What ‘Digital Transformation’ Means, and How You Can Use It to Advance Your Career (Without Being a Robot)

Target Audience:

Developers and Database Administrators who are interested in career development or industry trends. The talk will be accessible to everyone in IT, it’s not highly database or code specific.


Whether you love or hate buzzwords, the big ones signify critical cultural changes. In this session, Kendra Little will explain what executives mean when they describe a ‘digital transformation’, why this transformation is happening across all industries, and how understanding this gives developers and database administrators an advantage in building their careers. You will learn what motivates CEOs to modify their business models in a digital transformation, and patterns and anti-patterns of companies that have attempted these transformations – with different results. You’ll leave the session with an understanding of the core ideas and philosophies behind digital transformation that will help you prioritize what to learn, guide your interactions at work, and strategize your career path.

Audio podcast:

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Why I Want to Present This Session:

I have been researching what worries and inspires CEOs and CIOs, and was surprised to find a large body of studies and predictions about massive trends in “digital transformation” across all industries. What I once thought was “just a buzzword” is a shorthand that executives use to represent major changes in business models, and understanding what motivates these changes and how they impact technical workers can give DBAs and Developers a real advantage. I wish I’d looked into this 10 years ago and want to share it!

Additional Resources:

Session Transcript:

TARA KIZER: Alright, next up at GroupBy, we have Kendra Little talking about digital transformation. Take it away, Kendra.

KENDRA LITTLE: Thank you, Tara. Thanks a bunch. Okay, so today, I am talking about a concept that only recently has become interesting to me. I saw this phrase, digital transformation, and I don’t know, it just didn’t sound super relevant to me. it sounded a lot like when people used the word cyber, which is just one of those words that generally, if someone uses it, you’re like, yeah, you don’t really work with technology. You might manage people who work with technology, but you don’t really get it. This phrase though, digital transformation, it kept coming up and I started looking into it.

And I think it is an interesting concept for people to think about, even if you work with technology every day, and understand why this phrase keeps getting used by company leaders and how understanding this and some related concepts can change the way you approach your career. And it can really help accelerate your career in terms of, over time as things change, getting more and more interesting work.

So a quick introduction, my name is Kendra Little. I am an Evangelist at Redgate Software. And in the past, I’ve been a database administrator. I worked largely in the tech sector, both for startups and for Microsoft. I also have helped found a consulting company, I’ve trained people around the world, and I am awarded the Microsoft MVP award for talking a lot. And one of the things I like to talk about lately is bigger picture concepts about trends that are happening across different industries and what they mean to those of us who specialize with databases. Most of the folks attending GroupBy are database developers or DBAs. So this talk is really – I’m going to mention that all of the things I’m talking about here are really accessible to you, even if you aren’t somebody who works with databases, these are going to be meaningful because that’s kind of the point of what digital transformation is, is that it’s bigger than the technologist itself.

So we’re going to talk about what does this phrase, digital transformation, mean and why are people using it? We’re going to look at some big picture examples of different companies that have undergone transformation; some successful, some not so successful. And we’re going to pull patterns out of that and talk about why some were successful and some weren’t. And then we’ll dig in and say, okay, all of this stuff that  we’ve covered, what does this practically really mean to you? What does this mean when you’re writing your resume, what does this mean when you’re thinking about things to suggest at work, what does this actually practically mean? And then we’ll really quickly talk about how just career progression is changing. It’s not the same as our parent’s career models and the way we should think about how we should approach our careers is dramatically different than it was about 20 years ago.

So first up, what is a digital transformation? Is it about becoming a robot? Well, it’s not about becoming a robot, but it is about change. One of the podcasts that I really enjoy listening to – I find this to be actually a great thing to play in the car or when you’re walking your dog is, What It Means, a Forrester Podcast. Forrester is a research company. A lot of their materials are directed towards people who are, like, your IT director, your dev director, or like the head of marketing or a CIO or a CEO. But the nice thing is, this content’s actually interesting, I think, for anyone who works in technology.

And on a recent episode called the Agile Enterprise – this actually came out last week – Matt Guarini, who’s one of the research directors, he was talking about it and he says, so the thing about digital transformation, the heart of this is that customers – and this is all of us as customers – we want things right away. We’re all walking around with just a super computer in our hand and we’re like, hey, can I get a better deal on insurance? Maybe I’ll change right now. Oh, you know, is there a way that I could find a service to do something for me that I’ve been doing myself for years just because I’m short on time. Maybe I can find it right away. Oh, is there a cheaper car I can get? And we have the ability to compare different products so quickly now and we don’t want to wait for it anymore. And that is dramatically different than before, when we would go through insurance brokers to find things for us. Now we want to do it all ourselves and we want to do it right now. And this goes from everything from your washing machine to how you manage your house, how you purchase things, and what you’re purchasing.

So not only do customers want things right now, but this, of course, really impacts businesses, even established businesses, because what is normal now to businesses is this idea of disruption. People used to go to the grocery store to buy products, but now, maybe they’re going to buy those products that they can sign up for automatic free delivery with an online service. So if I sell dish soap, this is a big deal to me. And how much I can adapt to changes in the marketplace and how much I can quickly deliver outcomes to a customer – and this means not just making a slight tweak that the customer doesn’t see, this means delivering something that the customer can see – that is going to change which companies stay in business and which companies don’t, even if they’re very large established companies.

