Thursday, 29 July 2010

The calm before the storm

Sorry for being a bit quiet here over the last week or so.

We're just dotting the i's and crossing the t's before we plunge into the public arena with our most exciting adventure yet.

I feel that any time spend away from my core duties as part of the team delivering this adventure is time not spent well, so forgive me while I - we - keep focus.

If that's not exciting enough - the R&D team in Tesco.com has just exploded in size and I'm now part of a team that includes the most energised, enthusiastic people I've ever met. They are here in Welwyn and also in Bangalore. I've met most of them on our HD TelePresence system and soon I'll be going over to India to meet them in 3D(!)

I'll tell you all about them soon. Indeed, I am beginning to twist their arms for them to start writing content for this blog so you can meet them yourself.

Enough. Back to work.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

100% Martini / Affiliates Scheme Starts / API Unscheduled Outage

This morning I sent this message out to our 800+ registered Tesco Grocery API developers.

Dear API Developer

We did it (finally!) - 100% of customers are now on our new 'Project Martini' grocery development platform. That means that 100% of customers can use your applications that use the Tesco Grocery API at techfortesco.com. It also means that we are can switch on the affiliates "percentage contribution to checked-out order" pot for T-JAM attendees on 1st August 2010 - we're just making sure all the logging is working correctly first.

We've been working madly to make sure the API is stabilised on Martini and we've been tuning up the performance of the service, particularly dealing with customers with very large baskets that was slowing down such API commands such as Login.

The RESTful API endpoint is already up to v1.0.0.15 and there will be updated documentation for that latest version being published this coming weekend. The latest API updates include a 'FAST" mode which speeds up API responses for getting Basket information if you don't need all the basket information that normal response returns.

Hands-up: we're sorry - our developer portal database ran out of log space during maintenance late yesterday and stopped the API from authorising access. Regrettably the API health page did not detect this (as it bypasses authorisation) and it was only uncovered by emails from some pretty annoyed developers when I woke up this morning.

I've fixed the problem by:
1) Emptying the log and
2) Removing size restriction on it. The disk on which the database log is saved has acres of space and the restriction was placed on it over 18 months ago when it existed on an earlier smaller server.

I will change the API Health page today so that it tests using a developer key that requires authorisation for each test. That way we'll also monitor if the forum database is in error. I will also put on our change list a code change to give developers the benefit of the doubt and always authorise access to the API if that database goes on error again. The Health page sends out alerts every time a test yields a 'red' or 'black' result (serious error or timeout). This all means that it shouldn't happen again without us knowing pretty quickly.

From Monday 26 August we will be 'living' in the Tesco.com Innovation Support Forum answering questions and listening to any concerns. I really want to energise the forum again - you've been more than patient while we've got Martini to 100% and tuned up the API, so it's about time we spent some time with you.

After all - on 5th August it will have been a year since T-JAM. Wow!

Best regards
Nick Lansley
Tesco.com

Monday, 19 July 2010

Shareholder's question: Why aren't our mobile apps joined up?

As part of my job, I get to answer some questions that come in from Tesco shareholders who have attended recent Annual General Meetings, particularly those related to new technologies or services visible to customers.

One shareholder wanted to know why two of the mobile apps we have in the public domain, Tesco Finder and Tesco Clubcard, are not integrated together. The shareholder felt that it must be more costly running them separately. I have responded to the question via the Shareholders' response team but I thought I should echo it here as quite a few people must have asked themselves this question.

The reason for having two apps (in fact we have three apps in the iTune store - Tesco Finder, Tesco Clubcard, and Tesco Wine Finder) is because their origins and objectives are very different. However we will be integrating clubcard, finder and the forthcoming grocery application in a future build (hopefully by the end of 2010).

