The five-minute CIO: Paddy O’Farrell, Property Button

6 Nov 2015

Paddy O’Farrell, CTO, Property Button

“As more technologies become prevalent, it is also important to be able to weed out the ‘gimmicks’ that promise much, but deliver little in terms of ROI,” according to Paddy O’Farrell, chief technology officer at Property Button.

Established in 2012, Property Button’s Irish marketplace manages the commercial transactions and tasks relating to more than 42,000 properties, 143,000 products and €60m of revenue per annum and is growing at 9pc per month. Property Button UK launched in October 2015.

Property Button is using the power of the cloud to help property professionals maximise occupancy in the residential rental market. It manages the entire property lifecycle from advertising a property right up until the moving-out phase.

One of its functions is also the management of utility switching and Property Button is now the biggest channel to market for most Irish utilities.

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology rollout across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

Although we utilise technology extensively, we pride ourselves on creating and providing a simple and intuitive interface to our customers. Each element on our website is simple and completes a single task – there is literally no training required for our end users.

However, to achieve a simple and clean customer interface requires a lot of technology. Our service is delivered through the Salesforce platform and we utilise all elements of that platform to deliver a simple and effective service. Our technology choice reflects our core values, that of being able to quickly and effectively deal with any issues that may arise, and in a friendly and familiar manner. We actively made a choice to avoid any sort of call answering services (e.g. IVR etc) so that all of our customers are answered by a person that they know and trust. Using both Salesforce and CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) we are able to answer the bulk of our inbound calls by name and have the relevant customer details appear on screen as the call is being answered.

Internally, we rely on technology to monitor and maintain our service levels, using live status screens to indicate to our operations staff what issues require immediate attention to ensure that the end customer receives the promised levels of service that they have come to expect.

We are firm believers that technology is only a tool that allows us to deliver a set of services, and we will adapt the best available resources to achieve our goals.

What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?

  • Reliability
  • Simplicity and usability
  • The masking of underlying complexity
  • Always keeping in mind the principles of The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

Cloud-based infrastructure on Salesforce with some ancillary reporting and statistics services and hosting services on Amazon Web Services (S3 and EC2).

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

While cost is obviously an important factor it becomes secondary, where practical, to achieving your service goals – if you cannot do what you claim to do, then any cost is prohibitive. We attempt (and hopefully achieve) a good balance between delivering what we promise and keeping the costs of doing so in check. A practical example is our insistence on avoiding any IVR systems, our personal service is more expensive to deliver but it provides a better customer experience, resulting in increased business.

Keeping abreast of new technologies and solutions is paramount to ensuring that our customers can get the best service possible.

As more technologies become prevalent, it is also important to be able to weed out the “gimmicks” that promise much but deliver little in terms of ROI.

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

Our infrastructure is quite complex, however, that is by design. It allows us to hide layers of complexity from our customers so that they only see a simple and intuitive interface, allowing them to get their tasks completed swiftly and reliably.

By utilising Salesforce, we appreciate that the platform handles a lot of the complexity, allowing us to concentrate on our business goals (i.e. profit margins). In the first six months of 2015, we migrated to the Salesforce platform, primarily so that we could easily and reliably scale our service to enter into the UK market. We had originally developed our service on an Amazon Web Services platform, using EC2, S3, Route 66 and RDS, however, modifications we had made to a Sugar CRM system meant that the easiest way to improve our scalability and provide new services was to start from scratch with Salesforce.

We still retain the AWS platform to allow us to provide in-house-developed statistics and reporting service internally.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

We do not outsource our IT development. We prefer to keep our development in-house as we feel we get more control and influence over services as they are being developed. In hindsight, we are more of an agile company, and having in-house resources allows us to adapt and change quickly as we develop new services.

In addition, we have learned that having in-house experience allows us to involve code-based developers in the business process of the company. Having our developers involved in the full business process allows us to deliver better services as they are more open to questioning the rationale behind various designs and scopes of work. They are also involved in any ongoing maintenance and support of a delivered service, so have a vested interest in ensuring that what we produce is both simple, reliable and effective.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

I find there is a good mix of both business and technology in my role. My background is engineering rather than business, however, I can readily appreciate how technology affects our business decisions and vice versa. As an engineer by background, I am always interested in the latest new technologies, but it’s important to recognise that flashy new technologies are not in themselves a solution, but may be part of a solution – it’s how they can cost effectively be integrated into a service that customers actually want is what’s important.

I take very seriously my responsibility to ensure that our service is available and usable at all times. This responsibility ranges from late nights developing internal code and systems to monitor our service, to meeting with customers to get invaluable feedback on how things can be improved.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

Our view of IT is that it is merely one part of our company that enables us to meet what our customers want. It is an essential part, and coupled with a highly motivated operations and sales team gives us the tools we need to fulfil our promises.

Using Salesforce as a core platform allows us to concentrate more on our business goals and less on the technical IT issues.

In the marketplace, we see some interesting trends developing throughout letting and estate agents in both the UK and Ireland. Particular trends we see are:

  • A move from high street to online agents – 90pc of properties viewed online, 60pc from a mobile device – from our own research we’ve identified the importance of good hi-res photographs and floor plans, which result in better viewing likelihoods.
  • The peak browsing hours for properties are Monday afternoon and Friday mornings
  • The emergence of online-only estate agents
  • Customers (be they purchasers, landlords or tenants) demanding real-time responses to requests via multiple channels – SMS, email, social portals and telephone
  • An awareness of personal safety for agents traveling to perform viewings
  • Using data service such as ourselves to ensure a faster turnaround of properties, and eliminate void periods between tenancies, even simple matters such as a misplaced key can result in a loss of a week’s rent to a landlord.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

We rely heavily on reporting and dashboards, some native Salesforce and some custom developed. These give us a live view of the company performance, along with allowing us to forecast accurately any additional resources that may be required.

We also recognise that it’s possible to get overwhelmed with statistics and that ultimately the goal of metrics and measurements are to improve how we perform as a company. We tailor our metrics to give us the necessary information when and how we need it.

We have tailored custom dashboards that show real-time information to letting agents, giving them quick and easy access to a snapshot at any time of the current state of every property in their portfolio, allowing them to quickly identify any problems – and ultimately for them to deliver a better service to their customers.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

IT is always improving, Amazon S3 storage is a perfect example of something that’s now effectively a commodity whereas it was once an expensive privilege. The major challenge to IT is to keep a view towards how effective and usable it is to the end user.

Customers expect to be able to start using a service immediately, without any training, and IT professionals need to keep that in mind. An example we regularly use is that my 13-year-old daughter can navigate the worlds of Minecraft, Spotify, Snapchat, Facebook, Whatsapp etc without ever having to read a manual.

End user experience should be the goal of any IT project.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

Within the next 12 months, we have plans to launch new services to our customers that will reduce their reliance on paper-based transactions and help them fulfil their promises to their customers. We will introduce our customers to e-signatures, NFC technologies and a few surprises, yet all will be wrapped in a simple and intuitive interface that hides the underlying development and complexities.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years