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Ecosystem Leaders

Episode 181

June 27, 2023

#181 Monica Aggarwal: The Power Of Partnerships in ISV Ecosystems

In this Ecosystem Aces Podcast episode, Chip Rodgers, CPO WorkSpan is joined by Monica Aggarwal, VP, ISV Build Ecosystem & Technology Partnerships, IBM.

In this Ecosystem Aces Podcast episode, Chip Rodgers, Chief Partner Officer, WorkSpan is joined by Monica Aggarwal, Vice President, ISV Build Ecosystem & Technology Partnerships, IBM. Monica has over 20 years of experience in designing world-class software and systems. She spearheads global strategy, sales, and partner programs with a focus on Hybrid Cloud and AI. Monica is a transformational leader who has led global strategy, product design, and ISV ecosystems for IBM. She is also passionate about growing diverse talent and serves as Co-Chair for Pan-Asian Executive Council at IBM and Executive Sponsor for the JumpStart program across Texas.

Topics covered include:

  • Creating an outside experience of software development - 4:41
  • Common themes from partners that have helped shape the IBM ISV program - 7:51
  • IBM’s collaboration with AI - 14:46
  • How does IBM work with partners - 20:15
  • Lessons learned along the way - 24:50

Chip Rodgers  00:08

Hey, welcome back to another episode of ecosystem aces. I'm Chip Rodgers CMO at WorkSpan and I am so excited to be joined by Monica Aggarwal. Monica. Welcome.

Monica Aggarwal  00:18

Thank you, Chip. Thank you for having me here today.

Chip Rodgers  00:21

Monica is vice president of ISV, building ecosystem and Technology Partnerships at IBM and a long career at IBM doing a lot of different roles. But this is just a really exciting role. We talked ahead of time, preparing for our conversation today. And Monica and her team are responsible for working with ISVs and helping IBM partner ISV partners, work with IBM, build joint solutions, bring them to market and all those things. 

So those are some of the topics that we're going to talk about today. And I'm just ready to jump in. So Monica, welcome.

Monica Aggarwal  01:03

Thank you, too. Great to meet you.  

Creating an outside experience of software development

Chip Rodgers  01:05

Monica, why don't we start there. If you could talk a little bit about your current role, what you and your team are up to at IBM?

Monica Aggarwal  01:17

Chip I lead the, as you said, the ISV ecosystem business for IBM. And I'm also responsible for Technology Partnerships and software, OEM partnerships, and let me unbundle and package some of those roles that I have. So when you look at the ISV ecosystem, it's all about working with partners like ISVs, like MSPs, or MSSP. 

And in the IBM ecosystem, we call working with these partners as build motion, because it's all about how we really help these partners embed, let's say, IBM software into their commercial solutions that the partners then take to market. And I think this represents a really large opportunity for IBM to expand our consumption of hybrid cloud and AI solutions. 

For example, 65% of enterprise workloads are really through third party software providers. So helping the partners win in the market is really, really key for us. My second part of the portfolio is managing technology partnerships. So we work with, let's say, our long standing industry partners on solutions on technologies. So these are Intel, Dell, VMware, NetApp, juniper, and then we also have very strong software OEM partners, I would say, think through Cloudera. MongoDB, enterprise dB, data stacks, and so on. 

So if you combine together, this is really an ecosystem of partners. Have  done a lot of work around product development, and you can build the best of software in the best of systems. But if you don't have an ecosystem of partners, nothing really sticks. So I think this role from that perspective is very, very exciting for me.

Chip Rodgers  02:52

That's so true. Because no one company can do everything. And so, it's really exciting when a company like IBM as an IBM has a huge commitment to partners. I think Arvin made the announcement about a year and a half ago, I think, $4 billion. That was a billion and a half dollars, I think, last month in partnership, so just incredible investment. And I know that you're part of delivering on that promise.

Monica Aggarwal  03:28

Absolutely. All aligned, totally aligned.

Chip Rodgers  03:33

So, Monica, you've had a number of different roles at IBM, and maybe could you talk a little bit about how your previous experiences have shaped, how you're working with that, how you're running your team and working with ISVs? For IBM?

Monica Aggarwal  03:54

That's a really interesting question. I'm sort of an outlier sitting in the ecosystem here, because I come from decades, I would say two and a half decades of product development background. And it was interesting having to be a mainframe application developer, which was actually outside of my IBM experience, and then coming and working in different companies on ERP development to Oracle databases to, Java development, and so on.

