I recently spoke at the AWS Summit London about Comic Relief’s journey into Serverless (full video of Serverless Deep Dive session here). During some press interviews at the conference, myself and Adam Clark (Senior Engineer) got to speak in a bit more detail about some of the more nuanced advantages that going Serverless has unlocked for our organisation. This article will address how, by taking advantage of commodity services from AWS, we’re now able to focus our team’s energy and output on problems which are unique to our organisation.
Moving the majority of our user-facing tech to Serverless has led to some incredible cost savings, but that’s not where the real business value has been unlocked for us.
For many years, the digital team at Comic Relief were stuck in what we call the “campaign-cycle”; we have a huge national event every year and the approach to delivering sites and services was to build — almost from scratch — the new campaign’s digital products. In 2016, an effective strategy was set so that we could focus on reducing repetition and reducing costs. Over a 3 year period, this led us to adopting Serverless for more and more of our tech stack and resulted in a 93% reduction in our AWS bill (March 2015 VS March 2019). Head of Technology, Peter Vanhee, describes this process as “reducing the cost of ownership” which is having significant impact on the total cost of operations within our technology department. The savings are incredible but not, in my opinion, as valuable as the opportunities that increased velocity and speed of delivery has opened up.
Moving from reactive to proactive
It may seem obvious, but automation and reusability are key to giving your team and organisation head space to look up from the daily grind, identify high value opportunities and chase after them. At Comic Relief, there’s always been -and will always be- an attitude that you’ve got to pounce on an opportunity. In other departments this may mean grabbing some time with a celebrity on a press tour or pulling together creative social content last minute, but our technology team can’t always be that adhoc. For us to move from reactive and defensive development patterns — the kinds that filled our products with levels of tech debt which made them non-viable for another 12 months — we had to get smarter about when to build and when to buy.
Commodity tech services have allowed our team to focus on business value. Utilising technology which handles basic operational needs enables us to tackle problems which are unique to our organisation and allows for a lighter touch ops function which has been democratised across the team. Where we previously had 2–3 person webops team, serverless has enabled us to repurpose those roles into full-stack engineers who are helping us build solutions to our unique business problems.
What does that mean in practice?
Where previously our team’s remit was almost entirely supporter-facing tech, we are now able to flex our full -marginally pretentious- directorate title of Digital & Innovation. As an organisation, we have many years of what I would describe as “Process debt” — the kind of problems that arise from adhoc and reactive processes which have not been effectively refactored. We successfully utilised the latest tech for our donation platform, but when it came to other business processes, we were stuck with systems which relied far too much on human-powered data modification rather than automation.
By making smarter choices around what to build vs what to buy — whether that’s utilising services on offer from AWS over our own infrastructure or choosing Just Giving over developing our own fundraising pages — we have opened up more problem spaces within our organisation for us to innovate. While “process debt” may not sound like the most appealing area to innovate, the opportunities which will be unlocked once we have inter-operable systems are huge. Previously, our team were only focused on the public fundraising activity of our organisation, now we’re able to look at the bigger picture:
One example of these new opportunity spaces would be the disconnect between our supporters and the projects we fund. This stems from our biggest communications format (our Night of TV), which historically lends itself to over-simplification of how funding projects works. In the past few years, our broadcast team have worked hard to change the narrative and try to convey the nuances of the way the public’s money is helping create a just world free from poverty. Without easy access to data and case studies, our storytelling team can’t possibly convey the true breadth of impact that Comic Relief’s funding has. We believe it is these problems where innovation and digital transformation will have the greatest effect on our organisation.
So, what’s next?
We’ve made changes to the areas of focus for our product team — where we previously were focusing across the different areas of public fundraising (website, donation platform, shop, etc.), many of these products are now at a level of maturity where we can be slightly lighter touch. As such, I have been able to rebalance my team to focus on some of those new areas of innovation:
- Developing fit-for-purpose tools and processes for our impact investments
- Building trust through data in our storytelling
- Creating new experiences and products to raise money
For each of these areas, we’ll be taking the commodity-first approach which can lead to high speed delivery and lower costs, especially as we continue to develop our technology ecosystem into a network of decoupled but integratable systems.