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How cloud computing became an unsung hero in a time of transformation

In the overnight shift to remote work, the cloud was there to smooth the transition.

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As the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the U.S. in early March, businesses faced one of the largest workforce transformations in modern history. Organizations across the globe grappled with the logistical challenges of migrating their employees to remote work. How do you foster the collaboration that’s vital to innovation? How do you anticipate massive, sudden shifts in your employees’ and customers’ habits and needs? And the overarching challenge: How do you make remote work, well, work for your employees? The answer, it turns out, was in part in the cloud.

While the exit from the office may have happened overnight, Capital One was one of the large organizations ready to meet the change head-on. The company had spent the better part of a decade investing in a technology transformation that provided it with the agility, flexibility, and nimbleness to respond swiftly to changing market conditions and customer needs. Part of this transformation had included a move out of its legacy data centers and into the public cloud, as the company believed that the cloud was the future. What no one could foresee was how an unforeseen pandemic made the future arrive all at once, and necessitate adaptation like never before.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Built for this moment

Capital One’s transition to the cloud was a key component of its readiness to meet the unexpected in 2020. While many businesses have adopted a hybrid model that combines the cloud with traditional IT infrastructures, Capital One is the rare institution — and the first U.S. bank — to report it had moved out of its physical data centers and gone all-in on the public cloud. The company completed its transition to a cloud-first organization this year, and describes the transformation as a critical part of its strategy — one that’s allowed it to manage data at a much larger scale.

The company’s shift to the cloud was part of a broader, enterprise-wide tech transformation that began eight years ago. Among other initiatives, the bank moved to an agile engineering model that allows product teams to constantly innovate and iterate, and scaled up its tech organization to nearly 11,000 people, 85% of whom are engineers — moves that underline the firm’s transition from a technology-driven bank to a technology-first bank.

Moving out of its physical data centers onto AWS enabled instant provisioning of infrastructure, but also scalability and resiliency to respond to unforeseen challenges. “Finding ways to adapt and innovate are more important than ever,” says Jeff Barr, Chief Evangelist for AWS. “The tech investment Capital One is making to ensure they can swiftly respond to customers’ needs during the pandemic will have a lasting impact, and we want to make sure they have the capacity to do that.”

Moving away from on-premises data centers has allowed the bank to unlock the potential of technologies like machine learning to drive proactive, real-time, personalized solutions for customers. Just one example is Eno, Capital One’s award-winning intelligent assistant. Eno was constructed entirely in the cloud — a benefit which allowed it to scale quickly and use machine learning frameworks like natural language processing (NLP) to give customers a seamless experience, even as its utilization rate grows.

For businesses and the customers they serve, the benefits of the cloud are many. “The scalable nature of the cloud opens up the availability of data insights by allowing for any number of users to have easy, governed access to broad context anytime they need to,” says Thierry Cruanes, Co-Founder & CTO of the cloud data platform Snowflake. As Cruanes puts it, such insights lead to, “better understanding of what’s happening in their market and around the world. Increased access to data insights is the catalyst for a faster pace of innovation and, as a result, business transformation.”

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Real-time tools for flexibility and scale

But while the cloud offers benefits to businesses and consumers alike, the massive shift to remote work nonetheless presented challenges. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, around 24% of full-time employees did some or all of their work from home on an average day while 82% did the same at their place of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By the end of June the number of employees working from home nearly doubled to 42%, while those working on-premises plummeted to just 26%.

“In the early days of the pandemic, the cloud enabled us to prioritize the health and safety of our more than 50,000 associates, including thousands of contact center agents, and still provide critical support to our customers,” said Melanie Frank, Managing Vice President, Technology, Capital One. “Cloud-based telephony was critical in empowering our agents to make the seamless transition to work from home.”

Luckily, many organizations were already using cloud-based tools to support real-time communication and collaboration across the globe — like the videoconferencing, chat, and shared document applications many office employees use daily. Capital One was able to maintain employee connectivity and productivity by taking stock of both solutions that were available internally, and expanding its use of SaaS-based products. Being cloud-first allowed them the flexibility to choose the solutions that made the most sense for their now-distributed teams, rather than depending on approaches rooted in pre-Covid work routines.

Their technical backend was also taken care of thanks to the cloud. Capital One engineers were able to monitor, control, and adapt thanks to the adoption of APIs and cloud-based data infrastructure, a move that was vital in Capital One associates being able to manage processes from anywhere in the world. The bank’s adoption of cloud-based data infrastructure also meant that scaling could be done remotely without the need for any employees physically updating the data infrastructure in response to increased demand from customers.

The evolution of the “new normal”

Industry-wide, cloud technology has played a large role in easing the transition to remote work — and Cruanes confirms its use is expanding since the pandemic. “The need for rapid data insights to help organizations respond to the pandemic has become an accelerator for driving investments in data platforms,” he says. “Businesses are trying to figure out what is happening to them, how their customers’ needs are changing. Organizations need an accessible, flexible, and secure way to gather and analyze data to help them understand the world as it is right now and as it continues to evolve.”

That combination is one that will likely continue to drive the adoption of cloud technology as time goes on. Looking forward, Cruanes sees “a huge shift in data strategy as more and more businesses leverage the immense power of data networks, both inside their company and more importantly, across companies. A global data network where thousands of organizations can securely share and process all of their data with near-unlimited scale, concurrency, and performance can completely transform industries.”

That will likely include industries like education, healthcare, and retail, which have been historically slower to adapt to emerging tech. “[Those industries] are seeing the power and impact of leveraging all of their data within a broader context for insights that have never before been possible,” Cruanes says.

While 2020 hasn’t been easy on anyone, businesses that saw the value of the cloud have been rewarded with a comparatively smoother transition to the post-pandemic world, and the organizational resiliency to adapt, scale, and thrive. As the “new normal” becomes just “normal,” that’s a movement we expect many more to embrace.

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