Changing payroll systems – not just for the brave?

Is changing payroll systems just for the brave?

By Kevin Murphy

How scared should you be? High profile payroll implementation failures in the education and health sectors make changing payroll systems seem like high risk projects. It’s therefore often not until a critical incident occurs or significant pressure builds on the people, processes or technology involved that the need for change overcomes the appetite for risk.

Why change?

We would love to believe that people change to Datacom’s payroll software because it is so much better than what they had. Our software is assuredly better, however it seems that nobody changes their payroll software just because they have found something better. They typically change for any or all of the following reasons:

  • Their existing software or software supplier has let them down in a major way or they believe the risk exists for this to happen.
  • They are being forced to undertake a major upgrade of their payroll software.
  • The person that has been running the payroll for seemingly forever has decided it’s time to retire.
  • They are unable to get important business information from their existing system.
  • They recognise that they are doing an unreasonable amount of manual administration that can be automated or eliminated.

Moving to a modern payroll system that is cloud-based and date effective, that does all calculations in real time, that includes mobile and web applications for staff, that automates manual award interpretation, that can be integrated with other systems, and so on… only seems to happen when one of the above conditions exist.

It is unfortunate that many are missing out on the benefits that a modern payroll system can provide, and it is not until an organisation is forced to research alternatives that these benefits are uncovered.

What to look for

Your payroll should be one of those things that runs silently in the background. If you are thinking about payroll at all, this is likely not to be the case. Silent running should be one of your primary objectives.

The number one thing to look for in your new payroll software is a solution to your current dilemma.

If your existing software or supplier has let you down, look for a track record and references. Look for disaster recovery systems and regular DR testing. Nothing drops staff morale faster than failing to pay them on time and correctly so having confidence that the payroll is going to be available when you need it is critical.

If you are being forced to undertake a major upgrade, look for a cloud service that will always be up to date when you connect to it. There really is no need anymore for dedicated infrastructure that you need to maintain, update and renew prior to accepting the latest version of your payroll software. Look for continuous development behind the scenes and a steady stream of new releases. Look for one with the capacity to manage your payroll whatever size you grow to without upgrades.

If you are unable to get the information that you need from your payroll system, look for a comprehensive set of standard reports. You’ll want a custom report writer that does not require specialist report writing skills, and the ability to get data out in .csv format and/or through an API for further manipulation.

If you find your payroll staff are dealing with paper timesheets, paper leave requests, or manual payroll calculations, seek time-saving alternatives in the form of employee mobile and web applications, back pay calculators, and an award interpreter.

But also look for something that is as “future proof” as possible. Look for a cloud application that is supported by a development team of some size who are continually maintaining compliance and adding new features.

How to run the project

Payroll projects can be risky. The newspapers frequently carry stories of disastrous payroll projects and we believe this is the main reason that people are so reluctant to upgrade their software until they really have to. The truth though is that payroll projects do not need to be risky. Datacom currently completes an average of seven significant payroll migration projects every month.

Dealing with an experienced and expert payroll company with a mature project methodology should be your first risk mitigation when planning a payroll project. Secondly, you could consider breaking the project into bite sized chunks. While not always possible, consider making changes in your existing platform first before migrating payroll platforms, so that change happens incrementally.

It is generally a good idea to simplify your payroll as much as possible before migrating (or even choosing) payroll systems. For example, renegotiating remuneration to simplify rate calculations, or cashing up allowances, etc. Adopting common standards for such payments will mean you have a greater choice of systems and will require minimal customisation.

Every payroll project (even the annual upgrade required on legacy client-server systems) should include parallel runs. That is, running both the old and new system in parallel, providing the same data inputs into both and reconciling the outputs. This can be quite a lot of work, but your payroll software supplier should be able to help with this work, and have tools available to simplify the work and reconciliation.

While the payroll supplier will have primary responsibility for the work to be undertaken during the project, there are a number of parts of the project that cannot be done by a supplier. Your payroll supplier should be able to clearly explain what they expect of you as a part of the project. This is likely to include dealing with the legacy system supplier, perhaps providing information from the legacy system in specific formats, participation in various configuration workshops, approving configurations, reviewing findings from parallel run reconciliations, managing communications with staff, and so on.

In general, you should not need to provide a specialist project manager (the supplier should provide one), but you will need to make available the people who have the best understanding of your current payroll system to provide information to the project team. The project team will need to have a clear understanding of how things work today, and how you want them to work.

What next

Modern software these days is generally provided on a Software as a Service (SaaS) basis. That is, you simply connect to it via the Internet and use it, without having to own and manage a lot of IT infrastructure. A benefit of this is that your payroll need no longer be an island on which only a privileged few have access to.

Obviously security and privacy controls need to be strictly maintained, but connectivity in the cloud world means that you can easily connect to your staff via web portals for timesheet input, leave requests, leave approvals, and for payroll data output, like payslips or other notices. The “new world” equivalent of this is mobile apps for smartphones. Smartphones are becoming ubiquitous and connecting employees to your payroll via their smartphone provides convenience that cannot be matched for many non-desk bound employees.

Connectivity in the cloud world also makes it easier to connect applications. For example you might connect your payroll system to specialist HR applications that particularly suit your business, rather than the old world where you had to purchase a single system that did many things but none of them well. APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are included in most cloud applications and allow you to exchange or synchronise data between applications.

