Paul Clarke is director of technology at Ocado, the world’s largest online-only grocery retailer.
He heads Ocado Technology, whose 600-plus software engineers and other IT specialists are responsible for building the software and IT infrastructure that powers Ocado and Morrisons’ online grocery business.
Paul will be speaking on the Main Stage at WIRED Retail, our second annual one-day summit focusing on the future of retail, being held in London on 23 November.
What are you planning to speak about at WIRED Retail?
We are all constantly bombarded by emerging technology trends, many of which in retrospect can turn out to be somewhat overhyped. However, I firmly believe there are three genuine technology tsunamis heading our way and where these collide with one another and with us, will create an explosion of new opportunities that will not only disrupt some established industries but also give birth to new ones. I plan to talk about these wider opportunities, including their relevance to Ocado‘s current business and our future plans.
Is there anything you’d like to achieve by speaking at WIRED Retail?
Ocado’s retail business is all about making the process of ordering groceries online as simple, convenient and pleasurable as possible for our customers. We are in the time machine business, giving our customers back more time to spend on those things they really want to do, instead of shopping at supermarkets. However, this simplicity is delivered by an enormous amount of complexity, automation and software under the surface of a huge invisible technology iceberg.
Almost all of this technology we build in-house — we buy almost nothing. What we do here is not IT, it’s technology in the true sense of the word and our technology estate is very broad and deep — real-time control systems, robotics, vision systems, machine learning, simulation, data science, forecasting systems, routing systems, inference engines, big data and so on.
In talking about these technology tsunamis within the context of Ocado, I would hope to give people a glimpse of the Aladdin’s cave of technology that powers Ocado’s unique and disruptive business model.
Who are you looking forward to hearing and/or meeting at WIRED Retail?
The line-up of speakers looks really exciting. What I look forward to at such a conference is to have my thinking challenged or disrupted in some way. Although I am in a technology role, the most valuable insights are often in other areas such as how companies drive their innovation, how they evolve and hack their cultures, how they get the best from their people and so on. Often the takeaways are lateral leaps of inspiration within one’s own head that have been stimulated by what the speakers are saying.
What do you think could be the most significant challenges and developments for the field of online grocery retailing over the next five years?
People need to eat, day in, day out. So if you own the online grocery pipe into people’s houses, that’s a pipe down which you can deliver lots more than just groceries. I will leave you to fill in the blanks — there are lots of them!
Within the next five years, the smart home and the smart kitchen will finally come of age. Online grocery companies will be well placed to act at the fulfilment services for the inevitable explosion of smart appliances and robotic cooking assistants.
Auto-pilots now do most of the flying, with airline pilots there to handle take-offs, landings and the inevitable exceptions. In the same way, as our systems get much smarter and data we hold on the lives, needs and desires of our customers get more complete, many more of day to day chores associated with feeding your household on a daily basis will become automated. In other words, yet more time machine opportunities.
What’s next for Ocado Technology?
There is a huge emphasis on growth, as we continue to recruit top engineering talent in the UK as well as opening four new development centres around Europe.
To stay disruptive, for us it’s not about how fast we move, it’s about how fast we can accelerate. So as well as growing, there is a big focus on how we organise ourselves, how we fuel more bottom up innovation, how we create ever higher performing teams, how we automate more of our development process and so on.
We also look for ways to disrupt ourselves before anyone disrupts us. For example, our existing warehouses are the largest and most automated of their kind in the world but we are about to leapfrog those with the game changing technology we are developing for our next generation warehouses.
The combination of this hardware and our end to end e-commerce, fulfilment and logistics solution (that we are rewriting from scratch to run in the cloud) is what we are calling the Ocado Smart Platform, which we will use to put large bricks and mortar grocery retailers around the world online.
WIRED Retail returns to London on November 23 at St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Last year’s event sold out, so secure your place now: WIRED subscribers save 10 per cent. We also have a limited number of half-price tickets available for retail sector startups. For more information visit: wiredevent.co.uk/wired-retail-2015.