Yuvi Kochar: A glimpse of the cloud-first future

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The IT staff Yuvinder Kochar has assembled at Graham Holdings (formerly The Washington Post Company) has very few technologists. Kochar’s title is vice president of technology and chief technology officer, yet his staff is composed primarily of business analysts with a few project managers for good measure. Having sold its former namesake, The Washington Post newspaper, to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos last year, the company maintains a highly diversified portfolio of businesses in education, cable TV and broadcasting, online and print news, as well as more recent acquisitions in manufacturing and home healthcare. The businesses operate within a highly decentralized structure—each with its own IT staff—while Kochar’s team provides back-office functions, such as human resources and finance, as a shared service. Since joining the company 11 years ago, Kochar has been driving his organization toward offering a robust technology platform completely as a service to the business units. Here, Kochar talks about business agility and IT staffing in a cloud-first world.

What’s been the key driver in your commitment to a 100 percent cloud-delivered infrastructure?

While I have always pursued a flexible model, it is getting more and more important for us to be more agile than we have been in the past, particularly as we’re pursuing much more volatile mergers and acquisition strategies. So from a corporate technology perspective we need to have much more flexible back office technology and much more flexible methods to on-board and off-board our businesses. I started thinking several years ago about ways to provide technology services in a much more on-demand, cloud kind of way. And even with the enterprise technologies we acquired 10 years ago, we outsourced a lot. We didn’t build a large team in-house with certain skill sets that would limit our ability to move from one technology to another.

Let’s talk about various layers of technology that we are building. The first is a basic technology architecture that we acquire and integrate to deliver all of the services that we want to deliver. We need agility in that, and an ability to deliver value to these businesses in a much quicker manner. That’s the technology layer. On top of that there’s a team I have put together that offers a much higher level of agility for the same on-boarding, off-boarding—and restructuring or changing direction—for our businesses. We have a very strong team, organized to use this new cloud environment much more effectively than technology teams in the past did.

So those are the two levels of how we’re creating an agile environment, which is strongly aligned with how our businesses are getting access to technology to drive productivity and efficiency and reach new markets in a much more efficient manner.

Are there some enabling technologies or processes that make you more agile in acquiring and divesting—on-boarding and off-boarding—businesses, as you call it?

It’s a combination of technology and people. So the most important aspect of the way we are structured is that we are not a bunch of technologists running technology. We’re very much a business-analyst-led organization. So 70 percent of my team are business analysts. We outsource heavily, whether it’s software-as-a-service (SaaS) or managed services. To maximize our ability to on-board a new business; for example, we bought a manufacturing company last year and they needed to get access to our systems before the deal closed, and we were able to deliver that in just a couple weeks. My team knows our technology inside and out, but they also know how the technology is used by our businesses, what are the various configurations that we have set up. They’re very standard and lightweight. We don’t like a lot of customization in our environment.

For us to look at a new business and say, ‘ok, we want to consolidate your back office into our environment,’ we don’t have to pull in our business leaders, the HR team or the finance team. Our business analysts can sit down and understand any aspects of the business we’re acquiring and incorporate that into the solution we deliver with a very SaaS-like pricing model. So not only do we offer agility from a technology perspective, we also have a very on-demand feel to our pricing and our costs. And we continue to align that with how we acquire a lot of these services in the market. The whole environment is built for agility.

You must have a very lean infrastructure.

Just as an example, I haven’t had a capital expenditure in my organization over the last five years. We rent everything. And we can pretty much scale up or down. Sometimes it’s not that smooth, but we’re becoming much smoother as we are using cloud-centric solutions.

I’m pursuing 100 percent cloud—or let me step back, I’m pursuing 100 percent SaaS architecture for our technology platform. We don’t want to install any type of infrastructure or hardware. We want to be a complete subscription-based environment. We want to have contracts that offer us agility in terms of scale. Any vendor will let you scale up. Scaling down is where the problem is, and we’re factoring that into our contracts now—an ability to scale and right-size our subscriptions to the needs of the business going forward. So there’s an agility that we’re gaining by minimizing our commitments, which came after a lot of thought and negotiation with a lot of vendors. So we’re pushing the envelope in terms of how to make it all on-demand and consumption-based. And that aligns with our strategy to acquire or divest businesses in a very much more frequent way.

