Since joining CloudPay’s product development team more than 12 years ago, Matt Hillier has built a career out of translating the needs and issues experienced by customers into advanced solutions that harness opportunities and eliminate stressors. With his focus fixed on the challenge of improving the daily work-life of payroll and HR professionals, Matt guides a diverse, global team along an unending journey of discovery and innovation—clearly enjoying every step. Here, he sits down with me to discuss the unique challenges of designing a single solution for a global population, why agility must be viewed as much as a character trait as a business goal, and whether technology can provide an answer to every payroll question.
David Barak: What are some of the biggest challenges in payroll, and how are multinational organizations turning to technology to solve them?
Matt Hillier: The obvious topic in most discussions today is data or, more specifically, the question of how to manage data. Payroll is, and always has been, a very data-centric problem, with governments and statutory bodies integrating many pieces of personal and social information into their taxation and social security rules in order to tailor their impacts to the various demographics in each country.
Of course, as companies grow and expand, or as they move into the cloud, more and more of this data needs to be collected, shared, and utilized by more than one person and stored in more than one place. In addition, the information that needs to be gathered country-by-country can vary drastically. These transitions to generalized global systems leave a gap in a team’s data records: where do they keep information now? How do they keep it updated?
This has been a big source of friction in moving to a global payroll solution for as long as I’ve been working in the area. On the one hand, companies are looking for effective, compliant, and secure systems that integrate well with their increasingly centralized business functions, such as HR and Finance. On the other, payroll teams in different countries or regions are trying to maintain a level of quality and accuracy of data that is required in order to pay their employees, and those needs almost always exceed what’s provided by their global HR or ERP systems.
DB: Is there anything left that technology won’t be able to solve in global payroll?
MH: Absolutely! “Going global” as a payroll strategy ultimately brings with it a large focus on collaboration. No matter which solution you adopt, you’re always making a bet towards virtual teams of people, usually from at least two organisations, who’re now having to work together in order to ensure that people get paid. This happens anytime a company decides to utilize someone else for their payroll needs, but in a global scenario, this reality is magnified as the number of potential interactions increases for each person involved. Individuals can go from working alone on a single payroll to working with a partner across a whole country, or move to a regional perspective working across multiple countries with a different partner in each one—or one of many other configurations.
The biggest hurdle is always creating trust: you need to trust that your teammates understand your priorities, that they’ll be responsive to your questions and queries, and that everyone has the best interests of the objectives at heart. This can be really difficult, especially when you’re talking to people many miles away or from a completely different culture.
Technology can assist in this—it can help maintain visibility, it can help communicate priorities and objectives—but it can’t create that team, foster it, or fix its issues. Technology can’t force people to work together. Payroll isn’t a factory; we don’t throw data in and watch paychecks come out. We can automate some of the more repetitive pieces, and we can integrate various tools together to be more effective than the sum of their parts, but for every smooth payroll run, there are another ten that need people to work together, to problem-solve and share knowledge so that the right things happen at the right times.
DB: Where would you say lie the greatest opportunities for global payroll technology in the next two years?
MH: Integration continues to be the go-to topic in a lot of conversation, and again it’s back to that question of “how do I manage data?” There’s a wide range of systems and tools holding data that payroll needs access to, and this is only increasing, especially in the small-to-medium enterprise space. Giving employers options for how to get this data into their global payroll solution is going to remain a debated topic for some time, and will continue to be something that most players in this space are trying to solve in some way or another.
There are also interesting conversations to be had around how we can make it easier for our customers to onboard and get started. CloudPay has invested a lot in education and process change in order to make the journey to global payroll as painless as possible, but I think there’s further to go and challenges that technology can address to make that journey simpler and more effective.
DB: What is a persistent challenge to developing new product solutions for a global enterprise market?
MH: A lot of the time, it is knowing when to stop. Taking a global-first view to building solutions allows us to really focus on addressing the opportunities that bring value to as wide an audience as possible, as quickly as possible—and that often means seeking out the things that are similar between disparate groups rather than those that are different. It’s a strategy that’s particularly important when we’re trying to explore new ideas, as we need to reach a wide audience and have a common platform by which to drive meaningful discussion with the people we’re trying to help. It’s these discussions that often enable us to bring depth and refinement to our solutions.
Our rollout of Robotic Data Validation was a perfect example of this. The team focused their initial efforts on prototyping the backbone and validation functionality that we thought we could re-use across the vast majority of our customer’s payrolls. Having done that, they pushed it out to our internal teams. This unveiled two important threads of information: firstly, they found improvements that could be made to the core experience—for example, there was a fantastic debate over how to classify validation failures—and secondly, they started to receive a heavy flow of requests for additional, more complex validations.
