Neil Brooks has refashioned Autodata so that it thinks like a startup and behaves like one, at least as far as its development culture is concerned. He sets the vision, encourages the dream and paints the bigger picture, while emphasising that only what is needed right now to keep everything afloat should be built. He has focused the technology department on teamwork, rapid change, not being afraid to challenge and openness. His championing of agile and lean has accelerated delivery cycles as well as the ability to deal with problems and react to opportunities. In 2016 a cross-stream delivery rate of 2.5 releases per week was achieved; that’s a year-on-year increase of 30% in releases and compares to just one or two functional releases being made each year before his arrival in 2013. The technology area is now vibrant and energised, with happy staff doing what they love – building software to solve well-defined problems.
Chief technology officer
How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
Technical vehicle content is at the heart of our products and is researched, compiled and translated by a large international production team. This content is compiled for thousands of worldwide vehicles using a consistent Autodata format and style, standardising all automotive technical language, no matter the manufacturer or age of data.
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 support and reinforce this.
I 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. Establishing 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 company-wide mantra. The technology is the catalyst for these changes often, as it helps us to challenge today’s way of doing things.
Revealing what is 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 an integral and natural part of our journey toward self-service and to reinforce the value gained from using our products.
Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
Over the last 12 months, we increased the number of garage-level subscribers by over 25% worldwide and saw significant uptake in direct API access to our data, which saw a 29% increase in revenue and 30% increase in EBITDA.
We achieved this level of growth in 2016 by maintaining our focus on delivering and increasing the value of our products, removing operational waste, and reclaiming margins by acquiring resellers. We have significantly enhanced our products through the increase in new features and improvements; we also focused on improving the automation for the back-end systems. For the Workshop product alone we averaged 33 new features or improvements per month during 2016, a 31% increase year on year. We also saw, through automation, our ability to invoice direct customers fall from three days to less than an hour.
Our most significant product developments over the last 12 months include the migration of our motorcycle content online and the launch of a brand-new user interface for the Workshop application. Both were successfully launched at Automechanika Frankfurt in September – the world’s leading trade fair for the automotive aftermarket industry – and generated a lot of positive attention across the industry.
The automation of our back-end systems also allowed us to launch e-commerce, automated onboarding and a paid-for introductory product for the UK in the summer. Since launch, the number of UK direct garages signing up with us per month has tripled, and our operational costs administering the old free UK trial products have been removed.
The early part of last year saw some of our attention going into the overhaul of office infrastructure and systems alignment for our French and Finnish acquisitions made at the end of 2015 and at the beginning of 2016 respectively. They were an essential foundation piece for aligning the companies operationally and containing costs.
Both acquisitions and our Australian business also had new financial systems that went live on 1 December 2016. Redefining operational processes and reclassifying products to make this happen were significant pieces of work. These changes improve governance, significantly quicken the month-end reporting cycles by more than 60%, and provide us with a base to further extend the use of automation across our back-end systems.
On top of the initiatives above, 2016 also saw us introduce a new CRM for the corporate and distributor sales channels for improved pipeline reporting, business intelligence self-service reporting tools, and a global roll-out of the Zendesk ticketing system (which included multilingual support).
What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?
Innovation can come in many forms, large and small, from the top, the bottom and sometimes sideways. For the more macro ideas I will generally be involved, either instigating them or helping to flesh them out, constructing the business case and identifying how to get them delivered.
For our products, the more micro ideas are generally discussed and managed within the individual product streams. The product managers are ultimately responsible for facilitating, shaping and including them.
I encourage those around me to voice their ideas and put them forward as candidates for future change and development. Listening to these voices can often be a good barometer on whether people understand the strategic aims of the organisation too – eg do the ideas align with our goals or pull in a different direction?
Our core online business has revolved around car and light commercial vehicles. However, we have maintained a niche interest in motorcycles too, fulfilled as a standalone CD-based offering. In September 2016 it all changed. We relaunched our motorcycle product as an online product only, sold on its own or as a multivehicle workshop product offering. This is the first time that Autodata has offered a combined product package and required the subscription management system to be refactored to cope with this new business model.
In Q1 2016 we launched a branded version of our Service and Maintenance product for one of our Australian corporate customers, integrated using our partner APIs into its membership system. As part of this work I led the introduction of our ability to offer in-application upgrades; it’s something we plan to make more use of, especially for direct customers.
