Modernizing the IT environment in an almost 100-year-old company is no easy task, but today’s digital market demands speed and agility—two things monolithic infrastructures don’t offer. The effort required to shift from legacy mainframes to the cloud can be Herculean, but, if done correctly, can reap major rewards for the organization.
In this Digital CxO Leadership Insights series video, Steve Cretney, vice president and CIO of SC Data Center, chats with contributor Mike Klein about the process of transforming his company’s legacy IT environment and shares some lessons learned along the way.
Mike Klein: Hello. I’m Mike Klein here today for Digital CxO Insights. As your host, I’ll be talking with Steve Cretney, vice president and CIO for SC Data Center that serves the business of Colony Brands. Steve, can you give us a little background on the long history of Colony Brands that we’re probably familiar with more than just the company name and a little background on yourself?
Steve Cretney: Sure, Mike. It’s great to be here, thank you. Sure, SC Data Center is an affiliate of Colony Brands. Our company provides the business services to Colony Brands and its affiliates and their subsidiaries.
Services include things like IT, context center, print and mail operations, and other essential services. A 95-year-old family-owned business, Colony Brands, is one of North America’s largest and most successful catalog marketing companies in the nation. Our enterprise includes a diverse portfolio of affiliates and branded product offerings.
Klein: And a little background on yourself, and don’t be too humble. You’ve worked in various types of positions, both as a CIO and a CEO, and back to being a CIO. So maybe you can just touch on those organizations.
Cretney: Sure, Mike. I’ve been around for about 35 years in the industry. I’ve had the benefit of working in insurance, a couple of different retailers, and the employee benefits industries. In about 2005, I became the head of IT for Lands’ End, a national or an international retailer headquartered here in Wisconsin.
I left there and went to work for TASC, which is a fast-growing employee benefits administration organization, again, located locally here in Madison, Wisconsin. There I was the head of IT and moved into the role of president and CEO.
Though unfortunately, my heartstrings pulled me back to IT and I went back to Lands’ End, where again, I was a CIO to help drive their future digital road map forward. In 2013, I came to SC Data Center as a CIO.
And the mission I came with was really to establish and drive a technology transformation to monetize the computing platform for the future. Eight years later, this 95-year-old company is now running largely on the AWS platform, including the legacy COBOL environment that was once locked up inside of the mainframe computer.
Klein: So Steve, I wanted to know, you’ve been at the company eight years, a 95-year-old firm. What were some of the major businesses and IT challenges that you encountered when you arrived? What was going on?
Cretney: Yeah. So when I got here, Mike, there were really three big challenges that we talked about during the interview process. And then when I got here, it was pretty evident that we had to deal with them. One was the legacy mainframe system. Virtually, all business systems were running inside the mainframe. They either ran overnight or over the weekends, we waited a lot. Nothing happened in the organization without the mainframe environment.
So if you thought about this company and its heritage of being entrepreneurial and opportunistic, there’s really no chance to really thrive in the future environment where technology underpins everything. So that was a big challenge and a tremendously big challenge to be able to deal with.
The second was around our data. We’re a direct marketer on one hand, we’re financial services on the other hand, both of those, the underpinnings of those is having lots of data and strong analytics and the capability to scale and grow using that information. And when we got here, we looked at our data warehouse, and we were spending most of our time just trying to keep that data warehouse we had running.
So we were limiting things like the number of users going into it, the amount of data going into it, and the number of processes running it. And if you think of a data warehouse strategy, those three things are probably what you don’t want to limit. Right?
So we really had a problem for the future when we thought about our growth and expansion plans. So our data being core was limited or was restricted. And then finally, the last one, the third one was we got here, we had a very dedicated and long-tenured team.
Unfortunately, they’re retiring, unfortunately for them—or unfortunately for us—retirement was on the horizon for about 25% of the workforce. We were about to lose to retirement the people who built the system from the ground up, who knew how to run this thing.
