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*APAC Heritage Month* This is Your Tech Leader Speaking

Presented by Gretchen Scott, Rob Sharp
Originally aired on 

Digivizer is Australia's leading social technology company. Today we are lucky enough to spend time with their CTO, Rob Sharp, to discuss what's on his mind.

APAC Heritage Month

Transcript (Beta)

Hi there, I'm Gretchen. Thanks for joining us for today's session of This is your Technologist Speaking.

So this is a series of talks with local APAC industry leaders. I've been lucky enough to fill the guest list with technologists that have a huge amount of knowledge and also leadership experience.

So our guest today is a continuous learner, or a self-hater, I can't tell.

He's competent in many, many things, including digital marketing, data analytics, growth engineering, and even backyard farming.

So based on this, I feel like we could throw anything at him, even doughnuts.

Apparently he enjoys eating those. But he's got over 15 years of experience and very senior technical roles.

So I'd like to welcome Rob Sharp from Digivisor.

Hi Gretchen. Thanks for coming and getting up early. So we've only got half an hour, so I'm very keen to dive right in.

You've been at Digivisor for quite some time.

What did Digivisor actually do? So Digivisor, I think Digivisor is about 10 years old.

I've been there for five. And whilst I think the, I guess the product that Digivisor now has, has kind of pivoted and changed over the time I've been there.

The missions kept sort of remarkably consistent. So what we're trying to do is help businesses understand their digital footprint.

What that means has kind of changed quite a bit over time, but essentially what we're doing is allowing any business of any size to come in and have a look at how their social, how their paid marketing, how their website and how all of these things hang together and give a sort of holistic view of exactly how their business is performing.

We're going down the path of, I guess we've got sales performance or digital sales performance.

It's a way of creating a kind of holistic view of all of the things that affect, you know, the digital sales that happen in your business.

So that's kind of in a nutshell what we do. We've also got, there's kind of two parts to Digivisor.

So I work on the product SaaS part, but we also have an agency part as well.

So we have a team of people who work on paid performance, content creation, thought leadership, lots of different parts, but I think it's kind of a, you know, an ecosystem of sorts because, you know, we experienced the real world problems that agencies and businesses experience on one side and we aim to solve them on the others on the product side.

So, yeah, it's an interesting business.

I really like that because so often you get those two pieces separately, right?

Like someone gives you back some metrics and you go, oh, I'm not very good or I need some help in this area.

And they go, yep, up you go. And there's disconnect between how do I make changes?

Yeah, that's it. So it's like, it's all the sort of real world experience that we've had managing, you know, a lot of big, a lot of big clients, but a lot of small ones as well.

You know, back when I started, the clients looked like, you know, your Microsoft or your Lenovo's, your Berilla's, whereas now we've got a lot of, you know, Australian businesses that are, you know, doing well, but, you know, they're much smaller.

They're selling online using Shopify.

You know, they might have a handful of bricks and mortar stores, but, you know, the profile of the customer has definitely shifted.

And again, you know, running a SaaS model, you know, we want to make that kind of technology accessible to everyone, not just, you know, those who've got, you know, bags of money and can afford to, you know, yeah, you know, drop, you know, thousands every month on their analytics platforms.

We want something that's affordable for smaller businesses too.

And that's a great point. I think you have to be a bit more strategic and a bit more cunning if you like, if you've got a lower budget and you want to have a presence online these days.

Yeah. Sorry, you go. No, yeah.

Everyone wants to know the hacks, right? It's, you know, the conversation is always, you know, how do I hack this?

You know, how do I growth hack? You know, everyone wants to look for the sort of the cheat modes, if you like, to get the results.

And, you know, sometimes those exist, but, you know, sometimes it's, you know, it's as simple as having good content that is interesting to people and, you know, they enjoy and they eventually become customers because, you know, they're talking to you in a way that's authentic and you're solving a problem that they have and they believe you can solve it.

So, you know, yeah, there's hacks, but then there's, you know, sometimes it's just good work.

So, you know, it's a balance.

