AWS UKI boss on elasticity, cloud and adaptivity

Darren Hardman of Amazon Web Services says the pandemic period has shown the value of elastic capacity.


Over a video call, Darren Hardman is reflecting on the surreal past year-plus.

"It's certainly been a period of a lot of headwind and tailwind scenarios," says Amazon Web Services' VP and GM for the UK and Ireland. "We're seeing this new breed of enterprise that's confident, much more agile, secure and resilient and has come out the other side with a more customer-centric approach to how they go about things."

Of course, he's right about the headwinds and tailwinds: for most, it's been a time dominated by the former but for AWS and its parent, this has been a boom time. Amazon revenues were up 44 per cent year on year for its recent Q1, fuelled by online shopping and home entertainment but also its hyperscale cloud platform, up 32 per cent year on year. In just 15 years, AWS has become a $54bn run-rate annual revenue business and its customers accelerated usage during the pandemic.

Discussing AWS trends, Hardman tells me that he doesn't see many remaining impediments to cloud adoption, especially as almost all enterprises need to compete with new entrants and disruptors entering their spaces.

What about banking and traditional financial services companies, often seen as laggards on the cloud front among the banking giants? In pockets where the cloud adoption rates have been relatively slow "it's been the inertia and internal blockers in the system," Hardman insists. "There are organisations that are moving faster to the cloud [than others] and its really about how the culture of reinvention is set up in the organisation."

Some pundits believe that the next stage for cloud in the enterprise will be multi-cloud management because enterprises will fear lock-in or see advantages in matching clouds to certain workloads or environments – Azure for Microsoft shops or Google for AI, for example. Hardman doesn't seem keen though.

"There's a lot of conversations about multi-cloud but the practicality [challenges] of adopting it is leading many to pick one provider," he says. "If you're choosing multiple clouds you're standardising the lowest common denominator. There's not enough skills out there in the market so if you're building two sets of teams, organisations really struggle with that and it's undermining your purchasing power."

What's becoming common is to have a dominant provider but retaining the ability to switch for smaller workloads, he argues. "As any utility provider, we need to earn that trust," he adds.

Hardman joined AWS from services firm Avanade in 2016 but he is resistant to the suggestion that his current company should expand in consulting services. "[AWS services are] there to support a customer's journey, not as an Accenture of SI partner," he says. "Where we see value is [sharing] leadership principles and the culture we have for innovation."

Separately, Hardman shared recent research the firm commissioned with 10,000 business decision makers across Europe and Israel at a time when the Bank of England is forecasting the fastest UK economic growth in over 70 years.

"Change was never part of the roadmap … they struggled to adapt [but] 65 per cent said they have emerged from this much more agile and a large part of that has been in the cloud," he says.

AWS customers such as Melia Hotels were able to scale down operations as demand fell and move 500 staff to remote working. Conversely, another customer, Just Eat, was able to ramp up capacity. This was effectively a quickly sketched illustration of the importance of having elastic IT resources on tap in turbulent times.  

Stories abound of digital transformation being accelerated but it's not all upside and gravy. Resistance to change and lacking skills remain challenges and short-termism appears still to be common.

"Even though the pace has quickened, 50 per cent of leaders surveyed say they don't expect to continue transforming beyond the pandemic, which kind of implies this has been reactive," Hardman says.

Better to maintain a spirit of constant self-reinvention and appoint transformation leaders that take a top-down approach "acknowledging you can't fight gravity". Examples include Netflix flipping the market from selling DVDs to streaming or the pivot Amazon itself made from selling products to developing marketplaces.

"The greatest risk is not change, it's [preserving] the status quo," Hardman argues and what's critical today is to build skills and an adaptive infrastructure to be prepared for change. Which, as 2020 and 2021 have shown, can be catalysed by unforeseen circumstances.

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