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Discussing technology and Program Management with Prem Laskhminarayanan

by Michaella Menin on 15 Dec 2020

In this interview, we asked Prem to tell us about his career path, the tech challenges he is seeing as a result of Covid-19 and more on the role of a good Program Manager.

Organisations are constantly going through technology transformations together with investing in building technology products to drive business outcomes. Because the industry is always evolving and maturing, organisations need to keep up with the latest technology stacks to make sure they are meeting the needs of their end-users, and keeping up to date with modern practices.

That’s where people like Program Management Consultant, Prem Laskhminarayanan, with 15 years of technology consulting experience, can really guide organisations. Prem’s goal and passion is to deliver market leading digital products and great user experiences.

In this interview, we asked Prem to tell us about his career path, the tech challenges he is seeing as a result of Covid-19 and more on the role of a good Program Manager.

 

Tell us a bit about how you established yourself as a technical Program Manager? 

I graduated in computer science and have always had a fascination towards technology, computing and big data. I then went on to join Sun Microsystems, which was a hardcore engineering company, acquired by Oracle. My passion and inquisitiveness towards technology really grew in this position. I fell in love with the work culture and the rush of building products and releasing them quickly.  

I then went to London to complete my MBA where I wanted to venture into technology from a business perspective. It’s one thing building a product, but also looking at it from a productisation and commercialisation strategy was important to me. I wanted to know how to get tech adoption from an end user point of view, and ever since then, I’ve been working with tech organisations delivering software for end users across various domains. 

Earlier on in my career, I helped Argos put together a platform that would hold up traffic from Black Friday sales which they weren’t prepared for. Their website had crashed the year before I joined and Amazon was just taking all the sales. This instigated their move towards a micro service-oriented approach, and having a scalable cloud platform which would absorb user traffic at ease.

Here you can see a real business case of how modular, scalable cloud architecture can affect a business at scale, because building small prototypes doesn’t always translate effectively.  

I then went to work with Clear Channel as an independent consultant and Program Manager where the key projects focused on technology transformation. Our goal was to move away from their paper-based business model to a digital model that rolled out in Europe. This fundamentally changed their business model because you could sell ads for 10 seconds slots and no longer needed a person to go and manually stick in a paper on the ad. As a result, this opened up the possibilities of having granular 10 second ads which could be context sensitive ads based on templates. Advertisers could do a lot of fun things on a digital panel like basing ads on the population of users walking towards the panel.

We also wanted to create transparent automated reporting so the company could audit it themselves and share this with their customers in near real-time. We built a big data platform where all the ad panels in UK were reporting data, providing auditable proof of play reports back to the customers. And that was independently verified by PwC who gave us certification.  

At the moment I am working as a Program Manager at a global retailer where the key challenge we’re solving is completely different from what I’ve done in the past. The retailer has about half a million employees, temporary workers and thirdparty consultants across the world working for them after a large merger and acquisition. To address their identity and access management challenges for half a million users is no mean feat.  

These are the kinds of projects and programmes I’m working on with other Riverflex consultants – solving real world business problems with the help of technology.

 

What kind of key technology challenges are companies facing, especially during the Covid-19 outbreak? 

There are plenty of technology and data obstacles organisations have had to tackle with the changes of Covid-19. For example, I recently worked with a large retail company who had a spike in customer orders which affected their delivery process. The changes had an impact not only for the sheer volume of delivery drivers who were needed, but the actual infrastructure they used to do carry out their orders. When the retailer originally built their technology, they looked at the expected demand based on forecasts. However, no one predicted the number of home delivery orders in 2020 when they built it five years ago!  

We have learnt that successful organisations have the ability to quickly adapt to a changing environment. Whether it’s infrastructure changes, software changes, or cloud transformation in almost near real-time.

Another significant challenge has been protecting an organisations data while employees are working from their dining room tablesThe identity and security perimeter went from being an office with firewalls and secure networks, to anyone with any sort of device, logging in to their internet, wherever they are. This is where multifactor authentication is vital, not only to improve security, but to help users reset their own passwords as they couldn’t just call up the office help desk and do it.  

Having a seamless identity management process, increased security measures, and the agility to adapt to unforeseen demands are some of the biggest challenges we see organisations facing today. 

 

What advice would you give to technical Program Managers to help them better manage their teams and meet stakeholder expectations?  

The key challenge right now is working from home. As a Program Manager, it’s critical to have your eyes on the pulse of a project to easily sense if the team is working effectively and getting the right kind of optimal pressure. It’s very easy for an experienced Program Manager to sense the health of the team when you walk into the office. However, this becomes increasingly difficult when you’re disconnected from your team to recognise whether they’re under stress, if they’re happy, productive, if they need support, or if they are physically well. In the office, you can grab a coffee with a team member and have a chat to find out how things are going. 

Another area to consider is the dependencies between projects. Quite often, when you walk through a corridor, you will see the status boardsdashboards and updates, or even have a water cooler conversation with another Program Manager saying, “Hey, how’s your project going”? And they might mention a dependency that you’ve never thought about. We’re losing out on those moments which is a key channel of information. Being online, we tend to work in a silo which can fire back when you realise that you may have missed a couple of things quite late in the project. Therefore, dependency management is probably the biggest risk that an effective Program Manager should take care of. 

