Digital transformation: An interview with YLD’s Fábio Oliveira

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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital transformation has taken on increasing importance with companies across all industries realising the need to promptly react and adapt their businesses as the future becomes less and less predictable. However, for industries that at the beginning of 2020 still had a heavy non-digital core (e.g., publishing, retail and health care), moving towards a digital-first mindset has been received with both excitement and fear.

Looking back to the start of last year, while some businesses already worked with a model of digital transformation (mainly due to them being already deep-rooted in online culture), others were years away from its reality and so were forced to learn on the go. The adoption as well as adaptation to this new digital world was indeed a rollercoaster for these companies; full of uncertainties, risk and question marks. With the future of a large percentage of businesses worldwide now hinged on digital transformation, one can only envision what changes 2021 and the consequent years may bring.

Although the concept is widely known, it is difficult to give one clear definition of digital transformation, as each industry would define it differently but nevertheless ‘correctly’. The most common view is of digital transformation being a certain consolidation of digital technology into all areas of a business. It is also defined as a cultural shift that requires the adoption of a new mindset which sometimes results in changing previously fixed processes within an organisation. Some of the reasons that companies move towards this model include greater profitability, notable agility, friction reduction, progressing data-driven decisions and insights on performance.

According to a research paper from the International Conference on System Science 2017, digital transformation goes back to the 80s — more precisely to the development of electronic data interchange (EDI) systems that paved their way for paperless procedures in the 1960s and 1970s. Fast-forward to now and digital transformation has become a buzzword with the pandemic reinforcing the urgency of rapid, yet sound, adoption. To develop further on this topic we have invited our Managing Director Fábio Oliveira to share his thoughts on what the future holds for the tech industry.

2020 is a year marked by many drastic and unexpected changes. It also happened to be your first year at YLD as Managing Director. In retrospect, what was the biggest challenge for you?

Looking back at 2020 I knew it was going to be a challenging year from the very start; I just didn’t know the full extent of it. Last year our targeted focus at YLD was to double down on our work in consulting — both engineering and design — and let go of some other efforts we had worked with during the previous couple of years. Whilst coming up with this plan we also saw the need to create the right capabilities for our team to be able to advise customers directly and lead them through a journey of success.

I believe the biggest challenge for us at YLD was to keep delivering successful results to our clients and manage to advise them during a very challenging time across almost all industries. On top of this, we had to work on securing and strengthening the partnerships and relationships we had with our current client base. Looking back at the year I think we have made some remarkable achievements and advances.

How different was it from what you initially thought it would be?

We had a great start, the first quarter of 2020, but obviously with COVID-19 hitting in March everything changed. It’s definitely hard to imagine how businesses would have behaved without the COVID-19 pandemic being involved. What happened at YLD was that we weren’t able to achieve the goals that we originally set mainly because of how the market reacted — as a result, we had to pause our plans for almost nine months. By the end of 2020 industries and companies had started to move again and thus our plans now are being revived and rolled out for a second time. It wasn’t that they failed or we had to look at things from a different perspective — there was just a pressing need to hold back in order to deal with the new pressures that affected each and every industry. With ever-changing variables and conditions, we still see our ongoing transformation as something that adds value to our customers, and that’s what we work towards.

COVID-19 has fostered the process of digitalisation and innovation among different companies. Do you think these tech advances will last for years to come? Or as many of these were fast-tracked in their build they will most likely not have the longevity to become permanent?

One tech advance we have seen in the last few years relates to the digitisation of documents — scanning and sending out forms including digital signatures and moving to an ‘online only’ presence — the new norm if these businesses wanted to survive. However digital transformation is more than simply transforming what was ‘material’ into digital or physical; creative ways to produce original products and services are needed to foster innovation processes. Some of these features have existed for a while (for instance digital signatures have long been introduced around the EU and the UK) although the uptake from companies utilising them is still limited. That brings the real question; why don’t we use the digital capabilities that are right in front of us? I believe it mostly happens due to a cultural shift that hasn’t taken place yet and that is the missing step here. What I’ve seen in most cases during 2020 is that we get stuck in processes that don’t necessarily add any value, and it’s highly important to look at things from a digital perspective; having a digital-first culture in mind.

Trying now to imagine whether these tech advances will last once this pandemic is over depends on the industry we are talking about. Looking at the bigger picture one can see that most of the companies have somehow been able to adapt. However, the common belief is that many of these changes won’t last for a long time. On one hand, I believe that things like remote work and the digitisation of content and processes will be easy to keep going. On the other hand, as industries at large experienced a very sudden and somewhat chaotic swing to remote working, they may now try to dial that down, reset and step back to regain some of the ‘control’ they had before. The key point for me is to find the right balance — instead of jumping precipitately into any change, it’s important to analyse and reflect wisely on what works best for each company individually.

