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Trainline CTO is on track for Euro expansion

Picture by Matt Gore iconphotomedia Mark Holt CIO of trainline.com

[aesop_content color=”#ffffff” background=”#ff2f92″ width=”60%” columns=”1″ position=”right” imgrepeat=”no-repeat” floaterposition=”left” floaterdirection=”up”]In this interview: Agile leadership, Amazon AWS, Continous Delivery, European markets, Gartner Bi-Modal, Online retail, Train travel UK,



“I am obsessed with performance,” says Mark Holt, CTO of Trainline the rail travel retailer. For those that travel by the UK’s rail infrastructure we wish it was a culture that permeated into the train operating companies, known as TOCs in the trade, but culture change has to start somewhere.

Holt has been with the Farringdon based company for just over two years. As a purely online organisation, Trainline requires each technology leader to enter the organisation and spot the next set of signals for change and speed them towards them. That has certainly been the case for Holt.

“We did a re-organisation from being a projects based department to product clusters so that we have cross-functional teams on a products,” Holt says. Trainline products include the App that we regular train travellers become addicts to, its website, running the white labeled websites of the TOCs and a business-to-business operation that provides terminals in the offices of major users. This scribe has seen these terminals in the headquarters of national broadcasters and financial services firms the length and breadth of the country.

“These teams are product owners and consists of data people, UX and testing for example. We give each cluster a key performance indicator around metrics such as attention and conversion,” he explains. “It was then a case of let them make the decisions,” he says of the removal of a top down culture.

“The developers are a lot more empowered and we have a thinner management level, but you have to be happy with giving people responsibility,” he says of how it changes the role of the CTO. “Team empowerment has been amazing and they really focus on the right things all of the time.

“It is really easy to throw a bone on the table and have everyone gnaw at it. But leadership is about knowing when not to get involved,”

Holt says of how some managers meddle and do damage to high performing teams that were best left alone.

“It is also about creating a team of people you really really trust,” Holt says.

New lines

Holt has guided the culture at Trainline  to ensure that his team are on an express journey to continuous delivery. His team release to the new Trainline App on average every three weeks. A benefit of this is that Trainline can be constantly trialling new business opportunities. Coach tickets, which are now available was a piece of functionality released in this way.

“Every team here is continuous delivery and seeing how much it can get out of the door. Bi-modal IT is complete bollocks,”

he says of the Gartner theory of having a two-speed IT team. Holt says moving to continuous delivery hasn’t only increased the number of updates to its consumer products, it has also increased the stability of its operations.

“The code drops are small and an outage are short. I am happy to live with that,’ the CTO says.

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Trainline was already an Agile business: “The history of this organisation is great through its relationship with Thoughtworks, so we have a lot of Agile DNA, so it was more about get there faster”. Holt says Thoughtworks were onboard “as they knew it would make their lives easier”.

“We have an internal Agile coach, rather than working from a methodology, so it is much more of a case of thinking of the work in progress and how we can visualise that into Agile.

While Amazon is the retailer of almost anything you can think of, Trainline specialises in its core market, but as a result it has become the fifth largest retailer in the UK. With scale, and an incredible brand presence backed up by major marketing campaigns comes threats.

“We handle 1.6 billion credit card transactions, so we are a very big target. So we have a security director to ensure security thinking is baked into everything we do and as a part of every process,” Holt adds that Trainline has the internal ability to do penetration testing and security code analysis. Holt and thetrainline have adopted the Building Security In Maturity Model (BSIMM) methods into the organisation.

“This makes sure that your lifecycle has security built into it. BSIMM has some great security best practices and their reports can enable you to define a road map. For us some areas we were already best practice while others needed more focus,” he says of the benefits already derived.

Train to the Amazon

“We are moving everything to Amazon Web Services (AWS), at the moment we have our own datacenter, but we are 60% in,” he says of the move to the Amazon that was taking place as we met. “We have increased our availability through using Amazon and it has been great for getting our legacy updated.” Holt is also an advocate of New Relic the software monitoring platform.

“We throw a lot of business data into it, so we can see how much money we are making. It is such a great tool for data tooling and it enables me to look at the end-user responses. We are also pushing the data back at our customers and it can tell us a line of code that is taking time, so we are making data based decisions,” Holt says.

In 2015 Holt and his team took part in the HackTrain, a hackathon that took part on a train as part of the rail technology incubator.

“There were 120 developers on three different trains, it was awesome and a great data sharing challenge. There were teams working on issues like seats on busy trains,” Holt says. The CTO promotes his team to get out to the conference circuit to ensure they are aware of all the latest technology trends.

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“A huge focus for at the moment is e-tickets and how we could mash-up journeys into a single bar coded ticket,” Holt says, adding this is an extension of the smart tickets it offers which deliver not only a ticket, but also provide users with live information on which platform trains will leave from. “It is a great user experience,” he says.

Whilst politicians use the UK’s European relationship as a vehicle to promote their own careers, Trainline is planning on expansion across the channel.

“Our technology stack structure fits the UK rail journey, so we have been doing a lot of work to allow you to put any type of purchase into your basket, we see inventory integration of price and journey really growing,” Holt says.

“Recruitment is a real challenge we are next door to the startups, however we think we get the benefit of the startup culture and we have the benefit of being a larger brand.

“Startups touch 50 people, we can touch eight million people with the App in every pocket and people want that challenge.”

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Mark Holt Photographed by Matt Gore at Trainline’s head office in Farringdon, London

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About Mark Chillingworth 227 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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