DigsConnect is a small tech startup that helps students find affordable student accommodation with minimum mindshare. This means they work with sensitive personal data, from students to institutions, and need quick experimentation to accommodate each customer’s specific issues and needs as they arise. Brendan Ardagh, DigsConnect’s CTO and co-founder, says that rapid-prototyping on cloud native gave his team the ability to handle data securely, and run experimentation quickly and safely.
DigsConnect works to connect students with accommodation providers, as well as with other students looking for flatmates. “We’re in a unique position where it’s actually more about creating a functional product than it is about creating a robust, 110% system,” explains Brendan. “Experimenting with a new function is extremely important.”
This was important for DigsConnect, because they wanted to create a business that their clients would want to invest in: “If people come to use your product, they have to experience something useful before they experience something pretty”.
At the same time, they’re storing a lot of sensitive user data - numbers, emails, and physical addresses, for example - which makes it hard to experiment without risking data security. When DigsConnect was still working on multiple systems and with multiple tooling, the complexity increased the security risks:
“It’s like your source code… I don’t want to spread that too wide. If you’re spreading these things across different services, there’s all these different attack surfaces that could be hacked, and then your data gets taken.”
DigsConnect works closely with South Africa’s universities and its students, and can’t afford risking data privacy. They’re also dealing with real people looking for places to live, and that human connection with users makes their platform high-touch and personal. Quality customer service not only feels good for both parties, but helps keep customers on the platform.
With complex systems and tooling, it was hard for Brendan to keep up the customer support they needed, ensure that the data was completely secure, and still run their experiment functionality.
Cloud computing, however, has enabled DigsConnect to:
- Reduce the overall system complexity, including tooling, which has led to faster, safer and cheaper development
- Increase autonomy of the development team, as they can now make decisions with greater confidence in a simple, stable system
- Improve the client experience: Not only is user data far more secure, but Brendan can also trust the app infrastructure and thus prioritise real-time client issues
Reduce the overall system complexity
Before rapid-prototyping on cloud-native, Brendan had to own his own infrastructure, which takes lots of time and money. “I had to build servers from scratch, which is hard to figure out how to do. You have to experiment a lot to understand what’s going on - startups don’t have those kinds of resources, really.”
Cloud native development works to simplify those complexities. Brendan’s team has been able to work on simpler systems, that integrate together neatly. Plus, they don’t need to use as much tooling - and all of those are already pretty much ready-to-use as is, and really well-defined. DigsConnect works on Heroku and Google Cloud Platform, which have kept development faster, cheaper, and more secure.
The simpler, more robust, and more integrated tooling of cloud computing has enabled Brendan and his team to roll-out features much faster:
“If you’ve simplified the functions, or you’ve simplified the tools, you’ve made them really easy to use. This means they’re less customisable, and that actually improves your speed.”
And being able to develop faster has meant that Brendan’s team can improve their sales with university institutions: “A good example is that we had to build APIs for different institutions… We would go to a client and be like, ‘We can build this API for you’, and the next day it’ll be ready and they’ll be able to use it. We literally make sales based on that”.
This speed obviously makes development a lot cheaper, and Brendan says that few companies appreciate how much cheaper cloud-native app development can be. For a startup like DigsConnect, lower cost is another really important factor to consider.
For example, a developer on Brendan’s team used cloud computing to quickly spin-up and test a new database pipeline that moved data from production to analytics fast and without impacting performance:
“Before,” Brendan explains, “you’d have to spend that money as a company, to spend two months of salary on a developer to figure that problem out, rather than him just spinning something up that he’s read about on the weekend”.
Cloud computing also reduces how much DigsConnect needs to spend on server hosting which is great, especially for a startup! The server is set up to only run when there are ‘active’ users online, which means it ‘switches off’ overnight, and saves on billable hours.
Plus, he says, “cloud-hosted is by default more secure than building your own”. DigsConnect captures personal data of landlords, universities, and their students, so security is important. Reducing the complexities of their system, and using tooling that’s trusted, has lowered their risk of a security breach.
Improve the client experience
Providing quick customer support is a huge win for DigsConnect, because they value human connection with their users. The fact that the team is ultimately helping a person find a ‘home’ means that they’re engaging with users beyond the platform, on a very human level - and users reciprocate: “People don’t see DigsConnect as a platform that’s far away from them,“ Brendan says. “They see it as a person”.
However, building their own systems and using a variety of tools meant they had to do a lot of ‘manual digging’ when it came to bug fixing, which slowed down their response time. So, if Brendan’s team can develop faster, and with more autonomy, they’re able to prioritise real-time client issues over app infrastructure.
“Now that we’ve built this pipeline, we’ve got this incredible set of metrics that tells us everything about the site in real-time.”
Seeing things in real-time, and having the tooling and autonomy necessary to fix it, means Brendan can make decisions in real-time too: As a bug pops up on the app, he phones the user to let them know that they’ve seen the error and are fixing it. Previously, it would have had to be logged, looked into, tested, and only then fixed.
Increase autonomy of the development team
DigsConnect’s dev team includes only four developers, which means that they were easily blocked by dependencies that bigger dev teams might not necessarily face, such as code-reviews. This obviously affected how quickly they could respond to errors and bugs on the app and, in turn, reduced their customer support speed.
For example, DigsConnect’s clients give a lot of feedback on feature orders: Someone might want off-street parking to be a feature on their profile, and the tight CICD pipeline makes it easy to update their app within 10 minutes. Bugs are solved really quickly, and this autonomy allows Brendan’s team to have a release cycle that is weekly, or even hourly, because of cloud computing.
With cloud development’s more robust, more secure systems, and in-built user-feedback function, Brendan’s dev team automatically became more empowered to deploy and test without dependencies.
“You’re seeing users, everyday, use your code,” he explains, “Support messages come in about code they’ve written… and as a developer you’re like, ‘Wow, my code failed for that person, and that person cared’. Those things give developers a sense of impact”.
For a smaller team, the benefits of this autonomy surface in being able to make decisions confidently; Brendan’s team now knows they can experiment as they need to, but do it quickly and safely, and get immediate feedback on the impact they have:
“It’s important for me - especially as we scale - that each developer gets that kind of autonomy, so they feel like they’re impacting the work, and so they feel like they’re impacting DigsConnect… Before cloud computing, you couldn’t really experiment on that level. We’re now able to give this developer the chance to show us, and not just spend two months creating the thing.”
Brendan has found immense value in switching to cloud-native app development, and thinks that bigger companies could find a lot of value in doing the same.
“Legacy is really hard to contribute to,” he says. “That’s a place where you could whip up a Lambda function, or a cloud function, which is completely independent of the existing system. And it’s so easy for you to just create an isolated environment where that one function is operating on its own.”
But, the key thing to remember is: Keep it simple. Brendan says it’s tempting to overcomplicate cloud computing with multiple tool integrations. Cloud native app development helps you simplify your process – so let it! In this case, less is probably better.