Once you are using modern software, keep in touch with your supplier, be familiar with their roadmap, provide them with your feedback, and take advantage of new features as they become available.

So, how scared should you be?

As long as you are working with a partner who has a dedicated team of experts, using a proven project methodology, not scared at all. In fact you should be excited, and looking forward to positive feedback from staff who are happily using smartphone apps to input and receive data from your new payroll system.

Kevin Murphy is Director of Datacom Payroll for New Zealand. 

Hackathon how-to: One man’s experience at Datacomp

Oceania17

By Dr. Daniel Thomas

Our industry is full of disruption. There is no such thing as business-as-usual; the norm. Our world is constantly changing and reshaping. It can be scary, but it can also be an incredible journey.

Each year, Datacom holds an intense, 48-hour hackathon called Datacomp. Competitors from across the entire Datacom group descend upon Auckland to compete and use new and different technologies in ways that we normally don’t get to in our day jobs.
For me, Datacomp embodies this uncertain and amazing ride we have embarked on in the technology sector. Each year exposes us to new challenges and compels us to try new and exciting things.

It’s about pushing the boundaries, exploring new ideas, camaraderie and a big heap of fun: it’s Datacomp.

Friday

There’s always a nervous excitement as you prepare for the kickoff. Since we had arrived early, we could catch up on correspondence but also get to see the final preparations as the Auckland office became Datacomp HQ.

Decorations going up, competitors checking in and the buzz around the office. There was an electric excitement in the air as the moment approached and MC/organiser Kerry Topp stepped up to the stage.

In 2016 the theme was “It’s Personal”: using cognitive technology to create innovative systems. For myself, it was also personal: this time I was going to do something different and bring an idea from one of our customers. This meant I wasn’t going to join a team; I had to form a team.

Knowing how much effort people put into “pre-forming” teams, I was extremely nervous about trying to form a team on the night: I had just two minutes to pitch an idea and at-tract people to my cause.

Each year pitches get better and more creative. You have not seen anything until some-one raps about creating a smart AI to recommend restaurants.

Auckland's Joon Park rapping his Datacomp pitch
Auckland’s Joon Park rapping his Datacomp pitch

Luckily our team, Community Pulse, came together. But as the team captain I discovered that getting a team was the easy part…

Too Many Ideas

The best advice I can give to anyone competing in a hackathon is the advice I heard from VC winner Ben Roberts-Smith: no matter how much time you have, always spend a third planning.

One of the hardest challenges at Datacomp is focus: You only have 48 hours and there are hundreds of things you can try. We set aside Friday night for planning and we had one key aim: choose one great idea.

The challenge is not dismissing the bad ideas, it’s actually getting rid of the good ones – and it is hard. As captain, I had to listen thoughtfully to the team and take their advice and views on board. Everyone in your team has a different perspective that needs to be respected and considered.

There were a few times I had to drop some of my own ideas as we drilled down. A good captain should listen (and learn) from their team, as well as keep discussion focused and time-boxed.

We quickly learned to listen to our business mentor. Each team was allocated a mentor to help articulate concepts from a commercial point of view. Sometimes it can be confront-ing when you’re challenged on your concepts, but this is part of focusing and distilling. If the idea does not stand up under scrutiny, it won’t survive the judging on Sunday.

At about 10pm we finally had our concept in place. We would create an app that would match potential volunteers with organisations in need. We were ready to start framing and forming up how it would work.

So with Friday done, we took an “early mark” to prepare for Saturday.

Saturday – The long march

Saturday is best described as an emotional rollercoaster. As the smallest team in the competition we had to be extra focused.

Datacomp is more than just hacking together code – just like in our day jobs there are multiple parts that go into the solution. We had a young graphic designer making the screen designs, a data analyst running Microsoft Machine Learning over volunteering data, guys from Managed Services, Business Unit Managers and two very hard working developers.

There were however some lighthearted breaks such as the Datacomp Auction. Things I learned about the auction:

  1. Everyone votes for themselves
  2. Never bid against someone who wants to use drones to help special needs kids watch sports from home when too sick attend in person
  3. Listen to your heart and let the dance come from deep within your soul. Yes. Settling ties through dance offs. By geeks. Who cannot, and should never, dance.

Datacomp is a pressure-cooker, especially on Saturday, but there are lighter moments. Like our team’s Shia Leboeuf motivational video and another team’s Amazon Echo error handling – my favourite moment of Datacomp. It was about 1 AM and I took a five-minute walk and discussed the Echo AI technology with one of the developers from team Chicken Soup. Then they showed me this little gem: if you told the Echo you wanted to go on a trip yesterday it would say “Let me just back up the time machine for you… beep beep beep”. To me this was Datacomp in a nutshell. The technology was fun and they were having fun with it.

Sunday – It all comes together

As the presenter, I was sent back to the hotel to sleep. I needed to bring my A-Game to the presentation.

Of course I slept in.

A mad rush back to the team room (OK, with a stop for a quad-shot coffee) and back into the fray.

We had a minimum viable product. We had a lean canvas business plan. We just needed to nail our presentation. Luckily, we had some great support again from our mentor and the more business-focused guys in the team to pull it together.

It was time.

The feeling once midday comes around on Sunday is one of nervous anticipation. You have just a few minutes to convince the judges that your system not only works, but is a good idea.

Having done singing and theatre was a definite help. You need to relax, make the case and above all: keep to your time. Timing is essential; otherwise, you lose the opportunity for the judges to ask you questions and lose points for going over. If there’s one thing a presenter must be fully aware of, it is the time.

