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CIO interview: Mark Holt, CTO, Trainline

A data-led strategy underpins the growth of the public transport app, which sells over 200 tickets a minute and logs more than 80 million customer visits a month

Mark Holt is an IT leader who is attracted to companies that look for ways to exploit the power of technology in high-growth environments. After spending his working life fulfilling roles in a range of entrepreneurial businesses, Holt became CTO at transport specialist Trainline in 2014 – and the position allows him to continue working as an IT leader who embraces creative thinking.

“It wouldn’t have been an interesting opportunity to me if it was a company that just wanted to sit on its hands,” says Holt, who spoke with Computer Weekly at the firm’s headquarters near Chancery Lane, London. He says his role at Trainline is all about helping his staff identify new opportunities for data-led solutions to the challenges faced by rail and bus users.

“The thing I love most of all is that we touch real people on a daily basis,” he says. “Between 450,000 and 500,000 people will have opened our app to help them get to work this morning. I love being on a train and seeing people using our app. And over the course of the past five years, it’s been amazing seeing more and more people using it.”

Embracing innovation is nothing new to Holt. Right from the start of his career, he was interested in exploring cutting-edge systems and services. “Way back in 1993, my first ever job was building neural networks to do commodity price prediction,” he says.

“I did a whole series of things in the early days of the internet, but for the past 10 to 15 years, I’ve been focusing on high-growth companies. I like working for companies that are fast-moving; I like companies that are exciting and that operate in markets where you can do interesting things.”

Holt’s second-to-last role was at commodity-trading technology specialist Trayport, where he helped turn a small operation into a large, successful business. Holt’s penultimate position was at intellectual property management firm CPA Global, which he describes as a “super-cool” role in another private equity-backed business. Trainline was a similar opening, he says.

“It provided an equity-backed growth opportunity – we’ve done a great job over the past five years of really growing the business significantly. I was presented with a chance to do some really interesting things very quickly and change the way that things were done in the business.”

Digital systems and services are key to the firm’s continuing business transformation. “Trainline is a technology company – we are an e-commerce retailer,” says Holt, adding that his close working relationship with chief executive Clare Gilmartin is crucial to its success.

“Developments like e-tickets, platform and delay predictions are really important in helping us create that magic carpet ride for the customer”

Mark Holt, Trainline

Trainline’s platform hosts more than 80 million customer visits a month, and more than 80% of visits are via mobile devices. The firm sells more than 204 tickets every minute, and the app sits at the core of its e-commerce approach.

The app includes a range of innovative features that exploit real-time data to keep passengers up to date. A price-prediction tool analyses historical trends and tells customers the most economical time to book tickets, while a rail-journey planner helps people to plan their next trip.

BusyBot, meanwhile, crowdsources data from thousands of passengers about how crowded trains are and provides real-time information on seat availability. Holt says more than 25,000 people interact with the app every day, sending information to help keep the service updated and inform other passengers where seats are available on public transport.

The firm’s innovative use of data helps Trainline customers make more than 172,000 smarter journeys each day, he says. “Developments like e-tickets, platform and delay predictions, and related developments, are really important in helping us create that magic carpet ride for the customer.”

Learning lessons and iterating continually

Work on other pioneering services continues. The firm now offers a voice-activated app, so Google Assistant and Siri users can interact with its services. Voice is being extended to a chatbot, so app users can interact and ask simple questions about key issues, such as pricing and refunds, and the chatbot tries to figure out the intent of the customer.

Interestingly, this project has taught Holt and his team some valuable lessons. The chatbot launch was not as successful as they had hoped – it turned out that user requirements often differed from machine-learning system expectations. The good news is that Trainline’s iterative development approach means the chatbot continues to be honed and improved.

“We were all very excited about our chatbot,” says Holt. “We launched it and, in many cases, it had no idea what the customer was talking about. The app had to learn what our customers want. And, in many cases, that’s what we’re all about – putting something out the door and then constantly iterating so that the product is improved.

“Getting something out to customers is the key thing. We could have sat with the product in our labs for the next 10 years and we’d still have had the same problem, where it couldn’t work out customer requests. By putting it out there, we get continual improvement.”

Building great internal capability

While the organisation can point to a range of pioneering application developments, it is the people in the business who are responsible for bringing these services to fruition. In fact, Holt says the biggest achievement in his five years at Trainline is the team he has built.

“It’s just an amazing group of people,” he says. “We’ve gone from a quite slow-moving environment to one where we operate at e-commerce pace. We do more than 300 production releases every week. We have a team who are able to operate at that pace – and that requires a particular group of individuals, with the right skillset, attitude and approach.”

Holt says it is not easy to find such talented professionals. He recognises that these highly skilled individuals are the types of people that Google or Facebook are looking to hire, and says the key to success is to continually think about how people work, the roles they fulfil and the supportive environment the business needs to create.

“We focus on culture,” he says. “I like the phrase ‘intentional’ – we pay attention to our culture, we care about it and we nurture it on a daily basis. A lot of my conversations with my direct reports will be about culture and the cultural impact of doing something. If we make a change or move something around, what will happen? How does it feel to be in the development and infrastructure teams at Trainline?”

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Trainline’s tech team now numbers 300. Holt says these individuals are given room to be creative – and this freedom is paying dividends. “The great ideas don’t come from me – they come from a group of people who you empower, you trust and you allow them to figure out what will work for the business,” he says. “That’s how the good stuff happens.”

Holt gives the example of how the BusyBot application was generated through an internal hackathon programme. One of his internal developers built an early prototype of the app, Holt was impressed with what he saw and gave the developer one day a week to spend time building BusyBot.

Most services are developed through similar internal collaborations, but Trainline also looks beyond the enterprise firewall for great ideas, says Holt. Being centrally located in one of the world’s leading locations for startups makes it easy for developers at the firm to attend and hold meetups for like-minded individuals.

“I expect people to go and be part of the wider development community in London,” he says. “It’s a very vibrant tech community – there’s always something going on. People can present or just attend or whatever. I think that approach is critically important to us.”

Moving in the right direction

While Trainline often reaches out to talented individuals and entrepreneurs, Holt says the firm has “very few” relationships with traditional, big-name suppliers. He says the organisation works with what he calls “critical, strategic vendors” – and this includes Amazon Web Services (AWS) for cloud, and analytics specialist New Relic.

“We tend to work with people who are culturally compatible with our organisation, rather than the legacy firms,” says Holt. Trainline has already built a strong cloud platform, runs a data lake in Amazon S3 and uses the open source tool Apache Kafka to move information around the business.

This cloud platform will make it easier for the tech team to undertake work in emerging areas of digital development. Holt is more reticent about the kind of innovations Trainline customers can expect to see over the next year or two. “We tend not to talk openly about the things we’re working on – no one needs to set that expectation,” he says.

What Holt does suggest, however, is that the firm will continue to push interesting, data-led developments on behalf of rail and bus users. Again, the key to success will be internal staff and the supportive environment that allows tech professionals to act creatively.

“Success in the end comes down to culture – it’s all about having the right people and getting the right people through the door,” says Holt.

“We want people to do great stuff, but we’ll also support them if they want to be creative. At the end of the day, no one wants to sit around thinking they’ve worked on something that’s a bit rubbish. Everyone wants to do something cool.”

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