When Pete Yates joined InterCity Group as its first chief technology officer, one of the first things he did was to help disrupt their own business.
InterCity Group is a passenger transport and tourism company with operations in New Zealand and Australia. Its brands include InterCity, GreatSights, Gray Line New Zealand, Fullers GreatSights, Divers Den, Tusa Dive and awesomeNZ.com.
Yates and his team helped build the technology to support a new coach company called Skip, to fill the gap left when competitor Mana/Naked Bus ceased trading.
“We had to get our new product to market quickly which we managed to do in around four months with an awesome team effort,” says Yates.
We wanted to offer our customers different price points, he says, but there was also another long-term goal.
“It was essentially part of our group’s digital transformation and new shift to more agile ways of working.”
“Skip provided us with a business in which we could innovate,” he says. “We launched it on our new finance system and provided our customers with a way of interacting online with us through chatbots.”
Yates says working on this project was made possible with the trust the leadership team placed on him to “deliver the technology strategy to support a growing and ambitious business.”
“As inaugural CTO, I had to look across the whole business and how technology can enable the group to meet its strategic goals, both for revenue and diversifying its portfolio in New Zealand and Australia,” says Yates.
From a technology perspective, he created a strategic plan with key initiatives that need to be delivered to support the business strategy.
These included bringing IT support in-house and move to either SaaS or a cloud infrastructure; bringing all data in one place and use a visualisation tool to enable those business insights, move all financial workloads into a new system; and replace the core reservation system with a more modern application and architecture.
“Fundamentally, it’s about building strong technology foundations to enable innovation and to be a data-driven business,” says Yates.
At the same time, the team had to continue to innovate in areas of the business that could not wait. For instance, he and his team are building a large mobile IoT network of devices through implementing public wifi on all their coach and boats.
“We are also implementing new devices for the Fullers GreatSights business in the Bay of Islands where we are now able to track with greater accuracy our boats and coaches with the ability to connect the engine management system to these new devices for more accurate engine diagnosis,” he says.
“Ultimately, we will also be able to get all the data off these devices into our data warehouse.”
They have also been using chatbots in a couple of their brands, skip.travel and explorerbus.co.nz.
Yates is working with key partners to deliver a new network based on an SD-Wan solution that will work both in NZ and in Australia, along with a new group wide Wi-Fi network.
“Our ultimate goal is to create a technology setup for when we buy new businesses, that is largely a cookie cutter solution with known costs and set up.”
But another critical component of their transformation is moving the whole group to become a data-driven business, he says.
“This is a massive change for the business, where the general managers will all be able to gain valuable insights from their respective areas in a way that is easily consumed and self-driven,” he adds.
“By bringing all our data into one location we can begin to bring in other data sets (such as weather and cruise ship timetables) to look beyond what we currently know.”
He says building a good relationship with each general manager to understand what they are trying to achieve in their business, as well as their pain points, was a priority for the ICT team.
He is building a new team, almost from scratch, but is fortunate to keep a highly experienced senior developer whom he promoted to an application and integration architect.
“With creating a new team comes the ability to bring about a new culture where automation and change are a given and new team members are recruited to deliver on your strategy with a constant improvement mindset,” he says.
The structure he put in place allows for mentoring all levels, from tech support through to senior system administrators and even an architect role.
“I also set clear expectations around personal development and how time off to study is definitely encouraged.”
Yates and his team are talking to staff from across all levels in the group, from the call centre to boat captains.
“We want to see how technology is used, listen to their pain points and help resolve this through the constant improvement mindset.”
He also uses these meetings to talk about his vision and strategy for technology and delivery with staff who have the most interactions with customers.
Throughout his CIO career across the public and private sectors, Yates says he is guided with five key words: “What problem am I solving?”
He says these words are worth remembering, especially when a team member wants to bring in a new way of working, or a colleague wants to engage with a third party they met at a conference.
“By using those five words, you take emotion out of any decision and really test your team and colleagues’ thinking as to why a new way of working or technology should be adopted.”
Asking them this question does not frustrate either party, but sets the tone for how you want your team to operate, says Yates.
“It also ensures both parties know why a solution was adopted or not, ensuring decision making is transparent and open.”
“We look at the customer problem and solve for it – we don’t provide a solution that then has to go and look for a problem.”