AWS for Industries
SiteMinder CTO Talks About Adopting New Tech, Innovation, and What Keeps Him Motivated
For almost a decade, the partnership between SiteMinder and AWS has helped create innovative, secure products for tens of thousands of accommodation businesses around the world. David Peller, Managing Director of AWS Travel and Hospitality, recently sat down (virtually) with the SiteMinder’s cofounder and CTO, Mike Rogers, to chat about the last 18 months, the Australian tech landscape, and hacks for maintaining an innovative frame of mind.
David Peller (DP): SiteMinder is celebrating its 15th year in business later this year. What still excites you about working for the company that you cofounded, and what are your memories from the first six months on the job?
Mike Rogers (MR): Ha, I don’t even remember the first six months! In terms of what excites me, though, I still absolutely love tech. Even after 15 years in the role, I’m still very hands-on with architecture and coding and the greatest thrill still comes from the ability to come up with an idea, quickly innovate, and solve a real-world problem with the tools I have available.
Recently, we had a challenge which was: How do we allow our staff to search and analyze data from our hotels when the data is distributed across many different microservices? Being able to quickly spin up a proof of concept, grab Elasticsearch, pipe data in from Kinesis, slap together some Lambda functions, and within a week see that we could create something that would work brilliantly, was a real joy. In this case, it was creating added value for our own staff, as it allowed them to better perform their role, but the exact same thing applies to customers, where if someone has an idea, I’m still as excited as ever to explore it.
That ability to quickly innovate is probably the biggest change from the early days at SiteMinder, where we had limited tools like MySQL and then something like ActiveMQ for queuing. We could still build some very cool things, don’t get me wrong—it is how our business was founded after all—but there was far less capacity for experimentation compared to today.
DP: A lot has changed in the world of hospitality since 2006, and the past year in particular has forced innovations from many businesses around the world. As a CTO, has your thinking around innovation changed since the pandemic began?
MR: Thankfully, as a business, SiteMinder has remained resilient since COVID began, meaning that we haven’t been forced to fundamentally shift our approach to innovation. We’ve always experimented with new approaches and deliveries, and that remains true today.
Many of our customers, being hotels, have been heavily impacted, and through this time we’ve needed to stay closer than ever to their experience as a tech team. We’ve shifted from a business that was all about helping our customers to acquire new guests from around the world, to one that’s now about helping them to be more efficient and intelligent with the way they operate their business.
Naturally, we’ve also needed to make changes to the way that we work. Introducing our Open Working model was our way of giving our employees the option of being office-based (when possible), a mobile worker (a blend of home and office), or working remotely, where they may come into the office as little as once a year or not at all. While this has created a fresh range of both exciting opportunities and challenges, it hasn’t shifted the way we approach customer pain points and innovation.
DP: Which AWS services is SiteMinder currently using?
MR: Currently SiteMinder uses Amazon EC2, Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), AWS Lambda, Amazon Kinesis, Amazon Redshift, Amazon Aurora, Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon API Gateway, Amazon Elastic Container Registry (Amazon ECR), Amazon CloudFront, Amazon Route 53, AWS Glue, AWS Database Migration Service, Amazon ElastiCache, Amazon OpenSearch Service (September 8, 2021: Amazon Elasticsearch Service has been renamed to Amazon OpenSearch Service), Amazon Athena, Amazon Simple Queue Service (Amazon SQS), Amazon Simple Notification Service (Amazon SNS), and Amazon Simple Email Service (Amazon SES) and I am sure many more I have forgotten.
It’s difficult to single out which of these services have had the biggest impact for us, but I would probably say Amazon Aurora has been amazing from a performance and scalability perspective, and Amazon Kinesis has also been crucial to building our core asynchronous event driven microservice backbone.
Amazon ES has also taken a huge amount of pain away in the last 12 months, as we have looked to facilitate a more streamlined user experience by migrating each of our core products onto a broader hotel commerce platform.
DP: You’ve successfully built a platform that’s so stable that today it’s used by 35,000 hotels, and yet SiteMinder continues to seek out the latest AWS technologies. Why is that?
MR: SiteMinder is a technology company at heart, and with tech being the core engine of what we do, it’s never viewed as a cost center. However, we aren’t simply chasing new technology for the sake of it.
When we consider adopting a new service offering, we tend to break down the problems that it may help us solve (often problems of scale, security, or deployment), how it might be practically used, and the overhead required in terms of upskilling our team to use it. From there, we make a call.
Our use of AWS is constantly evolving, both as new business challenges arise and as the services themselves develop. One thing that AWS does well is refine its products and services over time. SQS is an example of this, which was basic Pub/Sub messaging initially. However, as the service evolved to offer first-in, first-out queuing, all of a sudden it created a new level of capability for us, which allowed us to utilize it in different ways and solve novel problems differently.
So, it’s less about the drive to adopt brand new services, but rather, as more capabilities are added to existing services, all of a sudden they become more sophisticated and can be utilized in more spaces. That being said, there are a lot of other AWS services that we’re starting to trial and play with!
DP: As a tech business with scarce resources, how do you decide what your team manages in house and what a third party helps with?
