Pivotal Perspectives—Thinking About Mobile and How it Changes What You Do

May 6, 2015 Simon Elisha

featured-pivotal-podcastThe move to Mobile is pervasive in all businesses. Smartphones are pervasive in the community, and new devices such as the Apple Watch continue to evolve and accelerate the Mobile experience.

But what does this do to current ways of running and emanating IT? How do you keep pace? Can you use the same staff? What are some of the pitfalls to avoid?

This week I am joined by Farhan Thawar who is VP Engineering at Pivotal Labs Toronto. He brings a rich, real-world perspective to Mobile app development and what it takes to do it successfully.

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Transcript

Announcer:
Welcome to the Pivotal Perspectives Podcast, the podcast of the intersection of Agile, Cloud, and Big Data. Stay tuned for regular updates, technical deep dives, architecture discussions, and interviews. Now let’s join Pivotal’s Australia and New Zealand’s CTO, Simon Elisha, for the Pivotal Perspective’s Podcast.

Simon Elisha:
Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the Pivotal Perspective’s Podcast, a small name change just to refine how we position but the same good content, hopefully. We hope you enjoy it. This week I’m joined by a special guest, Farhan Thawar, who is our VP of Engineering in Pivotal Labs in Toronto. Welcome, Farhan.

Farhan Thawar:
Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Simon Elisha:
Fantastic that you could make the time because I know you’ve got some really cool and interesting things to talk about specifically about mobile. Mobile is clearly a massive shift in the market place in IT, in the branches of IT. I don’t think there’s one enterprise customer I speak to that doesn’t have multiple mobile initiatives going on. It’s interesting seeing that transition. One of the key things I’ve seen with the advent of mobile is that enterprise IT suddenly has to deal with hundreds of thousands if not millions of users whereas before then they only had to deal with an internal constituency of customers that were accessing their systems. It changes the world a lot. People may look at that and say, “Well, yeah, that’s likely. We’ve got websites. Now we do mobile. How different could it be?” Can you give us some perspective on how mobile is different from just the standard web-based experience?

Farhan Thawar:
Yeah. I think people … You’re right. People are approaching it in 1 of 2 ways. Some folks are saying, “Right, let’s just think about web development. Now we just have to move to mobile, right?” Same thing, different screen size. Then other enterprises who are more advance are actually taking in in a much deeper way in saying, “You know what, this is an opportunity for us to change the way we interact with our employees and our customers.” What we’re seeing with our customers is like you mentioned, Simon, the usage patterns are completely different, right? One example is in financial services, take banking. A few years ago, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, you probably check your bank account balance once a week on the web. Today, some of our banking clients, we’re seeing users check their bank account balance 30 or 40 times a day. That’s quite a shift, yeah. It’s crazy. You would think why would they be doing that?

Simon Elisha:
What are they expecting to see?

Farhan Thawar:
Yeah. I mean what’s happening is they’re either waiting for a direct deposit. They’re waiting a bill payment to go through. They have the ability because it’s mobile, right, they could check it as often as they want to. They’re not tied to any location. They’ve got those services available to them so they can actually get account balance information updated. The infrastructures that are required to change in the back-end are enormous because no matter how popular you thought your mobile app might be, maybe 10 times more popular, this is much, much more than that.

Simon Elisha:
You really can’t predict. It’s interesting you talk about customers finding different usage patterns, etc. One of the kind of early trends I saw with mobile and I’ll call financial services out in this one is that there was this big rush to just have a mobile presence. There was a lot of taking kind of generic apps off the shelf and skinning them and doing that sort of thing. Have we moved through that phase? Do you think are we now in that true phase of let’s actually create a proper customer experience that’s unique to our institution?

Farhan Thawar:
Yeah. It’s interesting that you said that because we actually modeled this exact transition when we talked to our customers and who we’re talking to, right. At the beginning of mobile, you really were talking to the marketing department, right. The marketing department is really tasked with how do we bring in new users to this channel, right. It was more campaign focused, more short term, how do we get folks. It is like you mentioned, website focused almost, like hey, this is a channel to get folks in the door. Then what happened was the dollar shift move from marketing to product. Then the product team starts saying, “You know what, we can reimagine an entire new product experience on mobile.” The dollars, the order magnitude of dollars went up by one magnitude going from marketing to product. Then now what we’re seeing in this 3rd wave, right, in 2015, is that the IT department is becoming involved because what’s happening is the shift from just product is moving towards internal systems in being able to support those products in completely different ways. So again we’re seeing an order of magnitude dollar change in mobile.

