by Mark Chillingworth

Betfair CTO Rory Devine placed his bet on people

May 19, 200812 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

“Your skills are about executing through people,” says Rorie Devine the former chief technology officer (CTO) of Betfair. Devine left Betfair after a four year career in which he was credited, by the Hammersmith based organisation, with transforming the organisation.

With a ready smile and a slightly self-effacing nature, Devine is immediately putting everyone in the room at ease and despite being interviewed, he is communicating with everyone present. A relaxed state pervades the room and you feel the creative energy of everyone present notch up a degree or two. The odds of some success are looking good. This is the Rorie Devine method, it is not about him; it’s about people and their creative energy.

“I was never a huge gambler,” he says, but today as CTO of Betfair, Devine is passionate about the business and his 300 strong IT team makes up 25 per cent of the Betfair workforce. It’s a role he describes as having equal parts pressure and pleasure. “There is ambition at Betfair and it’s a genuine challenge, but I love every day, there is always a new thing to do,” he says in his enthused manner. And the pressure, “I don’t enjoy it all the time, but 97 per cent of the time, but real pressure is when you feel powerless to achieve.” You get the feeling that Devine rarely, if ever has felt powerless to achieve. The achievements of his team and the Betfair organisation certainly show no signs of powerlessness.

The pressure that Devine enjoys is the demand to change things and to challenge doctrines. “I always wanted to be at the heart of the action. I wanted to be with a company where IT is central,” he says and a career in investment banking and now the gambling company that has turned the bookies’ world on its head is exactly the battle line that Devine reveals in. Facing the Thames in a quiet back street of Hammersmith in west London, the Betfair office is akin to the chateaux where generals planned great assaults and changed the course of European wars. Its relaxed, with more than a hint of media company or dot-com to the brightly coloured walls, but take a peek into the control room through the window of reception, or walk through the office past troops of casually dressed workers, and there is a hum of activity, the activity that leads to change.

Devine has been CTO for two years now and has been with the company for “five Cheltenham’s,” the standard measure of time based on the famed Cheltenham Gold Cup horse race.

Listening in

Betfairis an online business, so Devine’s team are its engine, and its people and team motivation that Devine clearly understands every bit as well as the technology infrastructure he is responsible for. “Being able to listen to people means they engage with you and will talk to you. That means you both get something out of it,” he says. For a business like Betfair, Devine sees being CTO as in a large part flair management, “keeping that talent and finding out what makes them happy”.

He describes himself as a natural communicator in the face-to-face scenario, but is honest to admit that doesn’t mean he finds doing presentations at board level easy, “I’ve had to get comfortable with that. I’ve always been interested in people, what makes them happy and had a general interest in humanity,” he says. It is these skills he brings to bear in the job. “My job is to bring the best talent onto the Betfair strategy and to be flexible and creative. People are judged on the results and it’s about the team and what we deliver.”

CIO, writer and Pirate?

CIOs spend what little free time they have in a wide variety of ways, whether its on the links of the golf course or hoping the odds are right and their team will get the winning goal. But Rorie Devine and his love of creative energy sat down a few years ago and wrote a children’s book.

“My son was four and a half, and in the pirate stage,” Devine says, when he looked for a suitable pirate story to read at bed time he found them all “really violent, they all had repulsive message, so I wrote one”.

He found a US publisher on the internet who liked his tale, but asked for the ending to be changed, which he duly did and the publisher liked it. As is often the way in the US media and publishing, his manuscript was then taken to a focus group, where it was sadly canon balled. “I enjoyed the process of writing it and making stories up,” he says. Definitely happy in his work, he isn’t chasing JK Rowling’s success “although I’d love her money,” he quips.

Today, he is happy to read children’s classics such as The Gruffalo an award winner by English author Julia Donaldson. “Children’s fiction is very short, so each word has to be very powerful.”

“If I had the time I’d love to make money creatively,” he says. He describes his story as being about the hunt for treasure and finding it down a well, each pirate had to be creative in how the treasure was retrieved, a scenario that sounds not too dissimilar to being a CIO.

Focusing on results means his team has people often working from home to make the work-life balance as “appropriate as possible”. His team is a mix of former City types and internet pioneers, much like Devine himself. The team has grown, in part from references from employees who enjoy the culture he has created. “The culture we have here means we don’t need a structure of hierarchy. We create ambiguity, some people have left as they don’t like a lack of structure,” he says. Rigid business structures may not exist, in place are informal opportunities for the IT team to meet and share ideas, or for other parts of the organisation to raise issues they need to discuss with IT. His engineers hold regular seminars to discuss business strategy and IT ideas. There are also Talkback sessions with Devine and on Friday’s he cracks open the beer fridge at 5pm sharp and all are welcome to join them for an informal chin wag. “It’s about showing that you want people to get together and chat,” he says. “A culture is a set of behaviour, so we promote the ones we think are positive.” The culture permeates beyond Devine though; his techs have set up bulletin boards and clubs to bring together people to tackle technical problems. By getting together people learn, and learning is another positive cultural aspect that Devine likes to promote. “If you want to learn, and that is a culture that you want to create, you learn as a team. I learnt as much last year as any year,” he says with a pleased smile. Not one of smugness, rather self-betterment and he known he wasn’t the only one that learnt.

