Most people looking at a messy spaghetti ball of disparate IT systems, with a traditional work culture, would probably say ‘no thanks’. But not Pradip Sitaram.
He took on that challenge five years ago when he joined Enterprise Community Investment in the US as CIO – an experience he discussed at the CIO Summit in Sydney on Tuesday .
Enterprise Community was set up to address housing affordability issues in the US where millions of people live pay cheque to pay cheque, and are in areas with limited access to work opportunities, education and healthcare.
The organisation does financing for affordable housing, bringing together financial institutions that have money to invest and are looking for tax credits, and housing developers who’ve been given tax credits and are looking for money.
The organisation has a huge, serious issue to tackle in the US, with IT being a big part of helping it do that, Sitaram said. But unfortunately, IT had let the organisation down badly in the past.
“I was told the company had lost faith in IT, nobody trusted IT. Investors were getting worried because systems weren’t staying up, and overall IT was generally a mess,” Sitaram said.
“I said I’ll be bringing in new technologies, new ways of working, and I’ll need to bring in a team to do this. My CFO said all that is good but your budget stays flat. We’ve got 30 years of deals, we’ve got to keep all that running, and we’ve got to fix it, but the budget stays flat.
“One of the first things I asked was, where is our systems inventory? There wasn’t one. I asked them where the blueprint, the architecture was. There wasn’t one. People were too busy putting out fires. Our key operations system has billions of dollars of assets being managed on that, and if they made one change, 12 systems would break.
“But nobody asked why do we have so many databases? There were 80 databases, and nobody asked that question.”
Sitaram showed photos of what was considered an on-premise data centre at Enterprise Community, joking about how it’s far from today’s standards.
“The power would go out all the time, and there was no real air conditioning. So when it got hot, we had a whole bunch of fans that would blow air out of the room.”
Sitaram said he decided to put an end to that and go off premise with cloud computing and just leave what was absolutely necessary on premise. He took up Salesforce in 2010, being an early adopter of cloud in the US.
“We drop spreadsheets into Salesforce, and we use a product called Dell Boomi, a cloud integration product. We have a Boomi orchestration listening for a file to drop in, it reads the file, passes the file out (very complex business rules apply), before loading over 300 data points back into Salesforce,” he explained.
Before, staff use to email each other heavy, complex Excel spreadsheets with 70 tabs to mine through. And usually a worker would forward a 30MB Excel file onto about 10 people to download, which is not an ideal set up for business to run efficiently, Sitaram said.
“Today, we expect every application we build to have integrated work flow, reporting and dashboards, document sharing and collaboration – not separate systems.
“If you have separate systems, you are not concentrating on building applications and functionality for the users, you are working on integration, and try justifying a few million dollars on the integration budget,” he added.
The other main problem within Enterprise Community that Sitaram sought to change was its way of working – the old school Waterfall approach.
“That whole Waterfall model doesn’t work. You got to start with the architecture, start with a concept, and then the business and IT work collaboratively together. I had to change that mindset and say ‘you don’t have to do that, you can start small and then build and polish as you go, you don’t have to get it right the first time’.
Business engagement comes with the Agile methodology and it forces other lines of business to sit alongside IT and go through the process of a project, he said.
“Today, we will not start a project if there is not business representation … the business head had to absolutely commit. I can pretty much guarantee failure if there’s no business engagement on a project.”
He said the team is now building systems four times faster, in days and weeks, than they ever did before. Agile also helped him make significant cost savings when moving to Salesforce’s cloud in weeks, after receiving a quote from Microsoft that it would cost $1 million and take 9 months.
Sitaram also implemented software that automated its tax compliant processes.
“We are in financial services and real estate – two of the most complex, document intense and manual industries you can think of. Every quarter we file taxes to the IRS.”
He said there used to be stacks of paper, workers would pick up a stack and take it back to their cube, check a bunch of numbers, put it back, and so on.
“They would check 200,000 data points manually,” he said.
“We’ve completely automated that. We’ve got software written to scan it, code the business rules, which they can edit in English. And if there’s a problem, we throw an exception. So you can image the ROI on that, think about how much time we are saving.”
The make up of the IT team has also changed. Sitaram said it used to be very software development focused, and lacking business skills where the team can understand and clearly articulate the business problem, go through a solution and quickly implement it.
“I still have the same total number of people in IT as I did when I started. The mix has changed. It’s far more important to me to have a business analyst who can sit down, grab a coffee with the business counterpart, speak English and not geek talk, and go configure something really quickly,” he said.
“I don’t need the propeller head software developer who can cram 15,000 lines of .NET in a day. I use to have 10 of those, I just need one. So the skill mix has changed.”
Pradip emphasised the importance of Enterprise’s role in solving the housing insecurity crisis in the United States. Enterprise has provided homes for more than 1 million people over the past 20 years and the technology transformation could not have been possible without the support of the senior executive team and the strong partnership between the business and IT, he said.