GlobalLogic provides experience design, digital product engineering services and Agile software development to global brands in all vertical industries.

12 Secrets of Digital Transformation: Part 1

December 24, 2017

Introduction

Does your company buy software, or make software? For the overwhelming majority of businesses across the full spectrum of industries and occupations, the answer is “both.” Almost without exception, every company buys, subscribes or indirectly pays for software or software-based services to run their business. Nearly as many companies develop software. Companies may develop software at a near unconscious level—for example, putting together complex spreadsheet formulas for payroll calculations or budgeting. Or they may have hundreds or even thousands of professional software developers and IT staff. 

What differentiates a software product company from other businesses is not whether they make software or not; rather it’s the realization by product companies that the software IS the business. Software is not a supporting function, it’s the product: the software is what drives the company’s income and delivers value to its clients.

For some companies, this is blindingly obvious. There would be little debate that Microsoft, Oracle, Apple, Amazon, Salesforce, Uber, Airbnb and many others are software product companies first and foremost. But increasingly companies of every type find it necessary to become software-centric. This is because the people who are your customers and employees have, since the late 2000’s, all moved online. It’s like everyone in the world moved to a single city—let’s say, Cleveland Ohio. If that were the case, you would need to learn to do business in Cleveland, Ohio—because that’s where all your customers and employees now live. Instead of a physical geographic relocation, though, the “demographic” shift we’ve seen was introduced by powerful smart devices in the late 2000’s. The net effect is the same: your customer base and workers all now live in a new virtual location. They are all on-line, all the time. So, you need to learn to do business there.

In the same time period, powerful open-source and open-source derived technologies have demolished many barriers to entry for business, while raising certain others. Barriers like capital investment in infrastructure and connectivity have largely gone away, eliminated by public cloud-based platforms; cheap, fast and ubiquitous network connectivity; and the universal and global availability of powerful mobile computing devices. At the same time, the technological stakes have been raised: people’s expectations of software are very high since they see the best-of-the-best on a daily basis. And while the widespread availability of powerful open-source software means it’s available to you, it also means it’s available to all your current and potential competitors—and some of them are, or are trying to get, really good.

For some companies, “digital” or “technology” transformation is no longer optional—it’s now a matter of survival. This may have happened because a competitor or up-start has moved first and begun to capture the “digital high ground.” Or it may be caused by a fundamental disruption to your entire business model or industry. In any event, instead of a laser-focus on capturing new opportunities, you may now find yourself playing catch-up. 

The software-centric aspect of our age means that very nature of many businesses—and of the value they produce—has become unclear. If you are a provider of personalized on-line content, is your core value still the creation and curation of that content, or is it really the platform that determines your consumer’s personal needs and delivers the most relevant material to them? If you are a package delivery company, is your core value still the timely and safe delivery of a physical package? Or is it providing the infrastructure to track and direct the efficient movement of an item through all the elements of a multi-party delivery chain? If it’s the latter, the software-centric focus, you have a number of options available to you that would never have been available before. For example, the logistics company’s software platform could potentially leverage distributed “gig” labor in developing countries to do package delivery by bicycle, coordinated by the platform, opening a new market. The content company could expand their set of consumers by broadening the amount of content they currently provide, and focusing on the best possible personalized experience. If their platform was good enough, either “platform-focused” company could pivot and become a SaaS platform provider to their current competitors. 

For many large companies the answer to “software vs. other businesses” is “both-and” rather than “either-or.” You can indeed be a company that both produces content and also provides a platform for delivering it. You can be a logistics company that both owns a platform to optimize the movement of a package through a complex distribution network and that also owns and operates key elements of that network. However, the difference between a “digitally transformed” company and a pre-transformation “software-enabled business” is that these two aspects of your business have equal stature. The software is not a supporting function or cost center; it is a revenue generator and as much a part of your top-line “offering” as the rest of your business. It’s the extent to which that is true that measures the degree of your digital / technology transformation.

Technology transformation is hard work. Taking a company which is not software product centered and making it software-centric is a profound shift. The benefits are huge, not only for disruptive businesses like Uber and Airbnb, but for established companies in every industry. If you have decided to be a leader in your company’s digital transformation process—congratulations! You have an amazing journey ahead of you. It’s hard work, but it can pay huge dividends for your company—and for you personally as a champion and change agent. 

At GlobalLogic we’ve worked with companies in all sorts of transformation situations: the first-moving disrupters; the aggressive early-adopter digital champions; and the late adopters who must transform to survive and stay relevant. Most of the “secrets” of digital transformation we have learned apply to all three categories. We offer these principles as a distillation of some of the things we have learned, and hope they help you on your journey.

Secret #1: Stop digging the hole deeper

While this principle is probably the most obvious, it’s almost always the hardest to do. Companies who are still on the wrong side of the digital divide generally find themselves adding to their technology debt with everything they do. Given the challenges of the legacy architecture, it’s hard to meet schedules and satisfy users, so shortcut after shortcut is taken to meet demand or just stay afloat. These shortcuts further complicate or compromise the system, making future changes even more challenging. There’s never enough time to do things right—let alone address accumulated technical debt. It’s a vicious self-reinforcing cycle: one that many companies find difficult or impossible to break out of.

