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Tech. Cast: with Paul Clarke, CTO of Ocado

Tech. Cast: with Paul Clarke, CTO of Ocado
Tech Cast: with Paul Clarke, CTO of Ocado

Watch the Tech. Cast with Paul Clarke, CTO, Ocado as we discuss the following:

  • What makes Tech. a landmark event?
  • What do retailers need to be doing in order to keep up with digital transformation? Where should they invest?
  • What makes a great retail partnership?
  • How do you find and retain tech talent?
  • What should culture look like within a company?
  • Tech. Sprint tips 

We also asked him what he is most excited about at Tech. and we've listed his top sessions below:


AI and the Future of Business - Daniel Hulme - CEO, Satalia UK 

How AI & Robotics are maintaining Job security - Sarjoun Skaff, CTO and Co-Founder of Bossa Nova Robotics & Red Mckay, MD of Bossa Nova Robotics 

Machine Learning success and failure causes - Michael Levin - Chief Data Scientist of Yandex Market (Russia)

 Applying game theory to price transparency - Weldon Whitener - Chief Analytics Officer of Pricesearcher


Rebecca Morrison  0:07  
Hi, everyone I'm delighted to be joined here today for one of our episodes of Tech. Cast with Paul Clarke. Paul, can you introduce yourself? 

Paul Clarke  0:15  
Sure. My name is Paul Clarke, I'm Chief Technology Officer, at Ocado

Rebecca Morrison  0:20  
Paul obviously you're on Tech.'s Advisory Board, which has been instrumental in building out Tech. Why do you think Tech. is a landmark event?

Paul Clarke  0:29  
Well, I think, you know, the combination of retail and technology is a very, very exciting space. You know, obviously, that's the intersection that we work at Ocado. It brings everything that, everything from sort of, AI and machine learning and analytics through, fulfilment, the last mile, understanding customer behaviours and desires. So, you know, you have everything from the physical to the digital. And I suppose, as a business, that's the intersection that we work out, how to move stuff around officially.

Rebecca Morrison  1:02  
And why do you think retailers should attend Tech.?

Paul Clarke  1:07  
Well, I think the reason to attend Tech. is to be inspired, you know, it is to hear stories, about how people are either thinking of doing amazing things with technology or doing things or, and actually coming away, hopefully with lots of ideas about how you can apply them to your own businesses.

Rebecca Morrison  1:24  
So tech investment and digital transformation across the industry is growing at an unprecedented scale. What do retailers need to be doing to keep up with this? Where should they be placing their bets?

Paul Clarke  1:36  
Well, I think it's a, it's a spread bet, you know, you need to play it, you need to be playing across the whole spectrum. Everything from, you know, customer analytics, and how to use things like AI and machine learning at the at the front end to understand your customers better, to create better, you know, recommendations, greater personalization, things like that, how to drive efficiencies into the end-to-end  process of getting goods to your customers, whether that be, you know, like we do it with huge all range warehouses, whether that be, you know, instals. And then the last mile is super important, you know, because that's often where a lot of the cost goes is, is actually getting it to the customer. And it's an end to end piece.

Rebecca Morrison  2:22  
That's quite interesting, because that kind of ties into what we obviously landed on the theme for the Tech. Sprint. So how can we create convenience for the customer? Do you have any tips for the teams that will be participating in that 24 hour hackathon, and trying to solve that? Do you have any tips of kind of the what you think the end product might look like, or should look like? And what would be kind of useful.

Paul Clarke  2:45  
My only tip would really be to think holistically about that problem because I think a lot of people often segment it into being, you know about fulfilment, and then the last mile. I think you really need to think more holistically about, you know, the simple, you know, the end-to-end process of supply chain fulfilment and last mile. You know, how do we, how do we produce stuff closer to the customer? How do we drive, you know, personalization into that process? And I think that's the interesting bit. How do we create new business models for getting things to people efficiently, rather than everybody just doing their own thing?

