Having spent years working with software providers from the other side of the fence in her role at Beyond Housing, Deborah McManus brings a unique perspective to her latest role as CTO of Orchard Systems. We spoke to Deborah about making the move from a housing provider to the supplier side, and the challenges both sides face.
Why move from the housing side to the IT supplier side, and why Orchard in particular?
I started working in the social housing sector in 2011, but before that my background was in software and services working in the horse racing industry. While I was keen to get back into a product-focused role, I’d fallen in love with the housing sector, particularly the feeling of working for a company with a real social purpose. Moving to the IT supplier side within housing was the perfect opportunity because it has allowed me to get back into the product side of things while still maintaining that sense of social purpose.
As for Orchard – in my time at Beyond Housing, I worked with many different technology suppliers, and I knew what good looked like and which companies had potential. I could see that Orchard had a real vision for the change they wanted to drive, and this was something I wanted to be part of. I got a strong sense that Orchard was going on a journey, and I really felt I could contribute to that.
What were your key achievements and experience at Beyond Housing?
I joined Coast & Country Housing in 2011, one of two housing providers which later merged to become Beyond Housing. I’d say that my biggest achievement was a major transformation project across the ICT team, embedding new functions and processes, and bringing in best-practice frameworks for project management and service management to transform the way we worked from the ground up.
This initial project really went to the heart of how we worked, and while it might not have been the most visible from the outside, it brought in the base level of rigour that we needed to allow us to handle future projects, such as introducing online services and mobile working.
I also supported the merger process between Coast & Country and Yorkshire Coast Homes, leading both teams to merge and work as a single team, with a unified systems journey mapped around consolidation, rationalisation and integration.
How will these achievements help in your new role at Orchard?
I think the key insight I gained from my work at Beyond Housing is a view of how things look from the other side of the fence.
I’ve had the opportunity to see every aspect of how housing providers operate, from the regulatory and compliance issues facing boards and the implications for them if these are not met, to the technology and solutions which are missing from the market and how software providers can provide more value, right down to understanding how ‘minor’ changes in software features can affect an officer’s day-to-day job.
This real understanding of how software is actually used is something I’m very excited about bringing to the team at Orchard.
What misconceptions do IT suppliers have of housing providers, and vice-versa?
As I briefly alluded to above, I don’t think software providers always understand the true impact that small changes can have in the housing provider’s environment, and how much pressure feature changes and software upgrades can put on IT teams in terms of scheduling, testing and the reality of getting upgrades live.
And although there is an awareness of the consequences of technology issues on housing providers, there’s not necessarily a true understanding; from the IT supplier side, it’s not always easy to see the impact on individuals within the business.
On the other side, I think there needs to be an understanding by housing providers of the complexity of the software development process, and how what may seem like relatively straightforward changes can have much bigger implications.
Without an understanding of the challenges software providers face, it can be easy to assume that adding a new functionality is simple or that every organisation works the same way, when in fact the software providers have a difficult balancing act to meet a range of different needs and preferences within their software.
What should housing providers and IT suppliers do differently?
For me, it’s about partnership. Choosing a software supplier is not like any other procurement process because rather than just buying a product, you’re entering into a relationship for many years.
To overcome challenges together, you need to ensure that people are listening to each other, and that’s something which I think could be improved across the sector and supplier base. That said, ultimately, it’s the housing providers who are the customers, so software providers need to be prepared to take the initiative when it comes to building this partnership and developing their understanding of the organisations they work with.
What are housing providers’ most pressing issues and concerns?
Compliance, first and foremost – the Grenfell disaster has done a lot to highlight this, but it’s always been the case. The pressure has never been higher to ensure compliance around the ‘big five’ of electrical, gas, fire, water and asbestos, and it’s something that’s reported on at the highest level.
Data is also a massive issue at a board level, not just in terms of the value and insights it can drive but also at a much more fundamental level. Housing providers work with many large, complex data sets and often have to consolidate data across multiple different systems to demonstrate outcomes and compliance and fuel decision-making. To make this possible, housing providers often need to overcome ground-level challenges relating to storage, accuracy and integration to ensure they’re able to trust their data and consistently present a single version of the truth.
What are your key goals at Orchard?
My key goal is to ensure that we keep our customers at the heart of everything we do. This is something I have always felt Orchard does well, but I want to make sure that every solution we develop is designed with a true understanding of the value it will drive to individuals on a daily basis and support the wider business strategies and targets.
By building this empathy with customers into every aspect of our work, I’m confident we can develop software that addresses the real issues our customers face every day, from the boardroom to the operational staff working with their tenants and residents day-to-day.
Deborah McManus is the CTO of Orchard Systems.