Interview with Nigel Dalton CIO REA Group

disruptive technology

Nigel Dalton CIO REA Group up on stage at a charity benefit

Nigel Dalton is Chief Information Officer at REA Group, a global online real estate advertising company headquartered in Melbourne.  REA Group’s businesses include realestate.com.au, realcommercial.com.au and property.com.au.  Nigel is undoubtedly one of the superheroes of the IT world and here he talks to us about his passion and energy for technology as it relates to people and place.

1. You are known as the ‘godfather of agile’.  How did this come about and why is agile working such a passion for you?

Godfather of agile? Really?

I’m not sure if that was a James Brown or a Don Corleone godfather model that Brett Winterford was thinking of. I’m unlikely to drop a horse’s head in your bed if you insist on big design up front and resisting changing requirements, so I’ll take James Brown. I do like getting on stage every so often, but to be fair, I’m never going to be this good …

Agile was a revelation to me in my career in 2000. I had moved from Melbourne to San Francisco to help build a startup in the field of HR and big data, and fully intended on implementing everything I knew about command and control management in that startup – 3 year plans, functional specifications, gated processes, change documents, steering committees, the whole 9 yards. I went from teaching Accenture’s MethodOne waterfall techniques to falling on my face in a matter of weeks.

As it happened, I’d been given a paperback copy of Extreme Programming Explained by Kent Beck, one of the pioneers of what became the agile movement. I’d read it on the plane to America, but discarded it as ‘ridiculous, anarchic tosh that could never be implemented’. Faced with repeated failure of trying to lock down rapidly changing product designs (and thus tech requirements), we started making small steps and showing the resulting features to customers. Bingo!

Since then there’s been some good-natured teasing from the real agile elders – Dave Thomas, Roy Singham, Martin Fowler and the like – that from my pulpit-thumping passion for a new way of working, plus my willingness to evangelise this across Australia and NZ (and maybe some elegant grey hair), that I am some kind of agile elder.

2.  What is your proudest project achievement to date and how has it transformed the world around us?

I have a personal philosophy that simply says “make the world 1% better today”. That might add up to stopping for 5 minutes to chat to someone in the office, asking them how their day is going, or if there’s anything I can do to make their work easier. It might be to give some visitors a tour of the agile world of REA-Group in Melbourne; or put a band together to help raise some money for a friend’s charity with a battle of the bands. It might just be saying ‘thanks’ for someone’s effort in their job. In time, that 1% adds up.

This philosophy comes from personal experience. In 2008, despite being a fit and competitive cyclist, I had to have open heart surgery for a failing aortic valve. The incremental, day by day recovery gave me a passion for living each day to the maximum, and making things just a little bit better every day. Kaizen for life if you like.

I’d like to think that 1% philosophy has rubbed off on a few people.

3.  How do you encourage creative thinking at REA Group?

My main mission at REA is simply to not stifle creativity. Everyone is working super-hard in their jobs, they have full lives outside of work, and given that creative thinking rarely just happens, when it does, it is precious.

So many things go into building a work environment where it feels safe to experiment and try things out – where it’s safe to fail. Leaders’ attitudes towards failure are a big part of it, but we work hard on the structural elements of a work environment that encourages invention as well.

Our new workplace in Richmond is going to be a huge leap for us – much more space for hack days and hackers’ markets, permanent places to play and experiment with new technologies like 3D printing, Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, Google Glass; and space to spend time with people from the property ecosystem in Australia. Rooms will be set aside for collaboration and creativity – including a music studio.

We’re pretty famous for our hack days at REA – there’s a good video online that explains those better than I can in words.

4.  What is the overarching common goal driving REA Group?

In 2013 we developed a simple phrase that has become a foundation for our organisation. We have never looked back!

Having seen Simon SInek’s talk on the web about telling your stories in the order of Why then How then What we figured that articulating WHY we all turn up to work would be important. Sinek’s premise is that everyone knows WHAT they do, and many will know HOW it’s done, but too few know why. That’s led to thousands of flaccid mission, vision and values statements in the corporate world. “We will be the world’s best XXXXXXX company” really doesn’t cut it, or even differentiate you from your competitors.

