From Runway Focus to Micro Focus: Kan Tang’s leadership philosophy

Kan Tang knows a lot about combining wisdom from very different fields. A professional model in China for five years, Kan is the first to point out the commonalities between her previous and present careers. At five foot seven and a half, Kan says she was short for a runway model. To survive in an extremely competitive field, she advises, “you must discover your strength and maximise it”. If height wasn’t her strength, then speed would be: she became one of the fastest models in her team – averaging 17 second costume changes. This led to her receiving the honour of wearing the best designer dress in the first statewide top 10 model competition, where she won the title.

Kan also draws an important lesson from her family: her father, a senior executive responsible for electrical power in China, prioritised quality, as his position required “high integrity of execution”.

These two lessons, from the catwalk and from her family, inform her DevOps philosophy. She says:

“To me, in DevOps you can achieve agility and quality together – a lot of people say they contradict, but they don’t.”

This ability to combine wisdom from disparate areas of life has no doubt served her well as HPE commenced their recent spin merger with Micro Focus.

“I feel very positive about the move to Micro Focus – which created one of world’s largest pure-play software companies – and moving to more containerisation, more DevOps automation, more DevOps in the cloud, more secure DevOps and more powerful analytics for decision support. I think of my journey as what’s next. The opportunities are endless.”

The story of Kan’s journey to Micro Focus indicates her willingness to explore new fields and to practice the art of continuous learning. After moving to the US to study with no English language skills – she struggled. At the time there were no electronic dictionaries, so Kan took to hand-translating her books, often spending an hour translating and reading over a single page.

“There are two types of pain: the pain of regret and the pain of discipline. Looking back, I overcame the extreme difficulties during my early years in the US through my strong will to not give up – even though I had a million reasons to quit.  So perseverance is one of the most important qualities in achieving success.”

It was during this time that Kan decided to enrol in a computer science master’s degree – a move she puts down to bravery or naivety. Although she struggled with the language, she understood maths and logic, and as she puts it, “I fell in love with coding and relational database programming. If you’re sitting there doing something for six to eight hours without wanting to take a break, you know you love it.”

From there, Kan’s experience began to diversify. She started working with a startup company, writing up to 90% of their code for the primary system.

“For the first time I was an architect, a designer, a developer, a tester, an operation admin and a user! I had to figure out how to start from an idea all the way to the production. We did promotion every week! That was the first time I experienced End2End DevOps – back in 2000.”

In her next role at EDS, she worked as a senior consultant and architect, then moved into operations in a new position with airline solutioning company Sabre. Kan recalls that she was excited to move into Agile Transformation with FedEx, followed by a massive two year, $1 billion project at Disney.

“I’m always asking ‘what’s next’. I didn’t know anything about media – I didn’t know about photo-editing or videotranscoding. I jumped into the Disney project, and within a few months, I started to learn the basics and then gained industry specific knowledge. By the time we delivered NextGen Experience NGE, I became a trusted advisor for my customers.”

Kan has moved from industry to industry – working with airlines, manufacturers, logistics, healthcare, government, retail, pharmaceuticals, insurance, media, and banking.

“I like navigating through and learning different industries. Sometimes I don’t have a choice, you are requested by a client or you are called to save an account. You learn to swim, you struggle, you survive, you excel.”

She was one of few women awarded as a distinguished technologist at HPE, and one of 50 future potential executives selected to enrol in the Harvard Leadership Program. It is to this program that she attributes her strategic expertise.

STRATEGY AND PRIORITISING THE CUSTOMER

Strategy and passion for customers are the traits to which Kan attributes her success.

When asked to elaborate on these, Kan’s enthusiasm becomes clear.

“You have to understand strategy – there are three elements. The first is the goal or objective; second is which domain you’re going to play – there are so many areas, so much competition, that you have to understand which domain you play in; and third, you have to understand your competitive advantages. With these three elements, you have to do a lot of research, align with the organisation, and if you don’t have the competitive advantage and you absolutely need it, then you have to build it. Once you understand strategy, you can move into execution, but this is a totally different ballgame. Very often visionary leaders can create great strategies, but very often fail in execution.”

Kan cites the process which saw her obtain the role of Distinguished Technologist as an example of her passion for the customer.

“One thing I found out is what people actually mean by customer care. Number one is that you actually think on their behalf in the long-term. When you make a decision, a recommendation, you think on behalf of them – not yourself. Number two is how quickly you respond to people. Speed is about respect. There are always a lot of priorities, but if you delay the response then they consider you not trustworthy or inefficient. If you think on behalf of your customer and do your best, they will always come back. You shouldn’t think only about how to sell the product, but how to think on behalf of your customer and how to solve the pain they can’t solve. I’m always very focused on the customer. I do whatever I can to help facilitate the conversation, and in the end I bring a lot more business than those who just want to sell the product.”

LEADERSHIP AND SUCCESS

Kan’s founding pillars of strategy and customer passion are underpinned by another key interest: leadership.

“One of my favourite bosses said that you actually learn more from bad bosses than from good bosses. A lot of enterprises are looking for the best pattern – they want to hear the positive stories; but the negative stories are equally important.”

