Behind every successful enterprise IT project there's usually a technology consulting partner whose professional services helped deliver it. In all the commentary around the ongoing evolution of enterprise computing, little attention is paid to the role of these Systems Integrators (SIs). But as computing continues to move into the cloud and adopt a more composable, Tierless Architecture, they too are having to adapt how they work with their enterprise clients. I recently caught up with Chris Barbin, CEO of Tercera, an investment firm that focuses solely on next-generation cloud consultancies, to get his take on the new playbook that's emerging for SI success.
Tercera has just marked its second anniversary, having assembled a portfolio of seven investments in those two years in SIs that work with up-and-coming vendors such as Atlassian, Commercetools, Okta, Onestream, Snowflake and Twilio. Barbin brings his experience as the founding CEO of early Salesforce consulting partner Appirio, and the current economic headwinds remind him of his former company's heyday. He says:
I do think in this economy over the next couple of years, [established firms] are going to be challenged with some of the mega-projects and programs, the large budgets. That I think creates an opportunity for firms like the ones we invest in.
This is, I think, not dissimilar from the financial crisis in 7, 8, 9, where we, back in the day, accelerated through that, because we were able to capitalize on being nimble and driving quick value. Budgets were getting looked at, scrutinized, cut back, and you could step in — and that creates an opportunity for a smaller, nimble player.
But the playbook for success is different in several ways from what had worked for Appirio. Even the core principle of focusing on a single key vendor and riding in the slipstream of its rapid growth requires some adjustments. As well as looking for alignment with one or more of its Tercera 30 ISVs, for example, Tercera looks for a degree of industry specialization and expertise. Technology prowess is no longer enough on its own without knowledge of the industry context in which it's being applied. But also, the rise of composable architectures means that there's usually an ecosystem of ISVs that the SI has to work with, rather than focusing on just one vendor. Barbin explains:
It's not just about one ISV. We've made seven investments that are covering fourteen of the ecosystems. There is a primary bet that the services company makes, but they all have supporting ISVs as part of their strategy. Whether that's Terazo, where Twilio is at the core, or Orium, where composable is their overall strategy, they're not just betting on one ISV, they're betting on three, four, five. Even Hakkoda, which is doing incredible work, I think, with Snowflake and their pureplay Snowflake shop, they have four or five other ISVs that surround that solution that the customers are demanding ...
I do think going in, it was a lot like, 'Draft one ISV, grow it,' similar to what we did at Appirio. That has shifted, our thinking has shifted there.
As the economy tightens, as well as managing their costs and cashflow, these SIs will also need to focus more on creating their own opportunities rather than relying on getting introductions from their ISV partners. He advises:
These founders and entrepreneurs are going to have to really be focused on the fundamentals. It's not just about growth, but they have to be very mindful of bringing their own customers to bear, playing offense themselves, and, frankly, less reliant on those ISVs and the channel play. In the past, the channel was delivering orders and needs. Now, the SI needs to go fend for themselves, I would say in many ways.
One often neglected way of standing out from the partner crowd in a competitive market is to earn recognition. He explains:
To have four of our seven companies be a partner of the year, that moniker helps ... That's a very conscious part of our playbook is to drive towards getting those 'of the year', whether it's partner of the year, innovator of the year, regional player of the year, we feel like that makes a difference.
Another significant change in the playbook has been how consultancies work with their clients. The nature of today's more flexible, composable architectures is that some engagements become more enduring than was the case in a traditional project-based relationship. He elaborates:
One interesting trend that we've seen is less interest in projects per se, where it's like, 'Let's put an SOW against this project and a go-live,' more interest in a technical team, that can, what I call, co-innovate with the customer. So selling a team of ... an EM, a PM, an architect and three developers or two engineers, a data analyst — and then buying that for three months, six months, 12 months, and then work side-by-side with the customer.
In some ways this approach is an evolution of the long-established practice of staff augmentation, where an enterprise would supplement their own staff with workers provided by a professional services firm, he says. But this new model is more collaborative than simply supplying a chargeable resource. There's a strong element of knowledge transfer from the provider to the client, while on the provider's side, it's a way to engage more closely with the client and understand their business better. He adds:
It gives them a broader perspective, they're embedded for a period of time, they're learning more about the organization as a whole, and the business drivers as a whole, as opposed to, just get this project live ...
