Neil Brooks makes a point of not promoting technology. What he does do is use clever and talented people to identify the opportunities that technology presents to increase the value of products, improve the customer experience and remove waste. He has built trust with the other areas of the business by accelerating delivery cycles, problem-solving and opportunity-taking. Across each of the main streams of work, new features are dropped into production at least every two weeks, with an average of 1.9 releases a week – before his arrival, only one or two functional releases were made a year. Technology is now vibrant and energised, with happy staff doing what they love best: building software to solve well-defined problems.
Name and job title
Neil Brooks, chief technology officer, Autodata.
How are you influencing the products, experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
Technical vehicle content is at the heart of our products. This is researched and compiled by a large international production team, creating a consistent format across thousands of vehicles worldwide. It is therefore imperative that the company's most valuable asset can be consumed, exposed, linked and discovered effectively. It is this aspect where my influence flows through to the product, customer experience and services.
I encourage a user-centric view to be taken on all the initiatives we work on by default. Our agile processes and product feedback loops continually help and reinforce this. I also try to provide an environment where the ideas from all sides of the business can be aired, discussed and added to the feature backlogs if they have merit. The establishment of a culture of collaboration, trust and true partnership between the different parts of the organisation has been fundamental in making this work.
The same philosophy we use for our products also applies to our back-end systems, with the additional focus on automation. Making our processes slicker, quicker and cheaper has become a mantra. The technology is often the catalyst for these changes as it helps us to challenge today's way of doing things. Surfacing what's going on in the business through the capturing and reporting of metrics has also been something of a passion. Customer portals and dashboards are all a natural part of this as we move to increase self-service and to reinforce the value gained from using our products.
How as CIO have you driven cultural and behaviour change in your organization, and to what extent?
Despite the foundations, safety and heritage of a 40-year-old business, I have strived for our development culture to be like that of a startup – to think like one and, more importantly, behave like one. I have attempted to set the vision, encourage the dream and paint the bigger picture while emphasising only building what is needed right now to keep everything afloat. This has been infectious at times especially in the cross-functional stream work and helps create energy for getting stuff done. We have made use of agile/lean techniques extensively, and the technology department's culture has been very much focused on teamwork, rapid change, not being afraid to challenge and openness.
The quickness of our delivery cycles and the ability to deal with problems or react to opportunities has also built trust with the other areas of the business; subsequently we have seen adoption of these same ideas across different areas of the business too. Today, across each of the main streams of work, a delivery of new features is dropped into production at a minimum of every two weeks. In 2015 a cross-stream delivery rate of 1.9 releases per week was achieved. This contrasts to before my arrival where only one or two functional releases were made a year. The technology area is now vibrant and energised, with happy staff doing what they love best – building software to solve well-defined problems. Talented happy development teams = good software = better products = happy customers = more money = more development.
Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the past 12 months and their impact on your organisation's performance
Of strategic importance was the migration of over 75,000 users across 17 languages and 100 countries to our recently launched Workshop application. Two-thirds of these users relied on third-party systems integrations using a legacy bespoke single sign-on (SSO) solution. To facilitate the customer migrations a new SSO solution was developed. Significantly the way it was architected and implemented gave us the ability to switch users automatically from our legacy product to Workshop with no changes at all on the integration of the third-party's system. The Workshop product is easier to use and preferred by mechanics and technicians; new ways of surfacing the content saves the garages vital time in understanding all the procedures needed to maintain and service a vehicle. Migrating everyone to the new platform not only reduces operating costs but is also vital for new sales and increasing renewal retention rates. Uplifts in these areas have already been seen across all the regions we serve. Globally we are also seeing massive reductions in customer calls through better self-guided usage and satisfaction.
Our subscription management and billing system was developed throughout 2015 and delivered some significant improvements to the business. Every Workshop customer and the products they subscribed to are now fully tracked and controlled in a single place, giving us extensive management information insight into every segment of the market we serve. To achieve this, a variety of different subscription plans had to be delivered, along with a number of payment methods across eight currencies, each underpinned with local, country-specific, billing logic. Reselling organisations can now also set up and manage subscriptions directly without recourse to Autodata's customer services. This has resulted in a 20% reduction in reseller requests; the manpower cover needed is reduced and more importantly the speed of on-boarding subscribers has improved significantly.
The rollout of the Zendesk ticketing system improved dealings with customers. Integrated with both our subscription management system and our new telephone system, it has allowed us to gain insight into key problem areas, call patterns and call resolution responsiveness.
