2 lessons cloud native companies have for enterprise leaders

IT leaders must push their organizations to continuously explore and discover solutions for problems that do not yet exist.

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If you’re reading this from anywhere but Southeast Asia, you’ve probably never heard of Grab. The company, however, is the region’s leading on-demand transportation and mobile payments platform. Think Uber and ApplePay rolled into one. Oh, and they’ve raised a ton of money (like in the billions) and are growing like crazy. You do the math.

Industry observers like to call companies like Grab, ‘cloud-native.’ The assertion is that these types of companies were born in the cloud and in the era of modern computing, and are therefore free of the legacy technical debt (and business models) of the industrial age companies they seek to disrupt.

And that’s mostly true — but it also dramatically sells short the fundamentally different approach and ethos that companies like Grab bring to bear when it comes to building, maintaining and evolving their technology stack. Their advantage comes not just from the fact that they started with a so-called greenfield environment. It’s that they relentlessly and deliberately recreate that greenfield environment over and over again.

Fixing a problem that does not yet exist

Grab’s recent adoption of a new data platform by an Israeli startup called iguazio is a case study in the creation of this sort of continual greenfield environment.

“It wasn’t that there was anything that wasn’t working,” explained Edwin Law, Grab’s data engineering lead. “Almost every day, we are looking at new technologies trying to find something that will help us achieve our goals in an interesting and unique way.”

As part of that search, the company came across iguazio and believed that it might help them enhance their service — even if, at the time, they didn’t fully know how.

“Ride hailing is more than just an app – there’s a lot going on in the background that leads to great experiences for both the passenger and driver,” explained Ditesh Gathani, Director of Engineering at Grab. “Grab’s business thrives because of our ability to manage a continuous stream of data that facilitates real-time matching, booking, payment and location services.”

The distinctive architecture that iguazio employs led Grab to believe that it might help it deliver real-time insights beyond the company’s current capabilities. So, it decided it was worth exploring. “It’s a bit of an extended experiment,” Law said. “We’re taking small steps, and, as its value is proven, we’ll roll it out at scale.”

Data wins and speed rules

There is an all-out arms race in each of these two interestingly-connected industries of on-demand transportation and on-demand payments. It is made even more interesting by the fact that the fight in both segments is taking place on a global stage, yet must be fought locally as the battle for mindshare and wallet share takes place on a city-by-city basis.

In this intensely competitive environment, two differentiators are rising to the top: data and speed.

The company collects vast amounts of data about its customers, drivers, and just about anything else that might help it continually tune and enhance its service. “Grab is a very data-driven company. Every decision is based on data,” Law shared. “Data is everything, and we are laser-focused on collecting all of the data we can to make the most optimized decisions possible.”

At the same time, however, the company has also realized that just having data is not enough. It must be able to use that data in real-time to provide insights and enable better, more rapid decisions as close to the point of engagement as possible. As a result, they are continually seeking out new technologies that will help them achieve this goal.

The enterprise pathway to the future

Enterprise leaders may take some comfort in proclaiming that cloud-native companies, like Grab, “have it easy,” being born free of the legacy technology investments and structures that constrain their organizations. But it is a false comfort, and, more importantly, a useless one.

Enterprise organizations must, instead, take two valuable lessons from companies like Grab as they seek to find their pathway to the future.

First, they must adopt a perpetual greenfield ethos. Enterprise organizations must first free themselves from their mental legacy debt and be willing to continually reinvent themselves to prepare for a future that is not yet upon them. Like Grab, enterprise leaders must push their organizations to continuously explore and discover solutions for problems that do not yet exist. Those that wait will find that by the time the problems are manifest, it will be too late.

Second, it will not only be the on-demand transportation or payment businesses that need to deliver insights, in real-time, at the point of engagement. Customers in every industry will hold every organization to this standard. Speed and real-time engagement will be drivers of differentiation across the board.

As a result, those organizations that can create a highly integrated and dynamic data stack will come out ahead. As the velocity, volume and variety of data are now in a continuous state of flux, organizations need the ability to dynamically adjust and scale exponentially to find advantage in an ever-more competitive world. 

[Disclosure: As of the time of writing, iguazio is an Intellyx customer.]

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