Simon Elisha:
It really does put pressure on the whole kind of IT value chain, doesn’t it? Yeah. You can’t just have these magical apps living out there with your consumer base and not refresh and evolve and transform the things you’re doing internally.

Farhan Thawar:
Yeah.

Simon Elisha:
It kind of changes the whole process, does it?

Farhan Thawar:
Yeah. It’s because of mobile and the consumer experience which is changing the business experience, right? If you are a consumer of mobile applications which many people are now, my parents, they only use their iPad, they are going to expect to see the same sort of experience in the workplace. If you are using Facebook and Twitter and your banking applications and getting your news and information through very rich mobile experiences, you’re going to want that same experience from your company, right? You want all of your work resources on your mobile phone. I should be able to interact with all the information that I need, connect with my work colleagues just like I connect with my personal colleagues. What’s happening is … We’re not doing it just because it’s nice to have. It actually becomes an imperative to be able to do that in your business. Companies have to say, “Well, how do we embrace mobile development internally for employees as well as our customers?”

Simon Elisha:
That’s really interesting attending the technology inwards. You’re right. The expectations of technology from internal customers is huge now. It’s far strict what used to be the case. If you look even five or even spin back 10 years ago, you could get much better technology from your internal IT department you could buy yourself because of the cost of things and the types of devices available. Now you could probably do yourself a lot better just going out to various stores yourself collecting a whole lot of softwares and service and you can have a better experience. People’s expectations have certainly increased.

Farhan Thawar:
Right. Now what’s happening is you’re seeing that the consumer experiences have far outpaced the internal experiences and now what we’re seeing is instead of you wanting to have a business experience in your consumer life, you now want to have the consumer experience in your business life. What’s happening is it’s not only front end. I think some people start looking at mobile and say, “What’s the big deal? I just have to write an iOS app and everything works after that.” I think folks are forgetting that when you see massive scale changes like the banking example I gave earlier or being able to have folks access the data that they need at the time that they need it whether as a consumer or a business, you’re going to need an infrastructure change.

Simon Elisha:
On that, that’s a very good point because as human beings we kind of are attracted to bright, shiny objects. There are a few brighter, shinier objects and cool designed apps on your mobile handset. Certainly labs leads the way into the same world. Design has to be good. It has to look good. It has to be responsive. It has to work really well on your handset. Let’s talk from an architectural perspective. What’s kind of the bottom part of the iceberg when we’re developing a mobile app? What about the back-end compared to the client side?

Farhan Thawar:
Yeah, sure. I think there’s a few things to remember about mobile. One is we talked about scale. The scale is much, much larger and the reason is because the usage patterns are so different, right? One is people may just interact with you many, many, many more times, right, in mobile. Because of the access to their mobile device much more so than their laptop or desktop, that’s going to change. The second thing is just the number of times you interact with this. The number of people that can interact is much larger too. You have this compounding effect of more people, more engagement, then depending on how many different mobile apps you have they might engage with you more even just over more sessions. Many businesses and consumer apps now actually have multiple apps in the app store which you talked about earlier where you’re not just going to interact with your bank on 1 app. You might have an account balance app, like your regular banking app. You might have a trading app. You might have seen apps now coming out from banks for cash management online. We’re seeing lots of different scenarios where people may interact with you for many, many times for many different reasons plus there’s just more people interacting with you. That requires separate infrastructure on your back end to enable that. That’s just 1 piece.

The 2nd piece is that mobile devices and mobile operating systems are just changing at such a rapid rate, right? We’re already on iOS 8.3 and Apple will announce iOS 9. Just those changes in operating systems, in devices, in form factors, in iOS and in Android, you’re going to have the need to be able to update your infrastructure very, very quickly to support those things. That rapid ability to write applications quickly, provision, deploy them very, very quickly, requires you to have something like a PaaS, a platform as a service to enable that type of functionality.

