by Peter Sayer

Workday CIO on tackling SaaS debt and sprawl

Nov 21, 2018
Cloud ComputingERP SystemsIT Leadership

Configure your software, don’t customize it — but make sure you have the skills available to do it well: That’s the advice of Workday CIO Diana McKenzie

Being the CIO of a cloud ERP provider is a unique balancing act. As the first customer of your company’s software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering, you must help drive the company’s flagship forward, but you also must support the technical needs of the organization as a whole.

That’s where Workday CIO Diana McKenzie found herself when joining the company nearly three years ago, after the better part of three decades running IT functions in the life sciences industry. The core of Workday was running on its own software, which performs essential financial, HR and planning functions, but elsewhere issues were coming to the fore.

“There was an incredible focus when I showed up on the core functions, because it is where our product fits, and there had been a good two-plus year effort to build up our internal capability so that we were the best and first customer of our product,” McKenzie says. “We pushed the product pretty hard internally.”

Around that Workday core, though, there was little integration with departments each using their own software-as-a-service platforms. Add in the technical debt of being an early adopter of SaaS platforms and the sprawl of tools that can result from a tech-savvy, fast growing culture, and you can see the tangled web of cloud solutions McKenzie found herself in.

“There really wasn’t anyone to take on a cross-functional view,” she says. “That’s the place where I and my team have begun to step in.”

Dealing with SaaS debt

For McKenzie, Workday’s use of Salesforce was a particular challenge, as it had been significantly customized to match the business processes of the company’s sales, service and customer support domains.

“When I showed up, we had a bit of technical debt in the platform,” she says. “I think this is something you’ll find to be true for just about every company that started using Salesforce in the early part of the 2000s.” 

Worse, that customization was becoming redundant as Salesforce had started to incorporate some of that functionality natively, accessible via configuration. So McKenzie set up a team “to back out some of the customization and prepare us to take advantage of some of [Salesforce’s] new features like Lightning,” she says.

The same held true for Workday’s use of ServiceNow.

“There were customizations that were requested that, if there had been a really solid understanding of where that platform was going there might have been more configuration done over customization,” she says. “Now we’re able to upgrade, to leverage those upgrades pretty consistently.”

Hiring people who know those platforms well has been key. “That has made a huge difference for us with respect to insuring that we’re taking full advantage of the capabilities those platforms offer,” she says.

Expertise developed by the integrations team has also proved pivotal to dealing with Workday’s SaaS creep. “That team has grown and developed pretty significantly,” McKenzie says. “Almost everything we do to connect all of our SaaS platforms together is historically through Mulesoft and we’re doing some work right now with Snaplogic as well.”

Cutting down collaboration clutter

If one challenge for McKenzie was dealing with tech debt, limiting the profusion of platforms was another.

“We have focused very heavily on what I would call the collaboration conundrum,” she says.

There was no policy on collaboration tools when McKenzie joined Workday, so the company’s thousands of tech-savvy employees had picked whatever best suited their team. On top of that, IT had deployed a solution of its own, but “there wasn’t a lot of training available, and so now you had IT supporting a tool that really not everyone was terribly excited about,” she says.

To help hone the company’s collaboration toolset, McKenzie’s team ran focus groups in Workday offices around the world, bringing together staff from a broad cross-section of job functions to determine what worked well. From there they developed eight personas, adding more characteristics to personas already created by the product engineering organization.

McKenzie’s team then created a framework for how they think about collaboration, chat, audio and conference calling, based on Gartner’s ACME (Activities, Context, Motivation, Enabling Technology) methodology.

“We assessed a number of the platforms that were out there, and ultimately ended up making an investment in Slack Enterprise Grid and Zoom, and we are big Google users,” she says.

As for the other collaboration tools that were already in use, they’re not forbidden: “If you want to run that tool, by all means, but you might just be talking to yourself.”

Cross-skilling to innovate

McKenzie is a firm believer in cross-skilling her staff. In her tenure, there have been a number of exchanges in which staff have moved between product engineering and her own business technology team to share expertise. One such exchange led to the creation of an internal testbed where other technology vendors can try out their wares.

“We brought a manager over from the product engineering organization to launch something we called the Alpha Lab,” she says. The lab stitches together sandbox environments for many of the SaaS platforms the company runs on, making them available to vendors it is considering buying from, partnering with, investing in or acquiring.

Alpha Lab will also get a workout during a company-wide hackathon at the end of November. “We’re very excited about that, and we think that’s going to create an even more free-flow exchange of talent between the organizations,” McKenzie says.

Around ten staff have moved back and forth between product engineering and business technology, and in addition, “We’ve reorganized a couple of times, so we’ve actually moved individuals and full organizational functions into the product organization,” McKenzie says.

Such moves are welcomed at Workday, but within limits. Exchanges are part of a career-planning conversation with a line manager, and staff are expected to stick with a role for around 18 months before moving on.

Piloting new functionality

McKenzie has a couple of big cross-functional projects under way, thanks to her unique position of putting the company’s products to work.

One is built around the company’s Prism Analytics, which draws together financial and HR data from the Workday platform and data from external sources to help make better decisions. Using Amazon’s infrastructure, McKenzie’s team built scorecards and dashboards that are shared across marketing, sales and services, but as the project advanced it became clear there was demand from the various resident analytics teams for more self-service access to that data.

“As we started to think about how we built that out, that’s when we pivoted. It doesn’t make sense for us to try to build as much of that out in the Amazon platform when we know this is something we want to make happen within Prism,” she says. “Now what we’re doing is we’re working to build out that same capability within Prism.”

The other project involves scaling Workday’s order management and account planning capabilities across the marketing, presales, sales and services functions. “We want to make sure that we touch a customer one time, and we touch them in the right way with full knowledge of all the other touch points we’ve had with them,” she says.

Staying close to customers is something that McKenzie sees as very much part of the CIO’s role.

“It’s important for CIOs in this digital economy to be connected with customers, and I don’t think it matters what company or industry they’re in.”

Even back as CIO at biotechnology company Amgen, McKenzie would still make the effort to meet customers: initially physicians and later, as the company began investing in the digital health space, also patients. “We spent a lot of time getting to know them and to understand their needs.”