsure about the best approach or concerned it might be an enormous hill to climb?
A: I recommend companies start by figuring out the best way to generate revenue during the pandemic. What are the opportunities? This is the number one goal — to know what you want to do and to prioritize your business goals. Then, leadership should meet with the IT team to talk about the goals so IT can offer options for the best tools and platforms to get it done and decide which resources should move to the cloud. Keeping the end in mind is important throughout this process. The company should make its final choices based on how well everything will work together and how well the integrated environment can be monitored and managed.
From there, the engineers can build the IT roadmap and leadership can decide how to divide IT roles and responsibilities to get the work done. Once a company has a solid plan, the hill to climb probably won’t seem enormous. It will probably be inspiring.
Q: How long does it usually take to complete these types of projects?
A: It depends on the changes you need to make, but if you work with an experienced partner, it can go a lot quicker than you might think. They have done this hundreds of times and have processes in place. It can take longer to decide what you want to do than to complete the actual work. When we do simple digital transformation projects, we’re usually ready to test in under four weeks. For more complicated projects, taking an Agile approach will help because you break down the project into bite-size pieces and see progress along the way. Typical Agile breakdowns, called sprints, are two weeks per sprint.
I understand some people may feel paralyzed when it comes to their IT and want to sit it out to see what happens. But, in my opinion, they should make their decisions now because there is an IT human resources shortage coming up. There was an IT talent crunch before all this started. It’s not like there are a lot of good IT people sitting around with nothing to do and there are only so many people who know how all this works. If companies don’t get their IT projects slated, they could be stuck at zero while other companies are moving forward, which will make it harder for them to catch up.
Q: What about budget concerns for taking on new IT projects right now?
A: At this point, I think it’s become more about the cost of not making changes, but companies should start by cutting waste from the IT budget and spending it on strategic, revenue-generating IT activities instead. We’ve seen the best way to do this is to assign internal staff the task of developing solutions that solve business problems because they’re the ones who understand the business. Then, outsource daily IT tasks and infrastructure management because those activities can be standardized for efficiency.
A lot of things will likely change about the way companies budget during the pandemic. We’re already seeing it. A lot of our clients are not planning to go back to the office until next year, and some employees won’t ever go back — they’ll keep working remotely. For companies downsizing physical locations, they may find some cost savings there. Cloud services are also OPEX, not CAPEX, and companies can quickly scale up or down as needs change. It’s the same with outsourcing the backend — you’re not buying physical assets and it’s flexible. Companies should also keep in mind that having internal IT employees focus on revenue-generating projects impacts the other side of the balance sheet.
Q: Most companies already had an IT roadmap so the new one will look different — more nimble and ubiquitous and more about revenue generation. What about the role of the IT team in general? Is it different now?
A: IT’s role right now should be all about removing obstacles and enabling growth. IT can be the hero right now by making needed changes happen quickly. I think that’s IT’s most important role at this time.
The IT team should make things easy for everyone — customers, employees, other stakeholders — and pave the way for the company to take advantage of new opportunities and a new way of doing things. There’s a saying that internal IT departments are the “Department of No.” They give you reasons why they can’t do things like it’s not our standard, not secure, not in the budget, not on the IT roadmap. The IT department still has all of these constraints but its new role is to find a way to say yes and to do it quickly. This typically involves working with partners to avoid going through the long process of RFPs, hiring, and training. It’s faster to hire an expert that has the experience to design and build what you need and then stick around to run it.
We’ve seen that the most valuable internal IT departments are the ones that really know the business. They don’t need to be the best engineers. Their role is to know what and why things are important to the business, how the different processes work — sales, billing, distribution — and how technology supports these processes, and how everything fits together. They also should be able to give direction. Sometimes the finance department ends up leading IT projects because they’re the ones who fully understand how the business works.
There’s another thing about the role of IT right now that we shouldn’t overlook. People working in IT need to keep themselves healthy, whether they’re in-house or part of an outsourced team. Companies should not hold back from asking their IT partners and vendors what they’re doing to keep the virus from spreading. IT has to be able to keep the engine running so everyone else can work.