Comparethemarket.com has been offering an online price comparison service for consumers since 2006. The company, which is owned by the BGL Group, has grown rapidly over the last three years, and is one of the UK's leading price comparison websites - largely due to its hard-to-avoid but phenomenally successful meerkat advertising campaigns.
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Sergei the meerkat IT manager has been a star of those ads - but what is that job like for real?
James Lomas became the site's IT director in July 2011. Prior to joining Comparethemarket.com he was head of IT for Bennetts Insurance (also part of the BGL Group), and he has also held senior technology roles at Severn Trent Water and Legal & General.
The Comparethemarket.com website runs in a group datacentre at BGL. Software development is run in-house but the company partners with agencies for creative work. The site uses the Microsoft .Net framework for its price comparison functionality. As a customer progresses through a product comparison, information - like address, car details and house rebuild costs - are retrieved from external sources to save time. Once a customer's details have been entered, the site retrieves the relevant price comparison information .
When it was launched, the website originally offered web-based insurance comparison, but it has now branched out to credit cards and utilities. IT has expanded too, says Lomas. The IT changes cover both people and processes as the business has grown.
Under Lomas’s direction, the IT department at Comparethemarket.com is embarking on a programme of continuous improvement. From how Lomas describes the project teams and their attitude to software development, it appears that there is a strong bond between IT and the business.
Continuous development for IT/business alignment
He says the company is organised around product owner and product-based team: “We have brought the teams together. This began with something as simple as fitting clear signage hanging from the ceiling showing which team is responsible for which product area, so when product owners visited IT they knew where to go."
But Lomas says now the product owners want to sit next to their team. “It is quite a collaborative way of working,” he says.
“Each product team has a vision. The team has a list of requirements and a real focus on the business value. We focus on the functionality that will be used by customers visiting the site."
His approach to software project delivery places an emphasis on the adoption of agile development techniques and teamwork. According to Lomas, every project has a plan to succeed. Software is delivered on a weekly cycle, or to use agile terminology, in weekly "sprints": “Realistically we can go live in six to eight weeks, but it is up to the product owner to say when to go live.”
The company has introduced technology called continuous integration into its software development process. Code is checked-in, built, then automated tests are run. If the software passes these automated tests, it can go live. This semi-automated approach to software development makes it possible for changes on Comparethemarket.com to go live very quickly, says Lomas.
While software is developed using .Net, the continuous integration process uses GIT, an open source version control tool, CruiseControl, the open source continuous development framework and Selenium, an open source tool for testing websites.
The Comparethemarket.com academy
The company also runs an academy scheme to bring .Net developers into the business.
Lomas says people from college, university, or any walk of life are encouraged to go through four to five months of training programme. On the last scheme some people came from a call centre background.
After intensive classroom training, trainees are given up to 15 months on-the-job development. The most recent academy attracted over 160 applicants from colleges, universities and the local area. Six junior developers, who have completed their classroom training, will continue their development when they start work at Comparethemarket.com this month.
Building the team
As part of the continuous development of Comparethemarket.com, Lomas has fostered an environment in which every member of the team is encouraged to innovate and contribute to the delivery of a website that offers customers the best possible experience. “They can see how their actions will help the product succeed,” he says.
The software team has grown from a handful of people to a substantial team, and is still expanding. Lomas says he is looking to expand by 25%, with roles for head of software delivery, project managers and developer leads, which he hopes to fill to boost software project delivery.
Lomas admits that while Comparethemarket.com has a decent track record on delivering projects, these projects are run sequentially, so there is room for improvement.
“We now want to run several transformation projects at once. Recently we introduced a brand new money and life [insurance] comparison service – and both were delivered on time and to budget,” he says.
This requires more people with the right skills, who can run several projects simultaneously.
“Finding great people regardless of the economic climate is never easy. We have an attractive brand, and we are trying to create an environment that will attract great people,” says Lomas.
No doubt Aleksandr Orlov and the team of furry meerkats have had a big impact on raising awareness.