by Divina Paredes

CIO50 2019 #26-50: Mark Rees, Xero

Mar 28, 2019
Business ContinuityCloud ComputingInnovation

Just under two years ago we completed the migration of all our customer applications from Rackspace to AWS, says Mark Rees, chief technology officer at Xero.

It was a long and challenging project that involved many teams across the whole organisation.

“It was a significant achievement that required our staff to work hard for an extended period. However, it was one of those projects where even though the work is hard, the clarity of purpose and direction makes the work seem easier,” says Rees.

At the end of the project, when the teams returned to business as usual, Rees noticed something different.

Each of the teams have worked well and achieve many things, but they haven’t touched the levels of productivity and satisfaction that were completed during the migration project, he observes.

“My lesson is that technology teams require a big hairy audacious goal if they are to work at their best.”

“The goal needs to be within reach but not easy in order to bring out the best not only in the individuals but from the team as a whole. This not only ensures great results, but it increases satisfaction and employee engagement.”

This approach also ensures the team continuously look for different ways to innovate.

He explains: “We structure our engineering and product organisations into small cross-functional teams who have long-term responsibility for a technology, process or customer outcome. We set these teams objectives and give them some flexibility in how they achieve these outcomes.”

In most circumstances, the innovations come directly from these teams, he states.

“They are the closest to the business and operational challenges that we have faced and are consistently looking at ways we can better ourselves.”

The teams are also working towards a main objective – how to scale effectively.

“Our growth in customers and staff, means that we have to be continually reviewing the way we work to ensure we can keep ahead of our growth, without losing any process or functionality,” he says.

This mindset has prompted the team to work not only on the large-scale migration to the public cloud, but also projects that use machine learning and other disruptive technologies to better serve their customers.

Rees explains that after completing the migration of their customer workloads onto the AWS platform, the teams have been focused on taking advantage of the capabilities of the platform and improving the way they operate with what has become a significant amount of infrastructure.

“For example, we now have more than 5000 AWS instances running applications and excess of 26Pb of data storage,” he says.

During this time, they have implemented an extensive list of innovative initiatives such as automated bill capture and the multivac chatbot.

Automated bill capture is part of their vision for code-free accounting, or removing the manual labour involved with inputting data into Xero.

We used computer vision and machine learning to automatically extract data from PDF documents and then upload that data into Xero, he explains.

This is one of the first deliverables in this stream of work that will eventually allow Xero to operate on “autopilot” with data flowing into the application with very little user effort. To deliver this solution we created a cross-functional team comprised of software engineering, design, product, data science and data engineering skills.

The multivac chatbot guides engineers through incident management and post-mortem process.

Our software engineers are responsible for supporting their code, explains Rees.

“We work this way, so our teams have a strong incentive to think about the operational implications of the product they build.

“This approach works well, but it does mean we need to ensure our large group of engineers have a strong understanding of our incident management process.”

To support this, the site reliability engineering team created a chatbot that orchestrates the incident management process – guiding our software developers through the process and ensuring they documented the process appropriately, communicated with the right people and followed the current runbooks.

“This is part of our overall effort ‘to make good easy’ by creating tools and processes that make it easier to work in the best way,” says Rees.

Multivac and this strategy for incident management have improved the quality and effectiveness of this process, and enables us to run a model whereby engineers have full end-to-end responsibility for the software they build, he adds.

Rees says both these innovations are unique and valuable in many ways.

The automated bill capture product feature is an example of leveraging our high-quality dataset to provide real value to our customers, he says.

It is an initial step in a stream of work that will have a significant impact on the way our customers work each day, making their lives easier and enabling them to focus on their businesses.

Building innovative data products at scale in a secure environment is challenging, he says. “It would be easy to talk about the cutting-edge data science work that we are doing, but much of the real innovation comes from managing the balance between getting value to customers early on, building out data infrastructure and ensuring the security and privacy of our customers and their data.”

