Big Interview: Ocado CTO on digital skills

It’s a busy time for Ocado. Supermarket giant, Morrisons, and a new, unnamed, European retailer are now using the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) to run their eCommerce businesses. While Ocado itself is also in the midst of moving its own operations onto OSP.

“Ocado aren’t on OSP yet, we’re a mature user of our own platform,” explains Paul Clarke, CTO of Ocado. “That’s a significant project in its own right, to do the replatforming piece, and we have enough on our plate right now.”

Clarke says he is often asked whether the e-tailer will end its online grocery efforts to concentrate on being a platform provider.

“No, we’re growing just as fast as any other online grocery retailer in the UK and it’s profitable,” answers Clarke. “Why would we stop doing that? And it’s a fantastic source of learning and innovation – when we build something we can put it into harm’s way and test it in our business. That’s got us where we are and we’re not going to stop doing that.”

Artificial intelligence

Speaking to Clarke at the AWS Summit 2017 in London, he tells Essential Retail how one of Ocado’s five technology priorities is artificial intelligence (AI), along with big data, robotics, cloud and the internet of things (IoT).

He describes how many retailers look at AI and think they need people with PHDs and particular specialities to tackle all the different strands of AI, because, as Clarke says, “AI comes in many flavours – it’s a palate you paint with”.

“In the same way years ago everyone was scrambling around for data scientists, people are scrambling around for AI – although you could say it’s a strand of data science anyway.”

But the development of cloud-based services coming from the likes of AWS and other vendors “in different shapes and sizes” is democratising AI, according to Clarke.

“They will make it accessible to engineers who are not experts in AI and who couldn’t build the underlying technology from scratch – as long as you have the data to train the models and you’ve architected your applications to be able to plug AI services in.”


But for Ocado, as both a retailer and a supplier of all these new technologies, in-house expertise is critical. Clarke says because these technologies are so new, skills are in relatively short supply, leading the e-tailer to build development centres overseas in order to gain the right talent.

“One of the changes I’ve seen over recent years is that people didn’t quite get that we were this incredibly strong and exciting technology business, as well as a household name in terms of the strength of our retail business – and I think now they increasingly do,” he explains.

“There are people who are interviewing with us now and we’re definitely on their [career] bucket list and there are people writing articles describing us as one of the most exciting technology companies in Europe and that’s a great place to have got to.”

Clarke insists being able to hire talent is “absolutely key” to its ongoing journey to build up its OSP capabilities.

Clarke says the shortage of technology talent in the UK is around the wider issue of how the country teaches technology in schools from an early age, which is one of the reasons Ocado began its Code for Life Programme to encourage digital literacy.

“It’s about us trying to give something back and being part of the solution rather than moaning that there’s not enough people coming through with these skills,” he says.

“We need to be teaching the next generation to manipulate data and about AI ultimately, even if it’s at a simple level, because they’re all going to be living in a smart world, full of AI and robots and for those who aren’t going to end up working with those technologies, from a wider educational point of view, it’s part of what needs to be in the mix.”

The government has identified this problem and has even asked Clarke to help solve the issues. “I’ve got about four dates in the diary to be part of various different government consultation groups around AI and it’s great to see that now it’s starting to happen and the government is making it such a big part of their industrial strategy, including automotive driverless vehicles.”

He adds: “That’s the positive side, the UK is on the front foot to trial those types of technologies. We just need to be doing more right at the primary school stage onwards to fill the hopper.”