Box really drinks the cloud Kool-Aid

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It's one thing to sell cloud services. It's another thing entirely to consume them. You would think a cloud company would have cloud-friendly philosophy, but it's not a given. 

But Silicon Valley startup Box not only preaches the value of cloud services to customers, it uses them extenisvely in house. "We really are drinking the Kool-Aid on cloud here and avoiding at all costs bringing things on premise," CIO Ben Haines told me.

Instead of being an IT department, that says "no, no, no," they try to be one that say yes whenever they can, working with business departments rather than obstructing them.  "It really is around how do we help? How do we make this work for everyone, not how do we block it." When they do occasionally have to say no for security or other reasons, employees take them seriously because they see IT as a partner rather than an adversary.

How Box deals with more than 100 different cloud applications

Last year, we wrote about how Google, the preeminent cloud company, banned many cloud products for employees. Box is the opposite.

In fact, Haines told me they encourage people to experiment with different cloud services to find the best ones and share them across the organizations. At last count they had an astonishing 126 cloud-based apps in play at Box, a fast-growing organization with close to 1,000 employees spread out across 5 offices in California and Europe. 

He said they split the apps into two main categories. First of all, there are core applications like Zendesk for customer service, NetSuite for accounting, Workday for human resources, and Zuora for managing customer subscriptions. They use Anaplan for financial planning, MuleSoft for data integration across services, and Coupa for purchasing. He says there are so many he can't recall them all off the top of his head.

The other applications are the ones employees discover on their own. "We're reasonably open to people finding solutions," he says, but they can't be part of the core group in place already. This second tier of tools tends to involve systems of engagement -- productivity apps and social apps like Salesforce Chatter for collaborating, Asana and Clarizen for task and project management, Trillo for managing training, and other small services that the business units have found on their own and are comfortable using -- and Box IT is fine with that approach.

Haines said they use the Okta online portal as a central place to access and authenticate with a single sign-on across the cloud applications they use in house.

In fact, Haines tell me that the only on-premises service he could think of was Windows Active Directory, which is a legacy application -- apparently even startups have legacy apps -- used to help manage Windows apps. But he says they are even exploring ways to get rid of their on-premises AD implementation and replace it with a cloud-based service.

This open cloud-centric philosophy comes from the top down. CEO Aaron Levie, speaking at South by Southwest last week, said the way we do business has been fundamentally changed by the cloud and mobile. "You are now collaborating outside the boundaries of your business more than ever before. There's not a single piece of data that won't leave the network. Data is fundamentally going everywhere because it's driving business results," Levie told the audience. 

In fact, he joked, "It's really exciting to be in enterprise software industry right now. I recommend it to everyone unless you're competing with me."

Managing 126 cloud applications would seem to be an IT maintenance nightmare, especially for a department with only 8 employees, but Haines says it requires a different approach to IT. "The bottom line is you can't support [every application]," he told me. "You've got to change your thinking a little bit and we focus on the core applications where people expect a high level of service, but we can't focus on all of the applications. That's just not possible."

He says, as an IT department, they provide the basics for every application, so they all get single sign on and provide a basic level of integration. Box IT also does a security check on every application that comes into the business to make sure the company and its information is safe -- there's a grading system to determine if they will accept a service or not, but once they give it the green light, it becomes the responsibility of the department to pay for it and use it.

Haines says they have a tool set to monitor the apps to make sure things are going in the right direction, but overall there is a two-way trust level between departments and IT that might not exist in a traditional IT shop. He admits they can't be experts at the application level on all of these applications and people just have to understand that if they want that kind of choice.

The user always comes first

Haines, who has more than a decade of experience working in more traditional IT shops says it's just inevitable that IT pros need to adopt a more progressive approach as Box has, or they will soon become irrelevant. "If you can't see the change that's coming, you're just going to be run over," he told me.

He says the biggest difference at Box versus other places he has worked in the past is that Box places the user at the center of what they do. Traditionally, he said, IT has worried about how many servers they have, or how big their network is, or installing monolithic software packages that end users typically hate. Box is focusing on the needs of the end user within a broader organizational context.

He says some other IT departments have lost track of why they exist. "We exist to service our internal business partners and that's our role. We're not here to build an empire of hardware and expensive software and maintenance contracts."

But Haines makes it clear that Box employees aren't free to do whatever they want either. As Haines says, there are some bad ideas, but when you have the right relationship with a business group, they are going to be ready to hear it when you tell them a product just isn't up to snuff. By the same token, there are many more choices because IT isn't simply saying no to everything and acting as a constant roadblock to what employees are trying to do.

Box is growing quickly, but he says that he doesn't see the core user-centric philosophy changing. "I don't see us changing as we grow. The model we have scales a lot faster as we scale." He says even as they grow he wants to keep the focus squarely on the business units -- just as they are now.

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