How Czarnikow Develops Software

Go back 10 years, and Czarnikow was a typical non-tech company when it came to how we structured and implemented our IT systems. Our needs were met through a combination of various external providers who supplied the company with off-the-shelf solutions, which were then adapted to fit our requirements. We would work with external consultants to create a comprehensive specification and then implement the new system as a large scale project. The end result? Systems which barely met our requirements, and were so inflexible that we ended up with an armada of work-arounds and excel sheets just to make the system execute the basic functions we needed

Skip forward to the current day, and our current relationship with IT couldn’t be more different. Czarnikow now employs a team of 12 in house developers, and also employs near-shore resources to supplement our internal capabilities. Through these resources we have developed world-class software solutions which are tailor made to our needs, and those of our clients and stakeholders, whilst also allowing us to remove cost from the business by eliminating the need for third party software solutions. So how do we do it?

Four pillars

At the heart of our development work is our core structure, where we allow our development teams to focus on 4 pillars, or core areas of importance to the business, split broadly between our internal operational system (Suite – a play on words, which is a nod towards our long history in sugar trading), and our client portal, Czapp. This structure allows us to link our work to the central components of Czarnikow’s strategy, and allows for a degree of specialisation with our development teams. Our four development pillars are:

  • Operations and supply chain – this is the engine of our business, and we’ve built tools to ensure that we can effectively manage the millions of tons of product that we move around the globe annually. Last year we traded 5.4 million metric tonnes of unrefined and refined sugar, and have made great steps in expanding our portfolio to include a range of ingredients and packaging. Our capabilities in this area also dovetail with our Vive Sustainability Programme, and enable us to effectively track and report on certified flows of sustainable produce.
  • Treasury, Finance and Accounting – if the previous pillar is the engine of our business, this is the fuel. Our aim with this pillar is to make our management of financing as efficient as possible, whilst also delivering state of the art data and analytics to help us effectively manage this area of the business. Our development here also supports our banking relationships, allowing us to provide fast and accurate information to our banking stakeholders.
  • Trading and risk management – this is the part of the business where we started our journey into in-house development, and accordingly we’ve built up a sophisticated package of solutions to effectively manage our trading and derivatives activities. Ironically, it is also the final area of the business where we will remove the need for a major external software solution, but once this process is completed in the next 6 months, we will be able to rapidly increase our value creation for the business.
  • Czapp – the most recent addition to our development progress, Czapp builds on the internal capabilities that we have, and starts delivering value to our clients. We have initially focussed on building a tool to deliver our Analysis, sharing cutting edge news and information about the global sugar market and the commodities sector. Soon, we will be expanding to provide broader trading, data and pricing tools via Czapp.

The four pillars also allow for our teams to be structured in a way that  ensures we get the most out of the various skillsets and experiences our team have to offer. For example, each team has a senior developer who can take the lead on technical questions, and also support and mentor junior team members to grow within the organisation. By arranging our IT teams in this way, we nurture existing talent and maintain a higher retention of our key resource – our people.

However, we’re not rigidly constrained within these pillars. Particularly as the sophistication of our systems increase, our teams’ work increasingly overlaps, which means that collaborative teamwork is critical and individuals moving between teams to broaden their skills and knowledge is also common.

A focus on product

Not all of our IT development projects have been a success. There have been occasions where we have invested time and effort into projects that we thought would add value, but the end result just wasn’t what we hoped. In order to think big we must be willing to take risks, and we must also accept that sometimes ideas do not play out exactly as we had hoped. Thisisn’t something we view negatively – we learn a lot from these projects, and it is an inevitable side effect of our ambitious development programme. Despite this inevitability we have developed a strong focus on product as our way to minimise the occurrence of unexpected outcomes, and to date we have been very successful in this approach.

What does a product focus mean?

Well, for Czarnikow it means that we focus on the end product rather than just on the process of development. Key members of our team act as Product Owners, defining the outcomes and solutions that are required for specific internal functions and working closely with the IT team to ensure these needs are met. For example, Rodrigo from our Trade Finance team is currently working as a Product Owner for new internal systems that will revolutionise the efficiency and capabilities of our Trade Finance service. As an experienced member of his team, Rodrigo is best placed to identify the problems, or gaps, that there are in current efficiency and capability within Trade Finance. He can then work with the developers to close these gaps, rather than the IT working in isolation towards what would be a more generalised product. This is one example of many relationships within Czarnikow, and goes to show how Product Owners are vital to the efficient and effective functioning of our development teams, and to the quality and innovation of the end product. Importantly, the role continues on an ongoing basis in order to allow solutions to continue to meet constantly adapting functions and services. By working towards continual improvement, we can ensure that our programming stays relevant and at the forefront of what we are making possible through our range of services.

A data culture

As we’ve built our internal systems, we’ve also been able to rely on a greater quality of data which we can provide back to the business. This means that we now have an in-house data specialist who can support teams with complex questions, setting up custom-built structures within our data warehouse to help analyse and answer queries. But as the capacity to deliver this data has improved, so we have also experienced an upskilling across the company in how to work with and learn from this data. One great example of this is our Analysis team, who have developed their own database structures which can replace our previous reliance on excel worksheets, leading to far more powerful tools and greater data accuracy.

A wealth of talent

All the above is the result of a lot of hard work, research and experimentation to find an approach which works for us. Ultimately though, it wouldn’t count for anything without the quality of the people within our IT team. All of our developers are full stack, which means that they are able to work on both the background logic for our systems (what is known as back-end work) as well as implementing the user interface (similarly known as front-end work) for those systems. This means that our team are able to take ownership of whole solutions and ensure a holistic approach to development work. We’re under no illusion that the market for computer programmers is an extremely competitive one, which makes us even more grateful for the calibre of our teams and the vast skills they bring to the company.

Stuart Durrant, Head of Technology