The multivac chatbot is a prime example of a team developing an innovative solution in response to a process challenge, he adds.

The team that developed this solution shipped improvements to the solution regularly, listened to feedback from their customers and improved the product until it achieved their objectives.

He says the solution has been adopted by the entire product and engineering team. It delivers value to both those teams and by default, as well as to their customers thanks to the effective incident management process.

The operational chatbot that codified our incident management process is a strong example of how the right technology can encourage teams within an organisation to follow a best practice process, he says.

“Multivac makes working in this way easy and almost enjoyable – enabling teams to construct a positive culture around incident management.”

From a cultural perspective, the project helped Xero overcome the divide between site reliability, engineering and product teams. “I doubt that a traditional approach of documentation and training would have been anywhere near as effective as the approach we have taken,” says Rees.

“The key to enabling our data innovation, including our machine learning based automated bill capture example, is having a clear customer-focused objective that aligns our teams,” he says.

“The customer is at the centre of everything we do, and this clarity makes it a lot easier for teams to work together and set clear priorities.”

Rees works with a global team. The product and engineering team are based across three countries and six major engineering centres. The size of the group means that it is almost impossible to bring everyone together into the same physical location, he says.

To foster a sense of connection, clarity of purpose and direction, Rees sends out a weekly email to the entire team that covers a range of topics – from how they aspire to work through to updates on the key initiatives that are underway.

“This drumbeat of regular communication and the discussions that it creates helps connect the broader team.”

A seat at the top table

Rees is a member of the executive team that runs Xero.

“I don’t sit within the team as a technology representative but rather as a member of the group responsible for ensuring the company meets its objectives,” he says.

He is a fan of Patrick Lencioni’s (author of the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team) idea of the “first team” for the executive team.

“This is probably the best description of how we aim to work and this approach.”

At the same time, he is responsible for advocating for the opportunities and constraints that come from technology.

“In these circumstances, my job is to explain these issues with the correct level of detail, so that others are able to understand without losing significant information. If you are doing this well, I think it should enable your business peers to gain enough intuition than they can in turn reason about technical problems.”

He stresses the importance of nurturing culture where staff feel empowered to achieve their goals.

“We want our staff to bring their whole selves to work and feel comfortable and included at every turn,” he says.

Diversity of thought is championed, and thus, the gender disparity in tech roles is something he is actively working on at Xero.

“We put a real focus on hiring a diverse range of well-rounded people with all levels of social skills, interests and personality types. Contrary to the stereotype, we actually don’t want a team full of young, introverted men who are great at coding. A well-rounded team creates diversity of thought, which is so valuable,” he states.

Inclusion is part of this, he states. “The focus is on how we drive an inclusive culture for everyone.”

Rees says they run regular polls to track inclusion, asking staff if they feel that Xero is an inclusive work environment where they feel respected, have a sense of belonging and can bring their whole self to work.

They also run regular training on diversity and inclusion to help support the team’s understanding of what inclusion means in practice.

“We are driving a culture of respect that supports diversity,” says Rees.

The company has refreshed its global policy on discrimination, harassment, bullying, victimisation/retaliation and have rolled out training to all our people managers.

Flexible work is being promoted, and is a key driver of inclusion, says Rees.

He says Xero runs regular surveys to understand how people are working flexibly and if they feel they have enough balance to manage work and their personal life.

“We also piloted a flex work awareness session which is currently being converted into an online module,” he says.

They are piloting a partnership with FlexCareers in NZ to proactively support flexible working options in the hiring process.

Supporting parents at Xero is an important part of ensuring inclusion, he adds. The company has developed global Keeping in Touch guidelines to provide guidance and support for managers to be more inclusive of parents on parental leave.

Mentoring is a critical component of their leadership programmes. This year, we have a new global partnership with Mentorloop to support mentoring relationships at Xero. “This is another important way of promoting diversity into leadership roles,” says Rees.