Persistent Systems Ltd builds software that drives the business of customers — enterprises and software product companies with software at the core of their digital transformation. Here, Major Gen. Amarjit Singh, Chief Information Officer, Persistent Systems Ltd, tells us about the future of work. Excerpts from an interview:
DQ: How are you dealing with the Covid-19 situation? What plans have you put in place?
Major Gen. Amarjit Singh: There are three aspects:
What We Do. Persistent has customers, employees, contractors, and vendors located all over the globe and this distribution of presence has been growing as our business expands to new verticals and technologies. What we deliver is our own products, outsourced product development, engineering, and managed services over the complete technology stack from networks and infrastructure, to platform services, and the applications layer. Unlike many large IT companies, we focus on complex technologies with only a limited number of people in Support and none in BPO profiles. For this reason, the impact on us has been limited.
How We Do It. These services are delivered from customer facilities, from our own facilities in our global delivery centres, from customer-controlled or customer-specified IT environments in our own facilities, or by connecting remotely to customer IT environments. Apart from ISO 27001, Persistent is also certified against ISO 27017 and 27018, which means we have demonstrated abilities to operate with confidence in the cloud while maintaining security and privacy for our customers as well as for our corporate services. Being a global, full-stack IT services company, we already had the technology solutions, training and rehearsed business continuity plans in place to handle disruption of this kind.
What Changed. As opposed to the normal method of dealing with disruption in one or two facilities, what we got was almost simultaneous lack of ability to physically access our facilities. The same also happened to most of our customers. Nevertheless, we did have early indicators even before local authorities all over the globe enforced shelter in place orders. What also changed was the disruption of our own supply chain, meaning that critical assets in the pipeline got blocked and we had to requisition additional inventory or services as part of contingency responses.
What We Did
* We rapidly scaled up the supply of all IT assets – laptops, VPN connections, bandwidth, and security solutions. As we do in all emergencies, the first lot to be enabled were the IT teams who were to enable the rest of the company migrate to their homes.
* Once the corporate level migration was achieved, and in most cases concurrently, we worked closely with our customers, particularly those with complex or strict security mandates, to ensure that the IT environments we construct or manage for them remained in line with acceptable risk as per the new external constraints. Our customers also responded well to the changed environment such that we have seen no real dip in availability or productivity.
* At this stage, we are in a stable posture with the focus having shifted to optimization of security and performance and all actions required to ensure resilience of the distributed IT environment we now have.
* We have updated our BYOD and Work From Home policies to accommodate the new realities, and the requirements of multiple stakeholders, including our own teams.
* We are already reviewing the enterprise architecture as it pertains to our work for our customers, to bring it in line with the ability of our employees to do all our corporate business activities while Working From Anywhere.
* We are engaging with government authorities, our industry association, our customers, and all internal actors to revise policies that differentiate between work done inside our facilities from work done outside them. For example, the Government, which was sitting over draft recommendations of the TRAI concerning OSP licensing norms, to enable connectivity while working from home, has accepted to implement those recommendations till the end of July. We are hopeful that this acceptance will become permanent since it is bound to be revenue accretive for the Government.
* As you are aware, many companies have recognised that much more work can be done away from company facilities, without risking efficiency or security. At Persistent, we had recognized this much earlier. Our plans to permanently move away a lot of our work, whether internal or directly for our customers, from our facilities are quite advanced. Of course, further progress will depend on the evolution of the regulatory environment in all the jurisdictions that our customers operate in.
DQ: Are you giving employees more control over their schedules?
Major Gen. Amarjit Singh: The answer to this is both yes and no.
Yes, because we are a global company and employees at the business end and those involved in providing support services already work without fixed schedules or according to schedules that they are comfortable with. Since the enlarged Work from Home population now has two to three hours extra in their work window because of abolition of commute, a degree of flexibility is inbuilt. Individual Contributors, who earlier may have had to work to facility timings are the overall gainers.
