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(Re)inventing the Home Shaped Wheel


26 Apr 2023 | Alex Avery

In our Digital Matters Podcast on March 10th, 2023, our Noel Ady and Andy Ross spoke with Philip Irby. Philip is Chief Technology Officer for AMH – a seasoned entrepreneurial technology executive with over 20 years of experience in taking complex technology solutions from design to realisation.

Here in this article, we look at some of Noel’s key learnings, particularly how AMH is approaching doing something new (and from the ground up) as a service with user experience at its heart, some of the challenges encountered along the way and how to overcome them.

Introducing Philip.

Before working in technology, Philip was a musician playing with bands in Dallas, Texas, but he was also involved in writing HTML for the band. While playing, he met a group from Multimedia Learning and joined them as a developer after speaking with them.

This led to a further software engineering role with Digital Pilot and then forming a startup called Pragmatics, where (over ten years) Philip became Chief Architect.

After relocating to Las Vegas, he joined Cosmopolitan (somewhere he fondly remembers as fast-paced and “a wonderful way to learn nine lines of business at the same time”).

Five years on, Philip joins American Homes 4 Rent (now AMH) as Chief Technology Officer and begins work on “tearing it down to the foundation”. Not as bad as it sounds!

Introducing AMH and what they’re setting out to do.

AMH is a digital-first company in the Property Lettings industry that is doing something new: reinventing itself as a customer services organisation whose whole vision circles around its residents.

Rewinding the clock around four years, following significant growth through successful acquisitions, the company found its technology had grown in a siloed fashion in order to keep scaling at pace.

They found that the Single-Family Rental industry had no suitable software packages or platforms – with existing options tailored more for multifamily or commercial real estate – translating into the opportunity and challenge to make something new from scratch.

But how to ensure that residents receive the best experience?

Plumbing before paintwork.

An essential first step in reimagining AMH has been to tear everything back to its foundation. To use the housing analogy: “We’ve got our plumbing, our electrical… we had to rebuild that.” In a more technical context, that has meant true microservices and event-based architecture. It’s the “plumbing” behind the scenes that no user will see but has proven critical in providing a thoroughly modern architecture that can scale and provide the user experience needed.

Good timing proved a blessing here, with the company at just the right point to look critically at itself and (with well-timed help from the gravity9 team) make these transformational changes, leaving them in a great position from which to grow.

Herding cats.

“Everyone wants everything yesterday” is a common challenge in technology – from stakeholders pushing for tighter deadlines to end users and customers who are so used to there being an app for whatever they can dream up – it’s crucial to be able to stand your ground and remember that someone has to do the work that makes these requirements a reality. In other words, this tip is all about keeping your stakeholders on your side and having them understand that to build something useful, you must allow the time to do so, even if that’s a timescale of years!

This is especially true if your project involves “background” work that may not yield immediately tangible results. Building things correctly from the start becomes much easier when surrounded by people who believe in the same vision.

Don’t pave the cow path.

You may have encountered this proverb before – a cow path is a slow, meandering route from A to B that is well travelled but not necessarily efficient. Paving it and making it permanent might seem simple (as it’s an already established route), but it’s also inefficient.

The more demanding thing would be establishing a new, straight route from A to B and paving that.

We find this can hold true in technology too. It might seem most convenient to make what’s established permanent, but for a scaling product, service or organisation, the result might prove inefficient and detrimental to growth.

Therefore, don’t pave the cow path. Establishing the most suitable and efficient supporting structures is worth the extra effort and investment. In other words, it’s essential to design for the business you want to be rather than where you currently are.

What of the future and the user-centric approach?

Building on the theme of “not paving the path,” Philip talks about how AMH is building for the future and what that means for problem-solving.

The goal here is not to solve every problem in front of you at any given time (resulting in numerous little solutions that don’t integrate well together) but to build for the platform (and company) you want to be in, e.g., ten years. Staying true to the domain-driven design, the event-based architecture, the microservices – are important to keep in mind for the long run. In other words: design for where you want to be rather than where you are.

With such a vast scope to build something new, it’s important not to lose sight of the end user, and that’s who AMH are building for.

It begins with a single sign-on experience through one landing site. From this, users will find everything they need and their whole community, from paying rent to accessing the gym, amenity centre, Wi-Fi, maintenance requests and more. It can all happen through that one experience.

Looking further into the future, there’s enormous potential in smart integration, machine learning, and AI and how these technologies can be leveraged to (for example) predict maintenance needs (for example, on a refrigerator, HVAC, or similar appliance) and intelligently book maintenance and care to prevent failure and downtime.

It’s exciting to see how this technology can help leverage such functionality on the required scale – tens of thousands of properties – and all with a view to making residents happier in their experience and a technical platform fit for scaling for the future.

Philip has much more to say than could be mentioned here, along with some brilliant anecdotes that help to frame what we’ve learned. You can check that out below: