Agile Technical Expertise Redefined

David Coker, CIO, Polaris Alpha
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David Coker, CIO, Polaris Alpha

David Coker, CIO, Polaris Alpha

In November 2016, we all woke up to the effects of taking the Red Pill. Our previous company had been merged with several others to form a new company. Like most mergers, the plan was to build a best of breed company out of ones that had excelled in many different areas. Where we overlapped, we complimented. Where we diverged, we enriched. In the end, there was a bold, ambitious vision to construct a better, more competitive company. The Polaris Alpha vision is to combine the technical innovation, nimbleness, and agility of small companies, with the financial strengths of a large one. One year later, we are well into this vision and are seeing many of the anticipated benefits realized. What has this meant for IT?

  The Polaris Alpha vision is to combine the technical innovation, nimbleness, and agility of small companies, with the financial strengths of a large one 

There was no IT plan to start from. In many ways that would have been a waste of time. Businesses are dynamic and IT needs to be a dynamic business partner. Therefore, we spent time working with senior leadership to understand their pressing integration challenges and to get a rough idea of "who we wanted to be". It was pretty clear that forming a tightly integrated company with a unified corporate identity was an early imperative. These early conversations allowed us to formulate an initial playbook that would form the foundations of our company and our identity.

Our IT group operates as a DevOps shop. This allows us to juggle lots of activities while quickly responding to the dynamic needs of the business. Even with this approach, some changes take a long time, especially when it comes to infrastructure. Given the disparate nature of the new company, instinctively we knew there were going to be fundamental changes that could take a year or more to implement. We were then faced with the challenge of how do we help in the interim? Taking the identity imperative to heart, the first thing we tackled was the onboarding of staff with new credentials, email, and collaboration tools. This allowed groups to find each other, communicate, and share information in a common manner regardless of which operating company they were situated in. In many ways, this was going to be the first experience employees would have with the new company. This proved to be a big challenge and we wanted the experience to be positive. Therefore, we rolled out the common Tier 1 support function in parallel. With the initial steps, we saw Tier 1 support requests rise 250 percent over a 90 day period with a fixed support staff.

The crossroads of employee support provided a lot of insight into the challenges employees and the business were facing. Therefore, we were able to proactively reach out to the appropriate senior and mid-level leadership to discuss their challenges and offer help where we could. By standardizing our service offerings early, we were able to scale up without always having to scale out. All of this was done with a backdrop of providing services to ongoing business needs. A year later, integration challenges stay at the top of our priority list. Some of the lessons learned include:

• The business has to keep moving forward and “keeping the lights on” activities cannot suffer at the expense of integration.

• Communication is key. Frequent communication to all levels of leadership and staff is critical. Transparency cannot be overstressed in order to establish the trust needed to implement change.

• Publish draft policies and procedures sooner rather than later. Any written guidance provided will help to minimize confusion.

• The new IT organization can feel like outsiders to groups being approached for the first time. If possible, leverage familiar faces to coordinate locally.

• Focus on learning. Legacy processes and procedures are not always the best way to handle overnight growth. Being an agile organization, we were able to adapt fairly quickly. However, we constantly ask ourselves “will this scale as we continue to grow?” In many cases the answer is no. In some cases, we are still not sure.

• The perception of IT is wide and varied. Legacy organizations have had various historical experience and perceptions.

• Do not make assumptions. It’s easy to do all the talking. It’s best to spend more time listening.

To many people who’ve spent their professional careers in IT, change is the one constant we expect. In fact, we have to be experts in change. Whether it is technical, business, regulatory or organizational change, our role is to partner in the ways we know best. In general, businesses are undergoing a radical rethink given the impacts of cloud, machine learning, AI, business analytics, etc. Tackling the challenges of integration further emphasizes the critical place IT plays in helping businesses take strategic leaps of faith. It has been a challenging but rewarding year. There is still plenty to do but we are in a great place. We feel like those of us in IT have played our role in contributing to that success and are excited about the next steps we will take in moving the company forward.