So we were sort of confronted by that. So the legacy environment, our data challenges and a turnover in the workforce that was going to cause some issues going forward. So those are the three things that sort of created the basis for our transformation to our modern computing environment.
Klein: So it sounds like you had a big mission for digital transformation, although at the time it probably wasn’t called that. So how did you transform, a little bit more specifically, how did you transform from a mainframe COBOL-based data center environment to the cloud? What have really been the benefits both internally and externally?
Cretney: Sure. It’s been a long journey looking back eight years, we have accomplished a lot. Our transformation really started with that data. So our team went after the data warehouse first and basically long story short is we moved back to the AWS platform. We had fits and starts, we learned a lot, we made mistakes, but along the way we learned. We sort of built that kind of muscle you need to deal with a cloud environment.
And in doing that, it created the confidence and expertise we needed to turn our attention to the mainframe, which was really kind of the millstone around the neck of the organization, if you will. The mainframe change came slowly in small increments, the vendors’ help was limited, the new tools and services came slow and getting a new compiler really wasn’t about innovation.
And literally, our data was locked up in these archaic data stores like VSAM and Flat Files and really only accessible COBOL to pull it out. So we grappled with our approach. We knew we needed to take out this environment one way or another. We grappled with the approach. We looked at classic ERP, we looked at rewriting the systems.
We also looked at porting the systems to a new language like Java or C Sharp, and we looked at variations of those themes. We even experimented with the idea of rewriting it and found that it could take 20 years for us to rewrite the millions and millions of lines of code. So we backed off of all of those.
In the end, we realized that the skill of our team and the value of those core systems that have been built for the last 20 or 30 or 40 years were really important to us. And therefore, we declared the mainframe technology environment, the box was the problem, so we went after that.
So instead of saying, we’re going to rewrite or get rid of our COBOL and try to re-skill our people at the same time, our approach was let’s lift the code, let’s lift the data, the schedules, the assembler, and all that and port it to TmaxSoft OpenFrame environment running on AWS, and that’s just what we did.
It was a huge effort, we worked through a lot of details and issues a lot, but ultimately we delivered the system to the cloud and today it all runs there. COBOL, CSAs, everything runs up there as we speak and we’ve removed the mainframe from our environment.
But while it’s running up there, we’re running on an environment that the tools, are not even just there’s more of them, but they’re changing literally every day. Tools and services that we can bring in and help us now transform that base code, that base system in a smart and kind of timely manner.
Klein: I hear you talking a lot about the transformation of the data center and the people who work there and the processes and the way you’re going to unlock the value of data, but almost as important, in fact, maybe even one of the most important question is how did you get buy-in from the leadership team and what was involved to get that kind of buy-in to make this huge change?
Cretney: Yeah. That came pretty easily, a lot more easily than I anticipated. Primarily because this is an organization that’s been around for a long time and it is, like I said, is very entrepreneurial and forward-looking.
So they understood that technology was going to provide the framework, the platform for the future. They got behind it as quickly as I did. They were very supportive, the leadership was very supportive of trying to figure this out.
They were supportive of the experiments we ran, the testing, the approach, even when we made the bold statement that we’re going to take down the mainframe, they didn’t hesitate. They know the future of this company in large part is having a very strong and scalable technology platform for the future. So that support came pretty easily.
Klein: So what about the chasm between the technology, the culture and the people, and what has been that impact on talent, the ability to retain and attract new employees, especially during this pandemic time where I believe most of the company is working remotely?
Cretney: Yeah. We’ve been, like I said at the beginning, I think it was very fortunate I got here the talent of the dedicated team that was here and supporting this company. I’ve been sort of amazed and delighted by our team and how they’ve dedicated and embraced this transformation from the start.
