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CIO interview: DFS’s Russell Harte on the Google ecosystem

The furniture retailer has standardised on G Suite and has bought into the Google Cloud Platform and Chrome OS devices

In 2017, DFS was embarking on a digital transformation. The furniture retailer was in the process of acquiring Sofology and had built a scalable IT architecture, based on VMware hosted on Rackspace, which also managed DFS’s Amazon Web Services (AWS) public cloud requirements.

When Computer Weekly spoke to DFS’s IT chief, Russell Harte, in 2017, he discussed the opportunities for bringing digital signage to the retail stores and providing Windows-based tablets to sales staff to enable them to discuss furniture options with customers visiting DFS stores.

Harte, who is now the chief technology officer at the company, says that since then, more and more people are feeling confident about buying furniture online and DFS recently migrated its web platform – its biggest customer application – onto the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) after deciding to buy into the Google ecosystem. As well as GCP, DFS is using the Google API gateway, Apigee and G Suite, and has rolled out 1,000 Chrome OS-powered Asus tablets to its sales team.

AWS is still being used, which means DFS’s IT environment is now multicloud. Generally, public cloud providers tend to drive their customers to use value-added services as part of their overall platform offering. But while these platform-as-a-service (PaaS) clouds can offer organisations many productivity gains, they can tie customers to one public cloud provider.

However, Harte says: “If you build your applications carefully, you won’t have vendor lock-in.”

Simplifying collaboration

Over the years, DFS has made a number of acquisitions and now operates four separate brands – DFS, Dwell, Sofa Workshop, and its most recent acquisition, Sofology. Each has a different corporate culture, a different collaboration style and different collaboration tools.

For instance, DFS had an ageing Lotus Notes system, Dwell used a shareware email system and the company also ran Microsoft Outlook. According to Harte, because there was no overarching technology strategy and the business lacked a unified culture of collaboration, it was difficult for the four brands to function as a single, coherent company. “We were trying to move to a more digital world, but we had four different email systems,” he says. 

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When it came to standardising on a collaboration suite across the four brands, DFS selected G Suite because it fitted in with the rest of the Google ecosystem, says Harte. The company worked with Google Cloud premier partner Netpremacy to conduct a system-wide review across all four organisations to determine how each worked and to identify opportunities for improvement.

Asked whether the migration team encountered any problems in moving the different email systems over to G Suite, Harte says: “When we did the first few dry runs of the migration, we didn’t have a big problem.”

To roll out G Suite, DFS adopted a “champion approach” across the business, with 50 people from different parts of the organisation being trained on the new software, then acting as product champions, he says.

“When we did the first few dry runs of the migration, we didn’t have a big problem”

Russell Harte, DFS

“We relied on the Netpremacy training team quite heavily. We’ve got an internal learning management system called Learning Hub with Google short videos and other training materials for topics on everything from using Google Sheets and Gmail to integrating multiple applications. We used trainers to develop champions, walk floors and conduct all sorts of education remotely on Google Meet.”

With its Windows tablets coming to end of life, Harte says DFS also took the opportunity to replace them with Chromebooks from Asus. Like the Windows devices they replace, he says that tablets used by the sales staff can also throw content to the in-store digital signage and provide an augmented reality experience in the browser.

Because the original sales app was web-based, it did not require modification to run on Chrome OS. Among the main benefits of the Chrome operating system, says Harte, is the fact that, unlike a Windows device, a Chrome device can be staged between 15 and 20 seconds, which makes life much easier.

Along with the tablets, DFS has started to roll out more Chromeboxes, he adds.

G Suite in the lockdown

For Harte, one of the benefits of using Google products is that DFS can use single sign-on to access the Google apps. The company is also using two-factor authentication. “I love the fact that everything works so straightforwardly,” he adds.

Although the decision to move to G Suite was made way before the lockdown, for Harte, it was a serendipitous move for DFS that has supported the business during the pandemic. “It was luck rather than judgement,” he says.

At the start of the pandemic, DFS used Google Meet to run an executive meeting, says Harte. “The first really significant meeting we held over Meet was our Leadership Forum,” he says. “Normally, we would go out to every site in the group over the course of three days. We planned to do it at the end of February, but with the pandemic, we knew we couldn’t do that. We brought together the wider leadership with the top 50 or 60 people in our teams.”

During the lockdown, Netpremacy provided DFS with a Covid-19 remote working pack that detailed the best practices to work from home efficiently and ensure business continuity. The document included administrative guidelines on how to enable offline functionality for Google Drive and Gmail, as well as tips for end-users and training videos to help users make the most of the G Suite toolset.

In the early days of the stay-at-home mandate, DFS’s leadership used G Suite to expedite communications with staff. Later, the company shifted focus to helping employees who were stuck at home to stay connected.

“We wanted to keep everybody engaged as a way to help with their personal wellbeing,” says Harte, “checking in on how people were getting on with their families, and making sure everyone was safe.”

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