Jessica Twentyman meets: a betting man taking an online gamble

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman January 22, 2014
The establishment of a development team in Shoreditch will enable William Hill to hire the very best online and mobile talent, says CTO Finbarr Joy.


In early December, a new corporate resident moved into London’s achingly hip Shoreditch district, a few doors down from online printing company and just around the corner from Mind Candy, the spawning ground of the Moshi Monsters, who populate a virtual world that has attracted some 87 million registered users worldwide.

Compared to many of its upstart neighbours, Silicon Roundabout’s new arrival is positively geriatric: this year, betting company William Hill will celebrate its 80th birthday.

But this octogenarian is determined to prove its hipster credentials, with the opening of its new R&D lab on Scrutton Street that, company executives claim, makes it the first company on the FTSE 100 index to move into the area.

Heading up the initiative is company CTO, Finbarr Joy. A relative newcomer to William Hill, Joy was only promoted to the CTO role in November 2013, after just over a year at the company as its head of technology. He also leads the company’s IT teams in Leeds, Gibraltar, Tel Aviv, Sydney and Las Vegas - but right now, the vast majority of his time is spent at Scrutton Street, where 20 developers are now in place, soon to be joined by around 20 more.

The establishment of a team in Shoreditch, he says, will enable William Hill to hire the very best talent available in online and mobile development.

“Mobile technology is moving so rapidly, in terms of the devices and the platforms that our customers use to do business with us,” he says. “We need to make sure not just that our proposition survives these changes, but is also seen to be at the forefront of them. And we can only do that by hiring the brightest minds out there.”

The new Shoreditch premises, he says, are "about developing the next generation of product that will allow us to keep pace with whatever happens in the mobile gambling marketplace.”

The online gamble

So does he feel threatened by the competition posed by younger, online-only gambling companies such as Betfair and Bet365?

“Whenever I answer that question, I’m aware that there’s some risk that I could sound either too complacent or too paranoid,” he laughs. “What I would says it that, while we respect companies from a start-up background, and in particular, their ability to move very quickly in the online world, their challenge lies in monetising new products, and we’ve got a longstanding track record in that respect.”

In fact, even in comparison with its most headline-grabbing, online-only rivals, William Hill looks pretty spry. Alongside its 2,400-strong chain of high-street betting shops across the UK, it still rules the roost in online gambling.

In analyst company GamblingData’s most recent assessment of the UK online gambling market, conducted in mid-2012, William Hill came out on top, with a 15 percent share. BetFair and Bet365 had 11 percent and 9 percent shares, respectively, with offline/online rivals, Paddy Power and Ladbrokes, tying for fourth place, with 8 percent each.

Mobile is a huge - and growing - part of the online gambling picture, and it’s strongest in gaming (Poker, Bingo and casino games), as opposed to betting (gambling on the outcome sporting fixtures and other events, from the gender of soon-to-born royal baby to the winner of a TV talent competition).

While online revenues across both gaming and betting grew only 2 percent in William Hill’s most recent financial quarter, mobile gaming revenues were up 199 percent year-on-year, rising from 14 percent of overall gaming revenues in the first half of the year, to 18 percent in Q3 and 24 percent in Q4.

“Right now, we’re not feeling the pain,” says Joy, of the competition that William Hill faces, “but I would say that, arguably, if we weren’t doing this [in Shoreditch], we might be feeling the pain in a year or two.”

Analysing the odds

Big data analysis is a major part of his remit. “But it’s not another layer of what we do,” he insists. “I want to embed it into all of our efforts. From the moment a product is launched, we’re collecting data on how audiences respond to it. The goal is to react more immediately, in real time where appropriate, to what we find, to continually and consistently improve the user experience.”

He’s not prescriptive, however, in how his team get the insights they need. “We’ll do whatever we need to [do] to allow ourselves some foresight. When it comes to looking at how users place bets and play games online, we’re using NoSQL, we’re using Hadoop. We’ve got some RIAK and we’re using some flavours of Memecache.”

“Right now,” he says, “it’s about finding the best ways to establish those patterns of user behaviour and user experience, but not about looking to standardise [on technology]. I want to allow our teams some freedom in how they establish patterns. With the rate of change we’re seeing in mobile devices, platforms and opportunities, I believe that’s the right approach. I’m certainly not looking at the classic, old-world approach of multimillion pound licenses that we have to negotiate with a vendor and get right first time, at huge upfront cost.”

To  borrow a metaphor from the industry in which he works, does that mean he’s prepared to take a gamble on what works best for William Hill, in terms of staying one step ahead of the pack?

“Absolutely,” he says. “In online and mobile betting, it’s highly unlikely that, on a three to five year scale, we’re going to be able to accurately predict today what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

“So rather than indulging in old-school linear planning processes, we need to have the capability to respond to changes along the course. It’s about having the right work done to provide us with options.”

“What we understand about our customers, and how they interact with us, will help us minimise the risks, keep options open.”

“Does that mean that some options will fail? Absolutely. Some will fail, some will be extraordinarily successful. I just want us to be able to fail fast, recover and get back in the race.”

A grey colored placeholder image