Aug
03
2020
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Amid pandemic, returning to offices remains an open question for tech leaders

As COVID-19 infections surge in parts of the U.S., many workplaces remain empty or are operating with skeleton crews.

Most agree that the decision to return to the office should involve a combination of business, government and medical officials and scientists who have a deep understanding of COVID-19 and infectious disease in general. The exact timing will depend on many factors, including the government’s willingness to open up, the experts’ view of current conditions, business leadership’s tolerance for risk (or how reasonable it is to run the business remotely), where your business happens to be and the current conditions there.

That doesn’t mean every business that can open will, but if and when they get a green light, they can at least begin bringing some percentage of employees back. But what that could look like is clouded in great uncertainty around commutes, office population density and distancing, the use of elevators, how much you can reasonably deep clean, what it could mean to have a mask on for eight hours a day, and many other factors.

To get a sense of how tech companies are looking at this, we spoke to a number of executives to get their perspective. Most couldn’t see returning to the office beyond a small percentage of employees this year. But to get a more complete picture, we also spoke to a physician specializing in infectious diseases and a government official to get their perspectives on the matter.

Taking it slowly

While there are some guidelines out there to help companies, most of the executives we spoke to found that while they missed in-person interactions, they were happy to take things slow and were more worried about putting staff at risk than being in a hurry to return to normal operations.

Iman Abuzeid, CEO and co-founder at Incredible Health, a startup that helps hospitals find and hire nurses, said her company was half-remote even before COVID-19 hit, but since then, the team is now completely remote. Whenever San Francisco’s mayor gives the go-ahead, she says she will reopen the office, but the company’s 30 employees will have the option to keep working remotely.

She points out that for some employees, working at home has proven very challenging. “I do want to highlight two groups that are pretty important that need to be highlighted in this narrative. First, we have employees with very young kids, and the schools are closed so working at home forever or even for the rest of this year is not really an option, and then the second group is employees who are in smaller apartments, and they’ve got roommates and it’s not comfortable to work at home,” Abuzeid explained.

Those folks will need to go to the office whenever that’s allowed, she said. For Lindsay Grenawalt, chief people officer at Cockroach Labs, an 80-person database startup in NYC, said there has to be a highly compelling reason to bring people back to the office at this point.

Jun
26
2020
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CIO Cynthia Stoddard explains Adobe’s journey from boxes to the cloud

Up until 2013, Adobe sold its software in cardboard boxes that were distributed mostly by third party vendors.

In time, the company realized there were a number of problems with that approach. For starters, it took months or years to update, and Adobe software was so costly, much of its user base didn’t upgrade. But perhaps even more important than the revenue/development gap was the fact that Adobe had no direct connection to the people who purchased its products.

By abdicating sales to others, Adobe’s customers were third-party resellers, but changing the distribution system also meant transforming the way the company developed and sold their most lucrative products.

The shift was a bold move that has paid off handsomely as the company surpassed an $11 billion annual run rate in December — but it still was an enormous risk at the time. We spoke to Adobe CIO Cynthia Stoddard to learn more about what it took to completely transform the way they did business.

Understanding the customer

Before Adobe could make the switch to selling software as a cloud service subscription, it needed a mechanism for doing that, and that involved completely repurposing their web site, Adobe.com, which at the time was a purely informational site.

“So when you think about transformation the first transformation was how do we connect and sell and how do we transition from this large network of third parties into selling direct to consumer with a commerce site that needed to be up 24×7,” Stoddard explained.

She didn’t stop there though because they weren’t just abandoning the entire distribution network that was in place. In the new cloud model, they still have a healthy network of partners and they had to set up the new system to accommodate them alongside individual and business customers.

She says one of the keys to managing a set of changes this immense was that they didn’t try to do everything at once. “One of the things we didn’t do was say, ‘We’re going to move to the cloud, let’s throw everything away.’ What we actually did is say we’re going to move to the cloud, so let’s iterate and figure out what’s working and not working. Then we could change how we interact with customers, and then we could change the reporting, back office systems and everything else in a very agile manner,” she said.

Jun
24
2020
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Slack announces Connect, an improved way for companies to talk to one another

Virtual events are the new norm for product rollouts in 2020, with Slack taking to the internet earlier today to talk about a new part of its service called Slack Connect.

On the heels of Apple’s lengthy and pretty good virtual WWDC that took place earlier this week, Slack’s event, part experiment and part press conference, was called to detail the firm’s new Slack Connect capability, which will allow companies to better link together and communicate inside of their Slack instance than what was possible with its shared channels feature. The product was described inside of a business-to-business context, including examples about companies needing to chat with agencies and other external vendors.

In its most basic form, Slack is well-known for internal chat functionality, helping teams talk amongst themselves. Slack Connect appears to be a progression past that idea, pushing internal communications tooling to allow companies to plug their private comms into the private comms of other orgs, linking them for simple communication while keeping the entire affair secure.

