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Atomic change and the future of Technology at Zip


George Gorman


November 11, 2022

Atomic change and the future of Technology at Zip

I’m a big believer in the concept of ‘atomic’ change. That’s to say, thousands of small changes which can have a massively impactful compound effect, versus one large ‘big bang’ change. Throughout my career, I’ve had success leading large transformation programs and helping organisations achieve their next levels of growth. What I’ve learned through these engagements is that the larger the block of change you’re trying to effect, the less successful it usually is.

Because by the time you get to execution, having spent a lot of time thinking what it is you want to do and then planning how to do it, what you’re about to implement is no longer relevant; the problem you are trying to solve has changed, but your solution has not, resulting in a series of deltas you have to re-align for. What you get is just a constant drift in replanning; wasted effort and ineffective change.

On the flip side, where I’ve led change successfully, it’s been because we’ve made many smaller ‘atomic’ changes; constant improvements based on learnings. And if one of those changes fails, it's a small stumble rather than a big fall. It’s also about a shift in mindset. Rather than focusing our energy on working out why a problem came about, we should focus on what the best outcome looks like and how we’re going to get there.

Time spent worrying about who’s to blame for problems only limits an employee’s willingness to call out areas of improvement, whereas an attitude of ‘where to from here’ encourages more of these ‘atomic’ improvements. People feel they can contribute in a safer space, and will learn and grow from ‘small stumbles’.

Reflecting on my first three months as CTO of Zip

When I join any new organisation, I consider myself the least knowledgeable person in that setting, so my first two months are always about listening and discovery. I studied Statistics at Uni, so I love looking at metrics and clusters of data and trying to derive meaning from them. As part of these listening sessions, I ask my colleagues three things; ‘What are we doing well?’, ‘What are we doing less well?’, and ‘What should we stop doing?’.

Looking at clusters of things we’re not doing well enables us to get a plan together for how we can mature to improve them in the short to mid-term. Clusters around ‘stop doing’ are usually the most emotive and personal to people. If you find a consistent cluster of feedback related to one topic that a number of people have raised issues with, you need to act immediately and consult with them in order to resolve it. Of course, equally important are the clusters related to the things we’re doing well. We should do our best not to devalue that work with change, and look to nurture it, not squash it.

Insight into all three questions has enabled us to feed objectively as a group into our strategy, team structure and budget for the coming year. Highlights I’m happy to share include targeting QE uplift, improved monitoring and test coverage, and a renewed focus on Strategic and Architectural planning and decisions for scalable, sustainable growth. It’s also about getting the alignment right between the triad of Product, Design and Delivery, all while nurturing our team culture and overarching ambition to ship customer-first features at Zip speed.

I believe passionately in our squads retaining autonomy to achieve the best success in their areas. But as we continue to scale, these interdependencies do require the adoption of some common frameworks, standards and principles by which teams deliver, communicate and measure themselves. So we will see a growth of common principles around quality, monitoring, SRE, architecture and tooling to enable our multiple teams to work more effectively together at scale.

Creating Technology practices that are seamless, secure and sustainable

One of the big pulls to joining Zip, aside from the many passionate and knowledgeable people I met through the recruitment process, is the opportunity I see ahead. Zip is a big player in a market that is maturing, which means there’s a whole journey still ahead for Zipsters and our communities of customers and merchants as we scale in a vastly growing market.

We have experienced very successful growth, made the right moves and were rewarded in previous years where investors could gain access to cheap funds. However, with interest rates climbing, funding investment is more expensive, and so those who invest are moving to profit-making investments with more immediate returns. This means that Zip has to move from a mindset of ‘anything for growth’ to one that’s laser-focused on profit for the next two years, or at least until the market recovers from global inflation and begins to reward growth again.

That doesn’t mean we’re just cutting costs. No business grows by cutting. But as a business and a Technology team we are focused on optimising our operations, delivery processes and tools. And we’ll be making our solutions more resilient, performant and cost-efficient so that we’re able to scale faster without waste when the market turns.

