Digital is dead

Digital is dead

Australia is a market easily influenced by marketing and bamboozled by statistics. Yet for Thor Essman, the very notion of digital remains misguided

Thor Essman (Versent)

Thor Essman (Versent)

Digital is dead - three hard-hitting, and given the current climate, controversial words.

But when sitting down with Thor Essman, CEO and founder of Versent, such a belief remains unwavering, despite a market saturated by hype and conjecture.

“Digital transformation is probably one of the worst definitions in the history of technology,” said Essman, speaking as a former chief technology officer at National Australia Bank. “I say that because everyone’s concept and visual is different.

“Digital has grown up in the past 10 years, and it’s really starting to mean primarily, the user and customer experience that you have with interacting with a product or service online.

“We lose ourselves a little bit in the experience of the things when it comes to the front end, the pretty end, but we forget the experience of these things is mostly about my entire end-to-end experience with you as a customer.”

For Essman, website and mobile applications represent the “easy” side of digital transformation, with the real market differentiator housed within “identity” experience.

“At the heart of almost every business transformation is the re-definition of identity experience,” he explained. “We believe the identity experience is the magic in the middle that allows you to bring actual customer experience in line with user experience and in line with developer experience.

“This is very important in the API [application programming interface] world to truly represent your brand experience.”

Essman said most customers experience the same challenge regarding the evolution or revolution of core technologies.

“People are looking for simple, revolutionary solutions to consume as-a-service, but they’re also evolving their legacy systems and in both directions, the API is becoming the battle ground,” he observed. “There’s almost not a company that I know of, that is not embarking, executing or considering a non-trivial transformation for APIs.

“We’re craving the openness and transparency of information; the protection and the structure of identity, and that is the experience that matters to us, but the prettiness of how it looks, is not a feature anymore, it’s just expected.

“What truly makes an actual successful digital transformation is the entire experience, which is anchored in both identity and API.”

Service NSW

An example of marrying the customer’s identity to experience, is the work that Versent carried out with Service NSW through implementing a central, federated API framework, with the specialist provider selected to help achieve a digital strategy roll-out.

Prior to engagement, the NSW Government was operating across a number of individual web portals and backend legacy systems, with limited integration abilities and multiple usernames and passwords for its citizens.

The department realised it required a digitisation strategy to connect its multiple processes and platforms, creating a seamless customer experience while ensuring customer data was secure.

Furthermore, the organisation needed to provide a platform for the reuse of compliance and proof of identity transactions across agencies which would reduce the time needed for individuals and small businesses to interact with the NSW government.

A key aspect of Service NSW was that citizens could use multiple methods of identification from tax numbers to social media accounts, to securely access information and services. To accommodate this, the portal needed to be integrated with the NSW’s customer servicing platform.

Service NSW required the customer servicing platform to also act as a single, central source which could interact with other government agencies’ existing systems, with appropriate controls, to provide access to relevant citizen information.

To expose the platform’s APIs to the NSW Government agencies, Versent built an API gateway using CA Technologies’ solution into the Service NSW architecture, with the gateway designed to manage APIs and offer secure access to associated information and services.

In providing the foundations for the Service NSW API gateway. The implementation began in May 2015, with Service NSW’s first digital services going live four months later in September.

“The APIs could be added quickly and easily, allowing them to be consumed by the citizen portal, mobile applications or agency micro-sites to expand the services provided to citizens,” said Ben McMullen, now CIO of Service NSW. “Every app linked through to the customer servicing system and system of record to ensure consistent citizen information.”

The solution has allowed Service NSW to rapidly provision services to several NSW government agencies, with the APIs sitting at the heart of the agency’s digitalisation strategy.

“The best part of Service NSW is the ability to singularly aggregate who I am as a citizen into all NSW systems to single portal and having one username and password to interact with government,” Essman added.

“That has been heralded over the last two years and it has set a benchmark for some of the single-sign on standards that really should be the core experience of how you interact - not just with government, but also with the customer-facing enterprise.”

Overcoming obstacles

The sheer volume of technological choice and the speed of its delivery to the market, is a daunting experience.

