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Looking Glass report: Tech trends and advice for your enterprise

06 April, 2021 | 34 min 56 sec
Podcast Host Tania Salarvand | Podcast Guest Rebecca Parsons, CTO and Ken Mugrage, Principal Technologist
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Brief Summary

Executives who want to proactively source technology to support their business strategy – look to the Looking Glass report. Leveraging insights from a global community of 8,000 technologists, ThoughtWorks’ Office of the CTO identifies the technology trends that are forward-looking and business relevant. In this episode, Rebecca Parsons, CTO and Ken Mugrage, Principal Technologist, share the highlights with a business lens that will draw actionable advice to benefit your business strategy.


Highlights 

  • Today's leaders need to be closer to technology trends more than ever before. Companies are moving from verticals to becoming technology companies that happen to focus on a vertical. The business strategy can be shaped by the opportunities that changes in the technology landscape offers. 
  • Humanity, augmented. Data models can help improve the productivity of humans. If we can take the easy things out of the workload of the human, then the human can spend their time and their brainpower on those more complex cases.
  • Accelerating towards sustainability and the increasing focus and pace of change in terms of our approaches to sustainability. 
  • Morphing of the compute fabric, in an era with things like IoT, collecting data from different devices, where should computation live? Should data be processed in different places?
  • Evolving interactions and the expectation from consumers to have better, easier interactions with the systems they use.
  • Coopetition forces platforms into ecosystems, where competitors have to cooperate. When you're creating an offering or a product: what is the interface that my competitors, cooperators, or consumers can use? How can you integrate better with these ecosystems? 
  • Hostile tech considers the hackers, the malware and the people holding your systems hostage. Also, in terms of privacy and what consumers expect from privacy policies.  
  • There is an interplay between the different lenses and how much they affect each other. Where we see trends come together, we ask – what does that mean overall to businesses? The themes and advice are up for interpretation, and intended for conversation, to raise new ideas and new ways of thinking and exploring. 


Podcast Transcript


Tania Salarvand:

Welcome to Pragmatism in Practice, a podcast from ThoughtWorks; where we share stories of practical approaches to becoming a modern digital business. I'm your host, Tania Salarvand. And I'm here today with Rebecca Parsons, Chief Technology Officer at ThoughtWorks. And Ken Mugrage, Principal Technologist at ThoughtWorks.


Now, in this post-pandemic digital-first world, organizations are being thrust into the technology landscape. Many companies are looking to use technology to simplify, to scale, to grow, or just expand their businesses, in a few short years. How should these executives leverage technology tools and get ahead of everyone else, but also think proactively? That's what I'm hoping we can answer today with my guests.



Welcome Rebecca. Welcome Ken.


Rebecca Parsons:

Thanks Tania.


Ken Mugrage:

Thank you.


Tania Salarvand:

Rebecca, if you don't mind, let's start with you. Would you mind first maybe giving us a brief intro to yourself, your role; but also how is ThoughtWorks advising business leaders today to prioritize their tech projects, to narrow down their tech wishlist and identify where those right technologies are for them to get ahead?


Rebecca Parsons:

Certainly, Tania. So, I am the chief technology officer for ThoughtWorks. And this role, in a services company, does more in terms of understanding what kind of technology we need to be aware of so that we can bring that insight and that capability to all of our clients. And I have an Office of the CTO ... we refer to as the OCTO, much easier to say ... and for the last five years or so, we have periodically refreshed an internal technology strategy, where we looked at what was going on in the technology industry and we're trying to identify the key themes that we felt businesses, our clients, would need to respond to to take advantage of the opportunities presented.


Rebecca Parsons:

But we kept that document internal. And we came to the conclusion, late last year, that perhaps we shouldn't keep this internal, that we should actually publish this as our perspective on what the technology trends are all about. And so this new report, called Looking Glass, is our perspective on the technology landscape and where we see it going, but also some advice on what to actually do about it and a mechanism by which we can evaluate: what is the desired response? Is this something that you need to just keep an eye on, or is it something you actually actively have to respond to right away?


