The Great Digital Acceleration

The new challenge organizations face is to continue to build out and improve digital channels as we begin to adjust to post-pandemic life. To do that, CEOs and CFOs need to include their technologists in every major decision.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we lived through the unthinkable. Through this tough time something incredible happened, but most CEOs were so busy keeping the ship afloat they might have missed it. As the whole world locked down, every organization—banks, schools, hospitals and more—suddenly had to build new ways to reach their customers digitally, practically overnight or risk becoming obsolete. When the pressure was on, projects that had been slated to take place over several years were completed in weeks or even days. In March and April 2020, many industries completed more digital transformation initiatives than in the entire previous decade. In fact, a Twilio survey found that Covid-19 accelerated companies’ digital communications strategy by an average of 6 years.

We’re now entering the next phase—digital acceleration. Companies are building on the momentum generated by these successful projects and expanding their digital footprints. Customers aren’t going back. Digital channels are now the primary way to engage with customers. In the digital economy, whoever has the best software wins.

My company, Twilio, helped thousands of companies build new digital communication channels during the pandemic. Twilio’s software enables developers to add communications —text, voice, video and more—to websites and mobile apps. Whenever a company needs to engage with their customer digitally, they can build that experience with Twilio. For example, when you send a text or make a call to your Uber driver, that’s Twilio at work.

When the pandemic hit we saw a surge in demand as organizations needed new ways to interact with customers. Suddenly our three thousand employees—Twilions, we call them— were running harder than ever, supporting developers within companies across industries. Developers who work for the city of Pittsburgh built, tested and deployed a new cloud-based call center — in just four days. Developers at United Way Worldwide created a system to help people across the country find food or housing — in three days. Companies were able to build great things so quickly, everyone at Twilio was inspired by what they could do.

The pandemic proved what we already knew at Twilio, that developers are capable of so much more than simply writing code. They’re creative, inventive and great at solving problems. They are among the most valuable employees in your organization, as long as you are giving them the support and tools needed to succeed. Instead of telling your developers what to build, present them with your business problems and empower them to come up with solutions.

The pandemic changed how companies engage with their customers. Many companies viewed digital communication channels as an afterthought. When much of the world was forced into shelter in place, digital communication channels became the primary connection between customers and organizations. Many customers are now accustomed to the convenience and ease of these digital channels and don’t want to go back. They’re not going to choose the bank with the friendliest tellers and nicest branch decor — they’ll go with the one with the best mobile app.

The new challenge organizations face is to continue to build out and improve these digital channels as we begin to adjust to post-pandemic life. I believe the easiest step is to continue to empower your developers. Give them the right support and greater influence inside your organization. In every big decision, especially at the highest levels, technologists should have a seat at the table.

For years I’ve seen non-tech company leaders visit Silicon Valley to figure out how to be more like a startup. Too often they go home and buy ping-pong tables. What they fail to notice (or don’t want to notice) is that in the tech industry, software engineers have tremendous influence. It’s trendy for CEOs to say they’re going to transform their bank, insurance company, or retailer into a tech company. It’s tough to do that if you don’t have technologists leading the way.

Digital acceleration isn’t rocket science, but it’s not easy. Here are some core principles I believe should lead the way as you take on this challenge:

• Build, don’t buy. The era of packaged software is over. Most software should be written in-house so that it is built exactly for your organization’s needs and has the flexibility to change when needed. Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and other category-killer startups win not because they buy great software but because they build it.

• Hire more (great) developers. Companies can reskill their developers but most need to recruit more talent. You also need great developers, and great devs won’t work for companies that treat them like “code monkeys,” stuck in some back office, churning out code on command. Recruit and retain great developers by giving them the room to do what they do best, give them problems that need creative solutions.

• Give developers autonomy. At Twilio, we often send our engineers to run hackathons for our customers. At one of these events, our folks noticed a TV in the break room with a sign telling employees they were not allowed to change the channel. This may sound like a nonissue, but when our folks came back they were all talking about that sign. “How can you give developers autonomy to create software when you don’t even trust them to change the channel on the TV?” Writing software is a creative endeavor. Loosen the reins.

• Start small. One reason many attempts at digital transformation failed is that companies tried to overhaul the whole company all at once. During the pandemic, developers weren’t trying to overhaul everything; they focused on a few small, key projects that could be completed quickly. Keep the focus on small, yet important projects, and build outward from successes.

• Drive change from the top. The biggest successes we’ve seen were in companies where a CEO made digitization a priority and remained deeply engaged in the effort. It is also necessary to recognize that to build a successful development organization, you need to change the culture of the entire organization.

• Motivate the business and the tech functions to work closely together. Both sides need to learn to speak the other’s language. This can be tricky in organizations where tech and business have previously had an antagonistic relationship, but when these teams come together it will propel the company into success. A great example is when Kevin Vasconi became CIO at Domino’s, he made marketing and engineering work together in the same space. By brainstorming together, they produced features that delighted customers and set Domino’s apart from its rivals, like the feature that lets customers track their pizza as it travels from oven to their front door.

The pandemic created an inflection point — an event that forced companies to change. Nobody is going back to the “old way” of doing things. Companies that seize the opportunity can gain a huge competitive advantage. The transformation has begun. Now it’s time for acceleration.