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Podcast Episode

Voices in Cloud – Episode 12: A Conversation with Vanessa Alvarez of Azure

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Host David Linthicum speaks with Vanessa Alvarez of Microsoft's Azure about her long career and the present nature of technology research in the Cloud.

Today's leading minds talk Cloud with host David Linthicum


Vanesssa Alvarez is a technology professional with over 15 years' experience in emerging technologies spanning enterprise datacenter infrastructure and cloud computing. She's currently a Sr. Product Marketing Manager for Azure at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington.

Alvarez spent 9 years as a technology industry analyst writing research on emerging datacenter technologies, with analyst firms, including Forrester Research. Her expertise was on advising businesses how to leverage emerging technologies and operational models to increase their competitive advantage.

She went on to join startups in Silicon Valley before moving to Seattle to join Amazon Web Services, and most recently, Microsoft. She is also the co-founder of NEXME, an on demand real estate platform that simplifies the homebuying and selling process leveraging technologies such as ML and AI.


David Linthicum: Hey, guys, welcome to the GigaOm Voices in the Cloud podcast. This is the one place where you hear from industry thought leaders providing no-nonsense advice on how to succeed with cloud computing, IoT, edge computing, cognitive computing. I’m Dave Linthicum, best-selling author, speaker, executive and B-list geek, and today my special guest is Vanessa Alvarez. She has 15 years with the tech industry. I still learn something new every day by reading her stuff, and she has taken research execution with everything between working for companies. I believe you worked for Forrester. Is that right, Vanessa?

Vanessa Alvarez: Yes, I did, yes.

And also AWS and now with Microsoft and startups in Silicon Valley. And mainly focuses on the market. So, give us the Vanessa Alvarez story kind of from ten years back. Because I've been speaking with you at conferences; I think we did a couple of podcasts before. Talked to you when you were at Forrester. You've had a pretty cool career, so give us the highlights.

Yes, so first of all, thank you for having me. It's been quite a decade, hasn't it? We're having these similar conversations ten years ago when I was at Forrester. And at the time, I think we were talking about what customers should be doing, where cloud was going, where we thought cloud would be; would hybrid be real? And here we are; fast-forward ten years later and customers are actually doing this, which was pretty exciting for me, then why I decided to leave and roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty at a few startups in Silicon Valley, which led me to AWS. And now I'm living the dream in Seattle at Microsoft.

Always in the cloud space, always very interesting seeing what our customers are doing, what enterprises are doing with cloud today. We've gone all the way from the beginning now to what I still call the beginning, sort of the second phase of the beginning, if you will. And it's actually really exciting to see enterprises doing things in the cloud today in both public and hybrid environments, right? So, I still talk to customers every day; it's what I'm passionate about, it’s really listening to the customers' problems, challenges, why they're moving into different technologies and different spaces. A lot of industries today are seeing so much disruption from startups. And so, some of them, quite frankly, have been forced to make moves, which is always a good thing.

So, where are enterprises today, do you think? Because I hear differing opinions on how many workloads are out there and whether it should include SaaS based workloads or not. And obviously, I'm working with enterprises now where people are actually doing huge migrations and even some major refactoring and relocating things to containers and Kubernetes and all the things that are going on out there. But, let me get your perspective on where you see the market today and where do you think the growth's going to be for the next couple of years?

Yes, so like I said, I feel like it is still the beginning a lot for enterprises and mainstream. It's sort of that second phase, I call it, where the first phase was test dev in the public cloud; let's play a little bit with testing and developing some applications in the public cloud but nothing really mission-critical, certainly no migration of mission-critical workloads. But now, phase two sort of brought us to a lot of the more forward-thinking enterprises starting to trust, if you will, the cloud, or maybe not entirely trust, but certainly be prepared for anything in the public cloud should anything happen, and whether that's reliability and stability, or whether it's making sure that you have replications of your environments in different areas. A lot of enterprises are starting to be much more prepared in that sense.

And so I'm making the big migrations of mission-critical workloads to the public cloud. In some instances, they're doing hybrid, right? So they trust public; it's certainly not a question of security anymore, I think. To some extent, the security models have been proven and customers understand that there is a shared responsibility in the public cloud for security. But for one reason or another, whether it's regulatory and compliance, whether it's scenarios where they need to be either disconnected or they just can't be in the public cloud, there is a hybrid environment where they can have some of their workloads on premises and in the cloud.

Some of the different things that I see happening today, that is pretty interesting for me is the use of things like containers that allow you to bridge that environment, or having on-premises cloud systems that allow you to extend the benefits of public clouding to your own data centers, for example. Those are the things that are super interesting to me because it does enable enterprises to really take advantage of cloud benefits at their own pace, whether it's because of those regulatory compliance challenges or because they just simply–the organization is not ready, they can do it at their own pace. What that pace is really is determined by each unique organization. As you know, in larger organizations, it takes some time to make those shifts.

