The pressure is on to navigate economic uncertainty. Gartner’s downward revision of projected worldwide IT spending in 2023 from 5.1% to 2.4% growth underscores how inflation, interest rate fluctuations, and consumer spending are reshaping forecasts, investment portfolios, and the CIO agenda. Regardless of your company’s investment posture during this period of instability, interactions with the CFO have likely increased and become more consequential in the last few months. 

To effectively traverse these interactions, CIOs must start with empathy. Walk in the shoes of the CFO. Acknowledge that they are fighting a battle on multiple fronts, from investors, creditors, board members, regulators, and peers, to name a few. Recognize that if your company’s top line is shrinking, the business is planning to recalibrate, and the CFO needs your help.  

In this moment of need, will the CFO view you as a business-savvy CIO with the chops to take on an expanded role in the C-Suite, or a barrier to visibility into a high-spend function? The answer hinges on your ability to keep tabs on three related topics that will likely surface in conversations with the CFO.  

Keep tabs on the keep the lights on (KTLO) budget 

If you fall on hard times in your personal life, you pay for your mortgage, health insurance, and groceries first to cover the necessities: shelter, security, and food, respectively. What are the necessities in your IT budget to keep the lights on (KTLO)? All things related to maintaining the systems to land, expand, and renew business at forecasted volumes are no brainers. Securing the technical estate from bad actors? Of course. While not an ideal situation, the CFO needs to know what the IT budget could be if the company shifted towards a “KTLO only” posture.  

To get here, we recommend inventorying spend across all categories (labor, projects, technology, etc.) to identify areas that could be paused or removed and estimating financial impact. Solicit input from trusted deputies and document the risks and implications of specific line items. Articulate how the budget could look in terms of operating and capital expenditure over the next 12 months, acknowledging that termination clauses and knowledge transfer may limit the speed of battening down the hatches, and that cancelling some investments are riskier than others. Build multiple budget scenarios with increasing levels of cost reduction to illustrate the plays you could run in response to various market conditions.  

Build compelling (and corroborated) cases for sustained investments 

If there are non-KTLO expenditures that you believe should be sustained, be prepared to explain why. Discuss the risky ones. Explain the tradeoffs. Be forthcoming if you think cutting too deep in the short run will lead to avoidable expenses in the future. In a soft market, initiatives that buoy margins will have the most staying power. 

In a tight financial climate, however, the business case may only go as far as the BU leader’s willingness to corroborate the benefits. Coordinate with your counterparts in the business to make sure you are speaking the same language and that your request isn’t artificially inflated by double-counted technology line items. Separate recurring and non-recurring operating expenses to identify annualization impacts and discover where EBITDA add-backs could help the cause. And remember that while new capital expenditures are spread across several periods on the income statement, it’s all cash going out the door in the eyes of a cost-conscious CFO.  

Deliver multiple views of labor spend 

IT personnel is likely the largest or second largest category in your budget, so prepare accordingly. Be ready to break your labor spend down in several ways: full time employees vs. contractors, operations vs. innovation, fixed vs. variable, and projects vs. KTLO, to name a few. If you have individuals, or teams structured around products, working on KTLO and new capabilities, estimate the breakdown at the individual or team level. Even if the findings only provide directional guidance, you will make inroads with the CFO for proactively thinking this way. If your top line is shrinking, prepare for questions on adjusting your cost structure to sustain margins during the storm. Finally, if your company is in dire straits, or if your CFO has a penchant for zero-based budgeting, be prepared for the resource-by-resource breakdown to explain exactly how each teammate is spending their time.  

Immediate and long-term implications for CIOs 

If this information is a few clicks away, consider yourself ahead of the game. If it feels more like a long putt, consider sharpening your pencil, especially if you see clouds on the horizon. An inability to produce this analysis quickly may create friction with the CFO and lead them to take matters into their own hands (or worse, shift matters to the hands of a third party carrying a blunt instrument and a deadline). Economic conditions aside, developing financial acumen was the leading skill CIOs surveyed at the December 2022 Metis Strategy Digital Symposium were looking to sharpen as they contemplate expanded roles in the C-suite. Now is the time to hone those skills.   

CFO, CIO, IT Leadership

By Bryan Kirschner, Vice President, Strategy at DataStax

Imagine getting a recommendation for the perfect “rainy Sunday playlist” midway through your third Zoom meeting on Monday.

Or a receiving text about a like-for-like substitute for a product that was out of stock at your preferred e-commerce site 10 minutes after you’d already paid a premium for it on another.

Or arriving late for lunch with a long-time friend and being notified that “to have arrived earlier, you should have avoided the freeway.”

We all expect apps to be both “smart” and “fast.” We can probably all call to mind some that do both so well that they delight us. We can also probably agree that failures like those above are a recipe for brand damage and customer frustration—if not white-hot rage.

