With 45 million individual customers and 5 million business customers, HMRC handles £2.3 billion in transactions and collects £636.7 billion in annual revenue. Behind the scenes there are 4,800 IT professionals facilitating this mass of complex activity, with a large number now dedicated to digital projects. These factors frame the organisation’s critical need for DevOps practices that enable the delivery of innovative applications and services at high velocity.

A revolutionary solution came in the form of the multi-channel digital tax platform (MDTP), an initiative that esynergy helped to build and operate. We recently caught up with Ben Conrad, the Head of Agile Delivery at HMRC, who explained how MDTP has facilitated innovative digital tax services and what has been learned along the way. In this article, we will explore the valuable insights shared by Ben and take a closer look at HMRC’s DevOps journey.

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The dawn of MDTP

Action was first taken to bring about MDTP in 2013, at which time HMRC was merely equipped with some limited Java services for purposes like the completion of self-assessments. Ben explained that these services ‘were hosted on physical servers and struggled each year to meet the demands of the self-assessment peak.’ With it becoming harder to facilitate this crucial event in the business calendar, the Government Digital Service (GDS) initiated the exploration of digital solutions to bring about a critical step change.

The building of these new services called for somewhere to run them that offered adequate scalability, connectivity to HMRC systems, and the appropriate tools and functionality needed by the developers. By 2016, MDTP was “multi-active” across two cloud providers, and Ben described this multi-cloud milestone as being ‘technically quite impressive’ at the time. In 2017, this approach was optimised via a migration to AWS.

Recognition from the Father of the Web

The platform has become highly effective and thrives on open collaboration with multi-disciplinary teams. Slack plays a vital role in HMRC’s DevOps approach, with 2,400 people across 1,600 channels sharing over 600,000 messages every month. This agile, self-service approach that typifies MDTP allows for 350 deployments to be made each week.

Ben stated that ‘we must be doing something right, because the approach we take is now a case study in the second edition of the DevOps Handbook, with particular regard to the role MDTP played in enabling the economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.’ In addition to this high-profile reference, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, commended the team and their system on Twitter.

What does DevOps enable for HMRC today?

MDTP now hosts and supports over 250 digital services, a task which demands continuous improvements to resilience and efficiency. By working with DevOps engineers to write the code and automate testing procedures, HMRC has been able to gain excellent visibility via logs and metrics for the first time.

It is because of the dynamic structure of MDTP, Ben explained, that ‘we are able to provide a platform that is relied upon by so many other delivery groups within HMRC.’ With every element of the system’s infrastructure defined in code on GitHub, the entire process has become auditable, enabling over 1,200 microservices to be run and supported across more than five environments.

Fuelling progress with capability and culture

Specialist skills have been and continue to be crucial to the success of MDTP according to Ben, who said that ‘the great support from esynergy and other suppliers that we work with has enabled us to make this a real success.’ There are approximately 80 people working on the platform teams at present, with the involvement of 16 Civil Service engineers and a range of apprentices.

Alongside talent, Ben also emphasised the importance of culture, which he explained ‘is extremely important to me, and is something that can easily be taken for granted.’ He told us that the powerful DevOps culture that has been achieved requires massive and constant effort to uphold and is another benefit that comes from working with a mix of suppliers. It is this culture, combined with Agile methods and DevOps practices, to which Ben attributes the ongoing success of MDTP.

Continuous improvement

MDTP has broken new ground, achieved huge success, and brought many key HMRC services up to date, but there are always improvements to be made. Ben discussed the ongoing need to break down barriers to collaboration, which will require the development of shared ways of working across the various elements of HMRC.

The Head of Agile Delivery finally focused on the importance of maintaining the freedom to do the right thing, stating that ‘a big part of my job is protecting the freedoms we have to operate in the way that we do,’ which is essential to innovation and progress. Above all, Ben is tasked with building a vision of what to do next, and he expressed a strong determination not to rest on the laurels of MDTP’s successes to date.

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