A major cloud migration and a range of mobile initiatives are high on the agenda of the UK’s best-selling train booking website, TheTrainline.com, as the firm aims to gain agility and improve customer service.
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The 200-strong IT team is led by chief technology officer Mark Holt (pictured), who started the job just over a year ago with the remit of improving the IT supporting customers in planning, booking and managing their rail journeys.
Despite being head of an IT function, Holt does not like to talk about technology deliverables, but rather customer-facing products, of which technology is a core component.
"I would like to be able to say that people are looking at our mobile experience and our web experience and saying that it is a brilliant customer experience," he says. "I want people to be saying, 'I love the Trainline app and website' - that's what we have to be delivering over the next 12 months.”
Moving to the cloud
To deliver that customer service vision, the fundamentals have to be in place, so a major cloud migration to Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a top priority for Holt's team in 2015.
The migration will see the main TheTrainline.com website and supporting services, as well as all development and test environments, moved to the AWS cloud. The project is considered an accelerator for several innovation initiatives the firm has in the pipeline, and the migration will be in three waves, with the first already under way.
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"The migration is going to take a lot of time, but it's a change that is going to bring huge productivity benefits and it's going to enable us to get on a very exciting innovation roadmap," says Holt.
"Amazon is innovating in the cloud infrastructure space much faster than everybody else – and we’re able to adopt those innovations much faster than we could in our own datacentre, so it’s a very big and very exciting change for us.”
Holt says his team is going through a "cloud remediation" stage, looking at the various areas of the technology stack, understanding what would be compatible with the new set-up and remediating those that are not – or at least having plans in place to do so.
"There are old versions of operating systems that we call singletons, where you can only have one instance of a particular application, and old pieces of technology like BizTalk that we’re in the process of replacing," he says.
Mobile and analytics
A significant change Holt has overseen is around creating an in-house mobile development capability, which was previously outsourced. The team now releases a new version of TheTrainline.com's app every three weeks, supported by extensive analytics work.
"We bring customers into the office every week - and the user experience, product management and development teams sit with those customers and walk through an experience that we’re looking to launch, or just look at the way people use the existing application and ensure that what we are releasing is what people want," says Holt.
"We’ve got really good insight into the behaviours of the people on the application, which features are important to them and which are not. That’s been a huge change, and we do the same on the mobile web, and on the desktop web.”
You can turn up at the station with the ticket on your phone, walk onto the train, the guard turns up, looks at your phone, scans it with their hand-held scanner. That whole experience is completely seamless, and doesn't require any paper tickets
Mark Holt, TheTrainline.com
The company mixes qualitative insights from customers with quantitative insights from an analytics toolset that includes Adobe products, Omniture's SiteCatalyst and New Relic Insights, an application that manages and optimises the user performance of the TheTrainline.com web and mobile set-up.
"The customer-centric qualitative insights are huge in enabling us to improve the product," says Holt. "The quantitative insights are also really important, and we use those to drive the business. We put in place metrics to, for example, see exactly how many times a new feature is being used and we really think through that process beforehand, before we put something out there."
According to the CTO, data analytics doesn't need to be all that complex. "As soon as it gets complicated, you’re in trouble," he says.
"As long as you think through the way you’re collecting data, you can do some amazing data mining with the appropriate tools and really drill down to what’s actually going on in the applications to give you insights.
"The area where it gets more complicated is where you are trying to drag together disparate data sources from lots of different areas, and trying to gain insights from them – and we’re starting to do that.”
Holt says TheTrainline.com has a dataset based on website usage that exceeds 22 million customers a month. The company can mine for information but all the data comes through the same channel, so doesn't require a lot of cleansing.
"But what we do eventually is embed the analytics into the clusters, so the data analyst is sitting next to the development team, who is sitting next to the product manager," he says. "It’s not some department far across the other side of the office – it’s part of the culture of what we’re trying to do.