There have also been a number of other back-end process, system improvements and cost savings. They include a new invoicing system and new finance procedures, electronic time tracking and expenses, a new IT service desk tool, a move to managed print services, and a new cloud based telephone system (consolidating three separate legacy systems).
Describe how you have used organisational and third-party information to provide insight that has benefited your organisation, its customers and products or services
Autodata had many blind spots and islands of poor, inconsistent information due to a combination of back-end systems not being integrated and the use of inappropriate or old technology. My teams have now established a programme of upgrading, reworking and integrating our back-end systems to give us better insight and remove these archipelagos.
One example is our subscription management system, which has provided us with many benefits; by far the biggest is our ability to report on business KPIs. From new subscriptions to renewals and upgrades we can now track at a granular level exactly what's going on across our products and markets.
This new wave of data is now invaluable for creating the business intelligence we need to run and evolve the business. Insight into the conversion rates on trials and the number of free-of-charge products given out are two of the more notable business indicators. Another example is our use of NewRelic as an application performance monitoring tool. We use its information to feed into the agile development streams and continually improve the user experience of the applications for our customers. It allows us to see and target the areas in our applications that would benefit most from refactoring.
Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
Some 80% of our technology resources are focused entirely on delivering new features and change improvements to both our external and internal customers. These resources focus entirely on the strategic goals of the company. The philosophy behind what we do is built on the four core pillars or work streams that support the organisation and its products:
- our automotive content
- the APIs to access this content
- the Workshop application
- the access enablement and subscription management system
Each stream has its own cross-functional dedicated team that combines near-shore developers in Poland with UK staff. Using agile techniques and robust engineering practices, each stream delivers features and changes a minimum of every two weeks. Outside of the above areas a small team look after the general office systems, the desktop estate and information security across six countries.
Describe your role in the development of digital strategy in your organisation
I work closely with the other board members to identify the key areas we want to pursue as a business, based on the potential revenue and operational efficiency opportunities, along with the effort to achieve. We have gone through the pain of moving from being a traditional publisher, and the nature of our business today is that it is fully electronic/online, therefore "digital" means very little to us. Our strategy is less about digital and more about a business strategy; the digital part is simply the how.
Describe how you use and promote technology to redesign the processes, services and structures of your organisation to enable it to become more efficient and customer-focused
We do not promote technology. We do, however, use clever and talented people to see the opportunities that technology presents to increase the value of our products, improve the customer experience and remove waste from the things that we do. When people look for opportunities, the big things tend to be driven top-down generally, and the smaller stuff more from the bottom up. Ageing and inappropriate technology or processes can often be seen at all levels.
Understanding the art of the possible from where we are today is where the talented individuals, be they inside or outside of the organisation, are used. One example of this is our roll-out and integration of Zendesk for our customer services teams in May last year. Replacing a haphazard home-grown email inbox system, the principles of an agile MVP were adopted. The initial go-live incarnation was very much out of the box and the customer contact information was manually uploaded. Agents were using it within a couple of weeks of making the decision.
Over the following weeks categorisation, SLAs and the routing of tickets was added, as were automated contact feeds and licence view widgets. Reporting was set up early on and further developed, and a comprehensive set of agent and SLA reports are now produced.
Since implementation we have seen our first response and resolution times improve by 60% and can, for the first time ever, measure our customer rating. As part of a continuous process of development our latest improvement is the integration with our new telephone system.
How do you engage regularly with your organisation about your team and the role of technology in the organisation, and what impact is this having?
There is no one thing or way to get over how the use of technology impacts the organisation. However, in a small to medium-sized company everyone is a little closer to what's going on, and it certainly makes getting the key messages across easier to achieve.
Face-to-face communications and conversations have the greatest impact in getting across the messages of what's going on, what the teams are up to and the potential impacts. This can be done both formally and informally and I often use any opportunity I can to ensure a level of engagement takes place. This can be achieved through formal and semi-formal liaisons with the execs and senior stakeholders, by simple floor walking and talking to staff (not just my own) or while standing around the coffee machine!
The management team run company-wide quarterly update sessions that often talk about the transformations within the business and their outcomes. The majority of these changes have some aspect of technology running through them. Having all execs highlight this sends a powerful message about the importance and role played by technology and the technology teams.
