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Four Pillars of Digital Transformation

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Asif Iqbal about the four pillars of digital transformation .

Key Takeaways

  • Digital transformation is a mind shift change that potentially creates an opportunity for business to increase development velocity and business agility, which delivers value to customers and shareholders faster
  • Four principles for digital transformation are
    • Understand your customers and customer segments
    • Align cross-functional teams with customer segments
    • Listen, influence and coach
    • Communicate and celebrate success
  • Give all teams time to innovate as part of their normal work rather than establishing separate innovation teams
  • Don’t aim for perfection – find what works in your context


Shane Hastie: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. Today, I am sitting down across the miles with Asif Iqbal. Asif, welcome. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Asif Iqbal: Thank you, Shane. Good to be here.

Shane Hastie: We met at QCon San Francisco last year and you gave a talk on modeling patterns for digital transformation. But before we get into that, I suppose a good starting point is who's Asif?

Introductions [00:32]

Asif Iqbal: Oh, absolutely. My name is Asif Iqbal. I currently work for a company called Couche-Tard as a global director for digital and experience design. I know it's a long title. What does that mean in plain English?

My teams are responsible for a website for North America, Canada, and Europe. And then my teams are also responsible for all the different native apps that we have in North America, Canada, and Europe. And trust me, we have quite a few native apps. And as part of the digital transformation that I'm doing right now at this company is to help build a global mobile app program, so we don't have that many apps in the market.

And lastly, where the experience design comes in, my teams are responsible for to making sure that all the experience on the digital channel look and feel the same across the channels, across the geography, et cetera, et cetera. That's what the title is, global director of digital and experience design. So mobile app, website and experience design, UX, UI.

A little bit about myself. I have been doing this technology/product engineering work for almost 19 plus years now and have successfully led large digital transformation in wireless, retail, mobile and e-commerce domains. Of course, excited to be here to talk to you about similar topic about modeling patterns for digital transformation. I'm ready to go.

And if you want to know a little bit about my experience, happy to touch where I came from. Obviously from professional perspective, like I said, I've worked for some great organization, learned from great team members, mentors and bosses at those organization. And some of those organizations are the likes of Nordstrom, which is a big fashion retailer in US. Walgreens, which is also known as Walgreen Boots now because they're based in England.

And then obviously, T-Mobile, which is based in Bellevue, Washington. Sony, PlayStation. Yes, my team did work on PlayStation 5. And obviously, currently working for a company called Couche-Tard. It's a Montreal based company. It has different C stores around the globe. In Canada it's called Couche-Tard. In North America it's called Circle K, and in Europe it's Circle K, Extra, Ingo, that kind of stuff.

In between, I took a couple of years off from a corporate world and did some consulting. And actually enjoyed that piece because it was more of the strategy work, corporate strategy, that kind of work. Was not executing, but it was more of a strategy work. That's a little bit about me, who I am, where I come from and what I have done so far.

Shane Hastie: Thank you. Possibly a first principles question. When we say digital transformation, what do we mean?

Defining digital transformation [03:23]

Asif Iqbal: Yeah, it means differently for different people. To me, digital transformation is a mind shift change. And if you do the transformation correctly, it creates an opportunity for business by changing how we operate and delivers value to your customers and to your shareholders faster.

To me, that's what digital transformation is. To me. You may have a different understanding of digital transformation. That's what is digital transformation. Why we do digital transformation? And again, if done correctly, it can increase the development velocity, business agility, and delivers value to customer and your shareholders faster.

What does that mean? Means you can do digital transformation and say, "I'm going to use Waterfall SDLC. And it's going to take me nine months to do a simple website." That's not digital transformation. You're not creating any values for your business or your stakeholders. To me, that's what the digital transformation is and why companies do it.

Shane Hastie: Transformation is always a scary word in organizations. How do we bring people on our transformation journey with us?

Four principles key to digital transformation [04:33]

Asif Iqbal: Yeah, great question. I think it's all about keeping those four principles that I talked about in my talk during QCon. I'm going to forget what I said. The four principle was understanding your customers and your customer segments. that's number one.

Second is aligning with your customers and your functional teams. Because you cannot do anything digital transformation in a silo. You can say, "Oh, Asif and Shane wants to digital transform this company and forget about what people A and people B are thinking. Shane and I are going to go and make that happen." We will fail. Not going to happen. That's where the cross-functional team alignment comes in.

