The global chief information officer at betting giant Ladbrokes talks to Angelica Mari about building a multi-channel business, customer-driven innovation and staff development, in an exclusive interview.
Mittu Sridhara is no gambler - not in the literal sense of the word or when it comes to IT strategy. The global CIO of betting group Ladbrokes is leading the technology supporting an operation that takes over £15bn in stakes yearly across a retail estate that is comparable in geographic scope to Tesco, with over 2,000 outlets in the UK alone.
Since joining the firm in 2008, Sridhara's focus has been to create a joined-up team and operation that operates across in-store, web and mobile channels. That required a significant body of work around underlying processes such as portfolio management, development and delivery to provide a better foundation for a multi-channel business.
Snapshot of a complex portfolio
Apart from its physical outlets, Ladbrokes also has a significant web and mobile presence and its entire business is "online" as the product is a betting or gaming experience enabled by technology - and everything happens in real time.
"Our customer-facing platforms are a combination of multi-channel retail combined with a trading platform and a content delivery platform all synchronised together, in real time," Sridhara told Computer Weekly.
"And our product range is about four times that of an average multi-channel retailer."
As well as a range of real-time games, Ladbrokes streams live sports coverage across platforms with live betting odds for each event, which are traded and managed across various channels and geographies.
Underpinning the company's round-the-clock activity lies a platform stack of about 360 applications and a wide range of third-party providers. Some of the company's key suppliers are GlobalDraw, Sapient, OpenBet, Aditi, HCL, HP, IBM, Endeca, Hybris, Oracle and BT.
The retail system at Ladbrokes is a combination of in-house and outsourced applications largely based on Microsoft technologies. The company's web and mobile platforms are mostly based on open-source software.
The latest addition to the gambling firm's IT portfolio is a trading platform based on off-the-shelf middleware provided by Tibco, with the front-end and trading algorithms delivered on a system based on Microsoft Silverlight.
Key areas of focus
According to the CIO, the IT portfolio at Ladbrokes is a combination of projects prioritised by value, that improve the company's multi-channel customer experience and capability with a focus on short-term deliveries.
To illustrate the company's project deliverables this year so far, Sridhara mentions the recent introduction of a new gaming platform across the entire retail estate in under four months. Another example is the recent introduction of sector-leading search capability using tools provided by information management specialist Endeca.
"Over the last 12 months, the focus has been very much around improving our web, mobile and retail platforms while also improving usability and our customer experience," the CIO says.
"In parallel, we have also been building and delivering several components of our new multi-channel platform and we have been working on our new trading platform to improve the delivery of our sports betting products."
The company's new core trading platform was delivered earlier this year and Ladbrokes has successfully handled transactions around the Wimbledon tennis championships on the new set-up. Additional sports are now being introduced to the system.
Additionally, the mobile offering has also been improved, both in the number of applications and the range of devices , including support for Android, iPhone and Blackberry handsets.
In the next 24 months, Ladbrokes will continue to improve its multi-channel customer experience by extending the range of products on the new platforms.
"A lot of that is about focus and doing one thing at a time. We will continue to update all of our platforms and work with our partners and in-house team to deliver as we have over the last 24 months," says Sridhara.
As new platforms are introduced, Sridhara's team is also retiring some systems, but the company has opted against a "big-bang "consolidation and prefers to concentrate on customer requirements.
"We [prioritise] what the customers need to see and what we need to do to make that happen," says Sridhara.
"As a result of that focus, we ended up consolidating or retiring applications as part of that drive to deliver a multi-channel offering and increase revenue. We do not have the time to just do consolidation for consolidation's sake."
Ladbrokes tends to buy off-the-shelf software wherever possible and change systems according to its needs, but this depends on the business application. For example, the IT chief mentioned that while the firm's trading system is "unique", back-end systems such as ERP are not customised at all.
As with applications, Ladbrokes employs a blended model for IT infrastructure which entails in-house and outsourced services. Systems are run in-house while hosting and some of the underlying infrastructure development and support is outsourced.
