IT Transformation Principals (Part 1)

Over the past 15 years, I’ve had the privilege of helping hundreds of companies in the USA and Europe with their journey on catching up with technology and transforming their business, so they are able to achieve greatness and stay competitive. Within that time I realized that there are certain patterns in every engagement which negatively impacted a company’s ability to successfully deliver their projects.

This article series will cover the most common issues I’ve encountered and the steps to solve these issues within your organization.

1. Keep an Open Mind

Technology moves fast. There is no time to rest and think that what’s good today is what’s good tomorrow. I’ve realized that across all domains, team dynamics are pretty much the same. There are one or two “leaders” in each team and the rest are followers. The leaders already formed an opinion for a certain problem whereas the followers, who generally do not have as much experience as the leaders, have opinions but are afraid of voicing them. This is dangerous. To be successful, especially with automation and emerging technology, you need to make sure that you are fully open-minded. No one, no matter how smart they are, will be able to intake the amount of information which happens daily in environments like AWS, Azure, and GCP. Therefore, it is key to enable the team and give the followers a voice. Leaders need to create a culture which embraces intellectual challenges and openness. As a team, you will be able to distribute responsibilities and create broader skills which are necessary to be successful in a highly dynamic, transformational and emerging environment. When you discuss architecture or solutions for a business problem, start with a discovery session and invite the key stakeholders for the specific business problem to that meeting.

Let me explain what the goal of a discovery session is. A discovery session is a half-day workshop with the key stakeholders. These stakeholders will discuss the common goals which they would like to achieve as a team. Once these goals are defined, stakeholders can begin the discussion on how they think the identified problems can be solved. To make sure that everyone in the workshop has a voice, each participant is to be treated the same. It doesn’t matter if you are a leader or a follower. All ideas carry the same weight. During the discovery session, there are no right or wrong solutions to a problem. An important part of the discovery session is to have a good mediator and to figure out who is leading the pack, and an approach of figuring out who the pack leader is, is simple. I usually have an agenda. After introductions, my first question is “What are you trying to achieve and what business problems are you trying to solve?” The leaders in the room will speak up immediately as they want to be sure that their opinion is heard. Once the leaders are done with their explanation of what they are trying to achieve, pass the ball around and ask those (presumed followers) who did not speak up about what they think and if they agree with the problem statement and goals which they just heard from the leaders. It is of great importance that you listen and do not interrupt anyone in order to fully understand and appreciate one’s input. Additionally, a discovery session is not a product discussion nor is it there to solve a business problem. Its goal is to listen and to understand what works and what doesn’t in order to define the next steps to solve the identified business problems. You have to make sure that during the entire meeting you include every single person in the room. Treat everyone exactly the same. A discovery session will be successful if you have a clear outcome and understanding of what the issues, goals, next steps and responsibilities are in order to tackle business problems which you are trying to solve as a team.

2. Enable the Team

Knowledge sharing is everything. The more you share, the more you get back. The more you ask, the more you learn. If you go on a cloud journey, make sure your team exchanges as many ideas as possible. Your leaders should mentor the ones who follow, and the ones who follow have the opportunity to ask questions. The leaders should deeply care that whoever they mentor learns the skills to be successful. This is very important as when followers learn the skill to be successful, leaders can then move on and study other technologies and solutions which may be beneficial to your company. If you have people working for you for a while, ask them what their goals are. Ask them what they think can be changed to improve the process and to make the company more successful. Again, listen, do not interrupt and don’t take anything they say personally. Enable your team to speak up and give them the power to stand up if they feel something could be done in a better way.

3. Leading the Pack

It doesn’t matter if you are the “People Manager” or the “Technical Lead.” If you manage/mentor people, care about them. Care is a big word so I will give you my definition of caring. Everyone is wired differently, everyone has their own motivation and why they work for you. For you as a leader, it is important to understand one’s motivation. It is important to see what drives your direct reports and your peers. Only then will you be able to get the best out of everyone and give them what they need.