And then it was over.

The other teams brought some fantastic concepts to show the judges. It really showed the diversity, teamwork and innovation Datacom can bring to the table. When you see these ideas come to life, you cannot help but think, “Wow! I work for a really great company: look at all the cool things these guys have done!”

What is a win?

Before Datacomp, my objective was to create a good, tangible idea to bring back and develop with our customer. Coming into the competition without a pre-made team and the smallest group on the weekend, we had nothing to lose. After our presentation I felt satisfied: I had worked with a great team, been able to experience the fun that is Datacomp and we had something to show for our effort.

Oceania 17, Enviropulse and Chicken Soup were awarded the top prizes and deservedly so – there was some amazing technology that really delivered on their goals.

Daniel CelebratingDr. Daniel Thomas celebrating at Datacomp 2016. 

But something quite unexpected happened. We were awarded the “Advance to Go” prize. This means that the judges saw the benefit of our idea and want to help grow it and see where it leads. For an idea related to the community sector, this was a humbling moment. As I write this, I have already started working with others to turn our app into a commercial reality.

Final Thoughts

The thing that I really enjoy most about Datacomp is the privilege of meeting so many amazing people. I am proud to work for such a company; we build each other up and expand our horizons.

Dr Daniel Thomas is a Senior Consultant for software solutions at Datacom. 

Finding the right place and time for innovation

AUTStudents

At Datacom, we’re continually devising and developing new IT products, services or solutions that will benefit our customers, as well as thinking about ways to use technology for internal innovation. One thing we try to keep top of mind when going through this process is that, sometimes, it’s best to look elsewhere. That is, consider things that have been perfected in other industries for potential application in your own.

Taking time out of corporate life

For example, when we worked with AUT to develop our Smart Timetables solution, we looked to the corporate environment for inspiration and guidance. Here, calendars and related productivity tools are used on mobile devices, and relied on by countless people, every day.

Why were we looking to innovate in this particular area with AUT? Perhaps surprisingly, even nowadays timetabling in tertiary education is often a manual process in many respects, and designed with staff, rather than students, in mind. Students may have to use paper timetables and/or go to websites proactively to access them, if in fact they are available online at all. And even if education providers use specialist timetabling software, it usually isn’t designed to deliver data directly to mobile devices.

Among other problems with this state of affairs, it’s difficult to notify students in advance of changes to their timetables if, for instance, a lecturer calls in sick. All too often, if a class is cancelled or the room has changed, the first students know about it is after they’ve turned up. Obviously, this can lead to confusion, frustration and missed lectures.

Smart Timetables is a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution that solves these and other problems for students, staff and education providers alike. The Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) is using it to help revolutionise the student experience and reduce the administration burden on staff. It does this by automating the delivery of up-to-date, personalised timetables – enriched with information such as maps, assignment due dates and tutorial reminders – directly into their phone and tablet calendars.

Finding your way

Speaking of maps, helping students to find their way on campus is an area where education providers have taken a leaf out of the airport industry’s book.

Airport wayfinding is an art and science that has been honed over decades. Every year, millions of visitors pass through airports in Auckland, Sydney and other major destinations around the world. Every day, would-be passengers need to find the right car park, entrance, check-in desk and boarding gate. Airport wayfinding therefore needs to be as intuitive and fool-proof as possible to help visitors, who speak an array of languages, to get to their destination, enjoy their experience and, of course, do some shopping.

Over the past few years, its core principles and best practices – including crystal-clear signposting and indoor mapping – have been adopted successfully by tertiary education providers, and achieved positive outcomes on campus. With Smart Timetables, wayfinding has become even easier for students and staff, with their class times and locations always up-to-date on their personal devices.  The calendar and wayfinding functions will continue to converge as we integrate on-campus directions, such as Google’s Indoor Maps functionality, into Smart Timetables in the near future.

Don’t get lost in translation

When you are adapting or building solutions for a different industry or area it’s crucial to know the potential new users as well as possible, and avoid making assumptions. A close understanding of the ways in which all people process and interpret images was key to refining airport, and university, wayfinding. Having adequate knowledge of how students use their personal timetables – in comparison with corporate workers especially – was crucial to the success of Smart Timetables.

An important finding from the early stages of designing the solution was that students are not as used to using calendars to manage their time as those of us in corporate life. Where we tend to rely on them heavily every day, up until Smart Timetables came along students simply didn’t have a good reason to use their calendars on their phones or tablets.

Our research showed that, although students use WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram and many other apps on their mobile devices, very few of them make extensive use of their phone or tablet calendars. Indeed, in a focus group we held, 45% of students said they used their laptops as the primary digital device to access their calendar in the university setting. Among other things, this meant that the solution needed to be as easy as possible to start using, from any device, so we built it to require only a login and password to get going.

We also found that students use a vast range of mobile phones and tablets. This meant that going down the app path wasn’t the best option, as it would require ongoing commitment to updating, for instance. And that’s why no download or app is required with Smart Timetables, and it is compatible with all major mobile platforms.

The right place at the right time

Overall, the Smart Timetables example serves as a reminder of how even simple solutions focused on a specific area can have a powerful positive impact on users. It also shows how there are many areas ripe for innovation in all sorts of industries. And with research and ingenuity, and best practice design and development, something that works well in one situation can be made to work well in another.

