CIO interview: Paul Clarke, director of technology, Ocado

Paul Clarke is responsible for the technology strategy at online grocer Ocado, where IT is used in every aspect of the business

Paul Clarke is responsible for technology strategy at online grocer Ocado, where IT is used in every aspect of the business.

Clarke (pictured), who has been Ocado's director of technology since 2012, says of the business: “We see ourselves internally as a technology company that does retail.”

His job title is not CIO or IT director, but director of technology. And it is technology that differentiates the Ocado business. “We write all of it in-house, which is very unusual. There is no part of the business that does not have streams of IT development going on,” he says.

Clarke admits his role comes with some unique challenges that may be less apparent in companies where IT is regarded as a support function rather than a business function, but he welcomes insightful and challenging questions from the management team. 

“A savvy CEO will ask challenging and difficult questions, but I’d much rather have it that way round,” he says. “The management also understands resource constraints. You have to prioritise and be realistic [about what can be achieved]. It is up to me to find the best things we can do and grow the resources as fast as the budget permits.”

In terms of technology, this means looking at ways to achieve objectives quicker and more easily than before, by balancing cloud computing, partnering with external providers and in-house development efforts.

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In-house expertise

With technology core to the business, it should come as no surprise that Ocado runs a technology research programme. It is not planning to build a driverless van quite yet, a la Google Car, but one of its research projects is in robotics. 

“We are researching Lego building blocks for future applications that we cannot buy off the shelf. We are working on a robotics vision system, and we are getting to the stage when we can build real applications,” says Clarke.

This vision system could support automated item picking in the warehouse. Such a system would have to cope with unique technical challenges, compared with robotics on a production line where the robot follows a predetermined set of procedures.

In response to the question of why Ocado did not partner with university labs on the robotics vision project, Clarke says it spoke to research groups on European-funded projects, but came up against the issue of ownership of intellectual property. Clarke wants to keep the system Ocado ultimately develops within the company, protected by patents, rather than published in a research paper.

But is there an opportunity for startups to work with Ocado? He says Ocado does get pitched to by startups. "We listen, but I can’t think of anywhere we’ve said, 'Oh crikey, we’ll have some of that'."

Ocado's technology team is 350-strong – over half of the people in its head office work in technology. Significantly, most of the company’s software is developed in-house. 

It does not develop operating system software, relational databases or enterprise technology for collaboration and cloud computing, but everything else – “all the middleware control software for our two warehouses, our last mile operations, including telemetry" – is developed in-house. This includes the real-time control software that manages the hardware.

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Working with IT suppliers

Where Ocado does use external software, Clarke says it works closely with suppliers. “Our reliance on the technology companies that provide other bits of the puzzle are deep. They become core to what we do and our relationships with them are important," he says.

One of those suppliers is Google, with its cloud-based Enterprise collaboration suite. In a recent guest blog post for Google Enterprise, Clarke wrote: “Our staff use Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Drive to stay on top of their day-to-day work, and Google+ is helping our teams stay in touch, share information and build local communities.”

The use of Google at Ocado goes further, he tells Computer Weekly. “Our journey with Google started with mobile when we developed native mobile apps. We then moved to Google Apps. We are now moving to cloud storage, Google's BigQuery [cloud-based NoSQL database engine] and the Google Compute Engine.”

Although the Google relationship started at quite a basic level, with Android apps, Clarke says Ocado is building cloud-based internal applications using the Google Apps Engine: “It started last year, with a few internal tools, such as a people directory, but in our Polish development centre in Krakow we have developed a brand new framework to build [BI] dashboards for the business.”

We see ourselves internally as a technology company that does retail

Paul Clarke, Ocado

Build your own BI

The dashboards tool will enable decision-makers at Ocado to view not only business key performance indicators (KPIs), but also information such as how the warehouse system is performing. 

Clarke sees the dashboard as a holistic tool that will enable users to choose information they wish to see. “You will be able to add whatever makes sense to your work. Users will be able to create and access dashboards from mobile, tablet, at home, in the office, or one of our sites without a VPN,” he says.

But why develop an Ocado business intelligence (BI) dashboard when plenty of off-the-shelf tools exist? “The biggest drawback of the products out there was that they were not user configurable. Our developers have created new widgets that are available to users on demand," says Clarke.

These widgets can be used to configure the user’s dashboard. “We don’t like to rely on third parties. We wanted to control not only the look and feel, but also [the functionality] behind it,” he adds.

Going forward, Clarke says Ocado is interested in moving its production systems to the cloud for flexibility and disaster recovery and to support future international expansion. The application Ocado uses to manage delivery routes also lends itself to running in the cloud. 

“The cloud will enable us to flex [the routing application] with seasonal demands. Our customers snap up Christmas slots very quickly, so the routing system, which calculates available delivery slots, is [put under extra load].”

This is where Clarke sees the benefit of the Google Compute Engine, which provides infrastructure as a service (IaaS): "For some compute-intensive data analysis, like web analytics data, we could use the Compute Engine to process click streams from our web and mobile sites. The analysis in our vision system for the robotic application lends itself well to processing in the cloud because we can run up multiple virtual machines to solve complex maths problems."

Ocado as a service

Technology is at the heart of the Ocado business model. "The question is, could we offer a service to others? We have a world-class routing system that potentially could be used by others," says Clarke. 

Arguably, the partnership with Morrisons in May 2013 hinges on the core functionality of the routing system.

As to creating commercial software or services, he says: "It is likely we will do bespoke deals with companies if they want a piece of our technology."

Being a technology-centric company, Ocado has an appetite for tech talent, so one challenge for Clarke is recruitment. “We are growing as a company. My division is growing fast and is continuing to grow. We have set the bar high. Getting IT specialists is a big part of my management team’s focus,” he says.

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