Data, diversity, developers - 3D thinking from Atlassian CIO Archana Rao

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett September 26, 2019
CIO shares tips on attracting tech talent and squeezing more from IT resources

Arachna Rao

Australian developer tools vendor Atlassian recently unveiled new cloud offerings for its Jira work management and Confluence team knowledge products, as part of a play to transition customers to the cloud. I sat down with the firm’s CIO, Archana Rao, on the back of a series of global customer tours to hear about the key technology challenges facing businesses, and how Atlassian is dealing with its own rapid expansion.

According to Rao, data is one of the major challenges for all businesses. Companies like Netflix and Amazon, which capitalize on data and manage it really well, are able to achieve a certain level of loyalty with their customers, Rao noted:

That is really becoming the number one differentiator for companies today. IT has the responsibility with all that data coming in to have trusted, reliable, complete data sets that allow business leaders to drive analytics and to drive these insights into what's happening in the company, what's happening with our customers, what's happening in the marketplace, how behaviors are changing and really responding to it rapidly. If you use this as an opportunity - it's a challenge too - but if you think of it as an opportunity, you can really change the outcome for your business.

Fortunately for Atlassian, it was built from the ground up as a data-driven business and so is in a prime position to take advantage of these opportunities. Rao said:

The founders always wanted data at their fingertips to make the right call on what features get developed into the product, how we interact with our customers. That’s sort of become the DNA of the company. I inherited it and I couldn't believe my luck because every company I've been in, that is the hardest thing to get right – having data as a foundation as part of how the company operates.

Right from the time we were a 100-people company to now a 3000-people company, if you have a new product, a new acquisition, a new system that's coming in, the first question that's asked is - this needs to feed into Socrates [Atlassian’s data foundation, built on top of AWS]. We need to always know how a product is being used, what our customers are doing with it, and how we can continually enrich it through data.

Atlassian is currently experiencing about 35% year on year growth, but rather than shift all its focus to customer relations and developing the product base, much of the firm’s investment goes into keeping its data foundation high quality, complete and reliable. After all, if firms don’t have that layer, there’s not much point trying to use technologies like AI or machine learning, Rao explained:

If you don't have a good foundation for your data, so it's not every set, every product data, marketing data, finance data all coming into one place, and it's trusted and reliable and it's high quality data - if you don't have that foundation right, you can put anything on top of it and you're not going to get the real value. Finance will be saying, no, my numbers look wrong, marketing will be saying, no, this is what the numbers are, and nobody in the company would agree on the analytics number or anything they put on top of it.

If you need some data for a report and you're making a presentation tomorrow morning, and you can pull it five minutes before and it's available and it's real time - that is really hard to get right. If you have that right, you can put anything on top of it. We believe in the democratization of data. We have a strong data foundation and on top of that you could have any analytics tool. Engineering uses a different tool, marketing uses a different one, and it doesn't really matter because the data is common and the data is high quality and complete. Different organizations and different teams have to look at data differently.

Shifting function

Aside from data, the other topic that cropped up repeatedly during Rao’s customer conversations was the shift of the IT function. All companies are going through some kind of transformation, whatever their operating sector, according to Rao, while the move to the cloud means the IT department has come out of the closet from the data center to the front of the business. Organizations now need to adapt to the new ways in which people want to work, and IT is central to this – and so they’re being asked to play a role where they have an opportunity to be a revenue generator.

But to do that, IT teams need to think more like business leaders when it comes to technology projects, said Rao:

Today, no business leader, no CEO, has the patience for two- or three-year old projects. You can tell them, okay, to get this done will take two years and hundreds of millions of dollars - that's too long. Technology would have changed by then, the industry would have changed by then, your own company would have changed by then. So nobody has the patience for these long drawn-out projects.