So, what this means is that things are changing very high up in organizations. One of the jobs that’s dramatically changing is the job of the CIO. And the energy of a lot of CIOs is looking at not just how do I maintain stable operations. Historically, when I first started coming up in IT and I started talking to my – it was a CTO at the time, we didn’t have a CIO, we had a CTO – it was all about how do we deliver things to our customers and our customers sit inside the business? How do we deliver what they want quickly?  Now, this notion of digital transformation is essentially changing that because now the CIO is the one who says, we need to enable other parts of the business to figure out what the customer is demanding more quickly. We are no longer just an order-taker for the other parts of the business. We are no longer just in charge of stability, but we actually have this thing that can help everyone speed up, which is the ability to deploy and use technology, whether we’re writing the software ourselves or whether we’re buying software for someone else. But the CIOs are starting to wake up and realize that their function is inherently different than it used to be because it’s no longer about just taking orders from other business units. It’s about enabling other business units to do more than they’ve ever done, which takes a lot more creativity from inside that IT department.

A lot of this thinking in this area comes from leaders like Jeff Bezos. This is a quote from Jeff Bezos in 2016. And he points out that if you’re leading a company, looking at and being worried about what is my competition doing, it’s not really going to get you far enough ahead to matter. The CEOs are worried about competition because you may have a little startup like an Uber or a Lyft that disrupts your business model. But if you’re waiting until you see them, they’re going to be so far ahead of you that you’re already behind and you’re going to be struggling to catch up. Instead, what you really need to do is look at what isn’t working that great for your customers. Maybe this is what your customers are already asking for, or maybe it’s things your customer hasn’t thought of. But you’re looking for those friction-points there and you’re asking questions about how can we do this better and you really want the ability to experiment and see what does the customer respond really well to. You want to really focus on the customer. And this concept is critical to this concept of the digital transformation. We are using technology to reinvent how we do business and really focusing on, not our competitors, but the customers to push us ahead.

Forrester did a report in 2017. And the people they interviewed for this report were people who were already working in dev ops style projects, working to speed things up. So there’s like 350 people or so they interviewed for this one. And even of these people who were trying to speed things up, only 23% of their enterprises were releasing changes at least monthly. In the modern world, that is not a fast time to market. I mean, it’s faster than it used to be. I worked with a tech company that released changes every day of the week back in 2005. This isn’t a new idea that we can deliver things rapidly. It is new for a lot of industries, but more and more of them are turning there, and more and more of them have people inside the company recognizing that customers are just like, we are not getting things fast enough.

Gartner is another research company who looks at things like this. and back in 2016, Gartner was predicting that by 2020, of all the CIOs out there, 50% of them that stick with this model of our job is to provide stability – that essentially, for a lot of these CIOs, it’s either dramatically change the way you do business, from not just being a department that provides stability to a department that drives innovation, that if you haven’t done that, you’re not going to be the CIO anymore. Because the problem is that people at the higher level, as the CEO is getting pressure from their board of directors that says we have to innovate, we have to release things faster, they’re going to look at the CIO and say, well, you’ve a proven track record of stability, but that’s not what we need now. And that CIO is either going to be pushed out for someone who does have a track record of that, or they’re going to do something that happens in some of these companies, where they bring in another C-level person who’s like the chief ecommerce officer or the chief digital officer. And essentially, they’re moving the CIO to the side and saying we need someone who has this proven track record, which is maybe not the best place for the CIO to be.

CIOs are waking up to this because they listen to podcasts like this, but this is just a survey from 2017 from Gartner of CEOs. And the CEOs are saying, yes, we are the people who are stakeholders in the company. We are getting pressure from them to have this thing called a digital transformation. Hadly says, “I want it right now.” Yes, often at this level we say things, I want it right now.

So what is a digital transformation? I really think of digital transformation as being a combination of two things. We have a goal of rapidly delivering high-quality – a lot of these folk use the word outcomes. What that means is whatever it is that we provide, whether it’s a service, a product, a feature, we want to get it to customers quickly and we want the ability to experiment and find out what really resonates. We want to be able to do that fairly cheaply. Technology is really critical to this. And there’s tons of examples of this, from shoe manufacturers – there are some she manufacturers who traditionally have had their shoes built overseas because cost was cheaper. In the past, we’ve had a real focus on making things cheaper. But now, some shoe manufacturers are experimenting with, well what if we build a fancier factory locally and we build it to be able to quickly churn out prototypes of new shoes more quickly so that we can have a hot new shoe that goes viral. Like we figured out, hey this she’s really popular. We don’t want to wait three months to get a bunch of them cheap, we want to start selling them now for high value. Maybe that means we put our factory someplace different. Maybe that means we change the whole process of how we build and test shoes. This is happening across every industry. It’s from tractors as a service to insurance to banking to other industries as well. So wherever we go with technology, these themes of how do we deliver things rapidly, how do we make sure they’re high-quality and actually resonate with the customers, which maybe it what they wanted, maybe it isn’t what they thought they wanted, and we want to have technology in the heart of it. Well, this sounds really great.

But why hasn’t ever company been revolutionized? Let’s look at a couple of patterns and anti-patterns of some famous companies who’ve done this. We’re going to look at a couple of different companies. We’re going to talk about pizza, we’re going to talk about videos, and we’re going to talk about coffee. So first up, here is pizza. And a really, really simple dumb question, Dominos Pizza, what kind of company is Dominos Pizza? You might say – and I’m kind of looking over in Slack – it’s not a cat company. That’s the last thing I see in there. Dominos Pizza is a cardboard company, Richie says. You might see them as I – oh, Diane says, I worked for them, it is a … Yeah, it is a fast food service delivery. Not in the traditional sense of fast food, but the idea is you order it, you get the triangle with spots quickly that is inexpensive and delicious. Thank you, Kevin.

Well, Dominoes started describing themselves differently around 2015. And you may look at this and say that’s a cute marketing thing, and it is a cute marketing thing. But I think we’re going to see there’s evidence for this being true. Dominos essentially started describing themselves as a technology company that sells pizza; kind of like how Amazon used to be a bookstore. Now Amazon is a technology company that does everything. But when we look at what’s changed with Dominos Pizza, there is some real truth in this. This graph on this screen here shows changes and growth in Dominos’ stock price from 2010 through 2017. This graph became famous around the internet in 2017.

