How Slack helps Iress innovate and ship code

Financial software firm slashes email volumes with collaboration platform

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Slack’s communications platform has played a key role in helping Australian-headquartered financial software publisher Iress promote collaboration among its geographically dispersed workforce. However, it is also central to the build pipelines of Iress’ developers as well as playing a key role when it comes to the ops.

Iress launched in Melbourne in the early ’90s. Since then organic growth and a number of acquisitions have helped drive the financial software company’s expansion to South Africa, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand.

Iress has a “huge spread” when it comes to its customer base, Andrew Todd, the company’s chief technology officer, told Computerworld: “All the way from a one-person financial planning business, financial advice, business, through to Lloyd's in the UK or, you know, NAB, CBA in Australia, and big banks in Canada, for example.”

The company employs around 1900 people worldwide, with somewhere between a third and a half of them working in product and tech, according to Todd. “Growth has been pretty strong consistently,” Todd said.

At one time the bulk of Iress’ engineering was split between offices in Melbourne and Sydney. Today around half of the ASX-200 firm’s product engineering teams are based in Australia. Most of the rest are located in the UK, but some are in South Africa.

The CTO said that, traditionally, different locations had been focused on a particular piece of software developed by the company: Melbourne largely takes care of Iress’ market data and trading software, while Sydney developed its advice platform, and the UK teams wored on mortgage sales and origination, as well as software to do protection quoting.

However, what was once a strict geographic division of labour has shifted somewhat. “We have spent time thinking about how we scale and use our people more broadly across Iress,” Todd said. “So we have seeded teams in the UK that work on our advice software; that traditionally was done in Sydney, for example. We have people in Sydney now who are working on the lending software — so we have people working on that software in Australia that traditionally came from the UK.”

Since rolling out Slack around three years ago, the platform has become Iress’ “default way of communicating and collaborating,” the CTO said. The switch to the tool has seen a “huge” drop in internal email volumes. When Slack was implemented at the company, traffic to its (now defunct) intranet cratered.

In Iress’ offices, people are equipped with multiple monitors, and typically one will be dedicated to Slack. “It's on everybody's desk, everybody uses it; it’s the default way to communicate unless you want to have a face-to-face call, in which case you might use Zoom,” Todd said.

Read more: Achieving productivity through alignment and collaboration

“The appeal is that it's easy to set up a channel, get the people that you need to be involved, and to be able to do that on the spot, whether it's on your laptop or on your phone,” the CTO said. “When you're dealing with people on the other side of the world, you can have a message there and it's just instantly accessible. Email can be filled up with so much noise, it's really difficult to work through.”

One place where the tool has shone is the company’s global hackathon, which is staged once a year. This year more than 800 people participated, Todd said

“More and more we see cross-regional, cross-geography teams being set up and operating,” he said. “So we get lots of collaboration around the world.”

Iress also encourages teams to run coder days, he said. “So different teams might run their own mini-hackathon, once a month or once a fortnight, whatever they think is appropriate,” he said. “We encourage that innovation and that collaboration as much as possible, but as an organisation, our global hackathon is the big event.”

The hackathon itself frequently generates near-production-ready ideas, he added. “We really encourage the teams to think about how to get their ideas into production,” he said.

This year’s event ran in early May, and around 15-20 of the ideas from it have made it into production, he said. In some cases, ideas can be rolled out the day after the hackathon, while others may require a week or two of work and “productionising”.

“During the year we’ll still keep encouraging the teams to keep working through their ideas. Some need to go into our product roadmaps and backlogs because they may be big or need different requirements, so there's different ways that we do move them through. But it is important that we get things into production, because the ideas that come from the teams are really good.”

From his perspective, “it would be really difficult to run a global hackathon without Slack,” Todd said. The platform is used to both prepare for and conduct the event.

The collaboration tool is also integrated into day-to-day dev work, the CTO added. Iress uses GitHub for source control, Buildkite for managing pipelines, and SonarQube for static code analysis, as well as a “whole a bunch of other tools in the engineering pipeline,” Todd said.  “They’re all integrated into Slack, so that really helps the different engineering teams understand where their jobs are at.”

Iress in some cases also runs its software on behalf of clients, and Slack plays a role on the ops side.

“Our software can talk back to our Slack and notify us of issues,” Todd said. “If something has a stack trace, for example, we can see that in Slack straightaway. There's lots of tools and bots that the teams have either build or we use off the shelf that plug into Slack to centralise the sources of information.”

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