IT Life: Ocado’s Master Of Invention

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Paul Clarke ocado

Paul Clarke, director of technology at Ocado, wanted to be an inventor… and now he is one

As director of technology at online food retailer Ocado, has an interest in a huge field, including real time technologies, e-commerce, embedded systems, software architecture and design. During  his 34 years in the business he’s been in on some exciting and unusual challenges

ocado van delivery online shoppingWhat has been your favourite project so far?
The most exciting projects have probably been in start-ups, such as developing a network operating system for the IBM PC when it was launched which involved writing hundreds of thousands of lines of 8086 assembler. However Ocado is a very close second given our highly innovative start-up culture, the quality of our people and the never ending rollercoaster of exciting projects we undertake here.

Musical aquarium

What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
10 years ago I was working as a freelance consultant, particularly in the area of embedded systems. One of the more unusual projects I remember working on was designing the electronics and software to turn the motion of fish in a huge aquarium into music.

Goldfish tank bowl aquarium © Mirek Kijewski Shutterstock

What tech do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
By then I imagine we will take for granted being permanently connected by high speed 6G networks (whatever those will be?) using wearable devices (or maybe even implants) communicating with one another and with our environment. Inevitable increases in computing power mean that these devices will be much smarter, running a range of digital assistants using predictive intelligence to keep us much better informed, on-track, entertained, healthy and safe.

martin cooper inventor of the mobile phoneWho’s your tech hero?
I think it would be a close battle between Dr Martin Cooper [the inventor of the mobile phone – pictured] or Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Who’s your tech villain?
Whoever invented the Tamagotchi…

Tamagotchi

What’s your favourite technology ever made? Which do you use most?
I remember buying my first Blackberry over 10 years ago and the transformation that brought in terms of integration and being permanently connected to email. More recently I bought a satellite communicator which I think is really cool in terms of being connected absolutely anywhere on the globe. In terms of technologies I use most, obviously smartphones but also satellite navigation which has transformed personal travel.

What is your budget outlook going forward? Flat? Growing?
Growing fast, very fast. Ocado Technology is recruiting software and infrastructure engineers with the “taps wide open” both in this country and in our development centre in Krakow, Poland. As well as numerous projects to support our continued business growth, we are undertaking a major technology re-platforming exercise to prepare for the future and we also have a number of research and 10X projects [which aim to deliver an order of magnitude improvement] on the boil.

google-london-officeApart from your own, which company do you admire most and why?
One of the inevitable challenges we face as a highly innovative and disruptive technology company is how to protect those aspects of our culture as we grow and mature – the Innovators Dilemma. One of the few companies in the current technological era that I feel has (so far) demonstrated the ability to embed a process of continual re-invention to ward off obsolescence is Google.

What’s the greatest challenge for an IT company/department today?
We don’t see ourselves as an IT company but rather a technology company, since what we do at Ocado in terms of software engineering, automation, data analytics, optimisation, machine learning is much broader and deeper than what most businesses think of as “IT”. I think one of the key challenges for the technology division of a fast moving business is balancing the inevitable tensions between supporting business growth, servicing technical debt and investing in 10X style innovation.

To Cloud or not to Cloud?
For us that’s a no brainer: Cloud. We are pursuing an aggressive cloud based strategy to increase the agility and productivity of our engineers, to increase our business agility and to prepare for future growth and diversification, including international expansion.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
As a young child I wanted to be a research scientist and then later an inventor. I still love building things and my study at home looks more like a lab than an office!

 Speaking of Inventors, here’s a look at Europe’s tech pioneers!

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