Simon Elisha:
Sure. It becomes that speed versus complexity discussion where as you said, we’re trying to release more frequently. We’re trying to support more things more quickly. We need to have the environments in which the development are tested and the production rolled at, it will need to be at scale. All those patterns of distributed systems that we talked about often on the podcast, of scalable data storage, of a robust platform all come in to play. Now, when we talk about some of these things, obviously a lot of the organizations have in terms of engineers both on the developer and the operation side. How hard is it for them to wrap their heads around what mobile is doing? Do you end up with separate teams, completely separate skill sets? How do you marry together front-end and back-end teams?

Farhan Thawar:
Yeah.

Simon Elisha:
Obviously a lot of experience that space. Would be great to get some perspective.

Farhan Thawar:
Yeah. I think there’s a lot of different ways to think about it. One is that you can literally take like your server side, back-end engineer, and put them on mobile. Most of the times that the skill sets are quite different. We’re talking about different languages, different operating systems and different concerns. I’ll just give you 1 example of those concerns, right? In the web world, when you’re thinking about the network and people, there are laws and distributing, computing, and talks about the network is typically slower than you would expect. What happens in the web world is when something is slower, things just take longer. In mobile, in some cases when the network gets slower, maybe you’re going from 3 bars of signal to 2 bars, your application may crash, right? It’s actually quite a different pattern to start thinking about the things in the mobile world. We don’t really see a lot of back-end folks moving over easily to mobile. One way in which you can do that is via like a mentorship or pair programming model where you’re actually taking 2 engineers with complete different skill sets and having them mentor and work with each other in order to get that front-end and back-end experience overlap. Outside of that it can be very, very costly to retrain an entire workforce outside of pair programming which is much more rapid way of acquiring those skills.

The other thing to think about is because you’ve got such a cross section of disciplines required for mobile, engineering, product, QA, design. Each one of those things is completely different. It’s not just that you’re transforming 1 function of the workforce. You have to build the muscle in all these different areas at once in order to have a great experience. Your employees and users will know if you haven’t done all those things because you’ll end up with a product that misses the mark.

Simon Elisha:
I think you’re being generous there. I would say you often come across some pretty crappy apps today. This is not designed the way it should be designed. They could do a lot better than this sort of thing.

Farhan Thawar:
Right, right.

Simon Elisha:
I guess there’s no hiding. When you’re pushing an app to the app store, there’s no hiding how good or bad it is from that.

Farhan Thawar:
Right, exactly, because the reviews will tell you. They’ll tell you in many ways if your business strategy is wrong because they might even … they’ll say, “Oh, I don’t expect to pay for an application like this or I don’t think that we should have these types of rules on the content that we get.” I think it’s a good feedback mechanism for folks. I think that that’s just another example of having to be able to react quickly and releasing something every 9 months, right, isn’t going to get you excellence in mobile. It’s actually going to … It’s probably going to be better for you to not enter the mobile space if you can only deploy things every 9th.

Simon Elisha:
It’s true. It’s interesting with both Android and iOS doing this sort of background updating of apps. We don’t even sort of consciously upgrade them anymore. It just happens. I’m so used to all my apps, constantly with a little feature here, a little upgrade there. It’s just normal.

Farhan Thawar:
Right.

Simon Elisha:
If you are not able to execute on that, then you’re going to fall behind pretty far.

Farhan Thawar:
Yeah. I think that again, that leads to the idea that you need some sort of platform to help you, right, because you want to be able to say okay, that’s front-end client code but we always say the following, really good apps have really really good back-ends, right? That’s how you know if an app experience works really well is because you’ve got a dance between the front-end and a back-end that works really really well for mobile. You have to have a back-end platform that supports that. Now, one thing that’s good about this whole, you’re talking about a lot, Simon, in the podcast is the whole idea around micro-services and platform as a service is that those exact patterns are what you can use for mobile. Once you start thinking about that approach and saying let’s think about things in a 12 factor way and let’s really build applications and not have to worry about the infrastructure and let’s have engineers and product have the same environment from development to staging to production. Those exact things are the exact same thing you need for mobile. It’s really great that the new world, the new paradigm shift into this third wave, is one that supports mobile as a first class citizen. It’s really good. What we’re doing also at Pivotal is trying to then build first class mobile services on top of the PaaS to enable those great experiences for our customers.

