Discover Performance

HP Software's community for IT leaders // September 2014
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Elance-oDesk matches vision and speed as a software-driven business

Connecting freelance workers to employers worldwide, and providing their work-management platform, means being ever faster, and ever smarter.

Increasingly, companies are finding that their software—their apps, their customer support tools, their website—is the determining factor for user satisfaction. While that’s true for companies delivering hard goods, it’s even more important for companies whose services are entirely facilitated by software.
 
Elance.com and oDesk.com are the leading online marketplaces for matching businesses with freelancers, helping them manage work and facilitate payments. The two companies recently merged, creating Elance-oDesk, and their combined efforts serve a global community of more than 8 million freelancers and 2.5 million businesses across 180 countries, with an estimated $900+ million in billings expected in 2014.


Jonathan Diller
Like many global businesses that operate primarily online, Elance-oDesk relies heavily on software to drive its continued success. Discover Performance talked with Jonathan Diller, vice president of Enterprise Solutions, about the increasing importance of software in helping his business meet its strategic goals in a fast, competitive marketplace.

Q: How does software drive your success?

Jonathan Diller: Our vision is to connect the world’s talent with great opportunities for work—removing typical barriers and friction by leveraging technology in unique ways. Our challenge lies in the fairly complex process of successfully matching opportunity and skill sets up front, then carefully managing the work, tracking results, and coordinating payments all over the world. The complexity of what we do is pretty surprising.
 
From a technology standpoint, we aim to simplify the user experience as much as possible—delighting users and helping them truly get value from our services. It’s a technical challenge to design features that accomplish this and bring parties together to achieve their specific objectives.

Q: So how does the development process actually work at Elance-oDesk? If someone identifies an opportunity for improving the customer experience, for example, how is that accomplished?

JD: At the highest level, we have a very well-defined vision for where we’re taking our technology and features. Of course, we’re always collecting feedback from various areas of our business and from our community of users. Once we evaluate their input and weigh it against our larger vision, we use an Agile development process to ensure that we can quickly develop and iterate on new features, get them released, and monitor their impact. We release new features on a limited basis, with flags, and use the feedback and data we collect to make improvements before releasing to the entire user base.

[Read our Apps sidebar for more details of Elance-oDesk’s approach to Agile.]

Q: So you’re combining a strong top-down vision with a great deal of developer autonomy…

JD: Right. It starts at the top in terms of establishing the vision of where the company is going over the next 12 to 18 months, and what product features need to be developed to achieve that vision. For example, one of our focus areas of innovation currently is improving the match—the match is similar to online dating, in that the best possible matched people are trying to find each other, except much more advanced because, even after the match is made, they continue their relationship via our site. This gives us a lot of data about what drives successful outcomes, which we use to create better matches up front. Essentially, we want to significantly improve how businesses find talent, decreasing the time it takes to make a hire and realize value.
 
Any new product feature is always bounced against that high-level roadmap. We’ve empowered the Agile teams to focus on various areas, whether it’s hiring or work management in our online workplace, and to make decisions around feature development. Each Agile team has a product manager, a lead engineer, a product marketing manager, and a QA developer. These teams are encouraged to make decisions at the feature level, so long as it’s in line with the overall vision.

Q: And that lets you deploy faster, with less risk of launching some big disaster?

JD: We deploy to production in small batches every day. We use a fairly classic Agile scrum methodology, and all Agile teams operate in synchronized biweekly sprints. During the sprint cycle, teams work on their features on a single branch that is not likely shared with other teams and with minimal executive oversight. We have involved processes for merging code branches with our main branch to ensure a smooth and seamless transition.

Q: You mention monitoring the impact of these new features. A challenge for a software-driven organization has to be wrestling with Big Data. Are you learning to drill deeper into your data?

JD: Definitely. With the volume of work that happens via our platform on a daily basis, we collect a huge amount of data. Up front, we track the number of filled jobs and how placement of our recommended matches affects fill rate. Down the road, we can see whether those recommended hires were successful, which is obviously the most important metric. Before we fully turn on a feature for the entire population, we compare performance of the control state to the new feature and decide whether to roll it out to everyone.

Q: Big Data has presented a sharply rising challenge for many businesses. Has your approach had to change in recent years?

JD: We’ve always had a lot of data by virtue of our marketplace and have been focused on performance and improving outcomes. I do think we’re getting smarter at using the data we have about people’s preferences—whether a client traditionally hires locally or abroad, or whether they usually look for high-end expertise or value. We’re taking a lot of behavioral input now from both businesses and freelancers and learning to improve the matches. 
 
It goes beyond analytics. It’s about taking the data we have and predicting outcomes from actions that we can take on that data. We recommend freelancers with attributes based on inputs we have from the behavioral profiles from both parties. If we’re making those recommendations, we should be able to predict the impact and the outcome of those recommendations.

Q: Your business has now grown in size and scale to the point where the challenge of legacy systems can disrupt speed and innovation. How do you maintain agility and responsiveness?

JD: Like many software-driven businesses today, we have to deal with technical debt—the need to maintain legacy systems while making decisions about refactoring code all the time. We base those decisions primarily on user requirements and whether we can achieve the stated goals without refactoring.

Q: As a business whose success is so driven by your software interface, what are your three biggest challenges moving forward?

JD: I think our biggest challenge is ensuring high-quality matches—having the highest quality talent to meet the needs of the businesses hiring on our platforms in a way that really drives great outcomes for both. That’s definitely challenge number one.
 
Next, we need to continually focus on improving the user experience, from a technology standpoint, to make it really easy for companies to find the talent they need—wherever and whenever they need it. For our freelancers, we are working to ensure they find the right opportunities right at the moment they have the availability. User experience is at the core of everything we do.
 
The third challenge we’re now seeing is more and more large enterprises embracing our “private talent cloud” model as part of their overall staffing strategy. To support this, we are heavily focused on improving how we vet talent, meeting these businesses’ compliance needs, maintaining the highest quality, and providing the visibility and controls these companies require.
 
For more on Elance-oDesk, please visit www.elance-odesk.com.
 
For more on discovering success with Agile development, download the Forrester white paper, “Finding Agility in the Age of Applications,” from our Agile enterprise toolkit (reg. req'd). Learn about building on a true Big Data platform at hp.com/haven.


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