For us, this is a great scenario, because the objective here is to learn. How will people respond to the ideas we have? Have we done enough to satisfy the problem? Are we on the right track?
The team continued from this feedback, refined the solution, added more depth and continued to iterate until everyone was comfortable that we had what was needed to deliver automated Data Validation to our customers. Of course, that moment of opening the solution up invited even more feedback, and so the cycle continued, but as time progressed, that feedback became more and more specific in nature, either by country, customer, or sometimes even individuals.
So there’s always this gut-wrenching moment that every product owner has to face at some point, which is to make the call to stop—and that can be incredibly difficult. There is always one more scenario that could be accounted for, or one tweak that could make someone extra happy, and in our domain that almost always comes from deep, specific scenarios that just don’t fit into that global solution. In many ways, it’s difficult because it can leave a team feeling like they’re leaving a job unfinished, though they’re absolutely not.
Robotic Data Validation continues to be one of our most well-received features, and we know from conversations with customers that it’s had profound positive impacts for their people. The team achieved the impact they set out to make, and I’m so proud of them for getting there.
DB: How is product development fundamentally different with a globally dispersed engineering and product team? How does Agile play into it?
MH: In many ways, having a distributed team is a big strength for us. Payroll is a deep and highly complex topic, with a lot of local nuance and flavor to it, so being able to tap into knowledge and experience at a local or regional level gives everyone a great opportunity to learn and ideate over how to solve problems. I attribute a lot of the depth that we’ve managed to bring to our solutions down to the fact that we have these teams located alongside many of the people who are running our customers’ payrolls day-to-day and, crucially, building up empathy with them.
That’s not to say it doesn’t come with its challenges. Our teams are largely all developing the same platform, so knowledge-sharing and coordination becomes a daily reality. We’re really lucky to be building software in a time when a lot of the tools and processes that support product development, such as Atlassian’s JIRA and Confluence, are geared towards distributed teams, and the ubiquity in communications technology means that you’re rarely more than a video-call away from a quick conversation to learn something new or resolve something that’s impeding progress.
Ultimately, the thing that we always have to come back to is that we’re talking about teams of people building solutions for other people. So where we have tools like Atlassian’s development suite for addressing our practical production needs, Agile is what helps us tackle our interpersonal needs.
“Agile is something you are, not something you do,” was the opening statement from our Agile Coaches when they first joined CloudPay. It’s a difficult lesson to learn—not because it doesn’t make sense, but because it takes a while for the meaning to really sink in. Agility is cultural; it is about people, how they behave, how they interact with each other, and how they approach the unknown. It asks us to put our individual egos aside for the benefit of the team and objective, and to focus on a continual habit of learning and adapting. It isn’t Scrum, or Kanban, or SAFe—these are simply flavors of putting the core beliefs of agile into action to focus on different needs.
In that context, it’s easy to see how important Agile is to our teams, especially in a distributed setting. We foster small cohesive sub-teams, ensure they’ve got access to the skills they need and the people they’re building for, and try to create as much clarity for them as possible. You can spot a great team from a mile away: they’ve got an energy, passion, and commitment for their objective, and they’re engaged and empathetic with each other and the people they’re trying to solution for. When we scale that across the globe, with the level of interaction we get from CloudPay’s service delivery teams, it’s a wonderful engine for positive change.
DB: When you talk about building a solution for “global payroll”, you’re talking about a very broad set of issues with divergent needs across locations and cultures. How do you design a product to allow for that kind of variance?
MH: I think it was psychologist Carl Rogers who once said, “What is most personal, is most universal.” The idea that the more we resonate with a particular situation or idea, the more likely it is that we find things that are common across many individuals. For me this really captures the debate about the complexity in global payroll. Yes, there are an unending multitude of differences and nuances to how payroll is implemented and applied around the world, and with that comes an equal, if not greater, volume of solutions. And that complexity can be extremely overwhelming.
So when we set out to address a need in the real world, I like to look through two lenses. The first is to identify, “what is common?” What about a particular problem or need is shared across many people, teams, and geographies, and where, within all that detail, are the common threads that resonate with a wide variety of people?
The second is to ask, “what is already being solved elsewhere?” We’re building a platform that’s specifically focused on the “global” aspect of payroll, so that means focusing on the things that payroll software and teams aren’t already solving elsewhere in the ecosystem. It often means that we take an infrastructure view of the problem: what is the backbone that needs to be in place for processing payroll across dispersed virtual teams?
