One of the nagging challenges IT leaders face is cultivating enough talent to adopt and implement cloud services, so they often resort to poaching from other companies or scouring universities for engineers schooled in modern computing skills. But that piecemeal approach can take precious years that companies can’t spare.
FedEx is trying a different tack: Teaching its own engineers how to build new applications and rewrite legacy applications that run in the logistics company’s hybrid cloud. This homegrown team, called Cloud Dojo, has reskilled more than 2,500 software programmers on how to work with public cloud software and several complementary technologies, says FedEx CIO Rob Carter, who initiated the effort.
The dearth in tech talent has CIOs training up existing staff to keep pace with digital disruption. Some evidence suggests they aren’t doing it fast enough. While most organizations believe they are reskilling their teams, 52 percent of employees surveyed say that they need better upskilling, while 34 percent report that advances in tech call for new skills in the workplace, according to Gartner. “This leads to a loss of engagement, decline in motivation and increase in workforce attrition,” wrote Gartner analysts Kaustav Dey and John Santoro in the 2018 report. “Reskilling strategy needs to evolve.”
A call to action for the cloud
FedEx’s tech reskilling effort jumped into overdrive in 2017 with the Renewal Manifesto, a document Carter wrote to convey the urgency of modernizing both the logistics company’s technology and the skills required to better support customers. He shared this manifesto with key members of senior leadership, stressing that business and IT must be aligned with FedEx’s IT modernization. “In the digital transformation, it was important for us to gain momentum and get more aggressive in our strategy to create a modern digital enterprise,” Carter says. The manifesto included tech tenets espousing the value of “cloud-native” software, microservices and the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), among other skillsets and processes.
The problem? FedEx didn’t have enough IT professionals to work with those tools and processes. Thus was born the Cloud Dojo, winner of a 2019 CIO 100 Award in IT excellence. The Dojo comprises a cross-functional team, of expert cloud developers, security professionals and operations specialists, co-located in one location.
Expert developers, known as “senseis,” build or refactor FedEx applications on a PaaS (platform-as-a-service) system. Using container software to make them portable and Kubernetes technology to orchestrate the movement of containers between clouds, the PaaS platform enables engineers to shuttle apps between Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, Amazon Web Services and internal datacenters, based on business need.
FedEx has only so many senseis, and development deadlines prohibit traditional schooling. To bolster its cloud-native staff, FedEx trains up software engineers with paired programming, an agile software development technique in which two developers work on the same piece of code side by side. Typically, the sensei writes new apps or rewrites legacy code to run in the cloud, with the “student” reviewing the code as it’s typed.
“Entry-level team members are becoming our next-generation tech leaders,” Carter says. It’s fun to watch.”
Application teams requiring cloud services can engage the Dojo through an automated dashboard without manually filing a services request ticket, per the previous practice. Teams receive access to cloud infrastructure within 24 hours; previously, requests for on-premises infrastructure took weeks or months. Alternatively, developers may receive self-service access to the cloud infrastructure through a dashboard. Each unit vice president may view the progress of applications moving to the cloud platform through a dashboard as well.
Driving business value via the cloud
Paired programming boosts the velocity of development, eliminating the traditional siloed approach, in which teams work without sharing knowledge with other teams, Carter says. Building on this culture of transparency and accountability, completed code commits are published on the Dojo’s internal website.
To date, FedEx has rewritten more than 200 production applications for the cloud, with more than 300 apps on tap, Carter says. Beyond the app modernization effort, the platform and Cloud Dojo provide productivity and time-to-market gains. Developers rewrote one of the company’s package-sorting application in less than 9 months, a 60 percent decrease in time from the 24 months previous rewrites took, Carter says. Moreover, the new app included significant performance increases.
Cloud Dojo also eliminates the planned outages for upgrades and security patching that are typical in legacy on-premises systems as it optimizes service across its FedEx Ground, Home Delivery, and SmartPost networks, improving services delivery for customers. The Cloud Dojo comes in the wake of significant application rationalization across FedEx business lines, in which Carter used Apptio analytics software to eliminate redundant, aging applications and their associated services, saving millions of dollars. Consistent with Carter’s penchant for transparency, he also created dashboards to show the business how much it cost to deliver IT services.
Carter offers some tips for CIOs wishing to take a similar approach to moving to the cloud.
Assume positive outcomes. Cloud tech experts are in short supply, so don’t assume that existing team members lack the wherewithal to learn these new skills. “We have many technologists on our teams eager to learn the new skills,” Carter says.
But, Carter allows, FedEx has been on its transformation journey for more than a decade so it doesn’t have the burden of a cold start to overcome.
Communication is key. Putting a new initiative in a black box is no way to lead change. Carter embedded a workplace communication specialist with its Cloud Dojo team to convey results to FedEx employees.
Embrace a culture for innovation. Some organizations struggle to cultivate change because they lack the culture to accept change. Not FedEx. “We have a culture that helps the organization thrive because it embraces people and embraces the ability to think about the world differently,” says Carter. He adds that change management wasn’t an issue because the FedEx culture is predicated on iteration and innovation.