Do you know when you said at the start about it lets you analyze your profile, I was thinking, it'd be so interesting to do that to your actual personal online profiles and see what it looks like, but also horrifying.

So let's not do that.

Yeah, I keep mine well away from Digivisor. Off to the side. Hey, so before 2020, you were a co-located team.

I know you're tight-knit, you're in the office and now you've all been forced to work remotely.

What are you going to stay remote or what kind model are you running now?

So I think, yes, broadly. Sorry, excuse me, two seconds.

Broadly, yes, but I think what's important to realize is that, you know, Digivisor itself has always been or always had, I guess, a sort of a working from home capability going back even to when I started.

I think working from home is, I mean, I don't know if it's a relatively new phenomenon, but, you know, the first time I saw it was when I started at Yahoo, which was going back a long time ago.

And that was the first place I went that actually had an official working from home policy as they'd actually set up everything where you could VPN in and whatnot.

And we had to use that now and again when the air conditioning broke or whatever, and, you know, it was got too hot in the office.

So that was the first time I'd experienced that. But, you know, Digivisor has always been very, very flexible.

And we've always had people who worked remote as well.

And, you know, even just on the outskirts of Sydney or, you know, we've got people now who are, you know, they're in Australia, they've got Bathurst, we've got someone in Melbourne, you know, so they're like, not remote, remote, but, you know, what's essentially happened is that we've always had that capability.

And especially in the, I guess, the product and engineering team, that capability has always been there.

And obviously, when we were kind of forced out of the office, essentially, there was a big shift.

And I think for product and engineering, it wasn't as big a shift as for, you know, everyone else effectively.

Because, you know, being in front of our machines, coding, we do a lot of collaboration through documentation.

And, you know, there was face to face, but there was a lot of what we were doing was about writing stuff online, recording, collaborating that way anyway.

So for my team, it was a shift for sure. But I think the biggest kind of, you know, shock was felt in people who were always in the office, who were always collaborating, you know, at a desk or around a laptop.

And all of a sudden, you're basically forced into this new way of working.

And, you know, I think you lose a lot of the shortcuts, I think, you know, when you're when you're in the office, you can kind of you get there's a vibe, if you like, you know, when something's not going well, you know, you can hear it, you can go over and assist.

But when you're online, you've, you know, you don't have that. So, you know, you got to ramp up that communication to, you know, 11, or whatever, just to make sure that everyone is across everything that's happening.

And I think that was a that was a big shift that was felt by the by the rest of the business.

And I think effectively, they were looking to the product engineering team for assistance there, you know, how do they do it?

So we explored a whole bunch of different tools.

And, you know, we've settled in a pattern. But I think the biggest shift has been in the communication, but then also in the sort of the documentation and the follow up as well, you know, that that short, that shorthand of shortcuts that I was talking about before, you know, writing a postnote, leaving on someone's desk or having your task list in your in your book that that works when when you're all co located, but all of a sudden, you've got to move everything online.

So it was like large scale adoption of tools and services that were able to, I guess, remove the friction there, make sure that everyone could understand where everyone else was working.

And yeah, it's been it's been it's been pretty successful.

We actually we, we, we had at the start of this year, we were talking about moving back into the office.

And so the office was available, everything was set up.

And then the surprising thing was that nobody went into the office.

People were like, Oh, we can we can we can all go back in, like, hey, and then no one turns up, or very few people turn up.

And what we realized is that the reason people were actually going into the office was purely from the collaboration point of view.

So they would go in, they would hold workshops. So you know, what we what we would see is, you know, they would book out a morning or something in a meeting room, they would go in, they'd be around a whiteboard, they'd collaborate there, they'd collate all the results, and then they would all go back home.

So you know, what we realized is that the office was being used less as a sort of a day to day place of work, and more as this sort of collaboration space.

So that's kind of like through a series of happy coincidences.

We actually let go of the office earlier this year, the building changed hands, so we had the option to not have an office.

And since you know, we were in that position, it was like, okay, sure.