Responding to Disruption: Stormy weather ahead?

By Kerry Topp

RespondingtoDisruption.jpg

“If you do what you’ve always done, then you’ll get what you’ve always got.”

There’s a paradox here: why would companies that have been successful and created a winning formula need to do anything different? Why should they feel the need to transform or invest in new areas when they can maximise shareholder returns right now?

The reason: If boards and executives don’t have transformation and continuous improvement in their strategies, they are building vulnerability into their organisations.

To quote Ralf Dreischmeier, Global Leader of Technology Advantage Practice at Boston Consulting Group: “Executives need to create their own ‘digital attacker’ businesses. Long-dominant companies are increasingly under attack from a host of digital start-ups that are out to reinvent businesses and industries by addressing consumer needs in completely new ways.”

Dreischmeier states that incumbents should be more disruptive: “Large companies hold a lot of cards—including resources, assets, relationships, and data—that smaller competitors frequently do not have enough of. But they often do not fundamentally rethink their business model.”

This challenge is at the heart of why companies in New Zealand are slow to commit to activities which seek out new markets and opportunities, and help their people change and survive.

But why?

To quote another guru, Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, recently said: “Making Industry 4.0 work requires major shifts in organisational practices and structures.”

These shifts, Schwab said, include new approaches to IT and data management, to regulatory and tax compliance, new organisational structures, and changes in company culture.

Professor Schwab has been at the epicentre of global affairs for over four decades and he’s convinced that we are at the beginning of a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we will live, work and relate to one another.

He explored this concept in his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution. He characterises this Revolution through a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds. The impact of these technologies will affect all disciplines, economies and industries, and challenge ideas about what it means to be human.

“The world has the potential to connect billions more people to digital networks, dramatically improve the efficiency of organisations and even manage assets in ways that can help regenerate the natural environment, potentially undoing the damage of previous industrial revolutions.”

However, Schwab also expressed grave concerns that organisations might be unable to adapt and governments could fail to employ and regulate new technologies to capture their benefits. Also that shifting power could create new security concerns, and inequality could grow causing societies to fragment.

If we focus for a moment on the Financial Services sector as an example. There is no doubt the sector is going through a seismic shift. Changing customer demands, the growth of financial technology companies like Xero, the pressing need to be innovative and the changing relationship between Boards and executives are all reshaping the industry. At the same time, executives need to balance these demands against the expectations of analysts and the requirements of regulators.

This is certainly something coming through loud and clear from the 490 Financial Services CEOs who took part in a 2016 Global CEO Survey recently. The survey, entitled “Turning risk into opportunity – The changing face of Financial Services”, highlighted that CEOs were worried about speed of technological developments, with 81 percent of respondents either extremely or somewhat concerned about keeping up with the pace of change. The next biggest worry was that a limited talent pool could inhibit their growth, which 70 percent of respondents were concerned about.

So what’s the answer?

First, education – specifically, the education of Boards and executives. These incumbents need to be aware of the magnitude of the potential threat but also the opportunity that technology disruption will likely create for their business.

Tech Futures Lab is doing exactly this. As Sacha Judd, Managing Director of Hoku Group recently put it, “The Tech Futures Lab workshop … is critical information that should inform all our decision-making, as the exponential growth of new technologies challenges all of the assumptions that we’ve previously held about what the world will look like, and how our industries and society will adapt.”

Secondly, strong leadership at a time of uncertainty and change is incredibly important.

As Adobe Chief Executive Shantanu Narayen recently put it: “A great Board is one that spends disproportionate amounts of time with management, taking active steps to understand the opportunities and challenges facing the business,” he says. “With the world increasingly moving to digital and businesses implementing digital strategies, Boards also need to boost their digital capabilities to be better strategic advisers to the business.”

But it’s not just technology that Boards need to grapple with, it’s “entrepreneurial venturing” or, put another way, deferring returns today by investing in potential growth areas which can achieve returns in years to come. Boards and execs need to set the expectation that they will be more entrepreneurially-minded and less risk-averse when it comes to investing, and they’ll need to feel comfortable making some decisions based on instinct rather than hard numbers.

Why? Because this is a new world – some of the things that are happening now are unprecedented and you have to be in the game to stand a chance of winning.

New Zealand boards and executives are, on the whole, not especially diverse. They tend to be dominated by very smart accountants and lawyers because of the types of material things discussed – risk, finance, etc.  However, there is a real and present danger of “group-think” with that make up. Companies should consider the addition of a disruptor – an experienced entrepreneurial and tech-savvy protagonist – to their team.

Because as Ralf Dreischmeier said: “Leaders in the digital age are different from leaders in the past. They prototype an agile strategy and learn from their experiences. They attack their own businesses before disrupters do. At the same time, they digitise their core business and get the most value from both their existing and external data, all the while mastering the digital ecosystems they operate in.”

Is this how current Board members and executives have been thinking? In my experience, this is only happening in a handful of local organisations.

Now is the time for vision, strategy, an entrepreneurial streak, strong communication, expectation setting and above all, strong leadership.

Disrupt or be disrupted is the motto of today – but I would add that company leadership needs to enable their people to be safe to “venture smart and venture more”.

Good luck on your venturing – our future economy needs you.

How bots and personal assistants can improve customer experiences

By Kerry Topp

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From Iron Man’s Jarvis to Droids like R2D2 and BB8, we’ve always had a vision of personal assistance from artificially intelligent machines that we can talk to – and they understand what we say, how we are feeling, and the context around us.

