Making a Smooth Transition to Cloud Environments
Flagship Solutions Group CEO Mark Wyllie explains why some clients still need a nudge forward when it comes to cloud environments and technology
Mark Wyllie: Good, Paul. How are you doing today?
Paul: Oh I’m doing well, thanks. Well, I think always the best place to kick off one of these, Mark, is if maybe you can just tell people a little bit about who Flagship Solutions Group is and what they do.
Mark: Sure, appreciate it. So Flagship Solutions Group, we are a managed service provider. We’re a little bit of a hybrid in the sense that we also do resale of hardware and software, predominantly IBM and Red Hat, but most of those are integrated into solutions that we deliver either on-prem or in a hybrid cloud manner. Then there’s a whole part of our business that is totally 100% managed services for customers, doing things like patch management, cybersecurity, data analytics. So that’s a little bit of an overview. We have our own Knock. We run out of Boca Raton here, but at the same time all the engineers are geographically interspersed across the United States. So even when Covid hit, all of our engineers were already for the most part working out of home, so from that perspective Covid was a non-disruptive environment. It’s actually allowed us to grow even more and faster with customers that need to outsource, or what I would even call out-task different functions as things have evolved over the last couple of years.
Paul: So you’ve got to excuse me here now, Mark, because anybody who’s ever listened to my iTalks, they know that I’m a software guy. So companies like yours, you know it’s—it may come as a surprise to you, I’m not familiar with all of what I would term the hardware guys who are out there. So has Flagship Solutions Group been around for quite a while?
Mark: So first of all, I heard you were a softie, nothing to do with software. So [laughs] you’ve got me confused.
Paul: Oh, the truth is out!
Mark: So Flagship Solutions Group we started in the fall of ’08. Part of that though I was with two of the largest IBM partners in the US—again predominantly there the resale of hardware and software. And you know from that perspective, the hardware business is a little different because what you’re doing is you’re providing infrastructure for customers, many times across various industries. Those were typically more horizontal technology solutions. Now as time has evolved, you know we’ve gravitated towards some specific industries: sports and entertainment is one. About a year ago we ended up merging with another company out of New York called Data Storage, and with the merger it allowed them to uplist. So we’re now part of a NASDAQ company listed under DTST, and that’s helped fuel even more plans for growth. We’ve raised some money as a part of that uplist and we’re taking some of that for organic growth and then some of it we’re looking at some acquisitions. But I think right now we’re well-positioned—especially in the IBM world—because a lot of IBM customers in terms of the Power side have not really moved to the cloud or a lot of them are still maybe one rev or two behind from a hardware perspective. Why that’s important is each time IBM comes out with a new rev of hardware, typically you know your processing capability goes up by double and of course the price doesn’t go up by double either, so it’s a less expensive way as you continue to move up. But it requires making sure that all the software that you have—you know, back to your strength—there’s no dominoes that will have a problem when you upgrade. And so that’s why a lot of customers are afraid to upgrade maybe when it first comes out. Part of the job is to try to help them understand what it is that those dominoes could be and how to make a smooth transition whether it’s to an on-prem or hybrid, meaning that they’re going to leave some on-prem and move some to the cloud, or move 100% to the cloud.
Paul: Yeah so I do want to talk to you about cloud, Mark, but just before I do, sorry I just want to come back and touch on this thing where you mentioned about your kickoff being really in sports entertainment because sorry, I got to tell you, when I hear that—I know, having kids—I think wrestling when I hear that term sports entertainment. But I know that is not it. Can you just expand on that maybe a little bit for me what that is?
Mark: Well one of our clients is called Professional Fighters League. It’s the up-and-coming MMA league, so there is some wresting involved in there but no, we actually got our start in professional football. I grew up working for a marketing guy in Cincinnati and at that time he was working with Sam Wyche and the Bengals, so I think some of that might have rubbed off on me, but the bottom line is teams are no different than regular customers in the sense that they have problems that they need to solve and technology in many cases, not all but in many cases, can help solve some of those problems or at least help reduce the negative impact of those. The challenge though with sports teams typically is that they don’t have a large IT staff, though that’s also an advantage from a managed services perspective. Because really, as I see people moving to the cloud, part of it is whether they have the in-house skills and expertise to make that move, and many don’t. Some will go ahead and train their people, which is good and important for career paths within a company, but then there are others that just want to keep doing what they’re doing but they know they have to move with the times. They’ll come to somebody like a Flagship Solutions Group to basically say here’s what we want to try to accomplish. Here’s what we have and here’s where we want to go. What is it that we need to do to get there? That’s a big part of our role today.
