John Mac Pherson, Managing Director and SQL DBA at Shifttech, says that many people he meets see the online gambling industry as unregulated. However, he says many companies are actually really heavily regulated. This means his team has to think cleverly and proactively about the solutions they build, and that social responsibility is in fact a top priority.
In this article, John clarifies the misconception about the online gambling industry, and discusses three examples of uniquely interesting considerations his tech team has to make while operating in the online gambling industry.
John has worked in the online gambling industry for just over 13 years, and says that many people he comes across are apprehensive about the industry because they think it’s rigged and unregulated. However, John says the industry is not only much safer than people realise, but he finds the solutions his team builds are really exciting, and interesting.
John works at Shifttech, an online gaming and gambling company that primarily operates in the UK market as a subsidiary of Rank Group Plc. They build online gamlbing platforms, which includes a frontend, backend and reporting system, as well as produce actual content for their proprietary games. Since their industry is very regulated, and needs to operate within the realms of social responsibility, John and his team work with some really interesting problems.
In this article, John debunks a common misconception about the online gambling industry, and then discusses three examples of considerations his tech team has to make when developing software solutions, that other software developers might not think about. These are:
- Adapting to reactive regulatory changes
- Being aware of the social impact of your product
- Adapting your product to put a player’s wellbeing first
Behind the curtain of the online gambling industry
One of those most common things John gets asked about online gambling is: “Isn’t it rigged?” or “Isn’t it highly unregulated?” John says neither of those are necessarily true, and people tend to just lose to difficult odds: “They’ll play a bit of money, they’ll generally lose, and then they think, ‘Well, okay, the house always wins’. People always assume the house wins.”
However, John points out that - like in any industry - there is more than one market to consider: “There are three main markets in the gambling world”, he explains. “There’s regulated, non-regulated, and there’s black market. Regulated market is where we operate.” This doesn’t mean that the black and non-regulated markets don’t have rules or protections, they just aren’t held accountable to those things by auditors or an overarching commission.
The regulated market, on the other hand, has both of those safety systems in place in the form of regular audits. Shifftech gets two annual audits: one for security, and one for software. Generally, auditors check compliance with security guidelines set up by the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC): “So, simple things like access to your office, and do you have a visitor’s logbook? Is it signed?”, John explains. They also audit how safe Shifttech’s staging, testing or live environments are, and who has what kind of access to those environments in his team.
The purpose of the software audit is to make sure his team sticks to the guidelines the UKGC stipulates. John explains, “They test [our code], they look at security again, they go through the whole checklist of what our process for change management, change control, testing, and releasing is. Something else they check is RTP monitoring.” This stands for ‘Return to Player’, and refers to the money that gets paid back to players over millions of spins. That, he says, has to go through many rounds of certification for it to be passed by the UKGC.
Audits not only keep gambling platforms secure, but they force a company to prioritise social responsibility: “For a couple of years now, they (UKGC) have done a whole ‘social responsibility drive’. So, as the operator, we need to make sure that a player can afford to gamble. Based on that, we have to set limits on those player accounts.”
The combination of regulation and social responsibility means that the problems John’s tech team has to solve are interesting, with some unique considerations.
Consideration #1: Adapting to reactive regulatory changes
It’s important for John’s team to build proactivity into their workflow, because they have to adhere regulation compliance laws: “Those regulations are constantly changing, so you’re always trying to be one step ahead, or factoring in that – at some point – this rule might change, or that law might change.” His tech team is constantly thinking about how those changes will impact their systems, and how they can mitigate the effects without derailing their roadmaps and critical paths.
What makes mitigating these effects on their plans hard, is that regulation changes tend to start as ‘rumours’, which generally get rolled out and brought into effect in very short periods of time.
While the regulation changes often make perfect sense, John says the urgency of regulation changes puts his tech team under pressure: “You have four weeks to have your system talking to the staging environment. After that, you have four weeks to get it into production.” Generally, this means everything else in the pipeline gets put on hold, which delays other important feature releases and bug fixes.
To work around this, John’s team has been really intentional about how they remain proactive. What they’ve found incredibly effective is to operate as business-aligned squads:
Previously, John’s team was divided into a frontend, a backend, and a game integrations team. When a new regulation came into effect, the various teams had to drop their priorities and figure out what that change meant for their system: “You needed to bring the people from that team, that team, and that team. Production stops. Delivery is affected. Everybody focuses on the law change until it gets sorted.”
