by James Henderson

How iCar Asia is driving personalisation through data

Jun 10, 2019
CIOTechnology Industry

Pedro Sttau, CIO of iCar Asia, explains the balancing act of engaging with millions of users, while providing a personalised experience to each.

Pedro Sttau, CIO of iCar Asia in Malaysia
Credit: iCar

In connecting more than 600 million car buyers and sellers throughout ASEAN, the iCar Asia network attracts over eight million visitors on a monthly basis.

Spanning Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, the business aspires to be more than merely a vehicle portal. Rather, iCar aims to be a connection point for buyers, sellers and learners within the automotive industry.

Yet personalisation is a challenging undertaking when attracting millions of users. How can a business connect to many, but engage on an individual basis?

“We want to provide a much more personalised experience to customers across all of our platforms,” said Pedro Sttau, CIO of iCar Asia. “This means that we need to become better at using the vast amounts of data we have to adapt our content to the context of the end user.

“By enhancing our machine learning [ML] models, we will be able to further refine ‘buckets’ of segmented patterns that we can action against.”

Innovation at the core of the business

A second key focus area, according to Sttau, centres around the optimisation of internal IT operations, to create a level of scalability equal to that of the company’s technology platform.

“The truth is, great people and great technology won’t scale adequately if operations don’t scale also,” Sttau acknowledged. “We see an opportunity for IT operations to learn from the way we think about technology and we think we will get a lot of efficiencies from this approach. There is no technology without people and people can’t operate efficiently without a good operational set-up.

“But for us, technology is just a means to an end, we are moving away from platform centric product teams to end-to-end customer-centric teams. Success is measured by key performance indicators [KPIs] that reflect the value we provide to customers. Technical KPIs are important but we don’t focus on them as the end state.”

As a result, iCar Asia doesn’t deploy ‘innovation projects’ in a contained sense, instead driving creativity through internal teams to the end product.

“We believe that it’s always a very bad idea when innovation is an isolated project inside a technology company,” Sttau added. “Innovation is not a project or something you do, it’s something you become.”

Within the Malaysian market, iCar Asia delivers web and mobile applications through Carlist and Live Life Drive, in addition to representation through Mobil123 and OtoSpirit in Indonesia, and One2Car, AutoSpinn and Thai Car in Thailand.

The power of data

Listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) since September 2012, the Kuala Lumper-based organisation goes to market through four core segments, namely dealer solutions, consumer products, artificial intelligence (AI) and automotive data.

“No particular technology is leading the way as a disruptive force,” observed Sttau, when assessing the wider automotive industry across ASEAN. “More so the adoption of a mindset which focuses on value, rather than self-serving needs.

“For example, artificial intelligence and machine learning [ML] on its own are cool but not very useful in isolation, understanding the power of data to make something better is where the value statement should be. The disruption comes from understanding the practical purpose of technology, not the technology itself.”

However, Sttau accepted the “massive impact” of AI within the digital automotive space, “particularly the companies that understand how to use it to begin solving basic problems for customers”.

“In this context, one of the main applications of AI is to help understand customer needs,” Sttau explained. “Users are exploring the product and align the experience to where and who the customer is, where they are and what they need. The ‘fancy and flashy’ AI stuff is not very useful at these early stages of ML adoption.

“Firstly because of the huge volumes of data needed to train models that will have practical applications, and secondly, because we have not even conquered stage one. It’s going to happen, just not as fast as people expect.”

Sttau said iCar Asia adopts a “very iterative and progressive approach” to changes in infrastructure and core tech-stacks.

“For instance, when we were switching cloud providers we ran a split test of our technology in both ecosystems in parallel to measure the impact on performance and cost before we decided to change,” he said. “When we did change, the switch was also progressive as we prioritised the most business critical services first and left the remaining legacy technology.”

Evolving expectations

As CIO, Malaysia-based Sttau has one overriding responsibility in his role, overseeing “people that deliver technology to benefit customers”.

“Technology is part of my job but I focus on people first, operations second and technology third,” he added. “One of the key roles of the CIO is to create an ecosystem in which people can feel safe to grow, express themselves and achieve collective success. This means that as CIO I need to always emphasise the ‘why’ over the ‘what’.

“When I hear myself talk too much about technology too much on my engineering floor, I know it’s time to refocus on the purpose technology teams. And that is to make something better than its original state, to deliver value to customers and fundamentally to solve problems.”

In looking ahead, Sttau advised modern-day CIOs to think about people the same way the market now thinks about technology.

“Our people need to have in-built mechanisms that accept change and adapt quickly,” he said. “I have made the mistake of thinking that the starting point for business change is technology and ended up with a fragmented organisation that could not scale.

“The key focus for the modern CIO needs to be the creation of an ecosystem that scales people and operations the same way technology is built to scale.”

Alternatively, Sttau acknowledged that “resistance to change” represents the single biggest challenge to technology leaders today.

“Humans are not built to welcome change,” he cautioned. “We have trained and invested time to train our human models to give us predictability and safety. Change implies moving away from these models and to train new ones, leaving our current system unguarded and vulnerable.”

Consequently, Sttau believes the job of the CIO is to “hack this natural instinct” by creating an internal network that demands constant change.

“I am currently going through a very interesting stage in my role at iCar Asia,” he explained. “We have transformed the business successfully from a previous organisational structure, and I am now watching my own vision and execution become obsolete.

“Being able to take a step back and accept that my job is not to implement a specific structure or a set of new technologies but to inject into the company the ability to evolve is equally very hard and very rewarding.”

Practical CIOs

Delving deeper, Sttau also emphasised the importance of becoming less technology focused and more operational, as the one-time chasm between business and technical closes at pace.

“The gap between what we call the business and IT is now becoming thinner and the job of the CIO is to make sure that eventually there is no longer an IT department, there is just ‘the business’,” he said. “The skills of a modern CIO are not very different from those of a CEO, with main difference that CIOs are specialists in technology. The closer a CIO is to the business the more effective he or she will be.”

Successful CIOs, according to Sttau, are also more likely to adopt a “very practical approach” to technology, viewing technology as a vehicle rather than the end goal. Such an approach allows C-level leaders to build teams capable of solving problems collectively, “with or without the latest technology”.

“Great teams tend to have simple structures around them, logical rules they follow that usually translate into simple and pragmatic solutions for customers,” he added. “The main goal of a modern CIO should be to remove complexity and get out of the way. This is of course complex by itself.”