Putting projects on the fast track: thetrainline.com’s CTO Mark Holt

By Sooraj Shah
04 Jun 2014 View Comments
A train track junction

The priority for travel information and ticketing website thetrainline.com and its new CTO, Mark Holt, is to find new, talented developers.

It has been only two months since he took on the role as CTO at thetrainline.com but Holt already has a good idea of what he needs to do to take the organisation forward.

Further reading

Thetrainline.com is a popular website that commuters use to book national rail tickets. It also provides the same technology behind the websites of train operators like Virgin Trains.

He told Computing the reasons behind the need for new developers.

"We have a big website and we process an enormous amount of transactions and we're looking for people that want the software that they've built to be put in front of hundreds of millions of people.

"We want to make brilliant products but it's about getting really good developers who want to create amazing experiences," he says.

The company recently went through a process of insourcing over the past year or so, bringing many developers in-house.

Holt claims that the firm has "vacancies for as many developers as we can recruit" and would be "chuffed" if it could hire 20. But while it is receiving applications for the roles, and even hiring one or two developers a month on a full-time basis, the firm is eager to recruit even more, but hasn't been able to because of a dearth of talent.

Bad attitude

So what is wrong with the applications that are coming in?

Holt claims a lot rests on the candidate's attitude, as well as other soft skills such as communication ability and problem solving. But many of these attributes aren't normally associated with developers, he says.

"Developers are typically into [what they do] because they like sitting in a bedroom and banging on a keyboard and that's fun for them. But we want people who can engage with other people, can work with marketing and finance teams and with each other," he claims.

Some of the candidates have the sought-after soft skills but not the required qualifications and vice versa. But Holt says he would prefer to hire a candidate with the soft skills rather than the technical know-how.

"I'd rather take them on if they've got the soft skills and not the technical ones as you can teach them specific languages, where as if they haven't got the right approach or attitude it can be problematic," he explains.

The firm is finding it so difficult to recruit, that it is looking at other ways to increase its productivity.

"We're actually looking at our processes and finding out if we can use technology to get a 20 per cent productivity improvement out of all of the developers, which is worth far more than bringing in 20 new developers," Holt suggests.

He says that thetrainline.com is looking at how DevOps can speed up its processes and make them more efficient and effective. The firm is also looking at lean principles to see how it can optimise its development process, so that it can roll out small changes to the website consistently.

"It's all about how quickly we can get things to market; if we could wait a year to introduce new features then we wouldn't need as many developers, but we need to get new features out all of the time," Holt says.

Enabling change

Thetrainline.com has recently started investigating a shift to the cloud.

"We have a massive team that manages our servers, but [the move to the cloud] is a complete switch and it puts in a lot of power into the hands of the developer, and it requires changing the architecture of the system that you're thinking about, and changing a lot of the patterns you use to deploy software," Holt says.

"The cloud is also a good enabler of a DevOps environment," he adds.

Another area where the cloud could be exploited is "microservices", says Holt.

"The smaller you can make each service, the quicker you can deploy it. You can buy microservices within the cloud and create really small things that you can throw up as quickly as you want.

"The nice thing about it is that because you're making the change that is quite big, the risk is comparatively small because the person who built it understands exactly what that ‘thing' does, and so if it goes wrong, then it can be undone really quickly whereas if you're rolling out a big release every quarter then it's very difficult to be able roll it back," Holt says.

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