"The qualitative and quantitative insights are making sure we’re making good quantitative decisions. That is a key part of the culture we’re trying to build and a culture we’re starting to develop here."
Improving the travel experience
TheTrainline.com is also looking to improve the travel experience through initiatives in fulfilment and mobile ticketing. About 35% of the tickets TheTrainline.com sells come through channels other than ticketing machines, including web and mobile. To cater for that increasing demand, the company is involved in a trial with several train operators.
TheTrainline offers mobile ticketing for advance purchase on Virgin Trains, CrossCountry, Greater Anglia and First Hull Trains services. Since October 2014, it has also worked with the rail industry to pilot walk-up barcode tickets that are valid on train services in three areas in the north of England in conjunction with Virgin Trains East Coast, Northern, First TransPennine, Virgin Trains and First Great Western.
As part of the trial, tickets are "interoperable", which means that a barcode ticket issued by train operating companies (TOCs) and retailers are accepted on other TOCs’ trains, are accepted by gates at different stations and can also be inspected by different scanning systems.
"Passengers get a mobile barcode that the guard on a train can scan or which can be scanned at a gate, and that whole experience is delivered through a mobile device," says Holt.
"You can turn up at the station with the ticket on your phone, walk onto the train, the guard turns up, looks at your phone, scans it with their hand-held scanner. That whole experience is completely seamless, and doesn't require any paper tickets of any kind.”
The pilot is going well and is now considered business as usual for some of the participating train operators, says Holt. A further roll-out on Virgin West Coast to Manchester is being considered, and London is under review.
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One of the biggest organisational changes Holt has seen during his time at TheTrainline.com is the change in corporate ownership. Just weeks after the company announced plans for an initial public offering worth £500m, in January 2015 private equity firm KKR stepped in to buy the business from another private equity firm, Exponent, the controlling stakeholder since 2006.
"While our previous owner was a generalist investor, KKR is avery clearly a tech-focused investor, so that’s very exciting for me and for the team here," says Holt.
"We have already started to see the change, with lots of advisers arriving and talking about the best way to structure the organisation and how we might be able to move forward more quickly, and that’s been great fun. It’s a really interesting process and getting that outside-in perspective has been great.”
Another change was the move from a project-focused team to a product-aligned organisation. In practice, that means the company now has dedicated teams, dubbed "clusters", which are focused on specific customer segments or particular products that feed into user segments.
"We’ve got dedicated teams working on the main Trainline consumer website, another team that delivers mobile applications, another that focuses on the journey search capability, payment and fraud, and fulfilment," says Holt.
"That’s different from where we were a year ago, when we were project-focused. The project would come along and say, 'We need you to deliver a bit of a website, and a bit of some services back here, and a bit of something else'.
"Being product-aligned means we can push a lot more decisions down to the development team or the product team and empower them. We’ve introduced a product ownership discipline to support that and those people are all responsible for driving that part of the business, for improving their KPIs [key performance indicators], the user experience – in short, making their part of the product as good as it possibly can be."
Another achievement in the last year came in IT staff recruitment, which surpassed Holt’s expectations and has seen 45 people brought in since he joined.
"We are actually above our best-case hiring goals, which is amazing and I never thought I’d be saying that," he says. "But we are still in the exactly the same place we were last year in that we want to hire those superstar players into the organisation."
TheTrainline.com has "a lot of headcount open" and is looking to fill gaps to deliver some of the projects it wasn't able to because of lack of in-house resources, says Holt.
"We’re working on a new promotions engine and we’ve had to outsource that piece of the puzzle because we simply don’t have the people internally to work on it. There are various other pieces that we’ll do the same with."
As well as "top-tier programmers", the company is looking to recruit technical leads for some teams, says the CTO, who adds that he is looking for "people who want to push back the boundaries of technology and really want to innovate".
"We want to move fast and we want to change things, creating amazing customer experiences," says Holt. "So we want professionals who want to work on something big that has the potential to impact many lives positively. We’re a great place for people to be able to do that."