We’re at a critical juncture for how every organization calibrates their definition of  “fast” and “smart” when it comes to apps—which brings significant implications for their technology architecture.

It’s now critical to ensure that all of an enterprise’s real-time apps will be artificial-intelligence capable, while every AI app is capable of real-time learning.

“Fast enough” isn’t any more

First: Meeting customer expectations for what “fast enough” means has already become table stakes. By 2018, for example, the BBC knew that for every additional second a web page took to load, 10% of users would leave—and the media company was already building technical strategy and implementation accordingly. Today, Google considers load time such an important positive experience that it factors into rankings in search results—making “the speed you need” a moving target that’s as much up to competitors as not.

The bar will keep rising, and your organization needs to embrace that.

Dumb apps = broken apps

Second: AI has gotten real, and we’re in the thick of competition to deploy use cases that create leverage or drive growth. Today’s winning chatbots satisfy customers. Today’s winning recommendation systems deliver revenue uplift. The steady march toward every app doing some data-driven work on behalf of the customer in the very moment that it matters most—whether that’s a spot-on “next best action” recommendation or a delivery time guarantee—isn’t going to stop.

Your organization needs to embrace the idea that a “dumb app” is synonymous with a “broken app.”

We can already see this pattern emerging: In a 2022 survey of more than 500 US organizations, 96%of those who currently have AI or ML in wide deployment expect all or most of their applications to be real-time within three years.

Beyond the batch job

The third point is less obvious—but no less important. There’s a key difference between applications that serve “smarts” in real time and those capable of “getting smarter” in real time. The former rely on batch processing to train machine learning models and generate features (measurable properties of a phenomenon). These apps accept some temporal gap between what’s happening in the moment and the data driving an app’s AI.

If you’re predicting the future position of tectonic plates or glaciers, a gap of even a few months might not matter. But what if you are predicting “time to curb?”

Uber doesn’t rely solely on what old data predicts traffic “ought to be” when you order a ride: it processes real-time traffic data to deliver bang-on promises you can count on. Netflix uses session data to customize the artwork you see in real time.

When the bits and atoms that drive your business are moving quickly, going beyond the batch job to make applications smarter becomes critical. And this is why yesterday’s AI and ML architectures won’t be fit for purpose tomorrow: The inevitable trend is for more things to move more quickly.

Instacart offers an example: the scope and scale of e-commerce and the digital interconnectedness of supply chains are creating a world in which predictions about item availability based on historical data can be unreliable. Today, Instacart apps can get smarter about real-time availability using a unique data asset: the previous 15 minutes of shopper activity.

‘I just wish this AI was a little dumber,’ said no one

Your organization needs to embrace the opportunity to bring true real-time AI to real-time applications.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos famously said, “I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ … I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two—because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”

This sounds like a simple principle, but many companies fail to execute on it.

He articulated a clear north star: “It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff, I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher.’ ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible.”

What we know today is that it’s impossible to imagine a future a decade from now where any customer says, “I just wish the app was a little slower,” “I just wish the AI was a little dumber,” or “I just wish its data was a little staler.”

The tools to build for that future are ready and waiting for those with the conviction to act on this.

Learn how DataStax enables real-time AI.

About Bryan Kirschner:

Bryan is Vice President, Strategy at DataStax. For more than 20 years he has helped large organizations build and execute strategy when they are seeking new ways forward and a future materially different from their past. He specializes in removing fear, uncertainty, and doubt from strategic decision-making through empirical data and market sensing.

Artificial Intelligence, IT Leadership

Michael Edmunds needed top-notch consulting expertise, and he needed it fast. But getting strategy guidance for his startup from one of the big consultancies would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Edmunds is senior vice president for global operations and quality at Witricity, which is developing magnetic resonance electrical charging technology for automobiles, industrial vehicles, and public transit. To create Witricity’s roadmaps for business development, market analysis, and product development, Edmunds needed input from seasoned management consultants.

Despite the seeming impasse, Edmunds had an ace up his sleeve: experience working with Catalant, a provider of a platform for flexible task team staffing, from his previous work at a major audio products company. Less than a week after he sent his requirements to Catalant, the company pulled together a qualified team, Edmunds says.

“We’re getting agility, which is critical for a startup,” says Edmunds. “The Catalant platform enables the immediate connection between business strategy and resources. You don’t have to carry massive overhead of employees. It’s like what you might get from McKinsey, but it’s affordable, and the results will be equal if not better — and faster.”

An engagement with one of the big consulting firms might run $4 million, Edmunds estimates, while a Catalant-assembled team can deliver comparable results for perhaps $400,000, he says.