We are closer to this reality than you might think. Last month at its annual global developer conference in San Francisco, Facebook announced the company was opening up its artificial intelligence-powered platform, M.

M is a bold answer to Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. It’s a virtual assistant powered by artificial or cognitive intelligence; however, what makes M different from other offerings is that on top of using artificial intelligence to complete its tasks, M is also powered by a team of Facebook employees, or M Trainers, who make sure personally that every request is met. Over time, through the responses of these real people, the virtual assistant will learn to answer more complex questions and reduce the need for the M Trainers.

The global technology landscape is relentlessly charging forward at an exciting, if not break-neck pace. Those that explore and embrace new technologies gain a decisive competitive advantage in today’s world.

But companies aren’t yet taking full advantage of what virtual personal assistants and bots can offer. Yes, personal assistants allow us to do more with less – they can also help businesses provide better customer experiences. Businesses may be considering mobile strategy, digital transformation and how to stay ahead of the curve, but what they’re not considering is the potential impact of cognitive intelligence technology.

This is much more advanced than the voice recognition technology you encounter when you call your average call centre – we’re talking about artificial intelligence that understands, learns and remembers. Cognitive or artificial intelligence technology includes image/emotion recognition, speech recognition, and natural language processing.

Take, for example, how this technology could change the old-fashioned drive-thru. When you pull into a drive-thru, your license plate is scanned and an app pushes suggestions to your phone, based on what you previously ordered – whether you placed the order at that particular location or another one around the country. You can order on your mobile device while you wait in line, or you can place your order through the speaker.

But there’s no real person behind the speaker – it’s a personal assistant listening to your order – which you can place in any language, speaking in a way that’s natural to you – asking you the right questions, and suggestive selling you your fries.

For customers, buying dinner is more efficient, and they get a more consistent experience. The company saves money on resourcing, and guarantees customers are always being presented with the option to upsize their combos. It’s a win-win.

The fifth annual Datacomp event will be held from the 10th to 12th of June this year and the theme is “to create personal experiences for our customers or your own ideas through the use of cognitive technology”.

Datacomp is an innovation event where teams take an idea through to a working product in 48 hours and compete for coveted top prizes. In the last four years’ competitions we have had over 250 people from across our business trained in new technologies and new ways of working. Last year’s event saw 130 competitors take part from across New Zealand and Australia, which raised the bar for creativity, results and… dance.

Kerry Topp is the General Manager of Transformation & Innovation at Datacom.

Xamarin Evolve 2016 wrap-up

By Mohit Singh and Joshua Fenemore

mobile innovation

The Xamarin Evolve 2016 conference is a wrap, and it was a full two days of inspiration, fun, learning and big announcements for the mobile-first world.

For a couple of years now we’ve been using Xamarin to streamline mobile development for our customers. The tool allows us to build a mobile app once, and then deploy it to multiple mobile platforms – to Android, iOS, Mac and Windows. That means we can deliver more quickly, and our customers save on development costs.

Previously we’ve blogged about why it’s important, and what the advantages and disadvantages of the platform are. Since then Microsoft has acquired the company and its products. As a result uptake of Xamarin has shot up – but we’ll go into the details of that later.

Here are 5 key takeaways from the conference:

  1. Xamarin is now Open Source

Xamarin CTO Miguel de Icaza announced that its platform has now been released to public as open source. That means anyone with an interest can pick it up and play around, and it will have a huge positive impact on innovation.

It also means that Xamarin is now closer than ever to realising a vision of running on any platform, and any device. You can find the source code via open.xamarin.com or directly on GitHub.

  1. Xamarin Forms – Now ready for prime time

Xamarin forms allows developers to create native user interfaces across multiple platforms. One of the benefits of Xamarin Forms has been code-sharing between iOS, Android and Windows. It uses a “write once, run everywhere” strategy.  However, while Xamarin Forms has always been considered an innovative product, it had many challenges which made it hard to adopt.

With the upcoming addition of the Xamarin Forms XAML previewer, a live designer, adding the ability to mix native and form views and the introduction of Data Pages, now means that it’s ready for prime time adoption, especially for Line of Business apps. In fact, this has been the biggest push in messaging at the Evolve Conference.

  1. A better story together – Microsoft and Xamarin

It’s clear that Microsoft’s acquisition of Xamarin is paying off. Xamarin CEO Nat Friedman shared stats post-acquisition that showed uptake had grown by 300% since the announcement was made in February.

The company is growing exponentially – the dream of any start-up. It opens the ecosystem for a whole lot more for organisations and developers, enabling a full enterprise grade mobile DevOps life cycle.

  • Development with Xamarin Studio 6 & visual studio.
  • Source control & Continous integration with TFS
  • Test automation with Xamarin Test Cloud
  • Deployment and analytics with Hockey app

Xamarin’s offer of support across the entire application development life cycle was a key theme throughout the conference.

  1. New tools for ideations & documentation

Every corporate is trying to be agile and to adopt the start-up style of working. New tools for developers were introduced at Evolve, making it easier than ever for developers to work closer with businesses. Xamarin WorkBook is a console style application where you can write code and have it immediately deploy to an emulator. This is a great new tool for experimentation and learning certain features on the fly.

