CIO50 2018 #18: Tomas Varsavsky, REA Group
Over the past year, REA Group – the digital media company behind the likes of realestate.com.au, realcommercial.com.au and Flatmates.com.au – has undertaken a major re-platforming program across Australia and Asia.
The aim is to ensure all its platforms “are built right, built smart, and able to rise to the needs of our growing business” says the company’s chief engineer Tomas Varsavsky.
A key component of the program – dubbed BuyX – has been the migration of the web and mobile ‘Buy Channel’ experience from a number of legacy platforms onto a single, new platform.
“Sounds simple? Think again,” Varsavsky says.
The work has involved a team of more than 100 people in technology and business roles across Australia and Asia, using agile delivery methods.
It’s had to happen with no disruption to customers’ property search experience and REA’s core business, a significant challenge considering more than a million people visiting realestate.com.au each day.
“BuyX effectively protects our ability to innovate now and into the future. Now the project has been completed, our product and delivery teams are able to pivot and quickly deliver new experiences to market, as well as implement changes to existing products faster than ever before. Importantly, this will help ensure we protect our revenue streams for future growth,” Varsavsky explains.
Behind BuyX is a suite of internal products that provides the common capabilities on which all external products are built. Collective known as Colab, the tools are “the engine room” enabling customer facing innovation to happen.
“Our product delivery teams can focus on market innovation while Colab takes care of the hygiene,” Varsavsky says.
As well as enabling innovation, solving technology hygiene problems, and the ability to deliver products to market quicker, the project has had a transformative effect on the company.
“It has instilled the mentality within the business of ‘do it once, do it right’ and ensures there is excellent documentation and active custodianship of all products created. It also promotes collaboration across business functions. As one of Australia’s biggest product development companies, this is extremely important,” Varsavsky says.
Colleagues say REA Group – which like all great technology companies began as a start-up in a garage – has managed to maintain its start-up culture and feel while becoming a more than $10 billion company.
At REA Group, the chief engineer role, owns everything that a traditional CIO and CTO typically would.
Varsavsky – who joined REA Group eight years ago as a delivery manager before rising through the ranks into a senior leadership position, and now sits on the executive leadership team – prioritises transparent communication as a key to success.
Wide adoption of Slack has largely replaced email as the main communication channel, while members of the 600 strong IT team are encouraged to share their expertise and experiences on the REA Group tech blog.
Over the last year, Varsavsky has introduced ‘Ask me anything’ sessions to ensure all employees have direct access to the leadership teams to ask questions around strategy, changes and anything on their mind.
“Celebrating both wins and failures is an important part of the REA Group culture,” he says.
The chief engineer has also introduced an annual ‘kick off’ event for the technology community which brings together 450 technology staff for a full day to discuss strategy, collaborate, network, learn new skills and talk all things tech.
That cohort is becoming increasingly diverse thanks to initiatives backed by Varsavsky such as: springboard to tech, accelerated leadership and mentorship programme. These initiatives support women interested in technical careers, and those in technical roles wanting to move into senior leadership positions.
As a result, since December last year, the company has “moved the dial on our gender diversity ratio”. The proportion of women in technology roles has risen from 19 per cent to 26 per cent, with further progress expected over 2019.
Despite his huge successes, Varsavsky admits from suffering Imposter Syndrome, saying that he believed his accomplishments “were the result of luck as opposed to talent”. He has learned though that “a lot of people learn on the job - even when you’re in a leadership position”.
Nevertheless, he has remained bold, he says: “It’s a hard leadership trait to learn, but being bold makes you stand out of the group”.
“Be empathetic and understanding, but also to embrace your own ideas, have original thought, and most importantly don’t die wondering,” he adds.