Business climate favors dynamic talent sourcing

In the current volatile business climate, which includes a possible recession, venture-backed startups such as Witricity aren’t the only ones in need of flexible, affordable staff augmentation. IT organizations are also a fit, and CIOs should be aware not only of the options available to them but how best to leverage each as potential aspects of their staffing mixes.

“Businesses need their tech organizations to be adaptive to changing dynamics, and able to rapidly deploy new or different capabilities in order to meet customer demands,” says Forrester analyst Fiona Mark. The Forrester Business and Technology Services Survey 2022 predicts 44% of leaders expect to increase their use of freelancers in 2023.

According to Mark, there are hundreds of freelance marketplaces covering a wide range of expertise. Some platforms like Catalant are geared to provide management consulting services, while others focus on application development, web design, and other IT domains. Business models can also vary widely. Platforms such as Fiverr bring together task teams for specific projects, in contrast with Germany-based Vicoland, which creates virtual companies to meet client needs. Other platforms such as 365Talents, Fuel50, Gloat, and Starmind create marketplaces for companies’ internal talent — another approach CIOs are taking to fill skills needs in tight talent markets. 

Gartner sees the advent of what it calls talent ecosystems, consisting of inventories of both internal and external talent, being used to create a flow of labor when and where it is needed.

“Leaders are finding it challenging to find the talent they need when they need it, and there is a high speed-of-change for skills,” says Gartner analyst Helen Poitevin. By 2027, Gartner predicts 50% of large enterprises will have adopted an ecosystem approach, using platforms to orchestrate the flow of both internal and external talent.

Project management as a service

With a tight budget and minimal staff, the Save Our Children Truth Commission, a nonprofit organization created to file class-action lawsuits on behalf of children placed in foster homes, had made do for too long with a starter website. Executive Director Melody Janelle knew it was time for an upgrade.

“Website design was a drain on my time,” says Jannelle, whose organization seeks to protect children’s rights against such abuses as child trafficking both in the US and internationally. Needed was the ability to securely handle document uploads and financial contributions, along with a unified, cohesive design, Janelle explains.

Having worked with Fiverr on logo design at a previous company, Janelle sought out Fiverr once more. Her first contact was with an onboarding specialist to discuss her needs and budget. The next step was to connect with a project manager, provided via Fiverr’s Project Partner service, who proposed three teams to address the organization’s needs for copywriting, web development, and web design.

“They offered project management. That was very important. They managed a timeline, kept track of tasks, and coordinated meetings,” says Jannelle. As the work progressed, she worked one-on-one with each of the three team leaders as well as the project manager. Fiverr also provided security experts, who were particularly needed since the SOC website had been hacked twice previously, according to Janelle. Twelve weeks from the start of the project in January 2022, the new web site was completed.

Making dynamic talent sourcing work

As flexible staffing enters the mainstream, best practices are emerging. “You need to spell out your goals and have a champion,” says Witricity’s Edmunds. “It’s all about the statement of requirements and the desirable outcomes. Then checking on a daily or weekly basis.”

As work progresses, flexibility is important. Some teams might be hybrid with several internal employees working with freelancers provided through the platform, he says. “Have an open mind. Test and learn — the [subject matter experts] are available to be patched back in if there are questions,” Edmunds advises. 

Keeping the lines of communication open between platform provider and customer is vital to both parties because each will evaluate the other at the conclusion of the work.

“You’re rating them and they’re rating you, so it’s important to have a win-win,” Edmunds says. Those ratings are a key tool for prospective customers as they comb through the talent available. Like references for prospective employees, positive evaluations give users a feeling of confidence in what they’re signing up for.

“That’s the good thing about Fiverr. They do have a lot of quality talent. People aren’t lingering on Fiverr without reviews booting them off,” Janelle points out.

Before enlisting a freelance platform, Gartner’s Poitevin recommends that organizations look for talent within. “Companies should look first at internal capabilities, then to freelancers, independent contractors, and partners with whom they already have relationships,” she says. If needs are still unmet, then it’s time to look outside to a freelance marketplace, she advises.

Getting the most out of an internal marketplace has its own challenges, however. Keys are cultural acceptance and commitment, says the analyst. “The biggest thing to watch out for is managers hoarding talent. Employees have to be allowed to work on other projects. Will that be encouraged from a cultural perspective?” asks Poitevin.

“While dynamic labor models are enticing, there are hidden costs in ramping up and down people and there is value in organizational knowledge and relationships,” counsels Mark of Forrester. She stresses the need for governance to ensure not only the quality of work, but expectations about scope and knowledge transfer upon completion of a project. “Ensure that your organization has control over the most valuable, differentiating work,” she says.

Dealing with the feelings of internal employees is important to ensure they don’t feel slighted by the use of outside help, Mark says.