  1. New testing tools

During the keynote presentation we were shown live remote debugging of an application to a device hosted in Test Cloud. Now those annoying bugs which only occur on obscure android devices will be easy to track down and fix.

We were also shown real time recording of user interactions in an application which were immediately converted to a Xamarin UI test, so there’s now no excuse for not having automated UI tests.

The rest

Another key theme of the conference was “build awesome apps”. Technical Program Manager Nina Vyedin lead a session named “If you build it: Making apps for humans” – a fascinating and incredibly thought provoking session. Vyedin presented footage from her video project where she interviewed several people from very different backgrounds asking them what smartphones, apps and developers mean to them. It was really interesting to hear everyone’s perspective and thoughts on what is important to them about mobile and reminder that “building awesome apps” comes from understanding your users and doing right by them.

We were also lucky to attend a session lead by Grant Imahara, an engineer from the Discovery channel TV show, Mythbusters. Grant talked about his experience in engineering and how solid engineering principles and good team work are relevant for every industry. In particular, the principle that “failure is a design tool”. The Mythbusters motto is “failure is always an option”.

Imahara also mentioned about the two head engineers on the show and how their personalities and engineering style were completely opposite. They worked so well together, he said, because they understood their differences and left their own egos at the door. They were always prepared to take on new ideas, listen to feedback and understood that their way was not the only way.

In summary, it was a real treat to attend the conference and every attendee walked away with some new technical knowledge, excitement for the future, and some personal growth. We can’t wait to bring some of our learnings into our work with customers.

If you’re interested in learning more about Xamarin, our Auckland office runs regular meetups – you can keep an eye out for the next one here.

Digital transformation requires people with an appetite for disruption

Digital Transformation Banner

By Brett Roberts

Digital transformation involves using digital technologies – such as the web, cloud, mobile, social media, the Internet of Things and analytics-driven personalisation – to re-shape and improve customer interactions, business models and financial returns. An important focus area is the provision and ongoing enhancement of customer experiences that are multi-channel, data-driven and digitally-enabled.

Ideally, such changes allow organisations to embrace and exploit the exponential rate of technological change for the benefit of themselves and their customers. This often entails a shift in organisational ‘rhythm’ away from a steady, sustained marathon-like jog towards something that more closely resembles orienteering.

The agents of digital change

In a sense, the Datacom Digital, Customers and Collaboration team is at the sharp end of digital transformation. Put simply, we exist to enable digital business: everything from web design and build, mobile innovation and app development to implementing data analytics, business intelligence, Customer Relationship Management and collaboration technologies, such as Microsoft SharePoint.

As you would expect, we help customers with technology design, build, deployment and management, and deliver related big picture strategic advice and consultancy. We understand the critical roles these play, but a major part of what we do is help organisations to operationalise digital innovation – i.e. make transformation ‘stick’.

Time and time again, we’ve found that the single most important factor for long-term success is the people within the organisation. They operationalise the new technologies and processes; the enhanced customer experience. They need to adopt, embody and express the new mindset that accepts and embraces the new world of constant, or at least hastened, change.

This means that, wherever you start on your digital transformation, you should focus on your people first and foremost. A new Datacom white paper, available free for download here, examines the implications of this and provides guidance on how to do it. It focuses on four people-related areas: recruitment, leadership, change management and culture. Below is an excerpt from the paper, on recruitment.

An appetite for disruption

Hiring the best candidates is a perpetual challenge, full of risk and opportunity. If you take the best, then your competition is left with the rest – and vice versa. But in the new digital world, the best people may not be who you are looking for or who you already have on board.

Lean Startup author, Eric Ries, said: “The modern rule of competition is whoever learns fastest, wins.” In other words, you need to recruit smart people who you can teach to do anything, and who can thrive amid disruption. You need people with varied, hybrid abilities. You might think this means hiring a cohort of digitally-minded Millennials, but digital skills can be taught. What you are after is rarer: attitude on top of aptitude – which can exist in people of all ages.

For example, my team regularly interviews candidates for senior developer roles. We look for technical proficiency, of course, but favour people with the ability to have an engaging conversation with a customer about their business issues over those who are more technically skilled but unable to talk outside their domain.

In general, we look for a broader mix of skills within the ideal candidate, and a growth mindset. This means they are mentally flexible, a fast learner, comfortable with uncertainty, accepting of the need to take risks and experiment – and fail sometimes – in order to succeed and grow. They are able to stand up for themselves, but recognise, and run with, better ideas. They collaborate and communicate well, and have empathy for their customers, colleagues, partners and suppliers.

They can sit in a room with a customer and others for a week and work with them to design, build and test a prototype application that the customer takes to their Board and gets approval to fully implement. In our accelerating, digital business world, this kind of rapid ideation and prototyping activity is becoming commonplace, even core business for many organisations – and applicable to all manner of product or service innovation – making the diverse attributes described above more mission-critical every day. It’s how my team and others at Datacom work, on many projects.

Shifting demands

There is an interesting macro trend at play here – a contradiction: the more digital businesses become, the less they need people with traditional IT skills. As the example above shows, there are plenty of roles for highly technical people in specialist firms like Datacom. But as business (and consumer) technology becomes easier to use, more automated, provided as-a-Service, and so on, the need for deep technical knowledge and skills within other types of businesses recedes. If these skills and services are required, then organisations can call on the specialists.