Tania Salarvand:

Thanks, Rebecca. And I am curious, I'm sure many are as well, how exactly does OCTO and your team come up with what these ideas are and which are the ones that fall into each category?


Rebecca Parsons:

Well, we start with a scan. We have well over 8,000 technologists globally. And so that's the first thing. I put it out to our entire technology community: what do people feel are going to be relevant, in terms of technology trends, to our clients and for us, in the next one to two years, the next three to five years? And then I always like to throw in the final question, the wild and wacky: don't worry about how it might relate to the work that we're doing today and the kind of clients we currently have, but what are the things that are really intriguing to you?


And so we get all of this input and we start to sort through it. And in that sorting, clusters start to emerge. And then at each of the individual trend levels we try to say, okay, what do we think this is from a time perspective, in the time horizon? But also what do we feel like we need to do about it? And for us, that's very much informed by the kinds of clients we currently work with and the kinds of clients we would like to work with.


But what I think is even more important, to some extent, is then to step back from that and see: how do these different trends relate to each other? How might they be clustered? And most importantly, what does it imply, in terms of a business opportunity, or potentially a business risk? And so we tried to categorize those things. And again, at that ... we call it, internally, a shift ... at that shift level, what should our response be? How much effort, how much investment should we make to further explore or exploit that particular shift?


Tania Salarvand:

I can imagine, as some of our clients probably read through this and start to experiment with what these ideas mean to them, there's probably maybe a lot of questions, but a lot of aha moments as well.


So Ken, if you don't mind, maybe a quick intro to yourself and your role and how you contribute to Looking Glass. But also, how does ThoughtWorks leverage Looking Glass?


Ken Mugrage:

Sure. So, as you said, my name's Ken Mugrage, I'm a principal technologist in OCTO. So as far as Looking Glass goes, I help with the research, speaking to both ThoughtWorks people and external, writing up some of the analysis, et cetera; kind of formatting it and then communicating it out.


Because, like as Rebecca had said, as far as the way we use it, I mean, we're more than 8,000 people now. And so, coordination, and what should I be spending time on and what shouldn't I be spending time on, is really difficult in that large of a group. And so this helps us say, based on our business ... I think Rebecca said to customers we work with, the customers we want to work with, et cetera ... these are the things where we think that they're important trends. And maybe we don't have the capability level that we want, so we should think about increasing that. Or these are capabilities that we have that some of our competitors, frankly, don't. So maybe we should look at that and how we might exploit that.


Ken Mugrage:

So it's really about positioning them. One of the things that we said 1,000 times last year when we were coming up with this is: remember that strategic advice is differentiating. It's not obvious. If somebody couldn't choose to do something different, that's not strategic. So we might say, for ThoughtWorks, we want to focus on these particular trends or these particular shifts or lenses, because they make sense for our markets and those kinds of things. And as I'm sure we'll get into, that advice might actually be different for some of our clients.


So it really is kind of advising that on where we think our business should head. And then helping our markets and our regions ... because it's the way we work. For those that don't know, we're global ... helping them decide which ones make the most sense for them.


Tania Salarvand:

Which brings up a really good point. As you think about the different markets, regions, what it means in each industry and kind of break it down into varying levels, how do you think through, or do you even put that lens on it? Or, at this point, does it not matter whether you're in a specific region, geography, or industry?


Ken Mugrage:

So we try to take, from an industry perspective, very high-level. So it's not specifically what we would do for the banking industry, for example. There's certainly people at ThoughtWorks, in OCTO and out, that can help message it that way for those that are interested in it. But from an industry perspective, it is fairly high-level.


Tania Salarvand:

And Rebecca, on that note, as we talk about different leaders and the lenses that each leader might need to take, what do you believe today's leaders need to do or need to be closer to technology trends? And why now more than ever before? And this is more than just tech leaders; leaders at large.


Rebecca Parsons:

Well, one of the changes in businesses that we've been seeing over the last several years is the fact that, for more and more industry verticals, companies are moving from being a company in that particular vertical to a technology company that happens to do something in that vertical. The role that the technology now plays, in so many different businesses, is dramatically different than it was. And even in businesses, when you start to look at things like manufacturing and mining where there's a significant physical component in the world, technology ... even in those kinds of domains ... is starting to play a much larger role.


