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There is no option but to move to the cloud: Major General Amarjit Singh, CIO, Persistent Systems

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A global IT firm with operations in multiple countries, Persistent Systems has moved at a very rapid pace to migrate many of its employees and customer projects to an appropriate IT environment. Major General Amarjit Singh, Chief Information Officer, Persistent Systems, tells us the biggest lessons learnt from this crisis

Persistent is a global IT services and products company with employees and customers located all over the globe and delivers its services from customer facilities, customer ODCs in Persistent facilities, employees and contractors working from our facilities and, most important, a large number of employees working, at any given time, from their homes or even while on the move. In that sense, there have been no new initiatives that we needed to take at the technology level. What we have had to do, and at a very rapid pace, is to migrate more of our employees and customer projects to an appropriate IT environment, that allows services to continue in line with local situations and directives from authorities. The scale and speed of this migration has been unprecedented but not something that fazed us.

The ‘key initiatives’ that we have executed are to continuously enhance the availability of all IT assets, particularly user endpoints, VPN connections, at home internet bandwidth, and MFA solutions to the employees who have started working from home. This has worked for all customers and internal projects and we have had to work very closely with some of our large customers to ensure that the compliance and security standards of our ODCs can still be maintained when these projects are delivered in a ‘distributed’ manner, largely from home. To support the shift from our facilities to the employee controlled IT environment at home, we have updated our BYOD and Work From Home policies to match the new realities while still retaining the confidence of our customers.

The most important initiative that we have had to take concerns our engagement with the local authorities to advise, anticipate, receive, understand and orchestrate the orders pertaining to social distancing. Our senior leaders played a key role in putting the industry voice together in locations like Pune and Nagpur and ensuring that the government orders could accommodate the needs of the IT industry. In this respect, our close collaboration with NASSCO was fruitful.

Persistent has always believed in supporting the community. We are supporting multiple government organizations and hospitals and advising on  the ways to engage with all stakeholders. Globally, we have been already engaged with the The Biocomplexity Institute at the University of Virginia and our work with them was highlighted in the Wall Street Journal (AI Platform Aims to Help Policy Makers Calibrate Virus Response). This is an important part of our business as usual even in the face of the pandemic.

Key Challenges faced

Scale and Pace: The biggest challenge faced was the scale and pace at which we had enable Work From Home. While this produced provisioning and security challenges, the major effort has been to re-model the delivery architecture, mostly one customer at a time. This is a continuing process and most of the migration has been completed. At this point, almost our entire workforce, globally, is working from home.

Personal Work Environment: The challenge of work from home is also the different experience of employees and contractors in terms of the work environment at their homes. Personnel in hostels and PG accommodation have had to contend with those facilities closing down; most of these employees had to travel back to their homes away from their base locations. This situation was largely faced in India and all our international teams migrated very smoothly. Again, within India, the internet services that individuals and employees rely on have got overloaded and become less reliable. We expect this to improve quickly and not impact us in the long run.

Team Work: Our People and Talent Management functions are running a series of local and company wide teaming, collaboration and fun engagements to ensure that team cohesion and morale remains high.

On-Premise Essential Services: Despite a total work from home environment, we need to maintain essential services in our facilities. These comprise of our data centres, network infrastructure, security infrastructure and power systems. This is being done with the smallest possible workforce. Arranging the logistics for running these services that support work from home, and motivating the employees who venture out of their homes, is challenging but we are doing so successfully with the support of our management and the civil administration.

Key Lessons Learnt

External Factors: The biggest takeaway is that companies and organizations operate in an external context. This context is normally stable enough that company operating models are analysed and optimised for efficiency and KPIs and targets are generated. In the current pandemic situation, all embedded assumptions about the external environment have been overturned and the response to the new normal has been found wanting. What we have learnt is that forecasting is not only about revenue, costs or technology but also the external environment and organizations not having an internal ability to do so will be caught flat footed.

Systems Resilience: The big lesson for the entire industry is that there is no option but to move to the Cloud. In Persistent, we had taken the call to move all our Corporate IT enabled services to the public Cloud (SaaS applications as well as hyperscale cloud platforms) almost three years back and this was a largely done deal before the pandemic hit us. Because of this, we did not feel the impact of local disruptions at all. On the other hand, a lot of our customers and prospects, especially in highly regulated segments like BFSI and LSHC, are at various stages of cloud adoption. Delivering their capabilities is both a challenge and a humongous opportunity for us.

