CIO Report: Cloud first in financial services

 

As the cloud matures, more and more large companies are thinking about taking the leap from on-premise to cloud-based systems. Although moving entirely to the cloud seems a distant future for many large organizations, some companies have made the jump.

To explore this topic in depth, I spoke with the CIO of a financial services company that has taken an explicit cloud-first approach to all technology. Mary Cecola, CIO of Antares Capital, was my guest on Episode 226 of the CXOTALK series.

Speaking with this Chief Information Officer was fascinating because of her commitment to the cloud. Although cloud use is growing among financial services firms, Antares is still an outlier by not using any on-premise systems.

During our chat, Mary Cecola explains her reasons for adopting a cloud-first posture and how she addressed concerns such as security. She also explains the company’s collaboration with external managed services providers and describes the impact of cloud on the relationship between IT and the business side of Antares Capital.

Watch the video above to see our conversation and read an edited summary of highlights below. You can also read a complete transcript of the discussion.

Tell us about Antares Capital?

Antares Capital is a leading provider of financing solutions for middle-market, private equity-backed transactions. The Antares brand has been around for about twenty years and has approximately $20 billion in loans. Antares maintains one of the U.S. middle market’s largest senior loan portfolios. We’re a twenty-year-old startup. For a long time, Antares was GE Antares but has become its own company in the last eighteen months.

Why did you go cloud first?

We needed to migrate out of GE under timeframe pressure and bring up all of our systems and create an entirely new infrastructure. We had a greenfield of technology, which is a gift that most new CIOs don’t have. I had a greenfield of staff; no staff. I was the first IT employee as part of Antares Capital.

I took it as a role commitment to be as technology-forward as possible. I did not want to create a technology landscape that we would need to reinvest in or get rid of.

I saw cloud as an infrastructure play; just replacing my servers. Going completely into the cloud is a lot more than an infrastructure play.

We had to have test systems up before I had a network in place and before I could have bought enough servers for this. The only way to do that is hosting it in the cloud.

Why do you say that cloud is more than infrastructure?

We wanted to be extremely mobile. The Antares deal teams and the employees here are mobile; they’re fast, they’re dedicated; they can move through and close a deal in six to eight weeks. So, we wanted to give mobile technology [a chance]. We are committed to the Microsoft Suite here, front-to-back with Skype and everything else to give them that on the road. We also decided to do virtual desktops in the cloud, and we have our virtual desktops leveraging Citrix in the Azure cloud.

[Because of all this] we can focus on the applications. We can focus on the change-the-business stuff and not worry about the run-the-business things. I don’t have a datacenter to worry about.

Even when I talk about disaster recovery, people realize the way we’ve done this with mobility; we can work anywhere. We architected for the cloud. Many people go piecemeal. They move into the cloud, move test, then move disaster recovery. When you architect it front-to-back to be fully cloud-based, you don’t do it that way. You build the redundancy into your region, you build redundancy into another region, and it all works together.

We’re not as weighed down by infrastructure. We’re rolling out all our applications at the same time we’re doing the network. If suddenly they need another region for something, it can be built in a day. So, that doesn’t weigh us down.

The second person I hired was my information security officer. We layered security all the way through our implementation as we had to do, being in the cloud. We are tech-forward with all the cloud we built but are also security-forward with all the new tools that we can do there.

We have extremely modern technology front-to-back. When we look to add something, or a new idea comes up, we’re not beholden to legacy technology.

What were the challenges of going cloud-first?

Some of the tools we were familiar with or companies we had dealt with weren’t ready. A lot of [software vendors] say they’re prepared to be in the cloud, but you have to dig in and get under the covers. Some of the tools that we wanted to use, even Microsoft tools, weren’t ready yet. We had very honest conversations with Microsoft; we knew where they were on certain things, but we had to use other tools in the interim. And now, we’re migrating over.

Some of the challenges we’ve had, and you’ll find when you’re in the cloud, is that vendors you might have used before, that you were comfortable with, you have to look at them again. Some people may not be as open-minded to it.

Having a team that likes to take those on and says, “No, let’s not step back. Let’s keep moving forward.” That is one of the key things you need to overcome challenges.

How does cloud affect your relationship to the business?

We want to be at the table asking strategic questions. We want to help solve business problems as they come along. We don’t want to have it be, “Oh, you’re looking at your product. We’re too busy upgrading desktops to be a part of that.” We want to be strategic partners with the business. We’ve built a technology base that’s going to let us do that.

The business is very excited about how tech-forward we are. They look at a lot of different deals, and some of them have technology software companies and hardware companies. They invite us into those discussions to study that technology with them.

I’ve never been a part of business before where IT has brought to the table on business decisions like that. We have great technology, but we’re not just focused on that. We want to be part of the Antares business, and my team is very good about integrating with Antares. And we are part of Antares.

How did management respond to the idea of going cloud first?

The first question everyone always has for you is, “It it safe? Is it safe to move to the cloud?” My answer to that, first off, having an information security officer in-house initially helping build those safeguards and the different layers of security. I think we’re far safer. I don’t think I could ever secure a data center the way that Microsoft can with all the things they have there; the ability to break things up into different regions within the cloud. It gives me a flexibility that would have taken me a lot to build.

You have to choose a safe provider. We’ve also selected a vendor, Avanade, who’s very knowledgeable and could bring the Microsoft resources we need to figure out all of these solutions and get that relationship very tight. Going through those security standards, how we would do it, and why it can be safer.

On-premise used to be safe because you could guard your datacenter like a castle, with a drawbridge and one entry and exit. Over the last 10-15 years, that has disappeared. You have mobile devices now coming forward and other things that are coming in through those walls.

The opportunity to build security to protect critical assets, which are data, and protect those over everything else, gave us a greenfield of cybersecurity. I think many cybersecurity solutions are bolted on because there’s so much change there. We were able to layer modern cybersecurity right into it.

Where does Agile fit into your plans?

Doing this entire project in about 12-14 months, we were obviously agile. I think Agile goes much deeper than just a way to run projects. It’s not just having scrum meetings. Agile is a mindset.

We applied an agile methodology. We could not pull back and do requirements for six months. That would never have worked. So, we had very interactive meetings with the business; we brought them all together on a regular basis. We reprioritized things quickly with them, got deliver back out, showed it to them; had that sort of interaction with the business.

Agile is more than a project methodology. It’s a way to think. It’s a way to approach problems, so you’re not sitting back and dithering for a long time. You’re looking for solutions quickly.

What you’re trying to do is deliver something that makes the end-user’s life better. And, doing that means you have to make changes often. Sometimes, what you developed wasn’t all right, and you might have to throw half of it away. That’s okay if what you’re trying to deliver is what they want at the end of the day. Agile’s a mindset because if you keep that in the forefront, then you’re going to stay agile and stay delivering.

Thank you to managed services provider Avanade for underwriting episode 226 of CXOTALK.

(Cross-posted @ ZDNet | Beyond IT Failure)

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Well-known expert on why IT projects fail, CEO of Asuret, a Brookline, MA consultancy that uses specialized tools to measure and detect potential vulnerabilities in projects, programs, and initiatives. Also a popular and prolific blogger, writing the IT Project Failures blog for ZDNet.