Interview with James Bergin, Executive General Manager of Architecture & Integration at Xero
We caught up with James to learn more about his career journey into tech, what a role in software architecture actually entails and what a typical 'day in the life' looks like for him. We also delved into what the future holds for Zero and why he is so excited about what lies ahead.
Hi, everyone, and welcome to today's Matchstiq live with James Bergen, Executive General Manager of Architecture and Integration at Xero. We're really excited to chat to you today, James.
For those of you that don't know me, I'm going to be your host for the session. My name is Greg Denton, I am one of the co-founders of Matchstiq. If you're just getting familiar with Matchstiq, we are on a mission to make modern career pathways more visible.
This current series is about highlighting some of the amazing technology companies in New Zealand and the leaders that are behind building them.
So, we're really privileged and excited to chat with James today, you have quite a fascinating role within what is sort of a darling tech company within New Zealand.
So, the talk is going to be broken into two halves, the first half will be very much focused on a bit of a background story as to James's career path, how he ended up at Xero, and then a little bit of a look into the future of Xero.
And then the second half will be focused on trying to answer all of the amazing questions that people have submitted.
To kick things off, James, it is great to have you here. Could you give us a bit of background as to what Xero is and what is your current role within the organization?
“Variety is the spice of life; it can get a bit spicy.”
Sure. Hi, Greg. Hi, everyone. It's great to be here. So yes, what is Xero? What is my role? So, Xero is a global tech company. We were founded in 2006, I think. One of the fastest growing global service companies in the world.
We basically started by making accounting software beautiful and have just grown from there, across the world, leading the world in New Zealand, Australian and UK cloud accounting markets.
We employ about over 3000 people, and have nearly two and a half million subscribers. We're in 180 countries and basically, our purpose is, we exist to make lives better for people in small business, their advisors and their communities around the world.
And that's not just a tagline. We really do believe that and really try and work towards it. And so, about my role, I'm a GM of architecture and integration. So, architecture is about all the architecture, just nothing to do with buildings.
We'll talk about that later on, I'm sure. And then integration is our mergers and acquisitions work. So, getting across some of the early work we do there.
As I've said to a few people, architects care a lot about the 'M' more than the 'A' of mergers and acquisitions. Because anytime you bring another company on board, it has architectural implications, no matter which way you look at it. So that's it in a nutshell really.
“...I was going to be a lawyer because that's a polite way of saying they can't shut me up”
Yeah, that's outstanding. I think that's a really good summary. I think I'm personally guilty of probably thinking of Xero as more than just the beautiful accounting software, but that evolution has obviously happened over the last few years.
And you can see that by the booming share price. And as I have sort of confessed to you in the past, I'm unfortunately a former shareholder so watching the share price sore brings some misery at times, but it is never too late and probably after this call, I'll be back in there having a look at it.
So, I'd love to start off just by rewinding the tape, because a couple of people have asked this question anyway.
When you were setting out, leaving home as a teenager, I presume, what were you dreaming of doing? Did you sort of have aspirations to get into what you're currently doing now?
If you'd asked me in high school or even when I was starting to get into university what I think I was going to be doing I wouldn't have said architect, especially at that time. I think the only context I knew of architects was architects of buildings.
But when I was leaving school, I was looking at most of my family, they thought I was going to be a lawyer because that's a polite way of saying they can't shut me up. So, they figured I should probably talk for a living.
I was interested in technology. I'm interested in communications. That's a polite way of saying 'talking a lot.
And so, I sort of headed into university thinking about how can I marry up the skills of the columns and the art side of things with science and the tech side of things. And so, kind of got into technology that way really.
“...I was never good at physics, biology, I stopped at sixth form.”
Outstanding. You studied at Auckland. Did you study engineering? What did you end up doing?
I started at Auckland studying a conjoint degree. So, commerce and science, the commerce was in management science and information systems. And the science was in computer science.
And I got to the end of the first year of that conjoint degree, and I basically ran out of sciences. So, what I mean is computer science, I loved programming, the principles, programming science, I loved it, I was doing really well.
I only had math as the other thing that I was spending my time on. Because I was never good at physics, biology, I stopped at sixth form, and chemistry and I didn't really get along in seventh form.
So, by the time I got to university, I had math. And at the end of that first year, I was finding that it wasn't really firing for me on all cylinders, the programming was and the commerce stuff I was loving.
So, I ended up dropping the science and sticking with commerce, and cross crediting across and so, I finished with a Bachelor of Commerce in Management Science Information Systems.
That's really interesting. And then out of university where did that lead you?
Yeah, well, in the final year of my college degree, there was a paper at that time called 340, Information Systems Project. Basically, what it was is, you worked in a small team. The whole class was about 40 people.
And you're in teams of two or three working in a company for the year as part of the paper. So, I was still doing all my other papers, but this was working on a project, an IT project from conception the whole way through.
So, business analysis, systems analysis, system design, building the system, testing the whole thing, project management. And so that was with the Warehouse Group.
I graduated right when the dot.com bubble was bursting, which was a fantastic time to be graduating with a technology degree, and managed to actually get a role continuing at the Warehouse.
To move into a role as an analyst programmer at the Warehouse was my first gig out of university.
“It was the single most important paper I did at university, no doubt about it.”
Interesting. And it sounds like a great thing to be investing your time and your last year of studies, that sort of practical approach to applying what you've learned and naturally lean into something that you're really interested in I presume.
It was the single most important paper I did at university, no doubt about it.
I had the chance later on in my time, particularly when I was at ASB, being able to actually sponsor some of those projects and sponsored a number of them over the years to have project teams coming in.
I knew what anyone who went on that paper, who went on that course was getting, they were heading to apply their skills, I knew that it couldn't be just book learning, because you were really working inside that company. So, it really set me up very well.
