Eileen McLaren, FanDuel
Personal Factfile: Eileen McLaren
Name of current organisation: FanDuel
Job Title: Director of Software Development
In post since: June 2013
Reports to: CEO
Office location: Edinburgh, UK / New York City, US
Company Factfile –
FanDuel are the market leader in North America for daily fantasy sports. They are revolutionising one of America’s oldest pastimes and transforming the world of fantasy sports with daily games. Their innovative daily format provides huge advantages for players with massive prizes, faster payouts and unbeatable game selection among the top reasons they are building such a huge following. From humble beginnings in 2009 FanDuel now have over 65 employees based between Edinburgh and New York, tripling in size last year and showing no sign of slowing down. They strongly believe their daily games are driving their format to be bigger than traditional fantasy sports and have grown the daily fantasy concept to a point where they now pay out over $6m in prizes every week.
Awards so far:
- Global Ambition Award – Digital Business Awards 2010
- Scottish Digital Technology Company of the Year 2012 & 2013 – Digital Technology Awards
- Management Team of the Year 2013 – Scotland & Ireland Management Team Awards
- Online Business of the Year – Scottish Business Awards 2013
- Outstanding Performance in Business Growth – 2012 & 2013 Digital Technology Awards
What does your current role involve?
I look after the whole engineering team in FanDuel from a development perspective, so I work very closely with our Technical Director, who is one of the co-founders, and between us we run the department. I also own, look after and maintain the roadmap. This involves working really closely with product colleagues in New York who come up with the ideas and different things that we should do on the site. I plan the projects, look at the structure of the teams, make sure we have the right balance in terms of skillsets and people. I also coach, develop and manage the people individually and hire for the entire engineering department. There are about 25 people in engineering at the moment but we are adding all the time and are looking to almost double this team in size over the next year so building the team is part of my focus.
Can you tell me about FanDuel’s development environment?
Historically the development environment was pretty monolithic and mainly written in PHP. We’ve done a lot of work to change this over the last year to 18 months though. We’ve moved a lot more towards Java Services talking over APIs to python on the presentation layer. There’s still a bunch of PHP back there, but more and more of the code is shifting to the new platform.
We are agile in our approach and use a scrum-like version of agile, which we are always looking to improve.
On infrastructure, we use AWS EC2 for all our server needs, and we use Puppet to automatically get the servers up and running. It is absolutely key for us to have the ability and availability to spin things up as soon as we need them and I don’t see that changing at all
What does FanDuel’s technology innovation strategy look like?
We probably don’t really have a strategy as such, but we’ve always taken the time to hire people who have a wider interest in technology, and where they find new solutions to our challenges we’re always keen to take a look and see if they can add value. We also do little rapid prototyping exercises where we will give people a week or two to look at a project, like re-doing the front end, what kind of models are out there and what kind of libraries can be used.
Basically the development team are continually looking for new and better way of doing things. When any individual comes across something good we can introduce to the whole team in an open forum. Everybody can talk about it, make suggestions and see if we want to use it and what benefits it will bring. I think the key to our strategy is about having the right people in place to innovate.
In your opinion what do you see as FanDuel’s biggest area of technology growth in the next five years?
We’re really focused on a couple of things. The first is mobile. Already well over half of our traffic is from mobiles or tablets, and that’s only going to increase, so it’s vital for us to make sure that everything we do works for those users. Native apps will definitely be a big area of growth to support that – we are not 100% convinced we want to go native on every platform, but certainly the main ones. Changing our product development process to start from how things look and work on mobile first is also key for the users who don’t want or don’t have access to native apps. It should also help us build better, simpler products for everybody.
The other area we’re always looking at is keeping things moving on the servers. We’ve been growing by more than 300% every year for the last few years and we plan to keep that up. We also have a few key times every day and week where we get huge peaks in traffic, and because that’s when we make most of our money things have to keep moving at those times. This gives us some interesting challenges in terms of rolling out capacity for short periods of time, and building really stable systems using technologies that can scale with our needs.
How do you think FanDuel compares to other companies in the online gaming sector right now?
Gaming means different things to different people so it is hard to categorise. It is interesting as people think traditionally of gaming as Xbox or PS2 games and we are not really like that. We are about games like fantasy football, where half the job is running a server that works fast and reliably all the time, and the other half is building a client that can get people interested and keep them engaged and coming back day after day.
I guess we are also a bit different in that our main market is North America and not the UK. People reading this might think that’s a bit strange, but there is a huge market in the US for what we are doing. We cover American football, baseball, basketball, hockey, college football and college basketball.
Operating in the US market offers more global opportunities for growth, at the moment the untapped market in the US is still huge. There are obviously other sports we can get into and other markets we can explore in the coming years. This is always something that raises its head, for example should we be doing the English Premier League? There are a few sites doing that, the Premier League has its own season long fantasy football thing so if we were to do it on a day to day basis who knows? Right now we are concentrated on growing our presence in North America.
What was the first technology job that you had?
My first technology job was as a trainee analyst programmer in Glasgow at what was then known as Strathclyde Regional Council, which doesn’t exist anymore, but I am not going to tell you when!
How did you get into technology?
