The five minute CIO: Sunil Kumar

1 Nov 2013

Elephant Smart Business IT director Sunil Kumar

Launched last month, Elephant Smart Business provides cloud-based staff management software. Its IT director Sunil Kumar explains why the lines blur between technology and business in a start-up, and why talking to customers helps bridge the two sides.

What does your role involve?

The way I approach my role is to deliver the best product that we can. To do that, I architect and code solutions, working with external IT consultants and contractors. Sometimes we have to bring them in to ensure we’re doing things correctly: sometimes it doesn’t make sense to work on a piece of coding that could take three or four weeks, when one person could do that in a day or two.

The biggest part of my job is staying in touch with customers. I spend over three hours a day looking over customer feedback. Outside of my IT responsibilities, I’m getting to grips with the art of sales and marketing, and we have monthly board meetings that keep everyone focused.

As a technical person, how do you find dealing with the commercial side of things?

It’s a very difficult transition to make. The IT business is changing completely. There’s no longer just a CIO or IT director who is just in charge of technical decisions. I certainly dip my toe into everything that we do in the business, to get a feel for it and be in touch with the business.

I’ve said this to loads of people: moving from an IT perspective to a business perspective can be achieved but definitely the easiest way to do it is talk to customers, because they say things you don’t expect, and it gets you thinking.

I’ve taken a technical decision in the past where I’ve thought something was a really great feature – coded it, and went out to try and sell it, and potential customers were not interested. All of a sudden you’ve made this technical decision based on nothing but your ability to code it and you get a zero return on investment.

How complex is the IT infrastructure at the company, and how do you manage it?

We don’t keep it a secret that we use Microsoft’s Azure service to host our software. There is no point reinventing the wheel – we always look to professional services that are always available and Microsoft Azure gives us the security that we need. Third-party managed services are the key to any start-up.

What considerations did you have when you were picking an external hosting provider?

There were a few things – SLAs [service level agreements] are really important to us. Microsoft has decent SLAs now, it has really come on board. Pricing is always key, but one of things that made me drift towards it is that the technology stack we use is based on Microsoft. It makes sense to go to the guys who developed it. We’ve used some of Amazon’s infrastructure, but all of the parts we built on .Net are hosted on Azure.

Did you ever consider hosting the software yourselves, or was it always going to involve an external third-party provider?

No, it was definitely considered back in the early days. We started coding this somewhere between four and five years ago. The cost of infrastructure back then was out of this world. You’d need a separate loan just to pay for the capital investment in the technology. Cloud technology was just coming on stream and we took a chance to go with it and it worked out for us.

It’s not only the cost of the equipment, but it’s the cost of managing it. You might think it’s cheaper in the long run, but managing it and maintaining it and cost of keeping up and running are not feasible in this day and age.

What about development: did the founders do a lot of the initial design and architecture, or did you outsource this?

That was the secret sauce. We kept everything in-house, initially. My first task was researching if the solution already existed. I found out about our competitors and what they were missing. We almost came up with our feature set based on what was missing in the market, then we put our design and architecture in place.

Of the overall development, 90pc was done in house, and some expertise and consultancy were outsourced. It’s a fine line you have to tread and I would say we’ve done it the same as everyone else. There was some technology and some solutions which weren’t available which we had to develop ourselves. There really is no substitute, where there’s nothing available, for going and doing this yourself. But the trade-off is time. When you’re applying a certain amount of your expertise focused on one area, the other stuff slides to the side, and you have to balance that. It’s not always easy.

Do you almost have to think differently, depending on whether you’re dealing with a technical issue or a business one?

Yes, absolutely. When you’re looking at a technical problem, you’re in a technical mindset. But nobody wants to listen to technical jargon when it comes to business. You have to completely cut yourself off from one role to the other.

If you give a technical answer, you have to remember your customers are not IT developers. They want a product that works, they want to talk to someone in support who is on the same wavelength. You have to almost switch to being the customer.

Is that a deliberate move on your part, to talk to customers regularly?

When we started developing, I spent three years with a technical hat on. What that does is, you get kind of a big slap in the face when you’ve been in a technical role and you kind of get kicked out of that role because you see everything around you going in a different direction. Going out to talk to people who are not technical people, it steers you naturally in the right direction. You definitely come out of the technical role.

Did it come naturally to you, or did you need to work at it or study to get to that mindset?

I haven’t done any study, I’ve never picked up a business book in my life. I find the best study you could probably do is just to watch the reaction of your customers when a question is asked: if you keep going like you’ve said nothing, you’re probably talking technical jargon.

What kind of pressure comes with developing a product for a long time and then having to launch it to the public?

There was a huge amount of pressure and one of the things was, we’re talking about what business people don’t understand about technical people. Just because there’s nothing to show on screen, doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a lot of work. We had a lot of complex problems to overcome with databases, and when you say to a board member, ‘this is what I’ve achieved for the past three or four months’ and it’s a function that spits out a correct number, business people don’t get that. They only see what’s on the screen. From a technical point of view, it takes a lot to understand why they don’t see that.

Thank God, when the UI [user interface] work got started, there was brilliant feedback! There was a lot of pressure, praise, motivation and support. It’s very easy to get bogged down by comments when there is a function that is about 35,000 lines of code but only spits out a couple of figures near the end. 

How important were issues like security and data protection when developing the application – and also in choosing your hosting provider?

One thing that’s key for us is, whatever country we’re selling in, the data has to remain local. Microsoft has a DC in Dublin so that was key for us … it’s a no-brainer to stick with security industry standards that these guys provide.

We also locked down our own internal networks and built a lot of encryption into our database. Security is incredibly important to us.

 What has been the biggest challenge in launching the product?

From a technology standpoint, it’s not one of the incredible functions we’ve written, it’s actually usability. When you create a complex piece of software, sometimes it’s too difficult to use – it’s not an intuitive UI that’s straightforward. We saw that with competitors. Ultimately, that is what stops you from using the software.

Our goal was to make this more usable than email on a smartphone. We can say we spent four or five years developing this, but we probably spent 18 months really perfecting the UI. It’s not that you’re trying to stop people ringing you for technical support – they shouldn’t have to ring you. The software should be intuitive and people will understand it. If they’ll use it every day, it will be a success.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic