This piece is part of our Digital Change Agents Series – Bay Area branch.

For Bali Balasubramaniam, Sr. Director of Enterprise Apps at Snowflake, who has 23+ years of experience in software ranging from a DBA to a developer to an analyst, it wasn’t until about 7 years ago that his perspective of the market truly changed. “Everytime I think about software, the first thing I think about is its infrastructure. What do I need to do? How can I build it? That’s what really changed when moving into the SaaS environment,” Bali said. 

“Most of what SaaS does is solve a problem,” he continued. “It takes a portion of IT’s responsibility in that you don’t have to think about infrastructure or setup costs, you don’t have to think much about customization, you don’t have to think about how fast it’s going to take to implement these things.”

“That is a prescribed recipe for you with SaaS and, as a growing company, you need to decide how fast you want to adapt to this, because the competition is already doing it.”

“It’s the fear of not moving to [SaaS] that’s stopping people, if anything, rather than ‘Can I do my job?’” he concluded.

Snowflake: Establishing Project Goals When Adopting New Systems

For Bali, it’s low-hanging fruit when it comes to deciding whether or not to implement SaaS. The true question is how will you and your team go about doing it. He spoke about best practices for onboarding and going live with new apps at the June installment of Digital Change Agents, a series that brings together business systems professionals across industries and companies for an intimate fireside chat on how they are driving change within their organization. Attendees not only learn expert advice and actionable insights from some of the most accomplished business systems leaders, but also benefit from growing their network of like-minded professionals.

For Bali, the #1 goal of IT should be to keep things simple. If SaaS makes the process of acquiring software simple, what you do around it should not complicate matters. Upon joining the company, Bali therefore structured enterprise technology at Snowflake into three functions: business engagement, integration & analytics, and technical engagement – of which the former two exist almost at a ratio of 1:1. One of his first tasks as head of enterprise apps was to oversee the adoption of a procurement product as the company was expanding to multiple regions and would soon have 1,000+ staff. 

The first step his team took was establishing separate project goals from business goals, as project goals are tool-centric, he believes, and focus on “the implementation of the basic core function, which can be built upon as we go through the process.” 

“A project goal is the means to your business goal,” Bali said. “I could have one project, I could have a hundred products, and each of them could run on a separate track. From an IT perspective, you are viewed successful as to how you execute your project. Out of 10 projects that are meant to meet the business goals, if eight of them are successful [and] two of them are a failure, I’m OK with that. But if I just go straight for the business goals, by default, I’ve failed because I didn’t meet those larger expectations set at the mere adoption of the project, which were overreaching.” 

Bali says the difference between business and project goals may also come into play when direction comes from C-suite or an executive. Snowflake’s head of operations, for example, gave Bali eight weeks to implement a procurement system, as the business function would report directly to ops and needed a system setup. With this new target in mind, Bali’s first goal was to get a platform up and running so the company could submit electronic POs, which was one of their business goals – also helping to set the expectation of what he could deliver.

Another element the stakeholder asked for is that teams be able to submit a PO in less than 10 clicks, considering functionality and ease of use. He also wanted a system that could manage and submit POs for office supplies, software purchases, event catering and more – sort of like a one-stop-shop for all business spend. 

Weighing & Evaluating Vendors

With all of their needs in mind, Bali and his team weighed two options: Coupa and eProcurement. Though eProcurement met all of their basic needs, they didn’t provide audit logs, which prevents Bali from seeing who requested a report and who approved it. They also couldn’t provide proof of pentests (penetration tests) and security tests, which for Snowflake, a security-driven data warehouse company, was problematic. 

Snowflake ultimately turned to Coupa, a company known for process procurement. With the goal of customizing Coupa to meet their specific needs, Bali and his team asked Coupa what they offered that makes them different from the rest. Coupa, therefore, presented auditing capabilities, security tests, as well as the ability to leverage their position within their network to find the best discount for Snowflake. As the company is in hypergrowth, Snowflake’s needs will gradually change and they wanted a procurement solution that grows with them. If they eventually decided to get rid of their procurement function, for example – as the world of SaaS and tech changes everyday – they still wanted to be able to do the job with or without the procurement function – and Coupa said they could provide that.

They also asked Coupa if they’ve ever dealt with a company experiencing hypergrowth at the same rate as Snowflake, which grew 3.67X in 15 months. Coupa found a few that were close, but presented to Snowflake that no matter the growth, each of their customers highlighted usability – saying that even as companies grew 2.5X the size, they were still able to use the same system, which was an important factor for Bali and his team. 

Educating Business Users on the Product

Before a decision was made, Bali and his team made time to educate users on the procurement process and what the grading process was like. They also asked the vendor to come in and ensure they could fulfill their use cases, setup and run the end-to-end process, had power users from business go through the transactions of onboarding a new supplier and submitting a PO, designated members from each LOB to train the rest of the department on the software, and so on.  

“Within roughly a week and a half of testing, you want your users to be able to say, ‘We got the process.’ We want people to have accepted all of the processes, and we got the people to accept,” said Bali. “It’s the adoption of the tool that matters. IT should not be the one forcing this, procurement should not be the one forcing this. It should be their own people, the business users, who have identified the problem and deemed this is a workable system.”

You want to have a kind of controlled environment [when adopting a new system], but if you do not let people run their business, they will never adopt it — and that’s reality.

Bali Balasubramaniam

“You want to have a kind of controlled environment,” he added, “but if you do not let people run their business, they will never adopt a system — and that’s reality. This whole process is proof of concept plus how they will actually be working in the system moving forward.”

Quarterly Engagement Review: Buy-In From Business Users and IT

As part of their quarterly business engagement, Bali’s team presents an IT and business collaboration scorecard for software used throughout the quarter – both current and new. It addresses auditing capabilities, use case(s), whether it meets architecture standards, relationship with the vendor, value for money, overall score and any actionable next steps. The report uses a traffic lighting color scheme to rate criteria. In using a simple rating system without prioritizing options, Bali believes you can have a straightforward idea of which systems are in the red (if any), which are in the yellow, and which are in the green.

The scorecard, which is contributed to by both IT and business users, is a way to have all teams contribute to the selection process and ensure that best practices are shared by everyone. 

“One of the things I realized as part of business engagement is [lines of business] want you to be part of their decision-making process,” said Bali. “They are not looking at IT as a big shop with 200 people. They envision IT as helping them grow their business needs and solutions as they grow. That’s the foundational shift we’re seeing today in IT and what we should adhere to.”

Hear straight from Bali in the full recording, as he goes over business/IT mindset, the cultural shift towards e-procurement, and why SaaS is taking over the world > 

Pamela Seaton
About Pamela Seaton

Pamela is a journalist and technology enthusiast writing for the growing business systems community.