And I don’t know if you remember back in 2010. Around 2010, 2011, Dominos brought in a new CEO whose name is Patrick Doyle. He actually doesn’t work there anymore. He was there throughout a lot of this span of this stock price growth, which compared to the rest of big tech, was amazing. And when Patrick Doyle came in, Dominos was not in the greatest place. The Noid had not left Dominos with the best quality pizza. And soon after he started, there were these commercials that interviewed Dominos customers and asked them what they really thought about the pizza. And the customers said things like, well it shows up quickly, but it tastes like cardboard, kind of echoing Richie’s sentiment that it’s a cardboard company. These customers said things that were basically like, we think that pizza should taste better. And they put this in the commercials. And then they executed on it and they changed a lot of things. They did change the recipe for the pizza, but when you look at other things that Dominos has done, they changed a lot more and that’s a big reason that the stock price went up.

Now, this graph is not the only graph that shows their success. So if you compare the growth in their stock price to the growth of the S&P500 itself, you see a similar pattern. Their worth grew dramatically. How did they do it? Well, part of what Patrick Doyle did was that focus on the customer to the point of bringing them into commercials. But the other thing that they’re famous for is that they really focused on experimentation. We’ve got a comment that Dominos is bread with sauce and cheese, it’s not pizza. But they’ve been very successful at selling it as pizza. And so one of the interesting things about the experimentation here is you can now – if you look at the different ways you can order Dominos, you can order Dominos from your Ford Fusion. They have apps that integrate with different cars. You can order it from your PlayStation. You can order it from Slack. You can order with a voice assistant in the app because you might not want to talk to a real person. You can still do that, but maybe you want to talk to a fake person. You can send compliments to the team making the pizza in the phone app itself. You can set the phone app to just reorder your last order every time you open it because it turns out people want that.

Well, how did they figure out people wanted that? What they have said publically is they changed their technology stack and they changed their people and processes in a way that they could experiment cheaply. They could, instead of building a big business case and saying, I think we should let people order through Twitter, they found ways that for under about $1500, they could try out something with a segment of the population, see if it caught on, and if it works, if it turns out that people do want to order by Twitter – although I think really that one was a marketing scheme, you could order with emojis on twitter – but they found ways to do this really cheaply so that they could figure out what’s a dud and what’s really going to stick. And by this type of relentless experimentation, they really built up an empire of what one could say is maybe not even pizza at all, but it’s worth a whole lot of money.

One thing I also want to give Dominos credit for is they were in the fast delivery service long before we had companies like Postmates – these food delivery companies that will, like, show you exactly where your food is. Dominos came up with this concept of the pizza tracker early, this visualization that you can see when you order a pizza. When did it go into the oven? When did it come out of the oven? When did it go into the car? They had this concept that customers want to see what is the progress, earlier before other companies did, even though other companies have made it faster now. And we have a comment from Lee, the Pizza Tracker is amazing. And that innovation, I think is, conceptually, part of why they really came out of the place of yeah it’s bad pizza, yeah you’re fast but it’s not really good, to being an insanely popular worldwide phenomenon.

But not everyone has been so successful over the years as Dominos. So another example, if we’re looking at the world of videos and movies, is Blockbuster. And one of the questions about Blockbuster that we have a lot of assumptions about, a lot of us, is why did Blockbuster fail? There are stories out there about the Netflix owners in the early days going to the Blockbuster executives and being like, hey do you want to buy our company for, I don’t know, 11 million dollars or something, and getting laughed out of there. But as the story goes, supposedly that did happen. And what we tend to think of is that Blockbuster failed because they just didn’t understand the revolution that was happening with digital media and streaming. But if we look at this, it’s actually more complicated, and Blockbuster almost succeeded.

So, back in the day – and this is around the same time that Dominos is rising, but maybe a little earlier – in the market, we had VHS cassettes, which were literally big. And then the revolution that started to happen wasn’t digital streaming. That didn’t happen right away. What happened was DVDs. And the change with DVDs was that it became much cheaper for movies to become mailed. So that meant the companies like Netflix, they didn’t start off as streaming sites, they started off as mail-order sites. But Blockbuster still had an advantage because they had stores everywhere. And the truth about mail-order stuff is, well yeah, maybe you ordered a couple of movies, but maybe you start watching them and it’s Friday night and you’re like, oh these aren’t that good. If you’re just on a mail-order plan, you’re like, well I’ve got to wait for it to come back, so wouldn’t it be better if I could just go to a store? Or maybe it’s Friday night and the mail hasn’t gotten to you yet, because in the early days, Netflix had not optimized mail delivery. They actually worked on optimizing working with different mail delivery providers to make that fast. So Blockbuster, in the early days, they saw what was happening, they saw that Netflix was gaining customers and they started to change things. The leader at Blockbuster at the time, his name was John Antioco.

And this graph is from the Harvard business review and they had an interview with him after the end of this graph, which has sort of a sad ending, and they talked to him about lessons learned and what happened. And he actually had some really good ideas when he saw the rate that Netflix was adding subscribers. He said, well why don’t we also offer a mail-order service and combine it with our franchises? So if you don’t like that movie that you ordered by mail, you could just take it back to the store. He called this program Total Access, and at the same time he did this, he said, one of the other things that this startup is disrupting is Netflix didn’t have the same penalizing late fees that Blockbuster had and people really didn’t like the late fees of Blockbuster. So when you look in the middle of this graph and you see the dips in operating income, that’s because he also, as part of Total Access, said let’s cancel the late fees. So let’s have a really compelling combo.

You can do mail-order, you can return it in the store, and you no longer have these late fees that you hate. Yeah, we’ll take a dip in operating income, but we are going to start getting subscribers that aren’t going to want to go to Netflix because they don’t have as much to offer. And this worked for a while, but then it didn’t. So why didn’t it? This CEO had a great plan that combined things. And of course, operating income also dips too, because to do the mail order program, to build the website, we had to bring in a whole team to build this website. So we had to spend more building this website or canceling the late fees.

