Neil Brooks has steered Autodata in an entirely new tech direction since he took the wheel two years ago. He championed using mature back-end systems with a roadmap for integration, delivered by a cloud specialist. And he has retooled product development using agile techniques for product prioritisation and cross-functional working, a new technology stack and a focus on analytics. The business value of his initatives was demonstrated by the recent successful management buyout of the company. 

When did you start your current role as CTO of Autodata?
August 2013.

What is your reporting line?

Do you meet with and discuss business strategy with the CEO every week?

Are you a member of the board of directors?

What other executive boards do you sit on?

Does your organisation have a CDO?

What non-technology responsibilities do you have in the organisation?

How many employees does your organisation have?

Does your organisation carry out significant trade in the EU?

How many users does your department supply services to?
175 internally, 55,000 externally.

How do you ensure that you have a good understanding of your business and how your customers use your business's products?
Using a top-down combined with a bottom-up approach.

At a board level we have a clear set of strategic goals and growth objectives that translate into the various initiatives, projects and product developments.

From the bottom up, by interacting with customers either through sales engagements or at other events like trade shows, etc.

Autodata technology strategy and agenda

Is your organisation being disrupted by the internet, mobility or technology-oriented start-ups?

Are you empowered by your organisation to disrupt from the inside?

Describe a disruptive measure you’ve led or played a major part in?
Changed the direction of the technical strategy for the company’s back-end systems. Cancelled a long-standing 18-month-plus project to manage customer’s subscriptions and financials in a single system that was never going to deliver. Instigated an operationally less riskier approach of using more appropriate and mature new back-end systems with a roadmap for integration, thus allowing the business to start unlocking value immediately from these systems.

Brought in a cloud integration specialist to deliver a minimum viable product that enabled us to manage subscriptions and recurring billing. Project was delivered in under 10 weeks and supported multi-country product plans and multi-currency to support our sales worldwide. Sales registrations and billing processes are now simplified and streamlined. Auto-renewal is now a standard feature, as are standard price plans and discounts; none of this could be done before. Auto-renewal alone is projected to uplift renewal rates by 8%.

Plans to allow and indirect sales channel and end-user subscription management self-service capabilities are currently being scoped to further streamline operations and support the predicted growth in customers.

What major transformation project has been recently completed or is under way at your organisation?
We have for the last 18 months been working on the next generation of our workshop application. Aimed at the automotive servicing and maintenance aftermarket, it brings all the required information together for a mechanic or technician to maintain a vehicle in a time-saving and efficient manner. Beta live in March 2014, commercially live for new customers in June 2014, and fully featured, ready for legacy customer migration, in December 2014.

The product itself aside, the delivery of this initiative has required a complete transformation in the way that the product development is undertaken within the organisation. The transformation included a wholesale shift to using agile techniques for product prioritisation and cross-functional working; a new technology stack; a switch to using CI and automation; a focus on analytics and a highly coupled operational department through the use of devops.

In addition an API capability was introduced to surface our data. It's something that now forms part of our overall technical and product strategy as well as underpinning our own workshop application.

What impact will the above transformation have on your organisation?
The strength of the technical development capabilities introduced alongside the imminent production state of the workshop and API products significantly contributed to the eventual valuation and price obtained during the sale of the company in May 2014 for £150M, 15 times EBITDA, to Bowmark Capital and the Five Arrows Group.

Post-sale, new product features and changes are being delivered quickly, often and to a high quality. The transformation has enabled us to have a sustainable, predictable and quality-focused conveyor belt of change, typically with weekly or fortnightly releases that allows planned roadmaps to be navigated. This contrasts with the organisation before my arrival, where only one or two product feature releases a year were the norm and with no obvious product direction.

How has your leadership style contributed to the outcomes of the transformation project?
By encouraging buy-in from those involved and also by empowering them we have seen a collection of individuals turn into a highly motivated team. All of them are striving to deliver and constantly improving on the how as well as the what.

Being clear about the direction, the objectives and the rationale for what we are doing has been crucial in achieving this dedicated team. Being approachable and taking the time to reiterate goals and helping the team align to them has also contributed.

