Q&A: Mark Cohen, CIO for DealsDirect.com.au

CIO sits down for five minutes with Mark Cohen, CIO for online store DealsDirect.com.au, to discuss the projects he's working on, his take on the big issues affecting CIOs and his favourite tech-gaget.

What does an average work day involve for you at DealsDirect.com.au?

Cohen: One of the founders' guiding principles when they started DealsDirect.com.au was that they wanted to build an egalitarian culture. To this day there is not much differentiation between the most junior and the most senior of our team members outside of the actual work we undertake. We all park in the same parking lot with no reserved spots. We all share the same office resources and we all work in open plan spaces. And we all lend a hand when needed.

I almost always start my day with a detour to the kitchen to make myself a morning tea or coffee, and to say hi to whoever happens to be around. I typically settle down to clearing emails straight away as they tend to amass overnight. We use a loose version of the "scrum methodology" in the IT Team, and our daily stand-ups are at 10am. Our leadership team has embraced agile project management - I like to believe because the tech team has shown how well it works - and we also have a daily five minute leadership team stand-up which is effectively a 'scrum-of-scrums'.

An average work day will see me working on multiple projects, and will involve a few different meetings, usually changing paradigm from meeting to meeting. I will also interact with current and potential providers through the day, although our systems architect is showing a great proficiency at managing providers and he takes ownership of a lot of the operational execution.

Some of my less-than-favourite days start with a call from Jimmy down in the warehouse to tell me something is awry. Thankfully, those days are rare because Jimmy's calls come in before 6:30am!

What are the major challenges you face in the role of CIO?

Like many, if not all CIOs, the single biggest challenge I face is trying to do more with less. We have a slate of projects we're working through which is almost daunting in size. If I wasn't backed by the most awesome tech team in the known universe I'd be seriously concerned about delivery.

Technology changes quickly and I find that the more involved in the business end of technology management I get, the more difficult it gets to keep current. I find myself forced to do a lot more reading, and I am increasingly reliant on peers in my broader network and team to help me learn about trends and changes outside of my current scope of focus.

What are some of the recent projects your IT department have been working on?

We recently rolled out a new high availability production server architecture that has made massive improvements to our site's reliability and performance, and allowed us to decommission a significant number of servers. The Google webmaster toolkit shows our page download times to be more than 300 per cent quicker. This kind of site performance enhancement is truly exciting because improvements like this have an ROI that materialises through conversion improvements.

We had built our own ratings and reviews system which served us well for years, but had some very visible inadequacies. Rather than spending resources building out our existing system, a business decision was made to leapfrog ourselves and our competitors and to implement a best-of-breed solution. We selected Bazaar Voice, a US-based provider of ratings and reviews solutions to many of the top online retailers. We had a staff member working on managing reviews as part of her job, and she was a logical choice to be a key stakeholder in the project. She did a stellar job together with the project team at Bazaar Voice and we went live smoothly and ahead of schedule.

We also replaced our site search with a learning search technology recently which has seen a massive improvement in the quality of search results. This has driven a large increase in the usage of site search by our visitors. As our inventory grows, the browse experience on our site is eroded. The volumes make it increasingly difficult and even overwhelming for customers to find what they are looking for. Combine this with the web's movement away from the more traditional category structures and the importance of effective search becomes ever more apparent.

One of our more exciting recent projects was very much behind-the-scenes; we implemented an integration with the eBay API to sell DealsDirect.com.au products on eBay. It is exciting for two reasons - firstly DealsDirect.com.au started out as an eBay venture and so it's very much a 'Back to the Future' concept for Mike Rosenbaum and Paul Greenberg (our co-founders); and secondly, I played a big part in this project as it seems to me to be a very big opportunity. I am very pleased - and admittedly relieved - to say that early signs are that it will be a great success.

What's next on the IT agenda for DealsDirect.com.au?

We're in the process of adding to our customer service offerings by introducing click-for-callback and later, inbound telephone support. It is a big step for the business as, to date, we've only offered live chat and email support. We see phone support as a very important step for the business to take strategically as it will further enhance our trust relationship with our customers. To fulfil this we assessed several third party offerings and we selected a solution that offers combined chat, email and telephone support.

As a business, DealsDirect.com.au has always operated as a lean startup. We've built the business out of primarily open-source products and our developers have coded on top of these products as the business has evolved. While these solutions have served us well, we intend investing some of our resources into refactoring some of these solutions. We're also implementing a few exciting new web features which I'd love to tell you about but we'll have to keep those under wraps for now.

What are the three biggest issues facing CIOs today?

In my opinion the three biggest issues CIO's address haven't really changed much. I would say it comes down to build vs buy, insource vs outsource and business-case vs innovate. There's a brilliant book called The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, which was recommended to me by my ex-boss. The book makes the argument for maintaining a conscious awareness of how business cases can kill innovation.

What's your favourite gadget?

It's a neck-and-neck tie for me between my Xbox 360 which has replaced TV-watching as my choice of entertainment, and my iPad which spares me from having to carry a laptop around. If I had to choose one over the other I'd go with the iPad, because I definitely use it more.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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