Simplicity is the essence of fintech. Our industry exists because incumbent financial services are slow, complicated and poorly adapted to a 21st-century customer’s needs.
Good innovators take an existing product, analyse its flaws, simplify it, measure the value it provides to users and then release it. The best innovators continue this process throughout the entire lifecycle of their product. Those that don’t are eventually disrupted and replaced themselves.
Azimo’s vision is to “use technology to democratise financial services, making them affordable and available to all”. To do this, we need to understand the global money transfer process better than our competitors and simplify it with every release.
Azimo aims to be “more tech than fin”, but while our engineering team is the engine room of our business, no project is ever purely technical. Engineers cannot focus solely on building software because software is just a tool. The engineering team should be focused on solving customer problems and acting as a growth partner for the rest of the company.
Its not been easy and we’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way but in six years we’ve built Azimo into a company that moves billions of dollars around the world. During that time we’ve learned more than we ever believed possible. Here are the key engineering principles gleaned from our journey: our manifesto for changing the world of cross border payments.
Software is a just a tool. You can buy it, you can copy it, and your competitors will be using the same cloud products that you use. The differentiator in software development is your team. If your team simply writes good code, you might make a decent product. If your team deeply understands the problems of your users, you will make a great product.
To create an environment where motivated, skillful developers deliver value to customers, we follow Dan Pink’s rules. We offer every engineer autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Once we agree as a business on the nature of a problem, engineers have autonomy to choose the solution. Because our engineers are divided up into small mission teams, every team member has a voice when deciding on an approach.
Mastery is defined as the desire to keep improving something that’s important to us. Yet even the best people with the greatest extrinsic motivation need guidance and tuition to improve. That’s why each team has a tech lead — the one and only level of hierarchy in our engineering department.
The tech lead helps teams to cooperate, offers guidance to other engineers and helps partners across the business to understand the engineering process. Brilliant engineers in their own right, they must also be exceptional communicators. They must have a desire to help those around them and the wisdom to do so.
We hire people that believe in our vision and care about things like financial inclusion. A sense of purpose, of belief in the mission, is critical in every member of staff we hire. If we can’t see it, the answer is no, no matter how many unicorns they’ve worked for.
To maintain that sense of purpose, we are very transparent. Every team can see how their work contributes to achieving the company’s vision. No decisions or results are kept secret. Everyone at the company has access to the same data as the CEO. Goal-setting systems, such as OKRs, also help team members to understand and define their own purpose.
Plenty of businesses talk about being a “data-driven company”. It’s a cute buzzword that people love to put in their presentations to investors. But what does it actually mean? To us it’s about three things:
It’s all about the outcome
A thousand pie charts aren’t worth one happy user. If you can’t demonstrate precisely how your changes improved the life of a customer, you aren’t data-driven. The number of data points you collect isn’t important, it’s how quickly and effectively you can validate your assumptions using the data.
Data, not opinions
Being data-driven means changing the culture of your business. If your employees have all the tools to access information but still wait for their boss’s opinion before acting, you’re doing it wrong. At Azimo, everyone is a part-time data analyst. Everyone should be able to win an argument with data, no matter whether with a colleague or senior management. HIPPOs have no jurisdiction here.
Garbage in, garbage out
It’s become fashionable in recent years to store as much data as you can collect. Sounds logical: storage is cheaper and easier to maintain than ever before. If you’re not careful, however, you will quickly find it impossible to separate signal from noise in an ocean of information. Keep the data, by all means, but store it in its natural format. Only process the information that your customers tell you is important. That way you always have access to what you need, without being inundated by irrelevance.
Companies love to talk about automation, it’s another one of those buzzwords you’ll hear at conferences and TED talks the world over. We all know that machines can do repetitive, boring, computational tasks much faster than any human, freeing up human energy for more creative and interesting things.
At Azimo, we’ve built an entire business on automation and usability. Our customers see a user-friendly, elegant app or website that allows them to send money anywhere in the world within a few minutes. From a back end perspective, however, we’ve integrated dozens of APIs, services and partners that turn a laborious, manual process into fast, seamless one.
This involves everything from the commonplace, such as integrating with a card payment system, to the highly complex, such as integrating with a bespoke banking system in Nigeria. A user of Azimo can make a pound sterling card transaction in London at 4pm on a Sunday, their recipient can collect the money in Filipino pesos at a supermarket in Manila 30 minutes later. Without automation, this would be impossible.
We’ve achieved this by relentlessly experimenting with automation, abstracting new ideas from existing solutions and shadowing partners across the globe to find out how we can make our systems better. For more on automation, check out our tech lead’s post: Automated testing will set your engineering team free.
Being able to scale is crucial in a fast-growing business like Azimo. In The Founder’s Mentality, Chris Zook and James Allen explore the growth paradox: “growth creates complexity, and complexity kills growth”. The key to scaling effectively is having the right software architecture.
We have a simple rule: technology follows architecture and architecture should address real problems. If we start at the top with proper domain design, we can use the right tools to solve the right problems. In addition, our technology-agnostic approach means we can use different languages (PHP, JS, Java, Scala) in different areas of our ecosystem.
We also have to process multiple money transfers in parallel. To do this, we have to integrate with many partners in both a synchronous and asynchronous way. The natural solution is an event-driven architecture based on microservices, which we’ll address in a future post.
Here are some of the books which have inspired me and my colleagues as we’ve built Azimo from a plucky startup into a thriving business that continues to grow:
- Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us; Dan Pink
- The Art of Scalability; Martin L. Abbot, Michael T. Fisher
- Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action; Simon Sinek
- The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement; Eliyahu M. Goldratt
- The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win; Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team; Patrick Lencioni