So now we've got this, we've got this. So working from home is normal. But what we're doing is making sure that they're regular, regular opportunities to meet with people and to work with people.

So we've got, we've been fish barners a couple of times, we've got, we've got an office space that we, you know, we have, you know, a day a week that we just we have a couple of rooms there, people book in, and they come in with their teams.

So it's kind of like this, this hybrid mode now where, you know, we're generally working from home.

But we also want to encourage people to, you know, have that that face to face conversation as well, because we found that even the collaboration tools and, you know, collaboration online generally has increased dramatically.

And you know, there's some there's some shining examples of businesses, you know, like get lab, for example, they're fully remote.

And they are incredibly disciplined at doing all of their collaboration online, everything's documented, and you know, they can work fully remote or fully asynchronous all the time.

But I think, to be honest, that that transition is, you know, that's a real step change for selling for us probably for a lot of businesses.

So this sort of hybrid mode sits in the middle where we do, we're much, much better at documenting much, much better at making sure that everything we do is online and our visibility is there, but still having that sort of collaborative creative mode, where people just come into the office.

Plus, we've got regular end of month now as well.

So we're hiring a space each month, and everyone comes in and, you know, there's drinks and food and stuff and people head out afterwards and whatnot.

So it's about keeping that kind of that social aspect, which we found people who are coming into the office when it was available, they wanted to, you know, for social reasons, as much as anything else, you know, they just liked being around people.

And, you know, that's natural, I think.

So it's facilitating the both of them, right. So yeah, that's where we've ended up.

We adopted quite a few tools over that time. You know, one of the, we tried so many, but you know what, we ended up, we ended up one of the one of the favorite ones is actually VS Code, plus, plus Hangouts or Meet or whatever it's called these days.

But what we ended up doing, we, like, I guess, might be worth talking about what we've done in our hiring over the past year, because we've actually onboarded, one of the tricky things was, was onboarding new people.

You know, obviously, you bring them in the office, you know, you walk them around the office, show them where the bathrooms are, where the kitchen is, that kind of thing.

The online onboarding is, you know, a little bit different, because, you know, you have to book in the sort of the FaceTime with everybody.

And the hard part, I think, with the online onboarding was, especially how do you, how do you get someone up to speed in that, you know, that first few weeks?

You know, how do you, you know, as a, you know, as a kind of a senior engineer, I would typically have someone who was started, you know, under my wing, if you like, they'd be sitting at the desk, constantly pairing, working through things.

And, you know, having that same experience was, was tricky, at least initially.

But what we actually uncovered was, I talked about tools and VS code and meet and whatnot.

But I think one of the, one of the things that we found was really good was actually more of a process.

It was introduced to me years ago as something called mob programming, but it's since been renamed to ensemble programming.

And it's like pair programming, but kind of taken to team size.

So we hired a couple of junior developers, basically, like April and June, I think last year.

So like, wow, mid pandemic.

Yeah. But you know, we needed to, we needed to bring people in. So you know, what are you going to do?

So we struggled with the onboarding a little bit at first, but we found this ensemble program was great.

Um, essentially, you get everybody, everyone on VS code.

And for those not familiar, VS code is, yeah, it's a Microsoft tool for, for writing code, essentially.

But it's got this really, really neat collaboration plugin.

And what it means is that anyone can connect into your session.

And as you're typing on the keyboard, they will see the same, you know, effectively the same code coming up on their terminal.

But they can also modify the code as well, which then comes back onto your screen.

And so as I use a, I use an editor called Vim, which has really weird keyboard bindings.

So when I was a pair programming, it was always difficult for someone else to come onto my machine, because it was always set up kind of weird.

But with using the VS code tool, I can still use my weird sort of Vim bindings on there.

Other people can use, you know, regular keyboards, and we can collaborate.

But by having the chat and the, and the meet on in the background, we're basically walking through a problem as a team.

So what we found is for onboarding junior developers, we'd pick a problem, like something we had to work on, something that wasn't trivial, because you know, trivial problems, you can, you know, handle.

