Q&A: Stars in their eyes

The Stars Group CTO Jerry Bowskill sets out his roadmap for keeping the operator at the forefront of the industry, with a focus on poker innovation and keeping the firm’s legacy platform up-to-date

The Stars Group is a relative veteran and technical behemoth in an industry increasingly supporting the rise of smaller and more nimble start-ups.

Having been around for 16 years under various monikers and still sitting comfortably in the top five of EGR’s Power 50 list for 2017, it’s quite interesting that a poker-first operator has managed to maintain a top-tier industry position despite the decline of the poker vertical and the rise of mobile-first products.

But, six months into his position, group CTO Jerry Bowskill has a firm grasp on how he can lead the firm forward.

Although scale and a slowly stagnating poker vertical have been major complexities in the past, Bowskill outlines to EGR Technology how he is working past them.

EGR Technology: Having been in your position for six months now, can you tell us what it entails and how it differs from your past roles?

Jerry Bowskill (JB): I came into the industry with GTS, which is a company I co-founded and then went on to be sold to Playtech. The big difference here is

I’ve worked for a long time with this B2B platform focus and now I’ve moved from supplying operators to working within one of the biggest operators.

It’s a slight change but for me it actually brings a healthy perspective which is very much based around the power and strength of having open platforms and being able to push to innovate quickly.

The real vision I have now as a technology team is for The Stars Group to be recognised as the favourite igaming platform that powers the most-loved igaming destinations.

I think we’re well on course for that. We have tremendous scale with 115 million registered users and had 2.1 million active users in Q3.

We’re now shipping almost 20 terabytes of data a day to users and we’re driving forward by looking at improving the user experience and managing great experiences at scale.

We’re also pushing to drive the highest operating and regulatory standards, which will underpin further growth. We have one of the fastest growing platforms in the industry, especially on our casino and sports verticals.

We’ve added 150 new games titles to our casino so far this year.

CTO, Jerry Bowskill

CTO, Jerry Bowskill

EGR Technology: What have been the main areas of focus for you so far?

JB: I joined The Stars Group in June and have been tasked with executing the strategic technology vision of the business, as well as driving a transformation in how our products are delivered.

Today we must meet the user across channels and manage their experience on many more devices than we had to in the past when we were offering only poker.

There’s also been a lot of focus on aligning teams across our centres of expertise in Toronto, Dublin, London and at our headquarters on the Isle of Man, where I’m based.

EGR Technology: How do you think your experience within the industry has prepared you for this role?

JB: I think it’s given me this view that content innovation is critical and that our business is driven forward through the strength of the platform. The platform needs to be very open, not just in terms of technology and APIs but also in terms of our ability to work with third parties. This was definitely informed by my experience working with B2B platforms.

I come from an innovation rich background. I have a PhD in image processing and worked for BT Labs managing part of their research with MIT Media Lab in the States, which was consortia-led industry and academic research looking at least a decade ahead of commercial viability.

I was doing augmented reality and managed a team researching wearable tech. With technology-strong businesses such as ourselves, you have to be incredibly open to innovation.

EGR Technology: On that note, is The Stars Group looking towards technologies such as AR and VR?

JB: One of the things I learned as a senior scientist and while working in these R&D labs is you tend to think something is very much here and now as soon as it can technically be built.

Usually, though, there’s at least a decade between something being proof of concept in a lab and actually being commercially viable.

We’ve seen that with VR and augmented reality. I think it will gain traction for certain users in certain tasks. We are looking at specific opportunities for VR but we’re realistic about it being likely to appeal to certain users and not something that will change the whole industry.

EGR Technology: How much of your backend tech is based on the legacy platform?

JB: It’s essential for any technology business to invest in paying down its technical debt. You have to accept that as soon as you push software to production, unless you attend to it, alternate technologies will come along to do things more efficiently.

As you release products you have to spend time and resources actively taking complexity out, otherwise in the long run you become less efficient.

A key part of my role is to ensure we’re investing in that technical debt reduction as well as looking for new verticals and completely new ways of doing things.

