How sport made IOC 100 winner Joanna Drake a better technology leader

As CIO of The Hut Group (THG), the British e-commerce company behind brands like Lookfantastic and Myprotein, Joanna Drake has faced some serious headwinds.

Responsible for global operations and technology services for corporate and customer websites, staff technology, and THG’s Ingenuity direct-to-consumer service and hosting business, Drake has sought to support the company’s rapid growth based in Manchester through IPOs, a global pandemic, supply chain instability and the onset of recession.

Speaking at the CIO UK 100 awards ceremony at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, Drake explained what it means to be the best CIO in the UK, how his tennis background has shaped his leadership, why automation is freeing up the its IT team and how THG supports engineers relocating from war-affected Ukraine.

IOC 100 winner, sports leadership and being ‘too friendly’

After being included in the CIO 100 in 2021 and 2020 before topping this year’s list, Drake says the award is for her team, not just her.

“If it were me, as an individual, I would struggle to make a [CIO 100] submission,” he said. “So it’s about the team and I’m lucky and honored to work with amazing people every day, with so much grit, determination and creativity.” She also added that it was also an opportunity to stop and reflect on how far they’ve come in the last year and how she fell into IT after a tennis career failed to materialize, starting first in support of the help desk before moving into service management and engineering positions.

As she worked her way up the ranks, taking on more senior tech roles at Diageo, Accenture, Yahoo, Betfair, BBC and Skyscanner before joining The Hut Group in 2018, she realized her sporting background could shape her style. of leadership.

“Sports has taught me about teamwork, putting players in the right positions, team building, understanding your strengths and weaknesses, practice, hard work, discipline and how and when to apply coaching or mentoring,” he says, adding that he continually analyzes the ‘ingredients’ of his team, to find details that can make big differences.

That’s not to say that Drake’s rise to the top echelons of corporate leadership has come without difficulty. In particular, during her 20-year career, Drake was often chided for being too friendly, an unfamiliar quality perhaps in a results-oriented business world.

“Many times in my career I was told I wasn’t going to make it as a senior coach,” he said. “Actually, I think it’s about being my true authentic self because it’s exhausting if you can’t be yourself. I’ve learned by being myself that it’s actually okay.

Digital workplace, automation and “IT as consultants”

Drake highlights THG’s digital workplace and automation initiatives as his team’s most notable achievements over the past year, along with its Ingenuity Compute Engine (ICE), through which THG hopes to build “hyperscaler experiences” from its 50 data centers.

As part of its “Infrastructure Reimagined” program, ICE provides a software-defined infrastructure-as-code (IaC) platform where teams can run containerized applications on Kubernetes, ultimately accelerating infrastructure procurement and deployment. Drake says THG has so far built the platform in four of its data centers, allowing developers to build new platforms on top of ICE and migrate existing THG workloads onto it.

Speed ​​and simplicity have also been the essence behind THG’s digital workplace initiatives.

The e-commerce company has also implemented zero-touch device provisioning, created app stores for Microsoft and Mac-based devices, offered drive-through and click-and-collect technology services, as well as numerous improvements to its office from digital signage, orientation screens and universal desk configuration for hot desking, to technology for boardrooms, video editing suites, device lockers and digital packing desks in warehouses.

Automation, meanwhile, was introduced to free up IT team members to become consultants for the business, eliminating their operational work and allowing their line-of-business colleagues to focus on more strategic work.

Leveraging a combination of RPA, low-code, and no-code technologies, THG sought to streamline processes, particularly in human resources, such as inbound, move, outbound, and role-based access control.

“Automation has been about [IT] almost automating themselves out of the jobs they had, so they could move into more interesting roles,” says Drake. “Where they’ve removed a lot of operational fatigue, we’ve had to retrain our engineers and that’s great for retaining talent.” So, instead of churning out or ticketing, engineers go out as consultants in the business and talk to different departments about processes.”They follow up on the things that are holding them back, how they could do more, so they can actually remove their operational drudgery,” he adds.

Stalking talent and supporting Ukrainian staff

Despite such technological breakthrough, Drake is adamant that people remain her top priority and is adopting stealthy methods to find potential talent.

“I do a lot of stalking on LinkedIn,” she says. “I think about the kind of people and skills I want, and I go hunt them down. I have to build the team and I want the best players so I have to go out there and find them. And when I have them, I have to make sure they are successful and make a difference. And if they are successful, we are all happy.

However, he acknowledges that ongoing recruiting challenges, cost-of-living pressures and deepening mental health issues mean that attention must be paid to retaining and attracting talent in equal measure.

To further help with the former, Drake oversees a series of stand-ups throughout the week to keep the team engaged. There’s a Monday session that addresses how the IT team intends to “win” that week, a Tuesday session is called Acquisition Tuesday, Wednesday’s session focuses on Wellness and Development, and Friday provides an Opportunity for team thanks and general updates.

Drake also tried to help engineers leave Ukraine at the start of the war with Russia by helping evacuate them and their families to Poland, paying for housing and providing household items, toys and jobs in a local warehouse.

“For a large number of our staff in Ukraine, the work has helped them lead as normal a life as possible under these circumstances,” she says. “Making sure they’re very actively engaged and listened to every day is a really important part of supporting them.”

The financial conflict puts the CIO’s focus on efficiency

Much of last year’s progress was in establishing the technology foundation for the next 10 years, however Drake acknowledges that the next 12 months could be a bumpy ride.

The Hut Group has seen its growth stall in recent times due to rising raw material costs, cost of living pressures on customers, falling shares (down 86% year over year) and a market valuation which recently collapsed from £5bn to £600m amid market headwinds.

In October, Japanese investor SoftBank announced it would sell its 6.4% stake to firm founder Matthew Molding and Qatari investors for just £31m after buying the stake in the trading group for £481m. million pounds in May 2021.

That uncertainty means Drake’s focus is now on efficiency.

“[My priority is] continuing with all that efficiency stuff: ICE, Componable Compute, which means we can deliver more, faster.”

Drake is also spearheading THG’s “adjustment programs,” looking at ways the group can improve customer service, operational efficiency and team development for when some semblance of normalcy returns.

He says THG is consolidating toolsets, decommissioning legacy technology and migrating customers to newer platforms, as well as ensuring the company gets the best value when working with vendors.

“We thought we’d use this as an opportunity to get really fit, ready for the fight when the world turns right again.”

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