Payments people: in conversation with UK Tote Group’s Lydia Hawthorn

How Lydia Hawthorn has built a career in product delivery and fixing tech team dynamics.

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Payments people is our interview series celebrating payments and product leaders. We discuss the experiences that have shaped them and tips for navigating a career in payments.This week, we’re talking with Lydia Hawthorn, Head of Product Delivery for the UK Tote Group, British horse racing’s pool betting operator. Lydia has built a career in delivering large scale projects and bringing together teams that historically struggle to communicate – or as Lydia puts it, being a Mary Poppins of tech. 

Tell us about yourself and your role at the Tote?

I joined 18 months ago to revamp how the UK Tote Group delivers products, and to make sure that we’re recognising the opinions of customers and delivering back what they need.The Tote was bought by Betfred in 2011, and bought back by the UK Tote Group in 2021, with our CEO Alex Frost, recognising that the Tote needed revitalising. With the help of 150 individual investors, mostly racehorse owners and breeders, and senior leadership team, the Tote has been brought back to life with racing at its heart. The Tote is all about giving horse racing enthusiasts the best opportunity to win from the sport they love. The level of passion is incredible: they know their favourite trainers, the performance of horses on certain types of ground, whether it rained recently, what the horse did in the last race, down to what they’re fed!

What did the buyback mean for the product – did you have to start from scratch?

The portfolio was completely wiped of any major digital assets. Our iOS and Android app didn't exist. We had to create a website, payments platform, and backend, frontend and native apps all from scratch, alongside using some legacy tech. You could say we’re a 90-year-old startup. Churchill set up the Tote in 1928, but our internal processes, product and engineering teams are all very new. It’s one reason why we’re really embracing the cutting edge of digital tech.
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That sounds like a challenge. How did you do it?

It can be overwhelming when you don't have anything to go on. Part of my role as head of product delivery is to understand how we should approach things like tech debt and prioritisation of our product roadmap. We might be starting from scratch but we’re also trying to compete against providers with very mature offerings, so we have to be picky about the features we bring to the market. We need to prioritise the things that will make the most impact to customers, because you can only cut as much code as the people you have.

Have you always worked in product delivery?

I started in business sales, doing 200 cold calls a day. I realised that wasn't my bag – I wanted to see things through and I was drawn to bigger projects. I moved into consulting, with a focus on executing large scale projects in cybersecurity – dealing with electronic evidence collection, legal proceedings and pen testing software for large banks and insurers. That's really where I got thinking about how you get the best out of software teams and connecting the product pipeline with the technical expertise of engineering.I've always been a bit of a Mary Poppins character in the sense that businesses bring me in to fix things. I'm not from a tech background — my degree is in English and creative writing, but that has helped me develop this delivery team function as a conduit between product, commercial and technical teams. I’ve built enough knowledge about every aspect to be an effective communicator between these areas of the business that notoriously tend to struggle the most to work together.
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Picture by Alena (stock.adobe.com)

So, how do you bring those teams together to deliver value for customers?

It can sometimes seem like there's a definitive ‘answer’ – by blindly applying a framework and a load of processes – Agile, SAFe, Lean, Scrumban, Scrum, Kanban, there are dozens. But in delivery, you first need to diagnose the challenges, through observation, by speaking to squads and by looking at the data. For example, maybe your product team is getting tripped up by unclear requirements, which mean they end up dictating a solution to technical teams, rather than saying: "hey, you know how to do the technical stuff, but here's the problem we want you to solve and the value we want you to bring to the customer."Or maybe there’s a lack of trust between squads, or certain squads aren't set up in the right way. Whatever it is, it’s a case of bringing in the toolkits that most closely address your challenges. And the product delivery frameworks help guide you through implementation. When it all comes together, you have a solid delivery plan and that plan is how you maintain predictability and set expectations to the business on readiness. 

In your experience, product delivery is done right, when…

When everyone wins. Sometimes someone has a brilliant idea, but further down the line, as you refine that idea, it becomes a different beast. And maybe it doesn’t tick all the boxes the business initially thought that it should. Still, if you’ve communicated well throughout, all teams should feel they’ve had a win – and will understand why the solution needed to look different.

What tips would you give to someone who is assessing their payments proposition?

Sometimes people aren't proactive enough because they're focusing just on whether payments work and – in this industry particularly –  whether they’re compliant with current regulation. Of course, that's the number one priority, but beyond that, you need to look at what’s coming down the line from a regulatory perspective, so you don’t have to drop everything later when new guidelines come in.And the other important piece is around customer experience. You have to ask yourself: what do our payments say about us to the customer? Do they feel secure? Do they feel protected? Are we making the payment experience faster, easier, and safer?Payments should never be a reason for a customer to leave or to abandon a transaction. They need to be quick, instant and as easy as other payment experiences which customers have elsewhere, on ecommerce platforms for example.

What are your biggest predictions for payments in the next five years?

It will be interesting to see if digital currencies can make an impact in the iGaming space, in a safe and responsible way. Open banking is also on our roadmap – we think it will help us fulfil several parts of our business and payments strategy, meet regulatory requirements and enable us to use data more effectively.

Thinking about your career so far, what are the habits that have helped you to thrive?

Always taking notes in meetings! I’ve been in many rooms where important information is being discussed but nobody is writing anything down. Also: leaning on tech to help you do your job. There are a thousand different apps on Slack you can integrate. We use a standup bot that’s really helpful for teams who wouldn’t naturally meet every day. People often try to do things in a complicated way when there's a piece of tech that could solve that issue. It's not the lazy way out — it allows you to be more productive with your time.

Final question: are there any books that have helped you in your career?

The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: Unlocking the Extraordinary Potential of the Human Mind by Barbara Arrowsmith Young. She’s the founder of the Arrowsmith School for children with learning disabilities in Toronto. It's a school for people who want to change their neural pathways. She was born with severe learning difficulties and was told that she was not academically gifted. She ended up spending her life researching neuroplasticity and how you can change the way your brain works.In this role you’re often asked to help solve challenges that other people haven’t been able to, which means being creative and thinking of the less obvious answer – because they probably already tried the obvious ones!
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This book helped me lean into my creative thinking but also think about how to get others to change their own mindsets.
With digital transformation, your biggest challenge is winning hearts and minds. The book is great at showing how to make a case that others find so compelling that they not only agree to come on the journey with you, but become your biggest allies. 

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