Nordic CIO interview: Jussi Sorvali, HMD Global

The head of IT at Finland-based smartphone maker HMD Global turned to the cloud to get the entire IT department up and running quickly

Cloud, speed and scalability. These principles have guided Jussi Sorvali as he has built up HMD Global’s IT from scratch.

The smartphone maker, which was set up in 2016 and is behind the new wave of Nokia phones, needed to get its IT operations up and running in a matter of months.

“I jumped into this role in summer 2016, and the company was officially published the following December,” says Sorvali, who is CIO at Finland-headquartered HMD Global. “We announced our first smartphones in February 2017 and had our ERP [enterprise resource planning] working by May, so we could actually start selling the phones.”

The fast pace meant Sorvali didn’t have time for a traditional large-scale IT deployment. Instead, he chose to go for full-on cloud, including SAP Business ByDesign cloud ERP. The decision has paid off. HMD’s first ERP deployments were ready in a few months, and a global roll-out to 33 countries was finished within six months.

“We needed to get the company on its feet and the business running,” says Sorvali. “We could start operations quickly with cloud services and gain a scalability benefit.”

This is a big leap forward from Sorvali’s early days at HMD. He was hired as employee number two, and even ran the company’s email server himself. Today, HMD has 600 employees and operates in 50 countries. Almost a third of the company’s staff are located at its headquarters in Espoo, Finland, including a 25-strong IT team.

HMD’s speedy ERP deployment was recognised by SAP in October 2017, winning it gold in the business transformation category at the Nordic version of the SAP Quality Awards.

Moving on from Nokia

Sorvali is used to working under time pressure. Before joining HMD, he was involved in several projects at Nokia. He helped build IT operations first for the phone maker’s luxury handset business, Vertu, and later for its advanced technologies business, Nokia Technologies.

But HMD has proven to be a different kind of challenge. Not only is it a separate company – it licences use of the Nokia brand – but technology development has taken huge leaps in recent years.

“When I was building Vertu, we did a lot of things with in-house systems. When Nokia Technologies was set up, we immediately started to use cloud services. And now HMD Global has been built entirely in the cloud – we don’t own a single datacentre,” says Sorvali.

Sorvali has based his cloud strategy on two factors: future-proof services – or “2020-compliant technologies” as he puts it – and using standardised services wherever possible. In addition to SAP Business ByDesign, these include a cloud-based HR system, Microsoft’s Office 365 business suite and cloud computing platform Azure.

“I have discussed with our finance department how to build services that support the business. Business transformation has been the big thing. We have managed IT in the background and used standardised services”
Jassi Sorvali, HMD Global

HMD’s use of off-the-shelf software has been driven by fast deployment, but has also freed up resources to focus on the business side of the company.

“There is a lot talk about digitisation, but that is what we have primarily done. I have discussed with our finance department how to build services that support the business,” says Sorvali. “Business transformation has been the big thing. We have managed IT in the background and used standardised services.”

Going small

Although HMD Global favours off-the-shelf software choices, the company has taken a different route with IT partners. Instead of big IT providers, Sorvali likes to work with smaller, fast-moving local partners. For example, for HMD’s ERP deployment, he chose Finnish SAP provider Headstart, which has 60 staff.

The key here, says Sorvali, is their geographical proximity. In Finland, HMD works primarily with Finnish partners, but the company would form a similar local network wherever it is based.

“[Proximity] brings a new way of working and certain innovations. With innovation, I mean problem-solving,” he says. “When your partners are close, they can see the problems you face [and] solve them together with your people around the same table. This has been one of the elements that has enabled us to move forward so fast.”

But despite HMD’s success so far, Sorvali stresses that nothing is set in stone. He likes to look at IT operations in stages, where the needs change as a company grows, and this could lead to system – and provider – revisions in future.

While Sorvali acknowledges this might not be the most cost-efficient approach, he says it brings much-needed flexibility for HMD.

“Life is about choices on this side – whether you start to build a long-term architecture or put something together fast,” he adds. “We have a bit of the ‘fail fast’ type of thinking. We try something, see if it works, and if it doesn’t, we throw it away and quickly try something else.”

From plumber to innovator

Still, the one thing Sorvali wishes he’d had more of in the early days of HMD is time. The company announced its first smartphones in February 2017 and started global sales three months later, which didn’t leave much time for planning IT.

But this is what Sorvali hopes to have now. With HMD’s global IT organisation up and running, he can focus more on developing new business models and the long-term IT needs of the company.

“Life is about choices – whether you start to build a long-term architecture or put something together fast. We have a bit of the ‘fail fast’ type of thinking. We try something, see if it works, and if it doesn’t, we throw it away and quickly try something else”
Jussi Sorvali, HMD Global

One area HMD is particularly interested in is robotics. The company has already piloted a few related technologies and hopes to move quickly on this front.  

“We need to grow, but our organisation is so small we can’t hire a lot of people or the machine will start to stall,” says Sorvali. “We are thinking about how we could use robotics to drive growth instead. Hire new people, just not as many, as we could do certain things with robotics.”

This also reflects HMD’s move to the next stage of IT development, which Sorvali has named internally as “the plumber, facilitator and innovator”.

“First we were plumbers, and built the sewage system,” he says. “Now, in 2018, we create new business models, and then, in 2019, we’ll bring in innovation. This is how we will build up our IT.”

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