What happened is – there’s a great article by a fella named Greg Satell, who looks at this on his site Digital Tonto. And this is a summary of his findings. Blockbuster is a company of franchises. And by the way, there is still one store left. It’s in Oregan. So if you really want to visit Blockbuster, you can. The Alaska store closed. It’s sort of famous on John Oliver. People are discussing late fees. Yeah, everybody hates late fees. But the franchisees in this case felt left out. Now, just because you have franchises, doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. Dominos has franchises. We just talked about how successful they are. But what happened here was this Total Access program, it was built without getting a lot of buy in from really critical people in the company. The board of directors, who had a lot of connections with the franchises, they didn’t necessarily think Antioco was going the right way. And he had a very disruptive activist investor who he didn’t spend enough time getting on board and he didn’t politically leverage that right.

But also, we’ve got all of these franchisees in the rest of the company – to make a big change to this model and say yeah we’re going to do mail-order, we aren’t only dong the in-store experience, you need to get those people behind you. You need to have cultural change across your company. And we see this a lot in studies now of people who are trying to speed up delivery of objectives. And I’m quoting a dev ops report by Dr. Nicole Forsgren and some others, where one of the things they see and one of the things they reported on – I think this was the 2017 report – that having a CEO on board can be great in terms of a catalyst, but a catalyst for change is not enough to cause the entire change to happen. To cause the entire change to happen, you have to have widespread support across all your different business units and across people in the business. You have to have cultural change across diverse groups.

Blockbuster failed to do that, and what they do at the end of this graph is things like try to buy Circuit City, they bring the late fees back. By now people are like, wait, my late fees were gone, now my late fees are back. They cut down on the marketing for the total access program and then eventually everything went downhill. So that’s the video story.

But our third story – so how do we make that cultural change happen across the companies? One of my favorite companies, actually, is Nespresso. And Nespresso isn’t that huge in the United States. Nespresso is really big in Europe and other countries. I actually think – I’m not getting paid by Nespresso… I’m always like, no, this is really, really great, you should try this. Because what happened to me was I was staying in an Airbnb in another country. They had a little Nespresso machine. I tried it and I was like, I have to have one of these. So this is a company that is not a small startup. They‘re actually part of Nestle. So they’re part of a giant corporation. And they started back with just five employees back in 1986. They started building an ecommerce platform in 1998 and now they have 12,000 employees across 40 countries and they have 500 people working what they call their digital operations unit.

So 500 people working on the website, working on integrating working systems together and making sure that you can buy the coffee in the way that you want, because you might wonder, why do they have 12,000 employees. Across a lot of different countries, they have these boutiques. They refer to this as their boutique experience. You can go into the shop. You can smell all the different kinds of coffee, and they’re beautiful stores. You feel like a better person. I do when I go into one of these shops. I’m like, I feel prettier. I think it’s a really nice experience. And they have a lot of employees who work in these stores and who work in customer service as well. But they also sell things online, which is important to me because I don’t have a lot of stores that I can go to for Nespresso around here.

There is – and this really is one of my favorite podcasts – there’s an episode of the Forrester Podcast, What It Means, where they talked to Cyril Lamblard, and Cyril Lamblard is the chief digital ecommerce officer of Nespresso and he came on board when they were really trying to scale up a lot of their online sales. And when he’s reflecting and looking back at his time there, one of the things that he says he wishes he’d done differently is realized in the early days that he was worrying about things like what’s the best platform that we can scale. And he was worrying about a lot of technology implementation questions. And he said, not that that’s not important. That is important. But the thing I should have realized is, more important, that a lot of making this happen is about transforming your business and really paying attention to people who aren’t just in my technology group in the business so that we can, together, focus on the customer.

They take this very, very seriously, to the point where he says, I am the head of ecommerce, but my incentives on how we do as a company are not specific to ecommerce. So essentially, in terms of rewards for him, his rewards are based on the physical stores doing well as well as the ecommerce doing well. This is a key, this a global outcome. And when we talk about different technology perspectives on how do we deliver changes faster, one of the things people emphasize is global outcomes. Because what this outcome is designed to do is designed to make it so the people building the digital tools aren’t trying to make it better than the stores. We’re trying to make it all really, really good, but seamless together so that if you see a sale in the store but you don’t buy it for whatever reason, maybe you’ve got someplace to be, maybe you’re just not sure, maybe you want to ask your spouse first, but then later you’re ready to buy online, you want to see the same sale. You don’t want to miss out on an opportunity because some opportunities are only in one place and not the other.

You want it to be easy to find and connect up that experience. Having these global outcomes forces people to work together in a way that is beneficial to both of them. Historically, we don’t have global outcomes between IT groups and other groups. Historically, IT is rewarded for stability and development groups are rewarded for releasing change, which creates a tension between them. This is a prime example of shouldn’t we have global outcomes because what we want is to rapidly release things that are high-quality. So shouldn’t we have global outcomes across our business so that we aren’t rewarding people for different things that puts them into conflict with one another? So we have the question, what is the best Nespresso flavor? It is the one that is in front of me. I have done many, many tests of different flavors and my favorite is always the one that happens to be in my cup right now. I actually haven’t found one that I don’t like. Part of the key is that they don’t make the flavor super-duper strong. It’s not like that hazelnut coffee where you’re just like – it’s a little more subtle than that.

So, what does all this mean? You’re not all the CIO of different companies. Maybe some of you are, but you’re not all the CIO of different companies. Well, what this really means is, I think there’s a big mindset shift that I’ve gone through, and I’m still working on it. I think the mindset shift is easier for developers than it is for DBAs, because as DBAs, DBAs have been heavily schooled in this concept that you aren’t here to provide stability. And you get rewarded on stability and change is scary and change is bad. And that is a little bit harder to change.