And so one of the things that we see is that, from a technology perspective, it's no longer adequate to have the business leaders get together in a room and come up with a business strategy, and then throw it over their wall to the technology department and say, "Go implement our business strategy." There are a couple of problems with that. One is the existing technology estate might not be adequate to implement that business strategy. But even more importantly, if the technology voices are in the room, that business strategy can be shaped by the opportunities that changes in the technology landscape are bringing.


And that's where, I think, Looking Glass plays this even more important role of trying to cast the business implications ... from our perspective, of course ... of how these changes are going to affect business, and what are the opportunities that that presents? And with those technology voices in the room, we can get to the stage where we actually have an integrated business and technology strategy. That then we start to look at, okay, what is the implementation path for that holistic strategy?


Tania Salarvand:

Which really does speak well to, maybe, what's at the core of ThoughtWorks. We are a tech at core, a digital native organization, and I think that really maybe leads to some of the things that have come out of this report.


And Ken, I know Rebecca spoke earlier about how we go about creating this report, but what prompted us to start thinking about this? Is there a backstory you can share?


Ken Mugrage:

Yeah, it's kind of interesting actually. People might have heard of a publication called The ThoughtWorks Radar ... which we started doing 11 years ago actually, which is very specific and practitioner focused. So it talks about specific technologies, techniques, programming languages, et cetera; and whether or not we are adopting those or not. And some other varying levels of advice. And so, again, very practitioner-specific and very technology-specific.


So when we started doing this research internally, some number of years ago, again, it was more as a business driver of: what are the kinds of things we want to do? Not which tools will we use to do it, but what are the types of things that we want to do? We want to build more platforms, was a big theme from the last couple of years. And we didn't say Amazon or Google in that, it was just platform type, strategic type work.


So it's more forward-looking. So Radar is probably like now to 12 months out, for example. And this is one or 2 years, or even further in some cases. I know there's technology in there that we don't think we'll be implementing for 5 or 10 years. But it really is trying to do a broader reach, look at themes, and not worry so much about what the individual tools are, because those are going to change by the time it really comes to market. Kind of give a historical context too there. And so how should executives be thinking about technology? I don't want to throw buzzwords out there, but it's not: should I be using Kubernetes? It's: should I be using the cloud in a different way that I can take advantage of that? Let's think about the business benefits and not the tools.


Tania Salarvand:

And that brings us to a really great point around what the Looking Glass actually produces, and what the readers can take away from it. So it obviously includes ... you mentioned themes, over 120 technology trends that have been identified.


So to make sense of all this, you've obviously created these lenses so that everyone can take a lens when they're viewing some of these key areas or themes. Can you tell us a little bit about each one of the six lenses and how exactly, maybe, you arrived at them? 


Rebecca Parsons:

Well, one thing, first, that I think is important. The trends are a fact. These things are happening. Quantum advances are being made. Chips are changing in particular ways. All of the people who put out these kinds of trends reports, those are just facts. Where we start to add our point of view is really at this lens level, where we collect many trends together and say: what does that mean overall to businesses?


So the first of the lenses is humanity, augmented. What we're talking about here, data-based approaches ... not database .... data-based approaches to making humans more efficient. A lot of time when people are talking about machine learning, artificial intelligence models, they're talking about taking the human out of the loop. But what we want to focus on in this humanity, augmented, is the extent to which these data models can help improve the productivity of humans. If we can take the very easy things out of the workload of the human, then the human can spend their time and their brainpower on those more complex cases. And as the humans see more and more, we can retrain those models to raise the level of what constitutes the easy stuff. Because fundamentally, these models are just looking for patterns. Humans can discern patterns incredibly well, but they also have to apply that judgment. And so humanity, augmented is really looking at all of the different ways that we can use machine learning, data science, to increase the productivity and the effectiveness of people.


The second is accelerating towards sustainability. This isn't just talking about sustainability, but this is talking, as well, about the increasing focus and the increasing pace of change in terms of our approaches to sustainability, the mindshare that sustainability has within employees as well as customers. People have been talking about green for a long time. But we seem to have reached that tipping point where now people have to have legitimate credentials around: what is their position with respect to sustainability? Investors are looking for: what is your ESG rating? Different organizations are springing up to provide support to organizations who are trying to get on this sustainability journey.