No, because there are very few individual contributors and a large amount of the work is collaborative. So, the flexibility is now for teams rather than for individuals. It is here that team cohesion matters and is becoming better as we go; teams can set start, break and end timings for their collaborative work without being dependent on other factors.
DQ: How are you assessing on learnings from enforced experiments around WFH?
Major Gen. Amarjit Singh: Operations. There are a host of lessons that we have learnt and are learning. From an Operations perspective, most of the lessons are around connectivity, security, and inventory management. We have learnt that bandwidth is always in short supply, but the art is in being able to manage and re-allocate better and faster.
In terms of security, the Zero Trust model, where each connection and transaction are verified, and the user’s endpoint becomes the organisation’s logical perimeter, has been validated and deployment of solutions accelerated. The Just In Time model for critical supply chain components has been found wanting due to external factors at play and the role of distributed internal reserves has been highlighted. In all three cases, the role of bandwidth, IT environment, and personal assets at the employee’s home has gained greater salience.
Strategy. We have found that factors in strategy formulation that were long term in nature as compared to the immediate impact factors have become more important than before. For example, enterprise architecture is important but near-term factors often result in technology debt accumulating till a crisis happens. Companies like Persistent, who had the foresight to adopt a Cloud First strategy and had the internal competencies to do so have coped with almost no disruption. On the other hand, those that deferred their adoption of cloud due to cost or security perceptions have had to pay heavily in terms of disruption of business continuity.
Regulations and Delivery Models. Over time, the IT industry globally has built up delivery models in the form of captive units in low cost locations, offshoring, nearshoring, and onsite work. There has also been a move to multi-cloud and hybrid multi-cloud. The global impact of the pandemic with universal lockdowns at the same time has led to innovative delivery models aligned to the changed circumstances. We have seen a shift from aggressive risk management and controls in the IT space to focus on controlling the business risk first.
The same applies to privacy regulations that have been relaxed for contact tracing with the new outcome of community health that was not recognised so well at the individual corporate level earlier. At Persistent too we have changed our delivery models on a continuous basis, and we see some permanent changes coming in the form of movement of more and more computing, connectivity, and security from corporate facilities to the multi-cloud environment.
Business Potential. It should be obvious that this entire paradigmatic shift in the IT services technology model will also change the business models and there are almost unlimited opportunities for companies who will lead this transformation. For sure, Persistent is determined to be amongst the leaders here.
DQ: This is a challenging time for managers. What advice would you give them?
Major Gen. Amarjit Singh: Team as the Unit. This is an interesting time for managers and employees, alike. While it may be the case that the employee at home looks like an individual unit, creative managers are finding many methods to keep their teams engaged and deliver to strict schedules. In a sense, the large facility model depends on several corporate functions to keep employees well fed, happy, trained and engaged while functional managers bother about the purely business aspects. In the new environment, core leadership skills like knowing your people, empathy and two-way feedback have become the differentiators between managers whose teams are shining and those that are struggling.
Trust. The corporate juggernaut also makes sure that the time and effort of employees and their compensation is orchestrated centrally. In such a system, the observable behaviours and productivity metrics are centrally managed, with managers only dealing with exceptions. Since the corporate environment cannot be extended to the home, the only binding factor between the manager and the managed is Trust. This trust is two way – the manager trusting the employee to do her best and the employee trusting the manger to task her judiciously.
DQ: How does work/life balance work in a crisis like this?
Major Gen. Amarjit Singh: I would say that this aspect, like several others, looks like a double-edged sword. On the one side, we are all at home and spending time with families, which is good. Absent commutes are good not only for employees but for the environment as well and we should not be surprised if we see more wildlife in the cities. Families are also seeing how we all work and there seems to be no need to “bring your child/spouse to work” for a long time to come. This does make family ties stronger.
On the other hand, there was a fraction of employees earlier who had work schedules that disrupted family life. Now, most employees are attending almost continuous meetings and responding to calls for collaboration. While such mixed work and life environments are fine in a crisis, I do not think these will be sustainable.