And I've always tried to encourage, you know, there's now quite a number of those kinds of papers and courses, they're more common, I think now to try and encourage that practical application. But no, it definitely set me up to get into the Warehouse.
And then from there, in the Warehouse, there was a lot of different roles, I was able to try and do different things as well, which is great, yeah, over the five years I was there, I lost track of how many different jobs or things I did. So that was really good.
Great. That sounds like an amazing environment to start off with and to have that opportunity to test and learn what sort of interests you is the most as a really important thing starting at your career.
What was that project just out of interest?
It was called online project and reporting. It was an internet-based project reporting and management tool.
Yeah. So, you know, the Warehouse being a growth company had a lot of projects on the go, and they had a project management office.
And it was a thing we wrote, which was to help with all the reporting and the lining up and the visibility of all these projects and dependencies, where you could go in one place to try and find the notes. This is before Confluence. This is before SharePoint.
It was us trying to sort of help make the intranet have an application that could really help and assist. And they kept using it for a number of years. I don't think it was just to make me feel good about it. They did actually add value and they keep using it.
“I just found it really fascinating, because I just like solving problems.”
I'd like to unpack a little bit more about the architecture side of things.
So, my understanding of what an architect does, whether it's building or whether it's on a digital platform is laying out the blueprint or the foundation.
Was that starting to take shape in those early years of what really interested you?
Yeah, so that's very close to the definition I use as well.
Which is, you're trying to solve problems and the materials you're using and solving those problems, usually lead you down the path of framing, coming up with blueprints or designs about how to apply business process, application, information, technology.
It's all the layers and trying to see how they can link up and form a system that solves a particular problem.
So, when I was at the Warehouse, I started as an analyst programmer and then did some graphic design stuff, some business analysis stuff and project management stuff. And then I met a solution architect, they always hired a solution architect.
I had never heard the term solution architect. And so, I kind of became a bit of an understudy to him, eventually getting into a system architect role. And then from there, I moved to ASP, which is where I started as a solution architect and then carried on.
And so, as I move through the solution and then enterprise architecture, you're basically getting into larger and larger scopes of the problems or the challenges, that are more cutting right across the organisation, more systemic, sometimes more business architecture than they are technology architecture.
Sometimes the other way around. So, I just found it really fascinating, because I just like solving problems. I like working with people. And I find technology really interesting. So that just became a really good nexus.
“She was worried that university was not going to teach me things that would last...”
Yeah, that's really cool to hear. And just for my own understanding, do people study solution architecture or enterprise architecture today? Or is it more of the development of a range of different skills that then leads to that?
Yes, and yes. So, there are a number of these online courses, there's a number of universities that have done various papers that you can do in different types of architecture.
Particularly when you're talking enterprise architecture, there are frameworks and things you can get into.
When you're talking technical software architecture, it really becomes more of an extension of development and engineering skill sets. And I think there's a collection of skills that ends up coming together. Absolutely.
When I officially became an architect, when I had it as my job title. I used to go along to conferences and sometimes speak at them and there'll be people who were very strong on, you can't learn architecture, you can't become an architect, you have to be an engineer for 20 years, 30 years.
Then at that point, you start to see the matrix, and you can see the patterns, and that's when you can become an architect. I was obviously coming from a different school, because I said, well no, it's just the application of systems analysis, computer science and software engineering.
So, I think there are courses and things you can do, but it is about collecting a number of skills that you can then deploy to try and bring that visualised clarity. The blueprints that others can really get some value from.
Yeah, interesting. I suppose to that point, in terms of the collection of skills, you studied commerce. Did that play a part in your perspective? And how did that shape the architect that you've now grown into.
Yeah, it definitely did. I remember my mum saying this, when I was going to university, she was really worried.
Because at that point, I think I'm going to get into technology. She was worried that university was not going to teach me things that would last because the languages I would use in programming would become out of date.
But the principles that I learned, like how to learn and how to apply that learning and continuously learn have definitely been a part of the kind of architect and the leader that I try to be.
Also, the generalist nature of commerce, where you're getting across all aspects of business, and I didn't necessarily find all of it as interesting as some of the other parts, but it definitely gave me that kind of grounding for business.
And then when you're thinking about architecture, it is the structuring of solutions to business problems. So, you really do need to understand business and understand customers.
“It was just there were always new and exciting challenges.”
Yeah, that's a really interesting intersection and the greatest that I have explained firsthand. I find that pretty fascinating.
If we fast forward a little bit from there, you went through a number of roles, but you've spent a good chunk of your time pre-Xero, working for ASB. 14 years, if I remember correctly?
Tell us a little bit about that journey. What were you doing primarily at ASB? And we'll get into how that is different to what you're currently doing shortly.
Yeah, sure. So ASB is a fascinating organization. So, I assume everyone knows, but not everyone maybe does. ASB is a leading financial institution, or bank, if you only use the old language in New Zealand, and I started there as an architect.
I figured having spent about five years of the Warehouse, I was like, ah, I'll probably be here two or three years. And it's a testament to the organisation that I was there as long as I was, because I just never got bored.
It was just there were always new and exciting challenges. Banking and financial services has been a real area of innovation especially over the last decade or so, but actually for a long time.
And so, I started there as what was called an architecture specialist, which basically was a solution architect, and then I moved into more enterprise architecture. And then I had been doing that for a few years, and then an opportunity came up to move into management.
I hadn't actually directly seen myself as being a manager, as in I didn't apply. I had my boss at the time and his boss talking to me, this would be a really good move for you.
And they're showing leadership from your position, and I was like, okay let's give it a go, so that was my career to that point. So, I figured I should keep going. Then I moved into management, and then started to lead the team.
