"The cloud is going to change everything!" IT professionals have been hearing that refrain for years. As far back as 2012, Tech Republic reported that routine maintenance and server admin jobs may be phased out as automation and cloud services are proven to deliver as much or more value as on-premises hardware.
Fast-forward to today, and we see that some job descriptions and skills have, indeed, become less critical for maintaining an IT operation. But at the same time, the IT implementers on the front lines aren't seeing their jobs disappear; they're seeing their jobs evolve. As everyday maintenance chores go away, these professionals have more time to focus their talents on business challenges.
In fact, a Cloud Industry Forum survey conducted in March 2017 found that 85 percent of companies have not reduced IT headcount as they embrace cloud services.
This is certainly the case at G&J Pepsi-Cola Bottlers, an Ohio-based beverage company where IT staff oversaw a steady migration from on-premises hardware and software to cloud infrastructure and services. With over 90 percent of the infrastructure running on Microsoft Cloud Services, the IT professionals at G&J are now involved more closely than ever with the business, solving problems and building new solutions as they manage a workforce of 1,600 employees.
In this report, we'll hear from the IT professionals at G&J, in their own words, about their experiences with moving infrastructure, collaboration tools, mobile device management, and business intelligence functions into the cloud.
It Started with a Mailbox
G&J Pepsi is the largest family-owned and -operated Pepsi franchise bottler in the US, serving Ohio and Kentucky. Headquartered in Cincinnati, the company comprises four locations; the actual mixing and bottling happens in Columbus. In addition to packaging and distributing numerous soda brands in bottles and cans, G&J also makes its own bottles and prints its own packaging materials and store displays.
Most of G&J's employees are drivers and merchandisers, who deliver products to stores and other venues and make sure they're displayed prominently. Prior to its embrace of cloud services and mobile devices, these G&J workers started each day with a sheaf of paper instructions for routing and record-keeping. Communicating changes to the field staff and collecting information from them was tedious and time-consuming.
As cloud adoption spread from the server room to the end users, however, the IT professionals at G&J found innovative ways to collect more and better data, more quickly, with significantly less effort.
Eric McKinney, Cloud Services Manager at G&J, recalls the early stages of the company's cloud adoption in 2012:
"Our first real dive into it was with Microsoft Exchange Online. We were at a point where we needed to do a little bit more with our mail server, and we came to the realization that Microsoft Exchange Online was the best fit for us. We dove in with all of Office 365, including SharePoint, OneDrive, the whole suite of products, at the time. That was our first real entry."
"We started with Exchange Online and we saw a lot of great benefit from that," says Nathan Foster, Business Application Manager at G&J. Users appreciated that their mailboxes were no longer limited by data caps, and that they were no longer burdened with managing their own email archives. "Their PST files would land on file servers and that would just compound issues with file storage," Foster says. "We were able to see Exchange Online solve a lot of headaches for us... Users fell in love with the large mailboxes and we started to fall in love with what the cloud could provide us."
"We went from having 20MB mailboxes, probably about seven years ago, to about five years ago it was 100MB mailboxes," McKinney adds. "When you tell them, hey, by the way, you're going to get a 50GB mailbox, that's easy for them, right? Access it anywhere. That was a huge win. It's the storage, the accessibility, collaborating with people internally and externally, outside the organization, that was huge."
The ability to provision 50GB mailboxes seamlessly proved cost-effective, as well. Foster explains that expanding to SharePoint and OneDrive led to even more savings. Replacing file server storage with cloud resources was particularly enticing:
"We were staring down the barrel of a storage upgrade just to keep our users happy with the amount of file server space. We were looking at what it would cost to just buy the equipment to replace what we already had. Huge numbers. If you've ever bought storage, you know what it costs. We were able to move items to the cloud. All of our file server storage, all of our Exchange storage, all of our SharePoint storage -- and not have to replace that equipment. With that equipment also comes a lot of load on us IT people. There's headaches of backups, replications, snapshots. [Worries of] Did all that stuff happen in the way it's supposed to? We don't have to worry about that anymore with the cloud."
Mobility and Collaboration put Workers in the Spotlight
As the value of anytime access to email became apparent, McKinney, Nathan Foster, and his brother Daniel, who is IT Director at G&J, began pushing out productivity and collaboration tools like Microsoft OneNote and Yammer.