Now, I’m going to walk through a four-part framework here because I think, as tech people, we do tend to do well with, okay this is all conceptual but what does this really mean? How do I approach this? And this is a model from Redgate. You do not have to buy our products to use this model. You do not have to do dev ops even to use this model. But we think a lot about how do you effect change and make things faster in your organization. And we think about this in four parts. We think about standardization, automation, monitoring or visibility, you could use either term, and then protection of data. And I think it is useful to use that framework in thinking about this.

So what is standardization? When we’re thinking about a digital transformation, this is one of the things that Cyril Lamblard mentions was critical to Nespresso, and this is in line with that Jeff Bezos quote. What we really want is to not orient ourselves to the competition, but think about the customer. We don’t mean the internal customer in the company here. We are thinking about, if we make widgets, the person who uses that widget. If we make dishwashers, the person who uses that dishwasher, if we put ads on the internet, the person who’s seeing the ad. We want to think about the consumer of our product and what will make them have the product be more helpful to them or the right product for them or something they are really, really excited about using because it really helps them.

Standardization in the terms of a digital transformation is also about not having as many differences and barriers between groups in the organization. And this is where it gets really, really hard is having connections between the people in IT and the developers. When we talk about a lot of these things, we tend to think, oh we’ve got operations, we’ve got developers, because of that whole dev ops thing. Well, at this point, this isn’t about developers and operations anymore. This is about bringing the marketing people in, because the job of marketing is no longer just to put out flyers. The job of marketing is really becoming understanding the customer, what they’re satisfied about, what they’re not satisfied about. That’s because their mission is how to connect with the customer. It’s learning about sales and connecting with sales because sales is, in many organizations, the way we actually deliver things to the customer. And it’s thinking about customer support, so it’s building cross-functional teams. And these teams can be really hard to form because we are simply not used to working together across the business.

Our old view of standardization really is about focusing on what we control. When I first started working with databases, it was really about I need to standardize my practices for my servers for my internal customers. And that is now an anti-pattern. Standardization that goes with this new mindset is much more about what is the best action to take right now. So yeah, we do want to do standardization in terms of we need to have a standardized way to describe our environment in a configuration file so that we aren’t always having to manually explain where different things are. But we need to do this across groups. So if the way we have always done this, if the way that I have standardized things just in my little sphere that I control, if that isn’t accessible to other groups, the right action to take right now might be to figure out, okay, how do I actually make this more useful in terms of working with other groups who need access to this information?

It’s much more now – like, in the old world, it was much more about, okay I can follow the processes that we’ve designed for our stuff, to react to fires, to fix things and put things out. But now it’s much more about, okay, if I can’t just figure out the best way to get this done, I need to ask other people, not on my team, what are the ways we can make this better? So behaviors that get rewarded are changing because behaviors that get rewarded now are the behaviors that drive innovation and the behaviors that speed things up. Just following an existing process, not that cool anymore, not something you really want to put on your resume. Yeah, people want to know that you can follow processes, but people want to know more, can you innovate, can you speed things up?

Now, one of the problems with this is, how am I supposed to do this because a lot of my job involves responding to things that are wrong and fixing it and moving onto the next problem, because in especially this world of DBAs, and in some of the world of developers, our job is really about doing break-fix work. This is where you’ve got to actually take a little leap and you’ve got to say, okay, yeah, we’re going to work on the fires, but we are going to maybe slow it down. And this is where we confront a fear. There’s a fear a lot of people have that says, if I stop doing this break-fix work, if I stop having this little area that I control and that I guard and I make sure it’s stable and I start worrying about other things, isn’t that what makes me a DBA? Or isn’t that what makes my position worthwhile? If I automate solutions to all the problems that I have, why do they need me anymore?

So the truth of this is, back when I first got into IT, I was lucky enough to land a job in this build ops group, and Nate, my coworker, who was actually younger than me, but he was definitely my mentor in that job, he was like, yeah, our group’s mission is to try to automate ourselves out of a job. It’s never going to work. There’s just always going to be more to automate, more to make faster, more cool work to do, but essentially, that’s the result we want. We want more interesting problems, so we are going to just get rid of all this manual stuff. We are going to automate as much as we can. And the basis of that was really standardizing; standardizing how we stored code, standardizing how we described the environments. And you are definitely going to have a job if you start saying, we are going to pick some of these fires, we are going to look at some of the fires that are repeated. And yeah, if I need to ask for help and say, okay, we are working with this other team to say, how can this problem stop happening? We’re going to remove some manual work here, I need some help. I need someone to come in and mind the current queue while we’re working on this – the job of the IT person now is to start doing that and saying, yeah, we need help in dealing with the everyday stuff so that we can standardize and make sure that this isn’t happening anymore. And that is the kind of thing you want to put on your resume.

So if you’re worried about your job going away, there is a study that was done in 2013. It’s an academic paper. So the paper is called The Future of Employment. And one of the things they did, this is kind of funny, they used machine learning to look at a lot of jobs and look at techniques of those jobs and figure out which jobs are most likely to be replaced by robots. So data entry, the world of data entry, probably going to be automated soon. If you really want to be a professional umpire, sorry. That’s probably all going to be computerized soon. Technical writing – this is bad news for all of us, I think, that Siri is going to become our technical writer. Computer programmers – the numbers are getting much lower though – computer programmers are looking pretty safe.