A very important factor of how work-life balance is achieved is what we do outside both our place of work and our home as also the socializing that happens at the workplace. I do not think that the virtual socialization models are sustainable in the long term. However, it appears that introverts have won here, and they may remain ascendant for a long time.
DQ: What are the policy responses you would give to the MSMEs and SMEs?
Major Gen. Amarjit Singh: Unlike the large enterprises, some MSMEs and most SMEs already operate in a local environment, right next to their supply chains and near their customer. The perfect example of this is a shop in residential colony, a neighbourhood street shop, a large but single store compared with a country or state-wide retail chain. This enables them to keep costs and overheads low.
In general, the pandemic points out that localized SMEs have many advantages, except for virtual connections to their customers and the local supply chain. These SMEs have the option of connecting via large digital market platforms or using smaller platforms that serve regional markets.
From the point of view of other enterprise digital solutions, they are not likely to have the wherewithal to move as fast or at the scale that large companies can. They do have the option of organising themselves locally, much like taxi operators have done in some jurisdictions. This also opens business avenues for IT SMEs to serve these localized markets. The central and state governments can lead through policy enablement, but mostly through forbearance.
DQ: How are you now facilitating digital work?
Major Gen. Amarjit Singh: As a leading IT company, we operate multiple SaaS collaboration platforms that permit integrated team work to include Enterprise Social, Enterprise Content Management, Messaging, and Videoconferencing between all stakeholders, internal or external. Extensive integrations with our SaaS business applications mean that we have already completed most of our enterprise digital transformation.
A lot of the digital work that we do is either for customers or through their IT environments. The technology options for these are varied and we can engineer a vast range of options that customers from various industries and at various levels of digital maturity require.
DQ: How are the latest technologies going to redefine workplace?
Major Gen. Amarjit Singh: We could divide these into three – the network, the endpoint, and security.
From the network side, we are already seeing Identity and Software Defined being the drivers. Essentially, identity-based networking allows us to move traffic with great confidence to the right individual, without too much emphasis on location. The software defined part means that a lot of networking capability has moved to the cloud and will move faster here on.
At the endpoint, we are seeing a major move for hardening and provision of a variety of services from the operating system OEM. This means that the endpoint can be made less complex and easier to manage, directly from the cloud, thus reducing dependence on facilities.
On the security front, we are seeing extensive authentication and authorization with OAuth, SAML, OIDC, U2F etc being supported from the cloud and enhanced inter-operability across platforms. These allow robust and efficient implementation of Zero Trust which gives enterprises confidence in trusting the user and endpoint combination, with no reliance on the traditional perimeter of the enterprise.
DQ: How do you plan for a future of ‘decent digiwork’?
Major Gen. Amarjit Singh: The technology answers are available in the foregoing and those are extensive. There are of course costs involved but the net impact of moving away from the facilities is going to be positive, not only at a company level but to the community at large. Recollect that the Government had been considering giving credit to companies to reduce footfall on their premises. So, the “digiwork” enablement is a given, either way.
The “decent” part has technology components and human factors, both having been alluded to earlier. We need, and Persistent is going to provide for, decent network bandwidth, power systems and the basics of a home office. Help from the Government in terms of accounting and taxation to enable this would be the topping on the pie.
The more important part of “decent” is the relationships within the company. It is noteworthy that Persistent has never believed in or implemented mass layoffs. What we do believe in and implement is growing all our team members and then trusting them to respond to the best of their abilities. Therefore, our core values anchor one leg of “decent digiwork.”
DQ: What solutions are we providing to enhance the future of work?
Major Gen. Amarjit Singh: Beyond WFH, Persistent understands, and is executing on our plans for Work From Anywhere and Work For Anyone as it applies to our customers. We are implementing many policies and technical solutions that would make this a reality. In the final analysis, we aim to be trustworthy and capable partners for our customers, and we can transform in alignment with their needs and readiness. The Future of Work will be what we build together with our customers.