Category: Foci Business

Business updates from the Foci Solutions team.

Want to be a Digital Enterprise? Build More Software!

“COTS-first”, “Why build it when we can buy it?”, “Custom development is expensive”, “We’re not a software company” were all slogans that were hammered into my head during the first half of my career working for a large global consulting firm. They were and are still the prevailing wisdom in the IT industry and when looked at it purely from a cost/benefit perspective, they’re easy to justify.

Those sentiments are also directly responsible for the widening gap between organization’s IT capabilities and their digital aspirations. The philosophy of outsourcing software IP is exactly what led the banking and government sectors to be woefully slow in implementing digital services. It’s why the major banks, despite their deep pockets, are having such problems catching up with small Fintech startups.

So how did we get here?

The Great Divide

For as long as I can remember, IT and software industries were considered separate and only loosely overlapping. Software companies did all the complicated engineering and computer sciency stuff that made tools, and IT practitioners installed and tailored the tools into enterprises like Ikea furniture.

Early CIO’s reported to the CFO in most large enterprises and the focus was on how to get systems deployed with the least amount of money possible. “On time and on budget”, “OpEx and CapEx efficiency”, “ROI”, and “cost recovery” were what occupied IT executive minds.

The Digital Reality

Companies like Amazon and Netflix have shined a light on the new digital reality: software is the business. They didn’t adopt the traditional thinking that software was some capital asset to be treated like a cost centre on a balance sheet, but rather a revenue generator and competitive differentiator. The focus shifted instead to “agility”, “speed to market”, “resiliency and reliability”, “scalability”, “security and integrity”, which are more closely aligned to how organizations think about their core business offerings.

The Convergence

The move to digital has pushed enterprise IT shops closer and closer towards the practices, philosophies, and skills of the software industry. Concepts like Agile, Extreme Programming, and Domain Driven Design which were widely accepted within the software industry by the mid 2000’s are finally being seen as table stakes for the digital enterprise in 2020. Sometimes we’ve even given them new names like DevOps and Microservices to make it feel like the IT industry invented these concepts.

The increasing maturity and variety of software frameworks are starting to blur the line between custom development and COTS as developers can now do a lot more with a lot less code. Cloud takes this even a step further where everything ranging from a logging service to a CRM can be provisioned and interfaced with via an API through a little bit of code. The short of it is that enterprise can’t get away from building code anymore, but they also don’t have to build as much of it to deliver the same features as 20 years ago.

The Gap

The problem that exists today is, to state it bluntly, that enterprises don’t know how to build software. Decades of prioritizing buying over building has created IT departments heavily geared towards project management, requirements gathering, system administration, and configuration of various COTS tools using whatever proprietary vendor technologies. There may be a few intrepid developers responsible for gluing all this mess together and keeping it all running plus some plucky web dev teams that push out wave upon waves of web forms. But the gap to actual modern software development is huge. And this gaping chasm is what most enterprises are being forced to cross in their shift towards a digital economy.

Crossing the Chasm

I think this is the first time since my 2nd year Marketing class that I’m actually using this phrase. Enterprises must invest in building software, especially related to the delivery of digital services. Not because it’s cheaper or less risky than buying it, because in most cases it’s not. But because that’s the only way to actually build up the type and scale of software development capacity needed to transition to digital.

We’re not just talking about coders, but all the surrounding disciplines that enable successful software delivery (e.g., product owners, UX designers, project managers, executives, testers, platform ops, security). Even accounting models have to change to stop treating software as a depreciating asset and instead as a line of business. Organizations have to fully embrace the reality that going digital means running a software company.

The new reality is that software is a part of any digital organization’s core business. And experience has taught us that any organization who outsources its core business will never be competitive.

  • Shan
  • Gu

A Realist’s Guide to Culture Change

The phrase “we need to change our culture to be successful” has become a punchline for any executive pitching ambitious visions and transformation initiatives, IT-related or otherwise. What is unfortunately less common is any mention of how such a change in culture will happen and how to know when this ideal future culture has been achieved.