And then that gradually moved into heading up the department. Then about six to seven years ago, I moved into the Chief Architect role. So that was the General Manager role and it was accountable for architecture strategy.
So, technology, strategy, and innovation. A lot of the innovation labs, some of the stuff we did like clever cash, if anyone's ever heard of clever cash, which I can talk about till the cows come home. We got through some really awesome stuff.
And at the same time really steering into some really interesting architectural challenges because an organization like these are 170 plus years old.
So you've got a lot of process, you've got a lot of systems, a lot of technology, particularly for ASB, which embraced technology very early on in its journey. I have a t-shirt that says real time since 1969, because that's when they had real time banking.
And so, really just learn so much about architecture obviously, but also strategy, business strategy, technical strategy, innovation and leadership, and just had a really, really great time.
“So yeah, like I said, it was very hard to get bored, because there's just so much moving.”
Interesting, there are probably hundreds of different things that you are involved in at a macro level, thinking about a large financial institution.
What were some of those really big problems that you're trying to help the bank navigate? Does that technology evolve really quickly?
Yeah, I mean, one of the classic challenges for incumbent financial institutions is balancing up the innovation, and the change in the fast tempo that comes with an API-based-like internet world versus mainframes and stability and solidness.
Because people want that from their bank. And they also want the other thing, so they want the excitement, they want the icing, but they want the cake as well.
And so, a lot of the architectural challenges that I think about, whether they're an ASB or any large bank, any modern bank, is looking at the core banking system, modernisation challenges, alongside with mobile banking and internet banking.
But we kind of forget how fast these things have come along that now it's totally normal to be thinking about, you're doing all your banking on your phone. For a lot of people, that's how they do all their banking.
I'm saying that, even 10-15 years ago, if you said, I do all my banking on the phone, people think you meant you called up. They don't think you mean a smartphone, because it wasn't a thing. So, you had this really fascinating, it's not even a dichotomy.
It's just different lenses, like these challenges of stability and security. Alongside these challenges are all the next things that customers want. Is that the next place we need to go? So yeah, like I said, it was very hard to get bored, because there's just so much moving.
Yeah, that's really interesting.
And I imagine, consumer demand of just wanting things to happen as technology progresses is, as you described, not that straightforward for large financial institution with existing structures that can't just go and chase everything that pops up onto the radar.
So, it sounds like ASB served you really well. And obviously, to stay there for 14 years, it must have been a really interesting organisation. And as you said, it keeps you really involved in what was a really changing landscape.
I'd love to hear how the decision was made to then take a plunge and get in to quite a different environment. So, you've gone from ASB into Xero?
“You're either too early or too late. And I said, what?”
Correct. Yeah, absolutely. So, I've been at Xero for about 18 months now coming up, I think. Yeah, one of the hardest decisions I have had to make in my career to be honest.
I got to the point where I'd been in the Chief Architect role for about five or six years, and I was looking at 14 years that I could see very quickly becoming 24. And I was looking at going okay, cool.
But some of the problems that were starting to emerge, some of the regulation challenges and there was a change in the market. Obviously, this is all pre COVID.
But there was still a change in the market. I was looking at some of those problems and going, okay, I can see myself continuing to be interested with these for a while, but, what's next then?
A former boss of mine used to have a really good challenge, what's the job after next?
Because we spent a lot of time thinking about the next thing and he used to challenge us to go, what's the one after that which then makes you think about what skills do I want to round out? And what do I want to do?
So, I think I was really clear on the fact that, I didn't want to run away from the bank. I never wanted to get to a point where I was like, I just don't want to be here.
I wasn't at that point, and if I was going to leave, I wanted to leave on top because I was running towards something else. So, I started thinking about what else do I want to do?
I started thinking about it I've got my family and we've put our roots down in New Zealand, so, I wasn't really that keen on uprooting everyone and going overseas which proved quite some foretelling.
Do I go to another large New Zealand organisation? I had a look at a few things and talked to friends and networked, and you start seeing a lot of the same problems, but maybe just the different flavour.
Do I go consulting? Because all the friends and family who thought I was going to be a lawyer changed their minds thinking, I'm going to be a consultant. And so, I had a chat with, again, some friends and networks there.
One friend summarised it when he said, you're either too early or too late. And I said, What? And he goes, you're too late to be going in grinding out 80 hours a week because you've got a family and all that kind of stuff.
And you're too early to be going in as a senior partner who's kind of at work three days a week and the other two days on the golf course. And I don't know how many senior partners actually work that way.
But that's what he said. And so, then I started thinking, okay, what about tech companies? We had a vision at ASB to actually be more like a tech company that's licensed and trusted to provide financial services.
That was the phrase. I'd spent a lot of time and energy trying to help transform ASB in that way. So, I was like, well, what about the tech companies? And I thought about global tech companies that have a New Zealand presence.
And a lot of them, the New Zealand presence is not in the architecture, engineering, strategy space. Some of them do. But they had people in those roles. And then I thought, what about New Zealand tech companies that are global?
That's quite a shortlist. And, the running joke is there is Xero on that list. And so, I had been talking with some, colleagues and networks that I knew at Xero and one conversation led to another conversation, and probably actually earlier than I thought, I was like, oh, here's an opportunity, let's run at it. And it felt like the right thing to run towards. So, I definitely didn't run away from ASB, I just ran towards Xero.
“I'm a bit of a language nerd, so I do look for metaphors and all that.”
Interesting. It is in some ways the opposite ends of the territory in some regard. So, what has been at the top level the most noticeable difference between working at a Xero, vs working at a legacy financial institution.
The most stark thing is just the growth profile, both in global terms, because it's Xero, we are a global company, like I said before, 180 countries. And we've got teams in a number of countries around the world.
