How to Start Your Own Technology Transformation

It’s one thing to talk about transforming your domestic company into a global powerhouse. It’s another to actually make it happen by designing and building a powerful and cost-effective IT environment.

Just ask Cary Sylvester, VP for Technology Innovation and Communication for Keller Williams, who has spent much of the past year building worldwide services for the US-based real estate giant.

"We still have a lot of legacy that will stay on our current data center. As we have more and more products that we’re offering, those will be primarily cloud-based."

The company, which started with just a single office in Texas, now has more agents than any other real estate franchise in the world. Now comes the hard part. Sylvester was tasked with helping the company expand its global operations in regions like Costa Rica, Dubai, Indonesia, Mexico, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, the UK and Vietnam.

“We’re really covering all the major areas – Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. We have at least some operations in each one at this point,” she said. “I think we're just on the tip of the iceberg of where we can go. And we're excited about where it is going.”

In its legacy environment, Keller Williams has outsourced its data center to SunGard in Texas. The only on-premises data center was used only as a development and testing environment. “Most of what we run out of there is for North America,” she said. “They’ve got all the monitoring tools, so they’re actually doing all the hosting for us on our servers.”

But the global expansion pushed Keller Williams in a new direction. It has partnered with and Google to power a technology platform that it will offer to its offices and agents around the global. This takes advantage of existing global infrastructure rather than having to build more.

“We will probably have a hybrid,” said Sylvester. “We still have a lot of legacy that will stay on our current data center. As we have more and more products that we’re offering, those will be primarily cloud-based. So we’ll be switching to a much heavier-weighted cloud [system] utilizing other services and then diminish the amount that we have in our own data centers. But I don’t think we’ll ever by 100 percent cloud.”

Moving the Mail

For example, Keller Williams had more than 100,000 email accounts that it had been managing in its data center. The company faced a choice: hire more staff to manage them or outsource them to Google. It chose the latter course. That change means the Keller Williams technology team spends about one-quarter of their time on administering email “instead of 150 percent of their time.”

What are those IT staffers doing with their new-found free time? Most have been assigned to new projects associated with the transformation, like re-architecting the legacy systems in areas such as user management and security. “We’ve been able to dedicate more of that team to actually be able to focus on that rather than that being a side project,” said Sylvester.

IT is also working much more closely with business owners instead of just keeping the system running. “They’re a lot more active in ongoing planning and in building up our current initiatives rather than reacting,” she said.

Recovery and continuity was one of the key factors in deciding on a hybrid approach, according to Sylvester. “We actually looked at redundant data centers with 24-hour continuity,” said Sylvester, “but the cost was so exorbitant to replicate everything we had.”

Looking at the Cloud

Instead of spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” to replicate those systems, the company looked into how cloud providers could help with the availability issue.  That savings alone has more than offset any parts of the cloud-based project that might be pricier than a traditional on-premises approach, she said.

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Sylvester has a few key pieces of advice for any CIO who is about to launch such a project:

  1. Find a trusted partner to help. “When your team is knee-deep in the existing work, it’s hard to take a step back and see the forest through the trees,” she said. “We brought in an outside company to help us do that … Primarily, they’ve come in to help us figure out how to do what we need to do.”
  2. Manage organizational change. “Change doesn’t happen overnight,” said Sylvester. “Make sure you communicate [with management] and that you buy into what their long-term vision is.” She believes many CIOs and their staffs get overwhelmed when they don’t truly understand where the project is going.
  3. Once you have set the course, take small steps. “Then measure your progress to getting there, and make sure you’re constantly heading toward that vision,” she said.

“We’re still at the beginning of this transformation,” said Sylvester. “But the benefits that we’ve reaped already on what we can do with our team and how we can respond are exactly what we were hoping to see.”


Cary Sylvester
VP, Industry Development
Keller Williams

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