Alexei Miller, Managing Director at DataArt discusses digital transformation and the ways technological and cultural change has remade the way that we do business for good.
Perhaps the most seemingly-inevitable change occurring now is the digital transformation of the global enterprise landscape. Business models are being rewritten, entire industries grow from a single startup in a matter of months, and those who are unwilling to adapt are disrupted into the Wikipedia subheadings of history. Digital transformation is an avalanche. The impact of a single snowflake on the top of a mountain prompts calamitous chain reactions that propel millions of tons of snow towards the world below.
Alexei Miller, co-founder and Managing Director of professional IT services firm DataArt, is someone with the capacity and experience to see the avalanche with clarity. “Life used to be simple. There was business and there was IT. Business was kind of clueless, but they had the money, and IT had the expertise but none of the money,” he explains. The resentment-fuelled dichotomy was, Miller recalls, at least predictable. “Business hated IT, because they were always late or expensive or buggy; and IT always hated business because it saw business as clueless - unable to appreciate or take advantage of the miracles of technology, or something to that effect,” he shrugs. “Whatever.” And so this modern fable continued for many years, with “everybody happily hating each other.”
Now, in mid-avalanche, Miller laughs, everything is “so much worse. Everything is messier, because the technology changes so fast, it is impossible for a CTO - no matter how smart or qualified he or she is - to keep up.” At the same time, he explains, those traditional ‘business side’ people have become increasingly technologically adept. “They didn’t learn to use a computer in their 40s, like their parents’ generation,” Miller says. “Sometimes they know more about cloud, AI and so on, than their technology counterparts.” This world turned upside down by dramatic forces of entropy is, Miller insists, chaotic and messy, but ripe with opportunity. “It's no longer clear who you're selling to, what you're selling or who's making what,” he shrugs again. “You can choose to get depressed about it, because your life is more difficult now, or you can choose to see the fantastic opportunity. Now you can create new worlds; it's so messy that you can shape opportunities for yourself.”
Miller approaches the future with a realist’s eye, both for technology and business strategy. Founded in 1997, DataArt has spent more than 20 years designing, developing and supporting unique, custom software solutions for enterprise clients ranging from the Nasdaq to Apple Leisure. As someone with over two decades of experience enabling companies to survive and thrive in response to avalanches of change, Miller is a judicious embracer of these reconfigurations of the status quo. “If you’ll allow me to be a little philosophical for a moment, people are seeking experiences instead of things these days, right? We see manifestations of that in many walks of life. I think, similarly, people seek certain opportunities to create and experiment,” he posits. This has changed the values of the workplace as well, Miller suggests. “It’s not just a place to make a bit of money. I’ve been very lucky that DataArt has given me that opportunity to create, experiment and generate experiences, not just money.”
The Greek philosopher Aristotle was an astounding polymath - an expert in and font of the leading philosophical, rhetorical, scientific, medical and astronomical wisdom of his time. So expansive was his knowledge and ability that he is frequently described as ‘knowing everything’ about the time in which he lived. Obviously, mankind’s body of knowledge has come a long way since then. Whatever the probability of there once being a person who contained the combined sum of knowledge in the world, those days have been swept away by the fractalizing complexities of an advancing human race.
Looking at the current business landscape, Miller notes that this is a realization that may not be as obvious to some as it should. “I kind of protest against this notion of a business leader who is all-knowing, all powerful and the idea that everyone around is just helping him or her. This cult-like thinking is a little bit too prevalent, I think, in American business culture these days. I revolt against that,” he explains. “Those leaders are the beneficiaries of gifts they've been given by people around them who are better than them in many ways. There are lots of people who are better, smarter, faster and prettier than me. I can be envious of their good fortune and try to control or take advantage of that fact, or I enjoy their company. If you're able to build this structure where they work with you, but not for you, everyone gets to enjoy the process a little bit better.” The pace of digital transformation is such that no one individual can hold even a single discipline entirely in their own head. Collaboration and deference to genius are the keys to finding a new form of order in an avalanche of chaos. As John Donne put it, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
To Miller, another success characteristic is the ability for companies to differentiate themselves, but approach the process with, again, a realist’s eyes. “Inevitably in this day and age, in order to be and stay unique, you need technology to support you. And therefore, if you do things that are unusual, then these unique or special processes can’t be supported with cookie cutter products,” he says. “You cannot base your unique processes on something that lots of other firms can easily buy or subscribe to. You can hardly claim that you have unique CRM processes if you plainly use standard Salesforce software, like many thousands of other firms do.”
This is where DataArt’s expertise comes into play: not only working with its clients to create custom solutions, but also helping digest the newly-ongoing nature of digital transformations strategies. “Creating and sustaining unique technology is not for the faint of heart. The projects are never short, never cheap and never easy.” Miller notes that, while these projects can be immensely rewarding, they need to be undertaken by a firm that is knowledgeable of and willing to accept the inherent risks. The timeline for these digital transformation projects, Miller explains, has also radically changed. “It leads to uncomfortable answers to questions that previously seemed very straightforward,” he admits. “For example: the simplest question an executive can ask is ‘how much is this going to cost and how long is it going to take?’” he chuckles. “When you have a finite object, you can ask these questions. In this brave new world, the honest answer to these questions is, ‘well, if it is successful, then it will take an infinite amount of time and an infinite amount of money’.” The modern IT solution is sold, not once, but continually with its upkeep and ongoing development sold as a service. This is the new world that Miller sees as filled with opportunity.
Going forward, Miller intends to continue building and developing a company to which he feels “a sort of parental attachment”. Exhibiting between 20-30% growth each year, DataArt is continuing to penetrate further into the US and European markets. “In any professional services business, your reputation in the marketplace and the trust you have with specific individuals, is pretty much the only current that you have,” he says. In addition to building up the currency of reputable trust, Miller and his teams will continue to “preach the gospel of digital transformation,” as well as focusing on the company’s internal and ongoing journey.