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CIO interview: Graham Benson, CIO, Rentalcars.com

For an e-commerce business, adopting an agile and product-led approach is the right thing to do, but it hasn’t come without challenges, says Rentalcars.com CIO Graham Benson

Rentalcars.com CIO Graham Benson has been involved in e-commerce for two decades – so long, in fact, that the term had not even been coined when he started helping entrepreneurial firms find new ways to serve customers online. 

“E-commerce has gone from being the ‘enfant terrible’ in the late 1990s to really helping push the boundaries of consumerism in the modern age,” says Benson. “As the channel has matured, businesses have recognised they can build online brands. The most successful companies now are those that focus on experience, whether that’s in terms of consuming data, content, services or products.” 

Benson has held senior technology roles at some of the UK’s major organisations, including Thomas Cook, Regus and Screwfix. He then held IT director roles at eBuyer.com, play.com and MandM Direct, before being appointed CIO at Rentalcars in February 2015. 

“It was time for me to take on a new challenge,” says Benson, explaining his decision to join Rentalcars. “The attraction was that it was already a phenomenally successful business that had increased its revenue from nothing to over £700m in 10 years. Yet there was still significant room for change.” 

Benson says that, in many ways, the organisation remained an overgrown startup in terms of people, processes and systems. “We needed to retain the entrepreneurial flair that had helped to build the business so rapidly, but – given the fast-growing size of the firm – it also needed to mature in terms of the skillsets and technologies that underpinned the business,” he says. 

Benson’s first priority on joining the firm was to ensure the organisation could trade stably through the peak summer period of 2015. It was reliant on legacy technology and Benson wanted to ensure existing systems were ready for business. His other key priority was staffing. 

“I’m a big believer in putting people first,” he says. “I immediately assessed the team and starting thinking about where strengthening and expanding could help. Until you’ve got the people, there’s no point altering processes and systems. So my initial focus was on the team, while ensuring we could trade appropriately during the peak season.” 

 Hiring and organising talent 

Benson says the period of skills assessment led him to start addressing requirements in two key areas during 2016. First, to hire people who fit with, and strengthen, the existing skillset. Second, to help mature the business in key areas such as project management, business analysis, business intelligence and system administration. 

“The aim for 2016 has been to expand the areas that were already doing well and to also start looking towards longer-term delivery,” says Benson. Recruiting talented IT staff in a competitive market is never easy, and he says the challenge has been particularly tough in a rapidly growing region like Manchester, home to Rentalcars’ purpose-built headquarters. 

But the recruitment process has been successful and has helped lay the foundations for further change. “We have made some great hires during the past 12 months,” says Benson, who points out that the IT department headcount has increased from 80 to 200 during his time in charge, and will reach about 300 by the end of next year. 

“We have gone from a very traditional, hierarchical development environment to a fully agile approach with multifunctional product groups”

Graham Benson, Rentalcars.com

Alongside his recruitment drive, Benson has helped to completely reorganise the business. Rather than focusing on vertical functional groups, the organisation is now based on multifunctional product teams with individual product owners. This approach creates tight integration between IT and business processes, so that rather than working separately, software engineers are part of product teams that are owned by the rest of the business. 

“That represents a major cultural shift,” says Benson. “It’s a proper matrix structure, where each product owner reports to the chief product officer and our engineers work to the same key performance indicators as other people across the business. We wanted to completely align technical competence with business delivery. The best way to do that is to place people with different skills in the same team and to give them the same business objectives.” 

Supporting business change 

Benson says the joined-up and product-led approach he has taken is becoming increasingly common, particularly in e-commerce organisations, but there is more reluctance from IT leaders in traditional enterprises. 

“I think there’s a sense that this approach will lead to a loss of control,” he says. “But nothing could be further from the truth. As an IT department, we are here to enable business development.” 