REA’s purpose is to ’empower people by making the whole property process simple, efficient and stress-free’.

Everyone who works at REA Group has had a complex, inefficient and stressful property experience at some stage in their lives, and they are passionate about putting that right. They bring that into everything they do – managing their work priorities, and building their energy for finding new solutions to the challenges faced by property seekers, property owners and real estate agents.

One of my proudest moments at REA was a team developing an amazing hack day project focused on the needs of women and children escaping domestic violence situations, called RealShelter. It was 100% on target for our purpose – as they so rightly pointed out, our purpose certainly doesn’t say “empowering rich people…” I will confess to a tear or two being shed that day. So damned proud.

What are your thoughts on technology in your industry – is it an enabler or an inhibitor?

It’s a disrupter!

Once you’ve got over that fact, it’s time to think of it as an enabler. Actually, the ideal asset for any technologist is a teenager in the family – they’ll seek out and adopt new stuff at a rate that nobody over 30 can possibly keep up with.

To give us perspective, we often refer to Moore’s Law – which goes all the way back to 1965. Gordon Moore explained that through miniaturisation, the number of transistors in an integrated circuit could double every 2 years, which would result in exponential growth in the power of processor chips – fueling the personal computer revolution and ultimately the internet.

Trouble is, the human brain prefers things that change incrementally, in a linear fashion.

The conflict of those 2 modes of change leads to a lot of people getting disrupted. New tech-fueled business models come along and gain a foothold in no time at all, when they’re easily ignored as startups – think Uber and AirBnB in the so-called sharing economy. New technologies like Oculus Rift can emerge and become mature in a matter of months. Our aim is to keep up with what is going on and invest in applications of the latest technologies for the benefit of all the people in the property ecosystem.

6.  In three words describe your vision for the future of the built environment.

The future isn’t just slides, ball pits or nap pods. It’s about workplaces that do a good job of nurturing the organisation’s brand internally, consistent with the way your products and services are representing that brand externally.

I unashamedly borrowed this diagram of a tree from Toyota (sorry Toyota!) on a recent visit to their Altona plant.

I loved the way Toyota were moving focus away from concern with the external economic environment they had no control over (the seasons, the wind and rain i.e. the economy, the exchange rate, the closure of GM and Ford) and were focusing on what they did control – the  roots of the tree, which they saw as their Toyota company culture and way of working, which we mostly know of as Lean, or the Toyota Production System (TPS).

In the REA version I have added built environment as a key category of the foundations of the organisation. It’s as important as who you hire, and how they work (which is our agile approach).

There’s not enough written about the ideal office layout for working in collaborative ways like agile, and it often doesn’t align with the popular views that pure open plan must be good because it reduces hierarchy and ensures people talk to each other. Those are good theories, but empirical evidence (and a bunch of people wearing headphones in your office to escape the hubbub) would suggest we need a new theory.

Ultimate flexibility comes from the foundations of activity based working (ABW), which with futurespace we have made more ‘agile’ with ‘neighbourhood based working’ or NBW. (I’m a geek, I love acronyms). Coupled with the flexibility of people working from home, from other countries (80 of our staff work from Xi’an in China), and part-time, we believe we will have a workplace that is pretty darned future-proof.

In just 3 words? Very hard – but Toyota have one word that comes close, Jidoka. It is sometimes translated as ‘autonomation’, and can be thought of as human-centric technology. People and machines working in harmony, correcting and learning along the way.

That would be a cool future.



Categories: Leadership

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2 replies

  1. Thanks Angela, you set some great questions – that great charity battle of the agile bands photo was taken by our very own Kate Hunter, a specialist in music photography and all-round wizard with an DSLR. See her stuff here: http://www.headheartmusiccamera.com.au/ . We lost the battle to Thoughtworks, so I mustn’t be that agile I guess.

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