And we're growing and have been growing by big numbers for a long time. So, the growth profile is quite fascinating. Whereas in most banks, what you're talking about is this smaller growth because it's been there for so long, it's more stable.
I think the other things probably are the climate, it has changed a bit for financial services in our part of the world, past things like the Royal Commission, but also the GFC and all these other things over the years.
It's become more about having to make sure they are really focused on protecting what they have, rightly so, because sometimes what they have is people's money. But it's kind of focused on the regulation, focused on the certainty of that.
Whereas tech companies like Xero are more focused on what else can we do? So, it's this kind of mindset.
We're asking what other opportunities are there? When you've got a purpose like ours trying to make lives better for people and small business, you go, oh there are so many things, we could do that.
So, it drives an open mindset. A growth mindset is kind of embedded in the way the organization functions. So that's probably the two key things.
Yeah, interesting. And when we first spoke, you used a fantastic analogy between your role working in banking and that related to icebergs, and Xero.
Do you mind sharing that because I think it's a really incredible summary of the distinction for people that are probably coming to be familiar with the nuances of the two options?
Sure. I mean, I wrote it up actually. It's a bit of a medium post which I'm happy to share the link to.
But in effect, what I was saying was large organisations, so not just banks but any large organization nowadays, when they describe what they want to be like, if you look at the language and I'm a bit of a language nerd, so I do look for metaphors and all that.
If you look at the language, people use the language of water. They say we want to be agile, we want to be fluid. We want to be dynamic. We want to be responsive.
When you look at large established organisations that want to transform to be more like water, the language they usually use is the language of ice.
So, they say, well, the management is permafrost and it's been frozen, we're just going to chip away, we're going to heat things up. And it's an acknowledged transformation, that you're trying to move from frozen to liquid.
You're trying to move from ice to water. And so, the kind of programs you have are about generating heat and chipping away and so on. When you come into tech companies or companies that are born in the cloud, or born in this millennia, they don't have that problem.
Their challenge is the other way, which is the language often of steam. It's explosive. Over here, there's more opportunity, there's another vent that just opened up over there, it's a bit foggy and I can't quite see.
And really the challenge, that's not how we describe how we want to be, we want to be fluid and agile and dynamic. So, it's not a transformational challenge, you're moving from one form to another.
But the mechanisms are different. So, you're not trying to heat things up, you're also not trying to freeze things, because that would be really bad. You're trying to condense the best learnings to make your future success sustainable and scalable.
And so, I sort of see its architecture from a business architecture point of view, both the transformational challenges but that is coming at them from different starting points to try and get to the same destination.
“Trust is something you take a lifetime to establish.”
Yeah, interesting. I think that's a really nice and neat summary. It paints a really good visual picture, I'm really big on analogies, I thoroughly enjoyed that one when you shared it. So fast forwarding a little bit from there to the current state of play.
You've been at Xero for 18 months, you gave a broad description of 3000 people around 108 different countries in terms of customers, what's happening in the organisation at the moment?
I know you've recently made some big acquisitions or one in particular. What is the current state of play in terms of what you're focused on at the moment?
Like many organisations, a lot of the focuses is inevitably affected by the pandemic and looking at what that means, what kind of problems does that create for our customers?
What kind of challenges does that create for us as a business and also what opportunities are emerging from this kind of changed world that we're in.
So, I think alongside continuing to evolve our product, continuing to expand our product and its relevance in different markets around the world, and continuing to look at opportunities for partnering both through things like M&A, but also through our ecosystem.
So, you know we've got 100 ecosystem apps and 200 connections to financial services providers are more than 200 around the world. And so, about those aspects, you start to think about going back to that idea of being a platform.
What kind of platform do we need to be? And so, a lot of our focus is on, how do we make sure our people are set up for this new world? What does that mean both in terms of short term, like, flexible working and being able to work remotely?
And then also longer term. What does it mean around resilience? What does it mean around managing diversity? Which now has taken another level, when you might not even ever meet the person that you're working with all the time in real life?
What does that look like? So, a number of those kinds of things, and then just trying to plot out the right strategy that works for us and works for the problems we're trying to solve for our customers.
Interesting. I mentioned, that's a topic of conversation that can probably last a couple of hours, but good to get that at the top line.
And also, before we cut into the second half of this where we're going to deal more with the questions that have been submitted, it'd be amazing to get the crystal ball out and hear what you see in the evolution of Xerox and in five years time where do you see an organisation like Xero?
Yeah, well, my first caveat, the whole thing by saying any chance of predicting it accurately is going to be pretty woeful, I'd suggest given how fast everything changes.
But I do think when we look at our vision about how we can become the world's most trusted and insightful small business platform, that means a lot, right? Trust is something you take a lifetime to establish.
And insight that can get to people and help them really learn how they can move their business and take it to the next level. That pushes us down a number of really interesting paths. And so, I think in five years time, I'd love to see Xero continuing our outreach.
Grow to more and more organisations around the world, I'm talking about the market globally, even if you just focus on accounting, I think there's about 20% of small businesses globally using cloud accounting. So, we're just getting warmed up on that.
But the tagline which shifted, which is when Xero started, I started paying a lot of attention to Xero when it moved from beautiful accounting software to a beautiful business, which is what it is now.
So, I think about in five years time being able to do more, being able to reach more, being able to be more, even more relevant to more parts of what it means to run a beautiful small business. That's where I see us being in five years.
“Because our culture is the best, our people are amazing.”
Alright then. Cool, cool. Okay, well, we're gonna switch gears and we're gonna start asking some of the questions that people have submitted. For those of you that have joined late. I've just reposted the link to slide out in the chat.
