Since joining CloudPay seven years ago as the UK development lead, Gareth Hughes has leveraged his proclivity for using technology to solve functional challenges into a career characterized by positive change. With a PhD in contextual hypermedia, a background in Agile development, and an ability to see and solve big picture issues within complex systems, Gareth has been instrumental in the ongoing innovation and modernization of the CloudPay platform. Now in his third year as CTO, he shares his thoughts on the challenges of operating a global payroll platform amidst rapidly changing regulations and how a self-professed technology guy finds satisfaction in payroll.
David Barak: Gareth, I know you’d define yourself as a developer, a software architect and a technology person well before you’d identify yourself as a payroll person. I could also make a strong case that CloudPay is a technology company first, although clearly our space is global payroll. So does that parallel make your job more interesting?
Gareth Hughes: From the perspective of a software architect, the task of building, maintaining, and adapting one platform to address all the complexities of global payroll is a fascinating challenge. Payroll is such a precise function—the entire directive hinges on accuracy and alignment—yet the data is so complex, and the expertise and requirements can differ greatly by location or customer. Fitting everything together and solving such tremendous complexity with technology is exciting.
There are two sides to what we do, one being the payroll technology and the other being the managed services for payroll processing. My focus is the payroll technology, the actual software platform, the structure and maintenance of which is challenging because we have to keep up with evolving government regulations, we have to be legal, and we must have the subject matter expertise needed to build and run a strong, reliable payroll software.
From a technical point of view, the reporting requirements are a unique challenge because they are continuously escalating. We’re now sending XML data and very detailed data off to governments and computer systems. Where CloudPay excels is pulling everything together into one platform that smoothes out the difficulties and discrepancies at country level and enables customers to operate global payroll with confidence. We concentrate on the communication and the teamwork that’s needed to get a payroll out.
DB: With the increase in adaptable cloud-based solutions, how should enterprises adjust to the realities of “no customizations”?
GH: I like to tell newcomers to our company that our payroll solution is fractal in its complexity. You can zoom in on any aspect of the system, look at the functionality it provides, and it just keeps unfolding in front of you. Each unique customization is like an interruption of that system, creating a new rule or calculation or report that development teams then must know about and account for and support with every upgrade.
Understanding the downside of customization requires a shift in perspective for some customers. It’s easy to view customization as a benefit or even a need, something that helps the customer get exactly what they want in a solution. But if what they really want and need is a powerful, precise payroll engine that can save time and cost and grow with the business, customization actually works against that.
If we have a hundred small, straightforward customizations in our solution, when it comes time to update the system, we have to carefully ensure we don't break any of them. So the product team has to examine each customization, asking who uses it, do they need it, can we change it, before building updates. Then the test team has to ensure each aspect of every customization is still supported through the update. That slows down the entire process and makes it harder to innovate the core experience for all customers.
The simpler our solution, the more effective it is. It’s easier to configure, and onboarding and maintenance are more straightforward. That's in everyone's interest, from us to customers to our partner network. By implementing a core solution, we’re able to provide a better experience for everyone using the system and dedicate our resources to developing that experience and helping customers get more from their payroll.
DB: There’s a lot of discussion about the best ways to move from concept to product deployment. CloudPay’s development process uses the Agile framework, which has its challenges among enterprise solutions and is unique in global payroll. Why is that the best method for us?
GH: The thinking in Agile development is that within a two-week sprint cycle, you get something done. It’s built, tested, and ready to go in that two-week period, so it has to be a bite-sized piece of work when you’re dealing with an enterprise technology solution.
As a technology-oriented company, CloudPay benefits from using the Agile methodology because it keeps our development focused, nimble, and productive. The CloudPay technology is a massive, precise platform on which many professionals rely on every day. We’re not building a nice little app—we’re attempting to transform how global businesses can perform and benefit from an essential function that touches literally every one of their workers. Keeping that platform up-to-date and running smoothly is our mission, particularly as a service organization
We’ve been using some of the techniques of the Agile methodology for many years with great results. A two-week sprint cycle means we’re progressing the platform every fortnight. We routinely get this hugely complex and powerful application out the door, constantly release new functionality, and keep the whole thing totally stable.
DB: Can you explain some of the integration challenges in payroll and how CloudPay is addressing those challenges?
GH: You can view CloudPay as a data in, data out company. Integration is a real challenge in global payroll, and not because of technologies, such as APIs or XML formats. The issue is actually the data.
For example, one challenge is that HRIS systems do not need to be as accurate as a payroll system. We need data about employees that hangs together very tightly. This means that data coming into our payroll application must be in great shape, and our greatest engineering challenges are about what to do when it's not. We have invested huge efforts in validating data throughout its journey through our system. Even well structured data coming from Workday or SuccessFactors can be challenging to work with when fields critical to payroll aren’t properly populated. Then there are organizations still compiling data in Excel, which has no consistency or quality assurances at all.
When it comes to our payroll partner network and integration ecosystem, the challenge is that few systems are equipped for the kinds of advanced integration options we offer. So we have to be quite creative in our solutions. For instance, we use the integration platform Dell Boomi for many solutions, but to make it useful for our payroll teams, we have integrated Boomi into our payroll application in a way that not even Dell had thought of before.
DB: These days you can’t talk technology without talking data privacy. Regulations and restrictions around data movement are demanding more of Development and IT teams, particularly when data moves across countries and continents. With things like GDPR that impact not just all of Europe, but every country that might deal with data from Europe, how do you balance the need for real-time, ubiquitous data and the global regulations around data security?
GH: The demands on us from a compliance angle keep accelerating, and ensuring our ability and our customers’ ability to meet regulations is a key focus of what we do. Preparation for GDPR is well under way, and like everyone else, we've had to step up—but we're global. We are not just a Europe- or US-centric company. We are subject to some really tough audits from APAC, and I am particularly focused on the rules around data storage in China.
Our current and prospective customers are also subject to the same rules, and so their compliance teams come to us with very long lists of questions. Our IT team have made huge strides in aligning our security posture in the last two years to new regulations, and our roadmap includes some significant technology and product updates that will ensure we meet compliance obligations while continuing to innovate how payroll data and analytics can be leveraged in by multinational enterprises.
We’re able to help customers with the issues they’re facing around implementing processes and preparing for things like GDPR because we’re going through it too. We understand that they need to be able to trust us, and as a company we work very hard to build and maintain that trust.
DB: I’d love to talk technology all day, but for now let’s let’s end with something more personal. You’ve worked in payroll for some time now. What is it that continues to keep you engaged and interested in the space?
GH: You’re right that I'm no payroll person, but on the technology side, the complexity of global payroll provides endless design challenges that constantly push me and everyone I work with. I also enjoy running a global team with a diverse set of nationalities and cultures. We're really proud of what we've built here at CloudPay, and our ambitions are endless.