Echoing Poitevin’s advice, Edmunds says the best way to avoid resentment is to maintain both internal and external gig environments. “If people don’t feel vested and invested, you’re in a very difficult position,” says the startup exec. 

Looking ahead

Because the industry forces that have spurred adoption of talent platforms — economic uncertainty and skills scarcity — aren’t dissipating, it seems likely that use of the platforms will continue to grow, particularly as companies become adept at dealing with them and workers come to enjoy the flexibility in time commitment and location.

“There are some really gifted individuals. You will see the workforce transformed to become an Uber-like experience in which workers might work for a quarter, then take a quarter off,” says Witricity’s Edmunds. “Kids won’t work for a single company [for their entire careers]. They want to be on and then off. Also, the team can be anywhere in the world,” he adds.  

With many forces arrayed in their favor, could talent marketplaces become the dominant employment model? Probably not, says Forrester’s Mark. “We will likely see growth in the coming years. However, the relative governance and overall switching costs of ramping up and down will likely create a ceiling on this becoming the dominant model across all organizations,” the analyst predicts.  

Even so, Edmunds is a believer. “Speed is paramount in every industry. If you are searching for talent, you’ll search for months and even quarters. It amounts to a boat anchor,” he says. And when it comes to management consulting, he sees a significant momentum shift. “There are many retired execs that can do it at a fraction of the cost. Strategists and consultants are taking business left and right from the big three.” 

Hiring, Staff Management

Decarbonising transportation through electrification is critical to helping companies and economies meet net-zero emissions targets. Fortunately, three forces are combining to make this vision for sustainable transportation a reality: connectivity, digitalisation, and cross-sector collaboration.

In a recent “fireside chat” on the topic of sustainable transportation, Erik Ekudden, CTO of Ericsson, and Christian Levin, CEO of Scania, discussed the importance of 5G connectivity and digitalisation in helping companies meet their net-zero goals. This subject is critical to both companies. Ericsson is committed to halving carbon emissions by 2030 while Scania’s electrification commitment stipulates that half its vehicle sales are to be battery-electric vehicles (BEV) by 2030.

During their discussion, Levin identified 5G connectivity from Ericsson as fundamentally important to enabling Scania’s future transportation model. This is because a great deal of information will need to flow during the transition to sustainable transportation – from the digital support of electric vehicles, to providing customers with information on where to charge their vehicles and how to optimise the charging process. The connectivity and access to fast data enabled by Ericsson is already proving invaluable to Scania, underpinning R&D processes that have resulted in its latest fuel-efficient engine platform.

Levin added that his business is finding “more and more” use cases for leveraging data, whether that be improving products, better assisting customers or using geo-location tracking.

5G connectivity also supports the broader role for digitalisation in enabling sustainable transportation. For Ericsson and Scania, digitalisation holds the various components of electrified transportation together. One takeaway from the debate on this topic is that as the world moves to a sustainable transportation ecosystem all players will need to collaborate more closely, including communications technology providers like Ericsson, vehicle manufacturers like Scania, and the energy and grid companies that will provide the power infrastructure.

As Levin explains: “We should see [digitalisation] as a glue that is holding the different systems together…without this glue, we will not be able to do the transition.”

So, how exactly can companies from different industries best support one another? According to Ekudden and Levin, what’s needed is a change in business logic, moving away from supplier-buyer relationships to true partnerships, while standardising on the very latest in connectivity technologies such as 5G. This approach has proven to be a winning strategy in many industries by accelerating technology development and will now prove vital as the world transitions to more sustainable transportation.

Ekudden explains: “It’s super important to be early on the latest technology but also to put new requirements on the next generation of that platform because that guides some of the competitiveness of the offering [being brought] to market.”

As transportation moves to an electrified future, companies like Ericsson and Scania are building new partner ecosystems and leveraging the latest in network connectivity and digitalisation to innovate. Together, Ericsson and Scania are committed to mitigating climate change with new technology and the result will be a transportation system that is exponentially better for our planet.

Click here to watch Ericsson and Scania’s fireside chat in full.

Ericsson and Scania are members of the Exponential Roadmap, a science-based, cross-sector initiative to accelerate exponential climate action and solutions. Learn more here.

5G, Digital Transformation, Transportation and Logistics Industry

By Milan Shetti, CEO Rocket Software

According to a recent Rocket Software survey, 80% of IT professionals categorize the mainframe as critical to their business. But in order to be successful in today’s technology-driven world, businesses that rely on the mainframe must modernize their operations and integrate the latest tools and technologies. Companies choosing to abandon their mainframe face a costly endeavor, risk downtime, and lose out on powerful benefits. Modernizing in place allows businesses to continue leveraging their technology investments through modernization without sacrificing the many benefits provided by mainframes.