So when I look across my experience chair, one of the things I found is I've been on both sides of developing the software, and actually also went on the other side, which I would say is a little bit of a reverse cycle to go and understand how chip development happens? How do you develop operating systems, how to form where it gets developed? How does the value added software on top of that come in? 

And I would say if I were to net out that entire experience, for me, the biggest learning was around creating an outside experience of software development, which is that the customers are really the driving force behind business success. And the best software is about delivering customer value. And not only that, exceeding the customer expectations that then leads to customer delight. And I remember being a development leader and going with sales teams and saying I want to learn how to do sales calls. And they were really surprised. 

But eventually, it was all about understanding what is driving the customer to buy a certain product or a service. And my big learning back to the development teams was that if you're developing, let's say, 10, feature functions, but if really, there are three that matter to the client, your return investment is 3%. So focus on the three, because the rest of the seven don't come. 

So I would say that was my first big learning outside of development. My mother's strongest belief has been that, you have to have an ecosystem of partners, as I said, you have to make sure that it's sticky, because they are the ones who became a multi year force multiplier out to market for you. And so when I took this role the question for me really was around what kind of experience? What kind of journey Do you want the partners to experience where you not only help them differentiate with technology today, but also help them time to value and make this really an aha moment for them. 

So I think leveraging from a lot of those backgrounds around working with clients, taking requirements, understanding how you pivot, the development teams, and from an outside experience actually helps shape a lot of this experience that I'm trying to embed right now, in this current role.

Chip Rodgers  06:25

I love the fact that, coming from a development background, and while you were in an engineering role, that you felt the need, and took action on, connecting with customers and saying, hey, I want to talk I want to understand it, because I think it's so important , it also helps build, it helps build empathy, for the challenges that customers have. And you hear it directly from it's so there's nothing more powerful than hearing it directly from a customer,about the challenges that they have. And as they tell their stories, it sticks in your mind, and you want to try and help them solve their challenges.

Monica Aggarwal  07:08

I will actually tell you about an engineer. So I'm an engineer at heart, it is always great to look at architecture diagrams, peel the layers of the onion. But I think it's very, very important to for you to have and develop that business acumen of what are you really trying to develop this for what's the end goal, and what is happening on the other side of the table, it's very interesting to go develop the product, and throw it on the other side of the fence to the seller and say go sell it, right. But you got to go and find out how hard that job is. 

And for me, if I didn't complete that cycle on being on the other side, I don't think I would have just done justice to my job. So it was like curiosity killed the cat. Let me find out what happens is what drove me to go talk to the clients and say, is that really working? Am I developing the right products? Or is it absolutely not working?

Common themes from partners that have helped shape the IBM ISV program

Chip Rodgers  07:51

That’s true. So, I know you spend a lot of time with a lot of different partners in different geographies. And you have a global role. What are maybe you could talk a little bit about some of the common themes that you hear from partners, similar to how you in your engineering role wanted to talk to customers, what are you hearing from partners that have helped shape the IBM ISV program?

Monica Aggarwal  08:19

When I took this role, I went around talking to hundreds of partners, and in a global role, you have responsibility for all the geographies, so talking to partners in the Americas or Europe, Middle East, in Africa, or Japan or Asia Pacific. And I think they were very common themes across, with some very significant events that have happened in the last three years. 

10 years of digitization really happened in the last few years, and almost every single enterprise has accelerated their digital transformation journey. And all of this was driven by the great digital shift, there was growing complexity, there was attrition, there was a skills gap. And on top of it, the client expectations are evolving, because they're all now dictated by let's say, business needs, and also societal needs. They were looking for, they were demanding, not even looking, they were demanding for more specialized solutions and services. 

They wanted it faster, they wanted it more efficiently. And they also wanted it very personalized according to their preferred way of engaging. And if you were to net out all of these broader themes at 300,000 feet level, they were really looking for insights from AI. They were looking for automation from productivity, they were looking for security from cyber crimes. And then there was this growing underlying need for sustainability. But we all know that, if you look at these client needs today, they cannot be fulfilled by one vendor alone. 

So that's where the role of partnership becomes increasingly important. So when we look at the IBM ecosystem, it's really around five components. You are looking at how it's data driven, how is it secure? Is there automation? Is it going to help modernize the client? Is it going to help transform the partner, and you really want to create a very differentiated architecture that enables both IBM In our ecosystem of partners to accelerate the client's journey and help them capture that $1 trillion, hybrid cloud and AI market opportunities. If you look around today, the partner ecosystem actually has become one of the most powerful forces in technology and a growth engine for business. And Arvind, when he took the leadership for IBM company, as a co-president and chairman, he has been our biggest champion to reinforce that we will need the help of our partners because we will not be able to go directly to all their clients. 