What we, as tech leaders, need to be aware of is how much impact we have in people’s lives; taking responsibility for decision-making as never before. Last year everyone started to work remotely with many having no previous experience of how to handle the work-life balance. Listening in to ‘The Future Of Work’ conference at the beginning of February this year Josh Graff, UK Country Manager and VP at Linkedin, spoke of his reaction when asked at the beginning of the pandemic by his staff to explain how things were going to change for them. In a countrywide meeting he replied that it would be ‘Business As Normal’. This hit an awful note — how could things possibly be normal? Within 24 hours he had re-addressed the situation saying he was wrong in this and he accepts nothing about this is or would be ‘normal’. The priorities of the company had changed and now the most important was to look after people’s families, and mental wellbeing — and to me, this is an example of great leadership.

The question leaders must pose, and the one that he originally missed, is how would these abrupt and severe changes affect people in the long run and that includes the potential impact on their health, and what can companies do to ease its negative impact? There is already legislation coming in on how companies need to set limits on remote work for precisely this reason and we will certainly see them taking place in the near future.

In this manner, I believe digitalisation is here to stay although there is a huge amount of work that needs to be done. Progress cannot and will not be satisfied with the success of ‘scanning in documents and sending them by email’, which is where some sectors are stuck — there are a myriad of other options to move companies ever forward. That’s exactly where companies like YLD come in; we try to think of innovative ways for businesses to adapt other company’s work to the digital world.

During the last year, have you come across any great examples of digital transformation?

If we think about a company that ‘profited’, not only from a financial perspective but also grew in its user base, we would look at Microsoft. They were able to do something that has been ongoing for a while, but the pandemic proved the relevancy of it. Microsoft has been ‘bundling’ all of their products into their Office365 offering for years now and what actually happened was that all of a sudden people that never knew how to collaborate online or never used video conferencing or workspace chats before (because they were seated in the same office so saw no need for these tools) had to go home and work remotely. They needed to communicate with each other and Teams did everything for them. I personally believe that it’s one of the biggest and untold victories from last year.

Another great example of innovation was a jump in the adoption of digital payments, with wearables providing contactless payments and including services such as Google or Apple Pay.

According to Wired, ‘the COVID-19 crisis has become an inflexion point for trends such as online banking, mobile payments and bill splitting apps, with growth seen in all areas’. The future of payment is indeed beyond the usual physical card — necessity being a driving force for a large adoption of what had already been ‘in process’ for quite some time. However, increased usage of digital payments requires higher levels of cybersecurity. Within the first months of the pandemic we saw how susceptible even the largest businesses are to cyber-attacks and fraudsters; that’s why security must follow, and sometimes even precede the innovation.

YLD has long been an advocate for remote working and flexible hours and the ongoing pandemic has definitely highlighted the benefit of both. How do you think companies have benefited from moving to online meetings and work? Do you see this continuing after COVID-19 passes?

Our objective at the beginning of this pandemic was to be a role model to our clients, showing that one should adopt digital transformation when it makes business sense, and not because everyone else around is doing it. For the past six years I’ve had the option to work from any office at YLD or just from my home — it was all about being flexible and allowing people to do their best in the best way possible. Now from a personal perspective during the last few years, I’ve not actually felt comfortable working from home as the level of stress could get really high. This last year I was forced to do it and with this, I felt out of my comfort zone. At YLD we’ve always had some people who worked remotely and others who have worked both from the office and their homes. Therefore the questions that arose at the beginning of last year’s lockdown were:

How can we be an effective company having all our people working remotely?


How can we also help our clients achieve success at the same high level as before?

I believe the example we at YLD set for our clients was the biggest achievement in 2020.

During the last year, our society went through massive changes and it’s foolish to think that once things are back to ‘normal’ everything will be as it was. From my perspective, the tech advances that are taking place now are here to stay. We were forced to implement and experience every change without having any safety net, facing the ‘cultural shift’ that I mentioned earlier. Everyone had to learn on the go which resulted in us now not being phased by unexpected changes. I believe what we have also gained from this experience is flexibility; we now know when it is appropriate to use certain measures, and when it’s not. A new movement has started; one where we can only guess what is to come and I, for one, can’t say I’m not excited to see what the future holds for us.

Over the last few years we have also been talking about ‘pockets of talent’ — an initiative that we were eager to adopt — hiring people regardless of their location. It was a chance for us to attract and hire exceptionally talented people from anywhere in the world (although time zones are sometimes important to bear in mind too). Today this would hardly be possible without a remote working mindset and it is one we are hoping we can keep up with for the years ahead of us.

