Cloud Means Business: Executive Interview with Jim Williamson
I’ve been chatting with some of the execs I admire—from across a range of industries—to get insights on how they’re using cloud technologies and what it means for their business success—now and in the future.
Jim Williamson is the VP of Information Technology at Weir’s newest division, ESCO—a leading global manufacturer of highly engineered wear and replacement products and services for the mining and minerals industry. Jim’s been in the business of applying top IT products and practices for strategic business value for over 25 years—with a focus on transforming IT departments from cost centers into major generators of business value.
In this interview, Jim gives his take on the future of cloud, the building blocks of evaluating enterprise tech solutions, and his advice for other execs navigating the ever-changing cloud landscape.
Q: What do you think the impact of the cloud will be on business over the next five years?
A: I think it will transform IT departments in the Core Services area in how they operate and the required talent pool. I am also seeing increased spending in networking technologies to provide more bandwidth. The other shift I see is that IT departments are not talking about managing hardware storage and physical servers, but are now talking about adding and measuring business value.
Q: Are you exploring microservices directly on the cloud from any of the cloud providers?
A: We're all in on Azure; we've created some IoT products on Azure, we run some mobile applications on it and we are deploying some servers on Azure. We don't currently have many Azure experts in house which is an issue. We moved away from AWS to Azure partly because we had more Azure experience, but we still don’t have enough, so we run into issues. I think right now there’s a major shift going on in people developing expertise in the cloud versus on-prem so we are having difficulty finding and retaining talent.
Q: I know you’re using Oracle applications too. Are you primarily on-prem or have you moved to the cloud version?
A: We have a lot on-prem, but we do have some Oracle cloud applications. So we're a hybrid right now. The cloud applications are where we're having the most issues lately. For instance, we're using Oracle Transportation Management in the cloud, and we can't tune it. We'll have to log a ticket and maybe a day or two later they'll bounce a server that was acting up. You lose a lot of control that way. So that’s why we're kind of in a hybrid mode right now, just trying to evaluate Oracle's cloud products and evaluating the actual value.
Q: Are there any cloud technologies that you've read or heard about that you find particularly interesting?
A: Yes, network as a service and network security as a service immediately come to mind. When you put data out in the cloud, you lose some autonomy in the process. I'm really big on cloud security, so I’ve looked at a lot of cloud access security brokers—that’s an area that has some interesting things going on. I don’t know the full answer to cloud security yet, but I find it really interesting to explore the question.
Q: What criteria and process have you used in evaluating which cloud vendors your company will use? How did you land on Oracle and Azure, for example?
A: When we built our IoT platform, we purposefully made it agnostic and used a lot of open source—simply because we didn't know who was going to be the market leader in cloud, and we wanted to stay flexible.
At one time we were an AWS shop, but we were also a Microsoft shop because we had a Microsoft enterprise agreement. We wound up having a ton of issues with our AWS environment because we didn't have the expertise to manage it. So when we went looking for a different solution, we found a lot of advantages in Azure. Number one, we leveraged our Microsoft enterprise agreement to get really low costs. And another factor that pushed us toward Azure was that Microsoft kicked in a ton of Microsoft bucks to create a bunch of proof of concepts for us—bots and robotic process automation and next-gen analytics. Another consideration was expertise. We have a data warehouse built on a NoSQL server, on a Microsoft stack, and our team has that expertise. So cost and resources were big factors.
Flexibility was also a major consideration. It goes back to my earlier point: I don't know who's going to be the leader in the long term. So to me, flexibility of contract, the ability to move away easily and not be locked in—that’s important because you never know what’s going to happen. We definitely took all that into account when we moved from AWS to Azure. Azure’s one of the market leaders now, and I'm pretty sure Azure and AWS will both be around forever.
But one of the reasons we wanted to stay agnostic when we started on this IoT journey six years ago was to make sure we could use whoever the market leader happened to be. And we had no idea there would be so many people battling for that leading spot.
Q: What advice would you give to CEOs everywhere in regards to emerging technology?
A: Well, I'm a little bit old school—I’ve been around the block a lot of times, and I like to have other people implement things and then I can learn from their mistakes. I love new technology and will play with it all day long, but I'm definitely not a bleeding edge guy. I don’t like to get stung with something too untested. For example, I've been a consultant with people who implemented early versions of Oracle and they got bitten—millions and millions of dollars bitten. So that’s part of why we put our on-premise database and applications on third party support; we save millions of dollars and we're just maintaining for now. And we use a smattering of consultants and internal expertise to make enhancements if we need to.
So my advice, primarily, is to wait and watch in key areas and ensure the tech is proven. A lot of new stuff is just not ready yet, in my opinion. There's really no big business case to move our entire Oracle ERP to the cloud right now—there's no big functionality out there that's going to differentiate you, not yet. So the smart bet is to implement edge applications that do add actual business value, and wait and see on the rest.
Q: What advice would you give to people working in technology right now?
A: Focus on the things that add business value. I'll stick to my guns on that. That's been my mantra for the last two years. When we prioritize requests, that's at the top of the list: what value is this providing? So we question everything against that.
And we’re doing that in all kinds of ways. We're looking more at managed services for some of the nuts and bolts type of things. And we keep enhancing the expertise that adds business value—we've got a team of business analysts, we're building digital products with IoT and mobile apps. Those things can add revenue, and they can provide you new insights into the data that you've been building up over the last 20 years.
One example of something we’ve done in the last five years: we put in an Oracle Ecommerce front end, though it's kind of antiquated now and we really need to upgrade it. But we also went from having 15 customer service reps to three by putting in a self-service portal—our dealers use that and we don’t need so many customer service agents. So we get business value by optimizing that kind of thing.
And you have to look at the big picture for value. Something like analytics—maybe it’s not going to add value on day one, but when you've got people looking at using artificial intelligence and machine learning and things like that on your data, it’s going to provide insight value down the road.
One last piece of practical advice: if you don't have an enterprise resource planning solution, you should probably get one. I’m a big believer in that. I used to say that if you weren't a $200 million company, you didn't have any business implementing Oracle ERP because it takes some maintenance and expertise, and there's a cost to that. Now I'd probably lower that to the $10 to $30 million range of companies. Because there are a lot of ERP options—there’s JD Edwards and NetSuite and Microsoft Dynamics. There are cost-effective options that add a lot of value.
Q: Last question—what do you think might be on the horizon for your company as AWS and all these other providers keep adding more and more products and services?
A: Well, we made the move from AWS to Azure and it’s definitely right for us, for now. But I'm always open to discussions on technology. Navigating the corporate structure and talking to the right person at any of the big cloud providers can be difficult, though—I’m not looking to be sold on whatever they’ve got; I’d rather have unbiased opinions about what’s interesting and how it could add value for what we’re doing.
So I’m always up for conversations with shops like yours and people who have the visibility into the latest services and really know cloud IoT and the emerging technologies.
Like I said, I’m agnostic; I’m open to finding out what’s coming out from any of the providers. Whoever can do the best job for the best price—that's what I'm about.