So, if you've got questions that you want me to ask James, or you just want to check out some of the questions that people have already submitted, and you want to vote on them, jump across there now.
So, the number one question for a start is; What is in your opinion, unique about Xero as a workplace over the other tech companies in New Zealand? And why should I choose Xero over the others?
Because we're awesome. One of the things that really struck me about Xero when I started was our values, pretty much everyone I mentioned, if you ask that question is going to respond with some variation on our culture, right?
Because our culture is the best, our people are amazing. All of this is true when it comes to the values of Xero. So, our values which are: human, beautiful, challenge, ownership, and team. Our five values, they're not lobby wallpaper, right?
They're not just the kind of things which people go, oh yeah, values, like we literally live and breathe. And you see people referring to them all the time, you see people using them to give feedback to colleagues.
The kind of challenge that we're taking ownership and really embracing the aspects of human, which is really where we start getting into everyone bringing the whole self to work.
I did some testing before I started speaking to people who I knew were there, people who had been there before. And I'm just glad to see that since I've been at Xero, I've just seen so much of that coming through.
So, it threads through how we operate as a business, and then how we work, all the normal stuff that you associate with being an awesome tech company. Really cool offices, remote working, great coffee and free cans of soda, you know, that kind of stuff. Sure.
The Perks? Yep. Great. But I would say you pick an organisation based on its culture and its purpose. And in the case of Xero, those things are core to who we are. They're not just something we have, because everyone has to have culture. Everyone has to have values.
Yeah, that's also really interesting to hear. I think my first conversation with someone that worked at Xero was a former colleague from ANZ who also had returned from London, and we were just having a casual conversation.
He said, since joining Xero, almost exactly what you have described, he sees people live and breath the values on a day-to-day basis.
He had never experienced that anywhere else.
In terms of that, just as a follow up question to how you guys have scaled up so quickly, how does that scale culture or how does that culture scale when you're growing so fast?
Yeah, it's something which needs to be focused on. It's not something that you can leave as a by-product. First thing about my team, I've got a team in Auckland, Wellington, Melbourne, Canberra and New York.
And those environments are very different in their own right. And whenever you go into a Xero office especially before the times when we traveled more, when you could go into their office, there was still a sense of this is Xero.
Not just because the wallpaper looks the same, although, you get that sense of connection of collaboration wherever you go. That's a big responsibility for the leadership in particular.
So, I'm a big fan of thinking about leadership in terms of a supporting structure, not a reporting structure. So, I keep attributing this idea to, I think it was Reed Hastings, I think it was Netflix but I'm not sure.
Basically, drawing the org chart, the other way around. So, don't put the CEO at the top and actually put the people who are closest to the customer at the top and recognise that all the leadership roles are there to support those people.
And so, when you think about something like scaling your culture, that is on the leaders to support that scaling of culture, deliberately, like I said, you can't leave it just to chance or to be a by-product.
“We’re not building any ivory towers ...”
Yeah, I've never heard that description before, I suppose, it also would resonate with an architect's thinking about it from a structural standpoint.
Right. Gotta have a framework, Greg, gotta have a framework.
What are the top three architectural challenges at Xero as of right now?
As of right now, the top three architectural challenges. I think there's one problem at a principal level I'd say. Take off your previous question about scaling culture.
I think growing and transforming in multiple markets at the same time presents really interesting challenges to architecture.
There's a lot of established capability that people really come to Xero for the accounting capability.
And then there's a whole bunch of other capabilities that are there as well. And so, I think growing and transforming those multiple markets poses a real opportunity, a real challenge. I think a second one would probably be the aligned autonomy.
So, you really want an organisation like us, you want to promote autonomy in the engineering and product teams. And you want to be doing that, with alignment. So, you're trying to strike that balance?
There's a lot of Goldilocks zone conversations, not this extreme, not that extreme, just right, what's just right?
And architecturally, how do you set up for teams to be able to move quickly and iterate fast, with fast feedback loops with customers but at the same time still have systemic cohesion or still so the whole system is making sense?
I loved asking people when I first started at Xero, what does Xero look like when we're a 100-year-old company? And I'm just asking it to freak people out. Because you're asked the question about, what are we going to be in three months, you asked before about five years?
Yeah. So, I think it's balancing those challenges and the architecture, you don't want to design it all upfront because then it's going to be out of date before you've even finished, and at the same time, you don't want to just leave it all to chance.
And then I guess if I was picking your third one, it's probably the classic tech company challenge, which is how do you balance features and tech in your architecture? So, how do you?
How do you encourage through things like domain modelling, and API's and stuff like that?
How do you create the ability for teams to move quickly but also acknowledge that sometimes it's going to be about tick, sometimes it's going to be more about product features?
And that balance constantly sorts of moves throughout the time that they're working on things. So, it's probably more of a business architecture challenge than a technical one.
Yeah, I suppose it's so interrelated. And I think he actually almost answered one of the follow up questions, how do you minimise siloed thinking and the architectural process, at the same time as giving your architects autonomy of thought.
One of the big things we do there is I run what I call a centralised embedded model for architecture. I support the architects of Xero, but they're embedded in the teams with which they work.
So, there isn't the risk of ivory tower-ism. And there's also no risk of wild misalignment, because you have architects right there with the pods, with the engineers, and we want to keep that.
We’re not building any ivory towers; we're trying to make sure we've got the right amount of practice and support.
But we want to be focused on the problems that are there for our customers and how we solve them. So centralised embedded is the way we kind of try and deal with silos.
“I'm like, oh, you're serious, right? I didn't have anyone talk about expanding beyond this planet.”
And this might be putting you on the spot a little bit, but you talk about asking people the question of where Xero is in 100 years’ time? Can you remember any really interesting answers to that question?
