Longtime Product Guy Sarrasin Switches to Services
February 8, 2023 Alex Woodie
For two decades, Marcel Sarrasin was a product guy. Starting in 2001, Sarrasin helped to develop, market, and sell IBM i software, first for BCD, then Quadrant, and finally Fresche. But last year, Sarrasin got a change of scenery when Fresche promoted him to head up its growing services unit, giving the young executive a significant boost in responsibility and the chance to positively impact an important business line for Fresche: digital transformation services.
If you’ve ever been to a COMMON conference or attended a BCD, Quadrant, or Fresche Solutions webinar, there’s a good chance you’ve run into Sarrasin. For many years, he was the public face of WebSmart, the popular tool created by ExcelSystems and sold by BCD that helped IBM i shops develop Web applications natively on the platform. When BCD had a big update, it was often Sarrasin who was the product pitch man for the press – and the public, too.
His responsibilities grew after Steve Woodard’s Quadrant Software acquired BCD in 2014 and Sarrasin was promoted to vice president of corporate marketing. When an acquisitive Fresche, which already bought Databorough and looksoftware, nabbed Quadrant Software back in 2016, Sarrasin moved up the ladder again, adding VP of business development to his title. In 2019, he was given the reins to drive Fresche’s entire product strategy when he was named chief product officer.
But six months ago, Fresche decided that Sarrasin’s talents could be best utilized by putting him in charge of services. As the new Chief Services Officer and General Manager of Transformation, Sarrasin now is in charge of the majority of technical services provided by Fresche Solutions. The midrange veteran has about 100 folks working for him across application services (upkeep and maintenance of existing apps) and transformation services (such as application modernization or code conversion). He will not have a hand in running Fresche’s digital solutions group, which mostly revolves around new application development, nor the new Silveredge business unit (see “Fresche Nabs Silveredge for Application Services” elsewhere in this newsletter).
In an interview with IT Jungle, Sarrasin talked about his new role, how years of experience on the product side prepared him for it, and the biggest challenges he now faces.
“It’s a very different world with very different types of engagements with customers,” Sarrasin says. “When you’re talking transformation, you’re talking much larger, much more complex type of engagements with people, with different business drivers.”
Sarrasin oversees a range of different engagement types. Some clients may just want some technical assistance to help drive WebSmart or Presto for an application modernization initiative, while others are looking for wholesale conversions of old RPG and Synon code into platform-neutral PHP or Java that can run in the cloud. The engagements can last anywhere from a few days to a few years.
Eighty to 90 percent of Fresche’s transformation engagements retain the IBM i as the target platform, according to Sarrasin, although some of them explicitly are looking for an offramp, which the company can also provide. Java and PHP are the most popular targets for modernization initiatives, as they give customers the option to run either on the IBM i or off it. Many old Synon customers are choosing Java as a target, Sarrasin says, while PHP is more popular for RPG shops.
“What people are really looking for is a modern language,” Sarrasin says. “That’s a key thing, portability. So even though they don’t need to be portable now, they’re just not sure what [they’ll need] in five or 10 years, so they want to make sure it’s portable, to the cloud as well.”
One thing that has stood out to Sarrasin since taking the new position is the importance of the database in digital transformations. There’s often quite a bit of work required to get Db2 for i squared away when modernizing the application or preparing for a new data analytics project. Specifically, the work required to expand database fields and eliminating long DDS names is not something Sarrasin anticipated would be a major concern.
“People often will underestimate the effort involved there,” he says. “They might think [a field] only impacts 200 objects, but when you do a deeper analysis, you find this field goes to this variable, it passes a parameter, it calls this program. Often they underestimate it by 100 times, so that’s actually probably 1,000 touch points you need to look at. We automate a lot of that, close to 70 percent of it. That’s been interesting to me. We’ve got a large team that does the database side of things, database modernization, and resizing or expanding fields.”
Sarrasin also learned how critical testing is when engaging a client in an application modernization project. The IBM i world is warming to practices that have become standard in the wider IT world, like DevOps, agile development, and scrum masters, but it takes time.
