Technology consulting

Driving change in SA enterprises

Ulvi Guliyev is a recent addition to Saratoga, and has joined as the Head of Software Engineering. In his words, during his 18 years in the software industry, he went “from working at small product houses and bespoke project shops to inevitably ending up in an enterprise; the place where programmers become architects”. Subsequent to that, he has moved on to become a technology consultant to large enterprises. Guliyev shares his views on the intersection between technology and consulting.

By Rebecca Maserow

Tech is the enabler, but what is the role of the consultant?

I like to think about technology consulting as a composition of two parts: technology and consulting, where consulting comes first and technology follows. Essentially, technology is what we do, and consulting is how we do it.

If you look at consulting in isolation, there are many ways of defining it. But what resonates for me is an idea of a trusted advisor, building a relationship with the client. Being such an advisor means that clients can tell you their problems, and you are able to give them a variety of options rather than just ‘a solution’. The consultant’s goal is to build relationships – to do a lot of listening before talking.

When it comes to technology, the high cost of building and running systems in enterprises is generally caused by decisions made without considering implications, so our job as technology consultants is to understand the implications and to be able to explain them to our clients. I don’t believe that consulting firms should offer software delivery as their product. Imagine that you are selling, for example, a Java development capability. What if your client doesn’t want a Java solution? What if it is not the right technology for them? What if they don’t even know what their problem is?

First, help them figure out what the problem is, which solutions are available to them, and then guide them in the right direction… and that in a nutshell is what technology consulting is all about. It’s about building trust and providing the perspective. If you get that part right, you don’t ever have to sell development, projects come your way as a happy side effect.

There are the early adopters and the slow-out-the-gate types; what is the current appetite (for technology adoption) in South Africa for enterprise businesses?

It’s all driven by need. If you look to history, all enterprises started with a paper process. Then they bought tools to automate a particular part of that process. They bought one box, then another one and later a third. At some point they have to figure out ways to connect these boxes so that they could work together.

So now enterprises have lots of these connected boxes, or legacy stacks, and working with them is tricky. The challenge is that in the world where every business has to have an electronic presence, the technology need of enterprises is driven by their ambition to create digital products for their clients. Most enterprises cannot afford to keep investing in their technology stacks like they used to, buying big and bulky middleware and making TIBCO, IBM and ORACLE millions of dollars. Instead, they shift their focus to creating an improved user experience by means of digital channels, whether it’s mobile applications or Web sites. The problem is that you can’t easily build a digital product on top of old technology, so you have to figure out the cheaper ways of doing that.

In terms of technology adoption, on the one side you have the conservative businesses, like banks – they don’t want to touch anything because there is so much money involved. On the other side are those who go after the shiny new toys, adopt open source technologies and create labs of R&D departments.

In the end, there has to be a balance. When I was a part of an enterprise and was making those decisions, my motto was always to learn from the software industry, be as smart as the industry is at the moment, but not smarter. You have to watch adoption trends. Don’t try to run ahead. If you see something that seems to be exciting, but that the industry hasn’t endorsed yet, it’s probably not a smart decision to adopt it.

I like to visualise the adoption curve as a wave – some people run in front of it, others behind it. You want to ride it, learning from the industry as it evolves. As an enterprise, it’s wise to wait and observe the real benefits that other businesses gain rather than implement technology based on arbitrary theoretical advantages. Being behind a technology wave is sometimes necessary, because you want to learn and to avoid mistakes that people have already made. Running ahead can be risky.

How do you convince an enterprise to spend the money and make an investment in themselves?

If you are talking about spending on technology, then it generally happens in one of three ways. Most of the money is generally spent as a side effect of poor judgments and bad decisions. Millions are poured into long-running failed projects; non-delivery is blamed on wrong methodology or insufficient resources. Then, there are good old-fashion vendor purchases, big guys like SAP selling their products to executives as a “perfect pill” with a hefty implementation and maintenance fee attached to it. And, of course, the latest trend, spending on an “Agile transformation”, the open-ended dream of perfect methodology without any clear goal or end state. It reminds me of a quote from “Frasier” about profitability of psychiatric treatment for lawyers: “They have excellent health insurance and they never get better”.

The point is, to make a good investment in technology, the one that actually pays off, you have to look into the root of the problem. But root is always old and messy and is written in COBOL, no one wants to deal with it. As a technology consultant, you could change that. Your job is to open enterprises to new possibilities, provide them with alternative options and better ways to invest in their technology.

What are your thoughts on this topic as it pertains to the Saratoga Group company in terms of technology enablement?

Currently, our business sits inside the single-technology-implementer box, which means that we have a range of clients and we sell our ability to build bespoke systems using a particular technology platform. We understand this technology well and our clients trust us.

But the wider software industry is moving towards multi-platform, multi-paradigm solutions. This is why recently, certain technology ideas have become very popular – like the idea of microservices that has everyone excited – it downplays the importance of the implementation technology. We need to start moving in that direction too. It implies focusing on solving problems and not really caring about technology (as much).

A single technology offering can only work when everything runs on the same platform and your people understand that platform really well. In this scenario, however, you’re not a consultant, you’re a bespoke solution implementer. There is still a market for such an offering, although the competition is fierce.

The place where Saratoga group really wants to play in is a technology-agnostic consulting. You’re the person that walks in and says: “I understand technology, old and new. Let me see what you’ve got, tell me what you want to achieve, and I will give you options. And then, when you make up your mind, I can build it for you.”

I can’t tell you how many times an enterprise client said to me: “I don’t need more developers, I’ve got 3 000 people on the payroll and I can do it all myself. If I want more devs, I’ll pay a company in India – it’s cheaper. I need somebody to tell me what I am doing wrong and how to fix it. I need a consultant.”

I believe the South African market is primed for this. There is a need for technology consultants here. We have many bespoke development houses, body shops and bums-in-seats kind of vendors; and it’s been working quite well. But our clients are starting to realise that they don’t necessarily need more developers for hire, but rather need help figuring out their problems and finding cost-effective solutions.

We’re in the process of realigning Saratoga’s offering to meet this need. We have a fantastic team with a wide exposure to technology across the group. I think that we are perfectly positioned to start engaging our clients in this new and exciting capacity.

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