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CIO interview: Kevin O’Connor, group CIO, William Hill

Former Paddy Power CIO aims to bring IT development work back in-house and use technology to improve customers’ betting experience

Betting firm William Hill is off and running with a new technology strategy under new leadership, aiming to further develop its omni-channel offering, drive international IT integration and do more work in-house.

Kevin O’Connor, whose previous jobs include CIO at Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, was hired as group chief information officer (CIO) in January to help accelerate the strategy’s delivery.

William Hill needs to respond to industry consolidation in the UK, with Ladbrokes merging with Gala Coral and Paddy Power joining forces with Betfair – so the answer is to up its game in IT.

Technology is seen as a key differentiator and we are going through a period of tremendous growth opportunity in the UK with our online business,” O’Connor tells Computer Weekly in his first interview in the new job.

His past experience in betting, travel – as CIO at Carlson Wagonlit Travel – and financial services is helpful in his new position, as all three sectors demand the delivery of good user experience in high-volume and secure environments, as well as rapid innovation.

“The betting sector is moving very fast, so you want speed to market, a great user experience and to be very available,” says O’Connor. “You want to be able to look at a variety of suppliers and products that you can plug in in a way that is rock-solid, secure and reliable.

“We are also highly regulated and have to be rock-solid because, unlike most industries, we have got huge peaks in demand. So the combination of reliable infrastructure and security with being able to deliver great user experience very quickly, is really quite unique. It’s nice to be back to betting – I’ve missed it.”

Developing omnichannel and international

As well as bringing more of what it considers technology crown jewels in-house, other key objectives given to O’Connor on day one included developing William Hill’s omni-channel offering and integrating its international platforms.

“Our aim is to provide better user experience for mobile users, online and in the shops and having more coherence in the experience across these platforms, as well as ensuring that we have an underlying platform that we can ‘cookie cutter’ out into new markets,” he says.

O’Connor says that in the UK specifically, there is still a perception of high-street shops and online as two different businesses. But William Hill wants its technologies and the customer experience to converge.

“If someone has money lodged in the online account, they should be able to go to the shop and spend the money on self-service betting terminals, on games, in the shops,” he says. “Conversely, they should be able to spend lodged money in the shops and be able to use that online.

“What we want is to provide a technology platform that makes the user experience seamless between the two.”

Kevin O'Connor

“We need to offer a different user experience. And we’re not going to do that by using the same products as other people”

Kevin O’Connor, William Hill

O’Connor says William Hill has already made progress in unifying that experience. A core element is the self-service betting terminals (SSBTs) in each of the company’s 24,000 premises.

One of the top priorities for O’Connor’s team is to significantly improve the SSBTs, focusing on the user experience and the breadth of product offered to clients – and that will be mainly done in-house.

“So we buy the hardware from a supplier, but all the software on it is entirely developed by our in-house team,” he says. “We want to roll that out across our whole shop footprint in the first half of this year and keep adding to that product.

“We also want to build new products for SSBTs and we are the first in the market to do that as everyone else licenses from the same third party – which is something we also used to do, but we have broken away from that.”

On the online side of the omni-channel offering, O’Connor is also planning to do more work internally.

“We need to control and improve products for our clients, we need to offer facilities [such as] ways of redeeming winnings,” he says.

“We also need to offer a different user experience. And we’re not going to do that by using the same products as other people.”

Mobile betting app

William Hill’s IT team has also taken on the development of its main mobile betting app. O’Connor says the first version was released on December and was “very well received”.

Another of O’Connor’s responsibilities is management of the technology in other companies outside the UK. He mentions integration between the UK and the US operation, plus three companies acquired in Australia as an example of things to do in 2016, as well as preparing to roll out in other countries.

“The timing is not of our choosing as we have to wait for the markets to be regulated properly,” says O’Connor. “But as soon as this becomes the case, we want to have an online product that we can introduce to said market very quickly.”

Doing more internally

To do more work internally to support the company’s goals, the CIO will be hiring more specialists and rethinking supplier contracts to reflect this new emphasis.

O’Connor says William Hill has always had, and always will have, a mix of technologies that are bespoke and others from suppliers, but that mix will shift more towards in-house, a process that has already started but will accelerate.

“The first thing for us to do that is to come up with a framework where we can plug in additional functionality very easily,” he says. “For that, we need to increase our expertise in mobile development and apply mobile and web technology to the SSBTs across our retail estates.

“We also need to innovate in more products. Some years ago, we started in-play betting – halfway through events with odds changing depending on what’s happening. But what we’re now starting to see is a requirement for other products, like one-minute betting, where you can bet on something that’s going to happen in the next minute.

Shorter windows

“So we’re now getting much shorter windows where we need to offer products and push it out to clients, potentially getting a very large number of bets placed in a short period of time, and then, after the event takes place, we need to settle very quickly, tell people whether they’ve won or not, and give them the money owing to them.”

The introduction of new betting products also puts a strain on the infrastructure and architecture of the systems to deal with spikes in activity – which means more architects will be needed, too.

“Another team I’ve looked at and they’re very strong already is security,” he says. “But it’s really about being able to deal with complex transactions quickly in very, very large volumes.

“We typically deal with 9,000 online transactions a minute. But if you start having something with a one-minute event, those volumes could go up significantly. And the person has got to place the bet quickly as they don’t want to wait for it.”

Supplier relations

O’Connor says he is engaging with many of the same suppliers he used to deal with back in his Paddy Power days in 2011.

“The offerings and the underlying technologies have evolved across the industry over that period, but there is a very active market for suppliers to build products that we and others include in the offering,” he says. “So someone will build a new game and often we will use this game, embed it in our product, while others will also embed it into their product.

“We will have a big emphasis on this, changing the user interface and experience, so it looks different, so it doesn’t look the same. It might be some of the functionality at the back end, but the front end looks different. We will also have a large number of games, which we have developed ourselves and 100% own the code to that.”

Read more about IT in the betting industry

Historically, development activity at William Hill has largely been outsourced. While third parties will continue to have a role, the betting company will “raise the bar” in its expectations to meet customer demands.

“As users get more and more particular, we will become more discerning, but we will be doing more and more of this in-house and a lot more focused on development,” says O’Connor. “We have significant investments in those, but if we want to do more, we’re going to have to invest more.      

“We want to optimise those partnerships and combine the best of what we can do ourselves in providing a different experience in terms of what the customer sees. That is what has changed, because in the marketplace it was very much fixed to where everyone took everything from the third party.”

Back-end platform

An example of that kind of work and approach to IT is William Hill’s core back-end platform supplied by OpenBet, an interactive gaming and betting software provider.

“OpenBet sells this core betting engine, but for them to sell, some people will say, ‘That’s great, but I’m not capable of building a front end’. So they will also build a front end for you. But we’ve chosen to build our own front end,” says O’Connor.

Even though it is early days, the IT chief expects that within the next 12 months, some specific goals will have been achieved.

“I would hope that Williams Hill’s market share will go up materially,” he says. “And I would hope my colleagues will have recognised or volunteered that that was in large part because of our superior technology.

“So, as a personal objective, I would like the company to grow market share and expand globally because it has provided a better user experience, more products, better-quality products, better performance, rapid time to market in a secure manner, and that we’ve done that because we have the best IT in the industry. That would be what I want to do.”

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