Business model innovation
I have driven the move towards e-commerce, self-signup and a paid-for introductory product with auto-renewal into a full subscription after one month. Since going in July 2016, it has transformed the direct sales channel in the UK, removing the sales admin overhead and increasing profitability. The monthly conversion of customers to a full subscription has tripled over the previous model of a manually administered 14-day free trial.
A CRM for corporate sales and distributor account management was introduced. Sales pipelines and all account actions can now be captured centrally for the first time and, more importantly, reported on.
We have been researching the best ways to author and publish our content with the aims of maximising operational efficiency, addressing some ageing legacy systems and, more importantly, exposing our content in new and exciting ways. A project is now under way to start moving us to use a graph database with a new bespoke authoring and workflow interface. Being able to surface our data through semantic queries and graph relationships will transform our ability to fulfil the needs of the new connected world.
How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
Despite the foundations, safety and heritage of a 42-year-old business, I have striven for our development culture to be like that of a startup – to think like one and, more importantly, behave like one. I attempt 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 use 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 and 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 2016 a cross-stream delivery rate of 2.5 releases per week was achieved. This is a year-on-year increase of 30% in releases. Before my arrival, in 2013, only one or two functional releases were made each year.
The technology area is now vibrant and energised, with happy staff doing what they love – building software to solve well-defined problems. Talented happy development teams = good software = better products = happy customers = more money = more 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?
We are a digital business and having digital literacy as a board member is a prerequisite. Differing degrees of understanding obviously do exist, so as I have worked with the board members and other senior managers I have used the opportunity to help align thinking and the exploration of ideas.
Every member of the board attended an exec-tailored training course on agile to provide them with an understanding of how we were approaching product development. The alignment and insight from this has helped immensely with creating unity on goals, keeping focus and avoiding spreading ourselves too thin. The ideas of incremental product development and MVPs are now embedded in everyone’s thinking.
With a focus on business outcomes and customer experience, we have engaged everyone in the organisation, in one way or another, with wall-mounted dashboards and BI reporting.
Our dashboards are used to surface a lot of metrics – everything from counts of subscription signups by channel, renewals and cancellations through to posted invoices and customer service tickets. As well as the differing business areas, we also expose in near real-time our core products’ application activity, including end-user performance.
Exposing the information obviously helps identify abnormal activity, but, more importantly, it means people at all levels in the business are informed, which encourages positive conversations. Being informed is literally as easy as going to the coffee machine and glancing at the relevant board to see what is going on.
Our use of Microsoft Power BI has added further colour and insight into what is going on within the business and has provided greater depth into the numbers. Access to these metrics and reports has played a big part in helping individuals get to grips with our digital business. Our sales and account managers have benefited significantly from this new level of insight and reporting, especially with respect to the sales pipelines.
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 structured ourselves to focus 83% of our staff on delivering value to the business through our ongoing product development. Our products are core and live close to our hearts – not something I believe should be outsourced easily. Having said that, we do use a mid-sized nearshore development partner in Poland to provide resources in a captive model. The developers provided do not work in isolation but are integrated with the UK development staff to form cross-functional, cross-geographic teams. It’s a system that works well for us.
We have on occasion selected to use tactical development and integration specialists where the problem is very well defined, where time is a factor, or we have yet to acquire the skills. This model is rarely used, but as part of any engagement a handover to our own staff is built into the work schedules. My preference when using this model is to use small to mid-sized organisations. In my opinion they tend to be hungrier, more innovative, more keen to build a relationship and generally much better value for money.
Non-core technology – for example, ERP, HR, ticketing – is outsourced and generally cloud-based. Any customisation or tailoring of these solutions is similarly outsourced. This helps ensure we keep our focus on our products and our customers.
How have you tried to develop the diversity 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 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 along with their attitude and enthusiasm. This includes their ability to co-operate with others in a team – something we value highly here at Autodata. I encourage my hiring managers to look for these values, as well as the core skills of the role in question, and not to hire in their own image.
The agile processes and techniques we use have also been a big contributor for building inclusivity, valuing input from all staff equally, and helping to build an open and accepting culture.
Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
Over 80% of our technology resources are focused entirely on developing and 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 – namely: our automotive content, the APIs to access this content, the workshop applications, and the access enablement and subscription management system.
Each stream has its own cross-functional dedicated team that also combines nearshore developers in Poland with UK staff (including DevOps). Using agile techniques and robust engineering practices, each stream delivers features and changes into production at least every two weeks.
We also have a business change function that looks after our back-office systems. Automation and operational efficiency are the focus for this team, and they work with the relevant vendors to ensure solutions best meet our needs and have the right integration with our own products.
