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CIO interview: Tarah Lourens, chief technology officer, Wonga UK

Payday loan company’s CTO is continuing the evolution of its technology platform and helping IT to create business value

Wonga UK chief technology officer (CTO) Tarah Lourens recognises that modern IT leaders face a fight for talent, and businesses must find ways to attract and retain great staff. 

Like some of its high-tech contemporaries, Wonga’s staff benefit from flexible working and free food in a friendly environment. But the fight for talent also requires a more creative approach, especially when it comes to rival firms. 

Lourens and her technology team are involved in a “Post-it note battle” with local businesses in Southwark, London. The windows of Wonga’s offices are adorned with paper-based designs of classic Nintendo characters.

The good news is that Wonga’s technology team is winning the contest. One of its major rivals on the opposite side of the road recently removed its designs from its windows. And big wins are not just confined to window dressing. When it comes to the fight for talent, Lourens has also won some notable victories internally.   

Since becoming CTO last July, she has encouraged her team to think creatively about how they can use their talents to create business growth. 

“I want my team to be genuinely empowered and I want my role to support the great work that they want to do,” says Lourens, who is a strong believer in agile and lean methodologies. 

“The culture I’m building is about taking responsibility for running the things you build, so my engineers need end-to-end ownership of technology. I want a technology team that works with me and can help me shape the activity we do on behalf of the organisation.” 

Taking on the challenge 

As CTO, Lourens says her main focus is helping IT to create business value. These efforts focus on three key areas: the introduction of new features or products, and the enhancement of existing features; the provision of technology tools and IT support to other business areas; and the continued evolution of Wonga’s technology platform. 

Lourens says a personal introduction gave her the opportunity to move to the firm. After speaking with Wonga’s senior leadership team, she realised the key challenge for the business – which, as a payday loan company, has attracted controversy – involved brand perception. Lourens recognises that her move from luxury retailer Harrods to Wonga was a huge shift.  

“We’ve got the weight of our engineers focused on a business domain, rather than on building technology”
Tarah Lourens, Wonga UK

“It’s quite a big challenge – and I like big challenges, so the role was appealing,” says Lourens. “I also wanted to work in a digitally-enabled business. Coming to a pure-play that’s good fun and fast-paced looked like a great opportunity.” 

Lourens says progress regarding brand perception has already been made. Wonga was voted the second most improved brand by YouGov in 2015 and the fifth most improved last year. The firm became the first main pay-day lender to receive full authorisation by the Financial Conduct Authority in January 2016. Work on perception continues and Lourens says Wonga works with its customers to ensure its products are closely tied to personal requirements.  

Tech at the heart

Technology has played a key role in Wonga’s attempts to reshape its products and boost brand perception. Lourens joined the firm in January 2016 as group head of product to help establish a roadmap for technology delivery, and worked with the commercial team to smooth out the process of shaping business ideas in the tech department. 

After six months, it became clear that the UK team needed an even stronger focus on end-to-end delivery, including engineering and operations, she says. “They asked me to step up – and it’s been great,” she adds. 

Lourens reports to Wonga’s group CTO and the UK chief executive. She says her key priority during the first 12 months in her role has been to ensure that the IT team, rather than concentrating on technology alone, focuses on business requirements and customer experiences. 

“We’ve achieved a lot already,” she says. “The focus has been on building a strong team, with good processes. I realised early on that we needed a clear view of our purpose and direction. We have established that foundation and I have drawn on my experience as an IT leader at an established organisation to blend solid processes with a startup culture at Wonga.” 

Breaking down silos 

Lourens manages a team of 46 IT professionals spread across product delivery, engineering, business insight and development operations. When she reflects on the technology foundation she has built over the past year, she says the key achievement has been to improve the firm’s delivery capability. 

“When I first came in, the team was delivering about 30-40% of what it said it would,” she says. “For the past six months, we’ve been delivering more than 80% – that’s a significant improvement. Not only is our work schedule more predictable, but we are also delivering more.”

Team reorganisation has provided the basis for this improvement. Lourens says effective technology departments shape themselves around business and customer demands. One of the first things she did after joining Wonga was to break down organisational silos. Rather than allowing IT professionals to work in tightly focused front-end and back-end domains, she created a series of multi-functional teams. 

“We’re not shaped around disciplines, which I think can often drive the wrong behaviours, leading people to work on sharpening their discipline skills rather than increasing business value,” she says. “That significant shift has allowed us to direct our capability at our most important business priorities. We’ve got the weight of our engineers focused on a business domain, rather than on building technology.” 

New way of working 

Lourens says her team spent most of last year honing Wonga’s existing products, including the website. The technology department has also helped simplify and streamline the customer application process. Operations were not the only concern and effort was also directed towards new product launches, including Wonga’s first three-month loan. 

The IT team will work on more product and service innovation throughout 2017. As a technology-based pure-play, Wonga’s success is directly related to its staff’s ability to develop smart, technical solutions to business challenges. Lourens says it is therefore crucial that her team feels empowered to deliver on creative ideas. 

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The good news is that workers in the IT team are already feeling confident enough to deliver great solutions in a flexible but timely way. All products and services are now delivered through agile practices.   

Lourens provides regular metrics to the rest of the business as proof-points, both good and bad. “We are showing the level of engagement and the sense of purpose that our people have from their work,” she says. 

In fact, other executives at the company have seen the benefits of an agile approach in IT and are keen to apply some of the principles in their own departments. To help aid this adoption, Lourens and her IT leadership team are providing expert agile coaching to key business departments, including HR and marketing. “The IT department and the rest of the business have really embraced this new way of working,” she says.

Progressive culture 

Lourens has therefore shifted the focus of the technology department and is helping the business to make the most of its internal capability. It will be crucial for Wonga to continue to attract more people as it develops new products and services, and Lourens knows there will be a considerable fight for talent among rival digital firms. 

“We are quite demanding in terms of calibre, as we are advanced in many areas,” she says. “We have end-to-end automated testing. Our continuous integration and continuous delivery practices are also highly advanced. We release new functionality four or five times a week – and even that rapid release rate leaves us frustrated. That’s the level we’re already at, and we need people who are in that frame of mind.” 

The aim is to develop high-performing, happy teams, says Lourens. Getting the right people is crucial, but also challenging – and it is an area she is keen to address. “We need to get out there more and talk about our achievements,” she says. “I want people to know that this is a great place to work and we’re doing some really exciting stuff, both from a product and technology point of view.” 

Lourens says key developments centre on a continued move to the cloud, including the Amazon Web Services platform. Wonga is also building a second-generation automated testing system and moving its website to the front-end web application framework Angular. “There’s a lot of work for people who want to be part of something progressive and advanced in technology,” she says. “We have a startup culture with a good sense of business maturity. It’s a fun, interesting place to work.” 

Platform for growth 

The end goal for Lourens and her team is to create a simplified, flexible platform. Wonga still runs some legacy systems, and the aim is to continue retiring unused technology and to re-platform remaining legacy elements.  Lourens and her team are breaking these older systems into a series of micro-services that can be run in the cloud. 

“If we can close that technical debt down, I believe we will be able to dramatically increase our efficiency and our speed to market,” she says. “We are already better – and we’ve got metrics that show the business how my changes have already created a big improvement. 

“We could be really flying if we solved the challenge of technical debt. Success for me would be that, in 12 months’ time, we have a much simpler and more agile stack.”

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