Meet the new Head of Tesco Labs

Last month, Jo Hickson joined Tesco as the new Head of Tesco Labs. We’ve given Jo some time to find her feet before putting her on the spot with some questions to find out a bit more about her.

Q: Welcome to the team Jo, can you tell us a little bit about your background please?

A: Thank you, it’s great to be here! For the last 10 years I’ve been leading innovation teams for large corporates in retail and the travel industry. I’ve also worked in product development for o2 Telefonica and the National Lottery. I started my career in marketing back when that simply meant creating radio, press and TV ads!

Q: What appealed to you about joining the Tesco Labs team?

A: There were three reasons I wanted to join.
1. The scale of Tesco means there is a huge opportunity for innovation to make a real impact on the retail industry, globally.
2. Joining a well-established, talented and multidisciplinary team.
3. I love retail!

Q: What have you learned in your first weeks in the role?

A: I knew Tesco was a big company but it is even more vast than I’d appreciated. There’s a lot of people to meet and get to know! Also, the team are working on projects that genuinely excite me – watch this space!

Q: Looking forward 20 years, what do you think retail will look like?

A: Again, what I liked about this role was that the scale of our business means we’ve got the opportunity to define the future of retail for consumers. So for me, it will be experiences that redefine convenience, immediacy and personalisation.

Q: Which innovators do you particularly admire?

A: Hedy Lamarr is the innovator I most admire. She was a beautiful Hollywood star in the 30s and 40s but had another passion – inventing. Her most important invention came during World War II, when she realised that radio-controlled torpedoes could be knocked off course. Her solution was to invent and patent a frequency-hopping signal that was impossible to hack. Lamarr’s work was incorporated into early versions of Wi-Fi and today’s Bluetooth technology, the backbone of how we communicate!

Q: And finally, what technology could you not live without?

It’s a cliché but it is the mobile phone. And not really for calls anymore – it’s for podcasts, instant messaging, turning on my heating from anywhere, ordering food on the move, catching up on Netflix shows and Instagram – and so much more. It’s easy for us to forget how far this technology has come in under 10 years. It is a veritable digital swiss army knife of useful tools! The future potential of 5G connectivity affording broadband speeds using new cellular tech is also one to watch.

Women in Technology network launch

A few topics seem to come up time and again in the technology industry – two of the most important being the skills gap, and the lack of diversity.

As separate as they may seem, they are inextricably linked.  Current research questions whether the UK has enough graduates coming through our universities with the right skills – the number of under graduates choosing a STEM subject-based degree course is decreasing, something which some experts have put down to the declining popularity of these subjects amongst girls. We’ve already started to make inroads into schools through our work with Cubetto, but this doesn’t encompass the struggle of retaining women skilled in these areas in key roles. But does this affect Tesco? And what can we do?

Currently, just over 20% of our Technology team is female. Our Technology recruitment team is working hard to ensure that diversity is a consideration in all their activities; but we also want to make sure that we retain the incredible talent we have in our female workforce! Feedback has shown time and again that women at Tesco want to feel inspired and empowered to drive their careers forward, and we want to be as proactive as we can be in supporting this, bringing us together to learn from, develop and support each other.

That’s exactly what the recently re-launched Women in Technology network aims to provide. It kicked off on 8th March (International Women’s’ Day), with almost 200 of our colleagues in both the UK and India signing up to be part of the network. Inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean in” philosophy, our aim is to bring together the women in our technology organisation to learn with and from each other about issues which affect us; focus on our development, career goals and aspirations; build confidence and capability (in areas where research shows women would benefit from it most) and develop our internal network. The Women in Technology Group will provide access to role models, peer groups & other valuable career resources, to support the development of women in our function. Our plan is to hold bi-monthly small group sessions (“Circles”) alternating between education & exploration meetings. These will be tailored to our network’s needs and wants, and will include discussions, external speakers and workshops.

We’re really excited to see how our network will grow, and the opportunities it will present for our colleagues. It’s for Tesco employees only, so unfortunately we can’t include any of our partners, but if you’ve got experience of something similar then please feel free to share your stories with us via email.

The Next Generation of Innovators

Our Technology Graduates could be developing the next big innovation for Tesco right now.

One of the things we’re clear about at Tesco Labs is that we’re not the only innovators in the business. Everybody at Tesco is constantly thinking about how to serve our customers a little better.

One way we help to facilitate this is through our Early Careers programme. For the last five years we have been running an Innovation Placement for Technology Graduates which gives the next generation of Tesco colleagues an opportunity to share their ideas and apply their own solutions to business problems.