Today, that same team, the people that are still here that haven’t retired, are learning and growing at a really impressive rate. They really are digging in, this is a team, people that are new to us, people who have been here for a long time alike are leaning in and growing and learning again. AWS and C Sharp and other tools are becoming second nature to them, where COBOL was their nature before. And that’s super impressive, we’re not –
Klein: You’re not upscaling on what to do.
Cretney: Not upscaling. In the hybrid point of that, Mike, that you mentioned was we’re excited about the hybrid environment, we’re embracing the hybrid environment. We’re in a small labor market, in rural Wisconsin, getting people there sometimes can be a challenge. We’ve already hired a number of extremely talented individuals who will be remote most of the time and are joining us.
We have a lot of exciting things going on and when you tell the story to candidates or recruits, they’re excited to join and participate and get involved with this.
So it’s been a real delight to watch, again, my team grow and now to expand with individuals who really can get behind what we’re trying to do, it’s been exciting.
Klein: So besides the digital transformation, you obviously had a cultural transformation. And along the journey, I’m sure there’s been quite a few memorable or most memorable moments. And could you just reflect them on those things that really impacted you? And kind of leave you with eight years into this project we’ve turned into the cloud, kind of what’s next?
Cretney: What’s next that part of it would be to just keep going. We have a lot of strategies that are now being informed by the capabilities of the platform, the skill sets, you mentioned culture, how we work, we’ve changed how we work, moved to Agile, DevOps and those kinds of things.
So the strategies of the business are now sort of, again, re-informed by what are the possibilities of the technology. And the innovation council we have going on in the company that drives growth and expansion of our business is using that and we’re helping them get things done, do experiments validate this working. And when we’re done with those experiments, when it is validated we’re in a position to scale and grow or take it to market.
So a lot of really exciting unlocks that have occurred with this platform across the business. We certainly have no shortage of work, there’s a lot to do but it’s kind of exciting to see us leverage this technology towards the future.
Klein: So again, coming back to it, what were the most memorable moments?
Cretney: Yeah. Most memorable, maybe most satisfying were two things. One was the most satisfying, again, I go back to the team, great teams that scaled a very high and very technical mountain. It was a big move here in Monroe, Wisconsin, and just so satisfying to see them go to lean into it and move it forward. It was amazing what they did and what they’ve accomplished.
And that’s been very satisfying. Memorable is slightly different, the most memorable thing that happened during this project to me, that I think about all the time was that moment when we had the moving truck out in the parking lot and we pushed the mainframe out of the data center.
And I was putting my shoulder into that ramp to push that mainframe up onto the truck and close the door and send it back to the manufacturer. That was a pretty memorable moment.
Klein: That’s a great story. It sounds like almost getting to the top of Mount Everest with your journey. Now we just have to figure our way down into this. And the last question we have time for is what do you see are the next innovations that are going to unravel the remaining parts of your legacy environment?
Cretney: Yeah. That’s a good question. In the data side, we’re doing a lot, right? I see a lot of innovation coming out of our data science team. Our position in IT is to really enable or empower that data science team to do their analytics better, faster, at scale.
So we’re doing a lot with like SageMaker up on AWS to allow data models to be brought up quick, have them competing versus just having a single model running, be able to look at things like model drift to make sure models are staying in line. That’s a big deal for us. Again, being a data-centered company, having that innovation and transformation around our data science team to empower that group, that’s a huge deal for us.
That’s probably our number one next activity that we’re working through and making great progress. There’s a number of other ones in marketing, we’re down the path with them on a bunch of opportunities to make them faster, more flexible, which we want to do for marketing on our call center side, and we’re rewriting that or replacing all that.
So we just have momentum, and there’s just, again I said before, it’s not a want for work here, it’s just now what makes sense and what’s the staging and pacing of that work?
Klein: So that’s quite a journey, and we really appreciate your joining us today. Again, Steve Cretney, Vice President and CIO for the SC Data Center. Make sure to check out Digital CxO Insights on the web at digitalcxo.com. I’m your host, Mike Klein, and thank you for joining us today.