Foci is by no means a change management firm nor do I profess any kind of expertise in human behaviour or organizational theory. We are however experts in helping organizations adopt new technologies and methods where culture is an unavoidable challenge. Based on our experience in the trenches, I would like to offer a realist’s perspective on what taking on “culture change” means and what one can expect when committing to this lofty goal.

Culture = People

We can’t talk about culture without defining it first. Culture is an abstraction of what the default behaviours and tendencies of a group of people are. Those behaviours and tendencies are either learned and developed in reaction to how an organization is built and managed, or inherent in the people that are being hired.

When an organization sets out to change its culture, it must accept the reality that it will likely result in a turnover in people. The culture that you desire won’t resonate with everyone in the organization. And a strong culture is built by people who naturally buy into it rather than by trying to hard sell it to someone. Therefore, it’s best to ensure that you are prepared to deal with an increase in turnover and hiring as a part of this commitment rather than assume that a new culture can be achieved without big changes to the workforce.

Culture Requires Nurturing

Executives can’t really dictate the culture of an organization the same way parents can’t really dictate the personalities of their children. An organization’s culture develops based on how people react to and are motivated by that organization’s structure, management style, processes, facilities, compensation model, other employees, and countless other factors. Any attempt to try to define a new culture without looking thoroughly at all aspects of the organization which enabled the current culture would be flawed.

Instead of asking how individuals can adopt the desired behaviours, the organization should ask what aspects of its current structure, policies, compensation, governance, rituals, and general work environment are contributing to the undesirable behaviours and then work to address those. For example, if an organization desires a culture of innovation, budget and approval processes will have to be updated to allow for more experimentation, frequent changes in project parameters, and faster decision making. This is a very organic and fluid process, so set realistic expectations and adapt the plan to how the people are reacting to the changes.

Stress = Negative Behaviours

High stress situations tend to push people to exhibit more basic survival instincts such as territorialism and combativeness. It is extremely difficult for people to adopt more desirable behaviours such as collaboration and transparency or take extra time to think about innovative solutions when timelines are aggressive and budget is tight.

People take time to learn new ways of working and making decisions. This means that efficiency and output will drop before recovering and even improving over the longer term. Project budgets and timelines must account for this and give people enough time to learn the new behaviours and repeat them enough times to become ingrained. It’s the classic “slow down to speed up” adage.

Change Starts at the Top

I am constantly surprised by the number of organizations treating culture change as an exercise whereby the executives look at how they can fix their workforce without also looking at their own behaviour. The culture of an organization is representative of how executives have made decisions over time.

If an organization wants to encourage a culture of taking responsibility, then executives must reflect this by taking actions such as increasing delegation of decision making and making their compensation more outcome-based. If more collaboration is desired, then open door policies must be adopted. Executives can’t just be the champions of change, but also become the examples of the desired culture themselves. The “do as I say and not as I do” philosophy doesn’t work here.

Achieving Success

We are extremely proud of the culture we’ve achieved at Foci. We’ve been deliberate in designing our organization and been very lucky in the type of people we’ve attracted and hired. Here are some of the things that we’ve done and learned about building a strong and innovative culture:

  1. Hire executives with diverse opinions and approaches, but very similar values. Your leadership should have different approaches to solving problems, but should see eye-to-eye on the organization’s core beliefs and philosophies;
  2. Hire for culture fit over pure technical acumen. It’s much easier to teach technical skills than modify behaviours;
  3. Constantly adjust and refine organizational processes and policies. Organizations and the people within them evolve over time. The processes and policies have to be tweaked to account for that;
  4. Create a relationship of mutual trust between our people and the company. Giving people the room to make decisions and exercise judgement encourages a sense of responsibility and ownership. Treat your staff like responsible adults who can make good decisions;
  5. Compensate people based on what you value in your employees. If you want a team that’s constantly upping their game, then compensate for personal growth and skills development;
  6. Invest in people. It’s not just training and some formalized mentorship program. Give people the time, resources, and the infrastructure needed to connect, collaborate, and share knowledge.

