The latest in our Tech Leaders Q&A, we spoke with Marco Coulter.
As Technical Evangelist at AppDynamics, part of Cisco, Marco provided some insight on how businesses can evolve in today’s fourth industrial revolution, and how they can harness the power of digital transformation and technology to gain a competitive edge.
Third Republic (TR): Can you provide a quick overview of your background, and how you got into tech?
Marco Coulter (MC): I started out as an operator, and then crossed over to be an assembler developer and ended up leading sysadmin teams for hospitals across half of Australia. After getting curious about IT vendors, I moved to that part of the industry and led development and product teams for about a decade in a number of countries ending up here in New York. Then I got curious again – this time about industry analysts – and so I moved on and ran 451 Research’s data organization for about four years. Finally, I decided to really focus on analytics and business intelligence and join a vendor who was a leader in the magic quadrant, and that’s how I ended up at AppDynamics as part of Cisco. My role here is really around listening to businesses, sharing knowledge with and from the community, and bringing that information back to drive the strategy of our organisation.
TR: After all this time in the tech industry, what does digital transformation mean to you?
MC: I break the phrase out like a dictionary; for me it’s about computers and that’s the digital bit of it, but the important part is the ‘transforming’. One of the recurring things I see is organizations misidentifying digitisation, that is transferring analog processes to computer, as digital transformation. But the real power of digital is the data you can now get and using it to change your actual businesses by altering your business models. Digital transformation impacts the entire business, so you can harness the power of digital to transform how you operate.
TR: You’ve spoken before about the four industrial revolutions; can you expand on what this means?
MC: In 2016, the World Economic Forum focused their entire conference around the concept of the four industrial revolutions. The first three revolutions were industrialisation, the general availability of oil and electricity and then finally the rise of computers. Although we are still currently going through the third revolution, technology is moving at such a crazy rate, that the fourth revolution is already crashing upon us. The fourth revolution is focused on the likes of artificial intelligence, machine learning, nanotech and internet of things (IOT) – essentially the technology that is changing the tasks that humans perform. The way I see it, the technology of the fourth industrial revolution won’t replace humans as much as it will augment them. All this global change is happening at this unique point in human history, because we have the technology and we’re just working out how to implement it and use it effectively. For instance, take quantum computers. We have worked out how to build them, but they’re still very expensive. We’re not exactly sure yet what type of question we should be asking of quantum computing. I’m fascinated to see where the best commercial use will be.
TR: Aside from quantum computing, what technology do you think it most transformative at the moment?
MC: There is a few. Firstly, let’s look at IOT tech. At the moment, IOT discussions mainly relate to smart speakers, but what I find more interesting is sensor-driven projects. For instance, Amazon created a button that you press when you need to order more detergent, and it places the order then and there. It might sound like a small thing, but seven out of ten retail enterprises have sensor driven projects under development today, and they are all trying to exploit the technology first.
For me, the true power of IOT is how it provides real-time data into a business. You need to see the data and gain the insight before it is too late. Say, for instance, you are running a promotion on Black Friday, where you are offering a free doll with every purchase. Customers jump on the deal. With standard business intelligence you may not find out until after the following week that you gave away more dolls than you actually have. It’s just too late by this point. Data-driven insights have expiration dates.
Businesses need to actionably correlate user experience, application performance and business outcomes, and for that they need live, real-time data. Our Business iQ solution is great because you can watch offer acceptance correlated with warehouse fulfilment in real time; allowing a business to pivot their offering accordingly. Insight expiration can be avoided with real time business awareness of user transactions. The true power of the internet of things comes when you focus on tracking the performance in real time to deliver business results.
TR: In your opinion then, what is the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on society?
MC: I think the impact of the fourth is just starting. If we focus on machine learning – another transformative technology where we’re already seeing the impact – we’re going to be able to understand a lot about humanity’s unintended biases. For example, Amazon trained an AI model using resumes that led to successful hires from prior years and then tested the model on incoming applications to determine candidates for prioritisation. What they found, however, was that the model commonly recommended white males, because that was the demographic of their historical hires. By not searching for unintended bias in the training data, they trained that bias into the machine learning model. Of course, they shut down the project once they realised what was happening. Look, society needs to be conscious of bias anyway, but as organizations harness machine learning through data, we need to seek out bias in the data. Through AI, society is going to learn more about unintended prejudices and hopefully will then rectify them.
