There are three themes that a conversation with Asos IT director Dan West follows: the power of technology for business and users, his family, and football. All three crop up over and over, but all have an equal measure of passion for West.
“Putting Asos at the forefront and for Asos to be at the front of online retail,” are the ambitions of the UK-based online retailer, says West.
“Asos is now a globally focused organisation which has been a major transition over the last couple of years. Where we did have one site, now it’s a multi-language platform.” He says the introduction of its own brands, a clear policy on sourcing of the goods and free delivery have all put Asos in the strong retail position it in today.
“Not having a bricks-and-mortar operation means there are less constraints, but there is still seasonality and getting stuff to the right place at the right time,” West says of the pressure of the rag trade, whether it be on the High Street or online.
Asos has grown from a two-person operation a little over a decade ago to having between 700 and 800 employees today. Its an unashamedly young company: its target market is 16-to-34-year-olds and the workforce at its North London HQ has a similar age range.
“Retail is fast paced as everyone wants their share of customers’ wallets. Asos websites record eight and half million page impressions a week and has a conversion rate of three per cent for those visits.
The conversion rate is improving and that is a continuous quest. You only have to make a one per cent difference to improve the bottom line,” says West.
“People are going after the best deal that they can, which is why it’s important to have a compelling offer. We want to be the first for fashion,” he adds.
As CIO that means a web experience that is tailored to the customer experience.
“Fashion is all about opinions, so the tailored experience means people can get all their fashion information from one location,” he explains.
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But West doesn’t view that tailored experience as only being for the customer. If Asos is going to continue to attract a 16-to-34-year-old customer base, it will need to continue to attract a workforce of the same age in order to remain relevant. That’s something that West is very aware of, and his attitudes to IT reflect that.
“There are some leading edge challenges coming along. The consumerisation of IT has happened. We actively encourage it and also staff interaction with social media like Facebook and Twitter. The end users are empowered and as result are self-policing.
“The lines blur between home and work, so people are a lot more aware of data security and it is such a young workforce that they are tech savvy. They all have Apples, and they get frustrated with a laptop.” West, although slightly older than many in his workforce, feels the same and the conversation switches to cover his personal and working lives in the form of an analysis of media consumption by Asos staff and West himself.
“We all live a very social experience today. We are bombarded with so much data. I only read information that is relevant for me. My reading is a continuing line of information and I can access that line of information from any device. It is very personal and I see that as being a big part of the future,” he says.
West can’t talk about the future without assessing the IT world his young family will inherit. “I think a lot about the 10- ?and 12-year-olds of today. Will they reserve and collect?” he asks of the retail sector.
“If my son needs a book for school his first thought is to put the name of that book into Google or Amazon. He downloads the games he wants – he doesn’t go out and buy a physical thing.
“Behaviour is changing. If I give my three-year-old an iPhone they know how to paint on it. Apple accelerated the ease of use for IT and it has taken technology to the masses. Technology will be second nature to future generations.
“Gamification is another big trend I think a lot about. Kids really learn through games and they will see life as a game and tackle it accordingly,” he says.
Returning to the issues of access to social media and the consumerisation of IT, West explains that Asos has some guiding principles in place for its staff and educates the workforce on acceptable usage. He says these foster energy and trust between the company and its staff.
Asos is seeking to become a mobile device-oriented company, reflecting the technology and information usage patterns that West has encouraged. An app was released for the iPad shortly after we met.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this Generation-Y, social media and consumerisation-friendly strategy was built into the DNA of the IT operations at such a youthful company, but West has had to change the IT wardrobe at Asos.
“We have an internal need to try and do more all the time. Asos has had a lot of organic growth and we have legacy from 11 years of operations. We have outgrown many of our systems and they don’t enable the future of the company. I don’t want IT to be an inhibitor on the business.
“Asos is built on an entrepreneurial spirit and a lot of people are proud to be part of it as you can the see output very quickly. IT has been the catalyst for growing the business.” The pressure for West is to continue to develop an IT team that is the catalyst for growth.
“We want to be the market leader in online retail,” he says, emphasising the fact that there is no divide between IT and the business. “I want to create an environment that harvests and engineers pace, which is part of being retail.
