How Walmart's former e-commerce guru plans to revolutionise the automotive industry

This article is part of our TechRadar North column, a series focusing on the development of the North of England's digital sector.

Being asked to fly half way around the world to embark on a project two days into a new job would be some IT managers' worst nightmare, but Joel Albyn relished the challenge.

Having taken up a project manager position at ASDA in Leeds, Rugby-born Albyn was handed a monster task: unify its parent company Walmart's disparate online grocery platforms into a single global solution.

"All of the different countries were doing their own thing, and it didn't take a bright spark on the board to see that spending Walmart's money in other countries replicating the same thing was crazy," he says. "We said 'let's do it once'."

Eighteen months later, the new platform would see the number of people working on it grow from two to 3,500 while alone generating billions of dollars – enough to rival the top five firms on the FTSE 100.

"When you're in the middle of something like that, you have no concept of what you're involved in – the tech behind it was incredible," says Albyn, who led the team of product and project managers behind it in San Francisco and the UK.

"The platform had to ensure we could pick groceries, pack them onto the back of a truck, pinpoint the customer's place within a 100-meter radius, and then determine whether they lived in a house, flat or apartment, before delivering them chilled within a 1-hour time slot.

"And then we had to improve all of that over time."

Starting from scratch

Albyn and his small team were initially instructed with building the platform from scratch using no off-the-shelf products – a decision intended to speed up the global roll-out.

"Our CTO, who was ex-eBay, said that if we wanted to be in control of our own destiny then we needed to build it ourselves all the way through to an analytics package," Albyn recalls. "He said that was how eBay was able to go across the world so quickly.

"It was a cunning plan, but I can't say we stuck to that strategy."

Of the many issues his team faced, they at least had sufficient budget to repeatedly "think, try and fail", according to Albyn. "You could spend half a million dollars on something that didn't work, and they would say 'never mind'."

As the platform progressed, the cultural differences between the way that stateside and UK shoppers get groceries soon became apparent to Albyn, who says that selling the benefit of an online-order service in the US took time.

"It was strange concept to them because they love their big cars in the US, and all the roads are empty because there's so many of them," he says. "In the UK it computes because there's busy roads, and nobody wants to take their kids to ASDA on a Saturday if they don't have to – they want their shopping delivered."

After completing the platform, Albyn turned to product consultancy work before rediscovering his hunger for delivering projects on the ground.

"Traveling to countries like Mexico was quite exciting but it got to a point where I was dropping into businesses, telling them loads of cool stuff and going away again," he says. "I wanted to get back into teams doing stuff."

Changing direction

Albyn eventually settled back in Leeds, taking a position at automative data company Cap HPI at the start of 2016.

Founded in the city in 1979, the company's 30-strong team of analysts generates and maintains the UK car industry's CAP code: a unique 20-character alpha-numeric code structure that identifies vehicles based on their characteristics.

It helps car dealerships determine the valuations of used cars, and is also used by everyone from car insurers to price comparison websites and fleet management firms. 

The company recently launched an online tool called HPI valuations, which allows consumers to get free and paid-for valuations on used cars when looking to buy and sell.

As product and innovation director, Albyn was tasked with another sizeable challenge: roll out the CAP Code across the globe to make it easier for fleet management companies to track their vehicles across different continents.

"A lot of enterprise fleet management companies are global, and that spurred us into this position," he says. "A lot of the ones that operate in the UK said that they wished we operated in France and Germany – so it was a no-brainer."

The ultimate goal, Albyn says, is for global CAP code to be attached to vehicle windscreens, allowing fleet companies to track vehicles across country borders with much higher accuracy than they could a registration plate, for example, which can personalised or changed over time.

Driving innovation

In addition to rolling out a global CAP Code, the company is looking at other ways to innovate using computing hardware and its extensive datasets. Many car dealerships in the UK use iPads and interactive apps on forecourts to show customers how much their vehicles are worth.

"The dealer might wander around with an iPad app powered by Cap HPI data, asking the customer to tap it to reveal where the damage is and how much that affects its value," says Albyn. "That might reveal a scuff on a door, mullered alloys and a dent in the bonnet, showing where the dealer gets its valuation figure from to help the customer understand.

"It just makes everything that bit more theatrical than sitting down at a desk and a screen."

Stepping out of the show room, self-driving cars present futuristic and perhaps inevitable challenges, one where usage of data could have huge implications.

"I love these conversations around the choices that self-driving cars have to make," says Albyn. "Does it kill you or that school bus full of kids as it gets to a junction? Which direction is it going to take?"

As one of Leeds' oldest and most prominent data-led companies, Cap HPI may be putting its expertise to the test sooner rather than later – particularly so as Albyn now sits on the Leeds Digital Board. The Yorkshire city is infamous for its one-way traffic system, which has heaped misery on its residents for years with no solution in sight.

Unless driverless cars roll into view, that is.

"A lot of cities have been built with one-way systems because of vehicles," Albyn says. "That will change as the future structures of cities changes to not let vehicles take over, and research shows that driverless cars can make a huge impact."

Albyn says that 30 - 40% of vehicles can be removed from roads immediately by going down the driverless car route. "Around 96% of vehicles are parked up somewhere at home or in a car park, with just 4% in use at any one time. It's crazy."

It's an area that Albyn is keen for the company to explore. 

"We’re talking about the specs of driverless cars," he says. "What specs are in it? Who owns it? Has it ever being in an accident, and what happens once it reaches end-of-life? At some point even a self-driving car is going to be replaced, so what's its residual value? That's what we're going to get into."

With Leeds' long-standing plans for a tram-like trolleybus scheme dashed this year, its long-suffering residents will hope that any action to solve its traffic problem will pick up speed soon.

Kane Fulton
Kane has been fascinated by the endless possibilities of computers since first getting his hands on an Amiga 500+ back in 1991. These days he mostly lives in realm of VR, where he's working his way into the world Paddleball rankings in Rec Room.