Business growth through innovation

Johan Schelling gets his best inspiration to innovate on long drives in his yellow Donkervoort sports car. Like ICU IT Services, the car is Dutch–built by an engineering innovator who challenged traditional thinking with his new designs.

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For Schelling, the drives through the Dutch countryside give him time to think–often about using new software technology to improve applications, databases and analytics. Schelling is one of the managing partners and co-owners of ICU IT Services, a managed services provider (MSP) that works with large enterprises to help modernize their approach to technology.

Many of ICU’s clients are large banks in the Netherlands finding new ways to connect with their customers with cloud services and, in doing so, grow their businesses. Schelling credits innovative approaches to leveraging agile technology and business practices that change the way his clients support their customers. At the core of his business is a team of creative software engineers.

Innovation is the engine of the company’s think-explore-develop cycle for new applications that customers will use to compete in the marketplace, arriving at business solutions faster. Schelling credits this way of thinking as the key to leveraging agile technology and inventing business practices that change the way his clients support their customers, both online and offline. ICU encourages its software engineers to innovate with Linux and open source, building on cloud-inspired approaches to solve business challenges.

At the heart of the innovation process is the ICU Lab, powered by an IBM LinuxONE platform. The platform runs a mix of enterprise applications, business databases and cloud workloads. The lab gives ICU IT services engineers a platform to create proofs of concept (PoCs) that run on Linux, open systems and cloud infrastructure. If a PoC works in the ICU Lab, it is then refined and deployed to the customer’s site for testing and, ultimately, production.

Why has the ICU Lab and the company’s commitment to constantly seek innovation been critical to the company’s growth? In short, ICU helps its customers to rethink the way they approach technologies, allowing their businesses to improve the way they digitally interact with employees and customers. “We are challenging our clients to think in new ways,” Schelling said.

“We’re challenging the status quo and the typical approach to IT. Our team is always looking at new, more efficient approaches, along with new software techniques.”

Creating the Innovation Process

The innovative process at ICU involves the entire team of engineers and can be quite literally found on the walls of the offices. “By writing on glass boards and whiteboards, all kinds of new ideas come to the surface,” Schelling said, adding that there are nearly 20 of the whiteboards throughout ICU offices near Amsterdam. “After a couple of weeks, we look at what’s posted on the boards and say: ‘Are these ideas still valid? Should we rearrange them?’ The next step is developing working prototypes and PoCs that are built with open-source software on the LinuxONE platform.”

Building a Lab for innovation

One of the keys to ICU’s successful growth is staying ahead of clients and making sure that the ICU engineers are familiar with emerging technology.

“The idea of having an ICU Lab grew on us,” Schelling said. “We thought it was important to have your own lab with everything in there, just to stay ahead of our clients,” he said.  “We need to think about DevOps before they do– we need to think about cloud before they do. If our clients are going to ask us, ‘Can you help us with setting up our own private cloud?’ We need to know what we need to have to quickly deliver results.”

For example, Schelling discussed an introductory training session about quantum computing that will be demonstrated on the LinuxONE system. “We’re setting up our first demo and saying to customers: here are technology advances that we will see emerging over the next few years.”

Moving forward

Schelling sees continued innovation as the path to evolving his company’s business model, by adding management services to its current approach of building and testing software-based technical solutions. “If we do a good job, then we’re building a steady relationship with our client, which may give us more business, but it also helps us to learn and to change our business. We’re moving from doing contracting to taking a more project-based managed services approach. We want to do projects, but in the end, we see long-term growth in management services as well as maintenance of systems.”

Differentiation from competitors is another driver for innovation and growth. The ability to host dozens of Linux workloads on a single, scalable system that also hosts transactional banking applications sets ICU IT Services apart from other MSPs.

“We said we needed to create a unique position for ourselves in the Dutch market – and moving to LinuxONE was one of the steps to achieve our goal,” Schelling said. “A lot of our clients are moving to Linux, and we’re taking a different approach than our competitors,” he said. “We looked at how we could bring the Linux world closer to the business data.” This approach is tested in the ICU Lab by customizing Linux workloads for ICU IT Services clients and deployed at customer sites.

Soon, Schelling will go for another touring drive in his bright yellow sports car. There, his mind can wander as far as the Dutch countryside, with its scenic views of rolling farmland, windmills, and herds of grazing cows, as he thinks of new ideas for his team and his company’s customers.

This is part one of a series of guest posts on the IBM Systems IT Infrastructure Blog about how IT leaders are innovating through novel approaches and emerging technologies.