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Walter Obermeier - Can you help me think?

7 minutes reading time

 

Walter is a global growth executive, having worked in the BPO industry with the likes of Accenture and Genpact, then moving on to the technology side with the automation unicorn, UiPath. Nowadays, he advises startups on growth, true to his restless nature. And FLOWX.AI is one of those startups. If you want to connect with him, do so here.

 
Walter, please tell us what’s your narrative, your growth story?
 

I was lucky to combine IT knowledge with management knowledge, and then learned a lot from other people. And what I learned very fast is that everything you want to do, if it's technology, if it's business, you can't do it yourself. So I was very lucky to understand in my early career years that you always need to have a team around you. 

Going back a bit to your initial career aspiration, what did you think your career would look like? And how has your vision changed since then?

When I was starting my career as a bank manager, I was living in a small cozy village. And I was very integrated into a small community. And then I felt that that's not all that can be so I was more and more leaning towards this idea of seeing the world, doing something bigger. I was always a bit restless. So nowadays, people say I was trying to get out of my comfort zone. For me, it was more like curiosity to understand what's on the other side of the fence. This was about finding some other areas of expertise in working. When I understood IT and understood what to do in IT I started to think, okay, what can I do in finance? Or how can I go into management? 

In the first years, I thought I need to do a lot of things on my own. I always wanted to win always wanted to be the best guy. And what changed over the years is that I learned it's not necessary that I am the best, but rather find the best team members to support my path. 

 

 

So I'm still always restless to see there must be something that we can do more, or do something new. And this is interesting for me.

And I remember one sentence which my colleagues may have hated, when I went and knocked on doors, saying, “Sorry, but can you please help me think?” 

So you were going to them and asking them to be your sparring partner, essentially?
 

Yes, nobody can know everything, but what you should do is go out there into the world. And this changed my career path or my growth story massively because I learned that other people can make a difference. And it's not necessarily that these people really work in the same sector as you work, or that they have a better understanding of it. Sometimes it's just about being creative and having an idea that others did not have.

That's enlightening. And I think it plays very well with our culture at FLOWX.AI. Because we all have a network of advisers to offer this outside perspective. So you recently joined our board of advisors. What attracted you to this? What do you hope to achieve? Why us? 

Well, it's a complex question, but I’ll try to make it simple.

In the past years, when I was in UiPath and RPA and also in the BPO industry I was always wondering why is it so complicated to change technology? Why can't we simplify what we need? Why can't we do this faster? Why does every IT change always get more and more complex and consume more and more time, and resources?

And I think it’s because IT is somehow encapsulated within the company, and a lot of things are only done because of the sake of IT. 

But IT is not something I want to learn, I just want to use the technology. For now, if you want to use an IT application, you have to train, you have to ask other people. It’s tedious. By comparison, if you have a driving license, you just sit down in a car, and then you just drive, no matter if it's a Mercedes, BMW, or a Skoda. You can drive it because it’s intuitive and easy to understand.

So this was and is my dream. To simplify technology. And when I heard the vision of FLOWX.AI I was really happy to understand that some of the challenges I did not or was not able to solve are easily done with FLOWX.AI. And the many other things, that I have in mind, can be done by FLOWX.AI in the future. But I'm very, very sure that FLOWX.AI could be the basis and the basic layer to get into more and more of these intuitive solutions.
 
Yes, this is our vision - how do we decrease friction, how do we enable business people to get involved in the development process and help them become the owners of technology, rather than, as you said, have the technology own them.  

If you look into the enterprise applications like Salesforce, SAP, all these complex applications, basically you only use 5% of the functionality. So companies make huge investments for 1000 processes and features, but actually, I’m using only 20 of them. I, as a technology leader, don’t like to have all this additional complexity around me. So the more we can simplify the user interface and integrations in there, the more we can tailor it to the real needs of our employees, then we are on the right path.

How do you do this switch between being strategic, seeing the high-level picture, and also being sufficiently close to the ground, to the operational level? Because this is something we struggle with as a startup and we’re curious to learn how to do it.

I would love to say it's easy, but it's not that easy. You really have to apply pressure to yourself. First of all, take the first hour of the day to read and to learn. Because as a startup you need to have an open mind to get information into your head, to get creative. You don’t have a mature solution, you’re still exploring.

