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At Waste Industries, digital transformation initiatives rooted in trust

Getting the business to buy the notion of business-enabling technology comes before big, flashy wins, IT chief Hubert Barkley says in this interview.

Ask Hubert Barkley about digital transformation initiatives at his company, Waste Industries, and he answers with droll candor.

"You have to understand the environment I'm coming from. Let's call it what it is -- it's a garbage business," said Barkley, vice president of information and technology. The Raleigh, N.C., company hauls solid waste and recycling. It wasn't much into technology, Barkley said, until he made it clear to the business how technology can help create value. At Waste Industries, digital transformation is about winning trust, and digital transformation initiatives are the data-driven projects that help make better business decisions.

Barkley and his team had to start with "little victories and show small value quickly." But as Waste Industries' fleet of sensor-equipped trucks started collecting and transmitting more and more data, Barkley needed a way to move data quickly across a network of on-premises and cloud architectures. So, he installed copy data management software -- "a huge project," he said -- which creates one master copy of data and distributes virtualized copies for applications that need it. That saves Waste Industries the time needed to manually provision computing resources in case of a disruption, maximizing data availability.

He spoke to SearchCIO in December about the effects of digital transformation initiatives at a company where, at a time when automation of business processes is getting supercharged by AI, "a person answers the phone." Edited excerpts of the interview follow.

How do you define digital transformation, and how do you see it taking shape at Waste Industries?

Hubert BarkleyHubert Barkley

Hubert Barkley: Well, you have to understand the environment I'm coming from. Let's call it what it is -- it's a garbage business. Digital transformation here was, I gave them email and I'm a god, right? Because they didn't have that kind of stuff. In my world, digital transformation is where we can use a lot of information to help make data-driven business decisions that are accepted readily and trusted by our business owners. So, the transformation piece is more or less getting them to subscribe to the use of technology in our environment.

How did you start?

Barkley: When I started here 11 years ago, I came from a very high-tech company. Of course, I was wide open, and the person who owned this company, he asked me, 'Why would somebody like you coming from a high-tech company work for a little ole garbage company?' I said, 'Because I believe I can make a difference in your customers' experience using technology.' And he looked at me across the top of his glasses. He said, 'Hey, we're high-touch, not high-tech.' And I said, 'Well, I'm going to show you how to use technology to touch people in various ways.'

And he's like, 'I'm interested.' And that really started us down the path of digital transformation. Because you call Waste Industries, and a person answers the phone, even though we have a phone system. That's just the belief of this business that's been here for 47 years. We're going to be customer-facing first, but again, the use of technology is going to allow them to do that in a more efficient and more effective manner. Because, as our audience is younger, they want to communicate with us in more ways than just [using the phone]. In fact, most people who are younger do not want to talk on the phone. They want to text, they want to chat, they want to send an email, they want an immediate response.

People don't want to wait months and years to get a solution; they want it in days and weeks, and even in my space now, they want it in minutes and seconds.
Hubert Barkleyvice president of information and technology, Waste Industries

And the digital transformation initiatives -- how did you roll those out?

Barkley: Here we started small, and we worked our way up and we gained little successes along the way, which built our confidence, it increased our experience and allowed us to be successful sooner. What I typically see people do inside and outside of my industry is they just jump into something feet first, not knowing what they're doing. And most of the time it fails, and then they blame it on the process.

Especially in a nontechnical world, you have to get little victories and show small value quickly. We like to be innovative, of course, but we like to be agile. People don't want to wait months and years to get a solution; they want it in days and weeks, and even in my space now, they want it in minutes and seconds. We're in the fast-food generation if you will: I want it hot and I want it now. So, doing something so large that you don't get a result soon a lot of times can kill a project.

You eventually moved onto bigger projects -- for example, installing copy data management software Actifio. How does that fit into Waste Industries' digital transformation?

Barkley: That was a huge project that was basically born out of our need for data resiliency. And through the use of their software, we were able to quickly get some side benefits. In yesterday's world, for example, we would key all this information in today and it would get backed up to a tape. And then if somebody needed that information, we could get it tomorrow afternoon and restore it and the next day they could use it. And that was a process. And we had the risk that we could lose 24 hours' worth of data, which would be quite costly to our business. With Actifio, the most data I will ever lose is one hour's worth, and I can spin it up in less than 15 minutes.

Doing that project is an example that gave me a lot of street cred in our environment to take on other projects without being questioned. So, with the success of that I say, 'Hey, guys, we need to do this,' and they're like, 'OK, let's go for it.' For example, if I said we want to look at onboard mobile computing to do dynamic route optimization. And they're glazing over -- they're like, 'Hey, if he says we need to do it, let's look into it.' That definitely gave us credibility to our business.

Find out about other digital transformation initiatives Barkley has spearheaded at Waste Industries in part two of this two-part interview.

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