 

What is the most important factor to consider before road mapping new technology capabilities? 

Design thinking becomes extremely useful in the process of mapping out client needs. It’s important to relate to what the customer wants and empathise with them. That’s the first part of the design thinking pipeline, to understand, and really listen to what problems people are facing. In the beginning, quite often you need to avoid taking things at face value and ask the five why’s saying, “Why is that happening”? Only then on the fifth why, you might get the real reason as to the main root cause of the problem.  

This could be something in a completely different department, or an IT system that is just manifesting in a different part of the business process.  

It’s about intently listening and using interviews and face-to-face conversations to dig into more detail. This will help you get to that golden nugget, not only the symptom, but of the root cause.

We often find clients come into the room with the solution already mapped out. It’s quite hard for a consultant to drill deeper and get into an open-minded conversation to get to the root cause. Truly successful projects have an open-minded client-side counterpart, who’s actually there, not to serve their own purpose, but to truly solve the business problem. They are open to being challenged and getting to that golden nugget of the true problem.  

In my current consulting role as a technical Program Manager at a global retailer, I’m lucky to have key leaders at the company who are willing to change and they’re open to good feedback, honesty, and they are happy to change as long as you approach the solution in a constructive way. As a consultant, you shouldn’t just be disruptive, but approach the business challenge in a careful and deliberate way for it to actually have a meaningful impact for the client. 

 

You’re currently partnered with Riverflex on a project with a global retailer, can you share some interesting insights you’ve gained so far?  

One of the things that struck me when I walked into the programme at this global retailer was the sheer scale of the transformation and the size of the organisation. I have worked in large organisations, but this is by far the biggest! You’re talking about 450,000 employees and consultants across the world. It is almost five different organisations, and five different transformations happening at the same time.  

It’s especially challenging because one operating company might be slightly more mature than the other, but the other may be more eager. We need to figure out how to guide them and drive the programme from a central global support organisation perspective. And our goal is to bring all of them into the right strategy and roadmap.  

Every meeting you walk into, every stakeholder you talk to needs to adapt quickly to certain things they have not been faced with before. Some might be tech savvy and some might be business savvy. It’s our job to know how to handle five different stakeholders with different maturity needs, pain points, incentives and urgency.  

Another huge factor that plays into this particular technology transformation programme is the organisations recent merger and acquisition. A key part of this programme is figuring out how to consolidate the different technologies and legacy systems that came from these two organisations. 

 

Can you tell us about your role as the Riverflex Foundry Technology Lead, and what makes it different to other consulting firms? 

My role within the Riverflex Foundry is to act as a principal from a delivery standpoint.  

The Riverflex Foundry exists to not only build digital products for the sake of it, but to really solve a business problem.

My role is understanding what the customer wants and helping them understand the priorities of the project.  

Often, I find people think they need a lot more resources to solve their problem, but actually a few small improvements will really do the trick. We aim to truly understand their highest priority needs which have the biggest business impact, and take that to market quickly to test and iterate.  

I am also engaging with a diverse group of top class consultants from Salesforce delivery experts, I AM architects, Azure specialists, to AWS DevOps specialist and everything in-between. What makes the Riverflex Foundry different is that we understand the importance of getting the right talent for the right business problems. 

What excites me about Riverflex is that it’s got the elasticity and flexibility to hire top quality talent to work on quick, impactful problems, without the obligation of committing to a 9-12-month contract.  

Our consultants enjoy taking on a problem, solving it, and moving on to different problems. The kind of talent you deal with in this domain is exciting, because you see people who have solved multiple problems, repeatedly, with different technology stacks, and have had a 15-20 year career. I’m looking forward to rubbing shoulders with them. 

I believe that with the talent we have, our team of experts could walk into fortune 200 company and deliver something meaningful for them, whether it’s cloud transformation, or identity and access management. I think we have a team that we can lean on and scramble together to deliver on any technology challenge.

Related: Six common mistakes to avoid when implementing agile at scale

 

Why did you decide to go independent? And do you have any advice for other consultants who are thinking about going independent? 

I started as an independent consultant specialising in technology delivery as a Program Manager almost six years ago. One of the key things that attracted was the kind of freedom to do what I want to do and pick the projects that I want to work on. I get to direct my career on my own terms, and not be confined by an organisations learning policy or growth strategy. Sometimes you’re stuck in what your organisation is trying to achieve.  

Although I have also worked permanently with a few consulting companies and it has a lot of benefits. You learn from the best consultants and you learn a lot from just being in a domain in the consultancy. But it also has a downside that you have to deal with. I tried it for five or six years and then decided to go off on my own to try it out – I’ve not gone back since.  

I’ve been lucky to have the right mentors and leaders as well as interesting projects to work on. You need to land at the right place the right time, and you also need to be honest with yourself, and the clients. On of the biggest pieces of advice I would give to other Program Managers is to recognise when you may have been put on the wrong project. You need to be honest, have that conversation with the client and find a way to support them in finding the right talent. There’s no point in being stuck on a project and then not doing it to your own satisfaction. It ultimately impacts on the project’s quality as well as your reputation.  

It’s important you define what does, and what doesn’t work for you. Build your own brand and reputation, it will help set you apart and benefit you in the future.

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