In a technology-focused business, Mark Holt is obsessive about time to market. He has all his development teams in continuous delivery, and has moved from one release every six weeks in 2014 to 185 production releases a week today. That makes the organisation over 1,000 times more agile than two years ago. Nor has reliability suffered in the process: the same period has seen unplanned downtime reduce by more than 60%.

Job title
CTO

Company name
Trainline

How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
Technology is at the very heart of Trainline’s business. Everything our customers see is influenced by the architecture, tools, culture and resources that we apply in technology.

Within technology we particularly obsess about time to market: the faster we can bring new functionality to market, the more test-and-learn cycles we can run, and the better our product becomes (per Eric Ries: ‘The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.’).

So, for example, all our development teams are in continuous delivery. Moving from one release every six weeks in 2014 to 185 production releases a week today means we are over 1,000 times more agile than we were two years ago. However, reliability is also critical to our customers, and the same period has seen our unplanned downtime reduce by more than 60%.

User experience is everything at TL, and we are obsessively data-driven in our approach to UI evolution. Our cross-functional teams tag everything, mine the data, create hypothesis, evolve the product, run multivariate tests and use post-facto innovation accounting to confirm or reject whether our change drove the expected outcomes.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
Our biggest project last year was the acquisition and Integration of Captain Train in Paris. This has enabled us to expand from being the UK’s #1 independent rail retailer to Europe’s #1 independent rail retailer. We now sell tickets for 50 operators, across 24 European countries, and are focused on bringing the exceptional UK customer experience to millions of customers in mainland Europe.

In the UK, we have delivered a constant stream of enhancements. This has seen:

  • every morning more than 300,000 people opening our app
  • 100,000 people every day taking journeys bought on Trainline.

Our National Express integration has surpassed our expectations, only weeks after going live.

What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?

Product innovation

Trainline has been at the heart of the growth of electronic ticketing for UK rail. Electronic tickets are an amazing user experience, and today a significant proportion of our sales are fulfilled using this technology. Since initial launch, we have been continuously improving the user experience, including the recent delivery of ‘true e-ticket’ – barcode tickets in the Apple Wallet.

BusyBot is ‘Waze for trains’: crowdsourced busyness information that enables customers to find a seat on crowded trains. As one of our customers said: ‘I’ve been commuting from the same spot on platform 3 for years. Using the app I moved to the back of the train and found a seat.”

Our new B2B platform enables SMEs to manage their rail spend by enabling their employees to book rail through the mobile app.

There are simply too many UX improvements to note, including speedy purchasing for our trusted customers: removing another step (CVV entry) from the purchase process, as well as the MyTickets feature, which shows which trains that, say, an off-peak ticket can be used on. Much of the value comes from the hundreds of tiny iterations that make our product easier to use every day.

Business model innovation

We have expanded our business into Europe – an enormous change. We are currently massively bulging our resource (we have hired 53 people in three months, with more to come) to fully support our European expansion plans.

Ancillary products are an interesting area for us, and this year we have integrated hotels into our flows.

Technology innovation

We have finalised AWS migration (our transactional platform is 100% cloud) and delivered very significant reduction in AWS run-costs.

We have moved from a legacy Avaya infrastructure to a born-in-the-cloud telephony provider for our contact centre.

A 1,000x improvement in agility through building and deploying components through our own continuous delivery technology (called Environment Manager).

As with our UX improvements, our teams are super-innovative and deliver hundreds of small improvements every year that constantly improve our technology infrastructure.

How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
The biggest cultural change has been the change from a UK-centric business to a European business. We now have a permanent development centre in Paris and have been working to ensure that everything we do has a pan-European focus.

Rapid iteration – my favourite phrase is ‘Custodi detractione’: keep chipping away – is important. Progress comes from small changes. We don’t need to run a huge project to get something done; just do a little bit every week and the gains mount up.

One of our biggest goals is to ensure that we learn from people who have been there. To that end, our owners (KKR) are amazing at finding interesting organisations for us to learn from. For example, at the start of a project we might run a ‘campfire’, where representatives from other organisations who have been through a similar project come and talk to the teams.

Continuing to bring developers closer to production (dev/ops) has been a theme for many years now. One of the biggest in the past 12 months has been moving to a model where developers are on call.

The teams have migrated all their backlogs to Jira, giving us a common view of work in progress across the whole organisation.

We are also huge believers that cloud services can enable us to offer significant improvements in customer experience. Most of our key systems are now SaaS, and this year we moved both our call centre telephony and HR systems to cloud providers. We continue to seek opportunities to push systems to cloud vendors.

Security is a critical concern and we want this to be a key element of our culture. To this end, all our developers are trained in secure coding practices, we have ‘MacGyvers’ in all clusters: individuals with additional security training who are responsible for identifying and raising security concerns, as well as being a super-local centre of excellence for security skills.

We have run sessions on lean/agile development with executive management to discuss the organisation context and approaches required for modern software development.

How have you worked with your CEO and/or board to communicate whatever ‘digital’ and IT means to your organisation/sector and improve digital literacy at the highest levels of the organisation?

  • specific secure coding practices training for developers and cyber training for the whole organisation
  • sessions with executive team on modern software development and the kind of organisation and culture that is most effective.

We are a tech business, so technology features heavily on the board agenda. In addition, we explicitly cover security at the board on a very regular basis.

How have you worked with the technology and IT vendor market to achieve your business goals? How have you been able to influence IT suppliers and successfully manage your partnerships/relationships with large IT companies, SMEs and startups?
We have been taking an extremely proactive approach to vendor management. We are aggressively moving towards ‘born in the cloud’ vendors/solutions across our entire estate.