And if we want to increase the number of foreign clients, and we also want to increase our wallet share, we have to make sure we provide the best outcome for them. And that's why, this whole powerful partner ecosystem, which we call the IBM ecosystem was born last year. If you look at, if I were to unpack the IBM ecosystem, it's nothing but a network of 10s of 1000s of partners of all types, digital marketplaces, developers, it is your hyperscalers. It's your GSIs. It's your ISVs. It's your resellers and everything in between. So that's the purpose and value of an ecosystem. 

But how old it was when we started rolling this ecosystem was to really center it around a very shared vision for the future for partners and for new clients. And so we are transforming that whole IBM ecosystem to really be a growth engine for the company, both for the partners, so we are very uniquely positioned to capture that opportunity. There were, a very interesting set of themes that emerged when I talked to the partners. One of the biggest things was, they were all looking for not just technology, which a lot of companies had, but they also want a very frictionless and seamless partner experience that helps them win with their clients. 

So when we started designing, and putting pen to paper, we actually came out with IBM partner plus in January of this year, and our entire design point was around a very simple and transparent experience that puts partners first. So that was one. The second trend that we heard was, we are at one of those rare moments I say in history, when a new technology innovation, like AI arrives that just radically transforms the business and society. It was almost as if, talking to partners, and I'm interested, you're right now in a conference there, it was almost like a significant fear of missing out on AI.

Have I jumped onto the train? Do I need it? Where do I start with it? I remember one of the partners telling me, I started developing AI on my own a few years back, now, onboarding, so much cash, that it's just not sustainable. And other partners said, I hired a data scientist, and I hired an ML ops engineer. And now suddenly, it's harder to hire, it's been harder to retain them. 

So we are starting to see partners overcome with burning too much cash, with skills shortage, development costs going up, but they still want to come out with innovative solutions. So those are a couple of trends that we saw in terms of what the partners are experiencing. Now, let me share a little bit of how we structured that approach. 

What can we do about what the partners are seeing, especially on AI? When we talk to the partners, we said how about we look at and we have lots of offerings from an end, tiny AI perspective, we said, with the partners need is an embeddable AI portfolio, which is not an offering, but really a portfolio of offerings, which brings the best of IBM and the best of all, open source that helps them reduce development cost, and also helps them build AI software at a very fast rate and pace. So we launched a bunch of offerings that we had, which are all around use cases, whether it's expert assist, whether it's voice of customer, whether it's conversational AI, whether it's observability, whether it's let's say a partner wants to do predictive maintenance. So we came out with a lot of those offerings, you know, as we talk to the partners to help speed up their differentiation and time to value. And you're right now, you know, you would have already heard at the beginning of May, we announced that IBM Watson technology will be embedded into SAP solutions to provide new AI driven insights and automation to help accelerate their innovation, which helps them create a very simple user experience journey across the recipe solution portfolio.

 So that's been a whole big tailwind because it has really helped the partners think through how am I going to build AI? What am I going to buy AI? And I always ask us to think about three things. When you think about that. I said, Do you think you have the capability to continue decades of continued and persistent investments over the years? Second, do you think you will have skills? And third, do you think you'll be able to bring every single industry expertise, especially if you're a very horizontal industry agnostic partner? 

And if your answer is no to any of these, then I think you should look at partnering with us on an AI journey versus trying to do everything yourself, which may not be your core competence. But you may be swinging around the fences. So those are a couple of examples that we've seen, and observations and talking to partners.

IBM collaboration with AI

Chip Rodgers  14:46

Really interesting, Monica, and IBM Scotch with Watson was very early in the whole AI and chat GPT are those kinds of things that get everybody's attention. But there is a lot of work that's being done, and especially around business applications for AI. And IBM  has been a leader in bringing those to market and building the underlying technology to make that all happen.

Monica Aggarwal  15:21

Oh, absolutely. In fact, I'll share an example of  one of our Dallas based partners, Krista software, they tapped IBM Watson to help Mobile Security clients Imperium because they wanted to automate its entire scheduling and deployment process in less than two months. So Kristus platform, they use machine learning and Watson NLP from our embeddable AI software portfolio.