Conversely, the need for people who can leverage new digital technology to learn faster, work more productively, be more creative, and come up with new innovations and solutions and run with them, is exploding. And if you bring in people with an expansive, flexible attitude and these skills, then you will help your organisation to foster a digital mindset and culture.

For more guidance on, or help with, making digital transformation succeed, please contact us on digital@datacom.co.nz.

Brett Roberts is Associate Director for Digital, Customers and Collaboration at Datacom. 

Azure, hybrid cloud, and the importance of monitoring at a business service level

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According to Datacom customer research presented in Before You Go Public, Read This, few organisations are currently planning to go ‘all in’ to public cloud and will, therefore, retain some of their workloads on-premise or in private cloud. Many services are, and will be for the foreseeable future, delivered via applications or workloads with a hybrid set up. For example, an organisation may want to use Microsoft Azure for a front-end application that needs elasticity, and use a private cloud for the interconnected database.

Managing hybrid cloud complexity

Hybrid cloud architecture, however, requires careful management and planning to account for key factors such as latency, security and compliance, as well as potential added complexity and transition costs.

“Making hybrid cloud work well means focusing on integration and interconnectedness, especially in the planning stages of a project. For instance, if an organisation stretches certain components by running them in Azure, what is the impact on other, reliant components? These critical factors are sometimes overlooked,” says Brett Alexander, Solution Architect at Datacom.

On top of this, with greater adoption of public cloud (and proper planning), usually comes a corresponding service orientation and increasing focus on business services and related outcomes enabled by cloud. These outcomes may include risk or reputation management, reducing cost and making key services available when needed and at a suitable quality. They are often delivered through the aggregation of multiple providers, services and solutions – and various SLAs.

Making these services and outcomes happen and managing the many moving parts involved is clearly an important function and a complex task, which organisations can take on themselves or outsource, at least in part, to a qualified partner like Datacom. Whatever the approach taken, there is a growing need for those in the organisation involved in Azure to understand the way different clouds and related services interact and how they can be integrated – with each other and with other environments and types of IT.

Monitor from business service level down

Business services, even something as simple as email, are built from and rely on a number of components, including applications, firewalls, switches, servers and storage. Mapping these services, the applications and infrastructure that enable them, and the interconnections and dependencies of the various components, are an integral part of planning for Azure adoption and optimisation and managing a hybrid cloud environment.

This is why Datacom recommends monitoring at an availability-of-business-service level. This means having dependency-based monitoring from the business service level down through applications and infrastructure, including Azure. We also recommend automated root-cause analysis to provide information and evidence for problem management processes and liaising with Azure support teams, if required. For this, organisations need to implement robust analysis and troubleshooting tools.

In short, if your Azure servers or services go down you need to know what will be affected, for how long, and what impact that will have on your organisation in order to determine and take necessary steps. Among other things, this means knowing what it takes to keep a high availability application operational if X or Y shuts down. And things do go down from time to time.

“Azure has planned, routine outages for maintenance purposes, when servers going offline temporarily. Before this happens, organisations need to know how many more stand-in machines are required to maintain each service in the event of an outage, compared to traditional, on-premise IT,” says Roger Sinel, Operations Manager at Datacom.

Broadly speaking, the skills required for such mapping, monitoring and management include knowing how applications work, how infrastructure works and how they work together. Operations engineers need to co-operate with developers and application specialists to ensure applications run smoothly in Azure through the correct use of resiliency and performance techniques, and by testing and monitoring correctly. What is supported in Azure and what isn’t need to be understood – especially in a hybrid environment. As reliance on Azure increases, along with complexity, automating parts of processes as much as possible using scripts becomes increasingly important.

The recommendations above are among many others made in our free white paper, How to make the most of Azure, which is available to download. It’s based on Datacom’s many years of experience working in partnership with Microsoft on cloud projects of all sizes for a wide range of organisations. These include what is still the world’s largest production SAP migration to Azure, for Zespri International, one of the most successful horticultural marketing companies globally.

For even more information and advice on how your organisation can take full advantage of Azure, please contact us on cloud@datacom.co.nz or cloud@datacom.com.au.

Tool up to make the most of Amazon Web Services (AWS)

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Adopting and making the most of AWS or other public cloud platforms will almost certainly require investment in new tools. In general, Datacom recommends that organisations have a tooling strategy that focuses on tools with API-based integration capabilities. This avoids the lock-in that some proprietary tools cause, which constrains customisation, adds complexity and hampers agility. For optimal outcomes in a hybrid cloud environment, it is better to use API-based tools – large or small – that enable cross-cloud platform integration alongside native AWS tools.

In public cloud operations, a new method of engagement is necessary to match the tectonic shift in focus from hardware to software that the platform engenders. Engineers no longer have direct access to infrastructure so they view servers through a portal and use software to control things. This means some people may need to adopt a new mentality and update their skills substantially. They need to move away from traditional, manual, GUI-based methods of monitoring and control to using scripts and coding to enable process automation and managing by exception.

This means that using start-up and shutdown scripts should be a goal for operations teams. Alongside this, server health checks are required to ensure performance. AWS provides native tools to help with such tasks. For instance, AWS Lambda enables task scheduling that can be utilised in conjunction with scripts to wake up servers, get them to perform a job, and then shut them down – all automatically.

