by Byron Connolly

A look back at last year’s CIO50: #8 Rob James, William Hill

Jul 19, 2017
Retail Industry

CIO Australia is running its second annual CIO50 list which recognises Australia’s top 50 IT most innovative and effective IT chiefs who are influencing change across their organisations.

This year’s top 50 CIO list will be judged by some of Australia’s leading IT and digital minds. Our illustrious judging panel in 2017 includes the Australian government’s former chief digital officer and now Stone Chalk ‘expert in residence’ Paul Shetler; and former Microsoft Australia MD and now CEO, strategic innovation at Suncorp, Pip Marlow.

Nominate for the 2017 CIO50

We take a look back at last year’s top 25. Today, we profile Rob James, the former chief information officer at William Hill who slotted in at number 8.

Read Rob’s story below: (Rob is now CTO at Qantas.)

#8: Rob James, (former) chief information officer, William Hill

When Rob James arrived at William Hill three years ago, the betting company had already acknowledged that it was very much a digital organisation.

“IT was very much run like a traditional IT shop – it was all about desktops and datacentres. So very quickly it was acknowledged that the [technology group] needed to transform to be more of a product and technology team rather than just IT,” says James.

A vital part of this transformation would be to shift the IT group from a cost centre function to a revenue-generating part of the business.

IT was re-labelled as the ‘product and technology’ team to reflect the move to a digital business; product delivery and product strategy were created into two distinct areas with direct reports into James. A ‘product council’ was also introduced to help drive strategy, investment and prioritisation.

Over 12 months, James led a team that invested in new core platforms to modernise architecture to support rapid product development. He also restructured and refocused teams to deliver a more marketable product, which has led to $60 million in new revenue growth for the organisation.

“Not only did we invest in hardware and software to run the business – but we also built software that “was” the business,” he said. “That was a big mindset shift for us.”

The transformation has already paid dividends. Over the past year, 30 new products went into production due to the operational and structural changes. Previously, IT would deliver only three to five products per year, James says.

“Savings needed to be found within other business areas such as risk and trading and, therefore, many of the previous manual processes needed to be automated,” says James.

“An example of this is the introduction of products that required the addition of hundreds of automatically-created sports markets that traditionally required manual creation by traders.”

Innovation changes the game

A key disruptive innovation was the controversial rollout of William Hill’s Click2Call InPlay online betting app, which enables the company’s customers to legally place bets after a sporting event has commenced. This was previously only possible to do through phone betting.

This app digitised this process but still remained within the legislation – the Interactive Gaming Act 2001. It was launched in late 2015 after a proof-of-concept was demonstrated to and approved by the company’s legal counsel.

Click2Call InPlay had never been implemented as a method of placing ‘in-play’ or other bets globally by any other betting company and was responsible for an additional $40 million in turnover for William Hill’s business in 2015.

It became a national talking point when, during the 2016 Australian Open,the mainstream media flagged it as a potential issue affecting the integrity of the sport.

“But soon after, this was proven to improve the integrity of the sport due to the collection and transparency of data with sporting bodies,” James says.

Competitors complained about the app but the Federal Police declined to take the matter further.

For James, innovation is really the application of an invention, whether it’s a process or a technology, and then achieving commercial success.

“That’s exactly what we did – we disrupted the status quo,” said James. “Legislation was 15 years old and we felt it was quite limiting for our business and for the kind of customer that we have, it was quite draconian.

“We decided that we were going to challenge that; it was just through hellip; looking at technologies out there and doing something that we felt was going to still be within the legislation but deliver to our customer what they wanted.”

But the federal government recently tightened up the legislation relating to ‘in-play’ betting, requiring the customer to speak to someone over the phone to place a bet.

“That’s just one battle and the war is not over yet,” James says.

An investment in products like this has also forced the company to rethink its delivery strategy and leverage offshore capabilities to scale and grow, says James.

“In the last 6 months, much of the commodity tech work has been shifted to teams in Manila, which have now grown to more than 100 additional resources and several partners that have allowed us to invest accordingly across the systems.”

Influencing the business, encouraging diversity

Technology is pervasive across most organisations – it’s a part of every business unit from finance to operations and marketing, and regular communication about IT initiatives and strategies is crucial.

James regularly engages with the organisation through weekly product and technology standups, which are attended by all IT staff. In addition, the IT group regularly presents to staff during company-wide standups.

The staff training budget allocation has grown 300 per cent since James joined William Hill. He has introduced a culture of career growth through mentoring programs, one-on-one meetings, and ‘skip-level’ meetings to ensure information is flowing through the team. Female hires have also increased from only three per cent of IT staff in 2013 to over 35 per cent in 2016.

“For me, if CIOs want to remain relevant as IT leader, they need to shift from just talking about technology to understanding how technology is becoming part of the business,” says James.

“That’s even more critical in digital businesses like ours, and I think that IT leaders as a whole need to be able to advise and influence technology direction through the knowledge and expertise that they have or their teams possess to make sure they still remain relevant within the business.”