Facing a recession and the need to cut costs, Boston-based staffing and consulting agency Aquent LLC looked to the cloud.
In this SearchCIO.com CIO Innovators Profile Series interview, Aquent CIO Larry Bolick explains the decisions that went into moving many of the company's front-office applications to the cloud. He also describes how to handle such innovative change through risk management.
Bolick details how Aquent manages and promotes radical, technology-driven change through entrepreneurialism, and focuses on the agency's recent move to Software as a Service and other IT services. Besides talking about cloud computing and risk management, he introduces us to Aquent's success in managing a shifting IT workforce.
Overall, the key to success is to stay nimble amid fast-paced change, Bolick says. "In this cloud space, innovation is happening every day," he says. "If you blink, you are going to miss something."
Read the full transcript of this video below:
Cloud computing success at Aquent means going all in
Chris Gonsalves: I'm SearchCIO.com Executive Editor Chris Gonsalves. I'm here at the CIOSynergy event in New York City talking technology innovation as part of our SearchCIO.com's CIO Innovators series. I'm joined now by Larry Bolick, CIO of Aquent. Thanks for joining us, Larry.
Larry Bolick: Thank you for having me, Chris.
Chris Gonsalves: Larry, Aquent has done some impressive work moving systems that support your staffing/outsourcing business to the Cloud. Can you tell us more about that?
Larry Bolick: Well, thank you for that. About two years or so ago, we had the recession facing us. We had the question of "How do we reduce our cost base?" We had the question of "How do we build more agility into the organization?" So, we made a decision as a company to basically move our front-office services to Cloud-based services.
So, fast-forwarding two years hence, we now pretty much have all of our front-office applications on Cloud-based services of various clients. From Amazon to Google, to a local company here in New York, M5 Networks, which handles our telephones.
Chris Gonsalves: With all of the trepidation that you hear surrounding the Cloud, what gave you the confidence to make such a bold, aggressive move into the Cloud?
Larry Bolick: Well, we begin with the phones. We had been looking for a long time, well over two years for a phone solution that we could use as a Cloud-based solution. We're really thinking of it as an Enterprise Centrex solution for those folks who remember what Centrex is.
But it was difficult to find. So, we went through a lot of iterations. We actually had a skunkworks around this, a fellow who works in our organization was leading the charge on that, Jim Feeney. And he had the insight in doing that the return on investment for us was not going to be from long-distance charges. It was actually going to be from our local facilities.
So, we had done an awful lot of work on the phone space. At that point, we were pretty comfortable that we could make this change. And then, after that, the transition to Google was next in line. That we thought we had a pretty good understanding of "Oh, we did it ourselves." If we had to do that again, we probably would get some external help, now that that external help is more available.
The hardest one for us was our custom-built ERP, which we've moved to Amazon. And the difficulty there was we really had three or four major projects all rolled into one. So, we were migrating database vendors, we were consolidating data from multiple standalone databases into a single Enterprise database.
We're adding functionality for idiographic languages, cleaning the database at the same time. Lots of different components to that. So, that was a difficult project, but we saved that one for the end.
Chris Gonsalves: So, there wasn't a lot of external help when you started, obviously. So, there's a place where you might have done things differently. Anything else in the course of this that you said, "If we're starting this over again today, I might do this differently?"
Larry Bolick: Well, lots has changed. One of the key things that I've learned from this whole process is that in this Cloud space, innovation is happening every day. So, it's a really interesting environment, because if you blink, you're going to miss something.
So, as one example. When we made our move to Google Mail, we were scheduled to make a move on a particular weekend. And we have done a lot of testing in a Sandbox environment before we moved to production.
But the Sandbox environment was three months old or so. When we got to the weekend when we were actually going to go to production, it turns out that our Sandbox was out of date because it was three months old. The changes, that whole innovation stream, changes with Google had occurred and our roll-out plan was no longer appropriate coming out of that Sandbox.
So, we had to push that roll-out off for a couple weeks; get the roll-out plan squared away all over again. But that's the kind of thing that happens when this pace is so fast.
Chris Gonsalves: So, play academic for me. What would you tell someone, what advice would you give to those who are considering their own Cloud implementations right now?
Larry Bolick: The good news now is that there is a pretty good history. So, from a couple years on throughout; even for us, there's a pretty good history of migration. So, there is a lot to learn from other folks.
Before we did any of our things in terms of Cloud migration, we talked to a lot of folks who had preceded us as well. So, we had various references for phone migrations, for Google migrations, for Amazon as well. That we touch base with all of them.
I think the difference with Aquent is we just had such a quick flurry of events, flurry of migrations in so many different spaces, that it makes us a little bit of, not necessarily unique. But a little bit of an unusual play in terms of migrating to the Cloud.
Chris Gonsalves: So, as we've been talking about here a lot today, you have a pretty bold approach to lots of technologies; Cloud, mobility, virtualization, social networking. How does that kind of attitude serve a CIO's efforts to be a business leader and an innovator?
Larry Bolick: It starts, really, with the firm. So, Aquent, by its nature, has an entrepreneurial spirit. So, I often joke when we're interviewing folks, what we do often is throw a lot of ideas against the wall, try a few of those ideas. And if we get one idea that works out of that, then that's a successful wall event. And we just continually do that over and over again.
So, the expectation is that we will have failure along the way, but we will also have success along the way and then, we want to take advantage of that. And that permeates the organization from the top, down. So, it's really a credit to the business, the organization and the people in it, as much as it is to the IT team.
Chris Gonsalves: How important is it to the success of the business for the CIO to be that kind of business-savvy innovator? And what's the one best thing you could tell them, to help them gain the traction that they need in the C-Suite to see their ideas come to life?
Larry Bolick: Well, the thing to manage is the risk. And by its nature, the IT organization is very risk-averse. And that's been a good thing for a long time. However, we're coming into a space now where there's a lot of change, a lot of innovation going on. And it can be that risk aversion can be a hindrance, actually adopting the innovation that's coming our way. And the benefits, the business benefits associated with that innovation.
So, I think it's all about risk management. And you've got to give a little to get a little and essentially manage that whole process along the way.
The other piece of that, in my view, is we're having a demographic change in this business at the same time. So, just as the baby boomers are starting to hit retirement age now, so is the first string of the IT organizations. They're started to hit retirement age. At the same time, the demographic on the bottom has a whole different paradigm about how IT and business should work together.
So, it's going to be an interesting time period coming up over the next five or ten years as this transition happens. And I think those folks who can grasp what's happening in terms of innovation, take advantage of that and manage the risk associated with that. Will find themselves a lot better off five or ten years down the road, sooner even.
Chris Gonsalves: So, is it a young person's game or do you just need to be young at heart?
Larry Bolick: I think it's young at heart. I think what we're going to learn a lot from this generation that's coming in. But that generation is going to learn an awful lot from everything that has gone on before it. It's like Isaac Newton, when told he was a genius, he said "If I'm perceived as a genius" or words to this effect, "it's because I'm standing on the shoulders of giants."
And that's really what this is all about. The folks who are building today's applications that are all so popular and hot wouldn't be building them if the first guy who thought about how to build Bisync back in the old IBM 3270 days, didn't do his work. And if the guy who thought about Fortran didn't do his work. And on and on.
There are just thousands of people like that that have built what we have today, so we can innovate more quickly.
Chris Gonsalves: Outstanding. Thanks a lot for joining us. For all of us at searchCIO.com, I'm Executive Editor Chris Gonsalves. Thanks for watching.