"Yammer expanded the communication between all of our employees, from the frontline to the executives," Nathan Foster says. McKinney agrees, pointing to the social sharing features that enable merchandisers to publish their activities company-wide. "We're doing new promotions all the time. We're a very visual organization, so the fact that we can post those pictures and collaborate with a diverse workforce, across multiple locations, and share that information, it's a huge win."
McKinney calls out the Fosters for their work driving OneNote adoption, as well. "Dan and Nate did some innovative stuff by just using OneNote." Instead of handing drivers paper route books and flyers about new promotions, he explains, they put all of the documents in OneNote and stored them in SharePoint. "We can easily, and seamlessly, talk to [everyone from] frontline employees to back office employees," he says.
At that point, however, everyone in the organization needed a cell phone, which is where mobility management enters the picture.
With the widespread adoption of cloud-based processes, the number of company-owned mobile devices - including tablets and smartphones -- exploded from 400 to 1,200. The number of users under management also grew to 1,600. McKinney and the Fosters were now in charge of provisioning the phones and tablets, pushing out apps, protecting sensitive data, and managing a highly distributed and mobile fleet.
"With a larger group, you have more potential issues for problems related to security," Nathan Foster says. Workers may lose their phones, or leave them in the open where someone else may look at their contents. G&J is very aware that its merchandisers cross paths with competitors every day. "If someone leaves a phone that's unlocked, a competitor could pick that up and they could see all of our pricing or any other promotions that we have going on and potentially beat us in the trade, just because somebody decided to leave their phone laying around. We had to be able to push the proper policies to these phones to ensure they were locked out, and if they were lost, that we could wipe them. All the basic security measures that you need to have on a mobile device."
Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS) in the Microsoft Cloud
The answer, for G&J, is Microsoft Enterprise Mobility and Security (EMS), which provides a complete platform for provisioning and managing mobile devices, plus setting and enforcing security policies. Microsoft Intune is the component that handles mobile device policies.
"Intune allows us to push policies easily and ensure that those policies are applied to devices," Nathan Foster says. "We can audit those devices and make sure that all of our devices are protected. We can make sure the devices are properly enrolled, with all the security policies and settings that we want them to have [from] the Intune console."
McKinney points out that some users were concerned about his team "spying" on them by tracking their mobile activities. Taking the time to explain Intune's capabilities -- and showing users exactly what's visible in the console -- helped relieve that fear. "A lot of it was just being transparent, being up-front, telling them what we can do and what we can't do," he says.
Intune enables the IT professionals at G&J to look at fleet-wide dashboards and to drill down to check the status of specific devices; they can also create user groups based on roles and responsibilities. Each group 'profile' includes a specific set of applications and permissions."
As we continue to create more apps and more services, and we continue to put those out to our field members, mobile explodes, and we need a way to manage that," Daniel Foster explains. "It's not only about the sheer number of devices that we're adding, it's also about the disparity between the groups of people that we're managing. So what you deliver to a front-line employee is a lot different than what you deliver to, say, a sales service manager. We need to be able to be flexible in how we deliver apps, how we secure those devices, and how we manage those devices differently across different groups of people. EMS allows us to be flexible in how we manage that."
Daniel Foster adds that management-level employees may have more freedom and fewer security limitations than drivers and merchandisers; Intune enables individual policies to be crafted and applied easily.
The ability to set policies in advance and push sets of applications out to new devices came in handy for Nathan Foster, who created an Intune playbook for enrolling new devices. With the playbook in hand, non-IT administrative staff can log into EMS and enroll a mobile phone without involving IT personnel.
"G&J has eleven buildings across two states, and we only have seven IT people," Nathan Foster says. "Going from 400 users 1,600 users is a huge expansion. So, how do we integrate more members of the business into this process? How do we create a playbook for them to be able to roll out phones on their own? [We don't have] someone in every building to handle this workload. So, we need to be able to share the wealth when someone smashes a phone or loses a phone."
"My role in the EMS rollout was to develop a playbook where we could empower other people in the company to enroll a phone and then have all the other parts of it automated. So, once a phone gets rolled out, all the apps hit, all the policies hit, and it's really just an administrative assistant who is able to take a phone out of the box, enroll it for somebody, hand it to them, and have it be ready to go. Configuration is simple -- it's not even configuration files, it's just point and click inside Intune, telling the system what it's supposed to do per group, assigning the users to the group, and then having them log in to the phone."
