Modernising your software – a spotlight on one company’s path to migration

Posted on 19 September 2019 by Camilla Todd

Modernising your software is no small feat, how do you know when and how to get started, let alone decide if you need help. Meaningful travel company, Projects Abroad – a long term partner of BrightMinded – share their journey with us. We spoke to CTO David Flaschner about the challenges they faced with software infrastructure, operations and the decision to find a long term software migration partner.

Setting the vision

David’s plans are focused on a “two to three-year process of modernising our systems. Taking us from a position where, for maybe 10 to 15 years, we had done everything in-house with our own development team – custom developing everything – to a place that is more agile, so we can be quicker to react to our competitors.”

Projects Abroad are leaders in overseas volunteering, internship, and cultural experiences – running programs and hosting participants across the world. With a team of nearly 50 direct employees in the UK and strategic satellite offices worldwide plus a further 450 or so staff on the ground – they are by no means a small operation.

As the technology lead, David takes us through his journey of being a newly appointed CTO and the path that led to the partnership with BrightMinded.

Offshoring IT and changing market conditions

Launched in 1992, Projects Abroad relied on a team based in Romania for their IT operation – managed from their head office in the UK.  Offshoring IT was a common move back in the late 90s and early noughties. At the time, the cost savings had a sizable, positive impact on the bottom line. This is still the case for some businesses but times are changing.

For Projects Abroad, the protocol was to add new features and system enhancements as and when the business requested them. Often requests came without a deep dive into the problem and little consideration to the longevity of the solution.  “We custom developed everything, with no consistent roadmap and no real documentation. Unsurprisingly, it became a bit tangled and messy and it could take a while to get things done.” explains David.

For a while everything ran smoothly, the business went from strength to strength, enjoying international expansion and a growing customer base.  But with expansion came a deeper level of software complexity.

BrightMinded co-founder, John Mooren, tells us: “This has often been our experience with our long term partners – small to medium-sized businesses experience a big growth spurt and often the IT and software infrastructure doesn’t get the attention and TLC it needs to help support and sustain continued growth.”

Add to this, flourishing market conditions in Romania where demand for good software developers was on the up, accompanied by higher salaries, and it’s not hard to see which direction this was potentially heading for Projects Abroad.

Company restructures and a newly appointed CTO

Meanwhile, closer to home, Projects Abroad underwent a management restructure and in 2017 David became the first-ever CTO – responsible for all technology, software, and operations. Moving away from the shared ownership across the business.

With over a decade of experience working with Projects Abroad, and an inherent curiosity in technology, David had taken a leading role in various technology-based projects including marketing initiatives and website builds. David tells us it felt like the natural next step in his career. “Although I’m not an IT expert, I am a Projects Abroad expert. I know how all the different departments work, and what my colleagues need. And if I don’t know something, then I know who to talk to to get the answer or who to get into a room to discuss it.”

John explains: “We often find that senior management and/or CTOs are in a position of being responsible for technology, but don’t necessarily have an IT background or qualification.  And that works just fine – it’s their business acumen and deeper understanding of the business mission, culture, and structure that’s instrumental to success – especially when the technology is being outsourced. For us, it works well to have an internal technology lead who can also be our liaison with the rest of the business.”

David continues: “We are not an IT company. We’re a travel company. We need a technical lead, a solutions architect – someone who has the vision. What we don’t need is to keep hiring IT people only to lose them to big IT firms. It might initially seem more expensive to hire an external partner, but later on, the cost should balance out.”

The first wave of projects for David involved “a redevelopment of our websites and the CMS behind them” and this came at a time when “we were losing a big chunk of the development team in Romania.”

This led David and the Board to rethink the strategy of relying solely on the team in Romania for their software development.  With the increasing salaries and risk of losing key people and their knowledge, the landscape had changed.

The decision was made to have a holistic technology and software strategy, with the newly appointed CTO leading the way and a combined effort between the remaining team in Romania and a local partner in the UK.

“The idea wasn’t, and still isn’t, to replace the team in Romania with an external partner based in the UK – we wanted to find a suitable partner who could work alongside the Romanian team,” stresses David.

And so begins the hunt for BrightMinded

David takes us through his process to find the right partner for the job. “From the start of the search we were worried that everyone we approached would say ‘good luck’ and wouldn’t want to touch this project with a barge pole! But when it became clear there were some companies who seemed appropriate and interested in our problem I put an email together and roughly explained what we were looking to do.

I knew we’d be relocating to Brighton, so ideally we wanted a Brighton-based software partner, or at least a partner close to Brighton. I started searching for companies that fit the bill, read through their website and sent them all the same email to see what would come back. It wasn’t much more complicated than that.”

The email went out to a dozen businesses, and then four were shortlisted for a chat and things progressed from there.

“We’re a pretty informal bunch here at BrightMinded,” explains John. “Once we’ve received an enquiry we like to have an initial chat about the project over the phone or a coffee. We’ll spend time listening and asking questions to make sure we genuinely feel we can help. If all we do is offer advice for how best to move forward then so be it – sometimes we’re just not the right team for the job and we’ll be upfront about that. The last thing we want to do is waste people’s time (including our own) or to leave bad blood.

But with David and the Projects Abroad team, we felt we could help. After receiving his email and having more in-depth chats about their set up we reassured him we could unpick what was there. We would work with the Romanian and internal teams to understand their needs and re-build around them, all the while minimising impact on business as usual and keeping one eye on the future.”

And that’s just what we are doing.

We’ve hit our first milestone, now we’re getting stuck into the next wave

David’s ambition “to drag parts of the business, kicking and screaming, into doing things in a modern way” is well underway. The ultimate goal is to re-build large parts of the infrastructure, bit by bit – making sure the wider Projects Abroad team are able to maintain operations while becoming more efficient at every step. David is working together with BrightMinded to agree on solutions that are either bespoke, off the shelf or a bit of both – and of course, within budget and reasonable timescale!

Wave one was the redevelopment and launch of the websites and now that’s done, David is feeling reassured he made the right choice. “Launching those websites really solved a big headache for us. And now we’re able to start looking at more things. They [BrightMinded] give us peace of mind, especially now that they’re getting involved in other areas of the business.”

“Every month that goes by working with BrightMinded, our risk drops – we feel more comfortable knowing that someone in the BrightMinded office knows/understands our set up and how it works in case anything goes wrong with our team in Romania.

They also work brilliantly with the Romanian team – we’ve had no developers leave since they came on board. They’ve made every effort to help make the team feel ok – not just coming in and taking over everything. They’ve worked alongside the existing people which is great.

BrightMinded could easily have messed that up. Fortunately, they’re relaxed, experienced and nice people, who are easy to talk to, so that hasn’t happened.”

The wider BrightMinded team are enjoying working on this project. Seeing the positive impact their work is having on Projects Abroad is a big part of what keeps them motivated and engaged – that and the opportunity to get their teeth stuck into a fresh, new challenge!

Thank you David for taking the time to talk to us about your journey, we’re chuffed to bits that you chose to partner with BrightMinded and we’re looking forward to taking the next steps in our fruitful, long-term partnership.

Get in touch

If you’re in a similar position to David and in need of an external partner who can help with modernising your software then let’s chat.

You can email us at hello@brightminded.com or call us on 01273 830 331.