Former Coca-Cola CIO reveals the recipe for AWS transformation

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright November 4, 2018
Former Coca-Cola CIO Miriam McLemore tells AWS audience how process and culture change were key elements of its cloud transformation

Miriam McLemore at AWS Transformation Day London 2018 by @philww
This year, Coca-Cola removed the last servers sitting in its former global data center in Atlanta, which it had sold the previous year to Rackspace in preparation for moving its infrastructure to cloud providers. Being finally out of the data center business is "a great accomplishment for a 130-year-old legacy organization," says Miriam McLemore, a 26-year veteran and former corporate CIO at the beverage giant, who was instrumental in moving much of its global IT infrastructure to Amazon Web Services (AWS) and other providers as part of its cloud transformation.

McLemore is now director of enterprise strategy at AWS since leaving Coca-Cola in August last year, and was speaking at AWS Transformation Day in London last week. Unlike Amazon's developer-focused re:Invent conference and global Summit series, this event takes more of a strategic view and is aimed at CIOs and CTOs. We spoke to customers at the event and will publish two of their stories later, but McLemore's learnings from her time at Coca-Cola are also valuable. She had several words of advice for enterprises looking to regain agility and foster innovation as part of a cloud transformation initiative.

Building agility at Coca-Cola

The big challenges are established processes and cultural resistance, she says. The technology works, although moving off the existing infrastructure is another challenge. So it's essential to build technical agility and speed, while creating an environment of innovation.

Her first tip is based on the experience of Coca-Cola's Workday implementation, which replaced an on-premise SAP HR system and 92 other legacy systems. Successfully driving this project meant breaking up a big implementation team into smaller units:

You've got to organize as smaller independent teams. My Workday team started out with 150 people. It's very hard to get anything done when it's 150 people, so we broke it down into the functions. We had a learning management team. We had a co-ordinating team and we had a competence team. Once you broke it down to its core components, we began to pick up momentum.

Another tip is to build experience in agile and lean development processes — and crucially, to involve business partners in that:

Doing sprints with our business partners to prepare as an experience for the Olympics was a training process to get the business team onboard — because you can't do it without your business partners.

Also important are getting a clear data strategy in place and working closely with partners — she singled out AWS and Adobe as key partners at Coca-Cola.

Culture is key to transformation

When it comes to encouraging innovation, culture is the key. McLemore put special emphasis on fostering a culture — and ways of working — where the cost and risk of failure is minimized:

First thing you have to do — and we needed to do a couple of follow-ups — is lower the cost of failure.

No one's going to take you to the future if, when they screw up or something doesn't work, you burn them at the stake. If they're made an example of what not to do, you're just not going to get their commitment anymore. They're going to back into the corners and say, okay, this is a risk averse organization.

You've got to lower the risk of failure, whatever that means in your organization. For us it meant doing small things ... Trust people with small decisions, gain some comfort and momentum and then you can move up to larger decisions.

Testing hypotheses before committing investment is one way of reducing risk. A framework of clear business objectives is also important to keeping everyone aligned on shared goals.

Another crucial factor is removing the 'gatekeeper' mentality that pervades large organizations like the old Coca-Cola:

That for me was one of the biggest struggles. We had to go through the procurement process, the legal process, the finance process, the business planning process. Process really became the enemy of progress ...

Getting the impediments to innovation out of the way, lowering the gatekeeping is a huge part of creating an innovative culture, a culture that actually breeds innovation.

But despite all this legacy, it's also important to remember that established businesses also have tremendous assets they can leverage in new ways using digital innovation, she points out. For example, Coca-Cola operates a global distribution system with more vehicles on the road than FedEx and UPS combined. It can deliver a new product to market across the world in less than a month. She sums up:

Enterprises have the financial resources and the customer base and the brand equity that startups dream of.

Every enterprise also has values that are rooted in their origins — even Coca-Cola was a startup once, she reminds us. The purpose of cloud transformation, she argues, is to reconnect with those values and interpret them using today's digital capabilities:

It's more about regaining that DNA, regaining a focus on the things that make you different, the things that are the value statements of your organization — and then pairing that with the technologies and the capabilities that exist in the market today.

My take

This presentation was a refreshing change from the usual vendor keynote, with a firm emphasis on conveying lessons learned from the practical experience at Coca-Cola. It doesn't sugar-coat the difficulties of carrying out transformation on this scale at an established enterprise. But at the same time, it's not starry-eyed about digital natives sweeping the world before them. Long-established businesses like Coca-Cola have enormous assets and brand presence, and if they're able to achieve the necessary changes in process and culture, they can carve themselves a bright future in a digital world.

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