by Thomas Macaulay

Trainline CTO Mark Holt CIO 100 interview – ‘Wonderfully predictable’ analytics mission

Apr 23, 2018
IT StrategyMobile AppsRetail Industry

Trainline CTO Mark Holt has been named as a leader in the CIO 100 after driving a predictive analytics push that led the rail ticket retailer to launch a new marketing campaign centred on the slogan of “wonderfully predictable”.

Trainline now helps passengers plan their trips and travel through a host of analytics innovations, which Holt groups together under the banner of “bots”.

“It’s our customers who most benefit from our bots, whether by helping customers find seats on busy trains, helping them find the best prices, saving customers time by predicting the journeys they are likely to take, Holt told CIO UK.

To save passengers money, a price prediction tool analyses historical trends from billions of journey searchers to tell customers what will likely be the most economical time to book tickets, while a new rail journey planner helps them find cheaper journeys.

To improve their booking experience, a journey predictor can now guess where a website visitor wants to travel with 90% accuracy, and the day on which they want to travel with 30% accuracy.

To keep them comfortable on their journey, BusyBot crowdsources data provided by 26,000 passengers every year about how crowded their train is to help other travellers locate emptier carriages and trains on their journey.

Holt gives his staff the credit for the quality of these tools.

“When investing in bots, my advice would be to hire super-smart people who have expertise managing and analysing huge datasets,” he says. “As ever, there’s no substitute for amazing, motivated people who want to use data to drive growth.”

Embracing innovation across the organisation

The use of analytics has proven so that it has been embraced beyond the IT team and into the marketing, finance and HR departments to the benefit of Trainline customers.

The entire organisation has now adopted a data-driven mindset, a mentality that Holt believes every business should embrace this embrace to support its future growth.

“It’s enabled the business to become a truly innovative tech company and an ecommerce leader,” says Holt.

“Technology is at the core of our business, it’s in everything we do – we’re focused on constantly innovating. Tech should be seen as a critical component of any company’s growth ambitions; a company should never be worried about aligning tech retrospectively with the business, it should be embedded from the start!”

Read next: 2018 CIO 100 leader named as Global’s David Henderson

Trainline’s latest innovation adds the growing value of voice recognition technology to the company’s customer service package.

“Very excitingly, we launched our Voice app, the UK’s most advanced rail voice AI, in partnership with the Google Assistant, which is helping make customer journeys even more accessible and seamless,” says Holt.

Customers can ask the Voice app for a range of information on their journey, such as when the next train they need will leave, the platform it will depart from, and the cost of a ticket.

Google was so impressed that it now uses Trainline’s app to demonstrate the potential of Google Assistant.

The importance of culture

Trainline’s other recent innovations include the launch of sites in 14 languages, a new in-app message inbox and an e-ticketing service, but Holt believes the company’s culture may be even more important than its technology.

To keep his workforce happy and fulfilled, Holt launched Summer of Craft, an annual event during which around four engineering workshops take place over a week, gave his engineers Friday to work on their own projects, and participated in HackTrain, which invites developers to ride trains across the UK, France and Germany and design new features that would improve their journey on the way.

Holt has also dedicated much of his focus to improving gender diversity in tech, through initiatives such as a partnership with the Code First: Girls social enterprise to help teach 20,000 girls to code by 2020.

The subject of gender diversity is increasingly understood as a business need as well as an ethical value, particularly in tech, where the supply of talent currently can’t keep up with the demand.

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“Tackling gender imbalance and championing talent within the technology industry is at the absolute core of our culture and values,” says Holt.

“An increase in female programmers, developers and engineers will have profound benefits to the UK’s tech economy, its businesses and its customers.

“Similarly, we are hugely intentional about the Trainline culture: we actively care for it, and nurture it. We want Trainline to be one of the best places to work in the world, with great technology that supports amazing people creating awesome user experiences for our customers.”

Many CIOs recognise the business case for diversity, but struggle to implement practices that effectively redress the balance. Holt points to a quote from Code First CEO Amali de Alwis as a good place to begin:

“No one is good at this, you just have to get started.”