One technology that modern mainframes need is secure open-source software. Four years ago, the Linux Foundation’s Open Mainframe Project introduced Zowe, a first-of-its-kind open-source framework based on z/OS, making it easier than ever to connect the gap between modern applications and the mainframe. Rocket Software is a founding member of the Zowe coalition, and our engineers have played an integral role in the evolution of the Zowe open-source framework. Open-source technologies provide organizations with the responsiveness and adaptability they need to implement advanced tools and practices that balance developers desire to work with the latest technology and organizational need for security and support.

Read on to learn more about why modern mainframes need secure open source.

Benefits of modernizing the mainframe

There is no denying the importance of mainframes within the enterprises that use them. Respondents to Rocket’s survey say the top three qualities that contribute to their organization’s reliance on the mainframe are reliability (34%), security (27%), and efficiency (22%). Modernizing in place is a great way for mainframe-reliant businesses to meet demands while positioning themselves for future success with an efficient and sustainable IT infrastructure.

Open-source software provides many benefits that can help businesses modernize mainframe development through capabilities that drive application and infrastructure modernization, accelerate application development, and enable the next generation of developers. Through DevOps/AppDev solutions, businesses can bring the accessibility of open source to the mainframe while ensuring the compliance and security of their system’s data. By automating processes, organizations can easily implement modern application development practices while ensuring compliance to organizational standards and business rules. Because of the development of open DevOps/AppDev solutions, businesses can bring applications to market faster, at lower cost, and with less risk.

Why the mainframe needs secure open source

Open-source solutions can provide the mainframe with a litany of benefits, but like any other technology, open source is not foolproof and comes with its own challenges. One of the main open-source challenges is regarding its security as applications are developed and delivered to and from the mainframe. Organizations are also concerned that if there are vulnerabilities found in open-source software, they will take a long time to fix. 

To overcome these challenges, organizations must take a security-first mindset and partner with industry-leading vendors to ensure that they have the capabilities to identify vulnerabilities and make fixes in time to mitigate security risks. For example, Rocket Support for Zowe gives users access to modern capabilities from the Open Mainframe Project’s Zowe open-source framework that makes it easier to interface and develop applications while providing 24/7 support, security, and compliance assurance.

The mainframe has been around for more than 50 years, and with the ability to integrate the latest technologies to match today’s business needs, it’s not going anywhere. Modernizing mainframe development with open-source software will enhance development practices while ensuring compliance to organizational standards and business rules.

To learn more about the power of open source on the mainframe, visit our website.

Digital Transformation

IT organizations are increasingly shifting from project-based organizational structures to product-based methodologies, which involve cross-functional teams. These new building blocks of business include both tech and business pros, and they’re generally led by a product manager, who acts as the point person throughout the product’s lifecycle.

Product managers aren’t a new job category by any means, but this shift means that they’re newly prominent and important to many companies’ strategies. As a result, many corporate leaders who are used to hiring for IT now have to learn what makes a good product manager as they seek to fill these roles.

If that’s a position you find yourself in, don’t panic. We spoke to a host of experts, including product managers and those who supervise, hire, and mentor them, about what you should be looking for if you’re hiring a new PM for your team.

Seth Dobbs, CTO at IT services and consulting firm Bounteous, gives a pretty good thumbnail sketch of what an ideal product manager would look like. “This is absolutely a hybrid role and requires a good mix of skills,” he says. “They need to have enough knowledge in both technology and UX to at least be able to understand technical and experience constraints and tradeoffs, but need to be centered around business and customer value to drive decision-making around tradeoffs.”

Dobbs says he also looks for adaptability given the rapid changes that often evolve in a product-based environment, in addition to the ability to “meet deadlines, budgets, and the overall business strategy as they work through these tradeoffs,” he says. “They also need to have strong interpersonal skills and know how to lean into the experts to leverage their insights in forming a roadmap and plan, but also leverage their skills in getting the work done.”

That’s all easier said than done, of course, and in practice it’ll be hard to find a candidate who can cover all those bases. But our experts gave us some pretty good guidance on specific qualities to look for in a candidate.

Look for great communicators

Almost everyone we spoke to agreed that communications skills are a must when it comes to product management. “I can typically tell within the first 15 minutes of a phone call whether or not I’m going to hire someone,” says Cait Porte, who is chief marketing officer at software development company Digibee and has a background in product management. “The people who can articulate themselves well can translate business and technology wording and phrasing in a way my team will respond well to. Effective communicators can not only articulate themselves well, but serve as translators between business and technology, ensuring that the right solutions are at the top of the priority list.”

Tal Laufer, VP of products at cybersecurity firm Perimeter 81, explains that communication is a must-have in this job because of the role product managers play coordinating various stakeholders. “A product manager serves as a bridge in the organization. Many aspects of their work involve connecting and bridging different teams and disciplines, striving for the success of the entire company,” she says.

