Mark Holt (pictured) has had a highly varied career in the IT industry, with roles at organisations including The Financial Times, Capital Radio, Avis and even NeXT Software during its acquisition by Apple in 1996.
The latest stop on his journey is Trainline. He joined in March 2014 when the chairman of the company, someone he’d known for 20 years since his time at Capital Radio, asked him to come aboard as chief technology officer.
For Holt, the opportunity was too good to turn down: “Trainline is a fantastic brand and the quantity of customers we have coming on a daily basis, and the growing use of the mobile app, meant it was clear there was a huge opportunity to really drive the customer experience forward and that was very exciting.”
Indeed, since it started in 1999 Trainline has grown into a business that now handles £1.6bn in ticket transactions a year, while its app and website receive 27 million visitors a month. Furthermore, 8.5 million customers have downloaded the Trainline app.
After taking up the role, Holt set about overhauling how the company structured its developer teams to create a more innovative, collaborative environment.
“Historically, a lot of what happened was ‘top-down’, with people in rooms making decisions and telling the developers what to do," he said.
“But I wanted to change that, so the idea is we harness the skills and innovations from across the organisation for a more ‘bottom-up’ approach. There’s nothing better than getting a developer together with a marketing person and a designer to come up with new and interesting ideas. That’s where real innovation comes from.”
This change in approach has led Trainline to focus on constant, small-scale updates to the desktop, mobile and app versions of its site in an effort to continually refine and improve the user experience.
“We’re constantly putting new features out, testing the hell out of them, and making sure it has a positive impact on end users. This means we have hundreds of constant micro-innovations coming out all the time, improving the site," he explained.
"For example, when you now book a ticket you receive an email the day before telling you about the departure times and so forth, but also the weather that's expected at your destination."
All aboard the cloud
This focus on rapid iteration and innovation has gone hand-in-hand with a major shift to the cloud.
“I’m a huge fan of cloud. It gives you so much agility. I’m obsessed with time to market and speed, and cloud enables us to do those small iterations when we want, not having to wait six weeks for a server to come online or, worse, be purchased,” he said.
Trainline is currently in the middle of a migration to Amazon Web Services (AWS), to the point where it will have nothing left in its current co-location private environment.
“The pace of innovation from AWS is just incredible and when it comes to innovation curves whose do you want to be on - [HP Inc's] innovation curve or AWS’ innovation curve?” he said.
Holt urged firms that remain cautious about the cloud to get over their concerns and embrace the benefits.
“People have to get over the hump with cloud. There’s a lot of fear around security and so on but that’s just something people have to get over. The AWS data centre is a damn sight more secure than some co-location facility in east London," he said.
Holt added that, given web giants like Netflix and Twitter use AWS to run their services, there should be no question about whether the cloud is viable for hosting major web sites.
“If you look across the world and the number of companies running huge e-commerce environments, it is the de facto standard these days. So if big firms like that are happy to use cloud, why would I deny myself that advantage and the chance to use the best tools out there?” he said.
Next stop: analytics
Trainline may be about to complete its cloud migration journey, but one area that is just starting to be given more focus is big data and analytics.
“We’re going to be investing in this space massively in 2016. It’s a huge focus for us,” said Holt.
“We have 15 years of search and purchase history data from our database and that’s a huge, wonderful asset, but we don’t use it particularly effectively. That’s what we’re looking to drill into over the next 12 months.
“We can, for example, see where people are dropping out [of the ticket purchase process], see where a problem might be, create tests around it and see if that makes a difference.”
Looking further into the future, Holt said that the goal is to do more proactive data analytics on customer profiles, and to change Trainline's mobile app from a reactive app used by customers when they need it into one that proactively pushes out information.
“We want to create a sort of ‘smart ticket’ that knows where you are, and where you might want to go. So, if you’re at Waterloo and we know you regularly go to Farnham, [the app] will push information to you telling you when the next Farnham train is, which platform it's leaving from, and present a button to buy a ticket," he explained.
Holt acknowledged that such a system will arouse privacy concerns for some customers but argued that most people will see it as improving their travel experience.
“There’s still lots to be worked out, but it will definitely be hosted in the cloud,” he added.
Seeking skilled staff
Of course, making all these things happen requires skilled staff, and lots of them, and Holt admitted that this is his biggest challenge.
“We have a constant open door for more developers and we almost never hit our target, or get to a place where we’re not recruiting developers,” he said.
Part of the reason for this is that Trainline wants to ensure new recruits can hit the ground running.
“We have only a small percentage of people that make it through the recruitment process because adding a poor developer can be a negative drag on a team and actually reduce the amount of work that get’s done,” he said.
One way the firm tries to find the best talent is to attend events and meet-ups. “It’s really important to me that the people we have get out to events and meet-ups and find people," he explained.
"The sort of people we want are not always those applying online but the ones out there working on cool new open source projects and who love tech and do it in their spare time. These people know they can find a job at any time, so we have to find them.”
Holt noted that retaining talent is important too, explaining how the firm's "bottom-up" approach to encouraging new ideas is key to maintaining staff morale and enthusiasm.
“We want to bring in the best talent and we’re searching for the best developers we can possibly find, [but] you’re never going to find those in an environment where they’re just being told what to do all the time - and if you do that you’re not getting the best out of them either.”
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