Although the format has evolved over the years the essence has remained the same. It’s an opportunity for all Technology Graduates to run their own project from idea creation through to proof-of-concept. This involves identifying an opportunity or need, doing their own research into the problem space, generating ideas, planning, designing and developing a working proof-of-concept, and then finally presenting this back to senior stakeholders from across the business.

We support the graduates through the placement, sharing tools and processes and providing technical training that will help them on their way, but we try to allow as much autonomy as possible. It is this autonomy that makes it equally challenging and enjoyable.


“It was 100% the most enjoyable month I’ve had so far at Tesco and I learnt a hell of a lot while doing it.”

Nick Wake, Technology Graduate

The graduates will typically work in groups of four, so collaboration is key to a successful placement. For many it can be a steep learning curve as they will be learning and applying new technologies in an extremely short space of time, they only have 3-4 weeks during the build phase to actually develop a working proof-of-concept that they are able to demonstrate to stakeholders.

We have so far seen 82 graduates come through the placement, working on 28 different projects over the five years. Every single proof-of-concept that we’ve seen demonstrated is an impressive achievement and is testament to the hard work put into it.

Although we don’t measure success in how far the ideas are taken beyond the presentation stage, as it’s really about what the teams learn along the way and the skills they can take forward into their future career at Tesco, we are always pleased and extremely proud to see ideas picked up and developed further.

One such idea is Tesco BackIt which launched last month. It’s a wonderful example of how nurturing even the earliest seed of an idea can help it grow into something great.

Technophobe to techie in 24hrs

A self-confessed technophobe tells us about her experience at this year’s Tesco Hackathon.

As a self-confessed technophobe the Tesco Hackathon was never something I thought would be for me. I was invited to be part of a team comprising of external tech consultants and thought “Why not?!”. The opportunity to create something that answered one of my many: “Why don’t we have something that…?” questions, was too tempting to pass up.

I hadn’t heard of a Hackathon before but discovered that it’s an intense coding competition where teams get 24 hours to build a prototype of a new app, to help solve a problem somewhere in the business.

“The Hackathon was brilliant fun, I loved the energy and buzz that was generated by all the teams as they were brainstorming and then building their ideas. I was so impressed by all the hacks that were created – the standard definitely felt higher than previous years and every hack fit the brief of “a little help” perfectly.”

Angela Maurer, Head of Tesco Labs.

The calibre of hacks was outstanding and extremely inspiring. The teams themselves came from all over Tesco including from Tesco Bank, Tesco Mobile, stores and some of our supplier partners. This year there were over 100 people taking part, in 16 teams. The hack theme was “A little help”. We were challenged to come up with loads of ideas and prototypes for helping both customers and colleagues out, in their everyday lives.

The 2016 winners:

1st Place – ‘Sam’s Elite’ created a customer mobile app for real time visibility, tracking and information of their order, including any order changes, precise delivery time, driver and van info and delivery feedback.

2nd Place – ‘The Royal Hackers’ created an app that linked a scan-as-you-shop device to a customer’s online shopping list, from fridge to checkout in store.

3rd Place – ‘The Bankers’ created an app which allows our customers to budget for their shop and track how much they throw away, with the aim of reducing food waste.

“The Hackathon was so much fun. Our team got a chance to showcase the skills we’ve learnt since joining the Tesco Bank graduate programme. It was great to see everyone doing what they do so well. We really didn’t expect it, so we were delighted to get 3rd place. We’re coming back next year, to win!”

Scott Gardiner, Tesco Bank.

Although our idea of “healthy helps” didn’t win, I’m exceptionally proud of it and leant so much in the process. It was a chance to meet loads of inquisitive and passionate colleagues. Bring on next year!

This content was written by Sarah Gallo, Health & Wellbeing Manager, and was originally posted on the Tesco PLC blog.

Builders, value creators and innovation constraints

Inspired by a trip to Dublin and the people of Web Summit.

I came back from the Web Summit in Dublin (November 2014) both overwhelmed and inspired by the number of individuals and organisations building risky and innovative hardware. It’s incredible given how risk averse people can be. Maybe they’re too aware of how risky it can be to try to create a new product on a shoe-string budget, with just a few people and a lot of blood, sweat and intellectual capital.

Perhaps I saw so many great examples in Dublin because it’s not as risky as it used to be.

Plate divider made out of purple potato by Foodini
Plate divider made out of purple potato by Foodini

From 3D food printers, to custom toy designers, plug & play circuitry, and tablet-controlled cooking scales, these companies are using their intellectual capital to deliver products that couldn’t have existed five or 10 years ago.