And so there are significant changes that organizations need to put into place to achieve these sustainability objectives. And so we've got green technologies, we have service providers who are starting to do reporting on these things. But an important aspect of this is that acceleration, the extent to which sustainability is so much more important to clients, to employees, and to the world, than it was before.


The next lens we want to look at is morphing of the compute fabric. What we're trying to get at here is the way computation now looks different. When we're operating now in an era with things like IoT, where you have cloud infrastructure and we're collecting data from all of these different devices. As application developers, we need to think about: where should computation live? Should data move to the device? Or should we process this data in different places?


We are also seeing new kinds of chips and increased interest in using specialized chips to get better performance; particularly on machine learning models as well as scientific applications. So we're having to think about architecture and how we use our systems in ways that we really haven't had to worry about before. And that's even before you start worrying about things like quantum, and other things like that on the horizon. So we have these major changes going on in the hardware. And it's been a long time since we've really thought that much about the hardware.


Tania Salarvand:

And Ken, did you want to speak a little bit to the other three lenses?


Ken Mugrage:

Sure. So the fourth one was evolving interactions. And this is kind of the expectation that consumers are gaining to have better, easier interactions with the systems they use. So instead of a keyboard, these could be voice, they could be gestures, visual, et cetera. Just all the different types of interactions that are available.


And some interesting things here. It's pretty easy to think of this as old-school maybe, because we've had the ability to talk to our phones for a little while and we've had wearable watches for quite a while, but there actually is quite a few things happening in the area. Natural language processing is getting a lot better. Consumer expectations are way higher, as far as accuracy and that sort of thing. I regularly speak to my watch to tell my significant other if I'm going to be on time or not. And if it gets it backwards, then she's mad at me; which means I'm mad at my watch. So we have quality expectations here that we maybe didn't have as much.


There's also some things that might happen. It's a widely ... I'll say rumored ... but Apple might be coming out with their wearables, and so forth. There are market movers that are poised to do things that could really have a large effect, from a business perspective, in this area.


The next one is a ... I'm going to call it an evolution of some of the lenses, or shifts that we've had in the past ... it's called coopetition forces platforms into ecosystems. And I understand that's a mouthful, but we chose the words very carefully and with a lot of debate. So people are probably familiar with platforms. Everything's a platform these days. And for the sake of this, I'll just say, a platform is something that you own or your organization owns. So you have your website and your mobile app, and these types of things, and you've done programming interfaces to make it easier for people to extend it. And that is your platform for your airline, or your restaurant, or what have you.


We are seeing the move to ecosystems, where competitors have to cooperate ... hence the coopetitions. So one of the examples we use a lot is the travel industry. So, up until the past 12 months, I know the three of us on this call have traveled quite extensively. And we use a corporate travel portal. And if a particular airline didn't have good programming interfaces, where this portal could communicate with it, then that airline simply became unavailable to us. So they could have had the best mobile apps on the market and the best "platform," but they would not have gotten our business because it didn't work in the ecosystem that we wanted to use. And you can think about the Apple ecosystem, if it doesn't work on CarPlay our people aren't going to use it, et cetera.


So this goes all over the place. And it really requires people to think about, when you're creating an offering, when you're creating a product: what is the interface that my competitors, or cooperators, or consumers can use other than the web browser or the mobile app? How can I integrate better with these other ecosystems?


And then the last one is the expanding impact of hostile tech. Now, usually when people think about hostile technology, they usually go to the hackers, the malware, the people that are holding your systems hostage and wanting a ransom, those types of things. And that's certainly a big part of it. And unfortunately, probably not going anywhere soon.


But we also want to discuss the legal and even the accepted ... sometimes ... like privacy. How much of your data, how much of the information about your life, is being spread around? We've all had situations where ... someone in my family says something to me on Facebook messenger, their private message. And next thing you know, there's an ad on Facebook. 


