How do you successfully follow DevOps practices when the two parts of your team are 5,000 miles (8,000km) and two time zones apart?
Airwallex is a global fintech founded in Melbourne, Australia just four years ago. It is Australia’s fastest-growth tech unicorn with a valuation of over $1 billion thanks in part to investments from companies such as Tencent Holdings, Sequoia Capital, Square Peg, Horizon Ventures, DST Global and MasterCard.
The business came into being when co-founders Jack Zhang and Max Li–who both worked in the banking sector–started a cafe in Melbourne’s Docklands area and realized that expensive foreign exchange rates hurt their profit margins when they imported products such as coffee cups.
Zhang was a software developer working in investment banking and foreign trading, and he knew technology could be applied to the problem.
Four years later, the company operates a network that allows SMEs to make easy and affordable payments to more than 130 countries and in 50 currencies.
Airwallex has 400 employees spread across offices in Hong Kong, London, Melbourne, Shanghai, Shenzhen, San Francisco, Singapore and Tokyo. That headcount includes 50 engineers in Melbourne and 84 in Shanghai.
“Communications between the two teams is incredibly important,” said Peter O’Donovan, Airwallex engineering lead.
So the approach has been to treat all of his people as if they were remote workers.
Extensive use of Slack–even when both people are in the same office–keeps everyone in the loop, he explained.
Similarly, Zoom videoconferencing is used for standups, and physical agile walls are replaced with digital equivalents.
These tools also allow for the growth of skills across regions, and help ensure everyone is “working to a common pattern.”
Such shared channels for collaboration and communication help accommodate overlapping working hours (Melbourne and Shanghai are three hours apart when daylight saving is in effect in Australia), as well as the need for engineers to be on call to deal with emergencies.
This approach puts everyone on a similar footing, whether they work in one of the offices or remotely.
DevOps leaders need to “focus on building relationships first,” he advised. Frequent video conferences are one way to build bonds with people in different locations. Understanding each others’ mindsets, establishing common ways of working and setting clear expectations are essential, and “doing it from day one is important.”
Airwallex plans to double the size of its engineering staff in both cities during 2020. O’Donovan points out that these established standards and practices help with the onboarding process and allow new hires to become productive more quickly.
That is especially true as the company has selected tools that most people will find familiar: in addition to Slack and Zoom, Airwallex also uses GitHub and G Suite. “These tools are easy to adopt and easy to consume.”
“Melbourne is a challenging market,” said O’Donovan, because DevOps skills are in demand and Airwallex wants to hire and retain quality talent. But there’s a virtuous circle–helping staff build a strong skill set and surrounding them with other talented people makes it a better place to work, so attraction and retention becomes less of a problem.
O’Donovan sees DevOps as a key to scaling the company. Having all the teams using the same tools and patterns yields economies of scale by avoiding unnecessary repetition of work, and it allows developers to focus on functionality rather than plumbing.
Furthermore, regulation and compliance is particularly important in the finance sector, and those considerations need to be built into the processes. “If you can do that seamlessly, you’re doing a good job,” said O’Donovan.
For example, making vulnerability scanning and the segregation of duties the defaults in the CI/CD pipeline addresses such issues in an automated and auditable manner.
You need “the right mindset for finance,” he warned. Building in compliance from the start works; trying to add it as an afterthought does not.
Don’t segregate people, advised O’Donovan, because everyone needs to be working collaboratively toward the same goal. With the right tools and automation, a cross-functional team can deliver better code, faster.