MR: At SiteMinder, we have extremely experienced infrastructure, operations, and engineering teams, so are very capable of running most services in house. We generally want these teams looking after systems which are not offered by third parties, have features which are not (yet) provided by third parties, or where it makes financial sense to run ourselves.
When making a call as to what third-party tech to use, there are a few factors at play. Most importantly, we need to ensure that the service being offered is of the quality needed and covers all of our requirements. From there, if the fit is good, the decision becomes based heavily around cost. And that’s the genuine cost, not simply the running cost. It’s the initial research costs, the ongoing human costs, and the evolution of the product versus our ongoing requirements.
If the third-party service is still ticking all of the right boxes, then it’s not about being precious, but rather about embracing what the tool has to offer. A great example of this is Amazon OpenSearch Service. In this instance, AWS provides a great offering, and even though we know how to run Opensearch (and in certain cases we still do), in the majority of cases, we’ll use the AWS offering. Cassandra is another good example. Due to it being onerous and complicated to run and monitor, we use Instaclustr for Cassandra, hosted on AWS hardware.
This contrasts with third-party logging services, which do offer great upsides. However as we produce terabytes upon terabytes of logs, [they] quickly become prohibitively expensive. So, a lot of that stuff we do in house.
DP: SiteMinder customers operate in a highly regulated and unpredictable environment. How do you balance compliance and changing regulations with innovation?
MR: We’re lucky in this regard, as knowing that all of the services we use in AWS are already compliant really does free us up from a dev perspective. Years ago, we would have to wait for certain services to achieve compliance, which could be quite a frustrating experience. In the early 2010s, however, as SiteMinder contemplated moving 100% of its workload into AWS, we were at the same time doing heavy PCI DSS compliance certification, and knowing that all of the services we were going to be using in AWS were already PCI DSS compliant, made it an easy decision. In doing so, a whole bunch of things on our technical roadmap became automatic check boxes from a compliance perspective, which saved significant time and resources.
Similarly, today, having AWS services in place that allow us to very easily respond to PII requests for data purges takes away a lot of additional build hours and frees us up to focus on other key objectives.
We’re an extremely security-focused business. We lock down to not just a microservice level, but to a component level in the microservices, and services like AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) make that easy to do also.
DP: You’ve used a variety of tech tools throughout your career. Does one tool have a special place?
MR: You can’t just make me pick one! There are way too many! Okay, from a purely cloud-based perspective, as straightforward as it is, adopting Kinesis caused a pretty monumental pivot to the way we architected and built systems. It helped solve a particular problem that we were having around asynchronous event processing, so that will always be a special one.
Then I’d have to say Docker, which is definitely one of my favorite problem-solving tools, especially from a development and testing perspective. There are a million others that come off the back of those, but those two do stand out, because once added to the toolkit, they opened up huge possibilities to us here.
I’ve of course got to give an honorable mention to MySQL, which we’ve been using from literally day one. We’re on Aurora with AWS now, but that’s the workhorse that we’ve never changed. There are three!
DP: What do you think about the current state of the tech sector in Australia and how do you see it evolving?
MR: Locally, the engineering quality is great, but it’s oversubscribed, and there are clear resource constraints in our industry.
In the past 18 months, we’ve seen the many upsides of remote working, as businesses have built out more sophisticated processes and learned how to better collaborate online, and our journey has been an example of that. So, businesses being less constrained by their geographical location will be an ongoing theme.
In the long term, I do see things normalizing to a degree. Australia is a great place to work from, and it will again attract quality international talent. What will be important is for skilled migration to be a very quick and easy process—when that is possible, however.
Equally vital will be creating an environment that encourages Aussie tech talent to build their careers locally, as things reopen. Our economy can ill afford losing further talent overseas.
DP: Finally anyone who works as a head of technology must be an innovative thinker. Can you share any hacks that put you into an inspired headspace?
MR: I’ve found that a key for me is striking a balance between fun and onerous tasks, and always ensuring that I have a few different things on the go at one particular time.
Sometimes I try to reserve Friday for front-end work, something that I find quite relaxing, oddly enough. And luckily, we end up multi-tasking a lot in the R&D space, which is inspiring, as we’ve always got something new to be working on.
Follow what excites you. That’s the best way to stay inspired!
See more of our Executive Conversations series and industry insights on the AWS Travel and Hospitality Blog.
From day one, Mike Rogers has been the tech mind behind SiteMinder’s best-in-class solutions. In 2006, he cofounded the company that was later named one of the top 20 tech pioneers to emerge from Australia.
A disrupter and risk taker, Mike is a veteran in the tech scene. He’s pushed the boundaries of cloud computing since its earliest days and driven innovation for the benefit of hoteliers globally.
When Mike started his career in the mid-1990s, he worked in enterprise resource planning (ERP), finance, health, and gaming.
Today, he leads a team of more than 100 engineers around the world. The complex, real-time tech stack that he envisioned now powers 35,000 hotels in 160 countries and processes more than 200 reservations per minute.
As a testament to his contribution to tech for more than a quarter of a century, Mike has been ranked in the IDG CIO50 list, which recognizes the top 50 senior technology executives in the ASEAN region, for two consecutive years.