ComputerworldUK 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.
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, to 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.
“I’m very definitely a CTO, not a CIO. 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.”
2. On Ocado's innovative culture
“I came eight years ago to Ocado to do a one-year consultancy project for them. What I found here completely surprised me. I found this very, very innovative start-up culture that was the next closest thing to anything I’d ever known in a start-up. I fell in love with this marriage of hardware and software.”
3. Like that scene in Monster’s Inc
“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 scene. 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.”
4. Ocado’s technology challenge
“If you want [a robot] to look inside a box that has carrier bags and goods in there, put in by a mixture of humans and robots, and if you want to place an item into there, your vision system is going to have to look in and work out what’s there, decide what’s going to be put on top of what, and place an item carefully in order you don’t put, say, soap powder, on top of eggs. That is a challenge.”
5. Strategy for innovation
“We build it so we can own all the IP, source code, so that we can license it. But we also build it because you can’t buy it, because no one’s done what we’re doing before. “We’ll often find out what we need by buying something in to see what we might really want. Then we develop what we really want, then replace what we bought in.”
6. The benefits of moving to the cloud
“It’s an opportunity to throw away the inevitable technical debt that you accumulate over 12 years of iterative development, but also to get involved in a whole range of new technologies, both cloud and middleware.”
7. Ocado recruitment drive - only the clever need apply
“Many people interviewing here are second-interviewing at places like Google and other tech companies. We set the bar very high. We are looking for the top drawer of applications.”
8. Why Ocado has taken over 10 years to make a profit
“We’re building this technological solution not just for groceries in the UK, we are doing this to build a platform that can be rolled out for food and non-food groceries in other countries. It’s an Amazon-type journey. Our shareholders understand the journey we’re on. They’re in it for the long-term too.