BrightHR: a market leader in use of technology

Today I want to share some information about the company I work for: BrightHR, a people management software company in Manchester. The company believes passionately in technology, and helping its employees make products they can be proud of. In this post, I want to examine the processes and choices that have been implemented here, that I believe make the company market-leading.

Being a technology leader means more than just creating great products, and more than using the latest or greatest tools. It means building a technology strategy aligned with industry experts; making use of innovative ways of working; and attracting the best technologists in the area. So how did BrightHR do all this?

It’s widely accepted within the IT industry that teams perform best when they’re self-organised, autonomous and set a transcendent goal they can believe in. In the 1990s, this practice was widely publicised through a framework known as “Agile”. At BrightHR, to ensure our teams perform as well as they can, we encourage them to implement Agile practices: to take ownership for their own success, and to exercise freedom over the tools they use. In this way, we know we’ll get the best from each team, and each team-member feels they’re bringing every ounce of effort to bear on problems.

We also recognise the growing trend for companies to contribute to an “open source” culture. The term “open source” refers to when an IT company puts some of its own code or applications into the open market, for others to use freely. More than this, we operate an internal open-source model too. This means our teams produce software and then make it available within the organisation to other teams, usually by using application programming interfaces (known as APIs — more on these later).

Harnessing technology is painstaking work — the smallest error today can cause substantial problems tomorrow. With this in mind, BrightHR’s Developers take great pains to prevent mistakes, and one of the key ways we do this is by making extensive use of “pairs”, and even of “mobs”. Curious to what these are? On a typical day in the BrightHR offices, you may find a group of Developers sitting together around a single television screen. Conversation flows back and forth, and most of the team just stare at the screen, holding notepads. But one Developer is furiously typing on a laptop. The team are engaged in what’s called “mob programming”, where the group attempts to work together as one unit — a “mob” — with only one keyboard to produce code. The benefits of mobbing include preventing errors by subjecting each new line of code to quality checks by multiple people; and involving each team-member first-hand in all tasks, so they learn how to do everything the rest of the team can. If the whole team isn’t available, often just a pair of Developers will work together — in this way, they are still ensuring the knowledge gets shared evenly between them both.

Innovating and selecting new features to build, doesn’t happen by accident. Innovation has been studied for decades and though it will sometimes spark in unfavourable conditions, we know more often it will appear where attempts are made to cultivate it. BrightHR actively encourages employees to take time away from their day-to-day work to focus on projects that are unrelated. New code languages and frameworks have been investigated by staff during this time, including some used by companies like Facebook and Google.

These experiments don’t always work out, but that’s not a problem — in fact, our team-members are actively encouraged to take risks when exploring new technologies. Rather than being a sign of incompetence or cause for concern, failure is encouraged and seen as a necessary part of learning.

Now that I’ve looked at some of BrightHR’s technology practices, I’ll focus on some of the specific technologies that we use.

A key element of BrightHR’s technological approach is the use of application programming interfaces (APIs). These are increasingly the lifeblood of the technology industry, and as I alluded to earlier they allow two isolated applications to communicate; share information; and give and receive commands that can be interpreted by either side. APIs allow our Developers to break up our code into independent modules, which then “talk” to each other in a controlled manner.

Another key to our approach is use of AngularJS. Since before the Y2K bug was a concern to the world, websites have been built using a single technology: hyper-text markup language, or HTML. This language has served the internet, and the world at large, well for a very long time — but it has certain draw-backs. One way to dramatically increase the power and flexibility of HTML is using a relatively new technology owned by Google, called Angular (in fact, its full name is AngularJS, the “JS” standing for “JavaScript”). Simply put, Angular makes the HTML in which our web product is written, far more powerful — allowing BrightHR to run quickly, smoothly and effectively on your desktop, laptop, or mobile. All of your employees’ data will be at your fingertips — and much of the reason why you can have it so fast and reliably, is because we chose to build BrightHR using AngularJS.

To become a leader in your industry, you need to acknowledge new and important trends, and at BrightHR, we’ve recognised that cloud computing, and in particular cloud hosting, has gone from being an expensive, unproven gamble, to the safest bet imaginable. There are several advantages to hosting our website in a “cloud”: the data can exist electronically in several locations at once, so if one site in the network suffers an outage, our clients’ data remains accessible, and because the data is available via a large network of distributed nodes, it’s faster and more accessible than if confined to one location. When BrightHR was first launched, we knew we had to host our product in the cloud, because it would offer our customers a faster, more reliable experience, and it would let us operate a more flexible, economical business.

Another market-leading practice used by BrightHR is continuous integration (often referred to simply as “CI”). CI means that every time new code is uploaded by a Developer, tests are run against it to ensure that there is always stable code ready for release, and that we can release new code within minutes if necessary. This completely replaces the traditional practice of applying quality control after completing all development.

Finally, BrightHR is available not just only the web, but within the app stores of Apple and Google Play. The BrightHR native apps have been available for iOS and Android as long as our web product and contain much of the same functionality. What’s more exciting is that in future these apps will contain functionality not present in the website. So-called “native” apps can make use of a phone’s hardware — for example its camera or GPS tracker — to offer features specifically designed for BrightHR users. These could include using the phone’s vibration detection to track and lower your pulse before stressful meetings, or to record what exact time users arrived at the office. There is no limit to the new features we can potentially deliver through these apps.

As well as making use of current technologies, BrightHR constantly scans the horizon for new and emerging technologies. We want our staff to become “early adopters” and to push the boundaries of what can be used in our products.

Firstly, most now acknowledge that virtual reality (VR) is coming, and it’s going to reshape every single industry. At our launch event at the national CIPD convention in November 2015, our stand featured an interactive shooting game using a “Google Cardboard” VR headset. Google Cardboard is a hardware and software package that immerses the user in an interactive, virtual environment. We are going to continue to explore how virtual reality can be used in the world of HR and employment consulting to better help our clients in the future.

Secondly, we believe the trend of “big data” will become increasingly prevalent. As our lives become more automated and electronic in nature, the amount of information generated by our day-to-day activities is increasing. This brings opportunities to make use of large sets of data — commonly referred to as “big data” — and companies who decide to capitalise on these are increasingly able to produce key insights and information. These insights can be used to better inform a company’s products and consumer propositions. In future, we intend to use advanced analytics software to gather insights about our clients’ employees from the large datasets we obtain, and then use this to draw conclusions about how we can offer the best service to them, and to their employees.

Finally, there is a growing trend toward utilising “gamification” in software: the skill of making transactions more game-like, in order to encourage frequent and repeated usage. BrightHR wants to be at the forefront of this. Accordingly, in future we’re going to utilise the expertise of leaders from the video-gaming industry to understand how games designers make their games so addictive, and then bring these techniques to the fore in our web product and native apps.

Putting technology at the forefront of our company’s strategy has meant, we believe, that we have attracted and retained some of the best technologists in Manchester. I interviewed several members of staff for this article, and their comments paint BrightHR as an exciting place to be. “It’s still in the “new company” phase,” one employee said, referring to the energy and excitement of the office. “This just makes the future all the more exciting!”

Overall, BrightHR feels more committed to new technology now than ever before. The company is constantly investing in cutting-edge techniques and practices, so we can keep pushing the envelope.

As a BrightHR employee, I think the company’s use of technology makes it pretty special. In a world where companies often embrace technology only when they have to, it’s refreshing to see that here at BrightHR, embracing new technology isn’t just desirable — it’s one of the keys to our success.

To learn more about how BrightHR can help your business, click here.

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