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Adobe, Uber on the challenges of digital transformation

Digital transformation initiatives may be all the rage in the enterprise, but they also pose significant challenges to CIOs and others who have to manage the transition.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Change can be difficult, but when it comes to digital transformation, it's worth it. That was one of the primary messages at PagerDuty Summit 2019.

Among the speakers were executives from Adobe and Uber, who discussed the challenges of digital transformation and the CIO's role in managing innovation.

Shobhana Ahluwalia, head of IT engineering at Uber, based in San Francisco, made the point that even though bigger companies have more resources, it's harder to innovate as your company grows, because it's disruptive to the established systems and ways of thinking. Also, the bigger the company, the bigger the potential cost of failure. However, she emphasized failure can also be good.

"It's important to get over the fear of failure," Ahluwalia said. "Failure can be great if it's in pursuit of excellence and you learn from it. [At Uber], failure is not a badge of shame or something you'll get fired for, unless it's something egregious."

According to Ahluwalia, the philosophy at Uber is when something goes wrong, it's less about assigning blame.

"We all come together with our CEO and have an open discussion of what went wrong and figure out, 'How do we never do that again?'" Ahluwalia said.

Companies are going to have to face challenges of digital transformation and when things don't go according to plan.

"Part of our job is to be nervous all the time, because stuff happens. That's why you get that pit in your stomach, because stuff happens," Ahluwalia said. "But it's always better to raise your hand and talk about it and be honest, so the team has a chance to make things right."

That sentiment was echoed by PagerDuty CEO Jennifer Tejada during a press briefing at the summit.

"When we have a bad moment, we publish our post-mortem. We're transparent, and that engenders trust," she said. "What's important is that we also demonstrate we learned from the incident and will prevent it from happening again."

Yes to innovation, but make sure it's what people want

Being innovative or deploying the latest and greatest technology isn't, in and of itself, always the best course of action, according to Cynthia Stoddard, senior vice president and CIO at Adobe, based in San Jose, Calif.

Cynthia Stoddard, senior vice president and CIO at Adobe; Shobhana Ahluwalia, head of IT engineering at Uber; and Tim Armandpour, senior vice president of engineering at PagerDuty.
Cynthia Stoddard, senior vice president and CIO at Adobe; Shobhana Ahluwalia, head of IT engineering at Uber; and Tim Armandpour, senior vice president of engineering at PagerDuty.

Adobe takes the approach of treating its employees like customers and strives to figure out what they like and what works best to avoid challenges of digital transformation. In the tech giant's headquarters is an area called Lab 82 that functions as a testing ground for new workplace technologies. Employees get to test things out, and Adobe takes note of their responses.

Everything from high-tech whiteboards, chairs and 360-degree conferencing systems has made its way to Lab 82 for testing, and the employees know they are being observed.

"We've probably saved millions of dollars in not deploying technology employees didn't want to use," Stoddard said.

In one specific example, Stoddard recalled that Adobe deployed Rose, a chatbot designed to help answer employees' questions.

"She looked really good on the screen, and I kind of got attached to her," Stoddard said. "But about two months in, we realized it wasn't working, and we had to retire Rose and replace her. I'm glad we had the courage to say it, because it would have been worse to make believe everything was fine."

Innovation is a culture, not a department

It's important to get over the fear of failure. Failure can be great if it's in pursuit of excellence and you learn from it.
Shobhana AhluwaliaHead of IT engineering at Uber

Stoddard also said innovation shouldn't be limited to certain departments or job titles, but something everyone feels they can participate in.

"Sometimes, you'll see where an organization has an innovation group. That's not my philosophy," he said. "Innovation should be part of the company's culture."

In a nod to her co-panelist, Stoddard said Adobe's goal is to be frictionless, like Uber.

"You push a button on your phone, and an Uber arrives in minutes," she said. "As an organization, we want the advantages the cloud offers to be part of our DNA so that services are easy to use, ubiquitous and self-service."

Productivity vs. customer experience

Stoddard said the new emphasis on customer experience (CX) should lead companies to reexamine how they do things.

"A lot of business processes have been optimized for productivity within a silo and to lower costs. Now, as you start opening up to a view of the [CX], you have to look at whether those processes help the customer," Stoddard said. "For example, are customers going through hoops to pay a bill?"

Digital transformation, cloud computing and technology in general all have the potential to help businesses meet their objectives and perform more effectively. But when it comes to the challenges of digital transformation, Stoddard warned against relying on technology to solve a problem before you understand it. She recalled earlier in her career, she worked in transportation, and her company was trying to figure out how to automate pickup and delivery routes.

"I rode with the drivers to figure out what they did," Stoddard said. "Riding with the driver and understanding the pain points lets you bring all of that knowledge back to your teams. It's also important, when you're faced with a large problem, to break it down into chunks so you can iterate the solution, rather than try and boil the ocean."

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