There have been massive changes over the last 10 years in how technology scales against certain enabling technologies. We’re fairly conservative in how we use cloud, primarily because we believe it’s a strength to own our own infrastructure.

Within our hosting platform we do have a privately managed Stars cloud facility for our third parties. We also do work with some third-party cloud-based service providers where it makes sense. Having control over our own infrastructure just makes the complexities of compliance so much easier to deliver on.

On the back-end platform we’re continuing down the path of exposing more micro-services, more APIs because that becomes a source of innovation. It helps us integrate with third parties and internally it helps us to move more quickly.

We can give select third-parties access to our environments and GDKs to allow them to build their game content natively on our platform.

All these types of middleware very much increase the speed of releases.

EGR Technology: What are the complexities of hosting your own platform?

JB: For our business, complexity comes with scale. One important area is in handling compliance. We’ve got 17 licences and counting and it takes a lot to remain compliant across all those jurisdictions.

Separating out some of the technical dependencies: all our verticals are driven from the same core player account management solution and wallet.

We’re pushing hard to make sure that every end user product can be released any time, any place, anywhere, but you have to manage that against technical complexity and regulation.

Speed-to-market and strong regulatory compliance is a key competitive advantage of our platform as we see the global march toward regulation continue.

EGR Technology: How does the front-end technology differ between verticals?

JB: We’re actually a long way down the road of delivering all verticals basically through the same client-side technology.

One of the decisions I’ve executed on is our ongoing web frameworks. We’re looking to innovate heavily around our mobile next-generation apps and also looking to change how all of our websites are delivered, using a common container and common technology across all verticals.

We’re opting for a base technology that was actually originally created by Facebook, so we’re looking at the best in tech regardless of the industry.

EGR Technology: What would be the business benefits of hosting all verticals on the same framework?

JB: There’s massive business opportunity in cross-selling between verticals. We’re fast moving in the direction of all product areas being built using the same technologies, which then allows us to personalise the user experience.

Imagine a future where you just connect to us and what you see is based on the kind of entertainment experience you want to receive. It gives the business a level of flexibility we haven’t seen before.

EGR Technology: What other product developments do you have in the pipeline?

JB: We have to keep innovating content around all of our products but we’re primarily a poker business and we have to keep enhancing our products for players. Poker’s been around for 150 years and we’ve got to keep reinventing it.

In Power Up, for example, we’ve built a product that takes on some elements that you might find in games like Clash Royale and Hearthstone, games of skill which are outside of egaming.

Those are the games the entertainment hungry new generation plays. We’ve been investing more in R&D to be able to produce more engaging variations more quickly.

We’ve invested in poker studios with groups of feature teams that are there solely to produce new game variants around internal GDKs and simulation tools. This allows them to prototype and evaluate game variants and get them to control groups of our users much more quickly.

EGR Technology: How do you maintain such high volumes of site traffic?

JB: Our manifesto is to always do the basics brilliantly. We obviously look to push product innovation but everyone needs to keep an eye on the detail and make sure that, operationally, everything is running smoothly and that we are proactively monitoring production environments.

We’re also always looking for opportunities to optimise. Growth into new markets requires more and more attention to maintaining that quality. We have the capability to dynamically scale on the front-end side where we’re actually handling interactions with users.

We look to scale on the bandwidth available. We could pretty much run our own network as we’re our own internet service provider with our own fibre network and our own capacity. Our philosophy is to do as much as we can on our own infrastructure, so that we can control how it scales.

EGR Technology: Do you look outside the industry for expertise?

JB: For engineering we are less dependent on industry knowledge. We’re just looking for the smartest people. Some of the biggest and most powerful ideas for our industry are likely to come from crossover innovation from other industries.

So I think it’s really important we keep investing in talent. A good mix of people straight out of university and some with a few years of industry experience, but from quite a widespread background.

That’s how we as a business stop becoming insular in our thinking.

Interview | Jerry Bowskill | Pokerstars | Stars Group