Nearshore Americas

Q&A: ThoughtsWorks’ CEO on Supporting Authentic Digital Journeys

A veteran software developer and commercial tech and intellectual property lawyer, Chris Murphy now leads the North America office the global tech development company ThoughtWorks, guiding clients in areas including enterprise modernisation, data strategy and digital transformation.

Chris’ trajectory to North America CEO furnished him with a huge breadth of knowledge on the company’s global markets. After working in London as ThoughtWorks’ first Europe-based lawyer, he returned to his home country of Australia to help found Nearshore offices for Australia in South China expand the company’s APAC region. 

Chris then turned his focus to become ThoughtWorks’ head of strategy and global marketing, where he helped shaped the brand into is is known as today.

After another few years in London, Chris took the top spot at ThoughtWorks North America office, where his responsibilities include overseeing Nearshore capabilities via offices Chile, Ecuador and Brazil.

Here, Chris tells Nearshore Americas how ThoughtWorks is navigating throught the next stages of enterprise digital transformation.

Chris Murphy, CEO at ThoughtWorks North America

NSAM: In ThoughtWorks’ recently published Tech Radar study, one theme was the use of platform teams to drive speed to market. How do companies use platform teams in their digital transformation?

Chris: At the heart of what every organization is trying to do with digitization is to capture new markets and respond more adaptively and more quickly. That’s the heart of the digital transformation journey. What most organisations find is that they are limited in that for a number of common reasons. The big enterprises that have been around for a long time end up with a lot of what is generically called ‘legacy’ data. It can be an overwhelming burden of complexity that must be remediated, simplified and modernized. Fast-moving digital enterprises generally also accumulate this legacy as they move forward.

Platform teams is about having product teams that get products to market by way of consuming services and interacting with internal APIs. Organizations are recognizing that there is a level of commonality that enables these teams to be successful. At its simplest, the platform teams idea enables the building out of the company infrastructure and access to services that are then able to be consumed by these product teams and therefore help accelerate them.

There are anti-patterns within this. Companies cannot taken years out of business to work on a platform refresh – the time out of the game is too costly. Modern digital platform strategies take a sensible approach: they take a deep vertical slice through the products being built and build out the new services needed to serve the existing platform and the reusable assets that can be used as the foundation of the platform going forward. Platform teams tend then to harvest and guide those reusable assets, whether they be micro services, APIs or the remediation of the underlying platforms, which are then reused to create organizational assets. From this, the platform layer is extracted and the organisational assets grow so that, ultimately, you have a modernized platform upon which you can see increasing speed-to-market. 

Modern digital businesses don’t see themselves aligning around horizontal silos or setting a distinction between business and technology: tech is the business

Organizational assets include delivery infrastructure like cloud, CI/CD parklines and deployment routines. Data is key but it is everywhere throughout the organization and it varies in quality. It might be locked down or behind silos so people don’t have access to it. A large part of platform building is about providing an easy, consistent, clean an accessible approach to relevant data. From this, an organization’s infrastructure, telemetry and customer touch points can be approached.

The key part of ThoughtWork’s involvement in the platform space at the moment is delivering infrastructure, APIs and self-service data. If you’re a product team, you shouldn’t need to have to constantly request access to data and waiting. There should be an accessible set of tools, frameworks and interfaces where access can be found. This way, individuals and businesses can keep progressing without having to stop for hurdles.

This environment has other benefits too. Another interesting side of this are developer platforms, including the developer environments and the tools they need – a standardization within organizations. This is being driven by developer experience and seeks to make the best talent as effective as possible. It’s also driven by a retention strategy because the war for talent is so fierce. Talent wants to be impactful, to be able to spend their time writing code and not waiting or searching for a tool. This notion of developer experience is really growing and is ultimately linked to platform strategy. 

NSAM: How can large companies adapt to and benefit from platform teams?

Chris: Becoming a truly digital organization requires that the entire leadership structure is aligned. So once the platform is built, the business must be aligned around it. Modern digital businesses don’t see themselves aligning around horizontal silos or setting a distinction between business and technology: tech is the business. Designers, product analysts, developers and data people will all be aligned around the customer. This type of model is very strong in  very customer-oriented businesses like retail and e-commerce because it allows for a depth of customer understanding, a reactiveness to the customer through constant product adaptations and innovation, and the testing of those adaptions.

NSAM: How does ThoughtWorks harness its Nearshore and offshore capabilities to aid platform team development?

Chris: We will often work with clients with a double goal in place. The first is to build them the products, platforms, tech culture and capability to enable them to be successful. The second goal we have is to enable the client to upskill their own capabilities and talent at the same time, and the carry those capabilities forward to build an institution. 

