Ritu Madbhavi is everything a CIO should be — innovative, forward-looking, and unafraid to take risks. A university topper from Lady Sriram and a self-confessed “math geek”, Madbhavi has a Masters in Applied Maths from Canada. She began her career at TCS and then worked briefly with NIIT, before taking a break after the birth of her son. In her second innings, Madbhavi joined Datamatics, opting to work in hardcore software development, before moving to FCB Ulka around 18.5 years ago.
Madbhavi, FCB Ulka’s CIO, is truly a visionary leader, whose discerning eye on the business has won her a legion of admirers, both within and outside her own firm. She admits she has grown with the organization, over the years. “Today people talk about how IT has moved from backend to frontend, and how a CIO is supposed to be in line with the business. But at FCB Ulka, this has been my experience right from the start,” she says. Madbhavi is of the opinion that you can’t deliver any solution unless you understand the business. That’s why, in the past, she also doubled as Head of Interface Interactive, one of the agencies in the group.
“My role is simple — to align with the business. My team and I are always on the lookout to provide proactive solutions. We prefer not to wait for requests to come in from users, but research and implement solutions, and then seek inputs,” says Madbhavi. Her philosophy seems in line with the ethos of FCB Ulka, a firm that is ‘innovation centric’ and at the ‘absolute cutting-edge’.
However, she cautions that jumping on the bandwagon must be discouraged. “One shouldn’t blindly adopt a new technology just because it’s out there. The technology should fit your need and simultaneously add value to the business.” Her strong belief is that one can’t base all decisions purely on cost alone. Madbhavi has thus carefully structured her team, using an outsourced model and delegating the entire infrastructure management to a leading provider. Her extremely lean team comprises only two software people, who’ve been with her for a decade, and 7-8 external programmers.
The Cloud Story
At FCB Ulka, the concept of private Cloud and co-location came into play when they moved into their office at Phoenix Mills, Mumbai. Recalling FCB’s early days, Madbhavi says, “The building didn’t have a generator and there were frequent power cuts, so we decided not to move servers here. Instead, we moved them to the Tata data center. That was a good decision from an IT management perspective — all of a sudden, we didn’t have to worry about mundane things anymore, such as if the AC broke down or had a leak, or if the generators stopped functioning.”
Another consideration was backup; and the compliance issue of having to maintain tapes for a period of 7-9 years. Madbhavi further explains, “Aside from this there was the on-site, off-site debate, and then the transporting and getting the tapes back for restore policy — it was like having a mini department running to just ensure compliance!” Madbhavi believes activities such as DR, backup, storage, and replication are highly manpower-oriented and time-consuming, and shouldn’t even be on a CIO’s agenda! They have to function as pure hygiene.
Madbhavi’s prudent attitude can be seen in the way she endeavors to maximize the life of hardware. “We believe in squeezing our hardware to the maximum, and don’t believe in changing it every three years,” she says, explaining how Delhi was their Disaster Recovery (DR) site for storage. The main data, however, had to reside on-premise, because of extremely large file sizes, and no feasible way of moving it to the Cloud.
Madbhavi’s proactive leadership style can further be seen in her experimental outlook and the way she views every challenge as an opportunity. At the time Madbhavi was exploring a way of moving only backup and DR onto the Cloud, she happened to voice her requirements to a Microsoft representative.
Microsoft immediately introduced her to StorSimple, a technology that just seemed to fit her need perfectly. It had provision for 20TB on-prem, with cold data migrating to the Cloud, with provisions for backup and DR activities.
However, she was sceptical because while StorSimple had implementations across the world, they had nothing in India at that point. Being the research-oriented, analytical CIO she is, Madbhavi spent almost 2 months to come to a diligent decision.
Finally, after carefully weighing out the pros and cons, Madbhavi decided to take the plunge. “Initially, Microsoft didn’t offer StorSimple individually, but bundled it together with Azure for every purchase above $50,000 and we went ahead with it,” says Madbhavi. Later, when FCB’s development servers ran out of support, Madbhavi decided to move development on Azure too. “The package ended up running beautifully. I was pleasantly shocked when I did the costing, because our costs came down drastically. For zero Capex, at the same Opex, and with the same annual power and insurance costs, I now had a full-fledged Virtual Machine (VM). Thanks to Azure!” What’s more, the powerful combination of Azure and StorSimple also came with zero performance issues, allowing Madbhavi’s team to simply run an auto-script every night, with automated shut downs.
“Since the implementation, there’s been no looking back,” Madbhavi confirms. Over a period of five years, Madbhavi notes that the model ended up working out to be 45% more cost-efficient.
Another incidental benefit of Azure is the added advantage of Office 365. Madbhavi concurs, when she says, “The minute we introduced O365, our management costs started going down. We no longer needed people performing simple maintenance tasks such as updating batch versions.” She also loves O365’s storage space of 50GB, of which she says, “Earlier, for on-premise we had to keep increasing, from 2GB, 10GB, 20GB, and so on. It was a loop we didn’t know how to get out of.” Madbhavi is also a fan of OneDrive for business (with unlimited storage on the Cloud), as well as Skype for business.
What’s more, FCB has since moved its entire production environment onto the Cloud, being one of the first organizations to move into Microsoft’s India data center. “Right from the StorSimple era, we haven’t spent any money on servers. My entire SQL server, Sharepoint — nearly everything is on the Cloud now, on Azure,” confirms Madbhavi.
The Road Ahead
Currently, FCB is implementing the Enterprise Mobility suite.
“Security is one of the most important things for a CIO, and the reality is that mobility is the way of the future,” affirms Madbhavi, while backing up her observation with the fact that people want to access everything on their phones. “For us, mobility is all the more critical with people working off their iPads, tablets, etc. That’s why we must ensure maximum security for our data.” And Microsoft’s EMS helps them do just that.
When asked to share her key learnings and advice to fellow CIOs, Madbhavi is optimistic about the future of the Cloud. “One of the biggest fears CIOs tend to have is security. However, the new thinking is that the security vs. Cloud argument is flawed. The minute you move onto the Cloud, you have the entire security teams of large vendor organizations, at your service. This ensures redundancy at a totally different level.”
She further elaborates, “Unless there is a business law, which prevents you from moving to the Cloud (some of which should change now with India data center), then go for it.” Bandwidth, too, can be cited as a roadblock, but Madbhavi brushes that concern aside, “When you’re working with a low bandwidth, it’s anyway time for an upgrade. And with bandwidth costs crashing now, I don’t see an issue on that front.” Madbhavi is so pleased with Azure’s suite, with its regular new additions, that she’s using Azure Media Services now for FCB’s creative work. “Media Services chooses/optimizes the right format for your data, leaving me and my IT team time to strategize, innovate, and think about the future rather than the mundane stuff.” Madbhavi is confident she’ll be able to execute all her projects that are in the pipeline, because of the varied features of Azure.
“Anytime there is the question of a new investment, I believe in thorough assessment and investigation. I always ask myself: Can I reassess the solutions? My advice would be not to approach things with a mere ‘replace’ mindset, but one must actively relook, re-evaluate, and re-architecture the solution. After all, technology changes almost every four years. So one must be open and embrace new technologies, without any fear,” says Madbhavi, signing off.