The third is influencing and understanding what the change is, why we want to do it, how we are going to do it. And what's in it, not for Shane, not for Asif. What's in it for you as a customer or as an organization? Again, showing the empathy and explaining the why behind it.

And finally, communicating, communicating, communicating, over-communicating and celebrating success. To me, those are the big four pillars that we use to sell the idea of what the digital transformation is to at any level from a C-level, all the way to people at the store level. Can I explain them what's in it for them?

To me, that's what the digital transformation, that's how when it becomes what the word did you use? Scary word. You split it into four small pieces saying, "The reason I want to do this is because point one, point two, point three." And then go work with your team and say, "The reason we want to do this is A, B, C, D." And then go to your C-level and say, "If we do this correctly, we are going to create more shareholder value. Your EBITDA will improve." It's all about selling what each individual wants and selling it in their own words.

Shane Hastie: You mentioned the four pillars. Let's dig deep into each of these four pillars that you mentioned. The first one, understand your customers, but don't we already know that.

Pillar # 1: Understand you customers [06:35]

Asif Iqbal: You will be surprised how many people don't. You'll be surprised how people will go and say, "Oh, in order to digital transform, we just move your website because customer use your website. Move it from .net or legacy environment to the cloud." They can say they are digital transformed.

Well, that maybe that's not what customer wants. Maybe a customer wants to know how fast. For example, take any e-commerce site. What is a big thing e-commerce site wants to do? They want to make sure that you can log in, your pages are loaded fast, it's performant, and they can find what they're looking for in easy steps. Keep your customer journeys or steps less than three.

To me, in order for you to know what customer wants you do some research and figure it out. What is not a good digital transformation is moving from an old legacy website and literally moving into a cloud and said, "We have digitally transformed." That never works.

I'll give you one quote from one of the CEO that I used to work with at T-Mobile, John Legere. He used to say, "Listen and do whatever your customers tells you to do. They're always right." Again, do some research. Figure out what your customers are using on your website. Maybe there are certain features on the website that they don't even do anything with.

If that's a case, then if you want to transform into the cloud, build those features from scratch using the cloud native tools means. And only build the features that's being used. Don't worry about stuff that they have never touched or only touched once in a while. To me, that's what the customer segment and needs comes in. That's a first pillar.

And again, like I said, there are multiple ways you can do it to get the segment or customer needs. You can do some research, you can do moderated testing. You can literally put a simple survey on your website or on your mobile app or any product, say, "Hey, what do you like about our product? What don't you like about the product? How can we improve?" And then you iterate, take that and iterate it. To me, that's the one way of saying the first pillar, customer needs.

Shane Hastie: The second pillar, align with your cross-functional teams. Cross-functional teams can be difficult anyway.

Pillar #2: Align with cross-functional teams [08:48]

Asif Iqbal: Yes, but as a leader, if you want to digitally transform, those are the things that you have to, I don't want to say deal with, but work with. And again, this is the example that I gave you. No one person or team can do anything by themselves or in a silo.

It's very important to build those relationship with your cross-functional team and with your own team. And then again, learn about why they may be hesitant to say, "Why should I do digital transformation?" This is where the empathy comes in. To me, for example, think about this. I hire Shane and I want Shane to do a digital transform my company.

Shane can come in two ways. Shane can come in and say, "Oh, I just got hired. I am the director of A, B, C, D, and I want digitally transform. I have a support from CEO, CIO, CDO." Shane comes with that mindset and says, "Okay, fellows, Asif and team, we are going to go from .net to cloud. Get ready." You know what? Asif will look at you and say, "Hmm, I don't think that's going to work very well for Shane because Shane is not showing me empathy."

That's one way of doing it. But aligning with your cross-functional team and your own team. If Shane comes and says, "Guys, I appreciate all the wonderful work that you guys have done in the last 10, 15 years. But you know what? How about we want to do this? And the reason we want to do it because we want to become a, I don't know, multi-billion dollar company. And we cannot keep using this old legacy system. We want to get to the new system. And I know you guys are worried that you know guys don't know this tool or you guys don't know this new environment. We will help each other to train and get you help to learn about this new environment."