Other native tools worth noting include:

  • AWS Service Catalog – allows organisations to centrally build and manage commonly-used and compliant catalogues of IT services – comprised of a range of components, from virtual machines and databases to complex application architectures. Once built, these IT services can be deployed automatically and repeatedly, in one click, saving time on development and management, and helping to avoid sprawl
  • AWS Trusted Advisor – another useful tool for making the most of AWS, it reports on cost optimisation, performance and compliance issues, and recommends ways to improve these things
  • AWS Inspector – provides an automated security assessment and rule-based compliance service at the application level

Monitoring tools have new challenges with public cloud: not all were built for this environment. For example, more machines are usually required in public cloud compared with on-premise (to account for machines switching off from time to time) to provide the same service. This means that, if monitoring agents are placed on all AWS machines, they may produce too many alerts to handle. And monitoring costs may go up. So monitoring in AWS needs a new approach, and to be tested and fine-tuned over time.

Organisations should also assess their approaches to data backup as they adopt AWS. In a hybrid cloud situation, this isn’t a simple task. For backup, as with monitoring, a mixture of traditional and native AWS tools may be the best option – at least in the short term. Although backing up cloud-ready applications may be relatively straightforward in AWS, replicating traditional enterprise backup methodologies in this environment without a dramatic increase in cost is challenging.

Looking at development in particular, AWS has a multitude of tools to support continuous integration and continuous delivery, including CodeDeploy, CodePipeline and CodeCommit, and supports an array of coding languages via APIs. Using the platform and its native tools in combination with a DevOps approach to developing cloud-ready applications for the platform can result in faster, cheaper and more efficient development processes compared with developing on-premise.

The recommendations above are among many others made in our new free white paper, How to make the most of Amazon Web Services, which is available to download. It’s based on years of experience working in partnership with AWS on projects of all sizes for a wide range of organisations.

As an AWS Managed Service Provider, Datacom is at the front line of new innovations in AWS and evolving best practice, as well as changes to pricing, SLAs and other aspects of the platform. We have AWS operations specialists, with blended software and infrastructure skills, who manage, for customers, applications that we have architected to take advantage of the unique features of AWS.

We are therefore in an ideal position to help customers across a wide range of areas related to AWS, including development and operations, designing and building cloud architecture, and integrating and managing complex hybrid cloud and/or multi-cloud environments.

For even more information and advice on how your organisation can take full advantage of AWS, please contact us on cloud@datacom.co.nz or cloud@datacom.com.au.

Take a DevOps approach to speed up without breaking the business

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More lessons on cloud adoption and management.

As we’ve highlighted before, to realise the compelling benefits of cloud – especially public cloud – it’s not just technology that needs to change. People and processes need to alter to support and exploit faster, more flexible and more agile IT.

For example, a business may want improve time-to-market by speeding up previously month-long release cycles into weekly cycles using public cloud. This needs to happen, however, without losing requisite standards, discipline, compliance and life cycle and financial management. In a nutshell, this means speeding up without breaking the business – finding a balance.

To make this happen, among other key changes:

  • infrastructure people need to pare back normal ITIL-based processes and related standards somewhat to allow faster activity without losing too much risk mitigation and rigour; and
  • developers need to work faster than ever, but wrapped in enough protection and control to avoid disaster.

A key challenge is that there is an historic divide between operations and development people and processes. But to get the most out of cloud, it’s important to integrate these areas as much as possible. That’s why Datacom usually recommends that organisations adopt a DevOps approach, at least to a degree.

And we practise what we preach. Our Managed Cloud Service (DevOps) merges ITIL and Agile methodologies to drive an outcome-based service while maintaining enterprise standards, governance and compliance. Our consulting, infrastructure and development teams use the same tools for many of the jobs we do that are related to cloud.

Find the right mix of cloud support

The dynamic described above – between accelerating without breaking and between developing at pace and maintaining discipline – also manifests in the form of bimodal IT, a typical characteristic of organisations that adopt cloud in a significant way.

In the bimodal model – first described by analysts at Gartner – Mode 1 refers to more traditional IT, in which reliability, security, accuracy and efficiency is emphasised. Support needs may be more traditional as well, and be geared towards continual uptime and static demands on the infrastructure.

Mode 2 emphasises speed and agility, and may be non-sequential. Workloads to manage are more likely to be transient and hyper-scale, such as campaign-based activity and development/testing. Utility pricing and complete flexibility to switch on or off are also typical.

Mode 1 elegantly describes commonplace traits of on premise, legacy IT, and Mode 2 speaks of public cloud.

The implications of running and managing bimodal IT and its attendant cloud services and solutions boil down to this: no ‘one size fits all’ approach will work for any organisation. A balance is needed that must be adjusted as you go. The management needs to reflect the flexibility of the platform while maintaining due process and governance, and be aligned to the ultimate goal of meeting business objectives.

That’s why if you’re adopting or using cloud it’s important to have the right people, processes and technology in place, and/or to look for managed service providers, such as Datacom, who can deliver skilled support that is suitably flexible to account for Mode 1 and 2, and potentially available in long- and short-term engagements.

As a service aggregation partner, we work closely with customers, as well as the various software providers, development teams, cloud providers and operational staff, to provide an end-to-end managed cloud service specific to their business, while bolstering continuous integration/continuous delivery practices, continuous service improvement and innovation practices.

These and other essential lessons on cloud adoption and management, learned by Datacom over years working at the ‘cloud face,’ are contained in a new white paper available for download now. If you would like to talk to us about it, or cloud adoption and management in general, then please get in touch at cloud@datacom.co.nz.