Seek out those who go beyond the data

Most businesses, especially in tech, pride themselves on making data-based decisions, and many of the team members a product manager will be working with will be very data-focused. That said, a product manager needs to both be able to understand what hard data is telling them — but also be comfortable making more intuitive and creative decisions. “Being technical is great — it allows you to understand the details — but it can also hold you back at times,” says Luke Gannon, product manager at graph database company Neo4j. “If you can only view things with your developer/computer scientist hat on, you run the risk of being closed off to new, creative ideas and suggestions.”

“Lots of folks are stressing metrics and being data-driven,” says Shane Quinlan, director of product management at software development firm Kion. “But in most cases, you’re starting with a dataset that’s not statistically significant — we’re not all building B2C at crazy scale. Yes, data is important. No, you don’t need to wait on perfect data to make a decision. Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy.”

Emphasize measurable outcomes

Nothing helps attune a candidate’s intuition like experience. Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science, a product management coaching and consulting firm, says that a candidate’s resume should show what they’ve done in the field — and what they’ve achieved. “The first thing a hiring manager should look for is measurable outcomes on their resume,” she says. “It’s not enough to say they’ve gone through the motions of product management. The hiring manager needs to know what tangible improvements were achieved.”

And while there may be a stereotype of fresh-faced product managers with little real-world experience, many companies will choose candidates with in-depth knowledge of the business domain in which they’ll be working, according to Stephanie White, director and head of product, technology, and professional at fintech recruiting company EC1. “Product managers who our clients hire have to be domain experts, understand how the product is being used commercially, as well as understand end-to-end product build technologically,” she says. “This is so that they can attend client meetings and sell the user experience, as an extension to the sales and propositions teams.”

Charles Paumelle, chief product officer and co-founder of Microshare, a smart building data solutions company, agrees. “Business and technical acumen is needed to answer the questions ‘Why will customers spend money on our product?’ and ‘How can our organization deliver a cost-effective solution to the customer’s needs?’” he says.

Look beyond certs and education

On the flipside, many of the experts we spoke to held formal training and education in less esteem. “Certifications are not the key to becoming a PM,” says Kion’s Quinlan. “I don’t care how many classes your previous employer paid $5,000 for, if you can’t explain simply how a website works, talk about a product that inspires you, and prioritize work with some level of objectivity, you won’t cut it.”

Digibee’s Porte goes even further than that. “Historically, jobs for product managers were reserved for MBA graduates,” she says. “As someone who both served as a hiring manager and obtained her MBA, I believe it shouldn’t be a qualification as a product manager.” It’s not that having such as degree is a bad thing per se, she says, but “people naturally think an MBA is enough of a qualification. In reality, it’s so much more than that.”

Understand your specific product-based needs

If you’re worried about finding someone who fits all of these bills perfectly, good news: In all probability you’re going to have more than one product manager at your company, and different specific roles and experience levels may be called for.

“In terms of experience, sometimes you are looking for someone who has experience in a certain market or with a certain technology, but other times you are ready to invest in someone who has the attitude and aptitude without the experience,” says Trisha Price, chief product officer at software development company Pendo. “There is no one-size-fits-all, because diverse teams with diverse experiences are what drive the best outcomes and create the best cultures.”

“There are different ‘flavors’ of PMs in practice,” says Kion’s Quinlan. “There are startup PMs, go-to-market PMs, scale PMs, design PMs, platform PMs, data PMs, and more. Someone who’s awesome at one flavor may not be the best at others (or there’ll be an adjustment period). Understanding your problem is key to hiring the right product manager. That’ll inform how you rate them on specific skills — more technical, more business-oriented, more design-oriented, a jack-of-all-trades.”

“I consider is a candidate’s ability and aspiration to be more of a ‘pioneer,’ a ‘settler’ or a ‘farmer,’” says Microshare’s Paumelle. “Product management ranges from pure innovation and R&D to create brand new products (the ‘pioneer’ heading into the unknown), to the productization of alpha products into a mainstream market (the ‘settler’ who establishes a community and builds the first structures), to the optimization of established products (the ‘farmer’ who increases the yield year after year).”