“So the quality of the IT has improved. We have to support between 300 and 400 mobile devices and there are all the traditional IT systems out there too,” he says of the tricky mix of back-office applications and consumerisation devices.
West reports to CFO Nick Beighton, who was previously IT director at retailer Matalan. The knowledge synergy is helpful: “It’s good as he gets what you are talking about,” says West.
West sits on the operating board, while Beighton sits in the boardroom.
Discussing IT budgets, West, like many of his peers can’t be too specific and said capex is difficult to break out because Asos sees technology as everything it does. Although he is deeply passionate about technology, West is also a businessman at heart as says all areas of IT spend are measured on business gain.
Asos uses a web-based application for choosing the optimal delivery path through the supply chain for every order. The importance of this cannot be stressed enough as Asos offers free delivery and free returns to all customers. West says this system is not only important for ensuring Asos delivers on its core proposition to the customer, but also for operational efficiency: Asos needs to ensure that every single item carried delivers the best deal for both itself and the customer.
A new global distribution centre recently opened in Barnsley, Yorkshire for international fulfilment, while back at the London HQ technology threads throughout the Asos business. If Barnsley is a seamless workflow operation for taking a physical product, putting it in a van and then on to a customer anywhere in Europe or the world, then London is a workflow operation for the digitisation of fashion.
West took CIO on a tour of the art deco building which billows with clothing at every corner. There are dozens of studios where models parade on in-house catwalks and teams of photographers capture everything from shoes to coats, shirts, jeans, jumpers and bikinis and send the fashion shots instantly over to the designers who control the Asos website and its self-published fashion magazine. It is the fashion industry at high-speed.
“The drivers for me in life are to look at this and say, ‘I did that’. None of us [CIOs] just like running IT. If the investment stops that is not attractive. Doing things faster and better all the time is what CIOs like,” says West. He joined Asos in July 2009 having been an IT leader with National Lottery operator Camelot, moving up to the top IT role in February 2010.
“The opportunity came about as they were not delivering,” he says of a stasis that had set into IT. Asos felt West understood what it wanted to achieve and that it needed an IT leader who wanted to see the company achieve those goals.
“I joined Camelot just as it won its second licence to operate the National Lottery. It was a very exciting time as were the first IT team to take the lottery online. You want to go back to that excitement as a CIO,” he says of the enthusiasm and can-do attitude he is encouraging at Asos.
“I believed in the Asos company and I believe in online retail and I liked the opportunity to lead on a global basis.”
“We have a ‘How’s Best’ approach to project management. Naturally over time there has been an impact from mistakes, but you can learn so much from them.”
Despite the frenetic pace of online fashion retail, West hasn’t insisted that Asos IT operates an Agile project management methodology, and for the logistics overhaul they adopted Waterfall techniques – “Take the right approach for the job,” he says.
Asked if he has a concern, West admits its with recruitment. With daily reminders in the press that unemployment is at record levels and that students face becoming a lost generation, West finds that he just cannot find enough of the right people to meet the rapid growth at Asos.
“You can never have enough good people. At the moment it’s a job buyer’s market. If you are good you can choose where you want to work. Most technologists want to work on the latest things.” For West this means he also has the challenge of looking after and retaining his existing workforce, whose experience is no doubt attractive to Asos’s retail rivals.
“You have got to grow and look the people you’ve got,” he says. On his promotion to IT director, West set about raising the profile of key members of the IT team. “We promoted some real talent here, as I felt they were being suppressed. We wanted to raise them up, so we built an entirely new leadership team,” he recalls.
Although Asos is a youthful company, West admits the IT team’s age range is between 30 and 40, and all have considerable online retail experience.
“We have all worked in the internet for the last 12 to 13 years and have strong e-commerce backgrounds,” he says.
“You can find the right people, but there’s a lag. There are good opportunities out there and there is technology investment going on in the market, most of it towards e-commerce. So there is a lot of competition as e-commerce is a good string to your bow.
“I want people that are passionate about e-commerce and technology. They are out there and in IT there are so many roles and skills to get where it’s DBA or BA,” he says of the rampant opportunities that an IT career can offer.
“People come here as they want to see their ideas come to fruition.”