CIO interview: Lukas Oberhuber, CTO, Simply Business

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CIO interview: Lukas Oberhuber, CTO, Simply Business

Cliff Saran

When Lukas Oberhuber joined Simply Business in September 2010, he had to deal with an overworked IT team the business did not trust.

Simply Business, which has been running since 2005, provides tailored insurance products and services to landlords and small to medium size businesses.

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Oberhuber admits he spent too much time during his early career on computers, "when geeking was uncool". He says he turned down working for Microsoft twice, attempted to get James Gosling – the father of Java – to make Sun's write once run anywhere language run efficiently on client devices, and has tried his hand at writing a novel. His latest challenge, at insurance firm Simply Business, is to boost the morale of the technology team, while giving the business the software development it needs.

Career progression

A Harvard computer science graduate, Oberhuber ended up working at Oracle in the early 1990s. He says this fitted better with his combined passion for software development and theatre. While he began programming at an early age, writing a version of space invaders for the Tandy TRS 80, his decision to join Oracle was made because he felt Microsoft would have been too geeky.

While his parents came from dance and art, Oberhuber did not follow in their footsteps. However, he says: "At university all my extracurricular activities were in theatre." And someone who did theatre, rather than programming, simply did not fit in with Microsoft's culture.

He worked at Oracle for six and a half years developing interactive television systems. He even met Ellison. Taking a page out of Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, he says: "Larry was king at Oracle. I built a plug-in for Oracle media server. Larry came to my office to see the demo and stayed for an hour and a half." 

From Oracle he moved to Dimension X, a 2D and 3D graphics Java developer, which was later acquired by Microsoft, whereupon he turned down the offer to work for Microsoft again.

An eight and a half year stint at Sapient from 1997 to 2006 gave him experience of consultancy and allowed him to move to Italy, learn Italian and then move to the UK.

After Sapient Oberhuber decided on a career change. He wrote a novel about an Italian hacker who uploads blockbuster movies to the internet, until one day his hobby leaves his family murdered and his every move stalked by killers. While waiting for the publisher, Oberhuber formed a start-up, SipAlive, to provide low-cost internet telephony.

Prior to his move to Simply Business, Oberhuber worked between 2007-2010 at Forward Internet Group, the company behind uSwitch. As CTO, he was responsible for the creation and management of agile development teams during a period of huge company expansion.

His technology strategy is about keeping the current system strong through new products and leadership. "Strong leadership means encouraging individual growth and self-management," he explains.

Oberhuber believes the software his team is building can really help people. “Insurance should be more than about products that sort out pain. We need to build products that match the needs of people.” 

He applauds the aims of the company’s CEO, Jason Stockwood, to turn IT from being a service provider to being part of the business.

Oberhuber wants to build one of the best teams in Europe, but his first task was reducing the IT backlog and overall workload.

"When I joined, there was a cloud permanently over IT. There was an overwhelming amount of development work so the team was constantly cutting corners," he says.

This led to what Oberhuber describes as "technology debit".  The technology platform used by the business may have once been a great piece of software, but is now showing its age and the IT team is constantly being asked to enhance it.

He has swapped out aging Sun T2000 workstations with sleek MacBook pros, allowing the developer team to take their portable developer workstation right to a business user's desk.

"The Sun workstations used virtual machines. It would take 10 minutes to open up the Ideaworks IntelliJ Java integrated development environment," he says. Providing the MacBook Pros gave the team an instant 20% improvement in productivity.

Oberhuber also began a three-month programme to move the team from a traditional approach to programming to an agile programming methodology. He swapped out Java for Ruby on Rails and adopted Cucumber (a documentation language) and Jenkins for continuous integration.

Unlike traditional software development – where the development teams delivers a product to the business for testing as a one-off occurrence – products are shipped to the business regularly in agile development. Oberhuber points out that Agile development requires more commitment from business people.

Oberhuber's advice to project teams is: "Don’t build the machine." He believes in carrying out the process manually and then automating the process, rather than building the system first, only then to find out what needs changing. This is how he ran a project at Simply Business to improve customer renewals. 

"The team was built around the project. The first application IT developed was around data extraction. We got it to work manually and started to see business benefits, then we addressed the manual process of sending e-mail," he explains.

The systems team also operates this way so its actions are prioritised based on the business priorities. This means the systems team does not hold up the rest of the business, he adds.

One of Oberhuber's mantras is: build, measure, learn.

"It is crucial to measure the success of a project before developing it further," he says.

"For example, with the automatic renewal project we measured the increase in customer renewals as soon as possible." 

With a new broker platform that was also developed, he says Simply Business measured how many sales per broker are made through the system rather than total sales. He says that doing it this way means there are no vanity metrics.


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