Tesco Finder and Tesco Wine Finder come from our R&D team - these applications were built as prototypes to see if customers would find them useful. They were created (and are supported) at very low cost inside the Tesco.com R&D team, and are listed under the "Tesco.com R&D Team" account on iTunes. We are still taking both these applications on a 'journey' based on continuous customer feedback and making sure that the supporting data is reliable and consistent. For example, we are hoping to include store layouts in a future edition so that customers can sat-nav their way around an unfamiliar branch to find all their favourite products easily.

Tesco Finder still has some work to improve the accuracy of finding barcodes in our product range, and it needs to be improved to easily answer the customer's question; "What are the nearest branches that currently stock 'this' product?", which it doesn't do at all well at the moment. It also doesn't have an up-to-date branch list, which is really annoying some customers and is a high priority to fix.

On the other hand, the Tesco Clubcard is much more of a known entity and was built as a production application from scratch. There aren't really any "unknowns" for this application. Joining it shortly will be the Tesco Grocery mobile application (currently in user-acceptance testing). These are full production applications, although once again built and supported at low cost.

In order to bring the functionality of all these applications into one integrated Tesco application, we are currently forming an internal mobile development team who will build these applications for all kinds of mobile phones, not just iPhone. We'll be appearing on all the major handset manufacturers offerings.

The R&D team exists to work with customers and staff to help improve their experience with Tesco - but where there are 'unknowns' we would rather keep the applications separate until we are happy that they are working flawlessly and customers find the functionality genuinely useful.

Good Morning, Flattering Spam

If you comment on any article in this blog more than a couple of weeks old, it goes into an "approval" queue which I check and process 3-4 times a week.

I often find that, combined with some useful comments, a few spam messages. Over the last month or so I've suddenly found these spam messages have been written in such a way that they sound quite credible! Indeed I approved one of them until it suddenly dawned on me that it was a little strange and had to go back through all the comments to remove it.

Some spam-merchant, somewhere, has actually sat down and thought about a few general flattering responses that could be applied to any blog, even if the English is less than perefect. The only clue that it is true spam is that, at the foot of the response, a  link to a web site which has (I assume) paid for the spam. This is itself disguised as one short word (I don't see the URL unless I hover my mouse over it).

Here are some examples (viagra and fake rolex links removed, sorry):

This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I love seeing websites that understand the value of providing a quality resource for free. It’s the old what goes around comes around routine.


There are certainly a lot of details like that to take into consideration. That’s a great point to bring up. I offer the thoughts above as general inspiration but clearly there are questions like the one you bring up where the most important thing will be working in honest good faith.


Your summaries are always top-notch. Thanks for keeping us apprised. I’m reading every word here.


Well Whattadya know, yet another great site to add to my reader! Google blog search has you pretty well indexed it seems! you have some brilliant contents!


Hi its really very nice blog i enjoyed a lot to visit.


Your article was quite intriguing and the information quite useful. Will check your site often to see other great posts you make! Regards




Of course it means I get to read your real comments as well and, where applicable, pass them on to the relevant people concerned. Ironically it also means that if your comment is flattering it stands a greater chance of being rejected, worst luck.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Tesco Friday Frenzy and power of Social Networking

One Friday a few weeks ago, the Clothing at Tesco (C@T) team decided to launch a campaign to increase their Facebook fan base.

The team had opened the Clothing at Tesco Facebook fan site linked to their website www.clothingattesco.com and were using the service to update their profile regularly to talk about new clothing ranges, fashion tips and special offers.

The team also used the Facebook Discussions Board feature attached to their account to start conversations with customers on subjects such as their returns policy, issues with checkout and more. They wanted to have an open and honest relationship with their customers as well as promote the Clothing at Tesco website.

In the days leading up to that Friday, 7th May 2010, the C@T team sent out a simple viral message to their existing fan base. The message was that the first 6,000 people who were fans of the Clothing at Tesco Facebook site would get an e-voucher during the Friday morning that would give them 50% off an order placed on the website on that day. To become a fan of a site on Facebook is simple - you just find it and click the button “Like” - that's all people had to do to qualify.

When the C@T team sent out that message they had 1,000 fans, and when Friday 6th May dawned, they didn’t. They had 41,000 fans.

