For property website MyHome.ie, keeping business insight and technical innovation in-house makes sense, as its IT operations manager David Dolan explains.
Can you put into context how extensive MyHome’s IT operations are – is it more about machines or people?
The site itself consists mainly of the front-facing site and then we have a back-end site which consists of a CRM platform. We manage properties for more than 900 estate agencies in the country. They log into our back-end system, they upload all of the information about their properties, and we display them on the front end.
On the CRM side, it’s an office management system. We help estate agents run their business – everything from basic property upload down to board management and account management for individual properties. Every letter that needs to be generated, from once the vendor calls the estate agent up until it’s sold, we handle all of the documentation for the vendors and the vendor’s solicitor – and the buyer and the buyer’s solicitor.
Do you need a large team to manage that, or do you try to automate it as much as possible?
From the non-technology side, we have five account managers who look after each estate agent. On the IT side, we have a team of eight, including myself. (We have) primarily six developers who are working on different areas of the business, and a content editor, looking after blogs and monitoring the site. Hosting is external but all development is done in-house. We brought it in-house four years ago.
Why did you take that approach?
We used to outsource everything but projects were evolving so quickly that the outsourcing model didn’t work for us from a time perspective. It was harder to define requirements to a third-party company, whereas a guy on the ground knows the business inside out. It becomes easier for myself to spec out projects and then to deliver them. It was a time-based decision as opposed to a cost-based one.
So the reason was strategic: outsource the part that you can’t innovate, which is hosting, and keep the part of the business where you can innovate?
As the site is evolving constantly and with every business, you’re trying to keep ahead of your competitors. If there’s any small insight you can keep to yourself and build projects on that, you’re better in the long run. If you’re first to market with something innovative, it’s key to the success of that product. No one wants to be second in the race.
Outsourcing of the hosting is from a security side: it’s nice to have a gap from your developer to your live production platform. It’s better from a peace of mind point of view now that the infrastructure is all in the data centres now.
We moved hosting provider about four years ago and at the minute we’re looking at multiple different hosting options, now that cloud is getting more stable and scalable. At the time, it was really down to how fast we could get the site to load. For our users, site speed is critical, and really, throughput of the platform is what we were looking at initially. For picking hosting providers, we had a pool of three or four, we got them to spin up a version of the site and we load tested each one and rated them accordingly. In the end we went with Data Electronics in Kilcarbery and we take managed services from Tibus.
With something as important as hosting, it doesn’t come down to cost – as much as the financial guys would hate to hear me say it. We have more than 1m unique visitors on the site every month, so saving money is less of a consideration. We’re looking at refreshing our hardware and then comparing performance of bare metal against various cloud providers. We’re probably in the middle of that and we’ll make a decision on that in the next couple of months.
Are you swayed by cloud or will you wait to see if there’s a proper business case like you did before?
My remit is to keep the site going, 24 x 7 x 365, so I’m not in any way swayed that cloud is or isn’t the way to go. We’ll do a similar kind of load test with every provider, and if there’s any fear of degradation in performance, we simply won’t move. It won’t come down to cost at the end of the day.
Our traffic has grown significantly in the last few months, so going forward we’ll need a platform to support that. A cloud platform is highly scalable, whereas with bare metal hardware, you’d have to go off and buy another server or partition them on a multiple host. There’s pros and cons to both. Scalability would sway me to cloud but it’d be performance that’s the deciding factor at the end of the day.
Do you take a very hands-on approach, or is it much more of a management role than IT?
I suppose it’s about 50/50. Over the years, I’ve been really hands-on with the platform. We’re probably on my fourth iteration of the platform since I started. Since I came as a junior I worked my way up, tweaking the platform all along the way to how I think it should look and perform, so to that end I suppose I am very hands-on.
With a team of seven there’s also a certain amount of management to get projects out the door to a high standard, and ensuring all the systems will work once we integrate them. I’m a big guy for jumping in once a project is nearing its end, even before we show it to the management team.
I work very closely with all the sales guys because I know what they’re looking for and the standards they demand. It’s key to be hands-on but sometimes I have to pull myself back and look at the bigger picture.
You mention working with the sales team; how important is it for what you do to know not just what the technology does, but to understand the business drivers?
I think it’s key: one, to keep the business going on a day-to-day basis. A lot of companies have been guilty over the years of a ‘them and us’ scenario between sales and IT. Everyone has to work together to achieve the same goal, which for us is to build marketshare and keep users coming to the site.
As a management team, we’re all from different pillars of the business and at the start of every week, we take time to go through what we’re planning for the week. We ask how I can help them out or they can help me out to get a project across the line.
Some would see MyHome as a big corporate entity but there’s only 16 on the team and obviously we’re taking shared services from The Irish Times since they took us over. Everyone on the business is keen to see IT using new technologies. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?’ That’s how many projects start off.
There’s a trend of applying more structured methods to IT projects lately; are you doing this and how is it working for you?
When I started out there were only three or four on the team. As the team has grown, there’s a bigger need to have a more structured approach to projects. We’re in the middle of developing a new Android app. I meet each developer, either one to one or as a team, to make sure everyone’s on the same page and as it comes closer to the release, asking ‘what are you doing today?’ and boxing off different sections. Rather than taking a site or app as a whole, it’s about breaking it up into different modules and them putting them back together. It’s baby steps, as opposed to taking a big bite of an apple and choking on it.
We’ve looked at (project management app) BaseCamp. We’re using JIRA as a bug management system and there are modules for agile project management you can incorporate into that, so it allows you to group some features together so you can only close a section off once all of the tickets are gone. It’s a modular approach but we’re a small team and it works fairly well for us.
How close is your IT to its ideal state, or is it a moving target?
I think it’s a moving target. Technology over the last couple of years has been moving so quickly. We’re at stage where the platform is stable and we’re very happy with the tech we’re using. On the mobile side, we’ve changed mobile provider for building apps but we’ve finally hit the nail on the head. We’re using Xamarin, which is a Microsoft product. For the current platform, it’s one side of the business I wasn’t happy with over last couple of years but we’ve moved to this and the speed of development is at a level where I’m happy to say if a change comes in, we can put it out fairly quickly.
What are some of the big trends facing MyHome right now, and in what ways are you planning to deal with them?
Over the last year or so, the big thing is the way users interact with mobile. Some 40-45pc of our traffic is coming from mobile devices and that has grown over last year. It will probably flip over the 50pc mark over the next few months. We’re trying to adapt the platform where products available for desktop are now available for mobile. We’ve released a couple of those in the last few weeks.
As the traffic shifts towards mobile, the questions are going to be asked: if more than 50pc of my traffic is on mobile, is that where my brand needs to be? We need to adapt into that mindset. That’s the biggest trend we’ve seen over the past few years.