McKinney praises Intune's ease of use, pointing out that administrative staffers are comfortable with the interface and that every routine job they can take off IT's plate frees up valuable resources. "Intune has made it a lot easier for our people to get the applications that they need without having to come back into the office. It keeps our people out, in front of our customers, which is where we want them to be. We can still deliver the information, and protect the information that we need, without having to spend a lot of time and effort to do it."
Single Sign-On With Microsoft Azure Active Directory Premium
Microsoft Azure Active Directory Premium integrates with EMS to provide single sign-on for numerous Microsoft and third-party apps, McKinney explains: "It simplified a lot of our log in processes. We're one of the first people to actually have that integrated with ADP, which is our payroll system. So people log in, get their checks. They get their paystubs. They can change their direct deposit information."
The single sign-on and centralized management saves many hours of time and effort, he adds. With 1,600 employees, and turnover affecting some positions, the burden of building and managing individual payroll accounts would ordinarily fall on HR. McKinney and his team have integrated Oracle into the single sign-on app launcher, as well. The goal, he explains, is to deliver every user a consistent experience.
"We were able to do it with Oracle, for our HR IS system, with the same set of credentials. You're in Office 365, you're already hitting your app launcher to go to SharePoint, to go to OneDrive, email, Yammer. For us, it's just another panel in there, integrated and seamless," he says. "We've got dynamic groups in the background that automate a lot of our permissions via roles, and Dan [Foster] did a really good job setting up those roles. He and I have been able to work together to build it so that when people start, we don't really touch a whole lot unless a role changes, but it's almost automated from the point at which they start."
One specific area where Active Directory Premium saves time and energy for the IT professionals at G&J is in password resets. "We've seen self-service password resets drop about 15 percent," McKinney reports. "Users can do it from anywhere. They can do it from their mobile phone, or from another person's PC, reducing the load on our support staff."
Putting this power in the hands of users does not increase risks, McKinney adds, because Active Directory Premium provides comprehensive security reporting. "We get reporting for any type of malicious activity, sign-ons, and password reset activity," he says.
Summarizing the benefits that Azure AD delivers to his organization, McKinney reports:
"It's dynamic group-building. It's single sign-on. It is branding for our tenant, to give it more of a personalized feel. It's really streamlined the process of getting people to the information that they need, and getting them access to [the apps] they need.
Turning Information into a Competitive Asset with Microsoft Power BI
Having moved critical infrastructure to the cloud, then embracing cloud-hosted applications and MDM, the next step for G&J was to leverage those mobile devices in the field and mine the data they collected from store audits, where merchandisers log which products are on the shelves, how long they've been there, and whether any items are running low or out of stock.
"Most recently, we built a store audit application. The audit process was done on paper, up until a couple of years ago. Our folks would go out, they would audit the store, they would write follow ups, cover it with their managers, toss the paper aside, and move on. Then they started moving to OneNote, which made it digital. It went away from paper, but that's not a database, where you're going to mine something out of it. We took that one step further and we built an application that captures those follow ups, captures that data. We submit it, and we send it to Azure Database, and then we turn around and report against it using Power BI. So now, instead of this just being a meeting [between] the salesmen and the supervisor and covering off on this, now we're aggregating all of that data into one warehouse, essentially, and we're reporting on [things like] inventory on display, how many follow-ups, by what chain, by what salesman, by what customer. Now we're looking at all these dimensions and angles for a lot of our activities."
The store audit app provides checkboxes for all the products on display and enables field workers to add comments if they notice pricing errors, misplaced items, or any other problem. The information is reported directly to management, and the speed with which this system enables G&J to re-stock shelves and monitor sales is proving to be a game-changer.
This kind of innovative solution also gets the attention of higher-ups. Chris Witzgall, VP of Information Systems at G&J, describes the benefit of Microsoft Power BI and PowerApps:
"We see a lot of growth and continued emphasis on the applications we're able to provide and develop through the PowerApps capabilities in the Microsoft cloud. The reporting capabilities through Power BI, using [Microsoft] Flow to be able to manage the workflows of the processes, help us provide business solutions without having to go buy them externally. Secondarily, taking those solutions we develop internally, how do we help generate revenue for the company by offering those same solutions out to not only other bottlers that we partner with, but also companies outside of our bottling network that we can help along in that evolution into cloud solutions?"