Again, see the mindsets changes? That's number one we are doing is for your own team. And the cross-functional team could be you have a business partner. And this is a true example. I'm not going to give you a company name, but true example. We went there, I was hired. And I went to one of my buyers and I said, "Hey, we are thinking about going to this new retail tool that will do your ordering systems." And this individual looked at me and said, "I've been using a Microsoft macro Excel for the last 15 years and I've been very successful. Why do I want to do this?"

And the way you do that is, "You are right, you are. But if this company wants to become a multi-billion dollar company, can you imagine doing the same thing in Excel macro for this many more vendors, this many more customers, et cetera?" He looked at me and said, "Okay, okay, how about we tried with a small department?" We literally tried with a very small department and waited for the quarter. And we figured out the velocity and the error rate of the ordering came down drastically.

Again, it's like digital transformation as a leader, half the time you spend on selling your idea. Influencing your idea. And to me, that's why it's important to align with your cross-functional and inter-functional team, showing empathy and explaining them what's in it for them.

And then again, you have to build some credibility chops for yourself. And the way you do it is you cannot do what Shane's first approach. You go with Shane's second approach and it's like, "Okay, he may be trying to help me get to the next level." To me, that's where aligning with your customer and cross-function team becomes very important. And that's where this empathy comes in, using your influencing tactics helps you, et cetera, et cetera.

Shane Hastie: The third pillar was influencing coaching, mentoring. How do we bring that into play?

Pillar #3: Listen, influence and coach [12:23]

Asif Iqbal: I think I touch on it in my previous pillar comment, but I think this is a good topic to talk about it. Again, this is where you try to influence and say again, "Why behind the reason? Why do we want to do this?" For example, I'll give you one example. There's a buzzword few years ago called DevOps. I'm sure you heard about the word DevOps.

And what a lot of companies did is, "Oh, DevOps. Let's make development team and operation team, put them together. And voila, my company is DevOps enabled." That's not what DevOps says. You know it, I know it. What the real DevOps is, is creating one team where you can build it and you own it. What that means is there's no separate production support team. There is no separate feature development team, there is no separate UX, UI, prod all those teams.

You bring all those folks together and say you are responsible end-to-end for this product vision and product delivery and product support. Certainly if you change that mindset and you influence that mindset, what happens is developers, when they're building something, they will build it with how they're going to support at the end in mind. Because they are the one who's going to get called at 2:00 AM not a separate production support team. Again, accountability changes.

Same thing with product organization. When a product is part of that organization DevOps team, he or she is not going to say, "Oh, I'm just going to build a product and I don't have to support it. Going forward, somebody else will take care of it." No, you own the product end-to-end. You create it with customer in mind. And again, you influence, listen and you say, "This is how we're going to do it."

To me, that's from a product vision perspective. From a technology vision perspective, you influence a culture of what I call it like a DevOps culture of CI/CD, CT. What does that mean? You build features in small chunks with a continuous integration built in, continuous deployment, pipeline built in and continuous testing built in. Why? Because then you can make these small changes quickly, that velocity improves.

And again, back to listen, influence and coach, the pillar. The way this is these two things are important is because what does business at the end or executive wants? They want to do things quickly, safely and do it better and make it accountable for our team.

Again, to use these three things, listen, influence culture is you influence these tactics to them. And then now you build it. And you build a DevOps mindset with the end-to-end accountability. There is no, "I'm going to build this new wonder feature. I'm going to move or throw it over the wall to Shane. And Shane will take care of all the support problem and I'm going to move on to a new feature." No, you own the whole thing. This is your baby.

Shane Hastie: And your fourth pillar is celebrate success.

Pillar #4: Communicate and celebrate success [15:15]

Asif Iqbal: This is where I say... And we all are busy. I totally get it. Sometime what happens is we are so busy that even though we made, for example, let's enable CI/CD in a small one of the sign-in feature. Okay. After that, celebrate it. I mean when I say celebrate it, go take your team out for a dinner. Or not dinner, a drink, whatever they drink.

The reason that's important is that will show two things. That will show that Shane actually cared what I just did. It doesn't matter how small it was, Shane cared what I did. Shane knows that I exist, my team exists. That's number one. Number two is this is where the team culture comes in. you meet with your team, you celebrate their success, you celebrate their failures with them.

And then, all about communicating. When you are doing a digital transformation or anything in life over-communicating is much better than not communicating at all. And not even over-communicating, communicating and communicating often. And there are multiple ways we all can do that. I know what I have done.

