Travis Perkins CIO Neil Pearce dedicated much of his focus in 2016 to analysing how machine learning and AI could drive digital transformation, and by the end of the year his team had turned his theories into practice.
In December 2016, Britain's biggest builders' merchant hosted a hackathon for staff to experiment with how the technology could improve customer experience using platforms supplied by Google and IBM.
"At the moment we run a lot our business on some very old legacy systems that were built in-house back in the 1980s, and in the course of the last 18 months we've been plotting our path to remove that legacy from our business entirely," says Pearce.
"What it does is it presents a challenge then to those engineers that have been building and running those systems for many years as to what they're going to do next.
"A part of the idea of the hackathon was to help start to point them towards what the new world might look like for them. The second part was really just about playing and experimenting with new technology."
Staff were split into four groups in which they developed ideas on how solve a specific business problem using Google and IBM. They all chose to examine the potential of image recognition, in functions such as identifying products and populating catalogues.
One team trained the IBM Watson supercomputer to recognise a single product: pliers. Watson was fed a variety pf photos to develop an application that would let a camera recognise a specific pair of pliers.
Pearce expects to develop some of them into business uses, but acknowledges that the technology still isn't fully tamed. The pliers are a prime example.
"How does it identify when it is pliers or is a lizard was an interesting challenge," says Pearce. "There's still some work for us to do there, and we're working with both Google and IBM and actually also talking with Amazon about how we can develop those ideas further into products that potentially we'd put into the hands of out customers, that's ultimately the idea."
Pearce hopes to develop digital tools for the trade that support customers such as plumbers and builders in their jobs. An example that his team is currently developing is an a tool help builders identify which brick will work for an extension by using image recognition to analyse the client's existing materials and then trying to source the appropriate product within a couple of seconds.
They're also using IBM Watson to automatically analyse website feedback.
"Typically what would happen is that information is picked up by an individual and they determine the priority," says Pearce.
"What we're able to do with IBM Watson already is analyse the sentiment of the message that's left by one of our customers, and then populate the particular question and challenge back into the workflow of the individuals that actually would fix it. So we in doing that eliminate the need for that person to do that particular job."
The hackathon helped encourage forward-thinking and prepare staff for the coming system overhaul. To embed innovation into the organisation's fabric, Pearce wants the leadership to consistently push staff into playing with the technology.
"The big challenge is trying to help a 200-year-old business that's traded in a particular way for many many years and been very successful at it see the possibilities of what technology can do for it," he says.
"I'm a big believer that actually you can learn a lot of these things far better through playing and experimenting with them than actually trying to go and solve something big and hairy that the business is breathing down your neck on."
Pearce wants managers to continue to change staff mindsets by encouraging them to try new things and acknowledge that the initial outcome isn't the only measure of success.
"Make mistakes, learn from them, move on, experiment again," he says. "I think that's an attractive way to work as an employee as well as there being huge benefits from it as an employer.
Pearce intends to make the hackathon a quarterly event, and has already scheduled the next one for March. The inaugural edition ended up oversubscribed, so he hopes to find a bigger venue for the follow-up.
"We're trying to get people involved from all across IT as well, so not just traditional engineers but project managers, business analysts, people that work on our service desk, architects and all sorts so that they get to start thinking about the changing technology and how we need to use it in the future," he says.
Travis Perkins has pushed automation to another level in the past year, and all of the company's web-facing infrastructure on Amazon Web Services is now automated.
"The guys come in in the morning and they push a button and it spins up all of the development and test environments - about 700 servers in total - and when they're finished in the evening they push another button and the whole lot comes down, so we don't pay for that overnight," he says.
"It makes us more efficient that way, but also means that we've got clean environments to work on every day so we're not having to worry about anything that's left over."
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Pearce would like them to open source the framework, and give something back to the community they benefit from. The company's approach to DevOps and cloud is at the forefront of his team's thinking, and they've already recently released some of their capability to the open source community.
The team is also experimenting with the potential for augmented reality devices for solving business problems in the future, such as identifying products, scanning them and adding them to a basket such as concrete lintels while keeping hands free and avoiding manual barcodes.
"You can't do any of these things without having great people and we've got some excellent people at the moment and we are always looking for more," says Pearce.
"It can be challenging in the Northampton area, but that's part of the reason why we're happy to tell our stories. Hopefully people see it here and think, well actually maybe that's an interesting place to go and do something quite unusual and different from the day-to-day that a lot of corporates tend to do."