The company uses HP, BT, OpenBet, Ardenta and other companies for these activities as well as offshore provider HCL, which Ladbrokes has been testing more recently.
Systems that don't require high-level security, such as videoconferencing, sit on a private cloud provided by Google. Within the private cloud set-up, the firm benefits from greater scalability and uses this for some other applications that are demand-heavy.
Ladbrokes works on innovative processes in close proximity with its partners. According to Sridhara, a lot of innovation - which is also guided by a strong customer-centric thinking - has taken place around the web, particularly on contextual navigation and search.
"Very few websites have a strong search capability that lets users navigate very effectively. And we are looking at each of these areas and looking to deliver results in a short, sharp and efficient manner over the next year," Sridhara says.
"We have been lucky in that our partners understand [our thinking], but we also challenge them and put the innovation requirement into the contract. We have joint roadmaps with the suppliers and measure delivery to assess if the innovation goals are being met."
Ladbrokes has embraced IT consumerisation, but it has dealt with the trend with caution.
Based on a segmentation of employees, staff have different levels of support for their own devices; some people can be fully supported - which is the case for traders - and the device is absolutely secure. Others are largely self-supported but typically work on applications that sit behind firewalls.
"In any case, most devices are provided by the company and are secure as a result," says Sridhara.
"We also have a middle ground, where some employees can bring their own devices but we can wipe them if they lose their devices if they contain any company information," he says.
"Anything that is crucial is either virtualised or held in the 'inner circle.' Logging and tracking of all activity is a core part of our services design."
About 18 months ago, the company also migrated to Google's secure enterprise e-mail platform, then moved on to collaboration.
Developing IT staff
Much of the IT at Ladbrokes is outsourced, typically with a third of the team in-house. The department is composed of about 250 IT professionals across a distributed set-up in the UK, China, Gibraltar, Spain, Belgium and Ireland. The team is supplemented by contractors and supplier resources and managed services.
According to Sridhara, staff development at the betting company goes hand-in-hand with its IT evolution. With several new technologies entering the firm's portfolio, suppliers worked alongside Labrokes to build in-house skills.
Additionally, Sridhara led a restructuring process of the team about 18 months ago to emphasise core capabilities such as architecture and service delivery.
"We work with third parties to design, develop and deliver solutions and introduced things like automated testing, more agile methods of development and a more integrated software development lifecycle," the CIO says.
"If you are involved in those projects, by default you improve the skills you have; a lot of that is about upgrading knowledge on the new technology that is in place and ensuring applications are of high standard from the moment they are built. We have excellent capability on our internal teams."
Now that new platforms and applications are in place and generating business value, Sridhara said the company is in a position to create new internal IT roles and continue to maintain the right ratio of in-house to partner skills.
Ladbrokes is also thorough when ensuring that the right skills mix is provided by its IT partners.
"Even when we contract companies and not people, we are very careful with the key people that are working on our account and interview them thoroughly before they start working with us," says Sridhara.
Staff retention is monitored, but the company has created special measures for the IT department, which include performance management structures, as well as an evaluation grid for talent and performance to inform staff training and development. Annual objectives, performance metrics and performance review processes are also used as part of the firm's IT retention policy.
According to the CIO, Ladbrokes is no exception when it comes to pressure for cost reduction, and finding ways to reduce spending is always an area of focus.
"Every time we go into a project we try to drive cost out from our platforms. We benchmark ourselves every year, and even though our unit costs are below the industry average we are always looking to get as much value as we can for every pound that it is spent," says Sridhara.
"A lot of that is about ensuring cost is kept down, while generating new revenue or cost-reduction opportunities for the business and deciding whether to re-invest savings in technology or other areas," he says.
Ensuring value through the use of technology is what makes the job interesting, according to the CIO.
"The most satisfying part of my job is going into work every day and walking away knowing that we've made a difference to the bottom line of the business, the people and customers and having fun during the process, " said Sridhara.
"I am not a gambler at all. In fact, I am quite the opposite."