Paul: Hmm cool. So coming back then to the cloud bit here—because of course cloud probably has been for the last 3-4 years and more so with the onset of Covid, you know cloud became one of the marvelous buzzwords that’s out there—but you have this lovely expression when we were talking before, which was you called it Coffee in the Cloud, so—
Paul: I’m just going to let you loose with that, Mark. You go first.
Mark: So first of all Flagship Solutions Group from just a—what do you want to call it?—a sales perspective, we’re very, very relationship focused, meaning that we don’t treat our customers either as numbers or just as customers. Just about every customer we have, we know multiple people up and down the account. We’re all about trying to help them accomplish their goals and their objectives. So the whole Coffee in the Cloud is—as opposed to coming in and trying to have a sales call where we would pitch that you need to buy this and five of these and three of those—we’re much more assessment based, where again we come in and try to understand what you’re doing, what you have on site today or what’s the current infrastructure you have and really, where you want to go. Some of it is technically important and some of it’s not. For example, some customers won’t move to the cloud, not because the technology isn’t right but because they depend on depreciation on their books. And when you go from on-prem to the cloud, most of the time you’re going to an OpEx model from a Capex model. So you know a lot of time the financials drive which direction that you go, but back to the Coffee in the Cloud, it’s really an opportunity for us to sit. We provide a cloud readiness assessment as a part of it, and again it’s really trying to understand what you have, come back, provide recommendations and look to see how is the best way to move you to where you want to go, whether it’s on-prem, off-prem, or what I call a combo platter.
Paul: I like that. A combo platter. Surf and Turf in the Cloud [laughs]!
Mark: And you can have fries with that if you want it!
Paul: I like that. So I think one of the biggest concerns people have—and this sort of crops up on like the HelpSystems survey every year and all of that, and I think it becomes even more of a concern with the cloud—is that whole area of security. It’s that thing of you know, the machine isn’t on my premises and it’s not even that I have my machine in a data center. Certainly cloud is that like, one step further removed. So are you finding that with an issue with people or—?
Mark: Well so first of all to your point earlier, cloud is like this phrase that encompasses everything. Even the sun now is cloudy, so I think as you get into these conversations, you have to be a little bit more specific. But I think—and I’m not meaning your question, but I think initially there was a lot of concern about security in the cloud, and it’s what you said. It’s the unknown. I can’t hug the box. I can’t look at it, but the harsh reality is—especially what I would call medium-size companies, and a lot of household names are still medium-size companies—when it comes to technology, the challenge is that they don’t have a full-time dedicated IT staff. I was talking about sports and entertainment. They’re notorious for having one or two people from a security perspective. You know let’s face it, those are all household names. And people, both good people and bad people, are trying to access their systems on an ongoing basis. So what I’ve found is that when you move to the cloud, typically you have dedicated, focused security services that are a part of the services that are being provided for that particular infrastructure. So if anything what I think is bearing out is that cloud in many respects is—maybe it’s not always but it can be more secure than you running a system in your data center. You know, not just because of the cyber part but the environmentals. I mean I went into a customer one day and they had an AS/400 system literally sitting next to the water cooler—I mean literally three feet from the water cooler. So I’m thinking to myself what happens if that thing like breaks or you know, the thing stopping the water runs all over. So in many cases, you have that plus you’ve got typically more redundancy in a CAT5 data center than you might have in a customer’s closet in the back where they run it. So you know security can take a lot of forms, right? It’s not just cybersecurity, but cybersecurity is typically, to your point, the one that most people think about.
Paul: Yeah. So one of the things—I just want to maybe swing back on a little bit. When you were talking about your staff and the distributed stuff—and I know in conversation with you earlier, you have a pretty experienced workforce, haven’t you?
