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CIO interview: Amitabh Apte, global director of digital integration, Mars

The consumer goods giant’s global director of integration talks about developing an API strategy, consistency and increasing customer focus

Amitabh Apte, global director of digital integration at consumer goods giant Mars, is on a mission to use big data and application programming interfaces (APIs) to boost operational efficiencies and customer experiences.

Apte joined Mars in May 2018. He was previously CTO at consumer giant Reckitt Benckiser (RB) Group, which owns brands such as Nurofen, Durex and Dettol. Apte established the CTO practice at RB. He had previously held senior IT positions at a range of multinational firms, including Deutsche Bank, Home Retail Group and Fujitsu Services.  

He reports to the Mars Core Capabilities function which in turn reports to the firm's global chief digital officer (CDO) Sandeep Dadlani, who was appointed in July 2017 and who quickly identified integration as a key component for digital success. A strategic review in 2017 suggested the firm should create a dedicated integration centre led by an experienced executive. Apte grasped the chance to take this role and leads the integration centre, known as Integration Hub. 

“When the opportunity came up, the attraction of building something new in terms of digital integration was massive,” he says, speaking with Computer Weekly at the recent MuleSoft London Summit.

“But the biggest draw for me was Mars as a company – it has a strong collection of brands and the business model is attractive. I spoke to colleagues who’d worked for the firm and that provided more evidence. It’s been really enjoyable so far.” 

Creating a strategic approach 

Apte is helping the company to hone its digital framework, known as the Mars Digital Engine. This framework intends to place customers at the heart of operations. The approach is to solve consumer challenges through three core elements – design thinking, emerging technology and data platforms.

Design thinking is about finding and articulating business challenges, says Apte. The focus on big data and emerging technology, meanwhile, is about using analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning to solve the identified problems. Finally, the concentration on data platforms is about using key foundational technologies – such as data lakes and APIs – to create scalable solutions to business challenges. 

Apte says the people-focused approach to dealing with these three core challenges produces significant results. “We charge people to go out and come back with solutions,” he says. “As a leader, that’s something I particularly enjoy. I’m not just enacting technology – I’m activating the whole strategy on API-led integration.” 

Variations occurs within that approach, too. Apte says the way the strategy plays out varies across Mars brands. His role is to ensure the approach is activated successfully. “I’m accountable for building the APIs on top of the platforms we use,” he says. 

“This stretches from the identification of requirements right through to test, launch and operate. I’m also responsible for integration across a broad suite of enterprise applications, from providers such as MuleSoft, SAP and IBM. I have to look at integration across the stack. It’s a great challenge. Because I have access to all these tools, I have to choose the best solution to the business challenges we face – and that may or may not involve an API.” 

Apte recognises there is a lot of hype right now about the potential game-changing power of APIs. Yet his key message is that APIs are not always the best technical answer to business challenges.  

“Sometimes a manual file transfer system is good enough – what matters is helping the business, not creating APIs for the sake of it,” says Apte. “What we’re focused on is using design thinking to solve business problems, finding the right tools and then moving on to the next key challenge. 

Developing data consistency 

When it comes to using APIs in business, Apte points to four key elements. First, he says the Mars Digital Engine needs data from internal platforms, such as ERP enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and data warehouses. Second, Mars works with various external partners – Apte and his team must bring in what he refers to as social and market data to help the firm work with its partners.  

Third, Apte says all these datasets must be fed into information-hungry applications – his team works to feed these tools with APIs. Finally, Apte and his colleagues work on what he refers to as activating the consumer channel, which is where the team feeds information to asset management platforms, such as those for products, labels and digital assets. 

“One of the first APIs we launched was the product master,” he says. “Most areas of the business, such as channels and brand websites, all need product information and attributes,” he says. “If you don’t give people the consistent information they need, they’ll go off and get the information themselves and they’ll create point-to-point solutions.” 

The standardised approach of Apte and his team avoids this spaghetti-like approach to data management and instead creates a master view of information. “We build consistent APIs on top of the data we hold, and people – whether internal users or external partners – can use information and send it to the websites and channels that require data,” he says. 

Building strong momentum

Although Apte is responsible for setting the direction of enterprise integration, he says solid progress had already been made before he joined the firm. Stage one – in terms of proof of concept and testing the platform for APIs – had already been undertaken. The team had selected MuleSoft as its API partner, a firm that Apte had already worked closely with in his previous position at RB. Apte has helped the team at Mars to develop its initial work.

“They’d built some initial system APIs, such as integration into ServiceNow and Splunk,” he says. “I helped refocus the team on its priorities. As a leader, that’s a key role – and we got them to focus sharply on that.” 

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Two new APIs were put into production in May, and 10 more were launched between May and October. These APIs are what Apte calls crucial elements, including the aforementioned product master and a customer master data feed. 

“We are seeing real momentum being built now – there’s conversation, there’s engagement, there’s business stakeholder meetings taking place, and that’s really helping our cause,” he says, before recognising that the integration team needs to continue proving benefits. 

“There’s still work to do, of course. But I think that’s OK – the rest of the business has its own work to do; they’re not technology specialists. To continue to build momentum, our team shouldn’t be talking about APIs – we should be talking about business outcomes, such as saving time and improving service. These are the things the business cares about.” 

Leaving a legacy 

Apte says re-use is the number one benefit of his MuleSoft-based API strategy at Mars. Instead of everyone around the business building their own feeds time and again, the integration team has created crucial feeds – such as master feeds for products and customers – that can be re-used on demand. 

When it comes to other IT leaders who might be thinking of implementing their own API strategy, Apte offers a range of best-practice tips. In terms of general management, he says senior executive sponsorship is essential. “I wouldn’t be able to do any of what I’m doing without that support,” he says. 

Apte says CIOs should focus on ensuring the rest of the business trusts data professionals to work with their information. He also says CIOs would be well advised to consider the overall enterprise architecture and to demonstrate how API fits as part of a broader digital strategy. 

When it comes to technical best-practice considerations, Apte advises other CIOs to build a sound enterprise data model. That model should provide solid foundations for game-changing work in the area of information management, he says. “APIs are all about data, so having that model – in terms of how you re-use data – is going to be so important.” 

Finally, Apte suggests other CIOs should be attentive to data skills. “That’s my focus at Mars,” he says. “I don’t want to just leave a legacy of building hundreds of APIs – what I would like to do is to build long-term capability. So we’re investing in skills because if you don’t have the right people, you just create a bottleneck.”

Focusing on the customer 

Apte says his wider strategy for enterprise application integration is best thought of as a hybrid approach. Mars has a broad range of technical assets – and those assets, despite the rise of APIs, must be re-used as much as possible. Looking further forwards, he hopes to create an internal marketplace for APIs.

“That’s stage three – and that’s something we’ll be focused on in 2019,” he says. “As the business starts to make use of APIs, the critical mass of re-usability starts to grow. It’s at this point that I want to build the concept of an API marketplace. I want a service catalogue where people can go to a store and grab an API to solve the business challenge they face.” 

Stage four, which is probably two years away, involves an advanced stage where the marketplace holds 1,500-plus APIs. “That’s where governance becomes important and making sure the right people are using the right APIs at the right time,” says Apte, who adds that the amount of data being used by a major company such as Mars will only continue to increase.

“As a digital leader, you need to know where your data is, and you need to think about how you can create a single view of the customer,” he says. “It’s about making the most of an integration technology, like APIs, to help our associates at Mars create a single view of the customer.”

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