And so there's all kinds of things there where ... it's funny, we actually talked to some analysts, and there is a very large percentage of people that are completely okay with that because they want to see the ad that's relevant. And there's those of us, like me, that use three different ad blockers, et cetera. There's a lot that businesses have to think about with how they're going to do this. There are definitely consumers that will make choices based on your privacy policy. There's also ... I think everyone's probably aware ... a lot of regulation in this area. And that's not going away anytime soon.


So it's something that people really have to think about. They have to have written policies, how they're going to handle this. Maybe even automated tests to say: are we collecting the types of data that we shouldn't be testing or collecting, et cetera? It's really thinking about, again, not only the "bad actors" ... or what most of the public thinks of as bad actors, the hackers ... but also the people that are literally selling your identity.


Tania Salarvand:

Yes. Well, you've now scared a few of our listeners. But it's the truth, and I think it's the reality everyone lives in. To your point, more people opt in than opt out. So that in itself says something.


But as you created this report, I'm curious, was there anything else, Ken, that really surprised you, or you just thought this was something new or something that we need to continue to think about and evolve?


Ken Mugrage:

Yeah. I have to say, it's something we suspected, I think, early on, is the number one thing that came out. But it's really the interplay between the different lenses and trends and so forth, and how much they affect each other. For example, just in the ones I went through just now, I talked about coopetition and platforms and ecosystems and talking together. Well, now that we have more distributed systems, there is more to think about, from authentication, and privacy, and those sorts of things. So there's impact there.


If we talk about edge devices in things like the morphing of the compute fabric, now we're thinking about battery life. And so sustainability, not just from a: let's save the earth. What the heck, why not? But also: is my device going to run for three hours or two hours? So do I want to manage the data locally? But that's going to have an impact, so forth.


So, really, it's the interplay and how much they really affect each other and how much you can't take just one. You can't say, "Okay, I'm going to take advantage of the must react immediately trends in humanity, augmented." You have to think about the other parts of it.


Tania Salarvand:

Which does tie back a little bit to something you said earlier, Rebecca, and how these technologies come together. What are your thoughts on how this can help executives plan for the future of their businesses? What are some things that you think they should be thinking about? Or how this can help them?


Rebecca Parsons:

Well, it's worth reiterating, when we develop this report, we develop it at an overall technology level, as opposed to retail technology or financial services. We try to keep a broad perspective as well, in terms of locale. Even though we know different regions, different countries, different industries, utilize and take up technology at very different rates.


And so the first step really is for organizations to contextualize this report to the challenges that they're facing and the opportunities that they want to go after. And so that's why it's so important, when this business strategy is being developed, that you have that technology voice in the room to say, "Well, if that's what you want to do, there's this really new technology that we could use to give us a significant competitive advantage." And so we really need to look at, from an individual organization's perspective, what are the things in this report that really matter the most?


Keeping in mind, of course, what Ken just said, these things are interrelated. So maybe you want to focus on a particular area. But let's spread out a little bit from there to explore: what are the consequences of those particular choices? And perhaps what else you might need to undertake to really take advantage of that opportunity? Because, within this report, there are both very real opportunities, as well as very real risks and threats that need to be mitigated against.


Tania Salarvand:

It sounds like there's a lot of really great content that leads to rich conversation that does address some of these things that you've now mentioned, which I think is really important and great. However, I do wonder, if someone were to ask: how is Looking Glass different from all of the other trend reports and surveys and things that are out there? What would be your response to that, Ken?


Ken Mugrage:

So, really, the biggest difference is it's not just observation. It's really easy to do. There's tools where you can say: what has people searched for the most on Google? And then you can write a trend report over this as the hottest technology. And that's interesting, certainly. And I'll be honest, we use that as some of our inputs. What are people looking at? But then we actually research it and try to give active advice.


So the lenses breakdown into these trends that we put in a grid. And some of them, we put a time horizon on, as Rebecca said. We're seeing this now, this is happening today in the market; or we're just starting to, or it's on the horizon. But again, that's factual information. But then we also say, based on the rest of what's going on in the world, we're going to say, "Even though all of these are happening right now, these are the ones you should adopt. These are the ones you really should look at. These are the ones. Analyze them, take a look at it and see if it meets ... because it might fit your particular market if it doesn't fit somebody else's, et cetera."