Probably the theme of most interest would be the ones where people responded with. And it was actually a really good test of the ambition of the people who work for Xero.
So, when you say Xero and 100 years time, the people would say, making business beautiful, and you go, okay cool. Which business? Not all of them. And you go, right.
New Zealand's a small business economy, Australia's a small business economy, increasingly, after terrible events like pandemics, you would get a real uptick also in small business.
The world is a small business economy, and if Xero could be that platform for the world, like everyone using us, there were a few people that gave answers along those lines.
I'm like, oh, you're serious, right? I didn't have anyone talk about expanding beyond this planet. But having as much support as I could for this was pretty good.
Yeah, that's really interesting. Does Xero have a plan to reflect diversity within senior leadership and what does it look like today?
Yeah. It's a great question. Diversity is a really interesting topic, because there's so many aspects to it, particularly when you think about being a global company. I'm a really big proponent of diversity of thinking is what we're trying to really actively encourage.
So, Xero has had a focus particularly even acknowledging the broad nature of diversity with the focus on gender diversity in particular, both across the organisation and also on the Xero board.
Which has included setting measurable objectives and strategies and things to help me move along. So, we've made real progress on that. I think 42% of our employees globally are women and 42% of our executive as well, which is pretty amazing.
Because I think in 2016. There was 0% in the senior leadership. So, to get from 0 to 42 in three to four years is pretty amazing. And I think there's only about 15 other companies on the ASX top 200 that have achieved that gender balance on their executive leadership team.
We've also got three women on our board of directors. Back to my point around the different lenses of diversity. Gender is one aspect but culture, age, sexual orientation, ability, and all the ways in which we're different.
And I think like in architecture, I have a whole bunch of interesting introverts and extroverts, right. So that's a frame of diversity of thinking as well.
So, while we don't necessarily have measurable objectives for all of those flavours of diversity, it's something which is back to that point, one of our values is human. And what that means is celebrating everything, that is the humans of Xero.
And so, I think you'll continue to see us tracking our progress as we become more reflective of the diversity of our customers, but also of the Xeros that work for us.
“I think there are always things we can learn from other countries ...”
Interesting. This question in some ways relates to that, or loosely relates to it at least. Anyway, is there any country that you see New Zealand could learn from in terms of creating a really diverse and thriving community of tech talent? And what could we be doing better?
Well, that's a good question. I think there are always things we can learn from other countries like they learn from us on a number of things. With tick, I think it's pretty easy to kind of default back to looking to Silicon Valley.
And the thing I find really interesting, if you do look at the Valley, for example, the connection with universities is obvious, something in higher education is something that's really helped fuel a lot of computer science research.
Which has then led to amazing things that have come out of the companies themselves. And that kind of partnership model. But then again, their education sector is very different to how ours works.
And if you look to what happened in London, in the UK, they focus particularly in FinTech and Open Banking. I think there's some really interesting things there. But again, it's not a direct pickup and translate.
I think it's more looking at what has worked as successful patterns. And then what does that translate to our market, our size, our economy. So, I don't really sort of think of one, but I do more kind of go, hh that's interesting, let's take that one.
So, I've done a fair bit of traveling in a few of my roles and it's rare that I come across someone else from a different culture or a different country, that I don't learn something from them. And when it comes to growing talent, particularly encouraging that diversity of thinking through the business, always open to ideas.
“Right, yeah, as long as I'm back in the next meeting. That's right.”
This might be a bit of a left field question but your role was the Enterprise Architect. Obviously, that skill set would lend really well to, as you described earlier, business architecture?
So, when you're thinking about like creating those structures to put in place to the diversity and from a people standpoint, do you get tapped on the shoulder from your people team for that reason, if you're thinking about how do we do this at scale across a really wide organisation?
Yeah, even when you look at it with business architecture, even when you look at technology architecture, a number of people might have heard of Conway's Law, for those who haven't heard of Conway's Law, it basically says your architecture ends up reflecting the communication lines of the organisation.
And so, there's been a lot of research written in this over the years about, if you want to get an architecture that looks a certain way for your organisation, you need to change the communication lines.
So basically, change your organisational operating model and structure to get to the architecture that you want. And so, you end up finding even in engineering discussions, people talking about, well hang on, there's a lot of handover between these two teams.
Should we be talking about their responsibilities and where the boundaries are between the domains? So, I ran into a time without our people experience team. And some of the great work they're doing around capability development in particular.
Because of my role, I ended up on the technology leadership team, but I also spend a lot of time with the product leadership team and the strategic leadership team. So, one of the value propositions we put forward for architects at Xero is bridging between worlds.
And so those worlds might be the future and the present, they might be technical and non-technical. They might be the organisational and they might be the implementation.
So yeah, I don't know if they tapped me on the shoulder or I sort of like jump into the room and go, hey what about this? And how about this as a framework, but I get tolerated. So maybe that's a good thing.
As long as they come in back.
Right, yeah, as long as I'm back in the next meeting. That's right.
“..you're still looking for really fantastic communication skills, interpersonal savvy, organizational agility, strategic agility.”
Another question here, have you seen any change? Or what's the biggest change that you've seen in software architects or architects that you've hired recently to let's say five years ago?
Some of that is because five years ago, I was hiring them in the context of a bank vs hiring them in the context of a tech company.
And I think in the case when hiring five years ago, I was very focused on the domains, people know those, so, business information, application technology, or the enterprise kind of lens, whereas at Xero it's more focused on the need to have quite deep technical empathy. And a lot of the architects that we have were engineers, some very recently.
So, there's probably more of an indexing towards technical skills, there's no hiding the fact that Xero was a tech company. So, I don't need to re-educate anyone on that. So, trying to embrace those technical skills. That's probably the main difference.