Benson says his strategy will help him to drive further transformation next year. Having recruited talented people and organised new teams, he will start paying attention to technologies and toolsets. The aim will be to create agile delivery, with workers in product-led teams focusing on continuous development. 

“We want to empower our people and get rid of the whole concept of deployments,” he says. “We have gone from a very traditional, hierarchical development environment to a fully agile approach with multifunctional product groups. The objective is for our business focus to allow us to rapidly increase the velocity of delivery.” 

Overcoming challenges 

The underlying transformation is already complete, but Benson is aware that, in many ways, the hard work is yet to come. The benefits of agile, he says, might be easy to talk about, but are by no means simple to achieve. 

“The key barriers are cultural,” he says. “You must make sure that the business takes accountability for deliverables. People must want to own their areas – and that is something we have really stressed as a crucial element of success. Technical people must be comfortable, too. They need to want to work at the heart of the business, rather than as part of a discrete technical team.” 

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The good news is that Benson can already see positive signs. The team has been positive about adopting a product-led approach, and while development results are strong, so is team morale. “The key is communication – involving people, engaging people and explaining what you are doing,” he says. “Take people on the journey – don’t just take the journey to them.” 

The long-term objective is integration, says Benson. “We want a 50,000ft view of the business that links all the way down from the executive team to the ground level of development,” he says. “We want to know what is due to be developed by which group in which upcoming sprint. 

“You can sometimes lose that level of control in a fully product-led environment. You can’t afford for agile to become fragile – if that happens, everything risks becoming anarchic. Agile isn’t about losing control – it’s actually about empowerment, fast turnaround and high-velocity development.” 

Delivering great results

The firm has split its product development operations into customer segments. For example, one product group is known as Discover, which investigates how customers search for and find cars when they visit the Rentalcars website. The group draws on the expertise of individuals from various departments, such as commercial, marketing, and front-end and back-end development. 

Benson says similar groups exist in other areas of the business, with the aim of providing new and innovative services. “These teams consider changes to functionality, technology, usability and design,” he says. “We have got a broad range of people sitting in single teams to discuss these key issues. Before the change, people would have been sat across four or five different teams.” 

The firm began trialling its product-led approach in July 2015, and buy-in from the chief executive and the rest of the c-suite has been crucial, says Benson. “They have seen how other e-commerce businesses have taken advantage of this approach,” he says, referring to the widespread acceptance of agile across the business. 

“Yes, I’ve championed the approach, but I wouldn’t say the idea was mine alone – it’s been a board decision to break down the departmental boundaries. It simply wouldn’t work as an approach outside the technology department unless everyone across the business supported the decision.” 

Further disruption 

The long-term aim of this approach is to deliver more products to market quickly and with higher quality, says Benson. The firm has appointed a chief product officer (CPO) to support the use of multifunctional teams. Benson says he works hand-in-hand with the CPO to ensure technology and product developments are resourced and co-ordinated. 

“We still believe there are great opportunities for growth in the markets we serve,” he says. “We are the biggest online car rental business in the world and part of the world’s third-largest e-commerce group, Priceline. As part of that wider group, we are looking at ways we can exploit the synergies between the different e-commerce businesses.” 

Benson believes one of the key benefits of Rentalcars’ approach is that consumers can buy all the services they need from a single site. The company also specialises in value-add products that might not be provided by other providers, he says, adding: “Our goal is to continue to be disruptive within the marketplace.

“The way people are consuming automotive transport continues to change dramatically. In the past, you bought a car, phoned a cab or hired a car. Now you’ve got car clubs, car share schemes, on-demand services like Uber, and you’ll soon be able to take advantage of driverless cars. As a business, we have to strive to work out how we fit as part of that model.” 

And Benson remains as keen as ever to find great solutions to e-commerce challenges. “I have been involved in an amazing journey so far,” he says. “It sounds trite, but it has been like being part of another industrial revolution. I’ve watched e-commerce grow as a channel and I’m very eager to play an even bigger role in the future.”

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