What I’ve learned from more than 2,000 customers looking to innovate in the cloud
Companies want to build for the future. The fastest way is often pilots and partners.
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Miles Ward is the chief technology officer of SADA, a cloud consultancy, where he leads the firm’s strategy and solutions capabilities, helping customers tackle big data and analytics, application migration, infrastructure automation, and cost optimization on the cloud. Previously, he was a director and global lead for solutions at Google Cloud, where he helped customers like Twitter, Audi USA, and Banco Itau build innovative solutions to their biggest business challenges.
When it comes to innovating in the cloud, what matters most isn’t a particular industry or use case, but how an organization is oriented around technology. Is it seen as a cost center, or is it a way to deliver value?
At SADA, we work with more than 2,000 different customers across a huge swath of industries and business maturities, helping launch and manage their innovations on the cloud. Over time, we’ve learned to recognize when companies have internalized the idea that technology is a vehicle for every department to deliver creative value to customers, vendors, and stakeholders — and when they haven’t.
For more digitally mature companies, technology as a means of driving value may seem an obvious proposition, but this is far from the status quo for most enterprises. A solid majority are still shifting from seeing the IT department as a supporting entity to a means for expanding the business, driving innovation, and building financial resilience.
Most companies I speak with are looking for quick wins — the places where they can start experimenting with the lowest risk and set a good example for other departments that want to stretch and grow. As these teams don’t want to take on the most experimental initiatives or the highest-risk projects, where they have no idea whether it will work or not, I want to share my experience on the starting points I have seen be most successful:
#1 Unify your data to improve conversions across sales and marketing
One challenge that comes up a lot is the need to find new customers and increase leads while keeping acquisition costs low. We speak with teams that understand how their online marketing works, but often don’t consider where the data from these various activities resides and how that affects their ability to work with that information.
Many have a different tool for every channel. For example, social analytics will be collected in a social tool while sales data might go into a CRM system. The main problem is that all the analytics data is completely separate and siloed, making it difficult to generate the cross-channel insights needed to improve customer acquisition and activate audience segments in an omnichannel world.
When you don’t have all the information about customer behavior or interactions, it’s likely that you might be using a channel in the wrong way. For example, the folks at The Home Depot learned that many of its in-store visits started with a website visit, meaning customers went to the website to make sure items were in-stock before they headed to the store.
With so much business divided between the digital and physical worlds, knowing what your customers are looking for is a distinct challenge a data cloud can help solve.
Let’s consider how this type of insight might get you thinking differently about how you approach building your website. In this case, adding features that display available store inventory or nearest location information could drive more potential customers to buy than features focused on ecommerce sales.
We recommend starting with an experiment to unify data, for example, in an enterprise data warehouse to see how much easier it is to achieve real cross-channel insights and drive better returns on ad spend without a lot of extra work, even with a smaller team of analysts. When you have a complete picture of what’s happening, it helps get you thinking about how you can apply technology and data analytics to optimize other areas and increase operational efficiency.
#2 Adopt SaaS solutions where you can
SaaS, or software-as-a-service, tools are a great way to begin transforming and driving innovation in the cloud as they allow you to get started fast without having to build entire applications from the ground up.
Let’s look at YoloWorks!, a virtual employment center that provides a full set of tools to help job seekers discover and apply for employment opportunities. At the height of pandemic-related unemployment in 2020, YoloWorks! was inundated with thousands of phone calls from people with questions about unemployment benefits and looking for help with finding a new job. YoloWorks! soon found the resources of its employment centers stretched thin fielding phone calls and trying to manually schedule individual virtual appointments for specific guidance.
Software-as-a-service tools are a great way to begin transforming and driving innovation in the cloud as they allow you to get started fast without having to build entire applications from the ground up.
Yoloworks! hadn’t implemented a SaaS solution because the old ways worked well enough. However, based on current events, it needed a single solution to automate answering questions and scheduling appointments that could be available and accessible 24/7. Instead of developing everything from scratch, Yoloworks! used Google Cloud tools to build a chatbot to answer FAQs and combined it with a pre-built virtual appointment scheduling and video conferencing solution from SADA to create exactly what it needed.
SADA helped Yoloworks! connect the virtual appointment systems into its service account management to enable scheduling appointments directly in employee calendars. SADA also customized the solution by integrating the new chatbot tool with a virtual booking system so when job seekers ask a question that requires direct assistance, the person will be immediately automatically served a response to schedule a virtual 1:1 appointment.
#3 Extract data with an API
The final area we see a lot of potential for quick wins is data extraction, where it’s your customers who are seeking data from the work you do. Many organizations have a strong mental model for getting data in but struggle with getting data out.
Modern companies that are trying to build a network of partners want to be able to interact and exchange data using APIs, whether they’re sales, partners, marketing, or providers. They need to be able to pull all their data together and query for the specific information they need without having to download everything that’s available.
Fully managed cloud API management tools make it simple to build, manage, and secure APIs without having to run everything on your own. Instead of using clunkier, older types of data extraction like file transfers of huge blocks of data, you can easily package up your data based on the rules and API structure you define. Even if you haven’t done all the other work to modernize your existing services, data sources, and legacy applications, you can still interact with partners, downstream customers, and vendors in a way they expect.
#4 Enhance cloud security with logging
Managing and analyzing security event logs is a time-consuming and expensive, but necessary, endeavor in modern IT environments. When you’re starting out small, you might get away with storing and searching log data right on your laptop. But log data may fill entire warehouses of computers for large enterprises, with data sources living on-premises, in the cloud, or even across multiple clouds.
Cloud-native solutions for security event logging allow you to aggregate and analyze security and network telemetry on a global scale. You can modify and improve the way you handle identifying unauthorized access or suspicious activity without having to take on much risk
Security needs, such as identity authentication, can be supported using easily integrated cloud services.
It’s also a great example where “as-a-service” products and the flexible pricing of the cloud can make a really big difference in the way you approach solving problems. For example, pricing for certain security operations suites can be based on the number of people doing analysis rather than the amount of logs an organization needs to analyze, which better aligns incentives with outcomes.
Instead of excluding logs to try and minimize costs, this pricing approach gives you the opportunity to put all of your log data in the cloud and only worry about the number of security professionals you have working against a problem.
Building your organization’s personalized engine of innovation
These starting points are just a few examples of where your transformation — like thousands of others — could begin. Your starting move will vary based on your existing IT investments, business requirements, and the specific issues you want to address first.
Many companies already see the potential of using cloud and new technologies, but they aren’t sure exactly how they apply. In particular, they have an idea but struggle to find the path to making it happen. Some are missing the staff to carry out the work, others might know web development but lack experience with backend engineering, and still others might know the tools but haven’t done enough data integration work to make it meaningful. No two companies are the same, so the gaps they have will always be different.
When you free people up from time-consuming tasks like the ones above, you’re unlocking them to work on a hundred other new problems they couldn’t even start to solve before. There’s no reason not to throw people into these issues quickly as long as you do the next step — which is to chase after the workflows and processes they establish with engineering work. You can then start the process again, using technology to back up or automate their efforts, sparking more innovative cycles.