Lastly, each month the highlights of the month are put together jointly with marketing and this is published internally in a newsletter format on the intranet. Not a very sexy medium, but nevertheless very effective.
How do you use social networks to engage in conversations across the industry about the opportunities and challenges technology is creating?
Social media channels can be great methods for discovering new things and engaging with technologists on ideas. On one level it is about the tech, be it a solution, a platform service or something much lower. For this research I tend to use these channels more in my own time as it gives me the freedom to pursue ideas, follow research paths and generally "play". The knowledge gained gives me the ability to scrutinise our existing ideas, challenge technology patterns and see new ways to do things. It is useful to know what to shy away from as much as what to embrace. At a different level it can be a good insight into bigger industry trends and how others are approaching the problems they see. Being able to engage on specific points when relevant can really help with idea formation.
How do you bring the organisation together to explore and discuss technology and its challenges and to develop stronger alignment of the technology function with the full business?
The technology function is very much part of the business within Autodata and therefore alignment is achieved by simply following the business strategy. This alignment is cemented further by agile techniques, which we use extensively. This gives us cross-functional working teams that in turn give us a good focus on delivering the right sort of change with the right levels of retrospection on how we run the business.
Describe how you keep up to date with developments in technology and IT management
Keeping up to date and seeking new ideas or inspiration can come from many places. Technology newsfeeds are useful, but even better are conversations and interactions with staff members, my professional network and sometimes friends. They all help with my awareness and seed any further research.
I also attend a few speaking events a year usually relating to CIO topics, and these can be a good way to see other ways to approach and organise things. They can also highlight how not to approach things! Technology events can be another good way to see what's new or get a closer look at something – for example, IPExpo. I also use Twitter as a barometer on the technology topics and fashions. Some interesting insights can be gleaned from this source.
Provide an example of how you have developed the diversity and improved the culture of your team
My team is the most diverse in terms of class, gender, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation that I have ever had or worked in. I am very proud of this, but I do not give it a second thought unless I get questions like this! Diversity helps bring different perspectives and this is important, but ultimately I hire people for their talent, which includes their ability to co-operate with others in a team. The agile processes and techniques we use have also been a big contributor, valuing input from all staff equally and helping to build an open and accepting culture.
Describe how you collaborate and influence the organisation and its leadership team
General collaboration with the leadership team is done through one-to-ones, regular meetings and informal meets. Being a slightly smaller company makes this a lot easier.
On the product development side each of the development streams have roadmaps that are agreed in steering group meetings of which I am a stakeholder and contributor. I work very closely with my counterpart in the product management side of things to come up with ideas and approaches that will improve and refine our offerings.
With respect to our back-end systems and processes, I collaborate and agree with my management colleagues through our regular meetings which areas need focus and what this attention needs to deliver. Quantification and the art of the possible are great ways to influence what and how things get done.
Tell us how you have developed your own management, leadership and personal skills
My personal skills have been developed and refined over a career going back to the early 80s. I have been fortunate enough to work across a number of industries and different roles. I started off at the age of 16 working as an apprentice in electronic engineering, which led me to programming hospital diagnostic equipment in Assembler. After five years in the workplace I returned to university to obtain my degree and then on to a life in the commercial world of IT. This saw me working in retail, banking, logistics and the software sales industry.
In the noughties I focused on publishing and while at the FT took on lead architecture responsibilities and the management of staff. The FT gave me a platform and the training to develop my leadership abilities, which was aided by working alongside some truly smart, talented and gifted people. One of the more notable and inspiring training sessions and subsequent coaching was with David Taylor, author of The Naked Leader.
My more recent development has come from a lot of introspection, retrospection and listening to others. Industry key figures talking about how they lead and manage can be a very insightful especially seeing or hearing about the different tones of leadership displayed by others. One of the biggest things I have developed and learnt is to remain humble and always be prepared to adapt, learn and try something new. This can be in leadership techniques, style or the technology itself.
What new technologies are you investigating, tracking or experimenting with?
We are watching closely the internet of things, especially how it affects the automotive industry. The connected car, the connected garage and telematics are areas that we feel could be new revenue streams for us as innovators in these areas look to make use of our data. Ensuring our data is relevant and consumable for these markets is something that our product teams are watching very closely. We are also looking closely at NoSQL technologies as alternatives ways to store our data.
How do you decide where to apply the best technological approach?