And they help the Imperium release deployment updates faster, so that they could address the human error and regulatory requirements. And it could also improve efficiency and reduce risk. And across the entire collaboration, Imperium was able to reduce a four plus hour manual process to minutes, which led to a lot of three digit savings, but also empower their engineers to focus on what they do best, which is developing secure software for clients. And you probably heard last week at our IBM conference, we announced Watson x, which is a platform for AI and data. 

One of the partners that I was talking to actually mentioned this, I wish I had recorded this, which was I'm looking for AI that's trustworthy, that's enterprise. It helps me not only train and validate and tune in deployment models, but I also need a lake, but I also need governance. And that completes the 360 degree loop. Because we are in an era, which is all about AI for business. So that's where we are today.

Chip Rodgers  16:42

That's tremendous. With partners and how to talk a little bit about how I work with partners on CO creating solutions? And,because IBM has incredible technology, your partners have great technology? And where do you bring the two together? Program ties that bring those solutions to market?

Monica Aggarwal  17:15

When we started creating the build journey, we said, there are really two portions of this part. How do we help partners create solutions with us? And then how do we help to go to market so to your question on how do we help co create, we looked at the spectrum of partners that people have, and we said, we have startups, we have whitespace, ISVs, we have medium ISVs. 

And we have large ISVs, like SAP. And we said, how do we need to help them build solutions and go to market faster. So one of the things that we vary with a very specific focus we designed was around new partners. Sometimes partners can think IBM is a big enterprise company only has solutions or big enterprise partners. But we are catering to every single partner, from DNI to automation to security and sustainability solutions. 

So we said, we launched something called an IBM new partner accelerator as part of partner plus, what that does is it provides onboarding, it provides training, it provides benefits during their first six months in the program that allows them to develop solutions faster. We also help them for example, they could leverage cloud credits to easily evaluate an IBM technology and test integration with their solution. We've now made no touch trials available, where they could just go and explore new trials and demos on IBM product pages. 

They have availability with technical experts, so they could access technical expertise within IBM built Lab, which helps them enhance their solutions capabilities. We offer them investments, which allows them to use more Cloud Credits, technical resources, or anything that they need to support their new development efforts on migrations. And as they go through the tiers, they also get access to software Access Catalog, which helps them explore over 16,000 plus IBM products that they can download. 

They can demo the value and even test so for us co creation was all about not just giving an IBM technology, but really designing the program 360 degree end to end that helps them focus on CO creating easily. One of the examples I wanted to share was a great partner is Echo bot. Now it's an IBM partner that develops intelligent financial technology. So think of them as a portfolio as a service platform that is helping institutional investors make smarter decisions. So they worked with us and leveraged ARIA technologies to launch something called the first of a kind, AI powered US equity index. 

I think they call it AI pecs or apex, and that uses Watson technologies to uncover new investments. They have launched that they have realized, I think one of their clients was HSBC and HSBC realized more than $2 billion in sales linked to apex, and the total return on strategy has outperformed the s&p 500 by three digit percentages over the last 10 years. So we love to have our benefits. We get Cloud Credits. And as a startup even small amounts matter to them. So helping them win in the market by CO creating and creating the solutions with them jointly was really our mantra.

How IBM works with partners

Chip Rodgers  20:15

That's amazing. Where did ideas like that come from? And maybe it's all of the above, but it's typically coming from IBM, from your partner, from customers from the sales organization? And how do you call it through and prioritize and all that?

Monica Aggarwal  20:40

I use the outside in development, which is, what do you need as a partner from us? Where can we help you? There are partners who've come and shared, hey, I need investments, the partners will come and share. I don't have a cloud strategy. And I'd love to go on IBM Cloud, can you help me with Cloud Credits? 

So somewhere I would say crowdsource from the partners, and a lot of that work crowdsource internally in terms of how our programs have been in the past, what has worked, what has not? And eventually, if they have a segmentation of clients that they have to target? How can we design, take those requirements and just focus on the details? 

So I would say it was crowd sourcing from a partner internally, talking to our geography leaders, talking to our end clients and say, when you go and talk to your partner, what do you what do you expect out of that? So I think it's all of the above Chip.

Chip Rodgers  21:31

So you're building solutions together with partners, you created something or they created something you co created. You co created some new technology that's going to help your shared customers. How do you help your partners go to market with the IBM sales team with their sales team? On marketing activities, co-selling? Talk a little bit about that motion.