Witzgall explains that the store audit app is valuable for many other direct-store-delivery (DSD) companies, such as snack chip makers. McKinney has been working in recent weeks to package a version of the app that G&J can license to these other companies. They get all the functionality, reporting, and dashboards, with an app that leverages Microsoft Azure resources.
"The value of that data is the big potential for us," Witzgall says. "It's all about getting the right data points, and then being able to present that data in a meaningful way. That's always been the challenge for us, and I think challenge for most of the industry, is there's lots of data out there. How do you capture it, and how do you get it into the hands of the people making the decisions?"
McKinney credits the time- and labor-saving aspects of cloud computing for enabling these next-generation analytics projects to move forward. "[Cloud] allowed us that time to dive in, with some of our business leaders, understand what they were looking for, and then come up with an even more creative solution than what they were doing already."
IT Skills Evolving In The Cloud Era
The move from maintaining boxes in a server room to consulting on critical business projects seems drastic, but it's part of the natural evolution for IT professionals who grasp the potential of cloud services.
"I've transitioned from handling networks and mail servers and data storage to business analyst-type stuff," Nathan Foster reports. "I'm analyzing data. I'm collecting data. I'm integrating systems together. It's been a change, but it's a lot more fun work, a lot less stressful work, [and] a lot less worry about the systems I build. If I go on vacation, is somebody going to call me in the middle of my vacation? All those [infrastructure] systems are just out in the cloud and they run the way they're supposed to. I don't have to worry about that stuff anymore. So, in that sense, my job has changed for the better and it's a pretty exciting transition."
Daniel Foster says that the organizational commitment to cloud came along with a commitment to retrain staff: "The team made a commitment to move to the cloud, and as we transitioned into the cloud, we transitioned our skillsets along with that. Going to the cloud doesn't happen overnight. There's plenty of time for you to be a part of the project and migrate systems into the cloud, and also gain that additional skillset as you move along with all the services. We certainly don't have any less work to do. It may change how we work and what we work on, but it certainly has not changed the amount of work.
"I'm used to being in a server room. Used to racking servers, installing software, configuring software, and with cloud, I'm transitioning to more of a soft skillset," Daniel Foster continues. "You're starting to talk to people. You go out, and you meet with your sales managers. You meet with your executives. You start to be that bridge between technology and the business. Being that key cog that could bridge the gap between technology and the business is really powerful."
McKinney points out that the increased exposure to other sides of the business brings new respect and admiration for IT talent. "We've acted as consultants to our business," he explains. "Here's what they need, here's the services that we have, and if we can't provide it, we'll build our own solution. We're not going to stay behind the scenes and hide behind our servers. We're getting out, in front of the business, and we're trying to lead our business and be a partner in our business.
"It's actually people skills that have to evolve. For me, it went from being a support person seven, eight, nine years ago to a virtualization systems administrator five years ago, now to a cloud person. I'm starting to dive into data analytics and insights for the business.
"You may have to be more comfortable in situations that you were traditionally uncomfortable with before, but in the end, it's going to pay off. You're going to get those 'attaboys' in the meetings. You know, our leaders, they don't care about the fact that you applied service pack to Exchange, they're not going to give you a high five for that. But what they're going to give you a shout-out for is, you helped improve the process that saved x dollars, or saved x hours, or made us more efficient, or gained us more opportunities for our customers. That's what gets them excited.
"IT professionals should rejoice and move into the cloud. You've got ample opportunity to improve your skillset, spend more time in training, spend more time with the business, and they'll love you for it."
Based on the insights of G&J Pepsi's IT staff, it's clear that cloud computing creates exciting opportunities as it streamlines routine IT management. IT professionals who may be apprehensive about cloud adoption would do well to approach the technology with an open mind and a focus on problem-solving for the business.
To learn more about Microsoft Azure Cloud Services and hear directly from the G&J professionals, please visit https://www.zdnet.com/article/cloud-strategies-mobility-collaboration-at-g-j-pepsi-cola-bottlers/.