Slack Connect, a evolution past what shared channels offered, includes better security tooling and the ability to share channels across 20 orgs. The enterprise SaaS company is also working to give Connect-using companies “the ability to form DM connections independent of channels,” the company told TechCrunch.

The product could slim down email usage; if Slack Connect can let many orgs chat amongst themselves, perhaps fewer emails will be needed to keep different companies in sync. That said, Slack is hardly a quiet product. During his part of the presentation, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield noted that the service sees up to 65 million messages sent each second at peak times.

According to the CEO, Slack Connect has been piloted for a few months, and is now available for paid plans.

Slack shares are off 3.8% today, before the news came out. Its broader company cohort (SaaS) are also down today, along with the market more broadly; investors don’t appear to have reacted to this piece of news, at least yet.

Jun
22
2020
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4 enterprise developer trends that will shape 2021

Technology has dramatically changed over the last decade, and so has how we build and deliver enterprise software.

Ten years ago, “modern computing” was to rely on teams of network admins managing data centers, running one application per server, deploying monolithic services, through waterfall, manual releases managed by QA and release managers.

Today, we have multi and hybrid clouds, serverless services, in continuous integration, running infrastructure-as-code.

SaaS has grown from a nascent 2% of the $450B enterprise software market in 2009, to 23% in 2020 and crossed $100B in revenue. PaaS and IaaS revenue represent another $50B in revenue, expecting to double to $100B by 2022.

With 77% of the enterprise software market — over $350B in annual revenue — still on legacy and on-premise systems, modern SaaS, PaaS and IaaS eating at the legacy market alone can grow the market 3x-4x over the next decade.

As the shift to cloud accelerates across the platform and infrastructure layers, here are four trends starting to emerge that will change how we develop and deliver enterprise software for the next decade.

1. The move to “everything as code”

Companies are building more dynamic, multiplatform, complex infrastructures than ever. We see the “-aaS” of the application, data, runtime and virtualization layers. Modern architectures are forcing extensibility to work with any number of mixed and matched services.

Jun
18
2020
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Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra says recession is the ‘perfect time’ to be aggressive for well-capitalized startups

Email is one of those things that no one likes but that we’re all forced to use. Superhuman, founded by Rahul Vohra, aims to help everyone get to inbox zero.

Launched in 2017, Superhuman charges $30 per month and is still in invite-only mode with more than 275,000 people on the waitlist. That’s by design, Vohra told us earlier this week on Extra Crunch Live.

“I think a lot of folks misunderstand the nature of our waitlist,” he said. “They assume it’s some kind of FOMO-generating technique or some kind of false scarcity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real reason we have the waitlist is that I want everyone who uses Superhuman to be deliriously happy with their experience.”

Today, the app is only available for desktop and iOS. Superhuman started with iOS because most premium users have iPhones, Vohra said. Still, many users have Android, so Superhuman’s waitlist consists mostly of Android users.

“We don’t think that if we onboard them they’d have the best experience with Superhuman because email really is an ecosystem product,” he said. “You do it just as much on the go as you do from your laptop. There’s a lot of reasons like that. So if you’re a person who identifies that as a must-have, well, we’ll take in the survey, we’ll learn about you so we know when to reach out to you. Then when we have those things built or integrated, we’ll reach out.”

We also chatted about his obsession with email, determining pricing for a premium product, the impact of COVID-19, diversity in tech in light of the police killing of George Floyd and so much more.

Throughout the conversation, Vohra also offered up some good practical advice for founders. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

On competition from Hey, the latest buzzy email app

Yeah, I’m not at all worried. I used to get worried about this. You know, 10 years ago, even as recently as five years ago, I would get worried about competitors. But I think Paul Graham has really, really great advice on this. I think he says pretty much verbatim: Startups don’t kill other startups. Competition generally doesn’t kill the startup. Other things do, like running out of money being the biggest one, or lack of momentum or lack of motivation or co-founder feuds; these are all really dangerous things.

Competition from other startups generally isn’t the thing that gets you and you know, props to the Basecamp team and everything they’ve done with Hey. It’s really impressive. I think it’s for an entirely different demographic than Superhuman is for.

Superhuman is for the person for whom essentially email is work and work is email. Our users kind of almost personally identify with their email inbox, and they’re coming from Gmail or G Suite. Typically it’s overflowing so they often receive hundreds if not thousands of emails a day, and they send off 100 emails a day. Superhuman is for high-volume email for whom email really matters. Power users, essentially, though power users isn’t quite the right articulation. What I actually say is prosumers because there’s a lot of people who come to us at Superhuman and they’re not yet power users of email, but they know they need to be.