Rebecca Morrison  3:26  
Absolutely. And in terms of kind of partnerships evolving, and kind of ecosystems evolving, which obviously seems more and more of. And obviously, you know, Ocado of course has worked with many retail partners, and has its own kind of ecosystem as well. Can you kind of tell us a little bit more about what makes a great partnership? So, you know, where should companies be looking to partner? What should they be building in house? Yeah, according to your, your experience?

Paul Clarke  3:57  
Well, I suppose Ocado is a bit of an extreme version of this because we are horribly self-sufficient, you know, we pretty much build everything for ourselves. That's always been our model. And now, that's obviously put us in a good place to be able to provide that end-to-end platform, you know, to our international customers. So we're probably not a typical example. But I think the most important thing is figure out where you add, you know, real value, and, and be willing to hand off to somebody else. If you like, the things that either you're not so good at, or, as I say, where you don't have value or where you don't, which are not sources of competitive advantage. Because, you know, we, you can't do everything, you know, and increasingly, you know, we're doing that ourselves. So although, as I say, we are very self-sufficient, we're definitely buying more than we used to. But, you know, I think that's the whole platform play, you know, that's what, started with the cloud companies, but now is spreading out to other players, including ourselves, where what you're doing is you're taking away a problem, or you're allowing people to buy a solution that they could never afford to build for themselves. Because it's now that, you know, the cost of the R&D is spread across many customers, and that's obviously at the centre of the platform model. But I think that part of that is really working out, you know, what business are you in? Where do you add real value? And, and focus on those things.

Rebecca Morrison  5:25  
And, of course, Tech. is a great place to meet potential partners as well, you know, if you're looking to kind of, partner and kind of leverage your specialties. 

Paul Clarke  5:33  
Absolutely, I think that's where, I mean, I'm very passionate about the whole area of intersection of thinking. You know, getting out there, meeting people who will disrupt your thinking in some way, don't just hang out with people who are going to agree with you go off and, you know, including talking to people who come from radically different sectors to the one that you operate in. I think that whole idea of how you take an idea from, you know, completely different area and apply it to your own business. It's certainly central to how we try to do because that's the only way you already drive, you know, new forms of innovation into your, into your thinking and into your business.

Rebecca Morrison  6:11  
Which other sectors do you look to for inspiration?

Paul Clarke  6:15  
Oh, Crikey. All over the place. I mean, really, things very, very far away from online retail, you know. I don't know everything from, I have conversations with people in Defence and Nuclear and, and, you know, really all over the place. And that's partly because now, we're no longer just focused on grocery. My part of the business is all about taking the assets that we've, innovation assets we've accumulated over 18 years, and going off and, and playing in some of those other sectors to hopefully disrupt them. So it kind of makes sense for us to do that. But even while we were obviously, you know, parts of the business absolutely still are focused very much on retail, on the platform play there. Even for those parts, I think it's crucial to look wider than your own backyard. Because, you know, people are solving really interesting problems in unusual ways. And, and you want to try and capitalise on that. 

Rebecca Morrison  7:14  
Absolutely, yeah. And in terms of Tech., with a capital T, obviously, our event, what does it mean to you? In one word, how could you kind of summarise that one word?

Paul Clarke  7:25  
Well, I think it is about inspiration. I think it's about the stories, hearing stories that inspire you. I think it's about hopefully inspiring, you know, the next generation of people coming into the industry or thinking of coming into the industry, about the sense of the possible. I think it's about hearing from people who are doing things in radically different ways to maybe you know, what you thought about doing as a business. And I think the most useful thing from a conference like Tech. is to come away, you know, inspired and excited and, and perhaps challenged, you know, by the things you've heard. Because it's often not just what it is you hear on the stage, it's the ideas that it triggers in your own mind of "Oh, my goodness, actually, we could do that!". You know, and, and for me, that's the most valuable takeaway, when I go to a conference, as I say, is to have my thinking, challenged or disrupted in some way.

Rebecca Morrison  8:25  
Great. So yeah, Paul, in terms of culture, obviously, it's such a hot topic with you know, within any business, particularly retail, as well, and with talent obviously, being quite tactical, you know. Tech talent being quite a shortage, I guess, or a bigger demand than before. And how do you think companies should be retaining talent? What should culture look like, within a company? And where should it come from, within a retail business? 