Serendipity is one of the most important elements to provide space for innovative thinking and ideas. What advice would you give to keep up with it while working from home?

From a leadership perspective, it’s already hard when you are in the office and you have to interact, share your thoughts and constantly communicate with those around you. 2020 however showed us it’s even harder to stay at home, not have the same constant communications and make complex decisions in isolation. Since March last year there has been a steady flow of advice on how to cope however it would never, and could never, have been a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Meditating, for example, might not work for you where it does for me; we are different people and we all have different needs. One thing I lean towards is being pragmatic and thinking my ideas through — it’s not about delaying decisions but more about not making any rushed ones. The key component is to think from different perspectives, collect multiple pieces of information and make sure you are actually considering the options available to you. It may sound simple when you are working alone physically as one can easily get ‘blinkered’ — this is something you have to be mindful of and keeping your communication channels open can be the saviour here.

When it comes to technology and how we can foster communication between people, there are a few points to mention. Conversations I have been having with other tech leaders made me realise that public chats on Slack or Teams have actually decreased during the pandemic whilst private ones remained. That’s why one of the ways to encourage more inter-team communication is by having more conversations in open channels; moving them from a private message to a group chat can really help make people feel involved. But how do we frame this in a way that would be interesting to people external to the conversation? Small descriptions can, for instance, catch someone’s attention faster than just dropping a link into a chat — I would recommend always giving a personal touch there. It’s not just about putting content out there; it’s how we target it to be as effective as possible, and how we act on it. What tech leaders, engineers and experts of all departments really need to focus their attention on is ways to include and engage people in these discussions.

What, personally, has allowed you the success you have had in the role of a Leader in tech?

From the managing perspective at YLD, one of the main responsibilities of a leader is to bring the domain knowledge that our company has and advise clients on the best practices to achieve the most successful results. Having followed all the progression steps — from being a consultant on the ground to now being a Managing Director — allows me to look at things from a variety of perspectives with a broad sense of knowing what most certainly will, and what possibly won’t work for each client. It also allows me to adapt my complete style, as well as language used when speaking to a commercial department (as they might not have any background in tech) compared to speaking with a senior engineering leader.

Another important feature in the role of a tech leader is thinking about how we can foster client relationships and help them understand the impact working with YLD will have on their businesses. For this, building relationships with a foundation of trust is vital; having the ability to deliver on tech promises and expertise whilst strengthening business ties. From my point of view, the tech team’s role is about nurturing those relationships with clients so we can work together to create the change that is needed for their businesses to progress.

Overall having that ‘across the board’ view — technical, financial and management expertise — allows me to lead YLD and its clients to successful transformations and outcomes.

This year what direction will YLD adopt and why? Any advice you could give to other companies who are looking to digitally transform in 2021 — to adapt to new demands, to reposition themselves or just to better their services?

In terms of direction, YLD is more focused now on consulting and advising our clients than ever before. Due to the current events, it’s also important for us to see where companies will go in a post-pandemic world. Our clients will need to adapt to new ways of working and to different ways of interacting with their customers as everything around us continues to move and then, hopefully, settle. All things considered, some further cultural shifts will most likely take place in our society, mainly around how we continue to interact with digital products.

For the year ahead of us YLD is focusing on being able to teach and lead clients through any transformation needed, in ways that are valuable to them. For companies at large, the advice is to pay attention to the cultural impact of their transformation strategies, making sure these are in place towards different segments of their customers, able to achieve proper impact and assimilations of all those transformations. It’s not just about digitising or embarking on a transformation for the sake of it — in the end, it needs to be something that brings value to the end customers and users.

We’ve seen that with previous clients — for instance with DAZN — a global platform for sports streaming that at its core provides democratic access to sports events all over the world. Another example is Trainline — making sure that their customers can purchase and plan trips around Europe by train effectively in what is now a contactless world. These small changes are in fact the ones that lead to greater changes; what I mean by that is adjusting the transformations that companies find important and beneficial for them, adapting those in ways that actually bring value to their customers.

The ongoing pandemic has made clear that digital transformation is a core ingredient for a successful future. When old rules and instruments do not fit anymore or show themselves less capable, the time for new tools and mindsets has come. It is important however to know when, and how to indulge in digital transformation, adapt it to the company’s needs and capabilities. The future is uncertain yet companies need to pave the way to progression, and upgrading their digital proficiency is one of the first steps to take. More than ever before, agility and speed are required to respond to constant change. However, at the same time companies need to slow down, reassess and find solutions that will fit their needs in the best way. In a sea of uncertainties one thing we now know is that for a company to remain competitive in the post-COVID-19 world, digital transformation for both customer and employee experience is a must.

Digital transformation: An interview with YLD’s Fábio Oliveira
was originally published in YLD Blog on Medium.
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