Now, however, his team is divided into business-aligned squads that are made up of: a tech lead, a product owner, some backend and frontend developers, an integrated devops engineer, and an automation testing engineer. These squads focus on one area of business, some of which are for a certain kind of regulation change. This means squad’s can prioritise regulation changes:
“We’ve created something called the customer engagement squad”, he explains. This is part of their London-based team. “Their role is to focus specifically on customer social responsibility changes. They literally exist to handle these sorts of changes.”
A recent example of how their new team structure benefitted them was when regulation said players were no longer allowed to sign up or transact with credit cards. For Shifftech, this particular change affected how they deal with registrations and transactions in their app, which impacted their cashier squad as opposed to their entire team. The Cashier Squad, is responsible for figuring out what areas of business are affected, and which teams need to be aware of certain system changes. “It’s not to say that other teams won’t be affected by the change”, John says, “but ideally working as squads mitigates or minimises that a lot.” By aligning as squads, you can follow a ‘divide and conquer’ approach to regulation change, and assign the affected areas of business to the squad that operates there.
Consideration #2: Being aware of the social impact of your product
Where the online gambling industry gets a little tricky for a developer, in John’s experience, is with the social issues of addiction and debt. What makes it hard, he explains, is that regulation stipulates that companies aren’t allowed to assume that someone has a problem; they have to admit it.
The reason this is a priority when building software solutions is that the developers and the company need to be deliberate about social responsibility to ensure that online gambling is as safe for the player as possible. “We are protecting the player from themselves”, John says. As it’s hard to admit to - or even realise, sometimes - for a player to know they are causing themselves harm while gambling, John’s team takes on some of that responsibility.
Rank Group Plc has non-tech teams specifically focused on looking after a players’ well-being on-platform, which sit in Mauritius, Sheffield and London. Shifttech works with them from Cape Town, and sits on the alerting side to figure out software triggers. Practically, he illustrates how this has looked for his tech team:
“Something that Rank [Gaming] does now, is that as players hit a certain threshold in their deposits, they get sent a friendly email saying, ‘This is from the company, we’ve noticed you’ve made X deposit values in 24 hours, we’re committed to social responsibility, we’re just bringing this to your attention.’ When they reach another threshold, that will be picked up internally and the team will monitor for if they reach another threshold. Another email will go out to them, and if they get to a really high level their account will be disabled for X amount of time.”
Consideration #3: Adapting your product to put a player’s wellbeing first
Over and above being aware of their social responsibility, John’s team needs to build features internally to help player’s play more responsibly. Examples of these include:
Allowing players to self-exclude: “They can do something which is called ‘Take a break’, which is a timeout that says, ‘Okay, I need a break for a week, or a month’ or even up to six months.”
Players can also choose to self-exclude for longer, between six months and five years; nonetheless, during that specified duration a player’s account gets closed and blocked – and the system has been built to prevent John’s team from unblocking the account early. This makes it a software constraint, not an empathic constraint, which helps keep social responsibility relatively unbiased.
Reality checks: These tell a player how long they’ve been playing for, and are something they set themselves. John says this gives a player what they need to be more aware of how much time they’re spending on platform.
Session timers: Where reality checks are more of a signal, the session timers actually log a player out of the site once their personally set duration is reached. This happens even if they haven’t played any games.
Loss limits: Aside from choosing how long to play for, players can also set their own limits for how much they want to spend. This is similar to the deposit thresholds mentioned earlier. Loss limits are there to stop a player from losing too much money, so that once they reach X limit, they cannot place anymore bets.
Players can also use the support function to admit to having a gambling problem, and during this process his team needs to make it easy for that player to reach a real human being who can help them: “There’s steps that they take to help them, to guide them to support centers and places that can help them.” Seeking help is hard and, in John’s experience, human compassion is more effective than simply a bot. Validating their situation, and reaching out as a human being gives someone the feeling that they’ve been acknowledged.
While the support centre isn’t part of Shifttech, John’s team is still required to give players the option to self-exclude, and to ask for help if they feel they need it. This comes in the form of buttons and links throughout the user journey, one that John’s team has mapped out from registration, to gameplay and email communications, to their support team and other support centres.
Online gambling: An ever-changing industry
As with tech, John says that the online gambling industry is ever-evolving. This means that new opportunities are part of their daily operation: “We get to play with a lot of new technology. And next year we’re going into sports betting. That’s something brand new to me, and I’ve been in the industry for how many years now.”
For someone on the outside, John says it might seem like a risky or controversial industry in which to work. However, step inside his world for a little bit, and it turns into a myriad of unique and interesting problems, each requiring its own unique and interesting solutions. By focusing on social responsibility and keeping production and workflow as proactive as possible, the problems John’s team solves for actually have real impact on real people in the real world - and extend beyond simply a ‘virtual slot machine’.