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3 tech leaders reveal challenges amidst industry change: CeBIT panel

3 tech leaders reveal challenges amidst industry change: CeBIT panel

ASX, IAG and MidCoast Water discuss ways to future-proof infrastructure for mobility and enterprise enablement

Don’t focus on the “elephant in the room” when dealing with decommissioning legacy systems, suggested ASX general manager of application development and devops, Katherine Squire.

That’s one piece of advice dished out by a trio of tech leaders, who shared business drivers, experiences and challenges during a CeBIT panel on future-proofing systems and infrastructure for mobility and enterprise enablement.

“We tend to think of legacy as the elephant in the room," Squire said. "We say, ‘let’s go with this shiny new stuff over here - and that big decommissioning project will solve this problem for us - so let’s just not look that way.’ But my philosophy is let’s look straight at it. Look at it in the eyes and say, ‘what are we going to do now?'"

Squire, who’s been at the ASX for two years, said her focus has been unearthing opportunities to automate and change the way the ASX works.

Katherine Squire
Katherine Squire

No doubt, dealing with legacy systems and integrating that into a mobility strategy is a big headache, she said, recognising many companies are not only dealing with legacy applications, but zombie-like apps - a situation that is untenable and must be reviewed.

“With project-based ideologies we tend to create these babies and then orphan them - we are irresponsible parents when it comes to our applications.”

And the common approach to deploy a massive decommissioning project, which can run into the millions, often compounds the problem.

“Don’t take on the decommissioning, the massive program of work, but look at it and figure out how you can start reducing the footprints. How can you break off, shard off, some of the monolithic pieces of work? Start thinking about mini-services - and maybe don’t go straight to micro-services because I think you have to walk before you can run.”

But if the company does decide to move towards micro-services, she said IT departments need to build the infrastructure, the monitoring and alerting in order to control the micro-services in production.

“It sounds great, but there’s a huge amount of learning that has to come with it in your teams, and so the approach should be ‘constant code decommissioning.’ Instead of thinking of decommissioning as some big project, you should think of it as something you do everyday: decommissioning your apps bit by bit. You start reducing their footprint, and you do that by maybe putting APIs on it so services can use it,” she said, adding companies also need to review its culture and determine how it delivers software within the organisation.

“You need to inject new skillsets into the business and bring in outside skills, but also look to revamp internally and find those wonderful 'change agents' that are actually there in your organisation, but nobody listens to." 

People and culture

Like Squire, “people and culture” is a big focus at IAG, according to its digital workspace and Australian infrastructure director, Kath Young.

Young, who is responsible for enhancing the digital experience of more than 15,000 employees and partners, said her big focus has been dealing with the ongoing disruption and transformation of the workspace and shifting worker expectations.

“There’s quite a lot of disruption going on in all industries,” she said in discussing IAG’s business drivers for mobilising and digitising key business processes.

“We’re a fairly old industry and this disruption is somewhat here, but still coming. So to face that we really need to attract people, and keep people, and different types of people, and a younger demographic. We also need to attract people who have expertise, and who may want more flexibility in their life. . . It is really around disruption of the workforce.”

Like others, she said the company has had to address the ever-changing demands of the workforce.

“You have very different groups nowadays in the workforce. Women are looking for balance, convenience and flexibility while men are looking for career, money, and role content. Younger people want more job training, more job content, and opportunities; while older people are looking for security and stability,” she said.

It involves reviewing not only the ways in which people work, but the tools provided and the need for greater collaboration and access.

“It has really shifted from saying: ‘it’s okay to just sit here and do what I’ve been given,’ to ‘this is the way I am going to work.’ There’s also a shift in the impact on the business in terms of collaboration across geographies and across teams. Teams that aren’t together all of the time. It is really shifting the way people are working together.”

Remote connectivity 

Meanwhile, people living and working in remote locations are very much top of mind for MidCoast Water group general manager of information services, Carol Avis.

Avis said her biggest challenge - and one that's been front and centre over the past several years - is how to service people living in remote locations, and how to provide staff and field workers with mobile-enabled applications and coverage.

“Because we’re regional I’m representing people who are not connected to the infrastructure that most of us are connected to. So that has been a huge challenge. We are working creatively to try to solve the problem of not having mobile coverage in all of our 10,000 square kilometres in the service area that we need to do service in,” she said.

“It is not just the people that are out there remotely, it is all of the meters, the dams, the SCADA-managed water and sewer monitoring devices - and you can imagine how they need to connected and monitored and be communicating in a regional area.

She said she welcomes the introduction of a deregulated national required mandatory mobile roaming.

“It is done in Canada, in the US and New Zealand. That combination of geographic space and reduced numbers of people is a challenge. What we at MidCoast Water has historically done to deal with that is in putting in our infrastructure we installed a microwave wide area network, linking all of our 30 sites. And as much as we can, we put in a Wi-Fi network that we created ourselves, but, of course, it doesn’t reach as far as it needs to.”

One of the ways the company has dealt with that conundrum is by integrating mobile applications with its ERP system. “They work when in range, and when out of range, our field workers can still enter their data, but when they come back in-range, it gets uploaded.”

And while there’s a push towards the cloud in both the private and public sector, Avis said MidCoast Water needs to be cautious on this front.

“We can’t move to the cloud. We have reinvested in our own infrastructure, our own datacentres, and while we would like to not have to do that, we are much more cautious,” she said, adding the company sees a big opportunity in the area of software defined networking.

And the company does have a cloud plan. “We have cloud applications that we use selectively in the offices. What we are able to do is integrate the cloud applications with our backend systems through a login, so there is a degree of growing awareness of what could be done.”

She also sees opportunity in the rollout of the nbn. “The nbn has begun in the area where we are so we are definitely looking at what that creates for us. We are going to have to be very brave as the nbn evolves. Brave and creative in how we use the nbn - and I think software defined networking, and the opportunities from that, are something that provides some creative gain.”

Squire, meanwhile, admitted the ASX has been slow to adopt cloud - and for good reasons. “We are fairly immature in this space. Being the ASX we are very risk-averse. It took us 18 months to get our first app in AWS cloud - and the hardest piece was getting all of the internal stakeholders comfortable with what we were doing,” she said.

“It was quite a small app compared to what other organisations have done in shifting all of their workloads. We were just shifting a small piece, but it was the effort involved in actually getting people comfortable from audit to compliance to security to insurance - and that was the piece that took 18 months. It was quite exhausting, but what we did was create a practice on how to classify data, determined a checklist and rules. So now we have a path forward and we can demonstrate that we have gone the whole way to production.”

Squire recognised the ASX, like other companies in every industry, need to collaborate more.

“Traditionally, technology has been so siloed. . . But with cloud and all of the changes that have been happening, whether it is software defined networking, infrastructure as code, all of that, systems engineers now need to learn how to code.

“You can no longer be a systems engineer who just knows how to administer the box. So those skillsets need to change. Dev and ops need to work closer together, because dev have those skills, but they don’t have the infrastructure skills. So we really need to focus on the collaboration piece.”

Indeed, the need for collaboration is prompting massive transformational changes across government and industry - and so sweeping are the changes that she said her work remit has transformed.

“I’ve noticed that my role has changed. It used to be quite technical role, but now it is actually about culture change and it is equally as important, if not more, than the actual technical piece. How do you get everyone working together? How do you create that safety culture where your systems engineers don’t feel threatened by devops and how do you take them on that journey?”

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Tags NBNASXlegacy applicationsIAGsoftware defined networkingMidCoast Waterenterprise enablement

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