But it's active advice. What can you do from it? What are the gotchas are in there? It really is trying to take what we've learned from our clients, from the work we've done on this, from the public as well, and saying, "This is actionable advice that you can take on these," as opposed to just, "This happened."


Tania Salarvand:

Yeah. And since you mentioned the active advice, and obviously engaging with our clients in order to come up with some of these thoughts, what are some of the challenges that you've seen, for clients and the technologies, in regards to analyzing, adopting, or anticipating? Any examples you can share with us?


Ken Mugrage:

Yeah. So the biggest one we've hinted at a couple times, is that ... especially when it comes to: should you adopt this or not? ... it can get very specific to your vertical and/or your type of business, or your region, et cetera. There are things that we have in here, for example, where we're saying that the high-level advice is to analyze it. Where people in a certain industry might be, "What do you mean? That's been mainstream for us for 18 months. If we don't do that, we're not in business." And so it really is important that when we talk to the clients, that we take into account their particular needs.


And then also, there's some of these where the biggest challenge is: okay, that's great. But how do I do that? How do I take advantage of that? An example that we talk about a lot is in the area around extended reality, or augmented reality, virtual reality, that group of technologies. There's a lot of potential there but, for the average enterprise, they don't have any of those skills. And so, do we take people that know how that enterprise works, knows the compliance and the rigor and everything else, and teach them virtual reality technologies and how to create that technology? Or what some companies do, do we go try to hire developers from gaming, those types of companies, and teach them about the enterprise? So it gets really challenging when we try to look at individual things, and how do we grow those capabilities and how do you react in your specific vertical?


Tania Salarvand:

And clearly much of that has to do with a point in time. As you mentioned, you've been talking about this entire family of XR for quite some time. And it's relevant to some and not relevant to others, which I assume is the case regardless of the technology you're looking at.


So along those lines, Rebecca, as you think about what's come out of this report, how you're seeing it being leveraged or read by some of the leaders and/or others within an organization who are curious and wanting to learn more, what do you hope or anticipate coming out of someone who is reading this report? What do you hope that they're actually taking away from it?


Rebecca Parsons:

Well, I hope they're getting a perspective on the technology trends that perhaps they hadn't thought of. While the trends are facts, the advice really comes from our interpretation and our analysis of what's important, what is actually possible, what you should really stay away from.


So hopefully, first, people will just get a different perspective on things that they may have heard about in different contexts, "Well, gee, I never thought about the issue of people with certain medical conditions being impacted in a different way by augmented reality. Okay, well maybe I need to think about some of those things."


And then the second piece is, I really hope that this is a vehicle and a mechanism for the continued integration of the strategic planning; from the business perspective and the technology strategy. I don't believe there's any going back from this particular trend. I think it's just going to spread to more and more organizations, more and more domains.


And from that perspective, our real hope is that this report can contextualize some of the exciting things that are happening within the technology community in a way that is business relevant. That business leaders can look at this and be inspired about what the possibilities are for their organization in this evolving technology world.


Tania Salarvand:

That's really helpful. And as I kind of summarize some of the things that I heard that I think are quite important is, first and foremost, you said the trends are facts. So they are what they are. The themes and advice are up for interpretation. And they're intended for that, they're intended for conversation, they're intended to raise new ideas and new ways of thinking and exploring. And something that was said at the very beginning, is something is not strategic if it's obvious. So we don't want to be focused on the obvious, we want to start thinking about the ... was it the wild and crazy? ... ideas as well, which I think is very important for our readers to take away.


So, hopefully, as they look through and read through Looking Glass, they get some of this passion as well and are able to take it back to their teams and think through what their business models and their strategies should look like.


Once again, thank you so much, Rebecca and Ken, for your time today and for introducing us to the Looking Glass report. We all look forward to reading it. Thank you for joining Pragmatism in Practice. If you'd like to listen to more and read more about Looking Glass, you can visit our website, www.thoughtworks.com, and search for Looking Glass. You can also find similar podcasts just visiting our website, thoughtworks.com/podcasts.


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