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Trainline readies for fresh challenges from launch of Great British Railways

The travel industry is recovering from pandemic restrictions, and now the UK train sector faces a shake-up from a new state-run rail operator – all of which mean challenges for the popular ticketing app Trainline

Trainline has been a leader in the digital ticketing market for many years, but now faces a new challenge from the government’s plan to shake up UK rail services via the creation of a new state-owned body, Great British Railways (GBR).

GBR will set timetables and prices, sell tickets in England and manage rail infrastructure. As part of these plans, the new organisation aims to sell tickets via a website and app.

Trainline recognises the plan to create a state-run ticketing app could present a fresh test in the coming months and years for a company already recovering from the impact of the pandemic on the train sector, according to its chief technology officer (CTO), Milena Nikolic.

However, she believes the launch of GBR doesn’t have to mean bad news. In fact, she believes it can be the launchpad for new opportunities. She says Trainline is “very confident” that it will be able to either compete on a retail basis with whatever website or app is created through GBR or that it will be able to provide technology services to the new operation.

While the tender for the supply of technology to GBR hasn’t opened yet, Nikolic says Trainline will be in a strong position to provide its expertise to the organisation.

She says her company could use elements of its existing suite of technology-based services, which it will continue to develop under Nikolic’s stewardship, as a white-label offering for rail-operating companies.

So, whether it’s maintaining its existing market position or providing tech-based solutions to GBR, Nikolic says Trainline is going to play a key role in the future of UK transport. “I believe that we are very well-positioned to compete with whatever kind of state retailing solution is created,” she says.

“What has been announced with the GBR vision is to improve customer experiences for people using rail, to increase the flexibility of travelling and reduce costs. All of those are good things that we believe can work very well with. So, in that sense, it feels very aligned.”

Driving tech-led change

After more than 12 years working for tech giant Google, Nikolic became CTO at Trainline last July. After nearly nine months in the role, Nikolic says the IT leadership position is giving her the opportunity to hone a whole new series of capabilities. “It’s involved a lot of learning, so that’s been an interesting process,” she says.

Before joining Trainline, Nikolic was engineering director at Google Play, where she led developers as they created engaging customer services. At Trainline, she’s working for another tech-led company that’s focused on generating engaging experiences – but as a CTO, her focus extends beyond the IT department and across the rest of the organisation

“I’ve enjoyed having to talk about the technology to my counterparts who come from different expertise profiles and backgrounds,” says Nikolic.

Milena Nikolic

 “I’ve enjoyed having to talk about the technology to my counterparts who come from different expertise profiles and backgrounds”

Milena Nikolic, Trainline

“That drives a lot of humility and empathy to explain things, which is different from when you’re talking engineer to engineer. Equally, it goes the other way around and I’ve been learning so much from our talented leadership team.”

As CTO at Trainline, Nikolic reports to the CEO and is a member of the executive board. “I have certainly been enjoying it,” she says, reflecting on the opportunity to drive tech-led change on behalf of the business.

“I think we have a very exciting path forward. My role is to drive technology innovation and the technical vision more broadly for Trainline. So, there’s lots of exciting things we want to do.”

Leading something meaningful

Leaving a company that you’ve been employed by for more than a decade is never likely to be straightforward – and when it’s one of the world’s biggest technology companies, it’s going to be even tougher. So, what made Nikolic eager to take on the CTO challenge at Trainline? The answer, she says, is the opportunity to gain fresh experiences at an interesting company.

“I was at Google for a really long time, and, at some point, change is good, and you need to experience more of the industry. I’m lucky to be in London, where there is so much great choice. However, it wasn’t easy to leave,” she says.

“The reason I chose to join Trainline initially was because the mission resonated with me. The mission is to connect people to places in a greener, more sustainable way, and I personally find that very meaningful. It was something that I want to be part of.”

Nikolic says her early conversations with people at the business created a sense there was a genuine commitment across Trainline to bringing that mission to life. She was already a big user of the Trainline app and was keen to help the company innovate.