The other stuff is very common. So, you're still looking for really fantastic communication skills, interpersonal savvy, organizational agility, strategic agility.
These are things which I think are universal when it comes to architects trying to think about how they can partner with different parts of the organisation or different engineers or different product management people.
So, you're probably more in common than different if I compare five years ago to now.
Yeah. And I think that actually naturally answers the next question, but I'll leave it to you to make that decision. So, what are the most important characteristics that you hire for an architect at Xero?
Yeah, some of what I was saying before, the big ones. I mean, the value proposition of the architects at Xero.
So, we did some work on this this year, in fact, trying to get really clear architect vs engineer or not, which is the value I talked about there being just a different emphasis right on skills.
So, we talked about bridging between worlds, we talk about framing of the future. So, given that framing, that can help with aligned autonomy.
We talk about visualised clarity, and then optimizing the integration of new ideas, new technologies, new companies, I mentioned bridging between the worlds and systemic cohesion, and the other one is demystifying complexity.
So those are the value propositions that we say, this is what academics bring to our colleagues at Xero. So, when we then hire architects, we're looking for people who can exemplify those skills, so deliver that value and effect.
And so, you do index heavily on communication skills, typically, empathy, continuous learning, and self-development.
And the tools and the techniques change so frequently, being able to understand them, and then be able to understand the principle that underpins them, and then have that conversation, that connection with others to try and help demystify the complexity or provide the visualised clarity.
But yeah, index very heavily communication skills, technical acumen, or empathy. And then being able to work with others, like some says they look for collaboration, but you really need to be good at corroboration as an architect.
“Inside of Xero, there's a lot of knowledge sharing, a lot of knowledge sharing.”
You mentioned continuous learning, I imagine, like this role as an architect with an environment like Xero or anywhere, you're going to need to be continuously adding yourself and learning and balancing that against.
Or like hyper-growth company that you're trying to keep up to speed with your day-to-day, how is that process managed within your function of the business?
Yeah, so I think it's handled in-stream. There’s a lot of learning you do on the job.
If I think about it, most of my learning and my career has been on the job has been in an institute, which usually means supplementing either side with things like courses and conferences.
But more often than not podcasts, blogs, kind of getting across some of the latest thinking from other people. And then a lot of reading.
I've done probably more reading in the last 18 months, it's been good. It's restarted my love for reading, and a lot of reading of what other organisations, what other firms and stuff are doing that you can go, oh that's a really interesting patent, how can I deploy that.
Inside of Xero, there's a lot of knowledge sharing, a lot of knowledge sharing. So, we have things called Xen talks, because we have to start everything with an X.
So, at these talks, people will share all sorts of fascinating topics, sometimes really technical, sometimes non-technical.
There's a lot of sharing of communities of practice. So, we're, you know, heavy users of slack. And so, people will jump into all sorts of interesting topics. Again, some technical, some non-technical.
And this is a real act of encouragement, both in my part of the organisation, but also across Xero, to share what you know. So, I think it's something which really is just embedded.
As a futurist, do you use speculative futures, future strategy or future storytelling and your work at Xero?
And then the second part, if yes, what does that practice look like at Xero.
So, if you take some of the design thinking mentality and methodology that's being used, there are aspects of that around our service design and how that's used inside of Xero.
If I think more about future storytelling or domain storytelling or some of those kinds of techniques which we look at when we're trying to figure out okay, are we in strategy development or are we talking about the future roadmap for a product?
So, it's not as much of a formal competency. Rather, it's the techniques going back to that toolbox, right, and having as many tools in there as we can, as the techniques that we look to try and call on when they're needed to solve a particular problem.
“..we've got opportunities that enable us to grow architects, and not just academics and other roles as well”
Interesting. Other one here was sort of more about the future or development of talent. Do you think New Zealand is developing enough high-quality software architects? And if not, what can we be doing better to support that?
Yeah, that's a great challenge. I remember my time at the bank, having a conversation about creating roles for graduates in architecture, which at the time was, they're like, you can't do that, you can't be a graduate.
And so, I created a role called an architecture analyst. And the idea was to say that for some people coming in with analytical skills, business analyst, systems analyst, why not actually analyze the architecture of this case, ASB.
And it was a really successful experiment and able to get people very fresh out of their studies into architecture to start their career. Some of whom then continued becoming architecture analysts in other organisations.
I'm not claiming credit for the idea, globally, but it definitely spread through a number of organisations.
What it does is it creates, if you think about it like an interface point of view, it creates a loop to get into, because we can talk about working with schools, working with higher education, working with postgraduate education, and I've done a lot of those connection points.
So, trying to help universities and postgraduate and undergraduate and then also schools, how do they loop in? But you need to have the loop on the other side.
So, Xero has got a fantastic grad program and a lot of great outreach into schools and other programs out around the world. And so that's trying to do both sides. So, you can end up linking in and go, okay great.
Well, we've got opportunities that enable us to grow architects, and not just academics and other roles as well. You create that ramp, and then you're looking to try and create those connections back into where the pipelines might be for those kinds of people.
Yeah, interesting. And with regards to New Zealand more broadly. Are we doing enough? How can we be better?
Yeah, I think so. I don't know if you can even do enough. I don't know what enough would look like. I do think one of the things that New Zealand has an advantage at is because we are such a small, isolated island nation historically.
There are a number of things we are, that innovation at the core of who we are and what we can do, the necessity of all invention, right? Necessity is the mother of all invention.
And given that necessity, you end up having a lot of jack of all trades, a lot of generalists, a lot of T-shaped people just because we're Kiwis.
So, I think that translates really well into architecture, and getting people lined up in terms of STEM, and getting them really excited about those and studying that there's always more work that can be done.