Secondly, what I'm doing is dividing my schedule into “bread & butter” business and the more strategic part. From 9 am to 2 pm, you're only running “bread & butter”, which gives more revenue for the company, which gives the first ARR - the stuff that keeps your business afloat. 

Then you need to stop at a certain point, maybe it's 2 pm, and take the next three hours for strategic thinking.  What we will do in a year from now, what we will do in two years from now? Why should people buy our product? Why should I spend all my energy with this product? Why should people come to work with us? And if you ask these why questions, you start to build a strategic vision two or three years ahead. 

It sounds simple, but it's not easy. People always love to start their day with things they love. Read some emails, make some bookings, maybe check if people have paid their invoices. Strategic thinking is not easy. Because you need to put a lot of effort into that. But starting with things you don't like it's uncomfortable.  And you don't want to be uncomfortable. You have to push through that. 
 
How would you apply this thinking to building a team?
 

If you have a few more people who will help you to succeed, give them the right tasks. So if you have four people in sales, maybe two of them are the hunters for the existing business. One of them is the farmer who is trying to land and expand. And the last one is trying to sell something that we don’t have yet, more like visionary selling. And make it clear to those people that they need to focus on the role they have. And this also helps you to keep the balance between the necessary right now and the future. Between the “bread & butter” and the strategic.

Changing gears here on the technical side, how do you see this shift to cloud migration and application modernization?

Whenever you want to shift from legacy to the cloud, you have four big areas to solve. 

The first one is, before you start any coding, the discovery and analytics phase. In this phase, you need to start with the “Why”? Why should we move this application to the cloud? Which functionalities do we move? Is it necessary to move it all? Or should I only extract something from the old application and put this extract into the cloud? Performing this stage correctly might reduce already the workload significantly.  

In the analytics phase, you think - how can we do it better? Can we do it smarter and easier? And then you can start to draft a migration roadmap.

The third bucket is the build and transfer area. If you do this with Java and recoding - the traditional way - means you need a lot of people and a lot of resources. But we do not have enough resources in the world to solve all this back-office transformation. This means you need to find something which might automate a few things, or you need something that we call Core Revival, that gives you the chance to get a smart migration in the back office as well, where you still access the old legacy system, but also the new functionalities in the cloud. You let them work in parallel and prioritize more and more the cloud functionalities. You can do this with FLOWX.AI: smart migration with using fewer resources to get to the future state of digitization.

Number four means whenever you make some new applications, you need to embark on Change Management: people need to train and learn how to use the new software application, the new micro-services, etc.

The more complex you build, the more effort you need to put in to change management. The best way would be to have the new user interface and the processes behind it - fashioned into something intuitive, that you don’t need any training for. 

So the route is to simplify and unify everything into easy user interfaces, tailored for each department, but within a single application. And then reduce all this training effort. FLOWX.AI can reduce the necessary resources, which means companies can run more migration into the cloud within the same timeframe and with fewer people internally or externally.

And then, and then there are some essential next steps. Masterdata for once. Let's take an insurance company -  they have out there hundreds or even thousands of applications on-premise. And each app is running its own database. So if you can consolidate this, you also reduce the storage capacity, and you enable better use of that data. This is something else that you can do with FLOWX.AI.  

Finally for the closing question - what are some books that you read lately that really impacted your thinking?

It's Simon Sinek and his Start with Why book. It’s very insightful for people management, I find. You should tell your team members what you're looking after and what you really want to achieve. So if you want to be the biggest company in the world in five years, we should tell this our team members that they know as well. Always give a reason. 

The second book is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. It’s not a business book but a fantasy book. I can dive in for 1-2h in a different world, which clears my brain. So whenever I'm too worried that I have no ideas or I did not get to a solution, I jump into another world and come out relaxed and with a clear brain, ready to start again. 

Right, this reminds me actually a very good book I read called The Mastermind, by Maria Konnikova, about how to think like Sherlock Holmes. At some point, the author says that you need to get some distance from the thing that's bothering you, either it's a physical distance or a psychological distance. 

Correct. I don't think that I'm doing everything perfectly right.

I think the main takeaway from our talk today is that nothing is easy - from people management to cloud migrations. But this is why it's fun. This is why we're here. For the fun.

 

This interview has been edited for brevity. March 2022.

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