by Mark Chillingworth

Autodata CTO Neil Brooks interview – Connected garage

Dec 11, 2015
IT LeadershipMedia and Entertainment Industry

Occasionally, the legislature and its Acts remind us that their role is to add value to the lives of citizens. As the UK edges towards an EU referendum there is a danger that the benefits delivered to UK citizens and our economy of small- and medium-sized businesses will be drowned out by the braying anti-Europeans in politics. Yet in 2002, European Competition Law freed new car buyers from the previous monopoly of having their vehicle serviced by the manufacturer’s main dealer network. This change to European Competition law has benefited not only the UK’s motorists, but also independent garages and the UK publishing industry.

Neil Brooks is CTO of Autodata, one of those very high-end publishing organisations that the UK excels at.

Autodata publishes technical information for the automotive industry. The business has been going for 40 years and rather than having a mid-life crisis and buying an expensive sports car, the Maidenhead-based business has tuned itself up to face the changes its industry is undergoing, and ensure it is as efficient and relevant today as it was 40 years ago.

“It was a listing of information in a simpler era,” Brooks says. “We are compared to the Haynes manuals, but we are very different,” he says of the popular books that many of us have used, as we got covered in oil and perhaps swore at as we tried to extricate a set of brake pads out of an Austin Mini. A year ago, Autodata moved from being a privately owned business to entering the fast accelerating world of private equity ownership.

Digital ignition

“Three-and-a-half years ago, the new CEO Rod Williams decided to bring the company fully into the digital era. So we stopped publishing books straightaway and embedded an online strategy review with the product leaders,” Brooks explains. The outcome is that today Autodata is essentially a digital business, providing digital services to a range of customers; it has become a service provider rather than a publisher. That’s not to say it no longer has all those quality and customer care tenants of successful publishers. On a tour of the impressive engine room of the business, Brooks introduces me to authors, artists and former-engineers, painstakingly creating unique material for a demanding set of customers. In restyling its business, what Autodata has done is not look for an easy revenue stream win, but looked at the exciting new ways of delivering its valuable material to customers. As ever when a business moves from a producer mind set to a service provider mind set, Autodata now has closer direct relationships with its community and that too requires a digital lens.

“Customers will shortly be able to manage their accounts themselves,” he says of a subscription system and API that provides users with data and interfaces with the Chargify recurring billing system. Brooks uses other cloud tools from Mandrill and Gmail, as well as Zendesk customer services to connect up all the customer touch points,” he says.

This isn’t just a story of technology changing the business model of Autodata, technology has changed cars, and with the rapid development of self-drive cars will continue to do so in coming years.

“The complexity of cars means you can no longer turn up with a spanner,” Brooks says of the technology evolution that has occurred to garages. “Now cars have ever increasing instrumentation points and computer units and their own networks.” Autodata provides its customers with a library of information and services on the entire traffic jam of cars available in markets across Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

“In the independent garage market they are servicing a variety of models, they can buy information direct from Ford for example, but typically you need access to multiple manufacturers.

“We take the manufacturer’s data and put it in the same place, so that the user has access to typical service information, repair and diagnostic data. A mechanic or technician switching between information from manufacturers is akin to switching programming languages. Each has their own terminology, philosophy and norms. Autodata takes that manufacturer’s information and put it through an editorial process to create a normalised language – and it is that which makes a huge difference for our customers,” Brooks says. Autodata provides these information services in 17 languages for 18,000 vehicles.

“We concentrate on the key models, and customers include independent garages, but also chains like Kwik Fit and Halfords, while other uses include the London Fire Brigade, so they know where to cut into a car when rescuing drivers in major road traffic accidents. Some customers use specific parts of our data,” he reveals.

“We’ve been going digital since 2000, and that has led to growth. First with CDs, online in 2005 and now APIs,” he says of how Autodata has successfully charted the changes to information access to ensure its users kept pace.

“The workshop applications are now our primary revenue generator.” Brooks reveals. “The API is where we see a huge future; there will be more technology focus in the garage market. One change is the connected garage, that identifies a car and knows using data how long the car will be on the ramps and the parts that will be needed.”

Autodata’s Workshop app provides a workflow system to access all the service, repair and diagnostic technical information they need in the most efficient, user-centric and friendly way, he says. “It was a really interesting project as it shows value to the subscribers and it negates the advertising cycles.”

Agile handling

Brooks hasn’t just helped the organisation accelerate its digital products, to do so he’s changed the way the organisation delivers its products. Information-centric organisations such as the government need to ensure their products and services are able to adjust the rapidly changing ways subscribers and customers access information. Typically, a customer may access information on a mobile phone or a tablet, PC and in the case of Autodata on a specialist diagnostic device. To meet these demands Brooks introduced Agile working methods.

“Our product teams are now delivering every two to three weeks, contrasting to previously where Autodata was delivering changes twice a year. That speed has now become the expectation as we’ve introduced continuous delivery.”

At the same time, the CIO was busy reviewing the organisational architecture to ensure that the API strategy was a success. “I changed the direction of the technical strategy for the company’s back-end systems and cancelled a long-standing 18-month-plus project to manage customer’s subscriptions and financials in a single system that was never going to deliver. Instead, we instigated an operationally less riskier approach of using more appropriate and mature new back-end systems with a road map for integration, thus allowing the business to start unlocking value immediately from these systems.” He brought in a cloud integration specialist to deliver a minimum viable product that enabled Autodata to manage subscriptions and recurring billing.

“This project was delivered in under 10 weeks and supported multi-country product plans and multi-currency to support our sales worldwide. Sales registrations and billing processes are now simplified and streamlined and auto-renewal is now a standard feature, as are standard price plans and discounts; none of this could be done before. Auto-renewal alone is projected to uplift renewal rates by 8%.”

Brooks is using a number of cloud options to streamline Autodata, Microsoft Navision over the cloud is one example.

“I was brought in to disrupt and transform, and we’ve had a lot of ‘we’ve always done it that way’, so then we have looked at the fundamentals to get the best productivity. The business process changes has been challenging, but the business has been receptive to it.

“The board is one of the most joined up I’ve worked with and the people understand it’s a journey. We’ve had great brain-storming sessions and I feel as engaged in the product strategy and between us we work close together to drive that.”