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Inside a Successful Cloud Migration Strategy at Alliance Data Systems

Rashim Mogha
Senior Director, OCI Product Evangelism

Although most enterprises realize that the move to cloud is inevitable, the reality is that only 15 to 30 percent of enterprise workloads have been successfully migrated to the cloud. A successful cloud migration strategy is not just about technology; it's also about culture—people, processes, and tools. In the last few years, during my tenure at Amazon Web Services (AWS) and now at Oracle, I have had an opportunity to talk to many customers, some who have successfully moved workloads to cloud and some who haven't been as successful as they expected. Every conversation centers on setting realistic expectations with stakeholders, driving a cultural change, and enabling teams.

Nickoria JohnsonAt Oracle OpenWorld 2018, I talked to Nickoria Johnson, Senior Director of IT Planning and Applications and women-in-tech leader at Alliance Data Systems, about her company's cloud migration strategy. Alliance Data Systems is a publicly traded loyalty and marketing services company headquartered in Plano, Texas, with more than 20,000 employees and a market value of approximately $11.5 billion. It's ranked #874 in Forbes list of the world's largest public companies.

A little over two years ago, Alliance Data Systems went through the formal rigor of creating its cloud migration strategy.

"We did an apps rationalization with a large consulting firm, and our end goal from that exercise was to move everything to SaaS. … We had big goals," Johnson said. "However, we quickly learned that many of our solutions, because of our specific banking and treasury focus, did not have a like-for-like substitute SaaS product that was ready for us to migrate to.

"We then took a fresh look at how we could get out of our physical on-prem data centers and get to cloud infrastructure. … With our on-prem data center, we had significant challenges with performance, reliability, the vendor relationship, and of course costs were trending upwards—definitely in the wrong direction. We had aging hardware, high licensing costs, slow provisioning time."

When organizations decide to move to the cloud, they typically start with a small project. In this case, Alliance Data Systems had already spun up AWS and Microsoft Azure to support some of its non-Oracle apps.

"But when we started looking at how to migrate our heavy-hitters like PeopleSoft and Hyperion, we were stuck," Johnson said. "When our Oracle account rep brought Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI) to the table as a viable option, we did our due diligence of proving out the value of OCI over AWS, and OCI won. The power of having Oracle applications running on Oracle infrastructure supported by Oracle is real. Exadata is hands-down the best solution for running Oracle Database. And finally, the cost savings uncovered with the non-[bring your own license] options and the flexibility of the universal credits model gave us the ability to scale on-demand and provided the agility we needed."

Selling the Cloud Migration Strategy

To convince the leadership team to implement their cloud migration strategy, Johnson and her peers crafted a simple story that made sense—especially to the CFO, who the IT team reports to. They explained how moving to the cloud would save over $1 million per year and eliminate the issues that Alliance Data Systems was having with its data center provider.

"I also partnered closely with our key business senior leaders, keeping them involved and updated along the way so they felt a part of the journey," she said. "As a woman technology leader, I have had to prove that I know the technology just as well as the next person. I leverage the knowledge that my team leaders have and allow them to teach me what I don't know. I also read and regularly attend conferences, so I know what is happening with technology trends. I also feel personally responsible to ensure our teams have everything they need to be successful. I ask a lot of questions, encourage the team to take risks, and am not afraid to be aggressive with our timelines and scope."

"Setting the right expectations with the stakeholders and teams is critical for the move to cloud," Johnson said. In addition to making the business case for cloud to help secure funding, she and the other members of the senior leadership team also bid the cloud implementation out to a few strategic partners and selected the best fit.

"Once the implementation partner team was engaged and contracts with Oracle signed, our teams worked diligently to support the migration to OCI and to upgrade all our critical Oracle applications to the latest and greatest versions," Johnson said.  "We did it all in six months … from contract negotiation to go-live."

A key to the project's success was keeping customers informed along the way and educating them about the cloud.

"We made sure they understood that the OCI cloud in particular is secure and that having Oracle applications on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure ensures a specific level of consistency and reliability," Johnson said.

Alliance Data Systems also took an agile approach to its cloud migration strategy, incorporating daily scrums and two-week sprints.

"It was an exciting and rewarding project, so we made sure to celebrate the wins along the way," Johnson said. "Celebrating wins can be an afterthought, but I believe the more you celebrate accomplishments, the more productive teams are. If the team members know they did a good job and are appreciated, they will do even better the next time and become even more invested in the work they do. On the flip side, if you do not celebrate accomplishments or reward teams for the work they have done, you will see the inverse. … Their level of personal investment in their work will decrease. As a woman leader, I tend to be more focused on the team dynamics and really seek to understand what motivates people and how each person is uniquely designed to do their role."

Lessons Learned

I asked Johnson if she had any advice for other companies considering cloud, now that Alliance Data Systems has been through the journey.

"Don't be afraid to take risks … and to get closer to being on the cutting edge of things," she said. "Don't wait for others to show you the way … make your own path. With our OCI journey, we had some concerns initially about whether the platform was ready. … Well, the platform is ready, so you just need to take the leap and don't look back. Take advantage of Oracle on Oracle. … If your portfolio is primarily Oracle, this is almost a no-brainer."

"Lastly, as a woman in technology, learn all you can. Take advantage of conferences and webinars, and maybe join a local tech group. Stay up on industry trends so you can, again, make your own path. If you are a woman leader in technology or any other industry … don't be afraid to be your authentic self."

Check out Alliance Data Systems' case study for more details on how they migrated Oracle PeopleSoft, Hyperion and OBIEE to OCI, and the business benefits they are seeing so far. And watch this video to hear Johnson discuss the migration further:

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