I think we're seeing a lot of those enterprises really starting to move further along in the whole process. And in some cases, a lot of organizations will be in this phase for some time. And that's okay, right? Every business has its own requirements and its own unique challenges. So, I think it's just a matter of being able to have choice for them.

So, we're at a point right now where the majority of the research and development that's occurring in the technology space is occurring in the cloud space. So, do you think that's driving a lot of the decisions where were in essence, enterprises have no choice, that they've got this–that's where the technology's going? And we’ve seen this before, moving to the Internet, intranet based development, service-oriented architecture, but not as much of a systemic change as cloud computing brings.

So, what kind of challenges do you think the enterprises will face in the next few years as they are in essence kind of getting into a forced march for cloud, for lack of a better term?

Yes, so I think the most important challenge is the organizational challenge. The people. I think we're starting to move into–and we're probably dating ourselves here for a bit, but the new millennial workforce coming into leadership in some of these large IT organizations, who have not been accustomed to the traditional technologies that have been used in the past and have grown up in the cloud, ‘born in the cloud,’ so to speak. And so those are the skill sets that they're bringing to the table and that they want to implement, right? To take their businesses forward. And, it's not wrong. We do need to make that shift.

But I think that's going to be a fundamental forcing factor to a lot of organizations, where you're going to have–sort of the status quo exiting, for whether it's retirement or whatever it may be and having sort of a new generation of the workforce coming up and being able to move quickly, be agile, and have a different structure for the IT organizations than the traditional. And that's where you start to see things like DevOps and these other best practices for IT organizations, where they're much more nimble, even in larger organizations, as nimble as you can be, anyway.

And so, I think that's going to be a forcing factor for a lot of these organizations being pushed along if they're not being aggressive themselves. So for me, I think that's really the biggest challenge and where we're going to need to see a lot more development in terms of what that leadership style looks like. Is it a different structure altogether?

I think when we looked at cloud a decade ago, many people were afraid that IT jobs would go away when in fact, they didn't. They just became a different skill set that you needed in order to be in IT, and I think we'll continue to see that evolve, particularly with these newer technologies that are coming that pretty much eliminate the need for any kind of maintenance of infrastructure or even to some extent coding, right? And programming. A lot of these technologies are really making it much more easy to develop applications, to move quickly. So, I think that the IT will, as we see it even today, continue to evolve and that's going to be a forcing function.

Yeah, it is going to be changing a tremendous amount with the advent of DevOps, and it seems like whenever I'm doing a cloud migration or cloud strategy, DevOps really kind of comes along for the ride. And ultimately, IT is forced to drive things in areas that are much more innovative than they're used to. You know think about DevOps as a perspective, the fact of the matter is they're automating developments. And we're getting to a step where we're able to design and deploy applications in mere seconds and get them up on the cloud and have them provisioned and have them up and running in production, and have them security-tested, performance-tested, and all these quality assurances, which would typically take us months back in my day as a developer.

IT is kind of faced with the fact that they end up being the limiting factor for adopting this technology, not that they want to be. But, the fact of the matter is they have an IT - they have a business to run. They have different technologies they have to leverage, which maintain their legacy stuff and their ability to kind of move in this direction is kind of almost an unnatural act based on the IT shops that I know. What are your thoughts on this?

I agree, and I think we have seen it for some time now, particularly in those organizations that have been more of the forward thinkers where they've kind of jumped into the water and are trying to really move from a technology perspective and are trying to align their IT organizations to the technology road map and moving towards sort of a DevOps model. And I think that when you take a look at IT today, it goes back to the workforce, which is they're very different coming in with different skill set, and they have grown into these organizations where they're ultimately going to take leadership. And so they will ultimately accelerate the DevOps process, if you will, and hopefully align with the way technology is moving just as quickly.

Yeah, I think that ultimately that's going to be the case, and IT's going to have to adapt. And I think that's going to be the biggest challenge for them in the next few years. So, what are the emerging technologies that IT can embrace today that really will truly make a difference?

You know I think things like containers, serverless, anything that has to do with automation. There's just so much out there today. And when we take a look at containers, I would say you that you have to look at it on a much more holistic approach of how containers fits into your strategy. I think we've seen containers emerge in the last few years, and it sort of reminds me of when people were doing tests and dev in the cloud, right? They're taking containers and using them for tactical initiative or project-based initiative. And so, how do you take that and make it part of your overall strategy, cloud strategy, whether it's for a particular business unit within your organization or whether it's your whole strategy. But how do you integrate these technologies, not just containers but serverless as well, overall? And then, how does that impact your IT organization. I mean, these technologies are becoming so much more automated every day. How do you refactor your IT organization to still add value and be able to contribute to the business? I think that's really some of the impact that these newer emerging technologies will deliver. I think as we see them emerge, it will have that impact on people and seeing that evolve is going to be interesting.

Are we going too far too fast with some of the new, shiny objects? You sort of mentioned a few of them, containers, Kubernetes, serverless development. We have machine learning, big data systems, advanced analytics. In fact, at the Google Next Conference last week, they announced 29 new AI services, and we're probably going to see the same from the other cloud providers, as well. So, how much is too much? When should enterprises kind of make sure they're not moving so fast they're going to make mistakes?

