29 April 2020

Smart working, webinar, Microsoft Teams, business continuity and DevOps approach: we talked about it with L. Villanova.

During this period we have often heard about different smart working initiatives, planned webinars, business continuity, the extraordinary features of Microsoft Teams and new approaches and methodologies at work. Working in emergencies requires great adaptability, on different levels. We talked about it with Luigi Villanova, Agic Technology's Associate Parner and Service Line Manager.

1) The impact of the restrictions for the Coronavirus has caught many Italian companies unprepared and has shown the serious delay in the Digital Transformation process in our country. Can this be the opportunity to really accelerate this transition?

Of course it is. Because of the recent epidemic and the obvious (and opportune) needs of "social distancing", smart working has become a must in our country, and not only. The problem, however, is that it has been a smart working in the name of urgency and "do-it-yourself" and, for this reason, not properly "structured". Just think that before the Coronavirus there were only 570,000 smart workers in Italy (source: Politecnico), out of an estimated potential eight million. Well, on March 13, just four days after the first DPCM of the "COVID era", the figure had practically doubled (source: Ministry of Labour) and data traffic in homes increased on average between 20 and 50%. All easy then? No, because there are at least two obstacles to overcome: the first is broadband, which in Italy reaches one in four citizens, against the average of 60% of other EU countries; the second is the mentality, still on average not very open to innovation, especially in SMEs. That said, if all this had happened fifteen or twenty years ago we would have collapsed in a few hours. Today, on the other hand, we can take advantage of this (albeit clumsy) departure in order to continue on to the real "Transformation", provided that we work seriously on three "Digital" components: platforms, skills, approach.

2) Working in full smart working involves the management of resources, even the youngests, remotely. How are you managing growth and team working at this delicate time?

This is a question I hear a lot these days. How do you ensure "teamwork" in this situation? The answer is obvious to me: exactly as it was done before. Discounted, because I was already making abundant use of modern communication and collaboration tools, long before the epidemic forced me into the home. Easy, therefore, for those who were already "ready" and were able to gain an important competitive advantage over competitors who were less so. And then, speaking of "junior", I'll throw a provocation: are we really sure that in this context of full smart working they are not also helping companies in the process of digital transformation? Today, four generations of people live together in the world of work, and it is precisely the youngest, the millennials, who have an extra edge in the use of new digital platforms. If only because, for them, relating to others through a display is much more "natural" than for previous generations. 

3) The Webinar of March 31 on Microsoft Teams was a great success. Many companies are recognizing the potential of this tool. In March alone, Teams recorded 14 million new users, with numbers destined to grow. What makes Microsoft Teams so much better than similar solutions?

For me, of all the aspects, there is one fundamental aspect that makes Microsoft Teams far superior to other similar solutions. Its extraordinary extension. Teams contains messaging, chat, calls, documents, task management... all within a single app. And not only that, thanks to the myriad of integrations that can be configured with other platforms, from Microsoft and not. As Satya Nadella said, Teams will soon become "the new Windows". We are not talking about a simple communication & collaboration platform, but a real service hub, that each of us can build and shape on the needs of our own, of our team, of our organization.


4) What are the real implementation times for Microsoft Teams? A concrete example

Let me tell you about the Rome Torquato Tasso High School experience. On Friday 13th March, in the evening, I get a phone call from Paolo (Paolo Brunati, ed). He tells me that the headmaster is in difficulty and has contacted him because he needs a simple and immediately ready solution to guarantee, remotely, the continuity of the lessons. Well, Sunday evening everything was already ready: virtual classes created, teachers and students (about a thousand) with username and password for access. A few days later we organized, again via Teams, a live event to show them all the features of the tool and put them in a position to work immediately. On March 20th we received a letter of thanks from the headmaster, of which I report a significant passage: "It is very important that the students in the present situation feel the presence of the teachers and that the thread of human contact is firmly established. The children, but also the teachers, need normality and to feel part of a community that is now physically forbidden to them to attend. Thanks to technology and your generosity, all this is now possible for the teachers and students of the High School". A beautiful story.


5) In this period, applications and systems supporting the business become decisive. Developers are asked for speed, quality and security. The DevOps approach.

