What do you think are the biggest obstacles that technologists face in working in a more agile and outcomes based model?
There is a fundamental perspective change required to be successful in this new model. In the past we have tried for stability, to make networks predictable and honor a fixed set of service contracts with users. This ensured we had a known point from which to measure how well the network was performing and whether users were getting the expected service. This approach has been turned on its head by the growing need for agility and mobility. To stay competitive, lines of business are deploying new apps and leveraging cloud services with little oversight from IT departments. The ease of use and ease of purchase of cloud services can result in proliferation of many new technologies across the enterprise, with attendant benefits and risks. Mobility is the other big force that is changing how users access enterprise services and what constitutes an enterprise service. No longer are there stable configurations of client software as new apps come and go, and the enterprise network perimeter becomes much less defined and more porous.
"It is a very dynamic time and there are many new collaboration tools and capabilities being introduced"
This genie cannot be put back in the bottle so IT departments need to embrace cloud services and mobility, and gain hands-on experience. In some ways cloud makes mobility simpler and more secure since less data is in flight and there are standardized methods for handling user credentials and maintaining separation of data. If you have been in business for a while, it is likely that your company’s products are going through this same transition. Server based enterprise applications are being virtualized and converted into cloud offerings, while desktop clients are expanding into mobile apps.
We have been experiencing this transition at Polycom. Our products have become cloud-based and more agile, while our IT and employees are the early adopters who help work through early stage glitches and beta quality user experience. This means our users are learning at the same time as the product developers, so communication is critical and contingency needs to be built into the system.
There are a few strategies that we use to help deal with the uncertainty of change. One is that we maintain two parallel environments, one running very stable instances of our products and one with beta code. For customer-facing or business critical meetings, we will schedule them on the stable environment and IT will be responsible for managing the environment and facing the users when any problems arise. For internal meetings and less formal interactions, we use the beta environment and beta client software. It is highly likely that our own users will be the first to see issues with beta code, and the engineering organization is responsible for managing the network and handling user problems. This beta network is also instrumented to collect more extensive logs and traces so that there is good quality debug information available and issues can be resolved quickly, reducing delay in product development.
What set of skills do you think is required for the technology leaders to be successful in the new Enterprise Networking landscape?
There is no way to predict what technologies or applications or use cases will be most important 18 months from now. It comes down to two key skills that will prepare you for any possible outcome.
The first is agility. Technology is becoming more agile and leaders must be more agile too. One manifestation of this is Agile product development. We had experimented with Agile previously and in late 2015, decided to embrace it fully.
Agile requires foundational change throughout the entire product lifecycle. How requirements are gathered and analyzed, how software is developed, how testing is done, how user experience is defined, how capabilities are committed and delivered to customers is all different. The promise is that if you make these changes, your quality is higher, your team is more productive and you are able to adapt to the needs of the market much more quickly. We have seen some positive results already but this is an ongoing journey. Ultimately we want to transform our entire business to Agile, not just product development, so we have begun pilot efforts in other parts of the company.
The other skill is collaboration. It sounds cliché, but collaboration is critically important to successful outcomes. We have a constantly changing landscape of employees and partners around the globe and must agilely organize and align them to react to customer needs. This requires people to be able to communicate and coordinate across space and time, with the same fidelity and immediacy as if they were in the same room. Luckily, Polycom is in the collaboration business and we are heavy users of our own technology. All meetings and discussions are done using video, unless someone is in a car or airport where video is not an option for them. Our workspaces are outfitted with appropriate solutions for their size and purpose, and a range of devices and soft clients are available for working at home or when traveling. Access to collaboration technology is important, but so is the best practices around using it. We have developed those best practices over many years and often help our customers to adopt them.
Which growing or future technology innovation are you personally excited about?
We are a collaboration company so I’ll start there. It is a very dynamic time and there are many new collaboration tools and capabilities being introduced. Video collaboration is not yet ubiquitous. All enterprise users are also consumers, and applications like Facetime and Skype are setting users’ expectations that video is easy and comfortable. This is triggering many new video applications and use cases within the enterprise. While video collaboration is finally reaching the mainstream, there is a lot of experimentation happening in next generation collaboration technologies like Virtual Reality (VR). Sony, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Samsung and others are building virtual reality headsets to make entertainment and games truly immersive. We may see a time when VR is the norm for reaching out and engaging with others, but today it is still too awkward and cumbersome for the average user.
I’m expecting we will see Augmented Reality (AR) reach business users much earlier. AR still uses glasses or some other viewing device but overlays information on top of what you ordinarily see around you. The benefit is that you are enhancing what you would normally see rather than replacing it with something totally different. You can imagine AR replacing the need for whiteboards and allowing remote participants to “occupy” seats in the same meeting room as local participants.
I’m also fascinated by what is happening with user interfaces, especially in speech recognition and natural language processing. After decades of slow progress, suddenly we have seen real breakthroughs in the past few years. Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana are all part of our lives now and provide a pretty good experience. No matter where I am, I see a lot of people talking to their phones rather than typing in texts. Amazon Echoes are in millions of houses now and keep track of grocery lists or play music or set timers while you are cooking. The idea of interacting with technology without needing a keyboard or mouse or remote is very powerful and will dramatically change user experience.
A third area I’m looking at is Artificial Intelligence (AI). For at least 20 years we have been talking about virtual assistants – software that would be smart enough to understand and anticipate our needs. The vision was virtual assistants would be like personal secretaries for everyone, saving us time and making us more productive. What we got instead was the spell checker. Sure we have less typos, but work has not gotten any easier. Now, however, there are real examples of AI being used to make work easier and more productive, but we are calling it “Analytics”. Analytics software can ingest and analyze huge sets of data very quickly to identify patterns and make recommendations. These recommendations are getting more and more accurate. As the amount of data we are producing and collecting grows exponentially, only very smart analytics software can interpret this data and make it useful to us.