by Byron Connolly

CIO50 2017 #26-50: Roisin Parkes, Gumtree Australia

Nov 21, 2017
Technology Industry

Roisin Parkes joined online classifieds site, eBay-owned Gumtree Australia in February in the lead up to a full rebrand and site functionality update. As one of the pioneers of the sharing economy, Gumtree’s new brand had to match the innovation and development that had been going on behind the scenes over the past 10 years.

“This was a pinnacle moment in Gumtree’s 10-year history within Australia and was a project that was in motion before I joined the company,” says CTO Parkes.

This meant that Parkes had to get up to speed up the project’s business objectives within her first few days. It was clear that she needed to boost the IT team from 30 to 40 staff to ensure the rebrand wasn’t perceived as a ‘new lick of paint’ but a full update to the site’s functionality.

The result was a seamless transition to a platform that had the user experience at its heart with features like: allowing sellers to save drafts, attach photos in ‘My Messages, and access 24/7 live chat. There are also cash or peer-to-peer payment options, and a new dedicated jobs app.

“The challenge for this project was collecting and analysing the oceans of data and feedback that we sourced from the 7 million unique views on the site each month. We achieved this by implementing an A/B testing model to constantly monitor and measure user experience,” says Parkes.

Hack the planet

During her first week at Gumtree, Parkes was asked to review 17 submissions that had been put forward for the eBay Classifieds Group (eCG) Hackathon. Parkes selected 5 ideas – related to machine learning, image recognition, and VR/AR that she could build a team around.

Three of the ideas were selected to be included in a total of 8 ideas from around the globe to represent eCG. The hackathon was held at eBay’s global headquarters in San Jose and timed to coincide with an eBay-wide hackathon, which was happening in the same week.

One of Gumtree Australia’s submissions was to add 360 degree photos to listing, allowing for an immersive shopping experience – an idea that came second overall for eCG. Each of the entries was then submitted for the eBay-wide hackathon with more than 700 submissions globally.

“The 360 photo idea from Gumtree came in first place, beating 60 other submissions in its heat. Our team was then invited as one of only 3 hackathon ideas – from 700 globally – to showcase the idea at eBay Open Event in Las Vegas. This was a huge achievement for a new team, going up against some experienced hackathon veterans around the world.”

Parkes says the 360 degree VR technology significantly improve the shopping experience for buyers.

“Think of users wanting to buy a car; they can now see inside and outside the car (using their VR headset), or even the inside of a flat they would like to rent or get a closer look at an item of furniture they would like to buy,” Parkes says.

Parkes and her team have also created a machine learning chatbot at Gumtree that is integrated with Facebook Messenger.

“We call it Gumbot and it allows users to search for items on Gumtree. We’re testing it now to see if customers like the concept. We’ve also implemented natural language processing and it gives the team a chance to experiment with machine learning,” Parkes says.

“Creating this chatbot was difficult because it was not something that was on our roadmap for this year so a couple of team members built it in their spare time. It was a fantastic learning experience and the result is a workable and scalable product. The team has continued to work to improve the language processing as it learns,” Parkes says.

As a final part of the rebrand, Parkes and her team have introduced ‘react’, a front-end development framework which has enabled the organisation to ‘componentise’ its front-end and introduce significant speed improvements on its search results page.

Diversity matters

Parkes says although she has never had a female boss, she hasn’t been employed at Gumtree simply to meet a quota. The general manager’s leadership team is a 50/50 split between men and women.

“I have also ensured this is equivalent to my own leadership team which is also a 50/50 split,” Parkes says. “Our leadership team also has doubled the number of female engineers.”

Parkes adds she has been very much involved in the hiring process as the tech team at Gumtree has grown, interviewing all candidates at the final stage to ensure candidates would fit in with the organisation’s culture.

“Having the right mindset is very important to me and I always look to solve a problem on a team through behaviour change rather than process/structure change if possible. Having an innovative and inclusive mindset drives the type of high performing, positive culture that teams need to succeed.”