Yeah, and people get dispirited by that, right?

They know they want to do good work. You don't need to.

Exactly. Yeah. And, you know, you come in, especially you've got that kind of, I don't know, hubris or whatever, you know, you, you straight out of uni, you know, you can solve all the problems.

You're amazing. So, you know, you, you want to work on the really hard problems, you know, solving distributed computing problems, you know, but, you know, you've done a little bit of CEO, whatever.

So we want to get people working on more interesting problems.

So this Ensembl program was great for that.

We'd get everybody in the, in the same, in the same chat, we could see everyone and everyone could see the code, but everyone could take turns as well.

So, you know, we'd have it, it would be running on someone's computer, but, you know, you hit save, test run in the background, everyone can see that the tests are running.

And we were able to, able to collaborate really well, essentially walking through problems.

So it was, it was usually one of the more senior developers would be the lead, but then, you know, we would, we'd hit a point where it was like, oh, not quite sure what to do here.

And then kind of like open the problem out to the floor, if you like, and then just have a discussion, you know, what's, what's the problem here, what's the direction we want to take, talk through the pros and cons, and just kind of build that understanding.

And so, because we had, you know, effectively two seniors, two juniors in there, it was really good because both of the seniors could collaborate and, you know, argue about, about points.

But at the same time, the, the juniors were able to kind of ask, you know, the, you know, the silly questions, you know, like, why are you even doing that?

I don't understand it. And, you know, the seniors were like, well, actually, yeah, that's a good point.

Yeah, you know, and, you know, it brings in, it brings in a real, a real, a really nice sort of collaboration.

So we've started doing that regularly now.

We just spent, I mean, it's quite tiring, I think.

So, you know, we tend to do it over a block of a few hours, you know, three or four hours in an afternoon or something.

You can't do it all the time. I can't do it all the time, at least.

I'm just exhausted if I'm sort of, you know, solving problems and talking at the same time.

I get really, really tired doing that.

But I'm doing it for a block, a block of time. And it's been very successful because the team were able to kind of, you know, it's like the rising tide lift all boats, if you like, you know, it's that same idea where, you know, you're sharing a problem, everyone's collaborating on it, and you're all using the same tools to, to be able to work on that problem.

So yeah, it's, it's, it's worked on an absolute treat for us.

And onboarding at the same time. And actually, yeah, exactly.

Leads into something I kind of wanted to do a little tangent on at some point, if that happened.

And there's a huge amount of debate in the Melbourne community around developers and engineers who's available for employment?

Why is there not enough?

How do we go about finding them? But what I've anecdotally seen is that the company is having the biggest trouble with this and ones that have not hired a junior for probably the last four or five years.

My take is that then they're not developing juniors into mids and seniors.

And they haven't set themselves up for this.

But I mean, that's just my very opinionated opinion on this one.

I'd love to know where you sit around that. Yeah. Oh, look. Hard agree. I, yeah, I'm from, I'm, I'm from the school of thought where if you, I don't know.

The interesting, the insight I got from, from Ensembl programming is we had a couple of juniors.

One was from a sort of typical CSE background. One was, is still a scientist.

So effectively someone who has, who's smart, has good analytical skills, but also knows how to code because they took it at uni, did a course, decided they loved it, et cetera.

But having those, I guess, diversity of thought, I think is, I think is actually really, really important to, you know, to any kind of problem solving team.

I think you bring in too many seniors with a similar experience and you're going to get the, a similar kind of output, a similar problem solving approach.

And sometimes you need, you know, just someone outside of the problem just to say, well, hang on.

And especially, you know, it's the old like explain it like I'm five, you know, they're, juniors will ask questions and often the really good questions just disguised as, you know, I don't know enough.

And when you pull apart what they're actually asking and build that understanding of, you know, what is it that they don't understand that, you know, we need to, you know, elaborate on, build on.

Once you do that and start unpacking the problem, you'll find that they're actually a really, really effective mechanism for building that context and understanding of a problem.