Tailor your interview process

You might be able to suss out some of this via resumes and email exchanges, but a lot of your hiring decision will come down to the interview and how the candidate does in the room (or on the Zoom, as the case may be). Our experts had plenty of advice on how to assess a candidate in an interview:

“Something we do as part of our interview process is a bit of role playing,” says Mona Ghadiri, director of product management at cybersecurity firm BlueVoyant. “Part of that is to see how they respond to role playing in general; putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is so critical as a product manager. It is also critical to see how they answer the questions and think on their feet when a problem statement is in front of them, because we are in front of customers and our peers presenting information frequently. We also ask about how they have prioritized work in the past. We’re not so much looking for them to rattle off frameworks like RICE [reach, impact, confidence, and effort] or WSJF [weighted shortest job first], but seeing if they were able to use those frameworks in a practical application.”“I ask for good, detailed examples of how they make tradeoffs against business need, user desire, and technical feasibility, and how they successfully navigate the different stakeholders to get to agreement,” says Bounteous’s Dobbs. “I’ll also typically ask them to walk me through a high-level strategy or roadmap for a product they have managed in the past. Overall, I try to understand how they think, how they have reacted in various scenarios, and how they drive things forward.”“Don’t show up unprepared,” says Kion’s Quinlan. “JIRA does not make a PM. I don’t care that you’re a wizard in JIRA. Show me you understand problems. Show me you’re thinking about ways of working. Show me you can lead a small team.”“No matter what level they are interviewing for, from entry level to senior director, I always look for a passion for solving problems for the customer,” says Dan Ciruli, VP of product management at software services provider D2iQ. “That is the number one thing I want out of a product manager. One of my favorite interview questions is, ‘Tell me about your favorite customer.’ Their answer tells me everything I need to know about how they work with customers, what inspires them, and whether or not they are truly problem solvers.”

Don’t lose sight of the intangibles

“I’m a big fan of finding the ‘raw talent’ that would make a great PM,” says Kion’s Quinlan. “For an associate product manager, the day-to-day skills can be taught, but you can’t fake or learn interest in the problem and empathy with your peers and users.” In the end, most of our experts agreed, it’s that interest in solving problems that’s the most important quality to find in a candidate for product manager.

“I went into product management coming from a hardware development background,” explains Perimeter 81’s Laufer. “Even as an engineer, I was always curious about the full picture. What do customers want? What is the market like? How can we build a better product for our customers? This curiosity and my love for working with people led me to a product focused role. I had to learn about a lot of subjects, all at once, but I had (and still have!) a blast doing so.”

She adds: “I love that part of the job, teaching young PMs how to do things right.” We hope that the product managers you find go down this same successful path.

Hiring, Project Management

Among managed services providers, (MSPs), comdivision stands out for many reasons, among them the depth of the company’s work with VMware. Not only is comdivision a VMware Principal Partner that earned the distinguished VMware Cloud Verified distinction, but it’s also the only MSP globally to have earned all eight VMware Master Services Competencies.

Designed to recognize partners with deep expertise in specific VMware solutions areas, each Master Services Competency requires MSPs to attain advanced certifications, not just for the company, but for a set number of employees. References from customers are also required to demonstrate high-level service capabilities and performance.

Earning even one VMware Master Services Competency is difficult – comdivision earned Master Service Competencies in Cloud Management and Automation, Cloud-Native Apps, Data Center Virtualization, Digital Workspace, Network Virtualization, VMware Cloud on AWS, VMware Cloud Foundation, and Software-Defined Wide Area Network, (SD-WAN).

We recently caught up with the Yves Sandfort, CEO of comdivision, to learn how he defines success as an MSP and how the company approaches its client engagements. We also took the opportunity to learn about Yves’s views on the role of IT and where he sees the greatest opportunities for enterprises to improve their relationships with MSPs and professional services partners.

“In comparison to many MSPs, we’re small,” says Sandfort. “But what we lack in size, we make up for in agility. It’s a real differentiator for us. For example, last year we were approached by the CIO of a German car manufacturer that needed to rapidly deploy a Desktop-as-a-Service Solution. We weren’t the only services provider capable of doing the work, but we were the ones that could do it the fastest and do it well. Speed and agility are the hallmarks of success of very experienced, highly knowledgeable, small teams.”

Notably, comdivision offers a full portfolio of highly customizable IT solutions and services. These include everything from the design of next-generation data centers to the development of cloud-native applications and the migration and management of multi-cloud deployments – all backed up by a full range of training services overseen by experienced and certified experts.

Based in Muenster, Germany the company has offices in Munich, and in Vienna, Austria, as well as in the U.S. in Tampa, Florida. Customers around the world rely on comdivision’s multi-faceted and proven cloud services.

“We are extremely flexible so that every customer decides the level of management they want us to oversee,” adds Sandfort. “We approach the cloud in much the same way. We help our customers determine which cloud makes the most sense for them whether that’s a private, public or multi-cloud approach.”

Sandfort stresses that flexibility is a crucial aspect of any client and MSP relationship.

“A managed service should by its very nature be a customized solution, not one hindered by an unchangeable off-the-shelf product or forced into a three-year contract the customer can’t change,” he says. “The pandemic and our collective experience over the past few years showed that IT must adapt to changes quickly. An MSP should help them do that.”