Culture change is hard, but by no means impossible. It takes a lot of commitment, attention, investment, time, and patience. By recognizing that the change is really building an organization that nurtures the desirable culture, “we need culture change” will become an achievable call to action rather than just an executive punchline.

  • Shan
  • Gu

What’s Your Organization’s Rocket Fuel?

The conversations I regularly have with clients, other executives, and my mentors are usually around “what’s your org’s vision?” or “what do you want your org to do”. Foci has gone through a tremendous period of growth and change over the last 12 months and the answers to those questions seem to be ever changing. This has led me and the rest of the management team to have some very interesting discussions around how we define Foci and our purpose.

The “what” and the “how” doesn’t matter

Photo by John Baker on Unsplash

Regardless of how well thought out your vision or strategy is, the reality is that $%*@ happens. Your clients can change their mind, you may lose some key contracts, the market will evolve and change, competitors will emerge, or you may not be able to get that unicorn architect/developer to run that world-changing product you want to build. And every time you have to make a pivot to adjust to those changes, it can be a very painful experience, both for you and your team.

The identity of an organization is very important, especially if you have a strong team culture like us. Team members imprint themselves onto that identity and subconsciously use it as a reference point for their everyday work. We started life as an Oracle Fusion Middleware company, then became an Architecture and Integration company, and now we’re doing more Cloud-Native custom dev with a broader range of system integration and program management services. Each of those shifts in focus created quite a bit of disruption in the team. People asked “Wait what? I thought we were doing the other thing? What does that mean to our existing projects? Will we stop doing the other thing altogether?” These were all fair questions, but after working through it all, we noticed that none of it actually impacted our team culture or our core behaviours.

What we took away from this were 2 things:

  1. What you did as a firm or how you did it had very little alignment to your culture.
  2. Our people are very emotionally connected to Foci’s identity and feel any change in that identity keenly.

It’s all about the “why”

This naturally led us to look at why our folks joined Foci and what made them excited about coming into work each day. Turns out no one was really driven by the prospect of writing thousands of lines of C# code, installing and configuring Oracle SOA Suite, or creating a stakeholder engagement plan. Sure, those things interested people, but they weren’t really core motivators.

We ended up landing on 2 aspects of motivation that were the most important:

  1. What brings you the most satisfaction (e.g., solving a problem, having an impact, getting recognition, seeing something you’ve built be used)
  2. What is your metric of value (e.g., complexity of the problem, number of people impacted, transaction volume, financial savings)

Problems are our rocket fuel

We always joked about having a generic tagline like “we solve problems” (it’s on our website) because we were constantly evolving the business. Appropriately that turned out to be the answer. What we realized is that our entire team and our hiring processes all coalesced around the core desire to solve complex and interesting problems. We weren’t motivated by how many people were using an app that we had developed or whether the systems we helped our clients build were processing 100 or 1,000,000 transactions a day.

The thing that gave us all a real sense of accomplishment and gave us that little shot of dopamine we humans naturally crave was when we were able to solve a problem for our client. The bigger the complexity greater the satisfaction. As long as we had a healthy supply of complex and interesting problems to feed our team, we could go anywhere.

The destination and the things you do to get there will always change over time. The things that motivate and drive you to move forward are more constant and core to your being. Defining your organization based on the goal you want to achieve or the tasks that you do makes every pivot feel like an identity crisis. Putting in the time to identify the rocket fuel that constantly propels your team forward creates a solid corporate identity to anchor against regardless of the path your organization decides to take. Interesting problems are our rocket fuel. As long as we as a management team ensure that our team has a steady flow of interesting problems to solve, we can have every confidence in Foci’s ability to achieve any goal that we set for ourselves. Until we change our mind, of course.

