DataArt – new order in chaos
Perhaps the most seemingly-inevitable change occurring now is the digital transformation of the global enterprise landscape. Business models are being rewritten, entire industries grow from a single startup in a matter of months, and those who are unwilling to adapt are disrupted into the Wikipedia subheadings of history. Digital transformation is an avalanche. The impact of a single snowflake on the top of a mountain prompts calamitous chain reactions that propel millions of tons of snow towards the world below.
Alexei Miller, co-founder and Managing Director of professional IT services firm DataArt, is someone with the capacity and experience to see the avalanche with clarity. “Life used to be simple. There was business and there was IT. Business was kind of clueless, but they had the money, and IT had the expertise but none of the money,” he explains. The resentment-fuelled dichotomy was, Miller recalls, at least predictable. “Business hated IT, because they were always late or expensive or buggy; and IT always hated business because it saw business as clueless - unable to appreciate or take advantage of the miracles of technology, or something to that effect,” he shrugs. “Whatever.” And so this modern fable continued for many years, with “everybody happily hating each other.”
Now, in mid-avalanche, Miller laughs, everything is “so much worse. Everything is messier, because the technology changes so fast, it is impossible for a CTO - no matter how smart or qualified he or she is - to keep up.” At the same time, he explains, those traditional ‘business side’ people have become increasingly technologically adept. “They didn’t learn to use a computer in their 40s, like their parents’ generation,” Miller says. “Sometimes they know more about cloud, AI and so on, than their technology counterparts.” This world turned upside down by dramatic forces of entropy is, Miller insists, chaotic and messy, but ripe with opportunity. “It's no longer clear who you're selling to, what you're selling or who's making what,” he shrugs again. “You can choose to get depressed about it, because your life is more difficult now, or you can choose to see the fantastic opportunity. Now you can create new worlds; it's so messy that you can shape opportunities for yourself.”
Miller approaches the future with a realist’s eye, both for technology and business strategy. Founded in 1997, DataArt has spent more than 20 years designing, developing and supporting unique, custom software solutions for enterprise clients ranging from the Nasdaq to Apple Leisure. As someone with over two decades of experience enabling companies to survive and thrive in response to avalanches of change, Miller is a judicious embracer of these reconfigurations of the status quo. “If you’ll allow me to be a little philosophical for a moment, people are seeking experiences instead of things these days, right? We see manifestations of that in many walks of life. I think, similarly, people seek certain opportunities to create and experiment,” he posits. This has changed the values of the workplace as well, Miller suggests. “It’s not just a place to make a bit of money. I’ve been very lucky that DataArt has given me that opportunity to create, experiment and generate experiences, not just money.”
The Greek philosopher Aristotle was an astounding polymath - an expert in and font of the leading philosophical, rhetorical, scientific, medical and astronomical wisdom of his time. So expansive was his knowledge and ability that he is frequently described as ‘knowing everything’ about the time in which he lived. Obviously, mankind’s body of knowledge has come a long way since then. Whatever the probability of there once being a person who contained the combined sum of knowledge in the world, those days have been swept away by the fractalizing complexities of an advancing human race.
Looking at the current business landscape, Miller notes that this is a realization that may not be as obvious to some as it should. “I kind of protest against this notion of a business leader who is all-knowing, all powerful and the idea that everyone around is just helping him or her. This cult-like thinking is a little bit too prevalent, I think, in American business culture these days. I revolt against that,” he explains. “Those leaders are the beneficiaries of gifts they've been given by people around them who are better than them in many ways. There are lots of people who are better, smarter, faster and prettier than me. I can be envious of their good fortune and try to control or take advantage of that fact, or I enjoy their company. If you're able to build this structure where they work with you, but not for you, everyone gets to enjoy the process a little bit better.” The pace of digital transformation is such that no one individual can hold even a single discipline entirely in their own head. Collaboration and deference to genius are the keys to finding a new form of order in an avalanche of chaos. As John Donne put it, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
To Miller, another success characteristic is the ability for companies to differentiate themselves, but approach the process with, again, a realist’s eyes. “Inevitably in this day and age, in order to be and stay unique, you need technology to support you. And therefore, if you do things that are unusual, then these unique or special processes can’t be supported with cookie cutter products,” he says. “You cannot base your unique processes on something that lots of other firms can easily buy or subscribe to. You can hardly claim that you have unique CRM processes if you plainly use standard Salesforce software, like many thousands of other firms do.”
This is where DataArt’s expertise comes into play: not only working with its clients to create custom solutions, but also helping digest the newly-ongoing nature of digital transformations strategies. “Creating and sustaining unique technology is not for the faint of heart. The projects are never short, never cheap and never easy.” Miller notes that, while these projects can be immensely rewarding, they need to be undertaken by a firm that is knowledgeable of and willing to accept the inherent risks. The timeline for these digital transformation projects, Miller explains, has also radically changed. “It leads to uncomfortable answers to questions that previously seemed very straightforward,” he admits. “For example: the simplest question an executive can ask is ‘how much is this going to cost and how long is it going to take?’” he chuckles. “When you have a finite object, you can ask these questions. In this brave new world, the honest answer to these questions is, ‘well, if it is successful, then it will take an infinite amount of time and an infinite amount of money’.” The modern IT solution is sold, not once, but continually with its upkeep and ongoing development sold as a service. This is the new world that Miller sees as filled with opportunity.
Going forward, Miller intends to continue building and developing a company to which he feels “a sort of parental attachment”. Exhibiting between 20-30% growth each year, DataArt is continuing to penetrate further into the US and European markets. “In any professional services business, your reputation in the marketplace and the trust you have with specific individuals, is pretty much the only current that you have,” he says. In addition to building up the currency of reputable trust, Miller and his teams will continue to “preach the gospel of digital transformation,” as well as focusing on the company’s internal and ongoing journey.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.