Example prints by MCor
Example prints by MCor

Modern industrial design, manufacturing, and outsourcing systems have allowed them to concentrate on using and acquiring the capabilities that make their products unique and useful to customers. They’re not as constrained by geography, physical presence, or manufacturing expertise. That’s not say these things aren’t important, they’re just not getting in the way of producing great products as much as they used to.

Drop by Adaptics

Hardware incubators like PCH International are doing great things to liberate innovators from these constraints, while keeping them grounded in the realities of making physical things. They remind me in some way of how Azure, AWS, and Rackspace have revolutionised software infrastructure and provisioning.They allow you to put more of your value creation time into the software itself. It’s not like you can click and your totally custom mobile phone comes off a production line, but it’s remarkable how it’s enabled ideas to become reality.

Personally, I look forward to engaging with this revolution in value creation and I hope that we can do more to librate more ideas and make them reality. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Digital Childhood

How will Digital Natives change the way we think about technology in future?

It’s Saturday morning. I’ve been tasked with tidying up the living room, as we have friends coming over later – and apparently we can’t expect them to tip toe over the Lego train set on the floor…

My first job: clean the TV screen. I know; you’re probably thinking that can’t be the most important thing to clean, but you should see the state of it! The reason it’s so dirty is my kids think they can change the channel by swiping the screen… and here begins the realisation that they’re growing up in the Digital Age.

They’re so used to touch, swipe and voice recognition that they just expect everything to work that way. My three-year-old son watches Peppa Pig via YouTube on an iPad. He can’t read, he can’t spell, but he’s worked out that by tapping the microphone symbol on the search box, he can say “Peppa Pig” and be presented with a list of videos to watch. I’m beginning to wonder if he’ll ever want to read and write!

I like my tech, but I didn’t grow up with an expectation – even a reliance – on it, but times have changed. We need to make sure we’re thinking about how these Digital Natives will expect to interact with us as they mature, get their first ClubCard, do their first shop, and open their first bank account. At first I was reluctant to let my kids loose with technology, but now I’ve embraced it, and it is really making a difference. It’s great for education (spelling, reading and maths apps are great), it’s great for on demand content, and it’s great for gaming.

What sets digital natives apart is a willingness to try, a lack of fear, and a ruthless attitude to technology. They’ll give it a go, and if it works for them great; if it doesn’t, it’s thrown on the scrap-heap and forgotten about forever! This applies to both hardware and software (especially mobile applications), and when something gains momentum – be it positive or negative – it spreads like wildfire over social media. I can’t work out if it’s an amazing time to be an application developer, or a daunting one: there are no second chances now. Digital Natives are a great source of inspiration for me, and I’m lucky I can make a difference by investigating technology for Tesco to cater to what they’ll expect in the future.

Another major source of inspiration for me is film. I’m fascinated by how film production has developed as I’ve grown up – especially computer animated film. I’m also fascinated with the technology in sci-fi/futuristic films, and how much of it will become reality. Robots, Self-Driving Cars, Gesture Interfaces, Voice Control, Holographic Displays and Augmented Reality are all technologies I’ve been introduced to through film, and have ended up investigating for real as part of my job. My favourite question to ask our partners and vendors is, ‘What was the last film you watched where the plot had a technology that made you go, “Wow!”?’

No prizes for guessing that Minority Report, iRobot and Avatar are popular answers… drop us a line and tell us your favourite.

Image credit: Steve Paine. Original image can be found here.

Embarking on a voyage of Discovery

To keep our colleagues informed of the latest happenings in the world of technology.

We spend a lot of time keeping on top of the latest technology trends, and it’s our job to share those trends with the rest of Tesco. Since the inception of the first IT R&D teams the easiest way to do this was via email. Of course, the progress of technology waits for no man and in an always connected world of smartphones, tablets and social media our old weekly bulletin was in desperate need of an overhaul. Enter Discovery, a complete rethink of how we communicate the most relevant technology news to our colleagues. We wanted to not only replace the old weekly bulletin, but develop a strong communication brand that would bring together the diverse mix of internal publications we’ve accumulated over the years into something more coherent. The standard bearer being a completely new news site, a platform that allowed us to share and discuss content across the entire business. Our main objectives were to:

  • Be able to curate relevant news articles as we find them
  • Automate the administration process as much as possible
  • Be easy to use on desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone
  • Provide a commenting facility for colleagues to share their thoughts
  • Establish a platform we can evolve into a valuable reference tool

The Discovery news site is now live for colleagues. We’ve adopted a clean, responsive design that puts the focus on the news articles themselves, it’s simple and instinctive to use for both readers and editors, is underpinned by some of the latest web technologies and has been developed from the ground up. That said, the real boon for us is not necessarily how we’ve simplified the way we deliver news content, or in the technology used to create the site – for the record it’s built on MEAN stack (MongoDB, ExpressJS, AngularJS and NodeJS) and a fair dose of blood, sweat and tears – but in the possibilities it opens up for innovation at Tesco. By integrating the Yammer enterprise social network for commenting it provides every colleague across the business with an opportunity to share their ideas and thoughts on how the featured technology could be used. That in itself might prove to be the headline feature.

