The referee blows his whistle and we have kick off. For the next 90 minutes, plus added time, anything can happen and anything can change. No matter how much training, never mind the number of game plans you have, everything and anything can and will change. This analogy of sport is becoming a similar pitch that today's business technology leaders play on. Whereas IT leaders and their teams in the past were a form of police force, a back room division following a five-year plan, today if they are to remain relevant, CIOs and IT teams have to be customer facing, business centric and be able to change position and strategy direction very quickly. The reason is that the customer demands it. Just as football fans have become addicted to the speed, depth and dynamics of a Sky Sports subscription, consumers of almost any service, whether financial, retail, health care or information have become used to the Amazon experience of fast access and instant delivery. Serving sports fans with an ever improving and enticing gaming experience requires the gaming organisations to be as agile as players on the pitch and as fast as a Formula One racing driver.
Omni-channel gaming firm William Hill and its CTO Finbarr Joy has described how Agile working, a Shoreditch development centre and a focus on customer loyalty were its key strikers in the hard fought gaming premiership. Bet365, a pure online gaming business, describes how it too had to change its IT departmental practices to remain competitive.
As is the norm in the gaming sector now, Bet365 offers the full range of gaming options, including poker, casino and bingo, but as its name suggests sports betting is its key business and the organisation specialises in offering not only the betting, but video streamed access to the sports gamers are betting on. The company has gone international in recent years, it offers its services in 17 languages and is licensed, again as is the norm, in Gibraltar and therefore answers to the principalities gambling commission.
Bet365 got out of the high street gaming business in 2005, selling its chain of shops to Coral, which is at present working towards a merger with former rivals Ladbrokes as the gaming industry consolidates. Initially launched in 2001 using a reported loan of £15 million from now mostly state-owned bank RBS, by 2012 Bet365 was worth £646 million in revenues and has an operating profit of £336.5 million.
Alan Reed is head of Systems Development at Bet365. He joined the organisation in 2007 and has been part of its rapid development in recent years, including the introduction of In Play betting, the live streaming of "thousands of live video events on the site"; financial betting and more recently the development of mobile products and the ability for players to cash out during a game, he says.
The growth has had an impact not only on the technology platforms, Bet365 is one of the most important employers in the former pottery city of Stoke on Trent. Its growth will see the business move into a new headquarters in 2016 to improve the working environment and collaboration of a business that has grown into five separate buildings at present. There are 2000 staff at Bet365 with half the organisation focused on technology.
"We are the biggest private employer in the Stoke on Trent area," Reed says.
Like rivals, Bet365 use white label games for offers such as bingo, but the core betting is an in-house product. "It has to be in-house as it gives us an edge and it gives us the speed of delivery," Reed says.
As with peers in a variety of sectors from retail, financial services and increasingly the public sector Bet365 brought development in-house to ensure "we are masters of our own destiny" Reed says. The midlands based organisation, he says, fully investigated outsourcing and wider use of white label technologies. "The issue is always, how do we create a product that is faster," he says of the increasing competitive pace in the gaming sector that means the convoluted processes of change control and vendor management cannot deliver on the needs of the customer, whilst owning the experience and intellectual property enables an organisation to chose its game direction.
Reed says not only has the adoption of Agile benefited the business in its ability to react to changing market demands, but for the technologists there has been a significant improvement in their ability to deliver a sharper, more reliable code base as the foundations of the Bet365 business.
"Your code base gets very large and you end up looking at the code product by product. So what happens is you do become a result of your out put and you have lots of bloat," he says. Changing the working practices of Bet365 has, Reed says enabled the technology team to look at the code as the platform for the business and avoid creating technical silos as an unintended consequence of needing to meet a deadline.
"People now are able to focus on the delivery of the solutions and the proof of concept," Reed says, adding that he believes the restructure has enabled the organisation to benefit the staff and get the best out of them. There remain challenges he says, like all gaming organisations they are dictated to by the sporting calendar and the need to deliver excellent customer service and experience.
In tandem with changing the way the technologists work, Bet365 has changed its technology language. Reed explains Bet365 was initially a Visual Basic organisation, before adopting the Microsoft pioneered .Net language and then onto a mix of Flash and HTML4. At the time of our winter interview Reed and his team were busy re-platforming Bet365 on to HTML5 and moving away from Flash.
CIOs from a wide range of sectors are keen to bring development in-house, but for the last two years have found recruitment of the right skills a real challenge. The 2015 CIO 100 saw a considerable number of respondents report they were having to recruit these skills from within the European Union. Reed explains Bet365 too has found recruitment its greatest challenge.
"We are not in one of the technology centres such as Manchester, Birmingham or Leeds," he says of being in Stoke on Trent, which is an easy commute into Manchester and its burgeoning technology centre, dubbed the Northern Powerhouse by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in an attempt to claim it for his political purposes.
"We have started using remote development so that we can make the most of UK wide talent," Reed says.