CIO interview: Rex Johnson, IT director of Confused.com

Insurance comparison site Confused.com decided to move to a single Microsoft platform to speed up development of its products.

Insurance comparison site Confused.com moved to a single Microsoft platform to speed the development of its products and reduce time to market.

IT director Rex Johnson has been with the company since its inception. He wrote the original code for the site and has seen its IT team expand from roughly five to 75 over the past 10 years. Previously he headed up the architect team as development manager.

The company's web platform started on Java, but recently switched to .Net

“We had a Java platform on the front end, on the back end it was Visual Basic and Microsoft, so it was double platform. We started to rationalise it, but we had a lot of changes in the company at the time and didn’t really finish the job, so we were left with IBM WebSphere, Microsoft, different languages and a large hardware platform,” he told Computer Weekly at The IT Directors Forum.

Speeding up product development

“We decided a year and half ago to look at the whole platform, as things were getting harder for the company to get its ideas to market and IT wasn’t really supporting the business properly.

“It was taking three months to get products to market, whereas we wanted it to take one month and see a return on investment far quicker. We felt it would be easier to do things with a common platform, and that our resources would be put to better use.”

The move to a single .Net platform helped to speed development and reduce hardware requirements. “By choosing the correct software, we are reducing that hardware footprint enormously and significantly reducing costs with our service provider,” says Johnson. 

We felt it would be easier to do things with a common platform, and that our resources would be put to better use

Rex Johnson, IT director, Confused.com

The proof of the new platform came with the recent release of Confused.com’s Quick Quote tool, which enables customers to simply text their number plate to get an instant quote..

"Before the redesign that would have been really hard to do, but under the new system it took one or two developers to develop and a couple of months to bring it to market," he says. "We developed it quickly, then refined it to get it to production. That is a tangible achievement for IT, but really a success for business.”

Choosing robust software

One of the tenets of the re-architecture project was to choose pre-written software where possible, according to Johnson. 

“We wanted to have less code to maintain and pre-written software that does the job it was built for as it’s all been tested," he says. "Previously, a lot of it was written in-house, but pre-written software that’s been around for a while is robust.”

Johnson says an open source solution was considered as a good alternative, but the company decided it would rather have the back-up of an organisation for support than the open source community.

“With the hardware on our back-end systems, we take the data a customer sends to us and send it off to a number of business and insurance partners, so on the business-to-business side, we decided to use Biztalk, which is a heavyweight piece of Microsoft software. That gives great efficiencies in the way it can handle code, and because of that it requires far less hardware. So that’s how we’ve reduced our hardware platform."

He says it is now a matter of getting all the programmes converted to the Biztalk environment: "For our main product the migration will be completed in the next three months, for the rest it will be by early next year.”

Future options

Johnson will be looking at the cloud in the second half of the year to see what advantages it could bring to the company, but it’s an area that has been put on hold until the migration is complete. 

“We don’t see any point in putting things in the cloud when we don’t yet have a simplified picture," he says.

Other areas the company will be looking at include mobile app development.

Roughly half of Confused.com's staff work in IT, which Johnson says has helped create a culture of collaboration, as everyone sits together and discusses problems. “The whole reason for doing the re-architecture is to support the business – it’s an enabler to allow the business to innovate.” 

Not surprisingly, the skills currently being developed in the team include .Net, C# and Biztalk.

“Having a strong in-house team is important," he says. "We have no problem working with contractors, but it is important they work onsite. That way you can train them in the quality of the things you want to do. That is very much the heart of what we do, and it is paying huge dividends.”

 

 

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