So hard degree for me, in terms of hiring junior developers, I think it's, I think it's awesome.

And I do know down in Melbourne, there's some businesses that put a lot of effort into, into bringing on juniors.

And I wholeheartedly subscribe to that approach.

What I what we've been doing is, we've actually got some really good ties with university.

So we've got, we have on our board, we have someone who's hired at a university, we have some of our analytics team, they do guest lectures and things.

And so what it means, we've actually got strong ties to universities already.

And we effectively, you know, take advantage if you like, but you know, it's, it's, it's a relationship, you know, we, what we do is we find people who are sort of smart and willing, and bring them in, often initially as kind of a placement, because usually they've got a compulsory placement element on courses, bring it, bring them in, get them, get them up and running.

But then, you know, we, we're on two for two now, out of this process.

So these people are now employed by Digivisor.

But that approach has worked really well. It's about finding people who are, you know, smart and can think, but also that, you know, it's a diversity of thought, you know, we don't necessarily want, you know, top end computer science, sometimes we need top end computer science people for particular problems, or we need someone who's got experience in machine learning, or they have experience in, you know, analytics of some sort, sometimes you need a particular thing.

But if you're looking for someone who's, you know, your typical full stack developer, someone who can operate a different, you know, is comfortable building UI, or comfortable, you know, querying databases, you know, whatever level, then having a good generalist is really just a good analytical thinker is probably the most important part, you know, we can, we can teach them the rest, you know, they've already proven that they can learn to code, they've done a course, and, you know, survived it.

So it's about, it's about, yeah, yeah, if you can, if you can do that, and you've already got, you know, the proven thinking, because, you know, you're doing science or whatever, university, philosophy, or whatever, anything that is just really asking questions, I think that's probably the most important, you can probably, you know, if it was one word, it'd be like curiosity, right?

You find people who are curious about how things are, I think, how things work, and then have that motivation, I suppose, to work on them and improve them.

So, yeah, I love that. It's business, right? So you're not just fighting to pay senior developers, you know, huge salaries, which have gone a bit bonkers, where I am, I guess, it's supply and demand, but also having the ecosystem and supporting new people coming in, but creating a diversity of thought, as you said, which means, inevitably, you'll build better products.

So it's good business from, from always, I think, I get disheartened when organizations go, no, it's too hard, we don't have the resources for it.

And I think if you're a startup with three people, maybe that would hold.

But beyond that, you just need to be a bit more creative.

I think it's, yeah, yeah, exactly. Right. As soon as you have the capacity to do it, you know, you'll get the gains.

Yeah, of course, it takes, it's slower, but, you know, so is pair programming, right?

Pair programming is slower.

You know, you're effectively playing two people to work on one problem at a time.

But studies have shown time and time again, that the results, the quality are improved.

And, you know, if you, I think if you factor in something like, you know, true cost of ownership of any bit of code, right?

So you write a bit of code, you deploy it, but then, you know, either there's a bug later on, or the requirements change.

And then, you know, you have to, you have to shift it to, you know, something else over time, or you have to, you know, debug production code, which takes you half a day, because it's really fiddly.

And, you know, you've got to, you know, set up your analytics tools to, you know, capture more data or whatever, once you factor that in, if you can solve more of those problems earlier, you know, shift left, then, you know, you end up not only is it better quality, but absolutely, you know, it's actually going to cost you less time, and you can your consumers are, you know, customers are getting a better product.

So look, it's, it's one of those things, right?

I think it's, it's short term thinking, in my view, that Digivice has always been about growth and growing in terms of the people who work here, we because of the connections we have, we've got a lot of you know, friends, I guess, your lecturers, etc.

And even Digivice software is used as part of one of the digital marketing courses at one of the universities in Sydney.

So what we've got, they've got these relationships in place. And, you know, one of our one of our marketing interns just now, who's who's awesome.

And she came as a direct result of using our software on the course, you know, loved the business, love what we do, and actively sought us out and said, Hey, I want to come and work for you.