To say that they were “staggered” didn’t quite do justice to the overwhelming response of fans to the promotion. Let’s face it, it worked a treat - over 40,000 new fans were now part of the C@T Facebook page and and large number of new customers arrived on their website.

The discount code to type into the checkout part of the web site to get 50% off was finally sent to everyone shortly after midday, which caused such a load on that site that the engineers running the servers had to display a holding page message.

Some customers were little frustrated but social networking is a strange and powerful thing and their friends were encouraging them to keep trying until they got their orders placed:

  • holly100: Sorted! come on guys when you finally get through you are getting the bargains!
  • vinod12u: ordered 3 t-shirts;-)
  • LJM: Thanks just ordered shoes.

Despite the frenzy of that Friday, the team had found the true power of social networking, and they have been working hard to harness social networking and apply what they have learned.

The fact is, genuine word of mouth delivers awareness and consideration about a brand. The ‘buzz’ between Facebook friends in the build up to Friday Frenzy, encouraging each other to become a fan and chatting to each other about what clothes they intended to buy from the range has true value.

Today the C@T team uses Facebook even more than ever to:
  • Monitor and respond to feedback around products/ service/ website 
  • Provide exclusive deals and offers
  • Integrating our blog content of fashion features and expert
  • Use contests & competitions to further engage with fans
  • Exclusive previews of new fashion lines and brands

The C@T have also engaged with Twitter in a fun way - their “F&F couture” competition to win a biscuit (amongst other exciting things) was re-tweeted 1,333 times and reached a total of 724,755 people on Twitter.

What I like about the C@T team is their attitude: They are using social networking because they are customers too and are happy to engage with fans in an open and honest way. Sure, the Friday Frenzy was hotter to handle than they expected but they have taken great care in making sure all customers who experienced that day ended up with what they were looking for.

The team have summarised what they have learned about social networking when linking to the Clothing at Tesco brand, and how they will use it going forwards:
  • Start with an objective in mind.
  • Listen carefully and monitor conversation happening about your brand before you dive in.
  • Once you join in, you are committed for the long haul.
  • Ensure you have the resources to monitor and respond.
  • Be prepared to act quickly when required.
  • Consult key stakeholders within the business.
  • Remember you do not have to be everywhere online.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Are the best CIOs from non-technical backgrounds?

This was the question posed to me by Kenny MacIver, editor of "I: Global Intelligence for the CIO" magazine.

When I responded, "No I think the best CIOs are NOT from non-technical backgrounds", Kenny replied, "Good! I would like you to write an article about that view, and we'll print it alongside someone who thinks that he best CIOs ARE from non-technical backgrounds".

I hate writing clich├ęs down but I appear to recall that I answered Kenny's challenge with the words, "Game On!". After all, our own CIO has a technical and R&D past which chimes perfectly with my own strong views on the subject, and I sympathise hugely with colleagues in my wider peer group of UK IT professionals who don't have that advantage with their CIO.

So here is my article below, now published in I-CIO magazine which has arrived at my desk. If you want to know what the other guy said you're just going to have to get the magazine!

---


I start from a position of strength: All the most senior IT directors at Tesco.com have a strong technical background, and our current CIO has an R&D past – bullseye! This only adds to the sympathy I feel for those in my peer group outside Tesco whose CIO has proudly boasted of a pro-business-but-non-technical background.

I know why their CIOs behave this way: for many years the CIO or IT Director never had a place amongst the board members of many companies; IT just wasn’t taken that seriously. Sure, we made a difference to the efficiency of company processes but we didn’t actually have our own interaction with customers compared to commercial, marketing, finance and other board-level disciplines.

Thankfully, today IT’s importance demands a board position. However the authors of that role often think that a technical CIO will speak in an incomprehensible language to the others, so successful candidates have boasted of anything-but-technical skills and experience. “Don’t worry,” they assure fellow directors, “I’ll have a team that do technical stuff”.