This involves deprecating traditional tech as well as migrating away from vendors that are simply hosting existing versions of legacy tools in their own datacentre and calling it cloud (or simply adding cloud to the end of all their product names).

Two examples from the past 12 months are our implementation of Fairsail for HR management and Radius Storm for ‘proper’ cloud-based telephony.

To influence suppliers we love to build deep relationships and talk publicly at conferences/events about the work we have done together.

This is a win/win for both firms. The joint investment means that we can partner on product roadmaps and access to pre-release information that may be unavailable to competitors.

Partners like Apple (we were launch partners for the AppleWatch and ApplePay on Mobile), Amazon (we were on-stage during Amazon CTO Werner Vogels’ keynote at the Re:invent conference in Las Vegas), and NewRelic (we jointly presented at Gartner’s ITOM summit in Berlin).

We also see the broader technology community as key suppliers. Consequently, we host at least one meetup per month at our offices, are extremely active in the meetup community and, over the past year, have been making investments in the open source community. We release back enhancements that we have made to open source toolkits and have open sourced our ‘secret sauce’ continuous deployment technology.

How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
Our team is incredibly diverse, consisting of technologists from 33 nationalities. In the past three months, we have hired 51 people from 14 countries.

From a gender diversity perspective, having a truly awesome female CEO certainly helps, and we have women in extremely senior roles, including our incredible security director.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
My priorities are:

  1. security
  2. reliability
  3. functionality (effectively and efficiently getting features out of the door).

People and culture underpin all three of those priorities.

The technology leadership team at Trainline consists of representatives for each of these key responsibilities.

Within technology, we use a Strategy Map (linking people to process to product to finance) to clearly link our technology strategy and initiatives to our overall business strategy.

At the top of strategy maps we track our customer KPIs (eg transaction growth, conversion, e-ticket take-up) and link them to our major technology-centric programmes (such as introducing security testing throughout the development lifecycle, rearchitecting for international growth, AWS migration, or improving our data-driven decision-making capabilities). These initiatives are all tracked through KPIs.

For a few years we have been organised into clusters: cross functional teams (development, testing, support, business analysis, product, UX/UI) that are co-located and working on a single product (following Conway’s Law). Each cluster is given a small set (usually one or two) of KPIs that we ask them to improve. This enables all team members to build a specialism in their product, meaning that a significant proportion of our innovation (basically all the good stuff) comes bottom-up.

This organisational model enables each team to run as fast as possible because they are minimally coupled to other teams. We have tried to evolve this model, moving from one with seven independent teams in 2015 to a target of more than 30 tiny independent teams today.

Where teams are coupled together – for example, where a user feature depends on multiple teams – we run a fortnightly cross-cluster planning session to ensure that dependencies are planned for and/or called out. This enables us to multiplex initiatives across channels (such as adding SME features to our app, which requires heavy collaboration between the SME and app teams).

If we measure productivity as yield/developer, then ensuring that our developers are allocated to the highest-yielding activities is critical. Consequently, our resource allocation process is also obsessively data-driven: we work with our finance team to create a top-down view of the financial contribution to growth that we expect from each product in the next two to three years. We then perform a bottom-up resource allocation to clusters, and ensure that the results are closely aligned – ie a product with a £10m revenue opportunity will receive twice as much resource as one with £5m.

Consequently, for 70% of our team, there is a direct line from the work they do to the growth we expect them to drive.

While expanding out into Europe, we recognise that we’re still very UK-centric. As a consequence, we are investing heavily in making the Paris office a first-class development centre for us, creating new clusters and migrating responsibilities for components to cross-functional teams into Trainline EU.

With marketing so critical to our business, and marketing technology moving so quickly, we have a dedicated marketing technology team to look after SEO and other marketing-related initiatives.

What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?
In the past year, we have done strategic deals with:

  • Radius Storm (our call centre telephony is now 100% cloud)
  • Akamai for DDoS and CDN
  • Amazon Web Services (AWS) for our 100% cloud infrastructure.

Our main suppliers are:

  • monitoring/management: NewRelic, BigPanda (coming soon), Elastic
  • open source providers, including Canonical (Ubuntu), Pivotal (RabbitMQ, etc), along with more niche vendors for tools such as Node.JS, NginX, Clojure, TeamCity, Puppet, Sensu, Consul
  • developer tooling: TeamCity, GitHub, Slack
  • ThoughtWorks to support our white label products
  • Microsoft for.Net, Office and Exchange 365
  • Vodafone for WAN
  • CyberSource for payments
  • LeanPlum and SiteSpect for multivarial testing
  • legacy vendors, such as Oracle.

What are your key strategic aims for next year?

  • Continue to give our users the best possible experience for booking and travelling by rail.
  • Build on UK and massively expand our European footprint: reaching out to European users, as well as increasing our reach to support more carriers.
  • Deliver a single platform that combines UK and European rail into a single customer experience.
  • Build out our SME/corporate product set to help business travellers to book and travel across Europe, and help their employers to more effectively manage their rail spend.
  • Build deeper relationships with the UK train operating companies (we currently provide the platforms for the majority of UK TOC retail websites and apps).

How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
Other than the Captain Train acquisition...

50% of our tech staff are from outside the UK. We have reassured all our staff that we will do whatever is necessary to ensure they can continue to work in the UK.

We also undertake active lobbying in Whitehall and Brussels.