And yeah, actually, yeah, exactly. So it's about finding finding those smart people, but then giving them the support and assistance to get to the, to, you know, where they want to be, but also what Digivice wants them to be, you know, so.

Oh, yeah, I like it a lot. So you've talked about, you know, you've changed how you've worked and what you've done.

Yeah. And the ecosystem is changing.

And we just went down the developer side of that. But also, your customers will be changing what they're doing.

So if you had to change your product to match the changes that your customers have been implementing?

Yeah, I think like, as I mentioned before, like, the vision has been sort of remarkably consistent.

But, you know, the shift, we've got a lot more ecom businesses coming through now a lot, a lot more, even some of our previous customers, they had kind of bricks and mortar stores.

They also they also had their Shopify store.

But, you know, they're just they're shifting the spend right there. Instead of instead of having, you know, four stores, you know, maybe they have three, but then put the money into the digital marketing.

And the business is booming, right? For these businesses that have made that shift, it's really working for them.

You know, they're, they're, they've got their SEM set up, they've got their paid set up, they're capturing these leads, they're converting these leads.

And what the missing piece was, basically, last year was that visibility of that last part.

So, you know, over the years, we built out, we built out the social components.

So we can see who you're talking to, who people, you know, are people talking about you, you know, hashtags, tags, etc.

All of that was captured. Paid marketing, you know, we could always see, you know, if you're running ads, we could see how they were performing, who was clicking, but we didn't have that visibility of the last piece is like, you know, so are they coming onto my website?

What sort of, you know, what are people actually searching for that brings them into my website?

What are my most popular pages?

Why are they popular? You know, what are the, what are the keywords on those pages that, you know, are, are interesting either to Google or to customers?

And then ultimately, what is it, you know, what, what am I getting out of this?

So I'm spending, you know, so much over here on paid advertising on ACM, but you know, how many sales am I getting out of the, you know, out the other side, and that component didn't really exist.

But, you know, that has been a shift for our product.

And it's become, it's actually become, I do a lot of demos to customers, and I think it's become, it's kind of like the piece where people go, ah, I get it.

You know, we talked a lot of online businesses, and we can show them, hey, your traffic's coming from here, people are searching for these terms, they're going to these pages, these pages are delivering the results for you, you know, it's becoming a holistic view of, you know, what customer behavior.

And that's been kind of like the missing piece to a point.

And especially if you're a non -binding business, you got to have that visibility all through, you know, you're putting all your beautiful photos out on Instagram, but you know, are you getting sales from them?

And, you know, it's actually reasonably difficult to answer that.

You know, you can see people coming into your site, are they actually buying something or not?

But by having that sort of holistic view all the way through, you know, you can start to make some business decisions about what you do.

So yeah, that feature has basically been born out of the huge shift that we saw.

We saw all of the customers that we had shifting online really, really hard.

And, you know, most of the new businesses we talk to are either e-com or they are, you know, working with e-com businesses.

So yeah, it's been a huge.

Sounds like COVID made your product better. Yeah, look, I don't know, like COVID is terrible for a whole number of reasons, but there has been quite a few positives out of it.

And, you know, I think personally, there's been a real shift in sort of the life work balance, if you like.

You know, I enjoy not having to get the train every day.

I think it's awesome. But yeah, in terms of the business and other businesses around us, yeah, there's been a big shift there.

And I don't know, it's accelerated, I would say.

You know, I think it's the change that was already happening just got accelerated dramatically because it had to be.

But, you know, I think coming out the other side, you know, as things start to, you know, go back to normal, then, you know, we're definitely seeing that change has persisted.

You know, we're still working from home. People are still shifting their spending online.

So, you know, I think it's I think it's here to stay.

It is. Hey, Rob, I want to really thank you for joining us this morning. So bright and early.

Thank you. Insights have been amazing. I love your collaboration with universities and your take on juniors.

I think we aligned there really well.

Next Wednesday morning at eight o 'clock. I like these early segments. We'll be having a chat with Fiona Milne.

She's the head of data and AI at Whisper, another local company.

So we'll see you all then.

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