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The Grill: Enterprise Business Partners CIO Pradip Sitaram

This CIO tackled an IT modernization project that also tested his diplomacy skills.

December 3, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - In the two years since he joined Enterprise Business Partners, CIO Pradip Sitaram has helped the affordable housing and community development organization modernize its IT infrastructure, move to the cloud and transform IT into a proactive, problem-solving organization that serves a family of five businesses. Here, Sitaram talks about the cultural and technical challenges of making that transition.

Pradip Sitaram

Is there something not many people know about you? I'm a trained architect. I used to build buildings for a living before I became a software engineer. There are lots of commonalities between those two fields.
What's your favorite mobile app? Flipboard
If you weren't in IT you'd be... an architect.
What's your favorite pastime? International travel with my family.
And your favorite guilty pleasure? Sugar. And more sugar. It should be one of the five major food groups.
What book is on your nightstand? Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink

What's unique about IT at your organization? We manage $12 billion in assets, including 1,700 properties. We have relationships with investors, building owners, building managers and their representatives, and we exchange data, including financial reports, which we have to review. Most of that was manual and time-consuming. We would bring in an army of consultants each quarter to load and analyze the influx of documents. But thanks to a new IT modernization initiative, we've been able to increase efficiency and, in large part, eliminate the need for temporary staff and consultants.

How did you do that? In the past, these folks would send the reports as an email attachment. We had people who would download the email attachments, decrypt them and load the data. So we built a Salesforce.com portal that our partners use to submit the reports we need. We have automated processes that take the file, parse the data and load it into our legacy systems. We're using Boomi for that.

When we first proposed the portal, there was a lot of skepticism. We had to encourage and cajole and say, let's try this. The business set a stretch goal of 50% to 60% compliance within six months, meaning that more than half of the 1,000 CPA firms giving us reports would choose the new mechanism. Within a few weeks, compliance was at 98%. It's 100% now.

So you automated the loading of those reports. Did you automate processing as well? Once financial reports came in, there was a lot of asset management financial analysis involved. So we built an analytics dashboard in QlikView. We are saving one hour per quarter, per property. For 1,700 properties, that's 6,800 hours we're saving with one dashboard. The potential for more savings is exciting.

What were some of the other challenges the business faced? Our asset management systems were built in a traditional .Net environment 10 or 12 years ago. When I arrived in June 2010, there was a proposal on the table to modernize using Silverlight and SharePoint and things like that. Phase 1 would have taken $750,000 and nine months to do -- and that was for just one asset management application. To modernize everything would have taken three to five years and would have cost several million dollars.

How did the development process change when you moved from .Net to Salesforce.com? I introduced agile methodology to the staff and to the business. Business users see results in days or weeks because we integrate development teams and we have weekly cycles. The goal is no IT project should have a deliverable longer than 90 days.

Some things are in the cloud and some things are still on-premises. How do you keep everything integrated? As applications go into the cloud, they need to integrate back with our data center and the legacy applications, which is where Boomi comes in. We needed three layers of integration: cloud-to-premises, cloud-to-cloud and premises-to-premises. That was the glueware, the facilitator for our journey into the cloud.

All of that was part of a broad IT modernization effort. What was wrong with the overall architecture? It had to be rebuilt because there was what seemed to be a lack of vision and architecture to the existing IT landscape. Systems had just evolved and happened over time. A lot of companies are like that; we're not unique.

How hard was it to change the culture to enable this cloud-based, agile paradigm? Within IT, it was a big paradigm shift, and it was not accepted by everyone. A lot of the more traditional developers did not like it. Some left, and we hired new people who understood this new philosophy.

I worked with executives to get them to understand that a lot of the problems we're trying to solve are not just IT problems -- they are business problems. IT is just the facilitator. Then I went to my counterparts and said I need you to release a few people and I need time -- several hours a day for a few weeks. That was a big commitment they had to make.

Once I got the staff trained in agile and they saw how we were working together in tightly integrated teams, two things happened. One was that the IT people really learned the business because they spent hours a day with the business people. Then the business started to see results very quickly. Success breeds confidence on both sides, and that's what happened.

What qualities did you look for in the new developers you hired? I look for an almost insatiable thirst to help people. I want people who behave as problem-solvers and consultants to the business.

None of this would have been possible without the teams I have had. [The focus is often] on the technology, but it's really the people that create the success. And on the business side, we have built wonderful relationships. Without their support and time commitment -- which was outside their "day jobs," I might add -- much of this wouldn't have been possible.

-- Interview by Robert L. Mitchell


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