Signiant Series

Sathish Kumar | Manager/IT | PixStone Images

A busy street in Chennai, India at night.

In mid-March, media and entertainment companies across the globe and throughout the industry began to face what China had experienced since January — the realities of the Coronavirus Pandemic social distancing and isolation. Amidst this public health crisis, companies abruptly confronted extreme technical and workflow challenges while continuing to create and distribute content.

During this historic outbreak, Signiant launched “The Pandemic Series,” a collection of articles, interviews, and other content from the industry, for the industry.

As part of the series, Signiant interviewed industry professionals on how they transitioned and maintained remote work, what their challenges and successes were, and what lessons they’ve learned from it. Each one is a snapshot in time from their particular company, industry, geography, and personal perspective.

Chennai, India | April 15, 2020

SIGNIANT: Tell us about PixStone Images

SATHISH KUMAR: PixStone is now almost 9 to 10 years old. We have somewhere around 300-odd employees working with us. Our main focus is VFX services for multiple clients across the globe.

My title is Manager IT. I handle the whole IT team over here, from the infrastructure and all other aspects.

SIGNIANT: When did you have to go into social isolation?

SATHISH KUMAR: I think it was on March 20th.

SIGNIANT: And how much warning did you have to prepare for that?

SATHISH KUMAR: Literally no warning. It was happening across the globe, right? So that is already in our heads. Because security was always a concern, we tried a couple of solutions by then to ensure that if something happens similar as other parts of the world, we would be prepared. We had tested some solutions and were ready almost within a day or two. Provided we had the go-ahead, we were ready to go in and do this work from home.

SIGNIANT: Before the pandemic, did your employees tend to work in the facility, at home, around the world? What was that landscape like?

SATHISH KUMAR: We never ever take content outside the studio. It was always in the facility. We are very paranoid about our security. Our management has a very strong IT background; security has always been in our DNA.  Before the pandemic, it was always within the studio only.

SIGNIANT: What did you put in place to go from the facility, where everything’s inside the facility, to being able to work securely remotely?

SATHISH KUMAR: Before clients raised things for security, we went ahead to ensure our client’s content security was in place. We already had several security measures in place.

For instance, we had a very good, advanced firewall in place, which we deployed two, three months back. That firewall had its own built-in VPN. It has support for 2,000 users. And we have a pretty solid bandwidth as well. We have at least four different ISPs all on fiber, giving us internet connectivity. And each connection is at least 300mbps in bandwidth. That was in-line with what we needed. We didn’t have to do a lot of infrastructure changes. Our infrastructure was already ready to handle all these requirements. So that was the beauty part.

SIGNIANT: The infrastructure was in place, ready to deploy, capable of remote work. Were there new workflows to design?

SATHISH KUMAR: No, we still follow the same workflow. We haven’t changed anything in terms of workflow and stuff like that. The existing infrastructure supported this work from home well. For example, we had very good storage in place. Our artists always worked from that storage only. So now that they’re working remotely, they still access content from that storage only and they’re not able to take it anywhere outside.

But all our clients use Signiant, and we are very, very comfortable with Signiant. The way Signiant has been working for us over the past several years has been really phenomenal. Their support has been very, very phenomenal — any issues, the Signiant team has helped us with total heart and soul, no matter what time it was. We haven’t faced any downtime with Signiant.

SIGNIANT: You don’t need another thing to worry about.

SATHISH KUMAR: To be very frank with you, I’ve not been to the office for more than a week or so. But, from an infrastructure point of view, everything has been up and running without any hassle. Signiant, our storage, our firewall or whatever it is. From an infrastructure point of view, everything has been perfectly done and the support also has been brilliant.

SIGNIANT: How do your artists like working remotely?

SATHISH KUMAR: Working from home is a new feeling to them so they’re just starting used to it. I’m pretty sure the artists are feeling pretty convenient about how they are working this way.

SIGNIANT: Were there any challenges in this transition? Did anything not go well?

SATHISH KUMAR: The challenges were only because of the end-users. For example, establishing internet connectivity for the end-users has been a challenge.

That is where our relationships with a couple of vendors helped us. The ISPs have been able to come through. And if we wanted a connection, they were able to give it to us within a day or two. But it still remains a challenge because there are some places where there’s no internet connectivity at all. There’s no proper bandwidth available. So that is the biggest challenge in this thing.

SIGNIANT: You sound well-prepared to do this. Has anything surprised you in relation to work and having to do remote work?

SATHISH KUMAR: I don’t think there was anything to be surprised about. But yes, it is a big challenge in moving away from our regular work model to something totally new.

SIGNIANT: Do you expect this to be a more used workflow for you now? Or would you expect everybody to come back into the facility?

SATHISH KUMAR:  I personally feel this will be the way forward for the industry, at least for a few months, if not a few years down the line. Three to six months back, if anyone was speaking about this kind of scenario, everyone would have laughed. But now we are already in that situation. These can be only learning curves for us going forward.

Once normalization comes back, we’ll have to go back to the client and see if they’re willing to allow us to do this going forward. It’s going to be a challenge

SIGNIANT: You’re a manager with staff and large responsibilities. How has this been for you personally in leading your group through this transition?

SATHISH KUMAR: It’s been challenging, but I’ve been able to get my group up and running within two, three days. They are also pretty excited to face these challenges, and they’ve been very, very supportive. Without them, this wouldn’t have happened, because we had to activate almost 150 users within a very short period. And my team was always up for the challenge.

SIGNIANT: And has your work changed?

SATHISH KUMAR: There has been ups and downs in this particular period, because we had to close down for three or four days for certain reasons. And even our clients are facing the same issues. Content production has stopped all over the globe. Whatever we are working with is content that has been already produced. So obviously the content inflows will see some instability. But I think once this stabilizes, when the content production starts again, then we will again be in full flow.

SIGNIANT: If you could go back in time and talk to yourself two months ago, what advice would you give yourself to prepare for this?

SATHISH KUMAR: From a company standpoint, I am perfectly fine in terms of client infrastructure and other things. It’s more about being prepared with the end-user side. The thing is, certain users may not have a PC at their home. They might not have a good internet connection at their home. We could have been more prepared on that infrastructure — at the end-user side. That is what we could have worked on a little more.

SIGNIANT: Do you have any advice to give your peers around the world on things that you’ve learned?

SATHISH KUMAR: We have to be prepared for such challenges in the future. I’m sure we will face even more challenges. We have to be prepared to ensure our artists are able to work from wherever they are. We can’t be complacent about these things going forward. From the company side, from the infrastructure, the facility — we are always up and running. But the other part of infrastructure, the end-user side, it is also a critical requirement for this kind of work-from-home scenario. Everyone should concentrate on that. Maybe we will not be able to be 100%, but at least we should be prepared. We should be ready with the data of our end-user’s infrastructure availability as well. That is very important.

We don’t know what will come tomorrow, so we have to be prepared. There are lots of lives, lots of families, dependent on this industry. We can’t stay idle after facing such a scenario. That is something I would want everyone to contribute to and come up with some guidelines to ensure we are future-ready for all these kinds of pandemics.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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