For ThoughtWorks, the primary driver of the Nearshore relationship is not cost arbitrage but  access to the best talent globally at scale

There’s a full spectrum on what clients want here. The smaller clients might just be happy for ThoughtWorks to be their capability while the larger companies ask for help for that internal transformation. Typically, we’ll start with a larger onshore team. At the start it will mainly about getting into client systems and understanding them, strategy development, stake holder interviews and so forth. Once that initial work is done, resultant work can be effectively distributed across the world including our Nearshore offices in Chile, Brazil or Ecuador.

NSAM: How Does ThoughtWorks guide clients who have very little idea on where to start their digital transformation journey?

Chris: We see a full spectrum of clients that range from those starting from scratch because digitization is a very broad term and inevitably involves a multi-year modernization approach. Over time, we built a framework to speak to clients who had little idea of where to start other than wanting to become digital, and that’s the digital fluency model. This involves a series of workshops and interviews with stakeholders to understand the five main pillars of the digital business model that we define as the frictionless operating model, platform strategy, experience design and product capability, intelligence-driven decision making and engineering culture with a delivery mindset. 

But every company we deal with is at a different level of maturity on each of those axis. Unless the company is Amazon or Google, rarely do they need to be the best in class on each of these pillars, but they do need to differentiate and stand out somewhere. Perhaps that’s the data the company has that can drive customer insight. We sit down with them and hold discussions, carry out audits and look under the hood. From there, we can create an investment roadmap towards the stated aims. We consciously make very digestible investment decisions to push ahead towards the goal, getting products out to market and learning and adapting the strategy on the way. 

We approach this from a delivery and execution mindset. There is unavoidable upfront work to provide background to the tangible outcomes that we incrementally work towards. 

NSAM: What are the tools that are most often used within ThoughWorks? 

Chris: We utilise different tools depending on the client’s situation but cloud stands out. Often clients have migrated onto cloud but they’re not taking full advantage of it, have no entirely modernized. The cloud allows companies to move across a suite of applications onto it and turn their data center off but they’re not architectured to be on the cloud. Scalability, elasticity and other elements that the cloud native environment offers is not being fully taking advantage of. 

We consciously make very digestible investment decisions to push ahead towards the goal, getting products out to market and learning and adapting the strategy on the way

A big part of our work is helping clients understand that and modernize towards it, extracting data out of legacy system to make them usable in the most efficient manner. 

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And then a lot is thinking about the end-to-end customer experience, an element that is often neglected. We have very quickly moved from having low expectations of interactions with technology to one where we have extremely high expectations, very quickly. This is particularly true for young consumers who expect a seamless brand interaction. If companies cannot meet that then consumers will go somewhere else, whether that be insurance, finance or retail. 

NSAM: What does ThoughtWorks consider to be the major advantages of the Nearshore model for development?

Chris: For ThoughtWorks, the primary driver of the Nearshore relationship is not cost arbitrage. No doubt there is a cost arbitrage element that comes with the territory, but the primary driver is access to the best talent globally at scale. 

To get the benefits of Nearshore you must be intentional, to understand the differences that the team presents

The secondary driver is access to a greater diversity of talent which itself drives innovation. When any team is given access to an increased global capacity, better results are delivered. The most high-performing team is a well-managed diverse team, but this isn’t easy to get right.

Of course, there are downsides to the Nearshore model including geographic distance, the timezone shift and cultural differentiation but they can be resolved. To get the benefits of Nearshore you must be intentional, to understand the differences that the team presents. You must embrace that rather than ignore or depress it. When we set up delivery centers between Australia and China, we would make a cultural exchange and have team members travel to each other’s site. It was a wonderful opportunity for them and helped build relationships. Now we do the same here with our U.S. and Latin American offices. Taking the best of each culture is important; to consciously make the effort to embrace the challenges it throws up. To do that properly, intentionality is needed as are dedicated communication channels.

At ThoughtWorks, we make sure we apply the same processes to software development remotely as we do when we’re together. We’ll have big screen, always-on TVs at the end of each table at the office in New York and in Santiago or Sao Paolo. We’ll have stand ups, use channels like Slack and a variety of pairing tools. We set up one team that is extended rather than distant.

Peter Appleby

Peter is the Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. Hailing from Liverpool, UK, he is now based in Mexico City. He has several years’ experience covering the business and energy markets in Mexico and the greater Latin American region. If you’d like to share any tips or story ideas, please reach out to him here.

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