CIO Interview: Hugh Fahy, CIO, Net-A-Porter

“I like to emphasis the ‘I’ bit in CIO,” says Hugh Fahy, chief information officer of the Net-A-Porter Group

“I like to emphasis the ‘I’ bit in CIO,” says Hugh Fahy, chief information officer of the Net-A-Porter Group. “21st century technology is about being information led and data driven."

As Group CIO, Fahy looks after technology for the brands of three global websites: Net-a-Porter, Mr Porter and The Outnet.

The Net-A-Porter site attracts nine million monthly visitors, as well as a social community of millions of fans across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Vine and Pinterest.

Fahy heads up the 300-strong IT team, which uses a lot of services, including Salesforce for customer relationship management. But while the retailer has a lot of commodity IT on its estate, it also develops its own innovative tools and services. Most of the IT team is in house, which allows Net-A-Porter to experiment to differentiate itself in luxury fashion.  

The company, which employs 2,500 people, has a history of being an early adopter of agile technologies. Fahy says it’s very important for the technical team to align with the business as close as possible and agile allows this to happen.

“21st century IT can’t be an ivory tower, we have to communicate with the business,” he says.

“We deliver early and get the quickest possible feedback, rather than long running programmes of work, because with the market, technology and pace of innovation, you can’t afford to wait.”

But the retailer does have integrated software testing and development to support these agile methodologies.

Net-a-Porter has created teams where testers work closely with developers to ensure testing remains integral to the agile methodology. The testers train developers to test the code that is produced, which allows the testing team to work on more complex testing.

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Fahy likes the “fail fast” euphemism, which is making its way into IT departments at some of the major brands at the moment. “Don’t spend six months building, get it out there and see what the customer wants and be led by that data.”

One project that was created and rolled-out in-house was a cloud infrastructure for Net-A-Porter’s sales pages. This on-demand infrastructure was created using agile and continuous delivery techniques.

Data-driven company

Part of the way Net-A-Porter is so successful is due to its data analytics and recommendations for its loyal army of customers.

“Actual analytics is genuine, it’s not a buzzword, it’s derived from the approach to big data” says Fahy.

Net-A-Porter is driving its web and mobile properties through web analytics, by using this data to test between multiple customer experiences of the website. He calls this “eCommerce optimising”, which companies like eBay have become gurus in.

“eBay has hundreds of different variants, and we like to use those same techniques to optimise, but sensitively,” he said. “Customers do love what we offer, so it’s a fine-tuning activity for mainstream eCommerce proposition, but we also like to innovate.”

Fahy says that using digital channels to market to your customers can be affective, but because Net-A-Porter is such a luxury brand, using social media has to be done with some sensitivity. Many websites now offer customers the chance to “share” their purchase or “recommend” to a friend via Facebook or Twitter, but as Fahy points out if you’ve spent £2,000 on a luxury dress, do you really want to recommend it so everyone else could go and buy it?

To explore innovative IT solutions, Net-A-Porter has a research and development (R&D) mobile app called Net Book, which is constantly testing solutions in beta to a select customer user group. On Net Book, the retailer is experimenting with creating customer profiles – similar to Facebook and Twitter – where customers can rate products, and other customers can rate their reviews and their profiles.

6,000 customers have been invited to try out Net Book. “It allows us to be more innovative and plan the next revolution as opposed to the main website which is evolutionary,” says Fahy.

“Ultimately we’re a shop and want to sell to you, but it’s the speed and elegance which we can present that experience,” he added.

Data can also be used to suggest items to customers in a more intelligent way. “If we know your size and you’re trying to shop, you probably don’t want to be presented with clothes if they’re out of stock in your size.”

Net-A-Porter also has a ‘Wear It With’ service which allows the site to recommend other items from the 650 premium brands from around the world that may match an item in a customer’s basket, in order to create a whole outfit.

“But all these additions have to be data led,” he added. “And there are only so many questions you can ask.” This means that Net-A-Porter has to take information from all the customer touchpoints, through what they’ve bought previously, where they’ve browsed on the site, whether they’ve bought Mr Porter may infer they have a man in their lives.

Before Net-a-Porter

Before joining Net-A-Porter as CIO in April, Fahy was the product and development director at Betfair, which has similar characteristics to the retailer, allowing him to transfer his experiences. “Net-A-Porter and Betfair started up at the same time and are both internet success stories.”

Fahy has a great admiration for the Net-A-Porter founder, Natalie Massenet, who he says is a huge advocate for technology. Massenet’s orginal concept was to take Vogue Magazine and make it shoppable online, and the website now lends itself well to publishing content.

The Edit is the site’s online magazine, and in February of this year, when more and more publishers are stopping print to become online only, Net-A-Porter launched a glossy print fashion magazine, Porter.

But it hasn’t always been success for Fahy, he says that he didn’t do too well in his A-Levels, but went and did a vocational IT degree and “didn’t look back.”

“Technology is a fantastic career,” he says. “There are many aspects to it.”

Interestingly, he points out that by being a technologist in a fashion company no longer means employees get away without knowing anything about clothes because the IT team has to work so closely with the business.

Fahy also says he believes there’s a significant shortfall of tech graduates in the country, and Net-A-Porter is taking on ten graduates for training schemes this year. “A lot of tech companies will be doing the same,” he says. “We need people who will understand social media, because they’ll be the largest demographic.”

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