Speed, quality and safety. I like to talk about the DevOps approach, which has its roots in the period of the Industrial Revolution. I'm talking about the nut and bolt, and the screw lathe that allowed them to be mass-produced, making the first railways, the first steam trains, and everything that followed. Well, just as the screw lathe started to standardise industrial processes, so the DevOps approach made it possible to standardise the software production process. This is extremely important, because software production is a very delicate activity and, like all of them, subject to the error that is inherent in every human activity.

IT is now the engine of the evolution of industry, in this sense we can say that all companies in the world are now IT companies. And providing developers with rapid development and testing tools, so as to verify whether what has been developed is safe and conforms to the needs of the business, is crucial not only for the developer, but for the whole company. Nokia knows this well, even Microsoft could have learnt it at its own expense, if Bill Gates hadn't implemented a decisive turnaround towards improving software and process security in the early 2000s.

DevOps borrows the virtuous theories and experiences of the industrial world of the second half of the 20th century (above all, the Toyota lean management culture, the safety culture, the theory of constraints), bringing them into the world of software.

With the DevOps approach, with the possibility of continuously predicting tests and integrations from the very beginning, with the possibility of developing an environment similar to the final one, it becomes much more natural for a developer to develop new practices to improve everyday activities (think of the Toyota model, where every worker was put in a position to bring solutions to everyday operational problems, and valued accordingly) making possible that "systemic model" that helps to give priority to improvements.


6) In this context, how much do the new levels of sharing and integration between developers and operations staff affect the design, testing and release phases of corporate application solutions?

The possibility for developers to work together with infrastructure developers is very important. Here, more than on tools, it is worth focusing on the organization of teams; the eternal "diatribe" between system integrators and developers is a typically Italian problem. The goal, now, is more and more to "put Ops in Dev", using hybrid teams. Composed not only by "DEVelopers "+"OPerationS", but also by marketers, data scientists and other professionals, who must be pulled out of their respective "silos" and put in the best possible conditions to work together, thus accelerating the innovation process.


7) Is cloud supporting project delivery?

Let me put it this way: without the cloud, none of this would have been possible. And I'm talking about two things in particular: on the one hand, provisioning environments and resources, and on the other hand, collaboration and content sharing, inside and outside the organization. Surely, those who were already in the cloud have recorded an important business continuity in this period, and a consequent competitive advantage over those who, on that cloud, then hastily rushed to climb. Clearly, however, the cloud is not the panacea for all evils. It must be used in a virtuous way, and with due attention to safety; otherwise, it can turn out to be a dangerous boomerang.


8) Working in emergency and full Smart Working has brought out new dynamics in working relationships. What lessons can we learn from this period?

I think everyone's got a lesson in it. Smart working is possible. And it's not little for a country where this message was anything but obvious until very recently. But I want to go further. Since smart working will unequivocally mark our working lives in the near future, are we sure we are doing it right? In my small way, let me give you some practical advice in this regard:

Order, deadlines, priorities: always plan ahead, and in detail, the activities of the day. Check the calendar in the morning and avoid flooding it with calls, especially at short notice. Work by priority and plan your productive time.
Breaks: Working from home, you'll inevitably miss coffee with colleagues; but breaks remain essential. With your wife, children, pets, relatives or colleagues on video call. But take them. And never skip lunch.
Location: OK, you work from home, but where? Choose a place, possibly well lit, and avoid "contaminating" every room. The office has moved home, but home hasn't become your office. Zero promiscuity.
Concentration: at home there could be many distractions, stay focused.
Communication: the day is marked by calls, do them well. Make sure there is always an agenda, set concrete goals, respect the planned duration.
Stop: at the end of the day, it comes off. The risk is to feel operational 24/7. Don't do it unless you're on deadline.


9) How to ensure business customers continuity during this period, how to give them confidence, support and how to adapt to their new needs/requests.

Paradoxically, contacts with customers have intensified during this period. Perhaps also because of the emergency, which makes us more proactive and proactive in exchanges, as if we wanted with this to make up for the "social distancing" to which we are obliged. We are all connected and always available, our day is marked by meetings and exchanges with clients are frequent. The "regulars" of face-to-face meetings are gradually rethinking themselves. Of course, you can't go to dinner or play golf with the client, and this kind of relationship is missing and will be missed especially by top management. But have you noticed? We often hear in the background in our calls a child playing, a kitten meowing or the notes of a piece of music. We enter our clients' homes, and they enter ours. We breathe a renewed patriotic spirit and we all feel a little more united. Let's face it... this "home detention", after all, has made us all more human.  

Danilo Stancato