Monica Aggarwal  21:59

One of the most important pieces every time I open a conversation with the partner, they do understand that eventually we will do the Embed portion of IBM technology into their solutions, but they are most important piece that they are really on the table to discuss is he helped me to go to market, because I think go to market really becomes a force multiplier and the flywheel engine of growth for them. 

So let me talk about a couple of things. As part of our demand engine, we offer partners access to, let's say, IPMI digital marketing platform. It's a free end to end marketing platform that enables our partners to plan to execute sophisticated digital marketing campaigns without investing in the required tech stack. Now, these campaigns can be either completely built from scratch by the partner, or you could even base it on many of the customizable IBM assets and campaigns that we have. 

So in this way, we are really intending to enable our partners to unlock a very sophisticated digital marketing stack which unifies the messaging, improves the overall quality and impacts them for the joint execution, because I think that's what they don't have. And that's where they're looking for help. So that's the marketing piece. Some of the other pieces that we got as feedback where we said, we have to really double down on this because we didn't have that muscle before was how do we offer a whole idea about incentivizing IBM sellers to go sell partner solutions, right. So we have a partner advocacy program, where IBM sellers are motivated to not retire their quota, but they also get paid for it. So that's another program we introduced and at a certain tier level partners become eligible for that. We actually went a step further, and we said, how about we expand the reach of partner solutions to new clients, and we maximize the market opportunity. 

So what we did is we said, just like we used to have client success managers or customer success managers, guys, we are success managers. So that's a role that we specifically crafted, where an ISV Success Manager works with the partner. And they do a very good due diligence around joint go to market planning. What is your target market, what kind of end clients are you focused on? 

Then they look in the IBM enablement part, they look at lead development, they connect IBM client teams to the build partners.  We've seen a whole big focus around it. In fact, I remember last year, one of our partners was trying to develop a connected security solution and they had an IBM component inside their overall solution. When we close the deal. The partner brought about 18 leads to the table and the IBM client brought about 10 leads. Now imagine on one solution, there are about 25 leads that the partner and the client teams are working together to grow so that's why I call go to market a really a force multiplier and a flywheel engine for growth.

Lessons learnt along the way

Chip Rodgers  24:50

That's fantastic. And I love this concept of partner Success Manager sort of borrowing from the customer success manager concept and having a full lifecycle of someone that's You're really involved in helping your partner be successful, but that helps everybody be successful. Right IBM as well. So this has been fantastic, Monica, I really appreciate you taking the time and and, sharing your thoughts about partnering and your experience with IBM. 

Maybe you just have another question, one last question. I'd love to have your thoughts about working with partners earlier in your career. But now in and having been managing partners for quite a while, any learnings that you've had, that you would want to share, Our audiences, all partner people, and they love to hear from senior successful partner executives like yourself, anything that you would share that you've learned along the way.

Monica Aggarwal  26:00

I would say lots of learning. But if I were to pick, let me pick three of them that I've had over the years, I think the first I would say is create a wow experience for your partner. And that only happens when you're maniacally focused on listening to them, intently listening to them, and paying attention to every single small detail, because that's the difference between winning and losing. And that's what helps them win in the market. So I would say, wow experience. 

The second I would say is, when I was growing up, I moved around a lot of cities. And I would say from my schooling, kindergarten to schooling, I changed about nine schools in 17 years. So change is the only constant. So create a culture of agility and nimbleness that helps you learn and pivot at clock speed. So that's what I would say about the second one. 

I think third is one of my personal favorites. Former IBM Chairman Thomas Watson Jr. how important it was to work with people who question the way things are, and challenge the status quo. And his view was that every business needs wild ducks, and an IBM, we try not to Team them. So I would say make sure you have wild ducks on your team. That would be the last one.

Chip Rodgers  27:13

It's great. Well, yeah, so create a wow, partner experience, that's really important. Change is constant . And so be prepared for that and be agile, and, and then be disruptive, and challenge the status quo. Just three really, really great principles to live by. So Monica, thank you so much. This has been fantastic. 

I really appreciate you taking the time and sharing all of your experiences with IBM and with creating a very successful ISV partner program on a global scale for IBM. So thank you so much for sharing your time today.

Monica Aggarwal  28:00

And thank you for having me here, Chip. It was a wonderful conversation and great to meet you again.

Chip Rodgers  28:05

Likewise. So Monica, thank you. And thank you all for joining another episode of ecosystem aces. I'm Chip Rodgers and Monica Agarwal. Thank you for joining and we'll see you all next time. Thanks, everybody.

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