Ocado: Online food is not our bread and butter

ComputerworldUK has met Ocado’s chief technology officer (CTO) Paul Clarke to find out why the world’s largest dedicated online groceries retailer believes it should be considered as much a technology company as Google or Facebook.

“I’m very definitely a CTO, not a CIO,” says Clarke, who has been in the role and in charge of the online grocery company’s Technology division since 2012.

“What we do here in terms of technology is very different from what most companies do. It’s not IT and certainly we fight quite strongly when anyone tries to put that label on it,” he says vehemently.

“The bit that people call IT, which is things like helpdesk, DBAs, purchasing computer equipment, desktop apps and things like that. That’s a tiny little piece of our estate.”

As Clarke reveals, projects that Ocado Technology deals with include a major move to cloud platforms, which will involve a replacement of its large, on-premise Oracle estate, and experiments with smart vision systems and robotics. This will be supported by a high-profile recruitment campaign the company is running to attract the type of skilled people who would be interviewing for a major tech company like Google, to Ocado instead.

Like that scene in Monster’s Inc

Ocado Technology uses and builds technology that ranges from the typical business systems, like supply chain, finance and employee systems, to e-commerce and mobile applications, all the way to “more exotic” things like robotics for its warehouses.

The retailer has heavily automated warehouses, two for food, one near its headquarters in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, one in Dordon in the Midlands, and a non-food warehouse in Welwyn Garden City, also in Hertfordshire.

“If you’ve ever seen the first Monster’s Inc film, where Sully is jumping on the doors. Our warehouse is a bit like that,” explains Clarke, referring to a scene in the animated film which shows thousands of doors, lined up and  zooming around a factory environment.

“Things are flying around the place, cranes are whizzing around at 30km an hour, 7,000 boxes are on the move typically at any one time, 24km of conveyor, thousands of junctions - and it’s all automated. There are people doing parts of the process, but all of the moving of goods and coordination are automated. Even where human beings are involved, the systems are controlling that.”

But the technology does not stop at the warehouse.

The company develops systems associated with its delivery vans, which includes routing systems, route optimisation, tracking of vans, collecting all the big data that relates to the vans, such as GPS, engine revs, fuel consumption, how fast they’re cornering, how fast they’re going over speed bumps.

In addition to this, Ocado has a big data and analytics optimisation division, which are working on data science and mathematical modelling, and specialist areas, which include the robotics and the high-fidelity mathematical simulation of its facilities

All this, before you even get to the “real secret sauce stuff”, which falls under Ocado’s special R&D department,‘10x stream’, about which, unfortunately, Clarke remains tight-lipped. The secretive R&D department is based on an idea from Google’s co-founder Larry Page, who believed that making a 10 times improvement can be tougher than making a 10 percent improvement, because making something 10 times better requires you to go back to the drawing board.

“It forces you into making radical new steps that are game-changing type, disruptive steps,” Clarke explains.

He also promises: “People don’t get bored. We offer them the chance to move around [the business]. Although teams don’t like to see their prized people leave, it’s part of our culture that you can never say no to that.

“But what goes around comes around. Even if you give up one of your prized people, you get somebody else. What it does is spreads the knowledge across the teams. So we strongly encourage that.”

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