TR: And, what is the impact on businesses? How can they adapt to these rapid changes?
MC: The rate of change is the biggest impact. Within the technology departments, we’ve been getting used to the rapid pace. We’ve changed how we develop products with the move to DevOps, Sprint and Agile methodologies. The next step will be to share and apply these successful approaches with our business peers for application to business transactions, so the entire organisation can learn to be agile.
Companies should think like venture capitalists. VC’s expect a rate of failure in their overall portfolio. Traditionally, large enterprises made someone with an idea analyse it and prepare a detailed business plan. This long process before approval led to the incorrect assumption that success was inevitable. This makes failures more expensive. Instead, businesses need to try things in small chunks and not succumb to fear of failure. Cisco (AppDynamics parent company) are in their fourth cycle of an internal project they call the “innovate everywhere challenge”. Any employee can come up with an idea, which is then scored by folks like me for funding approval. Cisco accepts that not all will succeed, but across the entire portfolio, there are major wins. This is Cisco’s way of having an internal VC-like approach and starting with these smaller slices of innovation.
TR: What do you believe are the consequences of not transforming in line with these new technologies and digital capabilities?
MC: Simply put, the consequences are failure. That being said, there is no compulsory adoption of new technologies and it has to make sense for the purpose. I was chatting to a friend recently about blockchain and how it is a great technology for a specific use – for instance if you need immutability and the transaction timeframe is long enough then blockchain could be for you. On the other hand, if you want to write millions of log records every minute, well, some blockchains take minutes to confirm a single block!
In theory, you might be fine if you don’t transform – depending on the nature of your business. Yet it’s more likely that by transforming you will readily fight off competition. Becoming digital provides you with the ability to pivot your business quickly and adapt to the rapidly changing world.
TR: What does it mean to be digitally savvy or - as Gartner put it - digitally dextrous today?
MC: Being digitally savvy is an organisation-wide approach. I started talking about this concept in 2015, but I admit Gartner gave it a better name. In decades past we built tech and hoped the business would come. Savvy companies ensure everyone is empowered by training in technology and open access to data. Can you get everyone to the level where they can contribute to the digital business? In savvy organisations, everyone uses technology in the right way; are involved in the technical decisions; and are empowered to propose new business models.
TR: How can businesses ensure they are successful in their endeavours to become digitally savvy?
MC: Find the agents of transformation (AoT) within your organization. Becoming digitally savvy is a social challenge, not a technical one. Based on my experience with enterprises, success comes when leadership comprehends the business value of understanding data. If you are an AoT, respectfully propose a learning programme to help leadership fully understand the implications of what you are trying to transform. You can build the perfect product, but if the e-staff aren’t with you, then their lack of awareness means they won’t ever see the value to invest in it. Agents of transformation need to get in front of the exec team, and exec teams need to open the door to them.
TR: Some businesses most likely have to undergo huge end-to-end transformations; how can they focus on doing it in a way that they can manage and maintain?
MC: Good cups of tea or coffee! I think one of the key things is definitely having the right skills in place; and that doesn’t just mean the technical skills. Although technical skills can be scarce, there is research saying that 67% of businesses identify the major roadblock to digital transformation as soft skills. Take artificial intelligence. Although it’s a technology, it is necessitating a whole new type of soft skills because businesses need to be able to prevent potential biases – for instance by bringing in an ethicist to work alongside the tech teams. So, when looking to digitally transform you need to ensure you have the right team with the right skills. Without this in place, you will never get the initiative off the ground and continue through to success. It is amazing how deciding to balance technical and soft skills improves the predictable success of the effort.
TR: How can businesses mediate the problem of needing a long-term plan, but digital and technology evolving so quickly in the short-term? How can they realistically plan ahead when things might just change?
MC: Divide it up into small slices. Your goal might be transforming the entire business but start by focusing on changing one thing. Learn the skills necessary to carry this out, and then scale that to the next part of the business. For instance, companies who successfully implement DevOps tend to initially build a specific DevOps team. Once it is working, they dissolve the team back into application squads and other sections of the business. That way the experience is embedded throughout the organization. Always ensure you’re only biting off small chunks, working out the best way to do something with that chunk, and then moving on. Remember to share what you have learnt to enable the next piece of your business transformation.