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Life in the Cloud: An Interview with Veolia CIO Jean-Christophe Laissy

March 13, 2018 By Antoine Gourévitch

Veolia, a global water, waste, and energy management company headquartered in Paris, has ditched its data centers. Facing the need to be more agile and to upgrade its aging and decentralized data centers, the company decided to modernize and harmonize by moving its storage and computing resources to the cloud.

As with all technology transformations, the move involved vision, leadership, and communication. The best-laid plan will fall flat if people don’t embrace it.

Jean-Christophe Laissy, Veolia’s global chief information officer and the architect of the migration to the cloud, recently talked about the move with Antoine Gourévitch, a senior partner, managing director, and global leader of the data and digital platforms offering at BCG. Excerpts follow.

Jean-Christophe Laissy

Education

1993, MBA, Institut Supérieur du Commerce, Paris

Career Highlights

2015–present, senior vice president, global chief information officer, Veolia

2012–2015, vice president, deputy group chief information officer, Alstom

2009–2011, group chief technology officer, Thales

2000–2009, various positions rising to group chief technology officer, Renault

1998–2000, head of intranet, enterprise data management, and groupware, ArcelorMittal

1993–1997, quality manager, Ugine Iberica

Veolia is the largest publicly traded French company to completely give up its data centers and move to the cloud. What did you find when you arrived at Veolia in 2015?

Veolia is a very decentralized group with a lot of different business units, each with its own IT department and IT strategy. The company operates in 50 countries, and I need to deal with about 60 CIOs in those business units. In 2015, we had very few common tools—other than Google’s G Suite—or policies and no global vision. G Suite, however, allowed us to collaborate and begin to change the culture. This was a good starting point for our digital strategy.

How did you start?

I first tried to position the group IT function properly because it was not in the DNA of the company to have a central group. We didn’t want to be the guys telling other people what to do, so we started deploying new tools and implementing our strategy at the corporate level. The CIOs could then see the policies, tools, and platforms in action and could adopt them at the local level.

We created a marketplace called the digital solution store, which today offers about 30 cloud tools and turnkey solutions for the CIOs. It took a few months to build this marketplace, but the adoption rate is now quite high, more than 60%.

And why did you decide to move to the cloud?

Agility, cost reduction, and cybersecurity were the three main factors that drove us to use more cloud services. The cloud is simple and cost-effective. Today, the local CIOs have the best of both worlds. They can take advantage of our company’s collective purchasing power to achieve a good price, and they have the freedom to adapt and deal directly with local representatives.

This marketplace helped us gain the confidence of our IT community. They needed to view group IT as an enabler—a problem solver rather than a problem maker. When you deliver products at the right price and service level, it’s much easier to gain their acceptance.

We also had to rapidly address obsolete software and services. The marketplace provided an easy upgrade path and motivated people to switch to cloud solutions.

First, at the corporate level, we started to migrate our existing applications to the cloud. At that time, we needed to invest locally in new data centers or invest in the cloud. We faced strong pressure on cost and on capital spending, so it was a good time to launch this type of approach.

We created a team for cloud automation services that had lifted and shifted from traditional servers. By the end of 2017, we had fully migrated all applications to the cloud.

We also launched a project called SATAWAD, which stands for “secure, anytime, anywhere, any device.” This is essentially a digital workplace for our group that makes all of Google’s G Suite applications available on Chromebook. It forced us to have all our information systems accessible from a browser.

The last point is cybersecurity. With cloud services, you are sure that you’re always up to date.

There is a belief that when you lift and shift applications to the cloud, you do not save any money. Is that true?

You don’t necessarily save money, unless you make the shift in a smart way by chasing waste and properly sizing your activity. In a data center, for example, you might have six, seven, or eight different environments for production, preproduction, validation, development, and so on.

When you’re in the cloud, you can switch off the environments you’re not using during specific times so that you can make savings globally. The public cloud has also allowed us to size the infrastructure to the normal level of usage, not to the peaks of activity.

At last, even in a straight lift and shift, you can save money by tracking and monitoring all your activities with artificial intelligence and business intelligence tools. You can optimize around patterns of usage and activities.

When you switch off those environments, what happens to the people managing them?

Some tasks are changing, and some aren’t. What is not changing is that you still need to manage a provider. You need people who understand how the providers work and what they are offering. Vendor management is even more important than before because you need to understand the bid process, how the providers work, and their new services. So, you can switch some people to those new tasks.

You can also train some people to design applications directly in the cloud. We conducted training for more than 300 people both in IT and in the business units. We need the business people to know how the cloud works. When we start designing new tools or services in an agile mode, it’s very important for the people on the business side—the product owners—to understand how cloud development happens.

What is your experience negotiating pricing with cloud vendors?

You don’t negotiate; for instance, Amazon Web Services [AWS] is fully transparent on its prices. They are published on the web, with prices decreasing quarter after quarter. Of course, there’s still a risk that if a cloud vendor ever has full monopoly of the cloud, it will raise prices. But it would not be the first time a company in the tech industry had a monopoly. We are used to those situations.

How do you choose which cloud provider to use for which services?

We use AWS for 80% of our IaaS [infrastructure as a service] needs and 20% of our PaaS [platform as a service] needs. It’s the exact opposite on the Google Cloud Platform [GCP]. We have more and more applications that are using serverless services or PaaS services, on AWS or GCP or both, and it works quite well. We can choose a best-of-breed approach.

Are you using artificial intelligence and other advanced services?

We are starting to use machine learning. Veolia is a very big IoT [Internet of Things] operator with more than 10 million connected devices around the world contributing data to our data lake; we have 30 billion records in the data lake. We have a team of almost ten data scientists who are using machine-learning tools and algorithms for exploring and extracting value from that data. Business units can also access the lake, so it’s a hybrid of centralized and decentralized.

In retrospect, what are the key challenges and the things you would have done differently today?

It took a long time to get all the IT people in the business units onboard with the strategy. The first time I introduced the strategy, they thought that I just wanted to take the lead; I probably could have done even more communication explaining the vision.

Today, we are struggling with skills. Veolia is a data-driven company, a digital group, and an IoT group. We have done a lot of communication and are starting to attract the right people with the needed skills.

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