What key technologies do you consider enable transformation?
• continuous delivery
• virtualisation/cloud
• cloud SaaS solutions
• collaboration tools
• analytics dashboards

Are you increasing the number of cloud applications or infrastructure in use at your organisation?

What is your information and data analytics vision for the organisation?
The current organisation has many blind spots and islands of poor, inconsistent information mainly due to the back-end systems not being integrated. Consequently we are reworking our back-end systems and integrating them to remove these archipelagos. It's something the API is helping with. We are also putting effort into instrumenting our new and old products.

The outcomes of these changes will allow us to:
• drive the further changes needed to produce the value-add analytics for customers using our systems, thus supporting sales renewals and retention
• more accurately report financial information by product, plans, sectors and regions, thus identifying product and sales strengths and weaknesses
• introduce consumption-based pricing for our products

How is mobile and social networking impacting operations and customer experience?
Responsive design patterns are being used in the development of our core applications.

The API products launched allow easy and simple integration of our content into end-user solutions for the consumer market, either in the traditional market or the mobile arena.

Describe your strategic vision towards shadow IT and BYOD. How do you influence and engage executives and employees around choice?
As a small company our ability to engage the business and head-off any 'black-market' IT means that thus far we have not seen this since my arrival. Being able to engage and empathise with the various stakeholders has been key to this but more importantly showing the value-add of joined-up thinking.

BYOD at the moment is not something that we feel would make a lot of sense with the current size of our mobile and device estate. Having said that, we have followed a strategy that allows access to our back-end services from almost anywhere, with many of our non-core systems having been moved into the cloud  eg email, CRM, HR, finance, service desk ticketing, etc.

What strategic technology deals have been struck and with whom?
We have partnered with Intel-Mashery to supply the facade and development portal for our API products.

We have partnered with Red Centric to supply our telephony service, and Dell to supply our desktop and server estate.

We have a strategic development partnership with Fingo, a Polish nearshore development organisation.

Who are your main suppliers?
• Amazon (AWS)
• Red Centric
• Pulsant
• Intel – Mashery
• Microsoft (Office 365)
• Dell

Autodata IT security and budget

Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?

Has cyber-security risen up your management agenda?

Does your organisation understand the potential cyber-security threats it faces?

Has this led to an increase in your security budget?

What is the IT budget?
Approximately £4m, including capital spend.

How much is the IT operational spend compared to the revenue as a percentage?

What is the strategic aim of the CIO and IT operations for the next financial year?
1. To rive and support the delivery of the business strategy and revenue initiatives of the business.
2. To work with the board and others within the business to identify opportunities made available from the innovative application of technology.
3. To ensure systems are and remain stable, safe and secure.

Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?

Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?

Are you looking for recruits in the EU to fill the skills shortage you have?

Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?

Autodata technology department

How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe I have an enabling style, autocratic when necessary and democratic where appropriate.

I believe in empowerment but being there to support when there is any doubt or the need to consult. This helps build a more motivated and effective team.

I set clear goals of where we want to be but am always pragmatic and flexible about the route to get there. This means that everyone works toward the same goals and avoids any off-piste activities.

I like to be consultative when there are options, thus making people feel they are being listened to. This helps buy-in on decisions.

I like to have a rapport with all the staff within the department and beyond, and use this to gain insight into any issues we may have from a ground-up perspective. This helps me target and address issues early before they become real problems.

Explain how you’ve supported and developed your senior leadership team to support your overall objectives and vision
1. Everyone in development and a large proportion of the operational team has been given a good grounding in agile, achieved or reinforced through external training. The key players and managers have also had on-going agile coaching and mentoring.

2. Clear communication initially on exactly what the objectives and vision is to the leadership team and also the department as a whole. Goal setting and initiatives clearly tied back to the company’s business strategy.

3. Encouragement to be open and transparent on the progress of work being undertaken, ops-related or development. This lets conversations happen early and allows help or corrective action to be taken sooner.

How many employees are in your IT team?

What is the split between in-house/outsourced staff?

Does your team include key skilled workers from the EU?