Even after the sale of the newspaper you have some 26,000 employees. How big—or small—is your IT team?

The size of my team is 11, because we outsource so heavily. There’s a lot of contract resources, then below that a lot of managed services. And we’re constantly looking at commoditizing the contract resources, so the number of contractors is shrinking on a regular basis. And we’re buying more and more services prepackaged from vendors to fill that. So the size of the team is probably not going to grow until I get additional systems to support or services to provide. Or we buy businesses and I need more business analysts to support them. We’re very lean as a team.

What’s interesting is, the kind of work we’re doing in-house leads to zero turnover on my team. I haven’t had a resignation in 10 years. The culture of our company has a role to play—we’re just good to our people—but that’s not all. What people are getting from an intellectual and work-satisfaction standpoint on my team is ideal.

The reason I don’t hire system administrators or database administrators or other talent of that kind is that I believe that in the current environment, I wouldn’t be able to keep them happy. The scope of work they would have is just not professionally satisfying. I’m a strong believer in the idea that you only hire people you can keep happy in their jobs. So if you’ve got shorter term needs—short term can be two or three years—you contract those resources or you buy them as a service from other organizations that can then offer them a much more fulfilling career than I can. That has been very effective in creating a team that’s extremely engaged and very happy to be here because of the diverse set of companies they get to work with and different businesses they get to look at. One way to describe it would be a consulting job without the travel. It has resonated extremely well with my team.

Is there a secret sauce to getting the cloud-first environment right?

One thing that organizations have a hard time understanding—and a lot of SaaS vendors I come across have a hard time understanding—is that with software-as-a-service, service is 80 percent of the product, and software is only 20 percent. Most technologists get lost in the idea that software-as-a-service is software delivered in a different manner. But what you’re truly delivering is service. If you don’t get that right, it’s possible to lose your customer because it’s so easy for customers to leave. If I haven’t got any capital investment on my books, it’s very easy for me to move away from one infrastructure to another.

Just as an example, five or six years ago I re-outsourced my managed services contract from one vendor to another. And we migrated from an all big-box Unix environment to an all small-box Linux environment, over a weekend; and this was 40 or 50 servers and network devices. Because I didn’t own the infrastructure, the system admins were not my employees; the DBAs were not my employees; I was able to re-platform because I just rented new skill sets from the other side, and they provided me all of the infrastructure as a service. To some extent that’s unheard of—you pick up your whole data center and you re-platform over a weekend. And the end customer doesn’t even know that you migrated from a complete different operating system to a very different environment, different location and there was no down time in the services.

You’re seeking to be 100 percent cloud, but sounds like you’re already there – do you have some legacy infrastructure?

We have legacy systems; our financial system, for instance, but it is delivered as a managed service. I don’t own the infrastructure. I don’t have the DBAs. But it is an old-school enterprise resource planning system. I still own the licenses and maintain them. It’s not a SaaS environment, but one step below SaaS.

So your goal is to stay a 100 percent delivered as a service?

Oh yes, we’ll go to 100 percent fast. We’re not acquiring new infrastructure. We’re moving toward replacing our HR system; we’ve moved our whole security architecture; we’ve got a robust access and identity management system.

And that’s all done as a service?

Yes, we actually cut over to our new SaaS identity and access management solution last weekend. We didn’t even need to send an e-mail to our customers. The quality and caliber of technology you can get in a SaaS environment, if you manage and structure them well; if you design your solutions well; if you test and validate your functionality well; it’s just amazing how much pain we used to go through doing the same things just five years ago. We have a plan to peel off all our applications onto the new platform without any disruption for customers at the business units. They’re clicking the same link and they don’t even realize that the whole technology infrastructure underneath has changed.

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