Outside the above areas, a small team looks after the general office systems, the desktop estate and information security across six countries and seven offices.
What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?
Microsoft Dynamics NAV CRM was chosen and introduced during the last 12 months as our strategic tool of choice for corporate sales and account management. Leveraging the investments already made in our NAV finance system, all levels of the organisation now have vastly improved visibility on accounts as well as the sales pipelines. Microsoft Power BI has also been used to expose many of the numbers through easily accessible dashboards and visuals.
We continue to build our strategic development partnership with Fingo, a Polish nearshore development organisation. We have expanded our captive offshore team, increasing the capacity and the expertise available to us, which allowed us to launch an updated workshop application, motorcycles online and e-commerce in 2016.
We have also chosen to renew our partnership with Tibco Mashery to supply the API management solution and facade for our API products. This technology brings us the ability to scale up massively as needed, obtain analytics on usage, and give non-technical staff the ability to manage plans and product group offerings.
The main suppliers and IT partners we use are:
- Fingo, nearshore development
- Amido, cloud integration specialist
- Company 85, IT services and infrastructure consultancy
- Creative Computing Solutions, ERP consultancy
- Tibco Mashery, API facade solution
- Amazon (AWS), cloud hosting services
- 8x8 Inc, cloud-based unified communications
- Zendesk, cloud-based ticketing (with telephony integration).
What are your key strategic aims for next year?
My key strategic aims are:
- to ensure we hit our revenue targets for direct customers through the roll-out of e-commerce and automated onboarding to the rest of the world, including the provision of comprehensive native-language self-service tools
- to improve the value proposition of our workshop application and our public content API with at least one key module or feature released in every month
- to contain our back-end costs as we expand, by further improvements of the back-end system integration and drive for further automation.
How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
It is very difficult to prepare for anything when so little is known and what those impacts will be. Having said that, I feel confident that our agile capabilities enable us to move very quickly to rework our solutions as needed once we do know. We are also fortunate that we have offices and trading companies in Europe and can use these to hedge against any trading barriers with the UK that may arise.
When did you start your current role?
What is your reporting line?
To the CEO
Are you a member of the executive leadership?
Are you a member of the board of directors?
What other emerging roles does your organisation have and what is their relationship to you?
Our head of product and I cover these roles.
How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?
Two or three times a week
How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?
250 internally (across six countries), circa 120,000 externally (globally).
What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation’s revenue?
Approximately £4.8m, including capital expenditure.
What percentage of your budget is operational spend (ie keeping the lights on) and how much new development (ie innovation, R&D, exploratory IT)?
32% on IT operational spend, the remainder on new product developments or back-office automation.
Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:
- CIO peers
- Analyst houses
- Industry bodies
Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
Are you expecting an increase in budget specific to security in order to tackle the cyber threat?
Does your organisation have a designated security professional – CISO or otherwise – and what is their relationship to you?
Yes. We have an information security officer, who reports into our head of service delivery, who in turn reports to me.
Autodata IT department
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 or planning to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next year?
- data analytics/business intelligence
- data APIs and customer applications.
Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?
- data analytics/business intelligence
- machine learning/artificial intelligence
- data APIs and customer applications.
What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
We expect the biggest impact from emerging technologies that will affect us to be centred on the connected car, IOT, the connected garage and telematics. The potential markets and opportunities in each of these areas are huge; the connected car market alone is estimated by PwC to be worth €110bn by 2020 (from €30bn in 2015).
We have today a market ripe for disruptive innovation and transformation. Within these new market domains we see our solutions providing and revolutionising the way people interact with cars, re-inventing the experience of owning/using a car. We do not see us doing this alone and that is why we have been building a solid scalable platform for others to innovate on.
We are constantly looking at the needs of those innovating and developing along with their methods of consumption so we can further improve our platforms and our data. Building on our traditional strengths of vehicle coverage, subject depth and authority, we also need to ensure our platforms are easy to integrate with and our data is simple to work with. This includes ensuring our data is fully machine-readable, and having simple quick vehicle identification systems to ensure the right information can be located.
We are also looking at using artificial intelligence algorithms to provide problem diagnosis and anticipated solutions within our data.
Although not committed to AR and VR technologies, we are certainly keeping an eye on them and their application in the workshop, especially how we could be powering such solutions.
Does your organisation do a significant amount of trade with the EU?
Does your department include technology staff from the EU?
Are you or have you been looking to the EU to recruit key skills?