Whenever you do any kind of transformation or digital transformation or any transformation in life, what do you do? You have lots of meetings, you do town halls, you do roadshow, and you do a sprint demo. I don't know why some people miss doing the sprint demos with executives for small things. They think, "Oh, in order for me to do a demo, I need to have a beautiful UX, UI and all that kind of stuff before I can bring executive in."

No, you can do a demo off a script, off something that's backend getting updated. Because you will have no idea how many times somebody will ask you, "Hey, how often does this data get updated into a table?" Guess what? Bring your executives and say, "I'm going to run a script. This is how the data is going to get updated. This is literally a near real time process." They will appreciate it because you have no idea how many times they don't understand how the data works, number one.

And then finally to me, this whole about communicating often and celebrating success, one of the, I will say success thing that lot of engineering organization and product organization miss out is it's not about just celebrating a success with taking your team out for dinner, lunch or giving them ticket to baseball game or basketball or, in our world, cricket game.

Give all teams time to innovate rather than establishing separate innovation teams [17:34]

It's not about that. It's also about giving them time, what I call it, to innovate. What really doesn't work is lot of team build this innovation team and there are few people who are the only one who can go and innovate. That never works. Smaller teams, giving them a time on maybe every sprint or once a quarter saying, "This is the time, these three days for you to guys to go and do innovate." I think those small things goes much further and long way than buying them a lunch or buying them a ticket to a cricket game. Lot of engineers and product, they want to do this small innovation thing, which we don't give time for them to do.

In my previous companies, we have used the method of every other sprint. We will give, I don't know, X number of story points for just innovation. Or maybe do something what we call it kaizen events. Every quarter, take a week away from their regular work and say, "Go work with your cross-functional team or with somebody else and come up with an idea." Idea could be as small as me talking to Shane, it took me three clicks to log into Zoom. What can I do to create a one click? Things like that. It could be anything.

To me, that's what I will say communicating and celebrating success. Celebrating success is not just about giving them a pat on a back or giving them a ticket or taking out to lunch. It's also learning from them as to what they want, what's make them happy. And it could be innovating. And then, as far as communicating, the more you communicate, the better it is because then people cannot say, "Oh, I didn't know you were working on it." Over- communicate my friend. Hopefully that helps.

Shane Hastie: It does. How can this go wrong?

There are pitfalls and antipatterns to avoid [19:16]

Asif Iqbal: We talked about what is digital transformation. Let me talk about what is not digital transformation also because that's where things can go wrong. Remember my example? And this is a true example in one of our CIO wanted to tell the board that they are digitally transformed, the company. This person's comment was, "Hey, just move our legacy website into the cloud, just move it." Literally the idea was lift and shift.

We did. Guess what happened after that? We digitally transformed, right? We were in the cloud, but it took us more time. It was more expensive for us to maintain it because we did not understand what features made sense to move it to cloud. By doing that lift and shift approach, it cost us more in a long run because at the end, literally a year later, what did we do? We did it the right way.

Means we literally took, said, "Okay, we moved the entire website into the cloud, but we are not optimizing the cloud tools. We are paying more on the cloud cost. We have no data DR places built in. And we built some of the features that customers aren’t even using it." What did we do? We went back and we evaluated and said, "Okay, so sign in. People do use every day. Let's build it in a cloud, using the right way. Product page, let's build that in the cloud the right way. But account management, it's hardly being used. Keep it in the old system. Who cares?"

To me, that's one way that things can go wrong. The other way I'll say is not having your own team support and your leadership support, that can go digital transformation to the you know where. Bad, bad places. And the way that works is, again, if you get your team onboarded with explaining the why behind why you want to do it, and they bought the idea and they are in it with you, then your team is with you.

And from a leadership perspective, I will say, executives, this is where you over-communicate and communicate with them and get to their level. It's like, okay, because some of the C-levels may not care about that it's going to make my website go fast. Who the heck cares? But if you tell them, if you create this feature in a brand new mobile app, it's going to help with your EBITDA. It's going to save some opex dollars. Guess what? Now they're going to listen to you.

It's you just have to know your audience and make sure you explain it what's in it for them. And you do this often. Do it over and over again so that it's not like, "Oh, what is Shane working on? Why are you working on this? Well, how much money did I spend?" Things like that.