Instead, IT projects need to be broken down into smaller chunks and deliverables, so firms can respond to change. For this, Rao recommends taking the Agile approach.:

We're seeing that shift in every industry, every sector, you're seeing people embrace an Agile Devops methodology. They want to realize value sooner and in smaller chunks, but also to adapt and change as the environment and the industry changes. You're still heading towards that end goal but the path can shift while picking up more value along the way for the business rather than that straight-line linear approach - I said I was going to do this two years ago and that's what I'm going to do, I don't care if you don't get the value. That is no longer going to be acceptable to anyone in any industry.

Those firms sticking with the old ways of doing things won’t be able to capitalize on changes in the marketplace and risk getting left behind. However, to do Devops well, unfortunately there is no handy steps 1-10 to follow to get it right. Firms instead need to try it out, tweak the processes and get better over time:

It's a very difficult journey because it's not just about technology, it's about people and behaviors and what you’re used to doing. So it does take a mindset change within the company and that's the larger challenge than just implementing the technology to do that.

Once IT teams have overcome that mindset hurdle, the next step is how to optimize technology systems, and continue to squeeze the resources required to run them, he added: 

You optimize systems so that your talent, your capacity is working on more and more new builds over time. But that's the hardest thing to get right, because you stand up so many systems and now your cost of running it takes up your entire team. People quote numbers like 70%, 80%. My goal in Atlassian is below 40%. This year, we're pushing the 40-mark, so can we get to 30 percent no matter how much change you put into the system? Can you get your run to be a small portion of your talent’s capacity so that your talent is now working on building and standing up new things? We’re doing things like automation and leveraging technology to really drive efficiency.”

Growth plans

Freeing up resources to work on new projects is critical for Atlassian, as it continues its rapid expansion. The firm has between 300 and 400 open vacancies at any given point, and around 1,000 people have been hired over the last year. Rao said the firm has the advantage when it comes to recruiting top talent of its reputation as an open, transparent, collaborative company, not borne out of the hierarchical structures of old:

If I have a new project idea, that has to be open to the entire company. Anyone can come to my space in Confluence and find what I'm thinking about, what's my strategy, how am I doing on my metrics. All of that is available to the whole company. It's very unusual, and I was a little nervous about this. But then I saw how everybody, every other leader is doing it, and people actually comment on it in a way that is helpful. So that's how collaboration happens in the company.

Everyone that joins the company writes a welcome blog within the first month and the whole company has access to it. This is my background, my family, what I'm passionate about, the kind of tech I'm interested in and people will comment on it and like it. Our intranet is essentially all the top-voted articles or pages that people might have written about topics that vary from health issues all the way to something that we should be looking at getting into and what our customers are saying about us.

This way of working is perfectly in tune with the Gen Y generation, who are used to operating in an open, social, mobile way for their personal and professional lives:

It kind of keeps the company young. The company has been a big factor in attracting talent because people talk to their friends, they talk to the juniors in college. That is one of the big levers we have in attracting talent, especially talent from the universities, we have a big program on interns and grad hiring.”

Along with its culture of openness, Atlassian’s intent to lead the market on sustainability should also help attract new tech talent looking for employers who pay more than just lip service to social responsibility. The firm hit the headlines this week as it became the first major Australian company to sign up to the UN’s Business Ambition for 1.5C and adopt a target of net zero emissions by no later than 2050.

Atlassian also uses conferences like the Grace Hopper Celebration to ensure it is recruiting diverse talent, said Rao:

It's about getting that diversity of thought because the backgrounds you come from, the way you've been raised, you come at a problem from different directions and it helps drive better decisions, help drive better outcomes. I like to have a different mix that people approach a problem from different directions and you can get much more solid solutions than if everybody is exactly like you and would come at a problem exactly the same way.

My take

Grand technology ambitions and laudable diversity goals. Atlassian has enjoyed heady growth since its launch in 2002 with $10,000 of credit card debt to support it. The company is now valued at $27 billion, with more than 3,000 employees serving over 130,000 customers worldwide. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.