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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

Oxfam’s move to the cloud has meant more donations and support

Nick Mitrovic is the chief technology officer (CTO) of Oxfam, meaning he is responsible for the global technology, delivery and operations for one of the world’s leading international not-for-profit organisations, with 28,000 users and 650 retail units.

“My role is to make sure Oxfam has the digital capabilities it needs to succeed, so that’s from setting the strategy, to delivering the change, to implementing support for our digital operations,” he tells NS Tech.

In total, Mitrovic has 120 people in his IT department, and they look after different parts of Oxfam’s technology stack.

The organisation has an IT strategy that has been put together by Mitrovic and agreed on with senior leadership across the charity, and while Mitrovic suggests that the strategy itself is quite generic, it gives him and his team the opportunity to decide how they can make an impact with technology in the business in different ways.

The strategy has three core parts, and the first is around having reliable and available systems.

“As we’re a global charity, we respond to emergencies across the world at any given point, which means we need reliability and availability to scale up,” he says.

The second is around digitising and automating processes to eliminate waste and increase efficiency.

“We’ve already started doing some work in this area by digitising most of our paper forms. However, that is proving a significant challenge, so we now have a dedicated continuous improvement team that is helping us to move from paper to forms, but also to evaluate if we’re running the right processes and ensure that the processes are optimal,” he says.

The final part of the strategy is around enabling business change.

“Part of this has been to reimagine how we engage and interact with supporters, providing an omnichannel engagement platform to our engagement teams, complemented with a large wholesale rethink about how the business operates,” he says.

In addition, Oxfam has looked at enabling remote working, the use of modern tools and approaches and the use of machine learning and AI to help the charity to be more effective in its programmes as well as being more cognisant of how it approaches the public. In addition, the organisation has replaced its online commerce platform, and as part of that shift, it has organised a number of hackathons with consultancy McKinsey.

“They’re around helping us shape what the future of retail looks like – and it means we’ve been able to look at new concepts such as digital volunteers,” he explains.

Cloudy future

Perhaps the biggest shift for the organisation has been moving to the cloud.

The organisation had three larger data centres running a custom VMware solution, and Mitrovic explains that this was difficult to change as it was a custom set-up, meaning Oxfam couldn’t scale up or down when it wanted to.

“We don’t know when disaster strikes, and so we have to respond quickly and you can’t plan for this – but this set-up didn’t allow us to do that. In addition, we were constantly firefighting to patch this solution, meaning as an IT function we didn’t have the headspace required to work on the wider business problems, and understand what the business really required,” he says.

As Oxfam is a not-for-profit, replacing datacentres and infrastructure every few years is not a viable option.

“We’re very cost sensitive as what we can save goes to a good cause. We keep our reserves low as we want to give all of the money from donors to our programmes, so having a capital planning cycle wasn’t working for us and it was very difficult to manage and afford.

“We started thinking about public cloud as it was a modern, scalable alternative, and it could enable us to tap into new technologies such as machine learning without a six month lead time,” he says.

For Mitrovic, Microsoft’s Azure came out on top of the public cloud providers at the time because it was more enterprise-focused, and because Oxfam was already a Microsoft house.

“Azure was therefore a no-brainer as we didn’t want any compatibility issues and we had a good relationship with Microsoft UK,” he states.

However, Oxfam also wanted a partner to help the organisation to migrate and manage this cloud space.

“Rackspace was selected because it was a large enough supplier to have all of the technical controls and mechanisms in place that an organisation of our size would expect, but also nimble enough to run the cloud in an agile way, where we could make changes quickly,” Mitrovic explains.

He also added that Oxfam had captured certain metrics before and after shifting to the cloud – to double check that the move was good value for the charity.

The organisation saw the average conversion rate increase from 21 per cent in the six months prior to the migration to 32 per cent in the six months afterwards, and it saw a 3.5 per cent increase in conversion from speed improvements alone, which it claimed translated to an extra £162,000 per year. There was also a 22 per cent increase in sales across the online shop in the year after the migration.

“In the online retail space, we’re normally seeing a 5 per cent increase on average in industry, so a 22 per cent increase is significant,” Mitrovic says.

This is besides the other benefits of being able to scale up and down when required, which are harder to quantify.

Clearly the shift is paying dividends – and Mitrovic will be hoping that a lot of the additional features that cloud enables will lead to further benefits in the years to come.