IT people are widely believed to be a group of people who are not natural communicators and this has sparked the current discussion that there is a divide between the business and IT. “IT people are precision people, they are analytical and reflective and that is the challenge for IT. It is very easy to promote the best technology people,” Devine says, indicating that although he doesn’t devalue technology knowledge, he does believe in people skills and values them highly. “It’s a challenge for IT to evolve more. In your mid-career you are selected on the technology skills – be it Java or Oracle. But it should be based on broader skills,” he says.

Exchange values

Devine was attracted to the role at Betfair by its business model, that of being an exchange, which brings buyers and sellers together, a model he says delivers better value for money. “When I came here I was blown away by the people as well, it was the best move I ever made.” Devine is now a big fan of the exchange business model and sites eBay, the global auction site, as a great example of the exchange business. “It is a very good way of buying and selling, there is no person in the middle taking a commission,” he says. It is the simplicity of being a technology platform offering a service to buyers and sellers to utilise that appeals to Devine. “A lot of things will go to a exchange model because the internet enables it,” he believes. Betfair has been a significant wind of change in the betting world and the previous system was open to abuse and many believe customers were not getting a service.

“The integrity aspect we have here means we have a record of every transaction. One charge was that we encourage abuse, but we brought an audit trail to the sector, there is no hiding,” Devine says. Betfair has challenged the market and many observers welcome the transparency it has brought to a market that had been clouded in mystery. For consumers, Devine says this is good news, “If you know the market or game you are coming from a good place.”

A techie throughout his career, Devine evidently is interested in business, especially exchange based business and people. “As a tech you realise that it is not about technology, it is about people,” he says. Devine did a degree in IT before joining Logica the IT services company, which led to a move to investment banking and then on to a dot-com start up and NTL the cable company before returning to investment banking.

“IT is very very important and can really add business value,” Devine says. Adding value and communicating that are central to the CIO/CTO role according to Devine. “You must question your effect and value. It very easy to not do that,” he says. As a result Devine believes he must challenge himself and his team. He has undergone coaching, which he says “doesn’t give you the answers, it makes you ask the right questions.”

As a great listener, Devine also has a knack of communicating and he sees his role as communicating what IT can and does do for the organisation to the organisation. He carries out briefings on the IT world for senior people in the management. “To most people it is just a black box that they don’t understand. I can present it to non-technology people in a way they understand. To really understand something, it helps to personalise things and it really helps if they have can have someone that they can ask questions of.”

As well as being the human face of technology at Betfair, Devine also pens Rorie’s Ramblings, a weekly email to the Betfair staff, written in the informal tone of a blog, on technology issues. “Email is a really powerful tool for one-to-many communications. There is nothing like it. I couldn’t do Ramblings in any other way.”

Devine is quick to point out that as communications method, email has limits and as a promoter of face-to-face communications he knows its limitations. “When email is used for one-to-one communications there can be confrontation and aggression, people are using the wrong tool for one-to-one situation.

Punters choose their own odds and bet against each other in the Betfair exchange business model and it is the first betting company that allows its customers to place bets once the game has started and bet as it proceeds. Launched in June, 2000 Betfair partly based its business model on the New York Stock Exchange. Its growth as a business has been incredible. In the 2007 its profits were up by 65 per cent and it received four billion page impressions a week, which is about 15 million transactions being processed a day, which Betfair says is more than all the European stock exchanges put together. Much of its growth is from outside of the UK and as a result new operational units have been set up in Italy, Malta and Romania. The ability to produce an audit trail for all of its transactions means that Betfair was the first online gambling company to be awarded ISO 27001 accreditation for information security management.

At the heart of this business phenomena is its technology. Devine said he is responsible for “one of the five hottest Oracle” installations on the planet. Unlike many online gambling operations, Betfair never entered the US market. In 2006 President George W Bush made online gambling illegal in the US, which dented the growth of rivals like 888 Holdings. “We never offered our service to the US from day one, our competition did and the US was half of the world gambling market,” Devine explains. “The difference is, we want to be a blue chip company, so we only operate in jurisdictions that provide a licence. We have a multi-layered approach of location finding, we make our best endeavours to find where people are when they place a bet.” If an American tries to place a bet with Betfair, the company is confident it can trace where they are and prevent them placing the bet and contravening US law. Devine says these policies are all part of the long term blue chip vision of Betfair. It played the risky hand of keeping out of the US market, but as recent Queens awards and financial figures show, they have made the right bet.