He adds that it’s crucial that enterprises remember that IT is a means to an end, not a result.

“In the end, it’s all about building a solution that matches and completes the customer’s IT and business requirements. That means identifying tasks that do not directly influence business value that can be managed externally so internal IT teams can focus on what really differentiates their business. Too often organizations fail to focus on IT that differentiates their business and helps it grow. For example, if you’re a furniture retailer you may not do better by creating your own exchange from scratch, but you may benefit from a more efficient point-of-sale system that uses the cloud and changes the way you do business. Business needs and desired outcomes should drive IT, not the other way around. Most lackluster or failed client and MSP relationships reflect a disconnect on this point.”

Not surprisingly, comdivision is growing – it is already a multi-million dollar business that is seeing 100% year-over-year growth – but when asked what he enjoys most about his work, Sandfort says it’s the same thing that first led him to comdivision more than 25 years ago.

“I still love it when a client or prospect approaches us with something they believe isn’t doable,” he says. “That’s when we can really shine as a team, think outside of the box and help them achieve their goals. It’s even sweeter when you go the extra strep and deliver an extraordinary customer and user experience.”

Learn more about comdivision and its partnership with VMware here or listen to Kathleen Tandy’s interview with Yves on the VMware Partnership Perspectives podcast.

Managed Service Providers, VMware

Whether the cause is a disability, long illness, psychological challenges, or parental choice, many children find themselves facing the daunting task of acquiring an education at home.

During the global pandemic, homeschooling issues became a particular concern, as teachers and parents attempted to use their time and energy most productively and vulnerable students worried about falling behind, among other anxieties.

On a practical level, in some cases, homeschooling can eat up 10% of a particular school’s budget even when less than 1% of the pupils require the service.

As the world shut down, international technology company NTT DATA Business Solutions attempted to remedy apprehensions by creating a digital teaching engine to help children learn, teachers teach, and parents homeschool.

Not only would the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Learning Helper assist students in improving reading and other skills, the new platform would also manage to meet the emotional needs of each child.

Human avatars

From its headquarters in Bielefeld, Germany, NTT DATA assists a variety of industries, including chemical, pharmaceutical, wholesale, and consumer products, always searching for new places to innovate.

The company also works closely with the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), drawing research from such disciplines as technology, media, science, art, and design.

“The possibilities of artificial intelligence fascinate us,” noted Thomas Nørmark NTT DATA’s global head of AI and robotics.

Previously, the company’s “digital human platform” allowed NTT DATA to develop avatars for receptionists, sales associates, shop floor assistants, and car vendors, among others.

Those experiences would prove invaluable in the development of the avatars that would both teach children and interact with them in a personalized way.

Emotional fluency

Turning to enterprise resource planning software leader SAP for its foundation, NTT DATA used a number of the solutions to make the AI Learning helper come to life: SAP Data Intelligence for both AI and Machine Learning (ML), SAP Analytics Cloud to amass data about individual students’ learning progress, and SAP Conversational AI to manage the conversations between Learning Helper and the students. 

These allowed the platform to utilize AI specialties like body language detection, emotional feedback, micro expression – which registers facial expressions that sometimes last only 1/30th of a second – and summarization algorithms to create new phrases to relay information in a language every student could grasp.

Each screen would be the equivalent of a virtual buddy who could understand a pupil’s changing emotions – detecting whether he or she were frustrated or unmotivated – and patiently adjust to the situation.

At times, the Learning Helper would conclude, a child simply needed to engage in small talk for a few minutes before turning back to the lesson.

The innovation would provide much needed relief for parents and teachers who are not always able to exhibit the same type of sensitivity when they are dealing with so many other obligations.

Tracking for success

The app was deployed in January 2021, with the Danish municipality of Toender’s school district and a British hospital school becoming the first places to use the AI Learning Helper.

Students discovered that they could access the platform at any time on any device, and there was no limit on how long a session could last.

In addition to assisting pupils with vocabulary, pronunciation, and story comprehension, the avatar generated and answered questions.

Through classwork, as opposed to testing, the solution could track each child’s progress, communicating that information to parents and teachers, and come up with lessons tailored to areas where the student could improve.

Participating schools noted that estimated homeschooling costs decreased by 50%, leading to a 5% reduction in the overall budget.

For creating a personalized virtual helper to bring out student strengths and alleviate both loneliness and frustration, NTT DATA Business Solutions received a 2022 SAP Innovation Award – part of an annual ceremony rewarding organizations using SAP technologies to improve the world.

You can read all about what NTT DATA did to win this coveted award, and how, in their Innovation Awards pitch deck.

As developing nations gain greater access to the Internet and education becomes more democratized, the company plans to use the AI Learning Helper to teach thousands more.

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning