by George Nott

Sportsbet’s millennials punt pays off

Sep 12, 2017
CareersCollaboration SoftwareFinancial Services Industry

Established in Darwin in 1993, Sportsbet was Australia’s first licensed bookmaker. Bought out in 2005 at a time when the popularity of face-to-face bookmakers was fading, the company provided punters with simple and easy ways to make bets over the phone and online.

The company made gambling mainstream in Australia, was bought out by Paddy Power in 2010 and quickly became the country’s biggest corporate online bookmaker, a title it still holds.

Simon Noonan joined the gambling giant four years ago from ANZ bank. As CIO he was tasked with bringing most of the company’s technology stack and software development back from third party vendors, and establishing a greatly expanded in-house technology team.

“Sportsbet is now truly a digital business and really at the forefront of innovation when it comes to online gambling,” Noonan tells CIO Australia.

And he’s done it all with a bunch of youngsters. Around 75 per cent of the 300 strong technology team (likewise the rest of the company) are millennials.

They have specific requirements, he says, and they’re not all related to ping-pong and free breakfasts (though there is that).

“They do have different needs,” says Noonan. “And I’ve evolved my leadership style as a part of recognising the difference.”

You better, you bet

Sportsbet’s technology stance has changed significantly in the last few years.

“When I joined it was basically an infrastructure, IT Ops house. We outsourced all our software to third parties. The strategy – bringing me on board was – let’s own our own software stack and become a software engineering house. And I can safely say we now own a significant amount of the software real estate that we run,” Noonan says.

“The front end, the services, and parts of the back end. We own the IT around most of our stack now. We’ve shifted from being really an integration house of third party vendors to being a software engineering house.”

As a result the team has grown two-fold to around 300 employees, made up of front-end designers, UI and UX experts; front-end developers, services engineers, performance engineers and quality assurance engineers. There are business analysts, data scientists and data modelers as well as back-end java developers. Many of them are under 35.

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“We’ve got quite a range,” Noonan adds. “We’ve not gone about really targeting millennials so much that we find they’re drawn to our business.”

The mobile focus – ‘putting the Roid in Android‘ went the controversial ads in May – is certainly a draw, says Noonan. (The desktop/mobile user split has completely flipped in the past couple of years from 80 per cent desktop/20 per cent mobile to 81 per cent mobile at present.)

“Given they’ve grown up in the age of smartphones that certainly appeals to them,” Noonan adds.

As is how close the work is to the customer.

“They like working on something that is customer focused. We measure things in quite a detailed way, we make that all visible so they get that real-time feedback around what we’re delivering and the impacts it’s having on customers. For millennials, having that short feedback loop and being so close to the customer is very appealing.”

It’s also big business. Sportsbet makes around 1.7bn price updates a year, offers punters 11m markets and takes 240m bets a year. On the biggest gambling day of the year – Melbourne Cup day – the company takes on more than 60,000 new customers on the day, and peaks at around 500 bets per second.

“In terms of transactions per min, there is no purely digital company that takes the volume of traffic that we take,” Noonan says. “It’s an interesting space, it’s dynamic, it’s fast paced. Customers expect things to be intuitive. They expect things to perform. And they expect changes pretty often. We need to build platforms in technology to enable that.”

The kids are alright

Millennials in the workplace often get a bad rap. We hear they are hard to manage, pose a huge risk to company security, and are sensitive ‘snowflakes’ that spend all day on Snapchat.

Noonan doesn’t recognise the stereotyped assessment. However, there are some nuances to managing them, he says.

“We’re very much a purpose led organisation. One of the things I’ve found with millennials as a part of that, I need to spend more time defining why we’re doing things. And helping them join the dots as to why this initiative is important for Sportsbet and why it’s important for our customers,” says Noonan. “I spend a lot more time than I have in past explaining the why. It’s fair to say I’m still learning.”

Sportsbet boasts of numerous benefits for employees, many of which are pitched squarely at younger people.

“We don’t do 9-5 or suits and ties,” the company’s careers page states. “From meetings held over a game of ping pong, our comfy, open work spaces and countless TVs with a variety of sports playing to team events, the endless banter and the genuine passion as we share in and celebrate each others’ successes!”

As well as the perks – which include free breakfasts, sporting event tickets and ‘social crew’ – the way of working is also a big drawcard for millennial talent, Noonan adds.

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“We don’t structure ourselves like a traditional organisation. We create teams that have end to end accountabilities,” Noonan explains. “A lot of organisations go for perfection; we go for progress and pace.”

The technology division has what it calls ‘feature teams’, made up of seven to ten people with various competencies that are required to deliver any given initiative. The team is the primary reporting line of its members, the capability each person sits within (e.g. front end development) is their second reporting line.

“That’s their home base. The teams have self-organised and given themselves names – after cities from around the world and TV shows. We’ve got 21 cities – from Rio to Port Royal to Springfield. It allows the teams to create their own identity. It lets them create a cohesive team, with common goals and bonds, and also allows us then to give them a complex problem to solve and they solve it together as an end to end team.”

Those teams are supplemented by individuals from a pool of ‘travellers’ that go from team to team (city to city) when required during sprints.

“It’s good for them because they get to experience different teams, different environments, but also different types of work as well which is powerful to people as well,” Noonan adds.

It’s the company’s own version of Agile which has been in place for two years. On top of this, hackathons are happening regularly, Friday afternoons are designated creative time and there are ‘festivals’ to help individual career development. There’s even a ‘Stadium of Learning’ – a purpose built space for development activities.

“My ultimate goal is to create an environment where the teams can be self-organised and they can create great outcomes. Ultimately if I think about the higher order purpose I have at Sportsbet: I have to make Sportsbet the best place for people and their career,” says Noonan.

“If people stay with us for two years, five years or 10 years they’ll look back and say that time I spent at Sportsbet was terrific for these reasons. If I can do that, and that leads to great outcomes for the organisation as well, as a leader I’ve done my job.”