When I was at school we didn’t have technology classes or computing or anything similar. One of my brothers was a software engineer and for me it was a toss-up between computing and the other area I was really interested in – food science and nutrition. The careers advisors directed me towards computing as a good career. I saw that my brother was doing well so I went and got my degree in Information Systems.
What has been your biggest career achievement to date?
It is interesting, we ask people this when they come in for interview and I can’t even remember how I answered it then! My biggest career achievement to date is finding the job I am in now. I think it is probably the best job I have ever had. Since I started I have introduced a more agile way of working, we have formalised the team structure, the road map is in a much easier format for people to know what is coming along and I have hired a heck of a lot people who so far have all been very successful.
Getting this job felt right for me. I had two reasons for looking for a new position. The main one was that the previous job I had involved a lot of travel, and I still wanted something that was a challenge. I have been through a number of companies in my career some of which have been challenging and fun and some which have definitely not been! I really wanted a challenge and an opportunity to show people what I was capable of doing. In this role I have a fantastic opportunity to shape things and be with a company that is growing rapidly.
Who has been the most influential technology person in your career to date?
There are two. Gareth Williams, CEO at Skyscanner, is one. I had a great opportunity when I worked there and I had two great years. I learnt all about how a start-up operates and what growth can do for you. Gareth was a technologist who became a CEO and I admire him for what he has done. Martin Fowler is a senior technologist who works for and with Thoughtworks but is very well known just in the whole technology space. He has done lots of work on continuous integration, development and he is very well known. I have only had the opportunity to meet him once but he is such a nice down to earth guy to speak to as well, and a lot of his blogs and writings are very insightful.
What technology company do you most admire and why?
It is a hard one, there are so many. What do you class as a technology company? Every company is a technology company of one form or another now. I think rather than picking one company I am much more interested in technology companies which give people freedom, that don’t have heavy HR processes and react a bit faster. I think the way in which Spotify operate is great. They operate in a really agile way, but they also have tribes and various different structures so people feel like they belong to more than one team and can do different things at different times. Netflix have a really good philosophy in terms of the way they hire the best people, they pay the best people and they don’t have hierarchical structures. I guess the companies I admire are those where people have the freedom to investigate new technologies and spend some time doing their own personal development. I am a great believer if you are good to your staff they are good to you.
In your opinion, what is the most significant technological advance of the last five years?
I would have to say the mobile side of things, the proliferation of the use of mobiles and tablets and the fact they can do pretty much anything in your life. It really has to change the mind-set of companies who are delivering a product or service out there, you have to think mobile first.
What do you see being the biggest area of technology growth in the next five years?
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think things like Google glass, the really mobile stuff and wearable technologies will grow. You could even get into science fiction realm of a few years ago; we are close to it now with movable boards. It is impossible to tell.
Where do you put the UK in terms of technology innovation in terms of other countries?
It strikes me that we are pretty high up there. There are lots of young people coming through. There are loads of technology start-ups in this country with lots of good ideas and the universities are turning out really good people.
FanDuel have an office in New York, but all our technology people are in Edinburgh. We are here as there is a great talent pool and Edinburgh attracts people from all over the UK as it is a great place to live and it is much more reasonably priced than New York. We are the number one in our market place, North America, and all our competitors have followed us and copied us, so that doesn’t lead me to believe there is a huge amount of innovation among our competitors, but there could be in other areas of the marketplace.
Which start-up does the most to impress you at the moment?
There are lots of different things going on, when does a start-up stop being a start-up? We still call ourselves a start-up and I am impressed by how quickly we have grown and how we have maintained our culture, so I could be really selfish and say FanDuel!
There is a fantastic culture, really talented, skilled people and everybody gets on with each other. You feel like you work hard, you play hard, but you have opportunities and with a company that is growing so quickly there are huge opportunities. And you are listened to as well, so if you have an idea to do something people will listen to it, and if it is a good idea people will take it on board.
What is the latest personal technology gadget that you have bought?
An iPad mini, cause it’s more convenient than an iPad. I am a bit of an Apple person.
What is the best app that you have ever downloaded?
I have two things which give away my interest, one is FOTMOB, it gives you live football scores from all the leagues in the UK and Europe and the other is the Celtic Live app as I’m a big Celtic fan. It gives you constant updates before and during a game.
What is on your iPod or MP3 player at the moment?
I like rock music, so everything from Thin Lizzy to Rammstein but I also like a variety of things. Mario Biondi is in there, as is Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I also have a lot of George Benson, a blast from the past, but I have loved him for years.
What do you do in your spare time?
Other than go to see football, I spend time in Glasgow and am split between there and Edinburgh. I like listening to music, I love reading crime thrillers, cooking curries or anything Italian, eating out and socialising.
What do you think we can do to inspire more women to pursue careers in technology?
I think it is really important we start at school because even looking at university courses its apparent there is an imbalance that starts before then. I think if we can have people, especially girls, understand the power of technology and the things that are there to be done they would be more inspired. Over the years I have gradually moved into management however this has been made easier with having development and analysis experience.
Having that technology background has really helped me manage all of the guys that I look after, and they are mostly guys, which is a shame. There is so much scope and opportunity for everyone, and if we could just get ladies to understand what a great career they can have from school onwards I think that would really help. More people like me who have a career should be going out and talking to people.
Interviewed by Rebecca Hastings, Senior Consultant in the Edinburgh Office
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