On the surface that seems like reassurance indeed, until an IT project hits snags and delays implementation. The CIO doesn’t fully understand why – it’s just that he’s heard bad news from his team and is impotent to understand what to do next; how to help solve the problem; even how to lead.

So let’s start getting real about CIO roles by designing a role that has deep technical experience combined with some commercial or operational practice - and I have to tell you that some elements of this list come from talking to my CIO :

  • I want a CIO who thinks of himself as a Chief Innovation Officer as much as a Chief Information Officer. He should engage with other board members to improve, simplify and cheapen the cost of all their processes. He should lead innovation to make touchpoints better for customers . He is not a project “order taker” for his fellow board members - he’s a leader in championing improvements.
  • I want a CIO who can help his colleagues on the board by talking about the technical stuff using relevant metaphors and analogies to help their non-IT minds grasp an issue. He should be able to illuminate IT technologies in his colleagues minds, indeed excite them.
  • I want a CIO who can walk around the office and hold a good technical conversation with most of his team – and be interested in learning about new technologies and ways of working.
  • Finally I want a CIO who, amongst his project successes, there exists a failure; a faint mental scar carried from an IT project delivered late, or that one didn’t perform well at launch. This CIO worked with his team to understand the problem and lead them to a solution whilst defending them; watching their backs when his fellow board members grumbled.

Finally, think of the unacceptability of the Finance Director who doesn’t know about accounting practices, or the Marketing Director who is naive about focussing budget on targeted demographics.

A CIO who has no grasp of IT technology ends up being impotent when the going gets tough.

In a world where IT makes the difference, that difference could be fatal.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Tesco.com has its own private cloud computing service

A short time ago I responded to our leadership team’s concerns that the grocery API, still very much an R&D project (and on its own service) at this time, may not cope with the load when we come to launch our mobile grocery applications soon.

Having built up some skills and experience in using Microsoft’s Azure Cloud Computing platform, I offered that up as a possible solution. After all, the grocery API is built in Microsoft.Net as an ASP.Net application with a Microsoft SQL 2008 server database to manage sessions - it was a quick and easy task to convert and transfer it up into Microsoft’s Azure cloud.

So of course I told Tesco.com’s Infrastructure Design and Security team of my plans. They were not pleased. They were disappointed. Disappointed that I hadn’t sought their help first.

I argued that my R&D code was not something that should be put in a production context. “After all,” I said, “R&D code is here to prove the point and move on - hardly flawless”.

“Except,” pointed out Sam Hill, their team leader, “It’s not is it? You’ve created an API and got the leadership team all excited about the possibilities and the next thing we know is that mobile grocery apps are on their way, by the thousand. Didn’t you put on your blog 100,000 downloads of the Clubcard app in a week? Why didn’t you think of us when it came to hosting your API? We can cope with that load! If you are worried about your code, we can provide an isolated cloud service to host your API on, where it can’t reach any other part of our network!”.

I stood dumbfounded and somewhat humbled. Before me was Sam’s profound fact:
Tesco.com has its own private cloud computing service.

Sam may not call it a “cloud” but his team is proud that they have created a comprehensive hosting service with a fleet of hundreds of web servers connected to large number of business, database, and operations servers that all run our service. They are resilient, scalable, duplicatable, and mirrored in several data centres. That’s what they do to keep every site on the Tesco.com domain on the air 24/7.

They can bring more servers (both physical and virtual) into play during loads, then pare back and save power off-peak. They monitor performance, have the weapons capable of fending off viruses and denial-of-service attacks alongside a comprehensive firewall system. They are surrounded by ceiling mounted 32” HDTV screens with graphs that tell them of their cloud’s rude health. They know they have built an amazing system.

And I had gone and said “Azure” to the leadership team?
The Tesco version of Azure is what Sam designs for his living.

Or is that, the Microsoft version of the Tesco cloud is called "Azure".
We came first, after all!

The Tesco Grocery API will be hosted by Tesco.com.
Thank you, Sam and team.