“When you’re transforming the core business application running the enterprise basically, you need to test, and most IBM i shops actually have very limited test cases and test experience,” he says. “And it’s critical in the success of these projects, so being able to have some of those products, from database regression testing to screen testing, has been critical.”
“Marcel is one of the smartest and brightest people I know,” says Steve Woodard, Fresche’s president and CEO. “He has a unique skill set that led him to the Transformation business line for Fresche. Marcel has a very strong technical understanding of products and processes, as well as being a customer advocate within our product group through the years. Finally, he’s a great listener and problem solver and serves our customers well. He was a logical fit to run the Transformation Business Unit!”
Another very important part of Sarrasin’s job now is finding workers with IBM i and Web talent. Depending on what part of the world you live in, these workers can be scarce. But when Sarrasin has a client who’s ready to begin work, the workers must be ready to go.
“You sign a big contract. How do you go find people?” he says. “That’s been probably the more eye-opening thing to me, the criticality of project management and the communication.”
A good fraction of the 100 or so Fresche employees who work under Sarrasin are technical positions, and the company has full-time recruiters who are constantly on the lookout for technical talent. When internal resources are used up, Fresche maintains the capability to tap third-party consultants, and there is also an office in India for “overflow” work. The acquisition of Silveredge Consulting, the longtime Chicago-based provider of application services, will also help.
Being so familiar with Fresche’s products and the technical capabilities they bring has been a big advantage for Sarrasin in his new role. The X-Analysis Suite, in particular, is commonly used in services engagements.
“When we look at the services, everything that we do is involved in products,” he says. “So if we’re doing the database, we got X-DB Transform and X-Resize. If we’re converting code, we have X-Modernize. If we’re doing testing, we have X-Datatest.
“So we have all these products that I used to be heavily involved with the road maps and why we’re doing it and knowing the value proposition and where we need to be investing in the products,” he explains. “When we get into these projects, I think one of the big advantages is I can bring multiple teams together very quickly.”
Even as a product guy, Sarrasin was involved in delivering services to an extent. And now that he’s the Chief Services Officer, Sarrasin can lean on his broad experience in helping customers utilize the products to make sure Fresche’s entire services organization is running as smoothly as it can.
“I’ve been executive sponsor on projects before, and now I’m involved in most of the governance meetings with all of our customers,” Sarrasin says. “These are very technical projects, so you’re going to have tech leads – even the project manager is fairly technical.”
Making the most of Fresche’s array of products is an important aspect of efficient service delivery. Fresche aims to automate 80 percent of the code in transformation projects, with the realization that 20 percent will probably need to be rewritten manually. Anything that can be automated and make Sarrasin’s team more efficient is a good thing.
Dealing with “old spaghetti monolithic RPG code” has its challenges for Fresche. In some cases, it will take months to untangle the code, in which case Sarrasin will recommend using a “screenscraper” like Presto to give the client a quick win while the more difficult back-end work (including database modernization) is going on.
“It’s a different paradigm, going from RPG to Web,” he says. “There’s going to be a certain level that’s going to require some manual conversion. So it’s a matter of prioritizing what’s going to reduce the manual work as much as possible.”
Sarrasin, who works out of Fresche’s office in Sydney, British Columbia, is still very much in the loop on product development. Every two weeks, he’s involved in a meeting with Fresche’s product managers, during which he provides client feedback from the services engagement. Representatives from tech support, sales, and pre-sales are also involved.
“It comes back to the clients,” Sarrasin says. “What’s happening on the delivery side of these projects? What’s the feedback? What functions do we need to support? What else do we need to be doing so? At the end of the day, it’s product management, but it’s always been a group effort for us, the way we do it.”
When asked what’s the best part about his new role, Sarrasin had a quick answer: interacting with customers.
“When I was a tech, way back, I talked to customers all the time. Now I’m interacting with customers again a lot more,” he says. “I think being in front of customers a lot more again is what I really like.”
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