When I was 27 I worked for a company called Trivadis. It’s a consulting company, which at the time had about 550 employees. My job was a Linux tech lead. I knew that we had a lot of internal issues in IT but I did not expect that I would be put in charge of a team of 13 employees at the age of 27. One morning while I was working on a project I heard a voice saying “Laurent can you come into my office?” I turned back and realized that it was Urban Lankes, the CEO of the company. My blood pressure went up and I felt a little nervous as I did not know why he wanted to speak to me. I thought, “did I do something wrong that I am getting called into the CEO’s office?” Urban looked at me and said, “Laurent you know we have issues in IT and I want you to fix them.” My initial reaction was “wow, this is an awesome opportunity!” So, I agreed. Two years later, I had completely rebuilt the entire IT environment. People working for me were extremely happy and this was visible all the way up to Urban. One day he stopped in my office and asked, “I don’t understand what you did that everyone is so happy?” I looked at him and said, “I simply care about them, they know I have their backs and I give them what they need.”

The day I took the job I sat down with every single person and asked what they were trying to achieve and where they would like to be in a year from now. I built development plans based on what I had heard for each individual and made sure I talked to them bi-weekly to understand if we are still on track. I created team goals. Everyone knew exactly what the goals were and what the end game was, which we needed to achieve as a team. My goal for the team was that within two years from the start of the rebuild we would have transformed the 13 remote locations, and we would be able to play Xbox all day long as everything is automated. After one and a half years, we were done, and I bought each and every team member an Xbox. I could tell that my team was very happy.

4. The Myth of DevOps

Today, nine years after DevOps went mainstream, it’s astonishing how many people still don’t understand what it is. DevOps is not a tool nor something you can buy. DevOps is a way of thinking, it’s a culture. If you want to break it down into simple terms, it’s a structured way of doing development and operations. DevOps teaches you to have a very open mind and to look at the big picture. It teaches you to understand the scale and to take responsibility for your actions. Think about that. Before DevOps, you did not have source control. You worked on your system and if you pushed something out, nobody really knew that you were the one who broke the system. This changed when applying DevOps. In the world of DevOps accountability is important. Tools like GIT enable that behavior, and if you ever worked with companies on implementing DevOps, this is where you will see the first hurdle. If you walk to a database, systems or network guy and say you need to have your code in GIT, and that before it goes into production it will need to be tested and peer reviewed, you will see a lot of pushback. While the initial reaction is human, you as the leader need to make sure that you teach the followers why the DevOps way makes a lot of sense and how they will benefit from it if implemented the right way. One of the most successful implementations of a DevOps in my career was enabling a bank to build an Oracle RDBMS in less than 15 minutes. Before they implemented DevOps, it took that same company three weeks. Implementing DevOps will take quite a while, especially if you are working in silos where groups do not like to talk to each other. Again, communication is the key to success here. Teams need to know and understand what the other hand is doing to create cross-functional impact and make the company successful.

5. The Blockers

Every now and then I run into customers which have a so-called “blocker.” What is a blocker? A blocker is an employee which is extremely smart and is supposed to be the leader. The blocker knows pretty much everything about how the company works and what it needs but chooses to keep their knowledge for himself. This gives him job security as it looks like he is always ahead of the others on his team. Another manifestation of a blocker is an employee which does not want to move on from older technologies, despite there being better options available. The blocker cannot move on if it’s not his own idea. This behavior is not productive as it holds back the entire company. If you have a blocker on your team, sit down with him, and give him a chance to share his knowledge with the team. The more he can give, the better. If the blocker continues to function selfishly, it’s wise to fire him. In an agile, fast-paced environment you need leaders who are open-minded and share their knowledge and information. Look for people who ask questions, even if they know that they are right, as these people will make sure that whoever is following, will be on board. Blockers, on the other hand, will force their opinions onto others.

If you like this article, stay tuned for part two. Also, if there are certain areas you struggle in, let me know and if I can help, I certainly will.

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