On the contrary, this is now likely to create another failure point for the future – when a hyperscale cloud service itself fails – we see some signs of disruption under stress already and reports of adversarial Denial of Service attacks are emerging. To this end, we have learnt that a certain proportion of capabilities always need to be provided on-premise and that we have to provide residential accommodation, boarding, power, essential stocks and physical reserves to these teams such that they can operate self-contained for extended periods of time. This is very similar to the military operating model and what essential services like hospitals, railways, telecommunications and security services have already internalised through experience.

Internal Reserves: With quarterly and half yearly cost budgets, cost controls, and Just In Time (JIT) provisioning, all organizations, and not just in IT services, tend to cut internal reserves of assets and capacities to the bare minimum and depend on dynamic provisioning to meet surges in demand. This model has been shown to have its limits and organizations in the IT industry will have to learn to build resilience budgets and reserves as a distinct line of financial planning. The supply chain has been shown to have upstream and downstream risks linked to physical infrastructure and IT companies have not really factored these issues well enough earlier.

Scenario Planning, Risk Management & Response: Organizations, certainly mature ones, have to do planning in advance for a range of business scenarios. What does happen in practice is that scenario planning gets lip service and resources are often cut down in favour of urgent business objectives. The German Field Marshal Moltke has been credited with the statement abbreviated as “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Later, Winston Churchill is reported as saying “plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” This particular pandemic has reinforced those deductions and companies and governments now will need to build their own crisis management teams if they need to survive this or bigger shocks.

Personal Resilience: What we have also learnt is the value of the term Human Capital. From the IT industry perspective, this human capital is not just the technical skills of their employees or managers but their resilience as a member of their families, communities and enterprise teams. We have seen examples of fear and what the military calls ‘desertion’ and we also have examples of employees and managers taking risks beyond the normal call of duty to ensure the corporate mission is sustained. We have to understand this human dimension much better and build HR systems that recognise the employee not only as a part of the company but having a life beyond that as well.

Technology tools used

Persistent has a robust and redundant stack of SaaS collaboration platforms that permit integrated team work to include Enterprise Social, Enterprise Content Management, Messaging, Team Meetings, Meetings with Customers an Vendors. These are integrated well with our SaaS ERP and SaaS CRM. Our enterprise collaboration stack has held up well and employees have come up with innovative use cases that were not leveraged before.

An interesting Collaboration requirement has come from additional business intelligence required to deal with the emerging situation and we found that our systems do not capture all the data points and reporting that have become relevant all of a sudden. This is being addressed by pulling data from our operational systems and enriching them using our self-service business intelligence stack running on top of our Enterprise Data Lake. The work we have done in publishing an extensive amount of enterprise data through our Data Catalog has become crucial.

A core enterprise service that has come to the forefront in ensuring Trust in Collaboration has been our Identity management platform. We have structured it in a manner that we are able to operate in a stable configuration all through the emergency and yet generate a high level of trust through a suite of MFA solutions.

Time to revisit remote working policies

The high reliance on work inside company premises has to do with issues of Trust – in the commitment of people and in the security and privacy of data. The solutions that the industry has rolled out show that the proportion of work from home can certainly be much higher and this can actually result in lower economic costs for the community as well as higher productivity. The win-win outcomes for working from home do rely on a set of existing and emerging platforms and services. This perspective needs to be tempered with a judicious mix of people to people contacts, and team collaboration. The company may well change from being the primary place of work to the one you occasionally congregate at – like the neighbourhood mall or the community hall.

Both the above imply major changes in the physical infrastructure of companies and the resilience of the distribution network reaching assets and connectivity from points of origin to homes.

While a lot of those distribution channels are digital, the current pandemic shows that physical distribution channels can fail and the home as a place of work will also have to be made a store of capability; whether companies are ready for that is a moot point. Self-contained residential and professional campuses could be the way forward for large companies; smaller companies may need publicly created campuses. Certainly, operating without any internal reserves has been shown to be short-sighted.

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