We’re a Technology business so if we're going to make that leap to be truly optimised and truly scalable, we need to enable technology that supports our products, and our business. This year we’re building out a team that will make sustainable, long-term decisions and ship solutions in a secure way. That’s crucial as we’re an ASX-listed financial services business, making us an attractive target of cyber attacks, from individual or state-led bad actors.

And finally, as a team we need to live our ‘Customer First’ Value, by creating seamless experiences for our customers, keeping them at the heart of every decision we make. For me that’s about greater resilience; quality testing up front, observability of critical customer journeys and being able to respond very quickly to issues identified before the customer is even aware of them.

But it’s also about understanding our customers intimately in terms of their day-to-day. I encourage my leadership team to regularly shadow our amazing Customer Experience team when they’re on calls to hear the voice of the customer first-hand.

And that’s where the concept of ‘atomic change’ comes to the #f6f6ee. Everything from the tools that we use, to the security and maintenance of our ongoing operations, to the quality and observability of our delivery - these are all on the roadmap and already becoming the focus of multiple small changes improving everything we do.

The traits that are critical to our success

We’re an eclectic bunch at Zip, and across the team, we have many different skill sets in terms of languages and platforms used. But the primary skills we need to deliver our strategy aren’t necessarily just language or platform-based. It goes much deeper than that. They’re the types of skills that can’t be learned. What really matters to me is passion. That’s the number one thing I look for. Whenever I interview someone, I ask them what they’re passionate about. And I don’t care whether they’re into African basket weaving, their kids’ netball, machine learning or React, I just want them to be passionate about something. When you've got people who are passionate, they pass that on to everything else they do. It's infectious, and the people they have around them also want to perform and be passionate about those things.

The second thing I expect of Zipsters is teamwork, and the third most important is the creativity that comes from teamwork. Technology tends to attract many more introverted characters, those who like to focus on very specific problems or be part of smaller groups. And in architecture, development, or testing, clearly sometimes you’re going to need individual time to focus on something very specific to solve the problem. But I don't want people who can only do that. I don’t look for ‘solo-warriors’, the types who go about fixing the thing themselves so that nobody else knows how to, become crutches and constraints to scaling up. I need them to be sharers, working as a team. I expect them to be open to helping others lift up to the same level they are, so we’re not reliant on that one person who ends up becoming a ‘blocker’.

When you get people working as a team, you also get a diversity of thought which starts to breed innovation. One of the other reasons I was very attracted to Zip is our value of ‘Stronger Together’. I genuinely believe that when you get a group together, and you create that safe space for diversity of thought, you’re always going to get better solutions to a problem, which inevitably means you are making more informed and creative decisions.

Why the future’s bright for Zipsters

The next 18 months are all about strengthening our core at Zip, so we’re in a position to scale rapidly once global markets return from fighting inflation, we have a solid strategy underpinning everything we do, and have the cash in the bank to easily see us there. It's going to take a lot of hard work to mature and optimise how we operate, but the personal and professional development opportunities for us all during this time will be exceptional.

I’m convinced that Zipsters who commit to being a part of this 18-month journey (and beyond) will come out the better for it. Looking forward, by then we’ll be one of the only profitable BNPL businesses, providing us with options, and allowing us to scale rapidly with renewed investment and confidence.

We have a special team here at Zip, a group of passionate people who play to win, rather than play not to lose. That doesn’t mean we’re reckless, it means we’re willing to give it a go. We may stumble and fall occasionally, but no business has achieved greatness by not taking risks. For us, it means taking risks in an informed way, learning fast and getting better via atomic changes, challenging every little thing we do, and always asking ourselves ‘Is this the best outcome we can expect?’.

The compound effect of thousands of these ‘atomic changes’ will set our teams up for success, and mean Zip is well placed for rapid sustainable growth in the future.

We are currently hiring for a number of roles across our Engineering portfolios, and welcome applications from passionate Technologists whether based in Sydney, Melbourne or remote.

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