CTO interview: Neil Brooks drives Autodata into a service business

20160908-neil-brooks-autodatas-chief-technology-officer-cto-1Organisations that once before produced products and focused the majority of their effort on the creation of that product are now shifting into becoming service providers.  Autodata is just such an organisation.  

The automotive sector, since the day Henry Ford’s Model T rolled off the first car production line has been product focused. Now like so many other sectors, automotive is discovering that it needs to become a service provider, investments in Lyft and Side Car by General Motors and similar strategic moves by Ford and the Daimler Benz groups are signals of a move towards service provision. For businesses connected to the automotive sector a similar shift to services is essential.

Once Autodata produced manuals for the automotive industry; in the last three years the Maidenhead based business has radically changed its business model and discovered a wide range of opportunities along the way.  Neil Brooks, CTO with Autodata has been re-writing the technology manual at Autodata to enable this new direction.

Autodata is a provider of technical information to the automotive aftermarket, its team of engineers, who are all qualified automotive technicians, critically analyse and adapt technical information from over 155 vehicle manufacturers, normalising it into an Autodata standard that is well renowned and user friendly.  With garages dealing with the plethora of brands and models, having a single resource for information is an efficiency benefit. Autodata originally produced paper manuals, but today is a leading provider of technical data  – through APIs and online applications. Their data directs the workflow of a garage and improves efficiency and customer service.  

“Last year saw us going through a migration of users onto a new workshop application,” Brooks says. “Just this month we have refreshed it again, making it more user centric and giving it a new look and feel. We have also launched our motorcycle product for the first time.”  In essence Autodata today is a cloud based service that a garage uses to book a vehicle in, know about the vehicle, access the material the mechanic will need to carry out a repair or service, order parts and provide further information to the customer.  Customers of Autodata have gone from purchasing a paper product to subscribing to a service.  Moving away from being a product business to a service provider means that Autodata now has a direct relationship with its customers and not via a third party sales agent.

“We are doing SaaS,” Brooks says of the software-as-a-service business that Autodata has become. As with all SaaS businesses, Autodata is seeing its customer base take control of their experience, so the CTO has to be customer centric. And it’s not just the existing customers, Autodata finds that direct to customer sales are increasing all the time and Brooks says lease car providers is a growth market.

Moving to an annual licence model has increased the payment options Autodata can offer customers and it is allowing Autodata to go beyond the shores of the UK and other English speaking nations. Brooks says Germany is a growing market  

“Make it easy for people to do business with you,” Brooks says. He and the organisation have been putting great deal of focus into user journeys.  

Being a service business over a product business also means organisations need a constant ability to adapt, because customer behaviour changes alls the time.

On joining Autodata Brooks set about creating an Agile team and product sets. He arrived at a time when his team had undergone “an unsympathetic re-organisation” and although some use of the sprint methodology was in place, Brooks says the sprints did not have a fixed time, something he quickly rectified. Brooks also invested in training the team in Agile “to get them on the same language”. Like his Innovation Leadership Summit speaker peer Mark Holt at Trainline, Brooks empowers his team with ownership. He highlights how the training, carried out by partners Agility in Mind helped the team “discover their passion in software again”. Brooks also got the executive team to take the same training.

“It has created a better understanding and has given an appreciation of what we are doing,” Brooks says.  The minimum viable product foundations of Agile have been instrumental in changing the culture of Autodata and Brooks says it gives the organisation a huge amount of confidence to see in bare bones what the final product will look like. Brooks reveals how a move in financial systems highlighted a need to improve the invoice archive of the organisation.

“We did a mini sprint and built a mining system for an archive of PDF invoices in a database that temporary staff created. Finance were delighted. The result far surpassing expectations and all completed within a few weeks.

“Finance loved it as it was so much better than they had before. A small piece of work really the love for the team,” he says of the difference it made to the business.

“People want a better business and to focus on how to get things done,” Ed Scotcher of Agility in Mind says. “Neil is here to change the way the business works.”

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Agility in Mind and Brooks also found that teams in the organisation were not aware of the reasons behind the projects they were working on.  Malachite, a team developing the APIs was one example.

“Agile is good at making things visible and highlighting problems,”

Scotcher says. Brooks adds how the culture changed in six to nine months with people talking about new problems and then realising the conversation arose because they had rectified old problems.

“They have got smarter at the way they deal with problems. We are dealing with people and people have concerns and questions,” Brooks says.  “Agile has unlocked a huge amount of potential.”

Brooks says the Agile behaviour is spreading across the business with all speak of projects being cast aside. “We have product streams, not projects,” he says of the focus on content, API, workshop application and subscription management.  

“To become a more digital and automated business you have to simplify. Previously we had an unworkable product store, you cannot have a price book with 10,000 items on it.

“That simplification was a huge logistical effort,” Brooks says.  As they simplified the business processes Brooks and his team modernised the subscription management and invoicing systems. “We used it as an opportunity to change the way we do things.”

About Mark Chillingworth 166 Articles
Mark Chillingworth has over 20 years of journalism and editing experience across all media platforms including online, live events, print magazines and television.
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