Paul Clarke  8:51  
I mean, I'm completely passionate about the subject of culture, I think it is at the centre of not just, you know, how you hire and retain talent, it's about, it's at the centre of the engine room of how you drive innovation or in our case, disruptive innovation, you know, in a reproducible, scalable way. You know it's the kind of the glue that brings the people together. And I, I feel it's absolutely crucial that one looks after culture. I often use the analogy of cultural gardening, you know, you have to tend it like a garden, you've got, you know, you need to lay out the beds, you need to work out which different bits the business need to have maybe which kind of nuances of culture, you need to allow them to perhaps flourish in different ways. It's not like a one size fits all, but you do need to look after it, otherwise, you will wake up one day and find that the weeds have taken over. You know, so it's, it's not, it's not one of those things, that somehow you should just leave it to its own devices. I think it's part of, it's a core part of the leadership of an organisation of how you make sure your culture evolves in the direction, and of course, it will evolve because you know, what it's like in a start-up, you know, it's going to be a very different. But there are going to be the things that you need to try and actively protect, as the business matures, and look after. And I think, you know, no cultures are perfect, but one of the things that certainly kept me, you know, at Ocado for 13 years, despite the fact I only went there to do a one year project, was the fact that, you know, we do have a special culture and, and I think it's changed, but we've managed to do a lot of that cultural gardening to look after it, and we're constantly asking ourselves how it could be better. And sometimes you also then need to allow, you know, parts of the organisation to float free, and we're kind of grappling with that one as well. Because, you know, the mothership will get bigger and more powerful, and it needs to focus on some stuff, but then you need to find ways to spread your DNA. Beyond that, and maybe, you know, how you spin out other businesses, how you incubate new ideas, but not just by, you know, sticking necessarily a kind of a, an incubation unit on the side and hoping that's going to do it. I believe passionately that innovation, and that kind of spirit has to be embedded throughout the organisation. And that's really what I think is at the heart of, of the cultural piece,

Rebecca Morrison  11:26  
So not necessarily, from the top down?

Paul Clarke  11:28  
Absolutely not, no. I mean, the more ideas, you can, you know, get on solving a problem, the better. And I think that's where I suppose, what we've always tried to do is, whenever we've had a problem that we couldn't solve we've not really gone out to, you know, consultants and said, you know, solve it for us. What we've done is we've gone out and found more talent, add to the gene pool. Because once you do that, you can then you know, solve the problem the next time. And, and that's why I think, growing competencies, you know, is the most important thing, you know. The outcomes along the way are important, but the long term game is about growing competencies, because once you've learned how to do something in one place, you can then apply it to lots of other places. So I know that's very much at the heart of our kind of our innovation model.

Rebecca Morrison  12:21  
Where do you find this talent? Where do you look?

Paul Clarke  12:26  
I think you need to look for talent, you know, not, in unusual places. And I think you also need to be willing to accept, it won't necessarily come packaged, you know, in the neat kind of sizes or form factors that you know. And something I often talk about is the idea of, you know, rather than growing a business in a regular way, like you might put up a brick wall, you know, nice regular shape pieces. You know, that may be fast, but it's definitely not diverse. It's very linear. And frankly, it's rather boring. And I think our approach has been much more akin to dry stonewalling, where you take irregularly shaped individuals, you put them together in creative ways, they lock together they form cohesive teams, and that diversity that comes from that is certainly core to what we do in terms of innovation, but I think it's true for organisations too you know, you need and that's where you need a culture that can accommodate, attract, you know, people of all different shapes and sizes, but actually, it's about diversity, you know, in all the ways not just, you know, the usual things. It's mindset, it's experiences, it's ways of thinking, its approach, you know, and that's crucially important in order to future-proof your business. Because, you know, if everybody is similar, you know, then something comes along as a new challenge, and you probably can't respond to it. But if you have that diversity, then hopefully you can tap into it and come up with creative solutions to those new challenges.

Rebecca Morrison  14:08  
Absolutely. Couldn't agree more. Yeah, hit the nail on the head with that one.