So, you can kind of get the raw materials fantastic. It's just, how do we work on the refining of it?
“..that's how we tackle frameworks, peer review, coaching, and then looking at being embedded.”
And so, this next question more relates to your actual day to day practice. But it's how do you avoid mismatch between the desired solution and the actual implementation to frameworks or peer review at architectural level.
Yes, there's a short answer on that one. So, frameworks and peer review help, back to what I said before about the centralised embedded. So, having really close proximity. It's not that the architects are over here in some ivory tower, and I need to go to consult with them.
The architects are connected in there, they're working with the teams themselves. And that really helps. And then we're always looking at, how do we evolve our practice? The vision for us as an active practice is, how can we be the best imaginable?
Not best world class, but best imaginable. What would that look like? And so how do we find ways of coaching, reviewing, testing, helping and challenging without necessarily going to an architecture review board or some of those traditional constructs?
So yeah, that's how we tackle frameworks, peer review, coaching, and then looking at being embedded.
Interesting. You had on your LinkedIn that you are an architect that's never designed a building or built a building. What is the sort of transferable skills between what most people would understand as a classic architect and versus what you do?
There's a fascinating and brilliant talk I went to many years ago from a guy who was a trained building architect in the US.
We've done that for a number of years, and then actually transitioned into architecture, enterprise architecture, and it was a fascinating presentation that stuck with me for years, where he talked about in building architecture, you learn certain principles.
You learn certain dimensions, you think about light and structure and all these kinds of things and you translate requirements, not just capturing them, but you translate the vision of conflicting visions.
So, the council wants something for this and then the building owner wants something and the shareholders want something. And he talked about the translation skills and the principles being fundamentally true, translates beautifully into architecture.
All types of architecture inside of IT. Because in effect, you're trying to do the same thing.
You're trying to reconcile multiple visions, come up with a solution that kind of meets as many of those things as possible and then holds to the fundamentals that don't change, rather than always trying to anticipate what's going to change.
“How long can you grow into an architect? I'm still growing into being an architect ...”
Just as a side question there, but do you think you'd ever turn your hand at trying to design a home?
Well, we did some pretty big renovations on the place that I'm in at the moment. And I think if I had any aspirations that were probably dashed by my poor ability, I would have become a bit of a home automation, kind of lighting geek.
So that's probably as close as I've got to designing, from an architecture point of view.
Interesting. Coming into the last couple of minutes here, we're gonna try and get through as many of these questions as possible but if not, we'll have to circle back.
One here is, having worked with Xero for 18 months, what advice would you give yourself if you're starting out again?
If I'm starting out again, I'd say, I already thought that I had to do a lot of listening and learning, and then acting quickly more and more. So, do more of that and getting as quick as we can and experimenting as fast as we can.
Yeah, more would have been my thing at the start, particularly. I think Xero is very good about acting and then getting the data and iterating. And I'd do more of that early on.
How long did it take you to grow into an architect?
I think the second part of the question, which you haven't probably answered is, what's the most stressful part about the architect role and how do you deal with that stress?
How long can you grow into an architect? I'm still growing into being an architect, like the job title wasn't the thing that made me an architect. I don't know if I ever will be what I would dream to aspire to be in terms of the best.
But continuing to grow, the most stressful part is probably the context switching, it is a lot changing between a lot of different problems, particularly, if you're in a leadership of architect roles.
Or if you're in quite a broad scope, you're moving between things very quickly. Variety is the spice of life; it can get a bit spicy. And when there's too much variety. And how do I handle that stress? I'm still working on that.
Like a lot of it is trying to have self-management and carving out time to think, I find whenever I do that, it works really, really well on the rest of the week, when I don’t, I usually pay for it later on.
“Don't try and be something you're not and we can go from there.”
What's your advice for experienced architects to be successful in the Xero recruitment process? It might be broad, but is there any sort of tips and tricks?
No, just bring your authentic self. When there are opportunities that we have for architects, I would just bring forward your ability to learn, your ability to understand, your ability to adapt, and just be your authentic self.
Don't try and be something you're not and we can go from there.
“Continuously learn, continuously challenge. Do that wherever you can.”
Great. And then the final question, which is probably related to that is. What's the best piece of career advice you've ever received or any career advice that you'd be happy to share as a parting comment here.
Probably the one I said before, what's the job after next? So, getting your focus on. Where do you want to be hitting in your life? For anyone who's a big fan of frameworks, there's a great one and I'm probably gonna butcher the pronunciation called, Ikigai.
But I thought it was Ikigai, but it's a Japanese purpose book trying to understand the nexus of things. About how you drive your life and where you go.
The nexus of things between what you're good at, what you can get paid for, what the world needs and what you're passionate about.
Yeah. And so, what's the job after next lines to what is your overarching purpose really helps rise above any particular job titles or particular organizational things.
And the other thing would be the advice that I got on a graduating speech in my year out of university, the speaker talked about, 'congratulations everyone, on getting a degree, it's just the first page of your portfolio.'
So now get on with filling the rest of that portfolio. Continuously learn, continuously challenge. Do that wherever you can. And that usually sets you up for an exciting career.
Interesting. I love that advice about thinking about the next step, I think that could be really useful for people on thinking and not panicking. Thinking in longer term, horizons and really sort of plotting the course beyond that next step.
So that's great. Hey, James, I've really enjoyed chatting with you today. And I'm sure everyone else that's managed to make the time has, so we're really appreciative of you making the time.
It's exciting to hear Xero's progress, but also what the future holds. So, thanks very much for your generosity and your willingness to be open and candid. And we look forward to speaking with you again.
Sure, pleasure. Thanks everyone. Hopefully, that was useful. It's always exciting to talk about where we're at with Xero and the future is even more exciting. So, thanks very much.