Now, we do have a couple different categories of developers. Computer programmers are more, like, mainframe writers. But computer programmers, the likelihood of that getting computerized is like half as much as data entry. Network architects – wow, we’re getting really low there. And now look on the right, 0.13 probability of software devs for system software getting computerized. But wait, it gets smaller. So this is just the part of the graph – so the scale has change don this slide. On the previous slide, it was 0.13 probability on the low here. Our high one, for software developers for applications, it’s 0.042. For database administrators, it’s even lower. But what I like to describe as the cockroach of all jobs, the job that will survive eternally and never be replaced by a robot, the sales engineers will be with us forever.

So we have a question. It’s more of a comment, “Half-assed bloggers are safe.” Yeah, I think actually you’re pretty safe. The outlook is really, really good. They did look at, in this paper, and analyze, so what is it that makes a job less likely to be replaced by a robot or by a computer? What is it about the sales engineers that make them so special and so eternally needed, needed more than even CEOs? Well, the aspects that make you worthwhile to not be replaced by a computer are the same ones that really help in terms of digital transformation. It’s creativity, right? Digital transformation is all about innovation. How can you look at things and say, how can we do that better? It’s using critical thinking to come up with what are the ways that we can do this that we can experiment and make it inexpensive? And it’s also social intelligence, because being able to figure out, how do I work with that person over in marketing who I have nothing in common with because I’m a big nerd and they don’t seem to be that nerdy – although, hint, I work with a lot of marketing and they’re all like secret nerds. But that social intelligence and that ability to influence, that’s a lot of what a good sales engineer really exemplifies. You don’t have to become a sales engineer, but it is worth taking the time to start thinking about, how do I have a conversation with someone who isn’t interested in the exact same niche that I’m in and how do we connect over, how do we make change happen more rapidly, how do we innovate together?

Alright, so we talked first about standardization. The next key is automation. Standardization is really the basis for automation. Automation, yeah, automation is something we think about in terms of how do we mechanically move changes through? But it’s not just automation for the sake of moving a change through. We also want to think about, how can we do this in a way that, like Dominos, we can figure out these cheap experimentation options? So maybe we’re not just thinking about how can we move a change out that’s visible to everyone, but we’re thinking about our larger design. How can we figure out ways that we can deliver some changes quickly to a segment of our population? You’re not going to be able to figure that out alone as a DBA, but there are people I can talk about whether there are ways that you can think of that we could do this.

It’s also about thinking about breaking down tasks into small pieces so that if we need to build a larger team, we can scale more easily and those smaller pieces can be automated. Of course, we don’t have all the time today. How am I supposed to automate all this stuff? This is really the how do you eat an elephant question. A lot of it is one bite at a time. If we haven’t focused on standardization, we may need to spend some time on that. A lot of this is figuring out where you are, what is the project that’s going to be most effective to help move things along? But in terms of automation, I think there are some traditional barriers that we want to get rid of.

In a lot of groups, DBAs are like, only the DBA can handle index maintenance for a database, for example. It shouldn’t be that way. It should be that, what is the right maintenance pattern for this application? More and more, there’s 24/7 apps. We don’t just have a downtime window, so we may need to figure out, how can the app be smart enough to do little bits of maintenance in different windows when key activities aren’t happening. And the nature of what makes sense through this is going to differ depending on how processing works in our system. Instead of having it where the DBA writes all their own code for database stuff, it needs to be more of, okay we’re going to use free tools, we’re going to use paid tools when it makes sense, and maybe the development of some of these tools varies between teams so that we don’t end up with what I do take some responsibility for; we don’t end up building huge applications in the SQL Server agent.

The tools we have in the Microsoft data platform are not all suitable for building applications and I have been responsible for helping build an application in the SQL Server agent – I mean, there are much better ways to be doing this now and breaking down these barriers between teams – we’ve got some comments about service broker. Erika’s defending the SQL Server agent, but it has a scheduler. Yeah, mistakes were made. I’m not proud.

One thing DBAs love, and more and more developers should love, is absolutely monitoring. And monitoring, this is one of these things that has changed dramatically. So we’ve talked about standardization, we’ve talked about automation. And those two are kind of obvious when it comes to speeding things up. But the role of monitoring is not actually always that obvious. Monitoring is really about, what is the customer experience like? Is the person able to use your product at all? Is it down? Is the performance good? What features of your product is the customer using? And monitoring, more and more the idea is behind the digital transformation that people in marketing should be making decisions based on what is the customer actually using, what does the customer like, what is the customer confused about. This isn’t just the developers who should have access to this, although in a lot of places the developers aren’t going to access that.

But we need data about the customer experience to be core to the decisions people make every day about how to sell, how to design new features, how to market features and explain to people what to use. We very much do still think of monitoring though, as being about just meeting service level agreements and customer satisfaction and only monitoring production. But we need to learn how to do things a little differently and I’m not saying that every hairbrush needs to be connected to WiFi. Things like this, concepts like this are why we do now have hairbrushes being sold that can connect to WiFi and tell you if you’re brushing your hair too hard because the people in these companies want to know how are you using our product, are you enjoying it.

I don’t want my hairbrush joining a botnet and becoming – I’m actually not a huge fan of the internet of things for everything, but the internet of things, like this craze for customer data is feeding into it. I don’t know if it’s actually a joke about the mattress company who has the [yuled] that says we may have microphones in your mattress to listen to you all the time. I don’t know if that one’s a joke or not but that’s the latest one here.

But the new view of this is that the whole software development process, our whole business processes really need to think about the customer experience and it needs to be based on data. We shouldn’t just guess about the customer wants and in fact, shouldn’t just use interviews with the customer to figure out what the customers want. Because what I think I want may not be what’s actually going to make my life better. There may be – what I say and what I actually want may be a little bit different just because humans are weird. So we need to figure out how to safely collect the right data, maybe without creating a botnet of hairbrushes.