That’s what I would call a prosumer — someone who really wants to be brilliant at doing email. Now Hey doesn’t seem to be designed for that target market. It doesn’t seem to be designed for high-volume emailers or prosumers or power users.

Jun
17
2020
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‘One day we were in the office and the next we were working from home’

Ryan Easter couldn’t believe he was being asked to run a pandemic business continuity test.

It was late October, 2019 and Easter, IT Director and a principal at Johnson Investment Counsel, was being asked by regulators to ensure that their employees could work from home with the same capabilities they had in the office. In addition, the company needed to evaluate situations where up to 50% of personnel were impacted by a virus and unable to work, forcing others to pick up their internal functions and workload.

“I honestly thought that it was going to be a waste of time,” said Easter. “I never imagined that we would have had to put our pandemic plan into action. But because we had a tested strategy already in place, we didn’t miss a beat when COVID-19 struck.”

In the months leading up to the initial test, Johnson Investment Counsel developed a work anywhere blueprint with their technology partner Evolve IP. The plan covered a wide variety of integrated technologies including voice services, collaboration, virtual desktops, disaster recovery and remote office connectivity.

“Having a strategy where our work anywhere services were integrated together was one of the keys to our success,” said Easter. “We manage about $13 billion in assets for clients across the United States and provide comprehensive wealth and investment management to individual and institutional investors. We have our own line of mutual funds, a state-chartered trust company, a proprietary charitable gift fund, with research analysts and traders covering both equity and fixed income markets. Duct taping one-off solutions wasn’t going to cut it.”

Easter continued, “It was imperative that our advisors could communicate with clients, collaborate with each other and operate the business seamlessly. That included ensuring we could make real-time trades and provide all of our other client services.”

Five months later, the novel coronavirus hit the United States and Johnson Investment Counsel’s blueprint test got real.

Jun
15
2020
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How Liberty Mutual shifted 44,000 workers from office to home

In a typical month, an IT department might deal with a small percentage of employees working remotely, but tracking a few thousand employees is one thing — moving an entire company offsite requires next-level planning.

To learn more about how large organizations are adapting to the rapid shift to working from home, we spoke to Liberty Mutual CIO James McGlennon, who helped orchestrate his company’s move about the challenges he faced as he shifted more than 44,000 employees in a variety of jobs, locations, cultures and living situations from office to home in short order.

Laying the groundwork

Insurance company Liberty Mutual is headquartered in the heart of Boston, but the company has offices in 29 countries. While some staffers in parts of Asia and Europe were sent home earlier in the year, by mid-March the company had closed all of its offices in the U.S. and Canada, eventually sending every employee home.

McGlennon said he never imagined such a situation, but the company saw certain networking issues in recent years that gave them an inkling of what it might look like. That included an unexpected incident in which two points on a network ring around one of its main data centers went down in quick succession, first because a backhoe hit a line, and then at another point because someone stole the fiber-optic cable.

That got the CIO and his team thinking about how to respond to worst cases. “We certainly hadn’t contemplated needing to get 44,000 people working from home or working remotely so quickly, but there have been a few things that have happened over the last few years that made me think,” he said.

May
27
2020
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Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg shares his COVID-19 strategy and tactics

This week, Verizon Communications CEO Hans Vestberg joined us for an episode of Extra Crunch Live.

Vestberg is leading the company through the midst of one its biggest rollouts to date with the push into 5G connectivity. In our discussion, he spoke about how he’s managing the organization during this global crisis, his thoughts on work from home and acquisition strategy, and the ways in which 5G will change the way we work and live.

(Disclosure: Verizon Communications is TechCrunch’s parent company.)

Extra Crunch members can check out a partial transcript of the conversation (edited for length and clarity) or watch it in its entirety via YouTube video below.


Extra Crunch Live features some of the brightest minds in tech and VC, including Aileen Lee, Roelof Botha, Kirsten Green and Mark Cuban. Upcoming episodes will include Aaron Levie from Box, GGV’s Hans Tung and Jeff Richards, Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz and others. Extra Crunch members can submit questions to speakers in real time, so please sign up here if you haven’t already.


His initial reaction to news of the lockdown

We’re a large company with 135,000 employees in 70 different countries around the globe. So, of course, we had an early warning when it started actually in Asia. We have employees in Asia, so we got the feeling that this could be really serious. It was early in the first week of February, we moved to the highest emergency or crisis level in the company. That means that we go to a certain crisis mode on how we organized and how we galvanized the company.

That’s usually put into place every time there is a big national disaster because you need to split between people taking care of the crisis and people taking care of running the business. So we were very early on with that. In the beginning of February, we started the emergency crisis operations center that was taking care of employee questions and prioritization of important things. At the same time, we continued to run the business. That was the first thing we did very early on.

Upcoming Extra Crunch Live episodes include discussions with Aaron Levie from Box, GGV’s Hans Tung and Jeff Richards, and Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz.