There is no simple of right or wrong answer to this question, and every situation and business is different. For Autodata I have taken the approach to focus on the core of the business in terms of development and to use third-party integrators and cloud services for everything else. Our in-house development activity is based on the four pillars of our core business, the areas where we see development investment adding the most value to the business:
- Content: The centre of what we do and our main intellectual asset. How do we create it, maintain it and curate it?
- APIs: How do we surface our content in a consumable way that allows us to change and develop the underlying content and structures but give a controlled public face to it? A mechanism that allows us to sell this content and use it ourselves?
- Workshop applications: Taking our content and putting it into user-centric views to allow mechanics and technicians to service and maintain cars in a time saving and efficient way.
- Subscription management: Internal and third-party subscription, billing and plan management, along with product access and enablement. HR, finance, expenses, email, telephones, customer services helpdesk, service desk ticketing, developer source control and collaboration tools are all outsourced and in the cloud. This approach has stopped us getting distracted by technology that is not core to what we do and has the added benefit of giving us robust business resilience and access from anywhere for most of our systems.
Do you give yourself and your team time each month to assess or learn about technology vendors outside of the established providers?
Not formally unless a specific requirement needs to be met and then it will "spiked" within the agile processes. Many of the technologists within the department have a native passion for what they do and their self-discoveries and views are often used to identify new products and vendors.
Describe your sourcing strategy and your strategic suppliers
We take a very agile and lightweight approach to sourcing. It should always be about how best to solve a problem or enable an opportunity with the least amount of risk and for the keenest price. I therefore tend toward small independent boutiques and suppliers as they are usually hungrier, more creative and better value for money.
For back-end systems we also have a cloud-first system for sourcing wherever possible. Similarly for our bespoke developments we will always look for platform and software services that can be utilised rather than developing everything ourselves.
The core strategic suppliers we use are:
- Fingo, nearshore development
- Amido, cloud integration
- Company 85, IT services and infrastructure consultancy
- Creative Computing Solutions, ERP consultancy
- Pulsant, datacentre services
- Tibco Mashery, API facade solution
- Amazon (AWS), cloud hosting services
- 8x8, cloud-based unified communications
Describe the technology innovations that you have introduced in the last year and what they have enabled
API access to our technical vehicle content. This enables customers to innovate within their markets using our data as a base. As well as interest from our traditional markets in the automotive industry, we are seeing a lot of interest in areas around things like connected cars and telematics, often from startup organisations.
We also integrated a customer support ticketing system with our subscription management system and our new telephone system. This has enabled the customer services teams to serve customers faster and with a better-quality response. We are also able to track and see how many customers are being looked after, how quickly, and if they are happy with our service. The feedback gathered allows better prioritisation of new features or improvements in the Workshop product. Additionally, this new intelligence can be transferred into real business benefits that we're able to use with our business partners and distribution networks in the form of justifiable and proven service levels.
We developed and rolled out distributor self-service to our subscription management system. This has been significant in reducing the dependency of third parties on the UK customer service team and been a main contributor in reducing calls and speeding up end-user on-boarding and common management admin tasks.
What strategic technology deals have been struck and with whom? What uniquely do they bring?
We have chosen to partner with Tibco-Mashery to supply the facade and development portal for our API products. This brings us the ability to scale up massively as needed, get analytics on usage and give non-technical staff the ability to manage plans and product group offerings.
We have partnered with 8x8 to supply our cloud-based telephony service. Through this partnership we have a first-rate phone system, instant DR and very soon the same system in each of our satellite offices.
We have a strategic development partnership with Fingo, a Polish nearshore development organisation. Through a captive offshore team we gain developer capacity and expertise to continually develop and improve our products.
Rate how important your sources of innovative technology suppliers are
- Often use: consultants.
- Occasionally use: CIO peers, industry body, media.
- Of little importance: analyst houses.
Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
How is cyber security led and discussed by senior management?
It comes up as part of our on-going management meetings and discussions or if there is any interesting activity that needs to be shared.
When did you start your current role?
What is your reporting line?
Are you a member of the board of directors?
What is the annual IT budget?
Approximately £4.5m, including capital expenditure.
How much of your IT budget is capital and how much revenue?
About one-third of my budget is capital spend, the remaining two-thirds revenue.
What is your budget's operational/development split?
How many users does your department supply services to?
225 internally (across six countries) around 75,000 externally (globally).
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?
Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
How many employees are there in your IT team?
Are you increasing your headcount to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
What is the split between in-house/outsourced staff?
27% are outsourced staff.