When Michael Dell pair programmed with one of his engineers
How the tech giant is practising what it preaches about digital transformation
Like many enterprise technology companies, Dell has put much of its focus over the last few years on the concept of digital transformation, whereby companies use techniques like data analysis, DevOps methodologies and agile practices to become more productive and innovative.
Dell has made a big deal out of the importance of digital transformation, calling it the future of business, and essentially telling attendees to this year's Dell Technologies World conference in Las Vegas that they either need to digitally transform or face extinction.
It's tempting to dismiss all of this hype as little more than a shallow marketing ploy designed to move more products, but Dell is practising what it preaches, too. It may be a tech company, but as a 34-year-old international enterprise, it faces many of the same challenges that its customers are, and it's using digital transformation and DevOps to solve them.
One of the company's oft-repeated mantras is the maxim 'people, process, technology' - the three areas businesses need to address if they want to enact change within their organisations.
For Dell, this idea is the cornerstone of successful business transformation, and according to Bask Iyer, CIO of Dell Technologies and VMware, it's something that the company keeps coming back to. Iyer is responsible for Dell's internal IT, so it's his responsibility to ensure that all the idealistic notions about agility and digital transformation that Dell's leadership team espouse actually function in practice.
"Even in Dell, we still have to go back and say ' people, process, technology' - and culture. And I had to sell it to my executive teams and so on," Iyer tells IT Pro. "Of course, they get it very quickly because they're tech folks, but you can't take it for granted. I had to present it at the quarterly business reviews, and all these folks questioned me, challenged me - like they would, like normal businesspeople - and then supported me after that."
DevOps is one of the methodologies and techniques most commonly employed as part of a digital transformation strategy, so it's no surprise that Dell is also making full use of it within its own organisation. However, Iyer told IT Pro that the company had to make some changes to how it thinks and talks about DevOps in order to fully implement it.
"If you just say 'agile, DevOps, CI/CD'," says Iyer. "It's very geeky and confusing for the business. These are not business terms. So, similar to what GE did with SixSigma and what Toyota did with the Toyota Way, we've come up with Dell Digital. That's the business language."
Iyer believes it's critical to involve the business in digital transformation projects, or risk those projects failing.
"You need end-users to sit with you in your war rooms and do pair programming with you. Just IT being efficient isn't going to create digital transformation, so we had to transform the methodology within the company. Agile for us is not just an IT practice - users have to want to come there."
Bringing line-of-business employees into the IT conversation is key, then, but Iyer also points out that to truly benefit from DevOps, these staff must stop assuming that they can simply punt technical projects over to IT and wash their hands of them.
For this reason, Dell's DevOps strategy is largely prescriptive. According to Iyer, in order to facilitate that kind of close collaboration in an organisation with around 145,000 employees, you need to lay down some defined guidelines and ground rules. This, he says, is a large part of the 'process' element of the 'people, process, technology' approach.
Digital transformation and DevOps are most successful when they're driven or supported by executives and business leaders at the top levels of an organisation. Executive buy-in gives staff the freedom to experiment with these methodologies at their own pace, rather than feeling pressured to deliver results and justify the project as quickly as possible.
Thankfully, Iyer says, this isn't a problem at Dell. He claims founder and CEO Michael Dell is keen to embrace new technologies and ways of working, and has absolutely no problem engaging with the company's agile processes personally.
Pair-programming with Michael Dell
In fact, Michael Dell himself ended up collaborating directly with one of the company's rank-and-file engineers in order to get a project done. Iyer relays a story around one Thanksgiving weekend, when Dell texted him to ask if his team could put together a map showing the company's global orders.
After a very brief discussion, Iyer gave the project to some of Dell's engineers in India and Austin. "These guys start developing it," he says. "No requirements, no specs, no funding discussion, nothing - they just start coding."
The following Monday, Iyer received an email with a link to a functional, production version of the tool that Michael Dell had asked for, which he duly forwarded to the CEO. Then, Iyer said, his boss did something unusual.
"He just went to the actual programmer - directly, he didn't copy me [into the email] - and said 'what is this, and can you make this change'. The guy did it, and he freaks out - he's getting an email from Michael Dell," Iyer laughs.
The programmer, he explains, was messaging his colleagues, panicking over what he should say to Dell and continually copying Iyer into his responses to him. "Finally, I tell him 'dude, please don't copy me. You can always update me in a one-on-one. You're doing pair programming with Michael; that's what's happening.'"
Understandably, this story quickly spread throughout Dell, but Iyer believes it illustrates a broader point about the company's culture, and how the business can contribute to IT projects. "If he has time to do that, you [someone from the business side] have time to get in the dojo and explain your requirements to me," he states.
Picture of Michael Dell, credit: Oracle PR/Hartmann Studios (under Creative Commons license)