Simon Elisha:
Yeah. Let’s talk into that. If you think about Pivotal Cloud Foundry, we think about it … I think most people would think about primarily from that back-end support base. It gives you that very elastic, scalable, resilient framework to build your applications on the servicing your back-end components. I think about APIs, etc. data storage, what have you. There is some nuances for mobile and some specific service for mobile that make it important. You’re at sort of the cutting edge of development on the mobile platforms, etc. It would be really good to get your perspective of what Pivotal Cloud Foundry can do in the mobile space for our customers.

Farhan Thawar:
Yeah. There’s kind of a few different ways to think about it. One is that the platform is really designed to enable great mobile back-ends. Regardless of the mobile services that you may or not use from Pivotal Cloud Foundry, really we think about it as a PaaS requires first class mobile support and mobile requires first class pass. Those things go hand in hand because of all the issues we talked about earlier. In alignment with that, we’ve also build out mobile services that allow folks to build really compelling applications in mobile but then take advantage of mobile services so you’re not having to go. Either use a third party SaaS that you may not be happy with from either reliability perspective, SLA, security, cost, whatever reason, maybe you don’t want your information to leave your walls before going to a mobile device. All those reasons allows it to build great applications on top of the services on Cloud Foundry. The ones that are available today, we have a push notification service that is being used in production by one of the major sports leagues. We have API gateway which allows you to take an existing back-end infrastructure. You already have working for the web and really transform those back-end APIs for use on mobile, right, aggregate APIs. Potentially you need to hit 8 APIs to get some information for mobile screen. You could do all that on the server side and shoot out something nice for the mobile device. We have data sync which is a key value store in the cloud.

It’s interesting when we talk to clients, one of the questions that they asked us when we’re building mobile apps is do we need a server for this back-end app and we always say, well, yeah, you probably want to store some information. You might have some preferences information or customization. Right away they say, “Well, that’s going to take us 9 to 12 months to provision.” That’s how the data sync service was created, right, because we said well what if we had a service that was a key value store that you could use and they’re like right away they were like wow, that would allow us to build something very very quickly. These are all born out of problems like that that we saw with the existing customer base that we have built hundreds of mobile apps for over the years.

Simon Elisha:
It’s interesting because you’re right. The common use case is kind of table stakes to have in your app, but if you did not execute them well, you’ll get those poor reviews, you’ll get that bad customer experience and also it can be hard. You think about notifications in itself. If you want to notify on iOS, on Android, on Blackberry or Windows, I mean you talk about 4 different APIs, 4 different setups, etc. Whereas if you can just wrap it into 1 abstracted service that they can run on the platform, be managed by the platform, and be as portable as a platform using cross multiple clouds and on premise deployments. That gives you a lot of control that you probably don’t usually have.

Farhan Thawar:
Yeah. I think one way to think about it is as you’re running IT for a large organization, as the proliferation of these third party SaaS services becomes something of an issue for you, right, where you’ve got this third party SaaS analytics platform, third party SaaS push notifications, third party SaaS key value store, It’s really, really hard to manage the security authentication, authorization required. If you’re a bank for example, you probably aren’t supposed to use any of those services at all. What we try to do is say let’s build these into the platform, allow you to manage and control them, scale them up, scale them down, then work with us on helping us define the roadmap for those things. That ends up being a win-win for everybody because you’ve got within your 4 walls the ability to kind of operate your own infrastructure but you are not starting from zero.

Simon Elisha:
Exactly. You’re starting from again that platform perspective. If you look at any of the internet giants of the posted children of the new platform age, none of them are building from a blank canvas. They’re all using a platform of some description or have gone through many platforms or evolved platforms and we’re trying to say standing on the shoulders of giants here and invest in a platform for yourself that gets your developers going fast so that it gets your operations team working more efficiently and helps get these mobile apps out faster. I know you guys do a lot of mobile app development and you’re seeing a lot of demand for things. I don’t think things are slowing down at all.