I do think that's different than the early days of some of these ecosystems. Before we started Tercera, we didn't see that as much. I give credit to these emerging players like Endava, Globant and EPAM. I think they've done a really good job of training a customer base on that model.
There are other opportunities to work with clients beyond the initial implementation projects. SIs are keen to build these closer relationships with clients and become a trusted partner that works with them over time. Barbin elaborates:
In that curation of your existing customers, the service offerings you bring to bear, in some cases, it's tech debt remediation, it's re-implementation of existing cloud portfolios, it's managed services associated with those. It's less about the net-new project, 'We're going to change the world and we're going to transform.'
Some large organizations are even revisiting longstanding implementations of the likes of Salesforce that date back ten to fifteen years and are now due for renewal. Here too, a more composable approach is commonplace. He says:
Those re-implementations are happening now, and they are measured in the millions or tens of millions of dollars, where multiple SIs are helping re-implement dozens of instances and re-architect those with next-generation solutions, where Salesforce can be a part of that, but they're bringing in other ISVs as well.
Developing IP, growing talent
Among the characteristics that Tercera looks for when assessing an investment in a consulting firm is the ability to develop some Intellectual Property (IP) as part of its offering. This is a perennial quest for professional services companies, but working out how to package up knowledge and practices as a repeatable framework or a software offering isn't as straightforward as it might seem at first glance. Barbin says:
Everyone always worked through and struggles with the IP piece. What do I do with productization of services? We've had a couple of our recent investments where, when we started talking to them, IP was going to solve world hunger — a new product was going to emerge and was going to drive up multiples. Often we ended up course-correcting the firms to have a realistic picture about what you invest, and how do you differentiate with your IP. And it's not going to solve world hunger! ...
To try to build software or build a product when your DNA is a services company, that's fraught with a lot of risks, that the odds of success are very low. But a lot of the firms we've talked to, that we counsel — and some of the many that we don't invest — we still have that constant discussion around productization and IP, and what it can or can't do for the firm and for their customer base.
One other aspect of IT services that has changed significantly in the past few years is the rise of remote working, both in terms of whether staff work from home or are based in an office, and also how services are delivered to clients. Going on site to clients is no longer routine as it was in the past, since it's much more efficient and therefore cost-effective to work remotely on most projects. Most firms now have a hybrid workplace and give staff the option to work from home when it makes sense. This also allows them to recruit people based on their talent and experience, irrespective of location. But for younger team members, especially those that are being trained up, being together in an office is an important part of the experience. Barbin says:
Broadly speaking, these are hybrid virtual workforces, for the most part. They're not necessarily going on site to clients, which was a thing of the past. I don't think any of our firms at this point are mandating five days a week in an office anywhere ...
There's a settling out on the hybrid model. We do see our firms that are growing talent, being physically together does matter. Where they're setting up centers to grow the talent, train the talent, it's helpful for the younger associates to be amongst each other.
For several of Tercera's portfolio companies, growing talent is an important part of the playbook. For example, data engineering services firm Hakkoda has established a delivery and customer innovation center in Costa Rica, where it is building up a team of several hundred employees, working with universities and government agencies to recruit and develop the talent it needs. Others are following a similar strategy. Barbin comments:
[It] is a huge part of the economic model for these firms. That's what drives a lot of the profitability, is getting people productive as they're earlier in their career ...
We continue to watch and to be excited, frankly, about the build-out in Latin America. We made a pretty big bet across our portfolio. I'm anxious to watch that continue to play out as the existing ones scale, and we'll continue to look at that area to build out in that, with the new bets that we make.
IT services companies not only have to deliver the newly emerging Tierless Architecture of composable IT, they also have to adapt to delivering their services in a digitally connected world that has transformed both the nature of customer engagement and how teams work together to get things done. Put it another way, they're at the center of a perfect storm of change from every direction. No wonder they need a new playbook.
The Tercera playbook includes some invaluable pointers on managing distributed teams and building up new talent in a cost-effective way, but I think the most interesting element is the various ways of building more longer-term engagement with clients. To my mind, this builds on an earlier conversation with Dan Brown of FinancialForce about how to engage with customers in this new world. While the bread-and-butter business remains project delivery, I think the most successful players will be those who figure out how to turn one-off engagements into enduring relationships. That means engaging more deeply with clients and understanding their business goals and vision, in order to develop projects and deliver services that help support those outcomes. As Barbin hints, that's something that many clients are not yet ready for, and therefore requires an education process in which the service provider shows how this can work and builds the client's trust in it.