CIO

Foreign exchange firm OFX does Agile right

Methodology gains currency throughout the business after staff felt short-changed by initial efforts.

When Craige Pendleton-Browne arrived at ASX-listed foreign exchange firm OFX in late 2015, the technology team was already doing Agile. Or at least, they thought they were.

What that really was, was a bit of chaos actually,” remembers Pendleton-Browne, OFX’s chief technology officer. “It wasn’t really Agile for me.”

The result of a consultancy’s earlier visit had led to the creation of small teams working on small chunks of work.

“They didn't have any concept of what I would call product owners or any concept of actually setting scrum teams or making people accountable for decisions that get made in terms of prioritisation,” Pendleton-Browne told CIO Australia.

The inevitable lack of tangible benefits from the pseudo-methodologies was beginning to make OFX’s employees and executive doubt Agile’s advantages.

But now, 18 months later, Scrum-style Agile has been adopted across the technology team and is fast spreading to other business units. Internal metrics indicate significant output gains and in the last financial year alone there were 50 features delivered with this new approach. Putting customers first and responding to their ever-changing needs has become the new norm.

“That cultural change of empowering people, creating a culture where people feel they can all contribute, that takes time. But we are well on that journey,” Pendleton-Browne says. “I see us evolving really nicely now.”

All change

OFX began in a garage in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, as a website that compared foreign exchange rates. The company soon launched its own money transfer services, expanding to the UK, US, Canadian and Hong Kong markets, and in 2013 listed on the ASX as OzForex.

Since then OFX (as it is now known) has been scaling-up and now boasts of 156,700 active clients making a total of 3,380 transfers each day.

Faced with some disappointing recent results and the resignation in February of CEO Richard Kimber, the company believes that investment in technology and customers’ digital experience will help it weather often volatile trading conditions. As the company’s new CEO John Malcolm summed it up, the company is now about: “great people, great technology, teamwork, clear thinking”.

Shortly before Pendleton-Browne joined the company in 2015 – following roles as CTO for News Digital Media, head of content and digital for News Corp Australia and CTO of iCareHealth, Australia’s leading provider of residential aged care software – OFX had made some attempts to adopt Agile.

But hopes of improving the cycle-time of releases, so the customer experience could be constantly improved upon and refined, went unrealised.

“There was a camp in technology and product that was going ‘Please help, this isn't working as effectively as it could be’. And then the business camp that was going ‘I'm not getting the delivery that I was expecting to get by going with this so-called Agile thing’,” Pendleton-Browne says.

Burned by a lack of outcomes, Pendleton-Browne noticed a growing scepticism towards the working practice within teams.

“There was scepticism: We're meant to be agile but it is really delivering on what what it should be delivering on? Are we really getting the productivity gains that we should have gotten?” he says.

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Call in coach

Unusually for a company of OFX’s size – around 300 employees across six offices – an Agile coach was hired full-time.

"It's fundamentally about changing culture, changing behaviour and changing the way people think, so it's a really really important role for us,” Pendleton-Browne says.

There's a big change from the 'tell people what to do' piece to ‘help people unblock their issues’. That command and control structure doesn't work for me in an Agile environment. It disempowers those teams.

The new scrum-based way of working is resulting in big releases like a new tool for online sellers released late last year, as well as small improvements like the refined customer registration journey across all of OFX’s websites, which has removed unnecessary forms and documentation.

Craige Pendleton-Browne, CTO at OFX
Craige Pendleton-Browne, CTO at OFX

Releases are made monthly – mainly due to restrictions from legacy systems – and are the result of a far more collaborative process. That will improve further as the company completes its transition to the cloud and moves production and development to  Amazon Web Services. The ‘velocity of features delivered’ is improving every quarter. Teams that bring together product and technology focused individuals are developing cultures of their own too.

"Teams are taking accountability, teams are owning not only their own roadmap but their own culture and own way of working,” Pendleton-Browne says. "The conversations are a lot more mature now rather than ‘how do I just get stuff done’ conversations.”

Scrum one, scrum all

With the technology team having now fully embraced scrum working practices, Agile fever is spreading across the wider OFX business. That makes a lot of sense and leads to better results, Pendleton-Browne explains.

“There’s always disconnect if you don’t get Agile working up into the business, and cost and complexity in managing that overlap. I love my engineers questioning the product owners, or when an engineer will go ‘I know you’re trying to do this, but if we did this which is slightly different it would be ten times faster’: where we’ve had a debate and the solution ends up being a better solution because of the debate,” he says.

A walk through OFX’s Sydney offices, and visitors will see work-in-progress boards up in other business units.

"Marketing have a wall up the top. I've just noticed finance this last week has put a wall up, and our customer service team has got a wall up as well. It is spreading," Pendleton-Browne says.

As well as improved products and more frequent releases, Agile has brought an ethic of transparency and collaboration to the entire business.

“We are very transparent in terms of what we are committed to and what we've delivered against. It takes time,” Pendleton-Browne says. "But the pace of change now is even going quicker than the pace of change when we started. I'm really happy with where we are.”