  • Shan
  • Gu

The Digital Transformation Road Trip

Too often, we see articles shared preaching the importance for organizations to adopt a digital strategy without encapsulating what that really means. To remove some of that confusion, I like comparing an organization’s digital transformation with something everyone knows – a road trip!

Let’s start with some truth – a digital strategy can be enormously beneficial to a department or organization and its ability to deliver value to customers. BUT, like a good road trip, becoming a digital organization isn’t an overnight journey – and it doesn’t always follow a set path. It requires planning, understanding, commitment, and the ability to embrace the detours along the way.

Oh the places you’ll go!

Before setting out on a trip, you need to have a destination in mind.  Similarly, executives need to agree on what ‘digital’ means for their organization. What problems are you really trying to solve?  Once you have these identified, your organization can begin to evaluate the possible ways of getting there.  

Loading up the car

Digital transformation is as much a business transformation as an IT one. Digital processes are about re-examining your business from top to bottom in order to have the right information, available at the right time, to make the right decisions. Cooperation, communication, and most importantly – organization-wide understanding is key to making sure this happens.

It’s important to start with the problem without focusing on what the solution might end up being. Challenge pre-existing assumptions and ideas about who should be doing what, when, and how. Break down your tools and processes so that you can rebuild it in a more efficient, modern way.

Digital organizations have governance and management frameworks that are very different than paper-based organizations. Keeping everyone involved ensures that you have multiple sets of eyes on the road. Making sure they know why this journey is happening means they’re looking out for the right kind of obstacles and opportunities.  

Take advantage of the bumps along the way

A digital organization embraces speed, communication, learning, and also, failure. It’s less important to have a map setting the route in stone from  start to finish than it is to be aware of what’s going on around you. Being aware of your surroundings lets you be prepared to change direction when a better path becomes available (or to avoid that head-on collision up ahead)! A digital organization uses this awareness to stay relevant and ahead of the curve. Approaches and methods like incremental development, democratized governance, Test Driven Development, and Agile are all designed to support teams in this way.

This can be a big change in thinking, especially for larger, more traditional organizations. Understanding which tools are available, and when to leverage them, can significantly improve your chances of finding success in your transformation.

Embrace being off the beaten path

So – before embarking on your digital journey, make sure you understand where it is you want your organization to go, focus on the journey, and be prepared to embrace being off the beaten path. You might not take the path you first imagined, but digital transformation is about the journey, not the destination.

  • Kevin
  • Steele

IT Organizations Need to Practice More, Dunk Less

Whenever I walk into a new client, the first things I hear from the Technology Executives are typically: “We need to modernize”, “We need to transform”, “We need to adopt <insert trendy tech buzzword>”. What I never hear is: “We need to bring our development and testing methodologies up to date”, “We need more collaboration across our teams”, “We need to inventory our skills and see what’s missing”.

If we think of the IT organization as a basketball team, that would be the equivalent of the coach saying: “We need more 3-pointers”, and “We need those fancy new shoes to be able to dunk”.  Whereas even the most inexperienced youth coach knows that the key to winning includes: “We need to practice dribbling and footwork”, “We need to communicate better on the court”, and “We need to improve our free throws/jump shots/rebounds”.

While it is both valid and necessary for IT organizations to push towards the big picture objectives highlighted by glossy Gartner and Forrester whitepapers, these have to be supported by continuous and deliberate investment in foundational concepts.