The other thing we did very early on is that we understood that this was something unprecedented. I mean, you have been in crisis before. I mean, I’ve been in the telecom crisis, and we’ve been in the banking crisis when everything just went boom. This is something totally different. You cannot use any of your historical experience when it comes to this pandemic, which actually impacts each and every one of us when it comes to health. So I was honest, and thought that they’re going to be a lot of questions. We decided very early on to run our noon live webcast to our employees. We are on our… I think it’s the 11th week, where at noon every day, we run the webcast for all our employees. That was two of the first things we did.

We didn’t think we were going to run for 11 weeks on the new live webcast, but we have done it because we see there’s a very good tool to communicate with all our employees.

May
21
2020
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6 CISOs share their game plans for a post-pandemic world

Like all business leaders, chief information security officers (CISOs) have shifted their roles quickly and dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many have had to fight fires they never expected.

Most importantly, they’ve had to ensure corporate networks remain secure even with 100% of employees suddenly working from home. Controllers are moving millions between corporate accounts from their living rooms, HR managers are sharing employees’ personal information from their kitchen tables and tens of millions of workers are accessing company data using personal laptops and phones.

This unprecedented situation reveals once and for all that security is not only about preventing breaches, but also about ensuring fundamental business continuity.

While it might take time, everyone agrees the pandemic will end. But how will the cybersecurity sector look in a post-COVID-19 world? What type of software will CISOs want to buy in the near future, and two years down the road?

To find out, I asked six of the world’s leading CISOs to share their experiences during the pandemic and their plans for the future, providing insights on how cybersecurity companies should develop and market their solutions to emerge stronger:

The security sector will experience challenges, but also opportunities

The good news is, many CISOs believe that cybersecurity will weather the economic storm better than other enterprise software sectors. That’s because security has become even more top of mind during the pandemic; with the vast majority of corporate employees now working remotely, a secure network has never been more paramount, said Rinki Sethi, CISO at Rubrik. “Many security teams are now focused on ensuring they have controls in place for a completely remote workforce, so endpoint and network security, as well as identity and access management, are more important than ever,” said Sethi. “Additionally, business continuity and disaster recovery planning are critical right now — the ability to respond to a security incident and have a robust plan to recover from it is top priority for most security teams, and will continue to be for a long time.”

That’s not to say all security companies will necessarily thrive during this current economic crisis. Adrian Ludwig, CISO at Atlassian, notes that an overall decline in IT budgets will impact security spending. But the silver lining is that some companies will be acquired. “I expect we will see consolidation in the cybersecurity markets, and that most new investments by IT departments will be in basic infrastructure to facilitate work-from-home,” said Ludwig. “Less well-capitalized cybersecurity companies may want to begin thinking about potential exit opportunities sooner rather than later.”

Apr
01
2020
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A former chaos engineer offers 5 tips for handling online disasters remotely

I recently had a scheduled video conference call with a Fortune 100 company.

Everything on my end was ready to go; my presentation was prepared and well-practiced. I was set to talk to 30 business leaders who were ready to learn more about how they could become more resilient to major outages.

Unfortunately, their side hadn’t set up the proper permissions in Zoom to add new people to a trusted domain, so I wasn’t able to share my slides. We scrambled to find a workaround at the last minute while the assembled VPs and CTOs sat around waiting. I ended up emailing my presentation to their coordinator, calling in from my mobile and verbally indicating to the coordinator when the next slide needed to be brought up. Needless to say, it wasted a lot of time and wasn’t the most effective way to present.

At the end of the meeting, I said pointedly that if there was one thing they should walk away with, it’s that they had a vital need to run an online fire drill with their engineering team as soon as possible. Because if a team is used to working together in an office — with access to tools and proper permissions in place — it can be quite a shock to find out in the middle of a major outage that they can’t respond quickly and adequately. Issues like these can turn a brief outage into one that lasts for hours.

Quick context about me: I carried a pager for a decade at Amazon and Netflix, and what I can tell you is that when either of these services went down, a lot of people were unhappy. There were many nights where I had to spring out of bed at 2 a.m., rub the sleep from my eyes and work with my team to quickly identify the problem. I can also tell you that working remotely makes the entire process more complicated if teams are not accustomed to it.

There are many articles about best practices aimed at a general audience, but engineering teams have specific challenges as the ones responsible for keeping online services up and running. And while leading tech companies already have sophisticated IT teams and operations in place, what about financial institutions and hospitals and other industries where IT is a tool, but not a primary focus? It’s often the small things that can make all the difference when working remotely; things that seem obvious in the moment, but may have been overlooked.

So here are some tips for managing incidents remotely:

There were many nights where I had to spring out of bed at 2 a.m., rub the sleep from my eyes and work with my team to quickly identify the problem… working remotely makes the entire process more complicated if teams are not accustomed to it.

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