by Hannah Williams

Trainline CTO Mark Holt on crowdsourcing customer data to drive innovation at scale

Dec 11, 2017
IT StrategyRetail Industry

Trainline CTO Mark Holt believes his organisation is paving the way for innovation in the rail industry using crowdsourced customer data, and that the company’s structure can be credited for driving transformation at scale.

Speaking at Trainline’s Hacktrain 4.0 event, Holt – a member of the last three editions of the CIO 100 – said innovation doesn’t come merely from moving to the cloud but what is deployed from there.

“We do a lot that other people would call ‘digital transformation’,” Holt said speaking with CIO UK. “We’re 100% cloud, we’ve moved to micro-services architecture, we’re in continuous delivery and the reason for that is because it makes us more agile and innovative.

“All of the tech stuff that sits behind is for just that reason. It’s because the quicker we can get software into our customer’s hands, the quicker we can test it, the more innovation and the more we can throw into the stack.

“That just gets us out to market and then it’s what we can do from there.

“Innovation is not moving to the cloud, innovation is moving to the cloud and then doing something with it that customers actually care about. No customer is saying that they’re using Trainline because we’re 100% AWS, but that’s what most people call digital transformation,” said the CTO, who previously discussed the organisation’s move to 100% cloud at the 2016 CIO Summit.

Innovating transportation

Holt said that the Trainline has turned to inter-disciplinary teams to help with the development of new technologies before they are deployed.

“We have very cross-functional teams, so we have very small teams of what we call clusters and a cluster is formed of product people, designers, QAs, BAs, software developers and analytics people,” Holt explained. “We bring them all together and then we set them a goal, such as improving engagement on the app and we think BusyBot is an interesting way of doing it.”

BusyBot is the latest addition to the Trainline’s mobile app. It uses crowdsourced data so passengers can locate carriages with available seats before they begin their journey.

As many as 26,000 people use BusyBot every day, according to Holt, who added that crowdsourcing is just one method of innovation the company regularly deploys.

“We’re starting to use a lot more data, as you see with BusyBot we’ve got the price prediction data in there and there’s a lot of stuff we can do as we have a lot of real-time historical data so we know about historical running time and delays,” Holt said. “Data is crucial for us, the ideal rail experience would be one search result and data allows us to create personalised and contextual user experiences, which is what we want.

“The more personalised we can make the experience the better it becomes, so we’ve invested a lot in data and now we leverage all of Amazon’s data infrastructure but we’re looking at taking that data out and creating awesome products with it and that’s where we’ll continue to go over the next while.”

Business strategy

Holt is personally passionate about security and believes it should be at the forefront of everything from strategic decision-making to new features on the Trainline’s mobile app.

“I care about three things in this order: security, reliability and new functionality,” he said. “So if you create some wonderful new functionality but it’s not secure it’s not going out of the door, and interestingly my direct reports are to director of security, reliability and a director of engineering.

“What we do is try and bake security in from the very outset when we’re thinking about it, so all of our developers go through security training and we get the security teams involved when we’re initially thinking about new ideas, and we try to make it part of the day-to-day strategy.”

[Also read: Trainline Security Director Mieke Kooij on CISO role and cyber security culture]

According to the CTO, there are many organisations that fail to recognise the importance of security and leave it to the end of the development process. However, this is not how Trainline operates, Holt said, and this is evidenced by what he calls the ‘GDPR-compliant’ approach the company takes to user data.

“We do obsess about it and keep an eye on it. I’m a big fan of GDPR and I think organisations should already be working in that way,” Holt said. “If you don’t already care to the level that GDPR requires you to about your customers’ privacy then there’s something wrong.”