Whether a customer should go from on-premises to the cloud, is no longer a debate, it now boils down to the efficiency, keeping up with the pace, and how far behind companies are in cloud adoption cycles.

Essman said one of the main challenges customers face is enabling legacy systems to operate in a two-speed economy.

“We all know we can do things more efficiently and quickly and without the speed of change, it’s hard to do,” Essman added. “I see that as a common thread with most of our customers, this is where things like Amazon and the cloud have come into their fold.

“Putting aside the debate between on-premises or cloud, there’s no debate - things are just faster.

“The race to the cloud, it’s not a question of if you’re going to go, it’s a question of how far behind you are, and can you catch up? That is going to be an underlying theme for at least the next five to 10 years.”

Delving deeper, Essman said cloud also challenges the traditional “middle” or brokerage style of delivering technologies through methods such as distribution.

“There’s a definitive ‘us and them’ feeling across the industry at times because some of the things that were very traditional around how we sell things in the last 20 years, kind of don’t exist, and that’s tough,” he added.

True partnership

Versent, which operates as an Amazon Web Services (AWS) specialist in Australia, recently took on a project with property developer, Mirvac.

The Melbourne-based provider was tasked with migrating critical workloads to AWS, identifying 112 workloads, including the 180 Windows servers hosting those workloads.

The entire project was planned, implemented and migrated within seven months, without any business outage.

As recalled by Essman, this was delivered by a Versent team of just four people, more than meeting the company’s need to have the project completed quickly.

“We worked directly with their embedded team, shoulder-to-shoulder, through the good, bad and ugly - the easy and hard tasks,” Essman said. “We were able to take their business from a standing start in Amazon, to all-in, in a very short amount of time.

“Seeing what they’re now enabled to do with their speed and be able to change, you’ll really start to see some exciting things happening with them and we’re happy to be a part of them. This how we were able to do things conjoined with a customer - not us doing it to them, but with them, an actual partnership.”

On top of this, Versent also built a migration factory with automation, to help orchestrate the migration of all on-premises servers into AWS.

For each server, Versent worked closely with Mirvac to ensure they were both functionally and operationally accepted by all involved, prior to any server being handed over.

And once the workload was in AWS, Versent partnered with the operations team to put workload schedules in place to optimise usage and cost.

Today, Mirvac is now reassured the new platform can scale and grow with business aspirations, while taking advantage of new capabilities such as machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Creating a “true partnership” with customers was one the drivers behind Versent’s establishment in 2014.

Along with Essman, the other company founders include CTO, James Coxon, and CISO, Eddie Smith.

Prior to starting up Versent, Essman himself was on the customer side, working for National Australia Bank for around seven years in various technology roles, alongside stints at Optus and Adilon.

In examining the start-up’s growth during the past four years, Essman acknowledged that it required consideration pre-launch to assess whether Versent could exist in a market through delivering outcomes in different ways, through different technologies.

“I think we were very fortunate with the market dynamics and growth of cloud, the API economy, and the growing need to really focus on identity and now data,” he added.

“I think just being a bit different in some of those key values has really helped us to accelerate and really stand out as a business.”

Maintaining focus on core specialities is also another area that Versent homes in on, specifically focusing on cloud with AWS, API (Apigee), identity (Ping Identity) and data.

Essman said these are the main ingredients customers need to be immersed in the digital sphere.

“It’s just not possible to maintain quality if you don’t focus,” Essman explained. “It is impossible to be a master at everything. Therefore, you must pick the things that you’re going to be the master of.

“The days of the IT generalist are somewhat gone; the days of specialist are here.”
Next steps

Another factor that is impacting the way in which people currently work and live, is “voice” activated technologies and this is one area that Versent is keenly focused on - rather than the concept of just going “mobile”.

While the voice interface in its current state can be considered clunky and still requires fine tuning, the industry is just scraping the surface of the potential for natural language communication between users and devices, according to Essman.

“That interface of natural language communication between us and our devices, is going to be the way we do things, because it is the way we live our lives,” Essman added.

“We’re very much about helping voice transport through the enterprise through things like APIs, and we’re focusing on that versus focusing on mobile. We think mobile will always be around, but that was last year’s fad, not for the next year.”

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