Let me step in as coach for a moment and propose a strategy for focusing on the foundation…

1)    Invest in the basics: Invest in good basic IT delivery concepts, kind of like dribbling, footwork, and basic fitness in basketball:

  • Make Business Analysis about teasing out the requirements from the Business’ objectives, rather than simply asking the Business to write down their requirements
  • Encourage good testing rigor and embed it throughout the entire solution delivery lifecycle, and not just at the end just before go-live
  • Promote good documentation habits and create templates for common documents (e.g., logical solution architecture, functional designs, interface specifications, data models)
  • Spend adequate time and budget to implement solutions which improve developer productivity (e.g., continuous integration, 3rd party frameworks)
  • Allocate budget for developers to learn different languages so they can be exposed to different software concepts and improve their coding skills
  • Spend generously on training for system analysis, modeling, design methodologies (e.g., domain driven design, SOA, microservices architecture, semantic modeling, BPMN), and not only on those being standardized by the organization, but to improve people’s ability to make smart decisions

2)    Communication is key: Create an environment that promotes collaboration and teamwork:

  • Create communities of practice across your organization (or connect to external groups) to build on collective knowledge and experience
  • Implement real-time collaboration tools (no, Sharepoint and instant messenger don’t count)
  • Make governance less about formal approvals and more about ensuring the right expertise is pulled in at the right stage of a given project
  • Adopt iterative delivery methods to promote frequent touch points between IT and Business obtaining feedback and ensuring alignment

3)    Focus on the right skills: Build the skills that support your strategic objectives. After all, dunking is only made possible by training to jump higher:

  • Strengthen Information and Data Management capabilities as a foundation for Big Data Analytics
  • Educate the team on hashing algorithms, binary trees, digital contracts, and distributed storage to bring Blockchain to the table naturally
  • Leveraging Cloud means good distributed system design, loosely coupled interfaces, container-ready applications, and security frameworks that can deal with 3rd party infrastructure
  • Adopting COTS requires strong technical Business Analysis, ability to negotiate requirements with the Business, and strong platform administration skills

We all want to work with the cool new tech and follow the latest trends. Working with the latest and greatest is what draws people to technology work. But the team will be stronger if the foundation is strong and the team is well connected so take time to build our own skills and our teams’ foundations so we can all up our game.

  • Shan
  • Gu

Announcing Foci Solutions

A little over three years ago, I had the great fortune to reconnect with an old friend from my university days. I lured him away from his well-paying and stable position at one of the Big 5 consulting firms to help me incubate an Integration practice focused on helping large enterprise clients connect their various COTS investments.

Since convincing him to recklessly quit his job and join BoldRadius, Shan and I have been through a lot of ups and downs. His relentless focus on operational and delivery excellence and sharp strategic mind is a strong complement to my ability to create strong culture and set up structures for success. Throughout the time we’ve worked together, I’ve learned to be objective, fair and direct. And my entrepreneurial approach to getting initiatives off the ground has rubbed off on him. Lean, Agile, and Kanban replaced the large and heavy institutions of Waterfall and PMI.

We looked at the market around us and saw that we were building something special, something that landed neatly between the armies of independent consultants and the giant multi-billion dollar consultancies. We have been able to fully leverage our entrepreneurial approach in combination with our experience in large-scale IT implementation to cut through the noise on enterprise IT transformation programs and to focus on the core actions needed to drive it forward. We have become that small tactical team that could help our clients get out of the infinite spin of analysis and to just do something. To move boldly forward instead of being paralyzed with fear when staring down a massively complex problem.

The Integration practice we built within BoldRadius has attracted some amazing talent and has established a strong reputation. Through trial and many errors, we’ve learned what we need to do to secure and maintain enduring relationships built on results for our clients. Finally, we’ve established solid financial footing and the ability to invest in furthering our success.

The Integration business has matured – it needs focus, direction, independence and talent. It’s time for it to spread its wings and take its own path under a new structure, new brand and a new name – Foci Solutions.

Speaking for Shan, myself and the team, we’re excited about what the next chapter holds for Foci. We’re looking forward to solidifying our success and expanding into new areas. We’re relishing the possibilities of new client interactions around better, more mature ways to manage IT and we’ve got big plans to build capabilities that don’t currently exist for IT teams.

Keep an eye on this company – it’s going places.

  • Mike
  • Kelland