Julian Burnett’s technology shopping list is usually determined by three things: clarity, focus and thorough planning. But when it comes to cloud computing, the Sainsbury’s chief technology officer (CTO) is taking an even more measured and wary approach than normal. The words he carefully chooses to describe the cloud strategy is “considered and staged”.
The UK’s third largest supermarket chain is certainly not late arriving at the cloud party. Indeed, as Burnett says, “there have been a number of solutions that we’ve delivered by using cloud-based services from a number of providers”. However, these have tended to be relatively “short, sharp, self-contained” projects and Burnett says the company is “still moving up the stack when it comes to cloud”. The company deploys short term software-as-a-service projects on an ad hoc basis when a problem occurs and a quick fix can be found. But the firm’s infrastructure-as-a-service ‘journey’ is still in its formative stages.
For Burnett, reservations remain for adopting wholesale cloud solutions. These reservations mainly stem from his belief that it “is still quite an immature market”, something that he finds most apparent when it comes to Service Level Agreements (SLAs). The rigidity that Burnett has encountered here is not congruous with Sainsbury’s way of working.
“They’re very simplistic at the moment,” he says. “An awful lot of the contracts that we see are non-negotiable; it’s this or nothing else. For an organisation on our scale it’s vital we know where our data is and how we get to it. There’s another element too – exit policies. We run around 100 to 120 simultaneous projects and we would need to coordinate the entry or the exit of each of these if we were using a supplier. It just becomes incredibly complicated because the providers aren’t flexible enough at the moment.”
The ‘take it or leave it’ approach that many suppliers adopt does little to ease such concerns; only when there is clarity over the breakdown in responsibilities of both the buying organisation and the cloud provider will Burnett be convinced.
One area in which Burnett and Sainsbury’s are actively looking to use the cloud, though, is to support Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiatives. “I’m an advocate of BYOD and we’re making some initial steps into that,” he says. “We’ve struck a deal with Good Technology to take the first steps to provide 2,000 colleagues with the ability to access corporate emails securely from their own device. It is delivered in a cloud-like way but obviously security is the primary concern when implementing such a solution.”
Improving the agility, flexibility and efficiency of your workforce are often cited as the most appealing factors of the cloud. But Burnett does not fear that Sainsbury’s is missing out with its limited cloud adoption. “Agility is something that you plan for,” he says. “Good planning is what makes the difference between the success of a project and the productivity of your workforce.” And good planning, it becomes abundantly clear, is Burnett’s modus operandi.
Burnett, assisted by the team of around 50 people he has built from the five-man unit he inherited, is essentially all about delivering IT solutions to help the company and its employees to achieve their goals. And while he may still have reservations over cloud in this respect, one area where he and his team see far fewer sticking points is in big data analytics. This is something which is already yielding great benefits for Sainsbury’s, above and beyond its best known example – its advocacy of the customer loyalty reward points system Nectar.
“There is a definite correlation between retailers that have data and retailers that don’t,” Burnett says. “We think it’s a major factor in our favour to have as much data as we do and to use it intelligently to help customers gain access to offers in store. In return we believe it creates greater customer loyalty.
“The thing that I’m working on at the moment is around a combination of in-store monitoring and mobile devices. It’s about helping our colleagues understand in real time what’s occurring in store so they act accordingly.
“The way that most retailers operate today means they can only understand what is happening in their stores by walking around and looking at the shelves. At Sainsbury’s we look at what’s happening on the shelves, what’s occurring on the till, who’s in the store, what rate they’re walking through the store, what routes they’re taking, what they’re doing and so on. We combine that information and present it to those working in the store to help us take the most effective action points.”
This is big data in action. It is just one example of how Sainsbury’s uses its data in intelligent ways to gain actionable insight which better informs the work of the employees. Some companies within the retail sector have been forerunners in the big data revolution and these companies regularly tout data analytics for understanding customers and being able to target marketing campaigns accordingly as their lifeblood. Sainsbury’s can already count itself among the ranks of these leaders and Burnett says we can expect to see greater focus and more growth in this area still.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
Burnett’s advice to anyone aspiring to a C-level role is consistent with his mantra of scrupulous planning: “Plot your course at least two or three moves ahead.”
Indeed, with over 1,000 stores and over 150,000 employees, Burnett is very clear that his work has to be perfectly aligned with the company’s overall goals and ambitions.
“Our roadmap is built with our business colleagues from a top down approach,” he says. “We’ve spent a lot of time of trying to understand the outcomes and goals they are seeking to achieve and the IT capabilities they require from a business perspective. Our role is to see what Sainsbury’s overall strategy is, recognise how that manifests itself in each of the business functions, and then seeing what we need to deliver from an IT perspective to help the business achieve this.”
The brief for Burnett’s role is clear: to deliver the technology Sainsbury’s employees need to succeed in each and all of their respective roles. Within this he explains how he has four main tasks that consume most of his time. These are finding innovative technologies, developing the company’s long term plan for IT investment, ensuring all solutions match the company’s goals and requirements, and managing the long running IT infrastructure modernisation program.
The CTO goes about each one of these objectives in a very meticulous manner. “My team and I spend a considerable amount of time developing our long term IT roadmap,” he says. “That roadmap extends out over at least five years, and some areas out to seven or eight years. We look at innovation and emerging technologies – those things that are coming into our field of view – and we work with analysts like Gartner or Forrester to see the pace at which those technologies are maturing. We then look to map the business opportunities and problems these present.”
‘Too many chefs’ is a source of contempt in the culinary world. They spoil the broth, apparently, and perhaps the same is true for IT. The final thing that Burnett is keen to stress – something already evident from his approach to cloud – is that it pays to choose carefully the portfolio of new technologies that you bring in to the organisation. “Only the technologies that we see merit and relevance in are the ones that we look at,” he says.
IT infrastructure is like a recipe, it seems. And with Burnett at the helm, Sainsbury’s appears to be well positioned for choosing the right mix of ingredients to succeed.