It’s often at the cross-section between these two perspectives where we find the most suitable ideas to explore—and then it largely does become an exploration, as we mentioned before, about prototyping, validating, and balancing breadth with depth.
DB: When do you know if a product is going to achieve its goal?
MH: Never at the beginning! One of the early lessons of guiding product development is that, sooner or later, you realize that a lot of your initial solutions don’t work. They either don’t fit with what the world wants, or they’re too big, they’re impractical, they don’t resonate with anyone, they miss out on solving a key individual’s needs, and so on.
Especially with ambitious initiatives, it’s really important that we mitigate this as soon as possible, and one of the best ways we’ve found to do that is through the process of iteration. This goes back to the Agile principle of experimenting and learning rapidly: do your research, build something small but representative, test it out with your audience, and then learn, adapt, and repeat.
Our teams typically achieve this by holding a review session with their key stakeholder groups (usually made up of day-to-day users, managers, and subject-matter experts) once every two or three weeks. Those sessions are great fun and really interactive, and involve the team doing demos of the features they’ve built since the past review, talking about some of the decisions that have been made, gathering feedback from the group, and then discussing what they’ll be focusing on next. This gives the team invaluable insight into what the group thinks and the problems they face, and also allows the stakeholders to use their experience in a really practical way to help define how the functionality ultimately behaves, which is something we could never capture from a lengthy requirements document.
The result of doing this fairly simple exercise, is that over time the group as a whole builds confidence in the solution and addresses questions early, so by the time we’re closing in on a more public beta-test or launch, the team has enough validation behind the product they’re bringing to the table. Of course, getting the solution out the door is only the start, so we’re often continuing this momentum even after the initial launch, as a wider audience starts to use the solution and provides even more feedback.
The key thing for a team to monitor post-launch is the impact they’re having. A lot of the functionality we build is aimed at improving someone’s day-to-day work life—and this isn’t something we can really track through page hits or time on the application. We do use information like this, as it helps us identify bottlenecks in the solution itself or behaviors that we weren’t expecting, but it’s not the key metric in many cases. Instead, we’re looking at data around the payroll process, things like volume of issues, time to approve a payroll, number of payroll rejections, and so on.
Above all, we’re gathering feedback. It’s great to hear stories of successes and struggles from inside our customers and partners, because this helps us gauge the wider impact and do further refinement. It’s also something we could never measure ourselves, no matter how good our metrics are. It’s often the personal stories that our customers share of the impacts within their businesses that give us the ultimate sense of accomplishment.
DB: How does CloudPay uncover new market needs that our technology should tackle, and how do you test and validate the contours of that need?
MH: One of the great things about our customers, partners, and teams is that they are never, ever, short of ideas to share. We have access to a fantastic, vocal, melting-pot of individuals all contributing their experiences, insights, and viewpoints on a wide variety of topics. In addition, our own teams are constantly on the lookout for what’s new and upcoming in the marketplace, as well as what we are seeing through partnership channels, trade-shows, and conversations with potential customers that aren’t coming up through other means.
So when we’re looking at all of these opportunities around us, there’s a delicate balance to be made between the value we bring to our customers and the effectiveness of the solution, bringing innovation through new ideas and maintaining competitiveness. One of the primary tools in this is quickly deciding what we’re not going to do. It’s really easy to get distracted by the quality and variety of problems that are being surfaced, and so using those lenses of commonality and value as an initial guide allows us to focus on the ideas that really gel with the idea of the global payroll platform.
Of the opportunities that are left, and there are many, it becomes a process of discussion and prioritization. We have to take into consideration that some are more time-sensitive, some have a wider impact, and others simply boost the “quality of life”—and we try to balance these appropriately. But once all is said and done, the best way to understand and validate an idea is to try it out, so that’s exactly what we do. Not all ideas change the world, but almost all of them teach us something we didn’t already know and help us to shape future decisions.
DB: You’ve been with CloudPay now for 12 years. What keeps you motivated and excited about working here?
MH: For me, it’s ultimately the people I’ve worked with, inside CloudPay and beyond, who continue to reinforce the sense that we’re doing something that’s making a positive impact to individuals and teams across the globe.
When I first joined, I had little-to-no knowledge of payroll, how it works, or what teams have to do in order to make sure that I got paid every month. So over the years I’ve been very fortunate to be able to work alongside some amazing people and had the opportunity to see glimpses of the world from their perspective.
It’s been both humbling to learn what people have been putting up with and inspiring to be able to visualize and drive how we can use the power of today’s internet and modern technology to be able to address those challenges and move the needle.
Not to mention, there’s still so much potential to be realized and ideas to be explored.