But, as a champion of digital transformation, that’s the job.

There’s a great quote from software management guru Gerald Weinberg: “Things are the way they are because they got that way.” While this may seem blindingly obvious, it’s a reminder that everything you see today has or had a cause. That includes the way things are currently implemented in the software, as well as the way people behave. Without understanding and addressing those causes, you doom yourself to follow along the same path.

For example, demands from sales or product that engineering complete software changes in unreasonably short periods are so common that in many organizations it has almost become a joke. But why does it happen? Unreasonable time demands are often driven by product management and sales concerns that no matter what date they ask for, engineering will be late. This fear is often founded on real, actual past experience. The sales and product management groups therefore ask to get things earlier than they really need them, in the hope that even if engineering is late, the software will still be ready when really required. Similarly, engineering often learns to over-estimate their dates externally so that even if they are late relative to their secret internal plan date, they still will not disappoint their internal and external “customers.”

The combination of overly aggressive “ask” dates, and overly conservative “commit” dates means that engineers are constantly working against an artificially compressed schedule, with padding on both sides. This dynamic drives a lot of dysfunction in a lot of organizations. However, given the history, both sides are doing what seems both reasonable and necessary to them. In other words, both sides are trying to “do the right thing” for the company and the customers, from their own perspective. “Things are the way they are because they got that way.”

The only way out of this particular situation that I’ve seen work is for engineering to start giving and meeting realistic dates—however bad they may look—and independent of the date being requested. In other words, engineering has to start making accurate, non-padded forecasts and standing by them regardless of any pressure on them to say they can deliver sooner than it takes to do a good job. This is scary and, in some organizations, job-risking for all concerned. But once you understand the cause—which in this example is the fear that engineering will be late—it’s clear what the cure has to be: Engineering needs to start estimating accurately, and delivering to their estimates.

In this scenario, until the cycle of padding dates in both directions gets broken, system quality will continue to decrease because of the shortcuts demanded by unmeetable schedules. Perversely, continuing the dysfunctional scheduling behavior will continue to increase the time to meet the next request, because the shortcuts have made the system harder to manage: re-enforcing a negative cycle. This is despite the fact that there really is no “bad guy” in this scenario. Everyone is trying to do the right thing to set expectations correctly and meet customer needs.

The deal-driven downward quality spiral is a fact of life in many companies, regardless of size. One client, a multi-billion-dollar (USD) giant in their domain, suffered from this very issue. No matter how big you are, there is someone bigger who, as your customer, can drive organizations to “commit” to unrealistic and literally unmeetable schedules.

There are, of course, other reasons besides “padding” for marketing and sales to request a challenging delivery date. Some dates really are immovable—a trade show launch, for example. In those cases, the best solution I’ve found is, where possible, to compromise on scope, but not on system or architectural quality. Short-term architecture compromises made to hit a date inevitably come around and bite you later. Sometimes you have to do it—there is no viable option. But in those cases, you should budget the time to fix it in a pre-planned, rapid follow-on release—for example, a “2.01” release immediately after your big “2.0” launch. This release should undo the short-term compromises you made to hit the artificial date. Otherwise, you’ll pay a long-term penalty for this short-term advantage. Again—don’t dig the hole deeper.

There are other sources of digital dysfunction besides schedule pressure. None of them are particularly easy to fix, but you can at least halt the downward spiral starting today. You not only can, but you must at least arrest the decline if you are going to transform in to a healthy software-product centric company. If not today, when? For example, you may have a huge amount of technology debt because engineers never seem to have time to do unit testing. This is a false premise in my mind—the time taken to fix missed bugs downstream far outweighs the time it would have taken to create the tests. You can’t fix the past overnight, but you can resolve to at least stop making things worse. For example, you can mandate that, starting today, no NEW code may be checked in without a minimum of (for example) tests giving 85% statement coverage also being checked into the unit test repository. You haven’t fixed the past by doing this—but you have stopped making things worse, at least in this particular area.

Other issues can include earlier technology direction missteps (Flash-based or server-side template-driven UIs for example), lock-in to a ten- or 15-year-old technology, organic unplanned growth of systems, partially or non-integrated acquisitions—and many others. The goal here is not to fix these overnight but to begin, now, to stop making things worse. This may involve a technological “fix” such as wrapping a last-generation subsystem in an API so that you can build on top of it “properly”. Or it may involve a negotiation with other stakeholders about behavior changes, as in the deal-driven downward quality spiral.

Generally, once you’ve identified and are honest about the causes, there will be at least a small step you can take today to stop making things worse—or at least to begin slowing the rate of decline. Improvement might be microscopic at first, but the key thing is to get started. Eradicating the underlying causes of deep-seated digital dysfunction does not happen all at once; it’s accomplished through a series of improvements to process, technology and other areas whose net effect is transformative. The first step along that path is to identify your real problems, do an honest assessment of what has caused or is causing them, and then figuring out concrete steps you can take today to stop making things worse.