Special feature: How to be a platform company

Andrew Sklar is a Director with the Innovation and Disruption team at PwC

Andrew runs a team of developers and product specialists who build platforms for clients and also for PwC. Previously he was a military intelligence officer in the United States working with Special Forces teams and various US intelligence agencies. Andrew also spent time at Google, working on their cloud-based and maps-based platforms.

In a business context, what is a ‘platform’ and why are businesses building them?

I look at platforms as a capability. It’s a distilling of a company’s core proposition - a distilling of what they do best - to make it more accessible to customers.

The technology in the background of a platform is being developed every day through cloud infrastructures. It’s happening now and we (at PwC) are investing heavily in this space.

With businesses using platforms, there’s a spectrum. At one end you have pure platform businesses like Slack, which my whole team uses. We don’t email anymore. Slack is a code development environment which allows live collaboration and allows me to have oversight of everything. It has increased our team’s tempo and communication. In the one spot I can get an update on a code being developed and also give a shout-out to a team member because they’ve shared something great.

But any business can benefit from having a platform which makes it easier for a customer to use them. Retailers and banks for example are using platforms to make their products and services more accessible.

Australian businesses have been lagging in the uptake of ‘lean technology’ but now there are global disrupters in the market and so customer expectations are higher. But many businesses still run servers in their own basements. The technology costs for these businesses are double or triple compared to a business that is cloud-mounted and their ability to innovate is constrained by their lagging physical hardware.

What are the watch-outs for businesses considering platforms?

Coding and building platforms is difficult, but for good reasons. To deliver at the enterprise level a fully-scalable, fully-secure platform requires a methodical approach. Each step has to be carefully measured. Appreciating the level of complexity engineering teams go through to put the building blocks together is the biggest watch-out. It takes time, resources and skills.

Frankly, in Australia there isn’t a wide pool of developers who do this. We’re forging ahead into this area because we see it as an emerging market. But we do it here with a high level of supervision and senior skill sets. The good thing is that with each iteration, it speeds up. By the time we get to what we call ‘innovation sprints’, the business sees great strides. Features and user experience become part of the conversation then. It starts to look and feel like something that has never existed before. It’s exciting for executives at this stage.

Given the skills gap you’ve mentioned, how do you work with businesses that are implementing platforms?

We generally build the core machine. Platforms have the ability to be customised for each company without breaking the core machine so different modules work for different use cases and data sets. Client data is very important because it runs on top of the platform and this combination allows the business to ask questions and extract insights at a rapid rate.

We usually work with developers in the business to apply the modifications to the core machine and we upskill those developers so they can understand the same coding language. This allows them to take carriage of the platform when it’s being used by customers.

In risk-averse or under-resourced businesses, what is the best approach?

Many businesses are interested in exploring platforms but are constrained because they have an under-resourced IT department dealing with ten pressing problems. What we do in that case is prove the technology with smaller scale innovation sprints, aimed at fixing a real operational issue but for one business arm only. They can then leverage that proven platform to show the benefits across the wider business. New technology is always best when it is business-focused and business-approved.

Which platform businesses do you admire and why?

Google Maps because it’s so innovative, has been going strong for 12 years now and is always being improved.

Uber has, like any good platform, lowered a barrier to entry and linked unmet demand to a surplus, in their case of driving capability. I’m not as much a fan as I once was because I see them moving away from their core purpose as they go into driverless cars.

My tech team uses Atlassian’s Jira and I’m continually impressed with their innovation. This Australian product is now a global market leader, very successful in a short space of time.

Xero from New Zealand is impressive. They’ve launched globally with a very short time-line and they’ve done all sorts of smart things like using Google Apps to launch entire new offices in less than 24 hours. They’ve got great collaboration tools too.

What all these businesses have done is understand their core value proposition and distilled it. It’s like dishwashing detergent. It used to come in huge vats and now it’s a concentrate which is cheaper to produce and easier for customers to buy, take home and use. All these businesses consolidated the key thing they understood into a highly accessible, highly usable product or service that can be continually improved, while still be consumed.

What do you expect to see regarding businesses and platforms in Australia in the future?

In the past big software companies from the US or Europe would come to Australia with a few tech and sales people to sell licenses for their products. Now they are selling cloud technology with unparalleled computing power, analytics and a range of different tools. Google, Microsoft and Amazon are all here investing in data centres, so concerns about storing data outside of Australia evaporate. Using the power of these global players allows you to run your business at a more optimum level. As a result I expect more Australian businesses to build and deploy unique, cloud-mounted platforms that can scale globally. Australian products and services will go global, that’s what I see.