Again, it's all goes back to my second pillar. The better you do the second pillar by empathy, learning from your team, influencing the right ideas and working with the C-suite, explaining them what's in it for them, how that improves the customer lives. And by you making things easier for your customer, how that customer is going to come back to shop at your store, thing like that, that will help. To me, I will say those two things, if not done correctly, can go wrong.

Shane Hastie: What haven't I asked you that our audience should hear?

Tips and techniques [22:18]

Asif Iqbal: Digital transformation is a journey. It's not perfect. You are not looking for perfection. If you don't roll out certain things because it's not perfect. I always use 80/20 rule. If you wait for perfection, my friend, you will never be able to release anything in production or anywhere.

The way you do that is you use a 80/20 rule to implement any new features. That's number one. And then I can guarantee you there's times that we wanted to do all 100% and we were able to go back and talk to our executive saying, "I think 80% good enough to go live with this product. And let's go live with it and get customer feedback. Iterate on it."

And I can tell you in my last six digital transformation, there were five of them that the other 20% feature that we thought was important, we never went back and implemented it because customer told us something different. To me, if you would've waited to make it perfect, people will not have used that other 20% feature.

To me, that's number one thing I will say, that I know we have not asked about it that always used that 80/20 rule. Number one, always have what I call a good frameworks around digital transformation. Some of the framework that I have used is having a good design system. Remember I talked about experience design team? You cannot have different colors of icons on website versus mobile app.

And how do you fix that? You create a design system where you have a code snippet. A developer, the only thing they have to do is, "Oh, I want to create a button. I'm going to go grab a code snippet." There's no chance there's a different color of red versus whatever. The things like that. Design system is important.

Most important thing after that comes the prioritization. How do you prioritize? Because everybody's things are priority number one. You know it, I know it. We have used what I call it, this shift model. Can I figure it out and say, "Okay, this is what the value of this shift looks like at the end. And then, we are going to prioritize using this model."

And then finally, I will say is creating a flexible architecture where you can do these widgets, where you can do these small things, like make code changes on the fly in the middle of a day. The way you do it is you want to get away from building monolithic application and build it in a small chunks, small pieces, small segments. I will say those are the two big things that I will say.

And finally I'll talk about, and I think I mentioned this earlier, you don't have to know all, you don't have to be expert in everything. Use the partnerships that you have built in relationship that you have built to go and get the help from others. For example, I have a philosophy on buy versus build. And that's where the partnership comes in.

I am a personal believer is if you are building something, if you want a competitive advantage, you build it in-house. But if there's something that you are not going to get a competitive advantage around, go buy it off the shelf. And hopefully don't customize it too much, but use it as is. That's where the partnership comes in.

For example, let's say you want to enable CI/CD and continuous integration environment. Go find a partner who has done CI/CD before. It's the same thing. Now by design, I didn't use the word CT for it. Why didn't I use the word CT? Because CT is test scripts. That's specific to your product, your culture, your environment, your system. You cannot buy that off the shelf. For that, you build it. But CI/CD, you know it, I know it. There are platforms out there, you can literally go and use it. That's where the partnership comes in. Partnerships is, to me, very important when you're doing what I call it, a digital transformation. No one person can do all. I mean it just as simple as that.

The finally, I will say is this is my favorite thing that I always say to my team, digital transformation, it's not about fancy tool, it's about the mindshift change. There's no one fancy tool that we can use and say, "Oh, I have digitally transformed my organization. Or I bought X number of tools, blah, blah, blah." No, if you cannot change your team and your business partner, this mindset shift, you can never... I don't see never. Never is a bad word. It's hard to digitally transform. Digital transformation is not about fancy tool. It's about the mindset change.

Shane Hastie: Asif, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. Really interesting ideas, some good advice in there. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Asif Iqbal: You can find me on LinkedIn, you can find me on Twitter. I think LinkedIn is the easy way. And you have my email, so if somebody wants to get hold of me through email, I'm available to answer any question. I'm a big user of Slack, but I think LinkedIn is the fastest way to get hold of me.

And thank you for time, Shane. I had wonderful time talking to you. Hopefully this helps someone. And like I said, if there's anything I can do to help or have anybody have a question how to digitally transform or anything about digital or product engineering, happy to talk to them.

Shane Hastie: Asif, thank you so much.


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