There’s a great report that I really like put out my Deloitte. They’ve got some of these papers about what are the trends that are happening and one of the important things about this, especially when it comes to working across groups and increasing visibility is that a lot of the companies cultures that we have grown up with, especially people around my age is that they come from these cultures that it’s a big deal to fail and failure can really be a big black spot on your career. It can just be a mar on your record, and we’re very, very concerned about the perception of others. But part of this digital transformation, part of having this visibility across groups means I shouldn’t be afraid for people to see the monitoring data anymore. This is kind of traditional in ops is like, yeah, I don’t really want to share all this monitoring because you’ll see some stuff that isn’t ideal and you might not understand it. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been through that.

Instead, we need to have cultures more that it’s okay to take a risk and it’s okay to have people looking at your data and asking questions. And if they find something that we were doing wrong and they make a suggestion about it and we change it, it’s not that big a deal. Studies by companies like Google where they look at what teams are successful and what teams are able to make changes, they say the number one factor isn’t necessarily having brilliant people on the team, although they do make a point to hire brilliant people. But having a culture where it’s okay to be wrong, it’s okay to say something stupid, it’s okay to ask a question that oh, it’s a dumb question but what does that actually mean.

There’s a lot of emperor’s new clothes stuff that goes on in all of these things where we sort of assume everybody knows something. If we have the culture in our group where it’s okay to show our stuff to other teams, even though it’s messy, where it’s okay to ask stupid questions, we are actually going to be able to deliver things faster because we aren’t getting hung up by oh, there’s some stupid political war going on and they may try to make us look bad. We have to get past all of that stuff.

Now, that’s tricky, but as individual technologists, that is actually something we can foster by being the one who isn’t afraid to ask the dumb question, by when you’re setting up your performance review, saying here are the things I want to learn and I want to be judged on learning these things, not just on my actions in production, and actually blocking out time on our schedules to learn it. Say okay, I researched this thing, I want to share it with the team. There’s a lot of modeling of behaviors we can do and by the way, when you share it with the team, invite people who aren’t necessarily directly connected saying hey, do you want to come learn about this even though you’re in marketing. Build up those bonds across teams. That is the biggest resume builder type of activity that you can really do these days.

Another big area, and I would say this one is just full of huge opportunities is in the protect area. So we’ve gone through standardize, automate, monitor, and protect. We’ve got 10 minutes left so we’re actually doing real good. In the world of data whether you’re a developer or a DBA, there are huge opportunities right now because we have not been protecting data very well historically. And more and more the data breaches are in the news every single day, right? Marriot, data breach, I mean, and now there’s things that can happen with data that used to be insignificant. So if someone gets your phone number now, they can hijack your SIM. They can do all sorts of creepy things because they have your phone number that if they can hijack your SIM and basically have a phone that acts like it’s you, now here they have access to all your third factor off and maybe your password manager on there. There’s all sorts of creepy stuff that can happen with data that used to seem relatively safe and we see these data breaches all the time happening and it could be our company because we probably store phone numbers in our database. Maybe we even store medical data, maybe we store financial data. And a lot of companies are not protecting that data.

We’ve thought about protecting things in production for a long time but we haven’t. A really great report on these, there’s a lot of different reports on breaches. My favorite is the Verizon reports. This is the 11th edition in 2018 and they actually have an open source framework they use for this, and in the 2018 report, they analyzed 2216 confirmed data breaches. Where are these data breaches coming from? They found that 73% are people outside the company, and this is multi-answer by the way because I could have a data breach where it’s an outsider working with an insider. 28% involved internal actors. That’s kind of a terrible thing, right? So it’s not longer enough to protect our data just like by building a network around it because we may have people inside the company who are oh yeah, I’ll take a copy of that, I’m not happy with the way you’ve treated me so I’m going to share a copy of this database, which I grabbed from the dev system that has personal data in it that can be bad.

But even worse, the ones that are coming from outside, they aren’t just attacking the front end website. This is another multi-answer. So there’s different categories on here. Hacking is a larger category than includes things like the malware and the social attacks. A lot of these external actors, the way that they’re doing the data breach is they’re sending a fishing email and they’re getting access to that person inside the company’s machine and they’re using that to get to data that isn’t protected. Maybe that person doesn’t have access to production but maybe they have access to an analytics database. Maybe they have access to a dev database that doesn’t have any masked or protected information in it.

And like that recent Marriot breach, it can take a lot of time to even figure out hey, someone was victim to a fishing attack. How would I know unless they do something that actually exposes the data? So they may hang around and collect more and more and more stuff before you ever figure it out. So here’s where the opportunity is. There’s a big movement in the security sector around zero trust approaches. The idea being that we can no longer depend upon perimeter protection around our enterprise. And if you are a network security person, there’s a lot of work that you can do here, but as someone who works with data, there’s actually a lot that we an do too because what people want to get to is the stuff that we manage.

So we can think about where are the pieces of data that we need to protect. How can we kill the value of this data in environments where it’s vulnerable? So how can we remove sensitive data if we don’t need it in that environment or replace it with other data? How can we make it so that if there is a data breach, the harm is minimized as much as possible? Because we just have to assume that people are inside our network and that they are able to get to all of these data sources. So projects in this area I think are very, very rich for opportunity in terms of what you really want to do with this, in terms of current advancement.

Our goals are we want to rapidly deliver change and we want it to be high quality stuff going to the customer fast. We also want to be able to move rapidly while being safe. So you can come up with a project that’s either in standardization, automation, monitoring, or protection, and talk about how it fits into that goal. Kind of pulling things together and wrapping things up.

What does this mean about career advancement? Well, career advancement is changing. What I basically talked about today is that we have as part of digital transformation, this is a global movement across all industry sectors where companies realize that to stay in business, they need to be able to respond to customer demand again, to customer frustration more rapidly than ever. And technology is a critical part of this. Data is really, really critical to this. We have a framework at Redgate that we like to use in terms of thinking about this standardization, automation, monitoring, and protection, and this is a flexible framework that you can use whether or not you use our products to say here is a change that I would like to initiate, here it where it fits. Because we don’t want to skip protect just because we’re trying to be more rapid. Here is where it fits into this framework and here is ultimately how it ties into being able to rapidly delivery high quality products and services to customers. So whatever we can do to align with that, whatever we can describe on our resume that lines up with that is going to be really, really attractive to different companies.