That's a good question. I mean, we're moving so fast; you're right. And I think as we move into these technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence where there's much more than just a technical component, right? There's also ethics involved and how much is too much? Where do you kind of draw the line for that? For enterprises, again, being able to be agile is important, and that goes back to your organizational structure. Do you have the right structure in place to move this quickly? And, I think it all comes down to what the business is asking for.

As I mentioned earlier, there's so much disruption happening in industries, right? Where you see the AirBnBs and the Ubers of the world, but in other industries like grocery and healthcare, you see a lot of these emerging startups forcing traditional players to move quickly to be able to adapt to their environment. And so, that pressure comes down to what kind of technologies are you using to be able to combat that and maintain your leadership or your place in the industry.

And then, that sort of comes down to okay, we have to use these technologies, and we need to move quickly. And what are you doing in my IT organization to make this happen? And that's sort of the pressure that's going to start to come down much more so on IT as these business impacts happen in each industry. I think for IT organizations again, having the right structure in place is important, but being able to have the right skill sets in your organization that can speak to these new technologies, whether that's a shift in your workforce, whether it's reskilling your existing organization. Whether it's a combination of those things, the fact of the matter is that they need to happen. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does make sense, and I think it is going to be kind of a balancing act that businesses need to do. The big thing that I'm kind of learning as I'm out there working with these big clients is that ultimately, it's a trade-off with budgets and what we're looking to do, and I'm trying to get them to a more effective and efficient state where they're able to leverage technologies as a force multiplier and disrupt the disruptors that are getting into their business. But at the end of the day, they have a certain budget limitation they'll live up to and a certain amount of complexity and a certain speed that they can move [at]. So, where do we go from here?

So, this will always keep you in business I guess, right?

Well yeah, but ultimately you're looking to be a trusted advisor for a company that's trying to do the right thing. And the thing is: the reality is it is a balance of aggressiveness. And just kind of talked about this. Their ability to stay in the market and also the ability to run their traditional business and leverage technology is something that's going to be effective for them. And that becomes the issue. It's never about ‘let's chase the shiny object; let's do everything in containers and serverless and AI, things like that.’

Let's look at the ways in which we can improve the business and at the same time, look at the ways in which we can do innovate things that are going to disrupt the marketplace which other folks are going to disrupt. We're going to have the big disruptors out there. We know about the Ubers and the AirBnBs but we're going to get the same thing for insurance and banking and healthcare. And things coming down the line where you have these major players that, in essence, are going to be blindsided by these organizations very much like the taxi companies were blindsided by Uber, and the same way that hotels were blindsided by AirBnB. So where's the balance and where do we go from here?

I know, so you're right; it is a balance, right? It's a balancing act for a lot of these larger organizations who've been incumbents in their industries for a long time. My question is always- do these organizations, do they go out and take a look at what's happening in their industry. I think a lot of organizations today tend to–and rightfully so, they have a ‘tunnel vision,’ for lack of a better word, and stay within their own world internally and don't really go out and look at what's happening in the industry.

And so being able to have that capability inside your organization, someone who can go out and look to see what's happening–if the organization is so big–and we've seen this in many cases in the industry where the–whether it's management, whether it's people and it usually is, internally it's not allowing the company to move quickly enough. But, you have to have some kind of capability within your organization to be able to go out there and look at the industry and see what's happening, and be transparent.

Transparency at the end of the day is important. I'm a firm believer in growth mindsets, right? I think that you really need to have transparency, honesty, and be able to think outside of your own four walls. And be able to bring innovative ideas to the table quickly from anywhere within the organization and give people that opportunity. You just never know where you're going to be able to find those ideas.

And then ultimately, we talk about budget.My thinking is if you don't put the necessary capital in place to make these moves, there's going to be no capital. And we've seen that happen in our industry where some of the largest players of a particularly industry have fallen. I think if you don't have the right mindset in place to be able to make those calls and say “this is my innovation budget” or whatever it may be, then you're on the losing side of this battle.

Why that's great advice. So hopefully people hear it because I think it is going to be a bit of a brand-pocolypse over the next ten years as people do get blindsided by companies and perhaps rightfully so; they're going to disrupt their areas. Anyway, please pick up a copy of my book, Cloud Computing and SOA Convergence available on Amazon and other places books are sold. Also make sure to follow me on Twitter @DavidLinthicum, L-I-N-T-H-I-C-U-M, as well as LinkedIn where I have several cloud computing courses on LinkedIn Learnings. So Vanessa, where can we find you on the web?

You can find me on Twitter @VanessaAlvarez1.

And make sure you subscribe to her right now because she's one of the better voices in the industry. She always has pragmatic advice, as you saw in this podcast. And let's not make it another ten years, Vanessa. Let's get you back on the podcast before that. How's that sound?

Would love to.

See you next time. Take care.

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