by Martin Veitch

Sporting Index CIO Eachan Fletcher doesn’t mind admitting a love for technology

Feb 21, 2010
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Eachan Fletcher pays minute attention to detail when it comes to supporting an operation that wins or loses by its ability to precisely respond to changes in information at sporting contests, but he is pretty relaxed on whether he is a ‘classic’ CIO. “The title is a lot less meaningful than what you deliver to the organisation; it’s about delivering technology,” he says. “I know there’s a massive trend to be more business-focused, and it’s important, but it’s quite a tough job because you’re expected to be as knowledgeable as anybody else but also master of your domain. You can’t forget that you’re maybe the only person representing technology at the board table. Other areas such as logistics and supply chain are important but they already have specialists involved.” Read Eachan Fletcher’s responses to the CIO Questionnaire I put it to the Scotland-born, New Zealand-raised Fletcher that a classic US–derived approach is to have a CTO reporting into a CIO, allowing the former to focus on bits and bytes and the latter to concentrate on information workflow and innovation, but he says Sporting Index is not of sufficient size to do both. “We’re not huge, only a couple of hundred people. A lot of people use the CIO and CTO terms interchangeably. If there’s one end I prefer it’s CTO. I like getting involved in enterprise architecture and I almost wouldn’t want to devolve too much.” That’s fair enough at a firm like Sporting Index that largely depends on technology for its competitive advantage. The significance of IT to the company’s future is underlined by Fletcher’s sitting on the board at the company, founded in 1992 and now established as the leader in sport spread betting where punters stake per unit on whether teams and individuals will fall short or exceed a median range such as a score of 400 in a cricket innings or the time in minutes of the first goal being scored in a football match.

“Most CIOs report into a COO or financial director but in an organisation where technology is critical you have to have that sort of top-level representation,” Fletcher says. “We have technology represented as an equal at the boardroom table.” Fletcher joined Sporting Index after stints in engineering, enterprise architecture and other roles at Betfair, the betting exchange company that has emerged as the 800-pound gorilla of the UK online betting scene. As Fletcher notes, “After Betfair you can get almost any job [in the sector]. Sporting Index made sense for me as a chance to continue doing the sorts of things I’d been doing at Betfair but also to take a wider role, to be part of [broader] decisions.” Despite some high-profile blocking movements from highly-regulated geographies such as the US, it’s an industry that is mushrooming as gamblers take advantage of other areas of explosive growth such as satellite TV and internet coverage to get more odds on more events. “Breadth is about sport from horse racing in the day to soccer at the weekends and in the weekday evenings and weekends to Aussie sports and tennis overnight,” he explains. “People don’t just stick to one sport to bet on anymore. The depth is how many markets there are: maybe 350 markets for a football game all the way to the total of shirt numbers. People are beyond the ‘let’s put £50 on Arsenal’.” “The online gaming industry is maturing and will go through a lot of the changes and optimisations other industries go through,” says Fletcher. “It will polarise between those who own the markets and those who own the brand and customer.”

White goods Sporting Index has identified the former as an opportunity to build a ‘white label’ business and wants to build a larger base of clients for which it will provide underlying data for them to sell their own markets. The hunch is that with a wealth of events available now, providing ‘engine’ technology could be a winner. “We can offer data feeds that allow operators to fuel up and offer on to their own customers at a margin to increase coverage and reduce cost. We want to deliver more so that ultimately you can make your own customised products. We have the data analytics and strength in modelling events and markets and ability to predict outcomes. We’re saying this works well for us and offers the accuracy you need to make money. That underpins what differentiates us from other people.” Read how Bwin has a similar White Goods strategy Also underlying its strength is Platform Computing’s Symphony grid-computing orchestration software run in house over a mostly Sun/Oracle infrastructure. “As our coverage broadened the algorithms and volumes were getting unwieldy and that’s when we turned to grid computing. I’m actually quite a fan of cloud technologies but the reason we built internally is latency. It’s not about the number crunching for us; it’s that we need to be able to plan 100 moves ahead and inform price choices in a second,” says Fletcher. Availability is also key. “Most people don’t design systems with maintenance in mind but customers don’t care whether the system is down by accident or because you chose to maintain it. My philosophy is that you own it for life and build it once with hot maintenance in mind. “We’ve had plenty of problems, the same as anybody else, but the trick is to realise it’s only going to have a certain level of reliability so [the question is] how do you insulate customers.” International expansion is also a strong possibility and further out Fletcher isn’t discounting the possibility of personal development taking him into a broader management position. “I could definitely see myself as a CEO one day but I’ve got so much yet to do that I have to admit to not thinking that far ahead. But I’d always want to stay where technology is the route to market… and I don’t think I could go to a market as fully underpinned by technology as this one.”