Progression used to be more about graduating from junior developer to normal developer to senior developer and junior DBA to normal DBA to senior DBA. And that – I get that. I really wanted the title senior DBA for a really long time. That is something that we have to let go of because more companies – it’s not really that vertical progression anymore. Now, it’s more about what have you innovated, what cool projects have you worked on, and yes, you can still essentially stay a data focused person, but it’s more about building your resume as someone who can automate things really well or someone who can standardize things and maybe automate them really well. Someone who’s looked into that protection feature but someone who really understand this problem of how do I make things go faster and how do I move that forward in a way that still has high quality results.

Yes, maybe I do focus on specific technology things, but that’s not as much how I describe myself anymore because company – … charts are not going to be this is – in one of the Deloitte papers they actually brought up graph databases because they’re like, company hierarchy is no longer just about who do you report to, who is your peer. It’s much more about how do you interface with people across the entire organization and how do you quickly form a team and leave a team and work effectively. And if you can do that, if you can move from team to team more rapidly, providing your area of expertise, but working well with these other people, you are going to advance through that company more quickly than simply okay, now can I be a team lead, okay now can I be a senior DBA or senior development.

A lot of it is about the diversity of experience. I really think a lot of it is what can you say that you innovated and how did it make delivering things to the customer faster or how did it make data safer when you were moving fast, and I think those are the things that are really going to be the differentiators between if you want to make more money, if you want to do more exciting work, those are the things that you want to be able to talk about.

And it’s not that you haven’t been doing these things, right? I think a lot of this is just changing the mindset and looking back on things you’ve done in your career and being like, okay, well how do I describe this in a slightly different way? Because the nature of working as a developer and DBA, a lot of this is critical thinking, it’s problem solving, and it’s innovating. So don’t think that this is like, oh, I need to start over. I think really a lot of this is a mind shift, switch, and really focusing on okay, for next year what are my goals, I want to learn, I want to innovate, what do I want to learn?

Alex says he wants more questions to ask Kendra but Kendra has managed to have just two minutes left during the talk. So we do have some comments.

ALEX YATES: We do, we do. So I’ve been scanning through Slack and I’ve been picking up a few of them as we go. I’ve got a few comments here that I like. First of all, I love Andrea’s comment. “I love automating the boring stuff so I can spend my time on the stuff I love.” Who loves doing all the boring stuff over and over and over again, right? Someone once said that if a process is boring, it means you kind of know how it works and there are no real decisions that you need to make and who wants to be doing that all day?

KENDRA LITTLE: I have met some people. They do exist. So I do think that if you have that urge to get rid of that stuff, you recognize that as being like, a really valuable trait you have because there are folks who actually don’t feel that way. They’re not bad folks, they just like predictability, that’s all.

ALEX YATES: Jason has made another really cool comment. He says, “We need to not just protect our production environments but also all environments. Development environments seem to be much more vulnerable.” He’s completely right. The hackers have worked out that you’ve got production locked down so I’ll just go and try and find the dev database because that’s not locked down. It’s way easier to get in there. There were a couple of questions from earlier on. So Lee has asked, he said, “You should be the change that you want to see, but it’s a struggle to handle it when you get resistance on that.” So when you’re trying to be the change that you want to see and you’re getting resistance. Kendra, do you have any advice for Lee about how to cope with those situations?

KENDRA LITTLE: Yeah. So this was something that I used to actually really struggle with because it’s hard for me to not take stuff personally. So when I wanted to change something and I got resistance, it would just be like – it just felt bad, and it’s hard to just be like, I’m not going to feel bad about this. That’s the hard shift but the truth is not – if you can get to a way where you’re like, okay, I mean, gamify it as much as you can. Okay, this door was closed today, that’s cool, I’m going to try this other door and then maybe when I come back tomorrow I’m going to try through this door. If you can treat work more and more like a Legend of Zelda skit, especially at larger companies, the bigger the company is, the more you’re going to have to do this where you’re like, okay well that didn’t work, doesn’t really have anything to do with me, I’m going to go over here and I’m going to come back later and see if maybe that works later. And you just treat it like a quest, that I think is the mental approach. That used to be my problem and that’s kind of the way I eventually started getting around it. But if you can Legend of Zelda-ify it, I’m not ready for this quest today, I’m going on another one. I’ll be back, then that makes it easier.

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6 Comments. Leave new

[…] Here is my abstract for “What ‘Digital Transformation’ Means, and How You Can Use It to Advance Your Career (With…“ […]


Any help trying to discern what CEOs are really wanting with new initiatives, would be extremely helpful.


“help you prioritize what to learn, guide your interactions at work, and strategize your career path.” This sounds interesting. I am curious where in the experience spectrum you will be focusing or if that matters. Personally, I have encountered a number of transformation efforts over my career and am always looking for solid advice on remaining relevant. Best wishes.


It’s not always about the technical skills. Soft skills and figuring out changes in the industry – important topics that should be discussed more often. Would love to learn from Kendra’s insights.


Target audience and abstract/why are slightly at odds
“Everyone working in IT or software…” vs “…how understanding this gives developers and database administrators an advantage”/”…can give DBAs and Developers” … which is not “Everyone working in IT”….


    Ah, good catch. What I really mean in the target audience section is that I’m writing this with an audience of DBAs and Developers in mind, but what I’m explaining can be extrapolated to anyone in IT. There may be big picture discussions of a type of schema change, but it would be easy for a network administrator to think of a similar situation, etc. Let me see if I can edit the target audience and bring it in line.


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