Mark: Yeah, we’ve been fortunate. As I kid people, I’m old so I’ve been around a long time and I know a lot of people. So I’ll tell you that probably 80% of Flagship Solutions Group are people that either work for me or work for people that are here that work for me, or in some way or another are in this network of people that we collectively know. So we’ve been fortunate in that respect, especially when it comes to engineering talent. The challenge is, especially in some of your legacy systems, is you know, the workload keeps on and a lot of the people are retiring or doing other things. So I think that’s been a challenge. For us for the most part it hasn’t been. I will tell you though, and this is really kind of a, I say post-Covid—I don’t even know if we’re really post anything, but at this current stage in our lifetime with Covid—is I do know several of our customers are having trouble hiring and retaining what I would call sort of, in no disgrace to these jobs but what I would call sort of mid to lower level IT skills, which are still important skills but a lot of times what I think people consider to be some of the mundane tasks like you know, patches and updates and those kinds of things. And back to your security questions, those have become—you know when we first got into the patch management business, we did it because it was part of the infrastructure play. It had nothing at that point in time really to do with security. Now it's front and center in security, all these zero-day viruses and all those things. If you’re not current, they can exploit your system. But again, it’s not an exciting part of the job. It’s not a revenue-producing aspect of IT, that’s for certain. Now it can be revenue draining if you get hacked because you don’t have an upgrade and then you spend two months fighting a ransomware attack, but the bottom line is is that what we’re seeing is a lot of our clients are having trouble [attracting] that sort of what I would call mid-tier engineering talent, and I think that also makes it more ripe for managed service providers like us that have those kinds of skills on hand to be able to provide that service at a competitive rate to the clients.
Paul: So just before I forget it as well, just when we were talking about Coffee in the Cloud earlier—and I think there probably will be an ad running beside this that you can just click on—you guys are giving a free Coffee in the Cloud assessment.
Mark: Right. Correct.
Paul: That’s cool. So I would recommend that to anybody. If you want to find out if the cloud is for you, that’s available.
Mark: You can see if you get those extra fries as we up-size [laughs]!
Paul: Okay. So listen, we’re just going towards the end here and as always with these things I like to end on something that’s a little bit personal. When we were chatting earlier you told me something that I like. This has nothing to do with IT, computing, anything like that, but I think this is just a wonderful legacy that you have. So you want to tell people a little bit about Riverfest?
Mark: Yeah so, I appreciate it. So when I graduated from high school, I ended up going right away into an internship that I mentioned for a guy that was in marketing, a marketing agency. And he was also a member of the junior Chamber of Commerce for the Jaycees in Cincinnati. So when I was 19—well actually it’s funny because the first membership meeting I went to, I left as the newsletter editor. So I think I was set up—actually, I know I was set up, but anyway eventually you know I became president of the organization. And at 19, we used to do different nonprofits. We had one called Fantasyland at Christmas, where the concept was basically like a haunted house at Halloween but it was all the different rooms in Santa’s house, and we raised money for the neediest kids in Cincinnati. So we started an event because we wanted something earlier in the year called Riverfest, which was Labor Day weekend. We started it back in 1977 and it’s now literally the largest event in Cincinnati; I think three-quarters of a million people attend it. WEBN has been involved from the very beginning; they were our radio sponsor. And so it’s kind of interesting. I saw something come up the other day about it—you know, promoting it for this fall—and you know, only I was there. I remember the very first year, we didn’t know what to expect and so early on a bunch of people showed up. Some brought their own kegs of beer so we couldn’t figure out what they were doing there, because we were selling beer. Then the first year, there were these big light poles. They climbed up on the light poles and they were literally swinging off these light poles that are 50 feet in the air. So the next year we put basically Vaseline around the poles [laughs] and a little bit of a barbed wire. Well that didn’t stop them. They got three people on top of each other, got a big towel, wiped off the Vaseline, climbed back up the thing. So that was the first two years of Riverfest, where we were scared to death people were going to die, but in the end nobody did—and fortunately, they did figure out another way to prevent people from climbing those poles in the future. It’s a hugely successful event today, so it’s pretty cool.
Paul: Excellent. Something to be very proud of, I think.
Paul: So Mark, thank you for taking the time to talk to me. Continued success to you and to Flagship Solutions Group. And that’s it for this iTalk Business with Tuohy, everyone. So thanks again, Mark, and bye everyone. Tune in again for the next one.
Mark: Have a great day. Bye bye.