“I’ve always enjoyed using the product and I could see there was a lot of attention to customer experience. Equally, I really liked the technology that was being built by Trainline. The company is trying to push a sector forward, which is quite exciting.”

Honing technical expertise

Nikolic says innovative technical visions can only come to life if you have a great delivery team. Since joining Trainline, she’s put a lot of effort into making sure the company – which already boasts a 400-plus IT team – has access to some of the best technologists in London.

“We’re growing, and I want to make sure that we’re set up for that growth,” she says. “We need to be ready for the work that’s coming over the next year and beyond, such as changes to the ways of working and some of the updates we want to make.

“So, a lot has been going on – it’s been an on eventful six months. It’s going well, but I’m also looking forward to what happens over the next couple of years.”

Taking Trainline forward isn’t just about securing more talent. Nikolic is also able to benefit from access to existing in-house capability: “I have been very impressed by the level of expertise we have on the team, both in terms of technical and domain knowledge, which means understanding the complex world of global rail travel.”

Trainline’s activity isn’t confined to its head office in London. As former CTO Mark Holt explained to Computer Weekly in 2020, the firm uses nearshore development partners. The nature of this geographically disparate work environment meant development teams at Trainline were already using morning stand-ups before lockdown and social distancing.

As hybrid working becomes the new normal, Nikolic is keen to help workers maintain high levels of productivity regardless of location, whether that’s in the company’s head office, at home or at a remote location. To support her long-term focus on talent development, Nikolic has started honing the firm’s target operating model.

Refining the operating model

Nikolic says her refinement of the target operating model is centred on new ways of working. The rapid pace of change in technology companies means she wants the business to be able to pivot quickly as new demands and customer requirements emerge.

“We’re currently in the process of landing across-the-stack, cross-functional teams that are oriented around business outcomes,” she says. “Those teams work on a strong technical platform, which is horizontally enabling all these verticals – as we call them – to focus on their objectives.”

Strong platform teams can hold [our services and user experiences] together and enable rapid innovation in a safe way
Milena Nikolic, Trainline

Nikolic recognises that this agile mode of development is now the standard form of operation for modern technology companies. However, she believes this cross-functional approach will fit snugly with Trainline’s direction of travel during the next couple of years.

The times she’s been most impressed by her development teams are when they’re empowered to own something and are given a metric they are measured against. Equally, she’s proud of the platform team, which is providing the cloud-based technologies to help the development team innovate in a secure manner.

“Having a lot of disjointed verticals could cause problems with the reliability of our services or inconsistency of user experiences,” she says. “Strong platform teams can hold all that together and enable rapid innovation in a safe way.”

Improving customer experiences

So, what kinds of innovations will Trainline’s development team look to pioneer during the next couple of years?

As economies around Europe emerge from lockdown, Nikolic says the company’s focus remains centred on the people who use its apps – commuters and other types of travellers, such as holiday makers.

“Customer experience is the bit that I’m most excited about – that’s about helping people, whatever their travel mission is,” she says.

The company has a track record of developing innovative solutions for intractable challenges. During lockdown, developers created Crowd Alerts, a crowdsourced feature on the Trainline app that told travellers whether or not it was possible to socially distance on a specific train.

Under Nikolic’s stewardship, the development team has launched a disruption notifications service, which provides alerts automatically to app customers if their booked journey is significantly delayed.

“That’s an example of the kind of thing we’ve built in the customer experience area,” she says.

Trainline continues to search for innovative ways to take advantage of application programming interfaces as part of a wider travel ecosystem. The company recently become the first train-booking platform to be integrated into the Google Maps app. Android users have an option to tap through to buy train tickets via the Trainline website or app.

Nikolic says her close relationship with Google Maps made for an interesting and rewarding development experience. She’s now looking to do more work in terms of developing a data-led travel ecosystem.

“I think there’s a lot we can do there in terms of inspiration and the overall choice front,” she says.“I’m equally looking forward to expanding more of our footprint globally and doubling down in Europe, where we have been operating and growing.

“And then, finally, the platform aspect of being a fantastic partner to everyone else in the ecosystem; sharing insights and being recognised as the number one rail platform in the world.”

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