Farhan Thawar:
No. What we’re seeing is only acceleration, right? I mean one example, right? I mean I am wearing an Apple watch, right? The consumption pattern for an Apple watch is going to completely again change the paradigm, right? If you thought that let’s say example, like Uber which I use on both my phone and now my watch. You’re just going to see another set function again in the amount of times that I can interact with the Uber application than we did with my phone, right? One example is I would call Uber from my phone and then I wait for the car to come. I was always pulling out my phone to figure out where is the car, what’s the license plate of the car, right? All those things now are much, much easier on the watch than on the phone which means another order of magnitude increased to the amount of times the round trip between my watch and the Uber application in the back-end, right? You’re going to see that same thing about to happen. Banking is going to be the same. All those sorts of examples where those you think that … You thought you understood the consumption patterns of the users will again change once people have much more access to it like with the watch or a wearable for example.

Simon Elisha:
Definitely. That’s one of the challenges and I think one of the exciting parts of IT is that it is always changing. I know some folks find that a little bit hard because I just figured out this mobile thing now but there’s much to worry about as you say. I can imagine people frantically checking and watching all the time for new information and everything is changing all the time. If the fundamentals are there of reliable platforms, distributed systems, robust storage approaches, efficient operations, etc., that’s how to get ahead of the game, ahead on top of this. Clearly taking some of those thought process into what you are doing becomes really important.

Farhan Thawar:
I think the next wave, when you think about we talked about the operationalization of the wave of the amount of usage, think about what we think we haven’t touched today is on data, right? There isn’t anything today that’s going to generate as much data as mobile or as now we’re starting to hit the acronym IoT much more often, right? What’s happening with mobile is there’s just loads and loads of data being generated. In order for you to effectively analyze and reason over that data set in an uncovered insight, you really want to store all of that yourself. You really want to be able to say well, where’s all this data that I have been generating for my customers and my employees? How do I use that to uncover new business opportunities and potentially even just new features for my applications? If you are using a third party SaaS again for analytics, that might be step 1. If you really want to query that data in a custom way, you can’t do that through a Third party SaaS tool. You really have to have the data in your own data center. We’re seeing a real merging between the use cases around pass and data because mobile is really driving the connection there because there’s so much data being generated by mobile devices and IoT as an example.

Simon Elisha:
Absolutely. It’s a huge area and I think, Farhan, I’m going to have you back on another episode and we can dive deep on that side because certainly that’s where … If you think about mobile being the customer experience and the advantage from that perspective, the rich data sources to correct new customer experiences or the junior customer experience is to find a new product offering is massive. We’re saying some really innovative and interesting things being done in various industries. I think we should have a chat about that another time soon.

Farhan Thawar:
Sounds good.

Simon Elisha:
Excellent. Thanks so much for your time, Farhan. It’s been great to have you board. I’m sure our listeners got a lot out of it. Thanks for talking to us today.

Farhan Thawar:
No problem. Thank you for having me.

Simon Elisha:
Thanks everyone for listening. Great to have you on board. As always, please do give us your feedback. If there’s things you’d like to see and have a bit of feedback likely of some topics that will be coming down the pipes shortly. Until then, good to talk to you and keep on building.

Announcer:
Thanks for listening to the Pivotal Perspectives Podcast with Simon Elisha. We trust you’ve enjoyed it and ask that you share it with other people who may also be interested. We’d love to hear your feedback. Please send any comments or suggestions to podcast@pivotal.io. We look forward to having you join us next time on the Pivotal Perspectives Podcast.

About the Author

Simon Elisha is CTO & Senior Manager of Field Engineering for Australia & New Zealand at Pivotal. With over 24 years industry experience in everything from Mainframes to the latest Cloud architectures - Simon brings a refreshing and insightful view of the business value of IT. Passionate about technology, he is a pragmatist who looks for the best solution to the task at hand. He has held roles at EDS, PricewaterhouseCoopers, VERITAS Software, Hitachi Data Systems, Cisco Systems and Amazon Web Services.

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