Lunch & Learn with Toby Stone: how start-ups and big companies can work together

The beauty of disruptive innovation is to be as disruptive as possible.

Last month, Toby Stone came to Tesco HQ to deliver our very first Tesco Labs Lunch & Learn session on how big corporations and start-ups can work together.

Below are six nuggets of wisdom from Toby’s talk. The link to the full video is at the end of the article.

1. Start-ups move fast
As they’re so much smaller than big corporations (maybe just 2 or 3 people), making decisions is quicker and easier: they aren’t fettered by reams of red-tape, and don’t have to get sign-off from 10 people in 8 different departments if they want to change their app’s font colour. They also have an added incentive to keep them on their toes: the real threat of running out of cash.

2. “What have you done for me lately?”
It’s a two-way street when it comes to working with start-ups.
Big companies have lots of customers, which can help start-ups get traction, and have extensive experience and knowledge in areas that start-ups might not be familiar with. They also have $$$!
On the flip side, start-ups can bring disruptive innovation, new ideas and agility to the party. They’re adaptable, and their friendly, non-corporate face can be a good way of engaging people.

3. ‘Watching big corporations try to work directly with start-ups is like watching your dad dancing at a disco.’
Harsh but true… or just plain harsh? Toby says big corporations shouldn’t try to BE start-ups, but rather should think of getting someone in to act as a middle-man, or ‘interpreter.’ Toby says: “the start-up world, like the corporate world, has its own vocabulary, its own media outlets.” This is where corporate accelerators and incubators would be an ideal solution.

4. ‘Pfft. I liked their music back when they only had 300 friends on MySpace!’
The ‘hipster factor’ is a big deal these days; but can a cool start-up retain its street cred if it works with Tesco? Toby says the key to this is staying a healthy distance apart.
If we were to take over a start-up and rob them of that mentality, this would defeat the point of working with them: they are no longer friendly-looking, but look like a cynical corporate Marketing ploy. But if we work with them but keep our distance, and let them keep their identity, then we both benefit: we can ‘borrow’ their street cred, and they keep their identity.

4. The dreaded ‘Process’ is a start-up’s kryptonite
Even if the start-up has the support of a Venture Capital Fund or a big corporate partner and is gaining a decent customer base, if they have to wait too long for the big company to make a decision, they will lose money – and run the real risk of going bust.

6. Time Differences
Corporation and start-ups have different conceptions of time: ‘quickly’ could mean weeks to months to a start-up, whereas to a big corporation, this could mean months to years. Can a big corporation move fast enough to do anything meaningful with the start-up before they get bored…or go bust?

Watch Toby deliver his talk, and field your questions with panache here:

Helping you experience the future

The journey we took in becoming the team we are today.

I thought I’d write my first blog post based around our team mission statement; to share the journey we took in becoming the team we are today and our thoughts that went into creating the statement.

Creating a Labs team represents a real shift in the way that Tesco thinks about innovation. We’re developing a culture that will allow innovation to thrive in the long-term and we’re already working collaboratively with start-ups through networking events like T-Jam and our sponsorship of the Rainmaking Loft. We are devising a series of internal events such as hackathons and invent’athons which we’ve found are a great way to harness the collective power of people at Tesco.  It’s all very exciting!

So with a new team we set about defining our core purpose and mission statement – we wanted something simple that we could all remember, that reflects the work that we do, and something that helps to keep us all aligned and united as a team and heading in the same direction.

After much debate and discussion we came up with “Tesco Labs: Helping you experience the future”. Here are our thoughts behind the words in that sentence.

Helping

This could be anything from having a chat and helping someone set off on a journey of discovery to creating something to show people so their imagination doesn’t have to do the hard work

You

You the customer, you the colleague or you the supplier

Experience

We want to create new experiences, they could be simple, lightweight prototypes to help us understand people’s thoughts and opinions or they could be fully working and integrated so that we can actively test them and learn with our colleagues and customers.

Future

We are creating hypotheses / products that we can use to demonstrate what we think the future of retail will be like in 5 – 10yrs, but as you know the future is hard to predict! The real aim here is to be ambitious, not to just to solve tomorrow’s problems but to collaborate across the business and the world of technology and solve bigger, harder problems. It’s a mindset thing….