She cites a Gartner report that indicates the biggest challenge for DevOps transformation today and in the future is people and culture.

For organisations thinking about adopting DevOps, her advice is focused on the importance of leadership. Managing change is a lengthy process and very disruptive, with many elements in play. Getting the team on-board and implementing an effective change management process is critical. “If your team doesn’t think they’re going to benefit, they’re not going to be part of the change, they’re going to be resistant. They have to understand what’s in it for them. You have to start small, and be very strategic.” She advises that the team needs a clear vision, and importantly, she adds, “in any management of change, you must balance freedom and control.”

Her definition of success is also integrally connected to her sense of leadership.

“When you are an individual performer, success is all about yourself. When you’re a leader, success is all about your team.”

Last year, Kan recalls, she had a vision. She wanted to bring Micro Focus’s product together in an integrated way, and bring people process into the technology platform. Initially, there were a lot of doubts and skeptics amongst the stakeholders.

Kan began by talking to individual people, because, she says, “success is different for everyone”. For some it is money or a promotion, while for others it is about the type of work they enjoy or learning new skills. She wanted to get to the bottom of each person’s individual preferences.

This comes back to the lessons she has learned from her experiences with leadership – including the idea that you can learn more from bad bosses than good ones.

“A lot of the time in my career I was struggling, frustrated, wishing my leaders could listen to me and bring out the best in me. I applied this same principle to my team. I asked them: ‘in five years, what do you want to do? What are your strengths?’ Then I would give feedback on how I felt they could reach that goal. By better understanding each person’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals, I was able to create a lot of synergy.”

This was especially important when news of the HPE-Micro Focus merger broke last year. During this period of change, Kan asked her team to achieve what she calls “an almost impossible goal” – building a sophisticated end-to-end platform while in the midst of a transition with a lot of uncertainty. Kan recalls: “I said, be focused – everyone else might not be focused, but we’re going to do the most advanced stuff. If you decide to leave, you’ll take these extra skills with you, and if you stay, you’ll be recognised as a frontrunner.”

The team bought into this message – and it worked. “Everyone played a role, and played to their strengths, and created something impossible – the End2End DevOps Model Office”. The new platform was shown to the CEO and presented at their company-wide ‘all-hands’ meeting.

WHAT’S NEXT?

For someone interested in constant challenges and exploring the next thing, Kan is the right person to ask about what is hot now and coming next in DevOps.

Right now, she elaborates, containerisation and Micro Services are improving development agility, deployment flexibility and precise scalability, making work quicker, better, and cheaper. Kan also points to collaboration through ChatOps, which is helping to reduce meantime restore services in production and can help to provide accurate insights immediately. Its ability to resolve issues quickly and transparently leads to increased trust between teams.

So what’s around the corner? We asked Kan to give us a hint about what’s next.

App Security in DevOps

“Software is ubiquitous today. It’s in the phones we carry, It’s in the cars we drive,  It’s in the planes we board, it’s in pretty much everything! Today’s greatest risk is apps that run your business. It is the weakest link. 75% of attacks are at the application layer; network-based security solutions are ineffective against this threat. With an alarming growth rate in breaches through web apps, enterprises are looking for how to effectively integrate their application security into their DevOps continuous delivery strategy.”

DevOps in the cloud

“With more enterprises moving their workload into the cloud and going through internal DevOps transformation, customers are becoming interested in cloud-based DevOps. In other words, you can plan in the cloud, develop in the cloud, integrate in the cloud, deploy in the cloud, test in the cloud, operate in the cloud, and monitor in the cloud.”

IoT and DevOps

“We need to understand how IoT relates to DevOps – if you can’t do DevOps, it will be really hard to move to future IoT. IoT success requires a DevOps mindset. The same DevOps principles and concepts apply to IoT: from test and deployment automation, service virtualisation and network virtualisation, to monitoring, security, small batch and microservice deployment. I believe if you want to do IoT, you must do DevOps well first.”

WOMEN IN TECH

For a former fashion model turned Chief Technologist, the question of gender parity is most likely a common one. Kan acknowledges that “the challenges will always be there, because IT is a very male-dominated industry.” Many women in IT, she says, have shared their experience that, “as a man, you’re assumed to be competent unless proven otherwise, whereas as a woman you’re presumed to be incompetent unless proven otherwise.” She believes a positive support system is vital for women in IT to survive and excel.

Kan adds that a lack of role models contributes to issues with gender equality in technology. “If they can see it, they can be it – as an organisation, we need to have a more supportive system to promote women, so people can look up to her, and think ‘I might be able to do it too.’ It creates motivation for younger female engineers.”

As does much of Kan’s business philosophy, questions of gender equality return to her sense of inclusive, people-centred leadership. Kan does a lot of coaching for women in IT, and says that she’s known as a “tough cookie” who is not afraid of debate and challenging assumption. She believes women in IT need to improve on their sense of competitiveness.

“Competitiveness is like a muscle; the more you practice, the stronger it becomes. But I also believe in balance – be thoughtful, collaborative and considerate as we always are, while being tough on important issues, be confrontational if needed, and be mentally and physically strong in front of criticism and challenges.”

 

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