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The Journey to a Remote Team

Azuro’s journey to remote working started in 2015 when we adopted Office 365 for email, document storage and collaboration, with Skype for Business for chat and calling. Thank goodness we’ve moved on from there to Microsoft Teams. The reasons for us adopting these tools are varied, but they were primarily about reducing the internal support burden, disaster mitigation and convenience.

The first objective was to reduce our support burden. We were maintaining our own Exchange Server, a file server, an on-premises SharePoint server, an on-premises TFS (Team Foundation Server), on-premises database servers (SQL) and on-premise CRM server (Dynamics CRM prior to being renamed to Dynamics 365). This meant lots of server hardware, virtual machines and infrastructure overhead. We were experiencing frequent power outages and our hardware was aging, so we had to decide whether to invest in additional hardware to mitigate the power problems and to support newer versions of software, or to make an alternative plan.

We opted to migrate all of our core business services to the cloud as it would reduce the internal support burden with fewer servers to maintain, it would mitigate the power failure risks as the services are no longer hosted in our office and we would not need to upgrade the power mitigation options for our team, as we could work from elsewhere if the office lost power due to a power failure. By adopting Office 365 we replaced the file and SharePoint servers with SharePoint and OneDrive, we replaced our Exchange Server with Exchange Online and our Dynamics CRM server with Dynamics 365. We also migrated our TFS server to Visual Studio Online (now Azure DevOps). This meant we only needed a database server for our accounting package, so we migrated the accounting database to Azure SQL.

Once we were fully deployed to the cloud, the next hurdle was to understand how to better manage a team that is no longer in the same place every day. We realised that we needed better metrics than the old consultant metric of hours logged vs hours billed. Being a delivery-oriented business, we developed a set of KPIs based on story points completed. Since our sprint boards are deployed to the cloud on Azure DevOps, we were able to automate the production of KPIs, and grant our customers access to their projects ensuring greater transparency and collaboration in the delivery process.

Fast forward to 2020. The world is in crisis with a global pandemic that’s ground almost all travel to a halt and confined most people to their homes. For Azuro, this just meant switching off the lights in the office and letting everyone continue from their homes. Of course, there are challenges, but most of them relate to environmental issues such as intermittent connectivity issues and expensive data costs. All in all, the transition to fully remote has been largely uneventful and we mitigate the isolation issues by maintaining an open “chat channel” on our Teams for anyone to dial into and touch base and connect with whomever else is online. We recommend that our team members have their video on during any calls to increase the connection with the rest of the team. All non-delivery members have been invited into the stand-ups to enable them to remain in touch with the daily operations of the business.

We’ve been advocating a shift in consulting behaviours for quite some time and are encouraged by how well our team and customers are adapting to the new normal. The ease of this transition would not have been possible without the adoption of great tools and our preparedness with the processes to support them.

Inspiration and Aspiration

I’m sitting on the long flight home from Atlanta to Johannesburg, reflecting on the past 3 weeks I spent in the USA, what I got up to, and what I hope to achieve with these visits. I’m visiting the US quite often now, at least 3 times per year, with the intent of creating additional business opportunities for Azuro there. I generally plan the trips to coincide with a Microsoft conference, and this time it was Microsoft Inspire, previously known as Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference.
This year it was held in Washington DC and I was quite excited to see DC, the capitol of the free world. ? This was my third time attending Inspire/WPC, but it was the first time Waldick attended one. I’ve found them to be a great networking opportunity, and there are always too many sessions, filled with great content on all the latest products, features and trends coming out of Microsoft.

Having previously found myself quite rushed when arriving on the Sunday, I arranged our travel such that we arrived on the Saturday (8 July) instead. We arrived at our Airbnb around midday, and after a quick shower, took a walk down to the convention centre to get a feel for the distances and the city. We had been invited to an Office 365 pre-conference day on the Sunday and a sightseeing excursion with some of the other South Africans. Whilst we were looking forward to seeing the sites of DC, we opted to attend the Office 365 day, which turned out to be an informative and engaging day focused largely on marketing strategy and the future of Office 365 and the CSP (Cloud Solution Provider) program. There were great talks during the day, especially the ones by Sharka Chobot and Mark Stuyt of Neural Impact. We had a choice of parties to attend the Sunday evening, so after a brief walk around the commons area, we set off for some of the nightlife. We again opted for an early night, to make sure we would be fresh for the keynotes.

Monday had finally arrived and it was time for the opening Keynote. The SA Partner team have really made an effort over the last year to improve the cohesion of the South African contingent, and arranged that we all grab a block of seats together. As luck would have the block of seats turned out to be suites, but after a few roundabouts we eventually settled in and found each other. This bit of organisational mayhem earned Danie Gordon from MS the first ever Hulk Award received outside of South Africa. ?

Satya’s keynote was inspiring as always, and set the tone for a week of interactions and learning. My key takeaway from Satya’s keynote, and the subsequent sessions, keynotes and other talks we attended or had with various Microsoft personnel, is that Microsoft is focused on their partner-channel more than ever. The massive shake-up announced to the Partner Program probably gives smaller and niche partners their best chance of breaking into the Microsoft partner ecosystem with more impact. At Azuro we’re certainly taking this opportunity to refocus our efforts, and ensure that Microsoft is aware of our offering and how we go about our business.

The other major focus was on AI, Cognitive Services and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There’s a lot of talk of Digital Transformation, and I believe the real killer Apps of the next wave will be Intelligent Systems. We will see more and more decision-making capabilities built into applications, enabling workers to spend more time interacting and engaging with customers, while systems power the businesses. Of course, there will also be massive disruptions to many traditional jobs, and I’m certain we don’t yet know the extent to which today’s work-landscaping will be reshaped by these new and emerging technologies.

Sadly, the week ended way too quickly, but we managed to forge some new relationships, strengthen existing ones, and get great insight into the next 12 months with Microsoft.
Following on from Inspire we headed first to Denver, where we spent a quick stint doing some much-needed strategic planning after all the events of Inspire, and then we headed to New York City to meet with a client there. Here Waldick and I parted ways, as he returned home to South Africa, while I returned to Denver to work on some US opportunities.
Having spent quite some time in the US, and attended several of the Microsoft conferences, as well as reading many articles and other sources, I am again inspired by the opportunities to transform businesses, people, and the world, through the application of innovative technologies. More and more, the role of technology is to facilitate better interactions between people, systems and businesses. It’s about telling a human story, by using great technology. That’s what I see us at Azuro striving for every day, and what I hope that my team and I can offer our customers and their customers.

The aspiration then is to take our specialised team and services, and make it available to the world. Through that we will continue to inspire, and be inspired, by our great customers and partners, and their stories.

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