It’s exactly a week before Tax Day—the date many people dread above all others. This year, however, you’ve got it covered: You’ve used free online-filing software to complete your forms with a full week to spare. So imagine your surprise—and horror—when you hit the button to file and the government’s site rejects your form.
This is a nightmare scenario—and not just for the customer. Tax preparation firms live and die by a single day out of the year, and they get just one chance. If a customer isn’t able to use their service to file accurate, on-time returns, they will go elsewhere—and there’s no amount of marketing that will win them back.
Goal: market disruption
It was back in 1955 when brothers Henry and Richard Bloch founded H&R Block in Kansas City, Missouri, after realizing that the tax preparation service they had been providing to their bookkeeping clients represented a sound business venture on its own. The company has since grown into the world’s largest tax-preparation firm, generating just over $3 billion USD in revenue in FY2017. Its outposts are located across North America and in 13 foreign countries.
One of those countries is Canada, where the company has been operating for over 50 years, and currently has more than 1,200 offices. With tax experts ready to prepare every type of return (from personal and small business returns to corporate, farm, trucking, fishing, rental, and estate returns), H&R Block Canada is serious when it says it can serve Canadians no matter where they are.
In 2014, H&R Block Canada aimed to disrupt the market by launching an online DIY application for people who wanted to be guided through the tax return preparation and filing process but didn’t want to come into an office or interact with a tax specialist.
Although the U.S. arm of H&R Block had launched a DIY online filing application several years prior, H&R Block Canada decided to launch its own online application differently when Dave Falkenberg joined the company. As Director of Product Development, Falkenberg was charged with managing, guiding, and maturing the new DIY software side of H&R Block Canada’s business.
“When we brought our own tax product to market, we tried doing things differently,” explains Falkenberg. “One of our strategies was to offer the product free of charge—no catches. Today, we’ve started putting in some monetization initiatives. However, none of this would be possible without a significant user base. And if the software isn’t working properly, we can’t give it away, much less find ways to monetize it.”
That’s why from the get-go, Falkenberg was eager to take advantage of New Relic monitoring. With H&R Block Canada already using New Relic APM to track its production and development environments, Falkenberg knew he wanted to dig even deeper using New Relic’s help.
Testing, testing, testing
Falkenberg’s early days with the company were also early days for the DIY tax filing application, which was in constant flux as the team worked to perfect it. “We rebuilt just about everything along the way, so when I inherited New Relic, I immediately began applying its monitoring to all of our test environments,” he says.
This proactive strategy worked, and by the second year the product was much improved. While monitoring continued to focus squarely on the application’s Java-based backend, that focus broadened as more employees began using New Relic and H&R Block Canada deployed additional New Relic solutions.
“The DevOps team really appreciates getting the New Relic-generated stack traces because they allow them to drill down to the line of code causing the error, and to get references back to the data model triggering the error,” says Falkenberg. “As a result, we’ve been able to radically improve the quality of the product.”
The H&R Block DevOps team appreciates the analytics around load balancing that New Relic provides. And no wonder—for a business that revolves around a single, all-important deadline and the months leading up to it, the flexibility to accommodate huge spikes in user traffic is crucial.
Explains Falkenberg, “As a tax preparation firm, our milestones and deadlines never move; we never get a day back. So we’re always load testing to make sure that everything can scale appropriately. With New Relic running in both the load test environment and in production itself, it’s easy for us to get to the bottom of things if we’re not achieving our test loads.”