How to become a transformative enterprise in the cloud

Guardian Life shows why cloud computing isn’t a technology problem solved by moving workloads from private data centers to public clouds

Cloud computing isn’t a technology problem solved by moving workloads out of private data centers and into public clouds. As cloud guru Bernard Golden puts it, “What you need to really take advantage of cloud computing is a complete rethink of your approach to IT.” Yet even this declaration, bold though it may be, doesn’t go far enough.

In a conversation with Dean Del Vecchio, CIO and Head of Enterprise Shared Services at insurance company Guardian Life, he stressed the need for a wholesale change of culture to drive the transformation in IT. In the case of Guardian, that meant changing everything from how its buildings were configured to where people sit. The result? Dramatically more technical and humanagility to innovate and solve customer problems.

You can migrate to the cloud without doing that and get a similar, if perhaps a little cheaper result as staying with what you have, but you can’t use the cloud transformatively until you male that holistic transformation.

First, you change everything, one cubicle at a time

Change didn’t happen overnight at Guardian, and it wasn’t driven by a desire to be popular with the clouderati. Instead, Del Vecchio said, “I wanted to make sure we were spending our time growing the business and not just maintaining existing systems.” To get there, Del Vecchio spent a year preparing IT infrastructure, facilities, and people.

On the IT infrastructure side, the upside to moving to the public cloud was clear: Make better use of infrastructure investments, ending the curse of the company’s cyclical hardware requirements. Guardian, like most enterprises, built for its peak needs, which meant that for most of the year the company’s sizable compute, network, and storage capacity was lucky to see 15 percent utilization. Unlike most companies, however, Guardian operates in a highly regulated industry and needed to make sure that it would have an enterprise-ready platform before it moved any workloads over to a public cloud (Amazon Web Services in this case).

This meant, among other things, extensive gap analyses to ensure a move to public cloud wouldn’t compromise their security or other needs.

The second part of the preparation came down to physical facilities. Guardian spent years updating its buildings to make them more conducive to agile methodologies. As Del Vecchio explained: “We realized if we were going to be an agile company we needed facilities that would foster this and make collaboration easier. This wasn’t going to be done with cube walls and mousetrap cube mazes. We updated all the offices to reflect the change in how we’d operate.”

Which left the last and arguably hardest challenge: people.

That preparation time, Del Vecchio noted, gave the company time to prepare and train the staff. It also enabled them to be transparent and ensure people were on board. As he said, “There’s a skill and a will” when it comes to change. So Guardian identified those that wanted to make the shift and trained them first. For those whose jobs were likely to be compromised or affected by the change, “we took time to upskill them.” A year later, the company has trained more than 2,500 employees on SAFe and agile methodologies.

In sum, “It’s not just a technology transformation. It’s enterprise-wide” in how Guardian operates.

Second, follow the path to becoming ever more cloud-like

A year into the transformation, the company has reduced 80 percent of its data-center footprint while moving 200 applications to AWS, and it hopes to shutter another 10 to 15 percent of its private data-center capacity. Del Vecchio admitted that while the goal is 100-percent public cloud (“utopia,” he styled it), the reality is that it may simply not be worth the bother or cost to convert all legacy applications. Some of the company’s monolithic platforms were “built before we put a man on the moon” and might not fit the cloud model. Regardless, there are other, higher-value opportunities to focus on.

While enterprises looking to move to the cloud are now spoiled for choice, for Guardian Life, AWS was the right choice both because of the depth and breadth of AWS services.

Del Vecchio also called out the importance of building “muscle memory” on one cloud provider. In other words, rather than having to learn different ways to work with different clouds, Guardian could facilitate cloud adoption (and the parallel cultural transformation) by getting everyone in sync on one provider.

When asked if the shift to public cloud had introduced unforeseen problems, perhaps including lesser security, Del Vecchio rejected the idea. “We’re still fully responsible for security,” he stressed. “We haven’t given that up by going to the cloud.” If anything, he continued, moving to the public cloud has strengthened the company’s investments in security, in two ways. First, he emphasized, “AWS is going to innovate faster than most companies in the security area.” This provides a strong platform upon which to build, leaving Guardian time and resources to “do more of the complex things the company wouldn’t previously had time to do.” After moving to AWS, Del Vecchio has grown his security team, not shrunk it.

A year into the transformation, Del Vecchio credits public cloud with “freeing up capacity to focus on growing the business rather than worrying about managing infrastructure.” The cloud has given Guardian “more agility to build minimum viable products” to test ideas, thereby better supporting new business requests and innovation opportunities. Most important, he said, it has helped the company focus even more on the customer experience, piloting new technologies like augmented reality and natural language processing.

If these sound like tech solutions to tech problems, they’re not. As Guardian’s example demonstrates, to move effectively to the cloud, companies need cultural change, and that change is then accelerated by embracing the cloud.

And if Guardian—founded in 1860 and operating in a highly regulated, conservative industry—can successfully embrace the cultural transformation the cloud both demands and accelerates, odds are your company can, too.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.