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CIO Interview: The power of software to disrupt business processes

Finbarr Joy, CTO of William Hill, discusses the implications of low-cost, cloud-powered automation of business processes for the CIO

William Hill CTO Finbarr Joy has been in the dotcom business since the mid-1990s, and the web revolution has made software a key business asset.

Before Netscape and today’s modern web user interface, people used command line tools such as the Gopher protocol to access documents on the web.

Tim Berner-Lee standardised access with the http protocol and Netscape gave this to the wider community with a graphical web browser.

Hill was an employee at Netscape in the mid-1990s, having joined the browser company at the start of the web revolution.

Looking back, Joy says the early pioneers could not have imagined how the web would evolve. “One day you were using Gopher, then you had the graphical web,” he says.

As for how the web has changed society, he says: “You could not have dreamt up the amount of stuff that is being done on the web. What you can do today is almost unimaginable.”

But the founding principles of openness seem to have been lost in the commercial web of today, he says. “In the early days, we would have hoped it would have evolved more egalitarian. Facebook and iTunes are walled gardens.”

The bulk of network traffic goes to discrete apps such as Twitter and Facebook, says Joy. “We are using the web – but it is guided by the big players,” he adds.

Joy has worked both in dotcoms and traditional businesses. Discussing the difference in the approach to IT between the two types of business, he says: “Rather than buy one big system and lock it down for five years to capitalise the IT investment, in the dotcom era it is about continual replacement of technology.”

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Things have moved on. Digitisation is forcing IT and business people to re-evaluate the role of IT in all companies. As Joy points out, a decade ago it would have been impossible for an IT head to sit down with the compliance team and argue the case for creating an interface so that anyone on the planet could write an app using the company’s data.

“But it is now a key part of our go-to-market strategy,” says Joy. In fact, the company recently ran a hackothon in which developers were invited to build apps on top of the William Hill infrastructure.

Like most businesses, IT at William Hill has been developed over a number of years. Unlike dotcom businesses, the bookmaker does not have the luxury of starting from scratch with the latest, greatest tech.

William Hill is replacing some systems, but is also building new applications. However, some back-end technology will never go away, says Joy.

“A few years ago, 95% of our tech was legacy,” he points out. And although it is hard to estimate, he hopes that, over time, two-thirds of the company’s IT will be based on in-house developed work, and one-third will be commercial, off-the-shelf products.

Putting the brakes on two-speed IT

Joy is not a fan of two-speed IT, where teams are divided into those responsible for systems of record and those that work on so-called systems of experience, designed to add value to the company’s relationship with its customers.

“Two-speed or bi-modal IT is not happening for us,” he says. “We don’t have traditional IT. Instead, our teams are orientated end-to-end to work across new and old IT.”

For Joy, bi-modal IT creates friction between teams. “Bi-modal has partitioned existing teams into all the interesting career development work and a ghetto of those who do not do the new stuff,” he says.

To take advantage and build something innovative, Joy thinks it is unlikely that developers will not touch the old IT systems. There are huge potential benefits in making sure the system of record is part of an increasingly sophisticated customer experience.

Equally, as the company brings in new talent, Joy says mixing the team responsible for the older IT with the new development efforts creates an excellent blend. “You get the best of both worlds,” he adds.

Digital business

Asked how the role of IT is changing, Joy says: “You cannot ignore the fact that software is eating the world.” Businesses that apply better analytics are moving forward, he points out.

“You have to move quickly because it is so easy now,” he says. “For example, you can spend £20, fire up an Amazon cluster, automate what you do and take out your competition.”

For anyone in a technology management role, Joy says: “You should be following this trend closely. What is the next set of black swans that will catch us by surprise?”

Arguably, the difference between dotcom businesses, technology startups and more traditional businesses is that the startup or dotcom is more likely to bet on unproven technology, says Joy.

ERP and desktop IT tend to form the basis of traditional enterprise IT. Such technologies were established in the 1990s and worked very well at the time, but Joy believes IT needs to embrace new technology where it makes sense.

For instance, William Hill uses Erlang and the functional programming language Scala because they can handle the vast levels of concurrency that its site needs far better than traditional procedural programming languages.

Similarly, he says, William Hill makes use of open-source technologies. “Surely to God, every industry is taking advantage of this new stuff – you have to be on the ball,” he adds.

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