Western Digital tackles complexity with cloud solutions at every turn

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy October 5, 2016
Western Digital has an unusual and substantial IT estate that is being modernized in every way imaginable. The task inevitably involves a multi-year journey. We check in with the CIO who says he is on course to delivering one of the most complex transformations I have seen.

Steve Phillpott, CIO Western Digital

In the last few years, Western Digital has emerged as the world's largest storage company by some measures. The company is going through an extensive digital transformation project that will run for four years by the time it is complete, sometime in the 2018 timeframe. Today, they're about half way there. A significant part of the project includes a switch to Workday HR.

I checked in with Steve Phillpott, CIO Western Digital. Phillpott  has a long history of large scale IT projects, having been CIO at HGST, a Western Digital acquisition, since 2013. Prior to, Phillpott drove SaaS initiatives at Amylin, managing an IT strategy designed to dramatically reduce IT spend by 50%. Past success is no guide to the future but in this case, Phillpott was able to bring plenty of experience to the table, not least of which meant navigating across thousands of applications.

Due to constraints put upon the merged business, Phillpott was in the unusual position of not being allowed to talk to the other main companies in the group until 2015. This meant Western Digital, as a group, was operating three of everything in a landscape where there were roughly a thousand applications in each IT estate. While that may seem a horrendous position, Phillpott sees it as a massive opportunity.

I viewed it as almost a total greenfield opportunity. We are picking one of whatever is needed and then ensuring each business can fit to a standard. With my past experience it was clear that a 'cloud first' strategy makes the best sense in most situations. That's especially true in collaboration scenarios so what we have is Jive, WebEx, Office 365, ServiceNow, Salesforce and Cloudera on Amazon Web Services.

Where does Workday fit in?

Workday was the one app we started on during the time when the businesses were separate. We had to run two work streams, one that was deploying on Western Digital and one on HGST.  We focused on the HCM capabilities for 75,000 people. It was a big job because we had 200 integrations of which 40 were into disparate payroll systems. That was inevitable because of the global nature of the business. We also built an HR central ticketing system on top of ServiceNow. What we were really trying to do though is get off five disparate HR systems to drive a reduced cost model. As part of that, we wanted to get everything into a single database so that there is data transparency and accuracy.

One of those systems was SAP SuccessFactors. I was surprised that Western Digital chose to move away from SuccessFactors to Workday but according to Phillpott, a quick review of the Western Digital and HGST systems transfer progress indicated that Workday was a better strategic fit and the path forward with Workday was superior to that they evaluated from SuccessFactors.

I was also interested in pursuing the question of integrations because it struck me that even with a cloud first strategy, the problems of integrating so many systems is not necessarily any less difficult than it is in legacy environments. Phillpott pointed out that his team had come into the project with plenty of cloud integration experience that 'certainly helped' but he also pointed out that:

This is a multi-year journey and we're about half way through, so we can think about another couple of years before I can say 'were done.' So as we move past the 'go live' situation, we are looking for opportunities to rationalize the IT estate and so yes, while we've already made a lot of progress in reducing the number of apps, there is plenty ways to go to get the overall system more efficient and streamlined.

Efficiency doesn't stop with cost reduction, or transferring responsibility for hardware and data center operations to a cloud provider. In this case, Phillpott took the opportunity to deploy 200 self-service kiosks inside the manufacturing production sites from which data can be captured in real-time.

Self service is a big and quick win that helps us make the necessary change management a lot easier. We always knew that such a high degree of change would mean change management had to be top of the 'to do' jobs list. People often under estimate this task but we think that the ability to move operations onto mobile devices, kiosks and the like help considerably because people can see directly how these new systems help in their work experience early on in the project.

But then sometimes that change management process almost executes itself. As Phillpott pointed out, replacing Lotus Notes with Box and Office 365 for instance was very well received and, as we've seen in other case studies, getting early wins often acts as the flywheel force multiplier from which to spin out other applications.

Asked to explain how the group made its choices, Phillpott made an interesting point:

I think it’s a balance between platforms and point solutions. Box is a platform, Salesforce and Workday, the same.  We think it is important to look at the platform paradigm first because we believe those will be the best supported for the long haul.

In closing out the conversation, I asked Phillpott to comment on other solutions that may go to the cloud. The answer may surprise:

It's the same strategy in finance. They were all on premise in various states of legacy. We are moving that to the cloud. That’s focused on the Oracle stack.

My take

It's hard to imagine a more messy estate than that which Phillpott is modernizing.

Integrating large businesses is hard enough but taking a wrecking ball to an IT landscape and making such huge changes and in such short order is not for the faint of heart.

The degree to which Phillpott came over as not only confident but also aware of the business issues he is solving once again demonstrate the need for solid experience in both developing and implementing an IT strategy that is far removed from the on-premises models of the past. the combination of strong IT and business skills is now a requisite rather than a nice to have as CIOs emerge from pure technical situations to situations where their impact on the business is not only decisive but visible.

My sense is that in the next few years, we will see more and more of these types of wholesale change projects as the number of companies making the cloud switch grows and as confidence on the outcomes becomes further evidenced thorough stories of this kind.

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