Q&A with Simon Raik-Allen, CTO, MYOB

Q: In your role as CTO, how do you approach innovation from an internal/external and product perspective?
A: Innovation is a huge focus for MYOB – it’s one of our six core values – and we continuously approach it from a variety of angles as we work to enhance the client experience and our own processes. A critical component of this is user feedback and exploring how our clients are using the solutions we provide so that we can tailor them to better meet their needs.

We also conduct extensive market research on an ongoing basis and focus test daily, both online and in our office’s specially built rooms. We actively listen and respond to conversations in our social channels and encourage their ideas within our community forum’s Ideas Exchange area. And we study user behavior in-product by examining usage data and via A-B testing that offers some users one way to get a job done and others another. We then action any improvements in our regular product updates. A great example of this is our AccountRight Live solution, which is the cloud enabled version of our flagship accountancy solution.

The cloud has also been a great tool for innovation and enhancing the client experience we can deliver. It enables us to respond much quicker to their requests and feedback. Before cloud we only rolled out upgrades once or twice a year but moving onto the Windows Azure platform has allowed us to really tighten up those cycles, with AccountRight Live operating on a six-week upgrade cycle. Being able to upgrade on a regular basis ensures clients and partners consistently see innovation from us across the board and can regularly enhance their processes.

Hackathons – internal and external – are a great source of innovation for us too. They encourage staff to take a different perspective, which often leads to new, cool and creative ideas that we can build into our offerings and improve our processes. For instance, our most recent hackathon had a live voting feature inviting attendees to choose the features they most wanted to see in our web-based LiveAccounts product, and we’re building that into one of our upcoming fortnightly product releases. This brings us back to the importance of user feedback when developing innovative solutions, and it’s testament to the superb work of the MYOB team that they’re able to get these offerings to market within two weeks. Hackathons are also a great way to raise the MYOB profile and raise employee engagement.

Q: Since the launch of AccountRight Live in November last year, what has been the response to -date?
A: Cloud computing in Australia and New Zealand is really taking off right now – I saw an IDC statistic recently revealing 86 per cent of Australian enterprises currently use cloud, up from 71 per cent at this time last year. It’s at the smaller end of town that we need to encourage take up by promoting the vast benefits of brining cloud into business. MYOB’s most recent SME research found only 16% of SMEs say they use cloud computing in their business and 8% weren’t sure. For those who said they weren’t using cloud, the top barriers were not knowing enough about it to make the right decisions, lack of confidence and having other business priorities to take care of first. I’d argue that cloud should be amongst the top priorities.

Having said that, we’re definitely seeing hunger for cloud services from many of our clients and partners, and we’ve brought a great deal online since the launch of LiveAccounts in 2010 – including the big AccountRight Live launch in 2012. In fact, we have to keep adding more servers to cope with increasing demand.

One big development is the growth in demand for our AccountRight Live API amongst developers keen to tap into and support our 1.2 million-plus client business base. Moving on from ODBC, we launched the programmatic API five months ago and already have over 400 API developer partners. We’ve just revamped our developer centre and add-on centre to cater to their expanding needs.

From a company point of view about 40% of our new product registrations are now for cloud products, and we’re continuously adding to our online portfolio which means this number is set to grow in the coming months.

In our SME research we see compelling evidence for the benefits of cloud computing usage in business, such as fuller pipelines and a much greater likelihood of rising annual revenue than those who don’t use it. It’s a great advert for those operators thinking about moving to the cloud, and the result it’s delivering is great for the local economy as well.

Q: Microsoft and MYOB have collaborated closely since 2009. What’s the secret to your strong relationship?
A: In the four years we’ve collaborated closely with Microsoft they’ve really taken the time to fully understand our business challenges and offer ideal solutions addressing these needs. Being able to work together for a prolonged period has allowed us to create an effective working environment, with members of the Azure engineering team often visiting us to provide on-site support. For instance, during product launches we’ve had periods of time where we would meet every day to ensure we were both on track to deliver the absolute best client experience.

Being one of the biggest global users of Windows Azure also has its benefits. Because we’ve got such a great test case of tens of thousands of people and companies, Microsoft will ask us to beta test new product features and feedback, and also encourage us to make new feature requests. Most companies would love to have this level of insight into an organisation the size of Microsoft, so actually having it is a great asset to us and ensures we can offer cutting edge solutions.

At the core, I think the relationship continues to go from strength to strength because each party gets something from it – MYOB helps fine tune Microsoft’s products and the company helps us deliver a market leading service.

Q: You are one of the largest SQL Azure users in the world. What role does Windows Azure SQL Database play in MYOB’s cloud solutions offering? Any speeds and feeds type data?
A: For us, availability, security and performance are critical to the cloud services we deliver, and with Windows Azure SQL we get all three. It’s central to where we store our data and a great insight into how our cloud systems are performing so that we can scale them accordingly. A great example of this is the days when we know clients are most likely to run their payroll, or the most popular dates for running particular reports. We’re able to predict the capacity we’ll need with Windows Azure SQL and scale our systems to meet demand – it’s great for us and even better for our users.

Windows Azure SQL is an area where we’ve collaborated closely with Microsoft. The engineering team is really impressed with how MYOB has instrumented its Windows Azure dashboards, and they’ve used some of these to find out what’s going on within their own systems and how it can be visually expressed. It’s a great example of how we work closely together to develop solutions delivering a complete experience.

Q: End of the financial year has just finished which is one the busiest times of the year for your customers. Can you give us an idea of the scale of Windows Azure during from a scalability perspective? Any speeds and feeds?
A: The peak of the end of financial year period lasts about six weeks, bridging over June 30. Over this period our load ramps up for three weeks to basically double average loads at the peak and then drops back over the next three. All our systems are fully instrumented and we have giant screens up around the place showing stats across various key performance indicators and internal measures.

Our operations guys start a week prior with a plan for the expected schedule and key dates, and start ramping up Windows Azure servers accordingly. Adjustments are made along the way as necessary.

We try to keep around a 20% buffer of capacity above what is actually needed to ensure a smooth performance curve and keep any spikes under control. It’s not as intricate a process as flying the space shuttle… but it’s close!

Q: In May 2013, Microsoft announced its intention to open two Windows Azure regions in Australia. What does this mean from a MYOB and customer perspective?
A: Microsoft’s plans to open two new Windows Azure regions in Australia are the icing on the cake to the services we provide. MYOB is already able to deliver fast response times in the cloud, but when these new regions are live the terrific performance of AccountRight Live will be boosted and we can’t wait to see what that is going to be – it’s awesome news.

Being able to store data in Australia will also put some clients’ minds at rest when it comes to security. This is great news for our existing clients who hold reservations about data sovereignty.